by Brian Awehali
Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints […] Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes.
–“Positive and Negative Liberty,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The more I examined […] efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion [and] I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft.
–Yale Professor of Agrarian Studies James C. Scott, on efforts by nation states to “sedentarize” nomads, pastoralists, gypsies and other peoples living non-mainstream lives
This past April, my partner and I moved out of a spacious house in former Tonkawa/Apache lands — Austin, Texas — and into a full-time 75-square-foot RV, which we promptly steered westward.
Part of the reason for this was climatological: 110-degree summers and long-term drought conditions just aren’t appealing to me. My first month in Austin, the worst wildfire in Texas history flanked three sides of the city. All summer long, people waiting at bus stops flattened themselves like bats against slivers of shade from fences.
Another climate-related reality of Austin they don’t trumpet in their relentless promotional branding of the city (“inventive, creative, wired, rockin’, educated, fit and loved!”) is that because of drought, a huge number of homes in the area are developing major foundation problems. The clay soil of Austin contracts in times of drought, causing concrete house foundations to settle unevenly, drywall to splinter, and once-rectangular doorframes to go trapezoid. In a place plagued with drought and water restrictions, the least costly remedy for this is watering your home, and some local news media still encourage the practice. The costlier remedy is to have a foundation repair company jack your house back up for several thousand dollars. Then you can pay some contractors to fix all your doorframes and cracked drywall. Repeat every few years as needed. The problem is so big — and growing — that foundation repair companies can’t keep up with the demand.
Another part of my decision to leave the Lone Star state was political. I was well informed before I moved there, but Texas’s longstanding support for capital punishment and private, for-profit prisons — 1,254 executed and counting! Guaranteed occupancy rates! Overwhelmingly non-white! — is another, far more heinous reality that Austin’s creative, wild, fun-, beer-, music- and new-media-lovin’ denizens are tacitly supporting with their tax dollars and promotion of the state’s capital. SXSW, Whole Foods and Dell, to name but a few prominent Austin-based businesses, make a ton of money for, and help whitewash the image of, arguably the most vengeful, prison-profiteering state in the Union. And that doesn’t even touch on the state’s demented, religiously-driven campaign against Planned Parenthood.
But hey, quit thinking about climate change, human rights, or women — especially poor women; SXSW, Whole Foods and Dell are trying to make money and grow an economy and capital city here, and they get really good tax incentives in Texas. The business of America, especially in Texas, is business. And the soundtrack for the movie of Austin, Texas is awesome! (Texas Quaker Friends: Respect.)
In 2012, Texas ignored the Supreme Court and put a mentally retarded man, Marvin Wilson — I.Q. 61 — to death. The courts and people who most make this kind of atrocity possible are in Austin. They are considered respectable people.
Werner Herzog’s harrowing 2011 documentary, Into the Abyss, featuring conversations with since-executed Texas death row inmate Michael Perry, his co-conspirators, and those affected by his crimes, is a tough look at the state’s capital punishment practices, but I’m pretty sure the movie’s dark title is also referring to the state of Texas itself: