The whole world appears to have gone nuts again—for about the ten millionth time in human history—but Dallas, unaccountably, you might say, has reaped enormous respect for keeping its cool and staying sane. You know—as sane as can be expected of any nest of right-wing, gun-toting, big-haired, president-killing yahoos.
I know such news is hard to credit. Don’t take my word for it; I live in Dallas, after all. Take the word of an unimpeachable non-right-wing, non-gun-toting source, the New York Times, which favored our burg with a friendly headline over a generally friendly story.
To quote the headline: “A Silence Fell on Dallas in 1963. Not This Year. After Shootings of Officers, a City Exhibits Diversity and Grace Under Pressure.” Just the reverse of what you’d expect in The City That Killed Kennedy and Birthed J.R. Ewing. Supposedly.
The Times’s point was that there’s a “new, more diverse and tolerant Dallas” now, as well as an older one with a taste for pragmatism and consensus. Diversity—yes, we’ve got it, including an Hispanic lesbian sheriff. We’re a minority-majority city, controlled top to bottom, for the last decade, by Democrats. We’ve got, according to the Times, a “hip, progressive, and civic minded subset” of actors, full of “new, vibrant energy.” The Ewings don’t live here anymore. This new city, the city of 2016, was able to keep its head following the shootings of its official protectors by a no-good vowing to kill cops, white ones in particular.
Thus the Times narrative. I must say it’s nice to have an occasional pat on the back from the Sulzbergers. But I am obliged to venture a viewpoint much more shocking: The Times’s assessment isn’t 100 percent in error. Dallas—like America, if I read the tea leaves correctly—is more centrist than in the good old rip-roaring Reagan days. Centrists end up doing business with each other owing to the inability of one side or the other to impose its will.
That’s far from the whole explanation, even so, for the stoic, tight-lipped calm that reigned here immediately following the cold-blooded shootings of five officers on July 8—an event that rightly captured international attention.
Some, shall we say, local traits surfaced here in the aftermath: characteristics of life rarely if ever noted from afar during the various Let’s Kick Dallas episodes we around here came to understand as endemic to liberal culture.
I have in mind two such characteristics. The first is a surprising (that is, to liberal establishment opinion) decency and open-mindedness at the popular level. An absence of meanness—that would be another way of putting it. The new Dallas hardly trumps the old one in terms of, let us say, commonplace civility. I mean that in racial as well as nonracial terms. The Times’s reference to the Ku Klux Klan’s strength—in 1923, for God’s sake—is misplaced. Dallas civic leaders drove the Klan out of town. In 1961, as the Times does note, and justly so, the civic leadership integrated Dallas schools, and also—unmentioned in the Times story—local restaurants and public facilities. The business community saw the time had come. It acted.
All this didn’t come easily. Racial-balance busing drained the public schools of white students, but the transition precipitated no public violence. Less commendable in civic terms has been the failure, widespread these days, to act in a spirit of racial comity (involving Hispanics as well as blacks) for the improvement of faltering academic standards.
Locally, if not externally, conspicuous has been the city’s commitment to racial diversity in leadership. Few outside Dallas probably know, or care, that the city elected its first black mayor, Ron Kirk, in 1995. (He subsequently joined the Obama administration as U.S. trade representative.) The world knows, nonetheless, about the city’s second black chief of police. On Twitter, days after the police slayings, a movement emerged to make Chief David Brown president of the United States—so resonant was his message, so strong his microphone presence.
Brown, whose officers are heavy into peaceful relationships with the communities they police, took the side of law and order—the side for which vast segments of the public were clearly ready after months of cop-flagellation by Black Lives Matter. “We’re asking the cops to do too much in this country,” said the chief. “Every societal failing, we put it off on the cops to solve.” He ran the list: mental-health funding, drug-addiction funding, loose dogs, failing schools, single parenthood—“Let’s give it to the cops to solve.” Meaning, in Chief Brown’s mouth, no, let’s not. Let’s all of us do our duty as citizens, making things better instead of conventionally worse.
Whereupon the chief flung a challenge in the faces of antiwhite cop protestors all over town—all over the country, for that matter: “Serve your community; don’t be a part of the problem. We’re hiring. Get off of that protest line and put your application in.” It was the manifesto of the month, if not the year. It came from Dallas. From a black cop. A cop with intelligence and insight. Did you ever?
Maybe not, if one persists in the stale, dated terms of racial confrontation: terms that resonate today with comparatively few in the much-mythologized City of Hate. Which has, to its credit, one additional—alas, highly unfashionable—advantage over similarly situated cities. Dallas—dare I say it?—is predominantly religious.
I turn to the second local trait shaping life around us. The God thing, if you like. The Ten Commandments. The Sermon on the Mount. It would be absurd to pretend mainstream religious commitment has no place in the annealing of social hurts and wounds. Prayer services in moments of catastrophe are hardly atypical; however, the healthy state of Dallas church attendance, compared with attendance in many another city, makes God a senior partner of sorts when it comes to addressing the awful and the unexpected. Black churches have, in addition to comfortable relationships with white churches, a strength of their own—a Bible Belt ardor for the Gospel. Following the shootings, black churches and white churches prayed virtually in unison for peace and reconciliation. They did more than demonstrate the impressiveness of united witness in matters general. They suggested something of great sociological interest. I mean the advantage, in moral terms, enjoyed by communities whose people, for guidance and inspiration, look up instead of around.
I say nothing of which prayers God answers in one way and which in another. I refer to the importance—the urgency—of formal, professed religion in the life of a nation that once understood the point intuitively. This was before the rise of the secular spirit, the ACLU-Madalyn O’Hair spirit: Stop that public praying! Get that Bible out of the classroom! Keep God (if there is one) over on the public sidelines!
The merits of invocations at high-school football games, as in ye olden tyme, strike me as less important a matter than general—preferably majority—commitment to what the founding generation understood as the connection between religion and morality. A city of churches and churchgoers, I make bold to suggest, has a leg up when it comes to drawing from citizens a spirit of oneness. I am not aware of this point’s having been made about Dallas—decidedly a city of churches and churchgoers, though with fewer of each than before the secular spirit touched down in America. I do not propose that—hallelujah, brother!—the spirit of religion solves Dallas’s racial problems. I think it puts Dallas on a different footing than, shall we say, the empty-church cities of the East and West coasts, which tend to treat religion and the religious with high disdain.
As for the nuttiness of the present day, what’s to do, and who’s to say? As I write, a second mass police slaying—this one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—fascinates and horrifies for its brutality; its, you might say, satanic characteristics. More such may come our way. We seem in a very bad place indeed. Nor is Dallas, Texas—a city of numerous imperfections—setting itself up as a national exemplar on a marble plinth. I think we might all the same consider, as the “new” Dallas has largely succeeded in showing, that kindness and generosity have their place in civic affairs; and that temperate voices generate better results than shrieks and caterwauls; and that some time on bended knee doesn’t hurt one bit either.
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