The state we’re in: Oklahoma’s fractured narrative (Tulsa Voice)

By Barry Friedman

In “The White Album,” Joan Didion’s seminal work about how America defines itself, she writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

We tell ourselves stories in Oklahoma, often award-winning ones (“Oklahoma!” the musical ranking somewhere between college football and hydrocarbons as our greatest export), but the stories of late are bolder—dangerous, manipulative—equal parts hubris and pixie dust, laced with xenophobia and Jesus. This isn’t just about the budget or even the 55th legislative session—though its members set new standards for obtuseness, procrastination, scapegoating, and tripping over themselves—but also about an Oklahoma narrative that changed (mutated, really) in the early 1990s, when the state revealed its hatred of a functioning government, and then hit its stride on January 20, 2009, when the state revealed its hatred of a president.

It’s impossible to talk about Oklahoma politics over the past eight years without addressing the election of Barack Obama. To many in the state, he was (and is) Legion, filled with multiple demons, both a boogeyman and piñata. The criticism was couched in opposition to his Affordable Care Act, Iraqi troop withdrawals, environmental objectives, presidential style, ad infinitum, but policy differences can’t explain this kind of venom. 

Republican Representative Lewis Moore removed Obama’s presidential portrait in 2010 from the House chamber and hid it; Republican Senator Mike Ritze said, “I have never seen a birth certificate that would pass the test of what I call a legal document” when he joined lunatic of lunatics Orly Taitz in questioning the president’s legitimacy; Republican Senator Rick Brinkley authored a “birther bill” attempting to force the president off the 2012 state ballot; Republican Attorney General Scott Pruitt has sued the Obama Administration over a dozen times; former Republican Senator Tom Coburn said his good friend the president owes his success to affirmative action; and present Republican First District Congressman Jim Bridenstine, a former military man, laughed while a constituent talked of hanging the commander in chief. 

It was fatuous and mendacious, all of it, including this session’s incomprehensible vote to impeach him after he insisted all Americans, regardless of genitalia (even in our state), be allowed equal access to public restrooms.

The story began earlier, though, in 1992, with State Question 640, which required that tax increases receive three-fourths support in both the Oklahoma House and Senate or else go to a vote of the people before being enacted, thus ensuring we could no longer fund state government at mature and sustainable levels without engaging in Herculean somersaults. Two years earlier, State Question 632, approved overwhelmingly by voters, imposed term limits for elected representatives, which fueled the cockamamie notion that Oklahoma would be better served if new legislators, without institutional memory or skill, were given the levers of government every 12 years. Instead of fresh ideas from these new representatives, we largely got pablum: Sharia Law bans, Ten Commandments statutes, incoherent rants about gays and lesbians, Obama, EPA, Planned Parenthood bashing, legislation so badly written it was laughed out of court, and, worse, an overriding narrative that government was an evil pustule that needed to be lanced.

And, of course, we got tax cuts—from Democrats and Republicans.

We starved the beast and then blamed the beast for being lethargic and unresponsive. We blamed liberals and feminists for hip-checking Oklahoma’s greatness into the boards of mediocrity and political correctness. We accused Obama of having the audacity to act presidential.

We had our story.

So who are we now? Descendants of settlers who developed this great state where there’s plen’y of heart and plen’y of hope or one of those 18,000 Oklahomans who signed a petition in 2012 supporting secession? 

We are one part of what former Mayor of New York David Dinkins called America’s “gorgeous mosaic,” so our handwringing, paranoia, and chest thumping is but one sound in a cacophonous 50-state heartbeat. Every one of those states has grievances, pulls together, and overcomes adversity; every state searches for its lost children and runs extension cords from their homes so people in these emergencies can charge their iPhones; every state honors its veterans and puts American flags on the front porch; every state crows about the brilliance of its institutions and boasts about the strength of its college football programs and engineering and geology schools; every state highlights the resourcefulness and inner strength of its people; every state resigns itself to the unpredictability of its weather; and, yes, every state has a beef with the federal government and is subject to its laws—hence, states can’t pick and choose the laws by which they live, how much religious elbow room it deems necessary, or whether it will allow its bakers—say in Del City—to refuse to make wedding cakes to same-sex couples.

When the Murrah Building was bombed, America was with us; when tornadoes devastated Moore (twice), America, including the president we hate so much, was with us.

“Everywhere, fellow Americans are praying with you,” Obama said after the EF-5 hit, “they’re thinking about you and they want to help. And I’m just a messenger here letting you know that you are not alone.”

Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, in pushing for that assistance, made sure the country knew not all tragedy deserves compassion. 

Speaking on MSNBC, the lawmaker said that in the case of Hurricane Sandy, “everybody was getting in and exploiting the tragedy that took place.” However, he said, “that won’t happen in Oklahoma.”

In 1987, when Jessica McClure, a girl of one, fell down a 22-foot well in her aunt’s backyard in Midland Texas, and the people of that community held flashlights and vigils and shovels and retrieved her 55 hours later, President George Bush, the first one, said their efforts were “typically American.”

(“Yeah,” joked Jay Leno, “like the Swiss would let her die.”) 

We all would have saved that little girl. That doesn’t make us Texans, Oklahomans, or even Americans—it makes us human. It’s our story. God, if there is one, doesn’t smile on (or save or condemn or test) us in any greater percentages than he does Nebraskans, nor does he talk to our legislators with any more clarity or frequency; our bluster no more factually based than the bluster found in Illinois; and our sins, our men in hooded white sheets or suits (whose names often appear on streets or law schools), no less evil than those who prowled Philadelphia, Mississippi or Selma, Alabama. 

They, too, the bigots, tell themselves stories in order to live. So do our heroes. At some point, every story breaks down.

At the beginning of Grapes of Wrath, it is raining. It stopped and the Joads left Oklahoma. 

They didn’t come back. There was no longing to; the place let them down.

During the Republican National Convention in 2012, Republican Governor Fallin said it wasn’t the federal government but “thousands of families” who “rushed to put a stake down on empty plots of land” that made this land of ours. “They built tent cities overnight, they farmed the land and they worked hard.” Every word of it a clichéd sop to the state’s new robust ego and selective amnesia. She was telling the country—telling President Obama— that we in Oklahoma were not buying his notion of an interconnected commonwealth from which we all rose and a nation prospered. 

Mr. President, we know better … as we say in Oklahoma, that dog won’t hunt.

She gave credit to Continental Resources CEO Harold Hamm, whom she called a “visionary,” the same Harold Hamm who also tried to get scientists at OU fired for studying links between oil and gas activity and earthquakes and then called Donald Drumpf the “best choice” for America. 

Fallin extolled these “early day pioneers” who did it on their own. 

It was a lie, for if we did it on our own, we did it without the U.S. Army and the Railroad, Homestead and Morrill Land-Grant Acts (the last of which was signed by Abraham Lincoln, a Republican). And if you go to Stillwater today and visit the state’s premier land grant university, you’ll see Morrill Hall, named after Justin Smith Morrill, a man who thought federal funding for public colleges and universities was a good idea.

Harold Hamm didn’t do that; a senator from Vermont did. 

America did. 

Last March, two reporters from The Tulsa Voice shadowed two Planned Parenthood lobbyists, Kate and Joe (whose names have been changed), as they met with District 68 State Rep. Glen Mulready, a Republican who sits on the public health committee, to implore him to vote against several anti-choice bills.

Excerpts from the reporter’s take are in italics.

Kate asks Mulready about HB 3128, which prohibits abortions based on the detection of Down syndrome or any other genetic abnormalities. 

These abnormalities—and there are many—include a fetus that is unviable outside of the womb and/or developed without a brain or digestive system.

“I believe all life has the right to be protected,” Mulready says. He asks why, if his own mother got sick, could he not kill her.

“This is my body,” Kate responds. “It’s different. I have rights over it.”

Mulready pauses. “I have the right to throw a punch—”  he says, as he leans towards Kate and, in slow motion, mimes throwing a punch at her face. His fist stops just short of making contact with her left cheek. “—but my rights end when my fist hits you.” Mulready then reaches out and holds Kate’s arm. He pats her. “That’s not a threat.”

“So, you’re saying,” Kate continues, “once I’m pregnant, my rights over my body end, and I’m just a walking womb?”

“No, I’m not saying that.”

Mulready then repeats himself and, again, incredibly, throws the same fake-punch. 

“I’m assuming,” Kate continues, “if you force a woman to have a baby with a genetic abnormality or other disability, you are also supporting the expansion of Medicaid in order to make sure she and her child have the financial support needed to get by in life.”

“No. I do not support entitlement programs.”

Joe then says to Mulready, “Sir, I do not believe that we, as men, have the right to tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her body.”

“I disagree,” Mulready retorts, and then he walks away. 

These are the stories we tell ourselves. Heartless, angry, vindictive, incomprehensible ones that shape policy, ones that contend women are chattel, ones that equate gratuitous violence against women with complicated choices made by women. 

I choose not to punch you in face. Why can’t you gals choose to carry an Encephalitic baby to term? Let’s de-certify doctors who cross us.

Overwhelming majorities of the state GOP, the party of limited government and personal freedom, tried to push through a bill that would have revoked the licenses of doctors in the state who performed abortions, a constitutionally-protected procedure. And if not for the sanity—this time, anyway—of Governor Fallin, who vetoed it, it would have become law. 

This is not a policy difference. This is monstrous.

It was the worst day, May 19th, in the history of the Oklahoma state government, a legislative conflagration of unparalleled cruelty and ineptitude, a day, years in the making, when all the berserk misdirection and incomprehension that has been percolating over the last two decades was served hot. It was a day of deliberate sleight of hand, a smoke screen, and it descended on the halls of state government—and thus on the rest of us—like a piece of plaster from the crumbling rotunda. And then those who orchestrated and choreographed the mutation blamed those who noticed. 

“That’s the media’s doing,” said Republican Brian Bingman, the Senate President Pro Tempore. “They can pick and choose and they can elevate the issue and people call and say, ‘Is that really what you all are doing?’ My focus has been on the budget this year.”

Here were the headlines that day.

“Governor’s attorney wanted wrong drug used in execution, knew it had been used before.”

“Oklahoma lawmakers call ‘state of emergency’ to stop trans kids from using the restroom”

“Oklahoma lawmakers OK bill criminalizing performing abortion”

“Oklahoma lawmakers call for president’s impeachment, file religious-accommodation bill over transgender bathroom directive”

“Oklahoma Republicans urge Democrats to vote for tax increase”

One day in Oklahoma. 

And somewhere in this hideous session, when attention was elsewhere, legislators voted to increase their own operating budget by $4-million but couldn’t muster the courage to stop future tax cut triggers in a budget bleeding deficits and broken promises.

And even at the end of the day, it wasn’t the end of the day. 

Suspending its own rules on adjournment, the House and Senate stayed open late to cut the earned-income tax credit for 355,000 low-income Oklahomans. This is the same House and Senate that last year passed legislation that refused to allow cities across Oklahoma to establish mandatory minimum wage and employee benefits.

This wasn’t a war on poverty, it was a war on the poor. 

OK Policy’s David Blatt, whom I call on often, is as close to gob smacked as I’ve ever seen him.

“So what are these families supposed to do?” he asks about this EITC cut. “What,” he asks again slowly, this time not so rhetorically, “are they suppose to do?”

Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, an LGBT advocacy organization, called the legislative session “pure insanity” and said it was orchestrated by the “crazy caucus,” a caucus sane state Republicans refuse to spit out, a caucus Brian Bingman, while focusing on the budget all year, didn’t spit out. It is a caucus that needs (and had needed) to be called out, publicly, by the people who give them cover and succor and allowed them to co-opt the R after their names.

This was our state on that day, a day that Oklahoma—the state, the name, the reputation itself—had become a clown to the nation’s bottle of seltzer. Worse, the majority of our legislators, those responsible, didn’t mind being a punchline and wore that derision like ribbons won at the state fair. Who cares what those godless liberals at The New York Times think? We welcome their scorn.

There was good news, eventually. The truly horrendous gun, abortion, and transgender bills were defeated thanks to a vigilant consortium of religious leaders, businesses, and even chambers of commerce. But, as Blatt put it, “I’m tired of victories that simply prevented worse shit from happening. I’m tired of victories that don’t actually improve the lives of a single Oklahoman. It’s time to start making some real progress on a positive agenda.”


In Oklahoma, we make sure there is no talk of sex in sex education classes. We drug test the poor for the crime of being poor, throw cash to the luxury boxes and piety to the cheap seats, privatize prisons and schools, and continue to botch executions. 

There was no coup. This is the government we want. 

As for those bathroom bills, the funding cuts to mental health, the belittling treatment of women, and the religious symbols in the public square upon which we insist—we’re not better than that. 

We are that. 

The devil is not in the details; he’s in the heart.

There are no more easy solutions, if there ever were. I asked Stevenson about the teacher caucus and its promise for a change if they’re elected in the fall.

“Sure, yeah, maybe,” he says, “but Sally Kern is a teacher.”

(Stevenson, on the eve of Kern’s last session in OKC, posted on Facebook that despite their differences, he always appreciated Kern’s openness and commitment to her cause. She responded by reiterating her position that homosexuals are worse than terrorists.)

Blatt, too, is hopeful but sober about the future. 

“After this,” he says, “if the party that’s been in power for ten years doesn’t pay some kind of price…” His voice trails off, he shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders, and smiles, “then I just don’t know.”

Our narrative is frayed—tethered to a ship that has been hijacked. It’s a dangerous thing, for this tale, our Oklahoma story, is now being written by people who, as Wayne Greene of The Tulsa World noted, are pissants. 

We tell ourselves stories filled with heroes and grit and our better angels; we tell ourselves stories about the inexorable and proud march of Oklahoma; we tell ourselves stories about fairness and love and acceptance for all our people; we tell ourselves stories about being forever blessed because God’s on our side; we tell ourselves big, beautiful stories about how good we are and have always been. We lie.

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