On Thursday night, two Texas writers, Chris Tomlinson and Bryan Burrough, were supposed to give a talk at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin about Forget the Alamo, a new book that they co-authored with Jason Stanford. The book, which sets out to dispel the myths of the founding of the Republic of Texas, has already caused a sensation: it makes a compelling case, for example, that musician Phil Collins’ highly publicized acquisition of state-of-the-art Alamo-related artifacts was actually just a list of goods.
Hosting an event with the authors of a lively new book on the famous but uptight symbol of the state is what you’d expect a museum like the Bullock to do. But a few hours before the talk began, Tomlinson announced that the event had been canceled, in the broadest sense of the word.
FORBIDDEN at the BULLOCK MUSEUM! Tonight @bryanborrough and I were supposed to talk about writing with Becka Oliver from @WritersLeague. Just a few hours before night @BullockMuseum canceled without contacting Bryan or me with an explanation. #ForgetAlamo A thread …
– ChrisTomlinson (@cltomlinson) July 1, 2021
As Tomlinson explained, the museum had received instructions from its board, which includes the Republican governor of Texas, the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House, to disconnect it. “I think we are being censored,” he said. He said the San Antonio News instantly. On Friday, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick confirmed in a tweet that yes, that was exactly What happened.
As a member of the Preservation Board, I told the staff to cancel this event as soon as I found out. Like the efforts to move the cenotaph, which I also stopped, this fact-free rewriting of TX history does not take place. @BullockMuseum. #txlege https://t.co/ua1aSFxHCk
– Dan Patrick (@DanPatrick) July 2, 2021
This kind of censorship would be infuriating anywhere, but it’s particularly irritating to see it happen as it did, in a place like Bullock, which in recent years has hosted important work that challenges the central myths of the state. When the museum first opened, as reported by University of Texas historian Mónica Muñoz Martínez in her book, Injustice never leaves you: Anti-Mexican violence in Texas, was criticized by historians for the way it repackaged the sanitized pseudo-history of Anglo Texas.
But by 2016, the institution had improved enough to host a rather remarkable exhibit: “Life and death on the border, 1910-1920. “The installation, which Martinez helped plan as part of a group of historians and activists called” Refuse to Forget, “told the story of state violence inflicted on people of Mexican descent in Texas in the early 20th century, in contrast to the hagiography with which state bodies have spoken about the Texas Rangers in the past.
One of the items on display in the exhibit was an original copy of the 1919 investigation into the Rangers’ abuses by the only Mexican-American legislator in the Texas Legislature, the transcripts of which had not been published for nearly a century. A few years later, the Bullock organized a conference about the hearings themselves, in which high school students performed scenes from the proceedings. The Bullock has demonstrated, in other words, the power of public history to elevate stories and facts that in some cases were deliberately suppressed by the state.
But conservatives in Texas, like conservatives across the country, are in the midst of a moral panic over the teaching of “critical race theory.” Patrick has praised efforts to ban CRT (whatever it really means) in public schools. And in this world, a book that challenges entrenched myths about the origins of the state, and points out how the state government itself was duped, simply cannot afford.
This is the reality of the recent CRT “debate”. Under the guise of fighting the “awakening,” American politicians are embarking on a state-sanctioned campaign of censorship. There is nothing more deliberate than this: A lieutenant governor orders a state museum to block the appearance of the authors of a book that he does not like, not because there is something really wrong with the book, but because he is threatened by what right about that. As with many debates about freedom of expression, the urgency felt by state actors in suppressing an idea is the greatest testament to the importance and power of that idea.
It’s tempting to discuss these things in terms of hypocrisy, because it sure seems hypocritical to complain about liberal censorship and cancel culture while literally canceling a book you don’t like. But what Patrick is doing, and what many others have done or aspire to during this fight and the many incarnations of it that came before, is not really that. The great gulf between what Patrick wants for his side and what he wants for others is the essence of politics. It’s not supposed to be fair. The point of the CRT backlash, much like the point of the Alamo myth, a fable about why white men who fought Mexicans to enslave blacks were really good, is about preserving a long-held belief about a who belongs to the country.
Anyway, you can buy the Alamo book here.