ISIS and Texas: Simpatico?

by Justin LeBlanc
File under: Fake Freedom10 Jun 2015 12:19 EDT

The curious case of Texas plumber Mark Oberholtzer's Ford F-250 seemingly ending up in the hands of ISIS militants is an eloquent starting point for these reflections. Though many coincidental twists and turns in the international truck trade may provide a rather plain explanation, please allow our indulgence in presuming that maybe there is more than mere chance at play here: For we believe that fate has ordained the meeting of these two geopolitical entities, and that their comparison can tell us something special about society in the 21st century. 

And indeed, the stage seems set for further escalation in this apparent civilizational conflict. Right-wing sources have been reporting that ISIS is amassing on the Mexican border. On May 3rd, first blood was drawn, with a Texas officer downing two militants who attempted to attack a 'draw Mohammed' cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. This produced many lulz-worthy comments from proud Texans. 

But, considering this hope for a total suspension of Western law and a recourse to direct execution, perhaps Texas and ISIS really understand each other better than might be expected... let's take a look at some salient examples.

Founding Story

ISIS and Texas are both essentially geo-political startups. While today the lone star flag seems the eternal symbol of The Lone Star State, for many centuries Texas was an almost entirely insignificant appendix to the power plays of European states in America. This is the source of the "six flags over Texas", a reference to the deep earlier geopolitical instability of the state as well as a marketing tool for the Texas-based theme park chain. Eventually, the Anglo impresarios won out, overcoming the Mexican armies and establishing a capitalist free-for-all in the place of rule by a landed Spanish gentry. This was largely the private pursuit of a few men desirous to buy up massive tracts of desert in an effectively unincorporated frontier, until the discovery of oil suddenly and unexpectedly thrust this distant province into world relevance. 

Likewise, nobody at all would care about ISIS, its Twitter account, or its pseudo-caliphate if it were not controlling massive oil reserves. Their overexposed black flags would seem just as hackneyed as the omnipresent lone stars on Texas freeway interchanges. 

Driving through wasteland as a form of geo-political marketing...

In terms of marketing, Texas and ISIS are both virtual states, with the Texas western mythology and the gruesome pageantry of ISIS brutality providing more of a collective identity than any actual activity or achievement in these states. Mirages in the desert, if you will. Yet this does not dampen their hopes of expansion, but rather only increases them...

State Ambitions

While the American media has uncritically taken these maps from Twitter as indeed the creations of ISIS, their sourcing is beside the point: a trans-national caliphate must see itself as united Muslim peoples around the world, which would imply a plan of growth along these lines. 

If ISIS is successful in this bloating-up of itself, they would be following well in the footsteps of Texas, where SIZE is the first criterion of all goodness. While there may not be art, culture, or any real humanism in all of Texas, there sure is a LOT of it! As a political entity, it's kind of the opposite of Vatican City: as big as possible with as little culture as possible. Militarism and violence towards this end of increasing one's size is only a natural consequence of this most basic social desire.

Perhaps again the analogy to the desert is instructive. As the desert has no natural geographic boundaries, as it has no hard dividing forests or mountains or bodies of water to separate places and peoples, all the world is the same to Texans — one endless buffet of strip malls, interchanges, and gas stations. On the frontier, all points are equally nowhere. And so why shouldn't suburbanites drive around in pickup trucks...?

Truck Culture

As seen above, some trucks from actual hard-working Texans have ended up under the dominion of ISIS. But regardless, the fetishism of the truck seems to be another shared commonality. Obviously, ISIS needs these trucks for military purposes, but it is interesting that Texan pickups are so naturally repurposed towards this end. In fact, one even imagines Texans jealous that their Toyotas are featured in so much Hollywood-style action abroad, as opposed to the far less dangerous domestic hunting trip. 

At any rate, whether you are being run over by a jacked up Silverado barreling down I-10 at 90 mph, or are having your small Syrian village raided by an ISIS posse in pickups, the message is the same: Here I am, and to hell with civilization! The truck is notably a vehicle of construction, transport, and manual labor, and their continuing presence in Texan suburban life indicates an incompleteness to the civilizing project, and indeed a hostility towards it. ISIS is now living the intense experience of anarchic wild-west chaos for which Texas still yearns, but which it has lost forever with the embrace of the air-conditioned shopping mall. But maybe it can still be found in those dark Jack Bauer dreams...

Theater of the Grotesque 

A 2014 study of American moviegoers ranked Texas third nationwide in the number of frequent moviegoers. This makes a lot of sense, as the steady stream of plotless violence coming out of Hollywood would seem to appeal to the average Texan. And, of course, we can't discount how much influence the Hollywood cinematic style has had in the production of the regular ISIS "torture and execution" aesthetic, clearly designed to appeal to American hashtag-driven hysteria and terror. Perhaps there is a production position open at Fox News? 

But big budget movies aside, both the ISIS territory and Texas can leave visitors uneasy of their own account. Driving around outside Dallas can feel like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Abandoned gas stations, mining ghost towns, isolated factories pumping out fumes in the middle of the night — Texas can often seem haunted. As a concrete example of this atmospheric impression, consider that Texas leads the nation in unresolved serial highway homicides

Because at the endpoint of civilization, anything at all seems justified. 

Religion

In both Texas and the ISIS territory, religious impresarios are highly important public figures who dictate all of public morals and attitudes. These figures, while endowed with power and influence entirely out of proportion to their own holiness or accomplishment, are really quite implausible when seen more closely. They are true startups, lacking all the traditional trappings of established religion, taking such radical steps as announcing a caliphate via Twitter or claiming that Exxon Mobil's prosperity is a sign of God's favor. 

On these frontiers of the world, religion starts to get big, loud, and really kind of weird. Without the ritual professions of faith maintaining community, things would probably just descend into chaos. You can't be a privately sincere, convinced believer: you have to let the whole world know, since that's the whole point! Religion becomes a kind of compulsion, the thin string holding together the whole mess of animal urges no longer ordered by a human social order. Think Waco, or Joel Osteen...


ISIS and Texas both represent what might be called the first stage of evolution towards "post-civilization". The founders of these places are people who have been entirely shut out of civilized life. Whether the survivors of millennia of warfare in the once Fertile Crescent, or roughnecks and adventurers restless in polite Massachusetts society, they don't 'do' law, statesmenship, or liberals arts education. From this mentality stems ISIS' hatred of Greco-Roman ruins, and Texas' equally ahistoric megaplex society. 

Yet, in spite of this move past civilization, they both enjoy a very specific civilized sophistication: scientific industry. Both depend dearly on engineers educated outside of their realm to keep their spigots of oil flowing, and use modern technology to magnify what would otherwise be a rather pathetic political realm.

But this tolerance is merely material and pragmatic.  Reason, science, and a critical outlook are feared by the dominant cultural regime of fanatic public religiosity. These crude materialist actors use religion to manage an otherwise savage population, while needing to import talent from the outside to maintain a very fragile economic order. 

And so we can see it theses polities as a single phenomenon: the time and place of hugely hypocritical upstart princes, promoting the piety of an ignorant populace, and bribing the last remaining scientists, who have been reduced to lives of mere technical servitude. 

The deeper cause of this state is a mere acceptance of brute economic and military fact, entirely unconscious of meaning. Drama, dialectic, and all forms of humanism entirely evaporate in the endless frontier. This is the odd manifestation of the merely technical world science fiction has cautioned against for so long, a brave new world, but managed by an ascendant low-life class rather than a cadre of elite scientists. 

And, given the success and strange frenemy attraction between these two kingdoms, dating back to the first Bush invasion of Iraq over 25 years ago, perhaps the world is desitned to grow with them. 

Disclaimer: This article was written by an entirely secular Yankee who does not support either the Texas or ISIS way. After the misfortune of moving to the Houston area for a year of work, these comparisons seemed natural and essential.

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