You can’t change the facts of an explosion. A large fertilizer factory operated next to homes, a middle school and a nursing home. The factory blew, and 14 people died. We can’t change those facts, but it’s up to us to decide what they mean.
Gov. Rick Perry disagrees with those who see the fatal explosion of the largely uninspected factory as a preventable disaster. It was not, Perry protests, the inevitable result of his ideology that trusts businesses not to blow us up. In fact, Perry says, Texans “through their elected officials clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight.” People do not know the dangers that the factory failed to disclose and the state failed to discover. Also, the people elected Perry, who espouses low regulations as part of his Texas Miracle. Ergo, Perry argues, Texans do not want to regulate businesses that might blow them up. This kind of officious thinking invites satire.
Perry has logged a lot of miles this year to preach the business-friendly virtues of his low-tax, low-regulation ideology. Most recently he’s brought the gospel of the Texas Miracle to Chicago to invite businesses in the financial sector to relocate to Texas. But Perry’s promised land has been California. That’s why he’s picking a fight with Jack Ohman, the political cartoonist for the Sacramento Bee. Perry criticizing the newspaper in California’s capital is like the Soviet Politburo attacking the Washington Post.
Ohman’s cartoon played off Perry’s recruitment pitch to California, depicting the governor saying, “Business is booming” in front of a banner touting the state’s “low regs.” The next frame draws itself; boom. A couple of days earlier, Pat Bagley of the Salt Lake Tribune drew essentially the same cartoon, but beating up on a Utah newspaper doesn’t play as well in Texas. (Full disclosure: Ohman and my father, Phil Stanford, worked at The Oregonian together in the ‘90s, and Ohman attended my dad’s second wedding. Additionally, Bagley and I are syndicated by the same news service, and his cartoons sometimes run with my columns.)
Perry reacted with the consideration and thoughtfulness we’ve come to expect from him. He called the cartoon “detestable” and complained of “extreme disgust” and worried that it “compound[ed] the pain and suffering” of the survivors. And then he pretended to miss the point entirely.
“I won’t stand for someone mocking the tragic deaths of my fellow Texans and our fellow Americans,” said Perry.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst took to Twitter to regain the manhood he lost in his failed senate campaign, yapping that the Bee should fire Ohman. Sen. Ted Cruz, the junkyard dog who unmanned the Dew, called the cartoon “sad” and “tasteless.” Whatever else Twitter has accomplished, it’s made moral grandstanding more efficient.
Ohman explained that he wasn’t making fun of Texas, just her leaders who bragged about not burdening bidness with regulations on the one hand and mourned publicly the victims of their laissez faire ideology on the other.
“I would draw that cartoon again. Wouldn’t even think twice about it,” wrote Ohman.
The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists called Perry’s protest an “un-American” attack on free speech. “Governor Perry attacking the cartoonist is the kind of reaction we’d expect from a leader in North Korea, not one from Texas,” read the statement.
There’s no question that Perry is attacking freedom of speech, but why? When Soviet leaders would send writers to Siberia, it was because a lie can’t survive if someone is telling the truth. Maintaining power required lying to their people about failing harvests, tortured history and imagined threats from abroad. Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy liberated the press, and the Soviet Union fell apart.
Whether they are conscious of this or not, Perry and the other members of the ruling class in Texas cannot defend the Texas Miracle when people have to bury their neighbors. Instead, Perry cites a fake opinion poll and calls for a writer to be fired while he brags that his Potemkin village is open for business. Y’all come on down. Business is booming.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JasStanford.