A couple of years ago I went on a business trip to Asheville, NC. When I got to the rental car counter, the very good looking southern gentleman there said, “Oh, I just know you’re going to love Asheville.” I inquired as to why and he said, “Well, it’s basically the only bastion of art and liberalness around here, right in the middle of the Bible Belt.” I smiled, wondering, “How did he know? Was it my clearly Yankee accent that gave me away?” And then I remembered that I was wearing by Muppets/Battlestar Galactica t-shirt and it all made a little more sense.
I had the evening to kill, as my business obligations were scheduled for the next morning, so I took the guy’s advice and drove into town and had a wonderful evening checking out the local fare, including a local brewery where I ended up schooling a bunch of other out of towners with my uncanny knowledge of classic dystopia novels. The man was right. For the most part I didn’t feel like I was in the South at all and it felt very much like the parts of Philadelphia that I like best.
I have also been to Portland, OR for business. Portland and Asheville are considered two of three of the great art towns in the country. They are places where music thrives and weirdos congregate because they are places of very little judgment of strange lifestyles and interests. Austin, TX is the third.
I haven’t learned yet why Portland is considered one of these because I don’t know much about the state of Oregon. However, Portland and Seattle are often compared (and rightly so, as they have a lot in common). I don’t get the sense that Portland is situated in a particularly hostile environment for liberals, but perhaps because it evolved from the logging towns of the Pacific Northwest, there’s an excess of “frontier spirit” there or something. I’ll take “their” word for it.
Asheville and Austin though are very much in the middle of hostile states for liberally minded people. I was not in Asheville very long and mostly came into contact with a bunch of other tourists when I was there (most of them Northerners at that), so it was easy to forget where I was. It was easy to forget that there are certain things that the rest of the state never wants to forget.
Let me say first that I really like this town. Shaun and Ginny are staying at a wonderfully funky hotel just outside of the downtown area. The are near the hotel is really quite awesome. Everywhere is a burst of color and art. There are sidewalk sales everywhere, stores selling all kinds peculiar things, and a copious amount of high quality food trucks. What is most fun for me is that there is live music absolutely everywhere. Every bar has some form of a stage and some kind of band playing. There was a duo playing bass and guitar on the top of a van. You can get good drinks for pretty reasonable prices at many places. Happy hour here starts at 3pm. Shaun and I spent a good portion of our afternoon yesterday checking out a couple of bars and enjoying the bands. The place was hopping. We had dinner plans with Ginny so we didn’t stay out too long, but we are planning on picking up where we left off today.
Shaun joked that he was secretly a millionaire and was going to buy a big sprawling house in Austin and that none of us would ever have to work again. He asked what I would do if that was true and I said, “Well, if I could convince Wes and Jessie to move to Austin, I guess I’d just come here and be a musician”, because this is really the place to do it. It already has what Philadelphia is working on. Music everywhere you look and people loving it.
So, yeah, there’s a lot to like about Austin. But it didn’t take long for me to be reminded of where Austin is.
Before heading to the bars, we wandered downtown towards the state capitol. What we found when we got there was that we had just missed some kind of protest. Of course, Shaun was wearing his “Atheist, Polyamorous, Skeptics” t-shirt and his bag straps had an atheist and a secular button on each shoulder. We tried to figure out exactly what the protest was about. Some people had signs that said, “Stop the HHS Mandate” and other signs said, “Stand Up for Religious Freedom”. I looked up the protest on my phone and found that these rallies were being held all over the country yesterday in honor of the 223rd anniversary of James Madison, our Founding Father, introducing the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.
Apparently, the whole rally was designed around the idea that President Obama is infringing on people’s right to religious freedom by mandating that all health organizations (Christian or no) must provide birth control and other contraceptive services. There is a religious exemption, but, according the site, it is so narrow that not even Jesus and his Apostles would qualify for the exemption.
I could go on about the various absurdities of this. I have certainly come out in the past year publically in the blogosphere in great support of positive sex education, birth control knowledge and options for all, and abortions when people want them. I lost a couple of friends over this.
One of the people at the rally was holding a sign that said, “Women DO regret abortion”. I looked at her awestruck. Like, no shit, Sherlock. Of course some women regret the decision to abort. It’s not a decision that people make particularly lightly. And because I don’t view a mass of cells as life that much be protected at the risk of ruining a woman’s life, I don’t have a problem with the people who don’t torture themselves about the decision. It is an option that we have and should always have. To bring a life into the world that you do not want is not better. I could go on and on.
And I could go on and on about how wanting people to be refused birth control goes completely against the attempts to stop people from having abortions…but…you know, everyone who reads this probably knows that.
What struck me most about the whole thing is that people who were at the rally brought their kids to it, their young kids. And for the kids, it was like a happy-go-lucky picnic or something. At one point, a mother gave each of her children one of the signs I mentioned above and took a picture of them in front of the capitol, grins and all. I don’t think I was able to keep the look of disdain off of my face. In my mind, I wanted to go ask the kids if they knew what those signs were really saying. I had no intention of actually doing this and Shaun reminded me that this would cross some kind of line, which I completely understand…but I was so curious. I wanted to know if they knew what they were doing.
It reminds me of the episode of South Park where the boys get pulled into an anti-Bush rally somehow and they don’t even know what their signs are talking about (specifically that Cartman didn’t know how to pronounce the word Nazi, “Boosh is a Nay-zee…” That’s what I envisioned here. “Stop the HHS Mandate…because…um…what’s a mandate?”
That’s a kid running around the capitol with a bunch of pro-life balloons. Yeah.
We didn’t talk to anybody and no one seemed to pay us any mind…likely do to Shaun’s apparel. We decided to take in the local monuments while we were there. So I innocently walked up to one and it was this one:
Before I actually read the thing, I, for whatever ignorant reason, thought the dude on the top was Lincoln. But, obviously, that is a statue of Jefferson Davis. I guess the common hair styles of the 1860’s threw me off or something, but I done learned.
We wandered around the park and found that half the monuments there were memorials for people who had died for the Confederacy. I was…astounded. I live in such a liberal area that I forget periodically that this is a thing.
In addition, I was asked to remember the Alamo and appreciate the “Rough and Romantic Riders of the Range” by a couple of other statues. The rough, romantic rider statue had a horse with ridiculously huge balls. I guess what they say about everything being bigger in Texas is true.
Shaun has been remarking about how active the atheist community is in Austin. I asked him how he thought we could make it like that in Philadelphia and he reminded me that in Texas, you have to be out and proud and active to make life livable for the differently minded. We are very lucky in Philadelphia to be able to, for the most part, be who we are, what we are, without a specific community to help us to do it.
I had forgotten all that before arriving at the Capitol. At the Capitol, there is always something to remind you that you are, in fact, in Texas and that, as progressive, non-Christian, liberal people with tendencies towards slutdom, we are in a minority here.
But for now, I should get off this computer and go check out the parts of the town I feel at home…namely, bars with awesome sound systems and hilarious bartenders.