This weekend, I attended a memorial service, after which I fell into conversation with a well-known Dallas landscape architect and planner, commiserating ruefully about the effect Texans like U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert have on the rest of the state. We agreed that every time Gohmert shoots from the hip, a couple more corporate relocations die.
By the way, that was 24 hours before Gohmert suggested Arizonans need to help Sen. John McCain recover from brain cancer by recalling him from office. It was two days before Dallas Baptist minister Robert Jeffress went on Fox TV to talk about people shooting NFL football players in the head for taking a knee during the national anthem.
But wait. It was also two days before Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones took a knee with his entire team before the Cardinals game at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
And wait. The architect and I were talking two weeks after a crane yanked a prominent Confederate memorial out of a park two miles north of Dallas City Hall without violence or civic unrest, following a near unanimous vote of the Dallas City Council.
Wait some more. Fifteen months ago during a civil rights rally downtown, five Dallas police officers were murdered by a black military veteran with a mentally jumbled racial agenda. In the weeks after, the city was at peace, and former Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who is black, received intense national focus for the wisdom and gravitas with which he responded to that awful event.
Since then, Dallas has received national attention for an aggressive police training regime that attempts to put the painful lessons of the recent past into practice on the street. And the city also has received attention for an effort by the public school system to use school innovation as a tool of desegregation. Somewhere in there, we got a fair amount of ink for resolving a potentially devastating police pension problem.
What else? Oh, sure, let’s not forget: Breaking with decades of stubborn habit and culture, we reached far across the nation to hire a new city manager and a new chief of police from outside the claustrophobic rabbit warren of Dallas City Hall.
The chief is too new to gauge. The city manager hit the ground running, doing exactly what the people who recruited him wanted him to do, bringing fresh eyes and new talent to top positions at City Hall.
In all of this, two things will never change. One is me. I can go back over every single one of those positive developments I just cited and find a nit to pick with it. If you are a nit, I will pick you.
The second is a certain kind of perception of the city in the eyes of people who really don’t know much about us. Even in writing a generally favorable story about the way we handled our pension problems, The New York Times led with a reference to “the swagger and sprawl of Dallas,” which, we all suspect, comes from a 1970s TV serial supposedly set here. What’re you gonna do?
But what’s important? On all of the issues I just ran down, our differences are important, and our ability to express them publicly is important. But in terms of the kind of city we are, the image of Jerry Jones on his knee presents us with a certain overarching reality about ourselves — something that may surprise us as much as anybody.
One way or another, by hook or by crook, pretty much without our even realizing it, we have become a moderate place. We’re pragmatic. We can even be clever at times.
We have ideals and principals, but we are able to carry them off with an amount of humility. For the most part (and with the exception of Jeffers and his ilk), we can sit down across from each other at any table and agree at the get-go that none of us is Jesus X. Christ.
The swaggering, self-righteous, pretentious, hypocritical bigoted city is not us. If it ever was, it hasn’t been for a very long time. This is a whole new city, a smarter city, a better city, a city where people know the value of mutual respect.
We have warts. We might even have an extra thumb or something. We’re far from perfect. But nobody is fooled — nobody here — by President Donald Trump’s Twitter attempt to co-opt Jerry Jones by calling his knee in Arizona a sign of Trump-defined “progress.” Jones went down on that knee because he knew he had to show respect to his entire team, especially the African-American players, or risk allowing the team to come unglued.
And, please, I do not mean to diminish what he did by suggesting the knee was merely a way to win football games. It was Jerry Jones being smart enough and socially perceptive enough to see that sharing the pain and outrage of his players was the right thing to do. And I’m sure he also saw it was possibly a good way to win some football games.
You know this is not Mr. Jones' first rodeo. I'm sure you remember the one about his giving an autographed Cowboys football jersey to the pope. That was the right thing to do, too, both for world peace and for the Dallas Cowboys.
That’s us. Our take on these things tends to be an even mixture of what’s right with what works. Remember that Brown, when he talked about the murder of his police officers last July, never spoke a single word that exonerated the shooter in any way or diminished the heroism of the martyred officers. But he did scold society soundly for heaping every unsolved social problem on the backs of police officers, including dealing with people who are mentally ill.
Dallas can kick hard when it needs to. Activist groups like Mothers Against Police Brutality used grassroots organizing and some good street theater to push City Hall off the dime when that needed doing.
One of the more remarkable local stories in the last year is the saga of HMK Ltd., a low-rent landlord company in poor West Dallas that found itself in the gun sights of a City Hall holy war on housing code violations. Khraish Khraish Jr., the company's managing partner, turned the tables. He effectively demonstrated that the city’s real agenda was more about land development. The supposedly wicked landlord wound up winning a national award for his creative efforts to provide and maintain low-income housing in a rapidly gentrifying area.
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That’s Dallas. We’re always about half an inch off the grid, not quite within the ruling paradigm, which can make it hard to predict where the city’s foot will fall. Or knee.
Sometimes we seem to wind up exactly where we need to be by going at it entirely the wrong way. The Lee statue thing is an example. White progressives on the City Council first pushed for removal, with black council members joining the old establishment to resist the removal. Then, after a dramatic but mostly peaceful demonstration in front of City Hall, the mayor and the black council members switched sides and got it done.
I loved it later when diehard Confederacy fans told me the mayor and City Council had “caved to public opinion.” I said, “Yes, yes, isn’t it wonderful?”
Whatever we are, and I realize this may a low bar, we are not Louie Gohmert, and we are not Robert Jeffress. We’re something a lot better than that. Not perfect. Not necessarily even going for perfect. But we are going for pretty damn solid good, and we can all take a knee and lock arms behind that.