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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Keeping Austin Weird

In a watering hole near the state capitol, pretty women with tattoos find a handful of sharply dressed men who've loosened their ties. A Johnny Cash song gives way to The Clash. A rocker works his way to the bar so he can have a drink before his set. And behind them in a corner, a scrawny kid sits at a laptop writing code for a game app that will soon swallow up millions of joyous hours from people around the world. 

Cross the street and discover techno thudding in some basement club. A little farther away a Stratocaster is conjuring the ghost of Stevie Ray Vaughn. 

Smells from food trucks draw different people as if by invisible cords. Find smoky brisket or fish tacos among the trailers. Or sort through the culinary ecosystem for higher-end fare—Uchi’s gourmet sushi or Lambert’s boar ribs would do nicely. It’s all just another day in Austin. If the Republic of Texas needs a capital at all, Austin will do just fine. 

Austin has always been “alternative.” But SXSW—the music, film, and interactive festival—has gotten so big that some Austinites are creating SXSW off-Broadway shows just to rebel. And that’s fine. There is a secessionist streak here that may be in the DNA. If secession weren’t stigmatized by slavery, Texas might be its own country. And Austin would be a logical place for a new constitutional convention. Call me a crazy teabagger for suggesting such a thing, but secession is just another word for “self-determination.” And people here determine their own selves like nobody’s business. 

Austin made its name as one of the country’s best music towns, right up there with Nashville, New York, and Los Angeles. This being Texas, it has a country-and-western vein that intersects with a desert rock vein. But it has its own spirit, evoking highways rolling over hill country, waxy trees, dusty cars, and a big sky. 

But Austin is also a tech cluster. Some of your favorite habits may have started here among wily game developers. It’s just one of the ways creativity manifests itself in a city far enough outside the Beltway to escape that dark gravity that prevents the sui generis–a Latin phrase meaning “of its own kind”–flowering of civilization.

When you live here, the creativity is palpable. Washington, D.C., folks ought to visit Austin at least once. They might discover they’ve been living in a creative desert or a spiritual abyss—a political purgatory where, upon meeting someone, you’re expected to unfurl your resume before any conversation can proceed. Once you escape all those talking points in pantsuits, even for a day, you find you can breathe easier. Because in Austin, people talk about what makes them happy.

There’s been an influx of relative newcomers like me in recent years. Most are from California. Notwithstanding all the bartenders wearing T-shirts that say “Thanks for visiting, now please don’t move here,” all people are welcome. Still, given what they did to the California they left, I’m frankly a little uneasy about what they might do to Texas. But for the moment, so-called “jurisdictional arbitrage” is benefiting Texas, and Austin in particular

Yes, it’s a trendy place, but that’s only part of its appeal. Imagine some of the minor characters from the show “Portlandia”—only they’re better-looking, some are wearing cowboy boots, they’re smiling more, and they have tans. But that’s just to drop in on a spaceship and look around. Once you’re here a while, you discover you can subtract the northwestern neurosis and pretension, add a heaping tablespoon of friendliness, and gain a sense that people cherish freedom here without really even being conscious of it.

Still, you’ve probably heard that Austin is a mecca for self-styled progressives. At their pettiest, they’d prefer to dictate your grocery bag preferences. Plastic bags have already been taken away. Paper bags must be 40 percent recycled if they're offered at all. Just know the chicken blood that leaked into your reusable burlap sack is a small price to pay for a cleaner environment. 

But as with the checkout line, Austin is a mixed bag. The same officious bohemians happy to ban bags would riot if the city fathers tried to regulate away their food trucks. And, of course, these are more or less the same people who made John Mackey a wealthy man. Whole Foods, and its value ecosystem, is just another one of Austin’s strange contradictions.

“Keep Austin Weird” emblazons T-shirts and bumper stickers of the tackiest sort. But it is our mantra. It is a far sexier way to say “practice toleration” while also being a nicer way of saying “your city is boring.” And to keep Austin weird is mandatory—even for the most insipid Midwesterner who wanders into town seeking his fortunes. It’s not just that you might end up brewing kombucha in your basement, it’s that you’d miss the weirdness terribly if it went away.

It’s perhaps anticlimactic, but I’ll save discussing the Austin libertarian movement for the print edition. Suffice it to say we’ve got the merriest band of freedom lovers anywhere. They’re young. They’re many. And they’re keeping Austin weird. (Free Staters, sit up and take notice: You’ve got some competition.)

  • Max Borders is author of The Social Singularity. He is also the founder and Executive Director of Social Evolution—a non-profit organization dedicated to liberating humanity through innovation. Max is also co-founder of the Voice & Exit event and former editor at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). Max is a futurist, a theorist, a published author and an entrepreneur.