Part 1—Gail Collins’ wisecracking book: Where does a major insider go to get a good book review?
In the case of her recent book about Texas, Gail Collins couldn’t even get such a review in her own New York Times!
The book in question has a clumsy title: “As Texas Goes...: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda.” And yes, that dot-dot-dot is part of the book’s formal title.
Collins’ book appeared in June of this year. It argues, or pretends to argue, that the state of Texas has been disproportionately setting our nation’s political agenda.
“Texas runs everything,” Collins writes (her italics). “For good or ill.”
Collins may even be right about that to some degree or other. In the reports which follow, we won’t attempt to evaluate this thesis.
That said, few of Collins’ major reviewers seemed to think that she established her basic point. Where does a major insider go to get a good review?
In the weekday New York Times, Erica Grieder was down on the book. (Grieder is the Economist’s woman-in-Texas.) As she started, Grieder called attention to a major historical blunder by Collins—an error which appears in the book’s second paragraph. Before long, Grieder was rolling her eyes about one of the ways Collins’ book messed with the great state of Texas:
GRIEDER (7/3/12): As Ms. Collins says, Texas has one of the highest teenage birthrates in the country, and three of the four state-approved health textbooks never mention the word ''condom.'' It's possible, however, that Texas teenagers are nonetheless aware of what condoms are. According to 2009 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42 percent of sexually active teenagers in Texas reported that they didn't use a condom during their most recent sexual encounter. Around the enlightened nation the figure was not much better, at 39 percent.In this context, a 39 percent non-usage rate is worse than 42 percent rate. But can you build book which mocks a huge state around statistical distinctions like that?
Grieder seemed to say no. “In opting for the easy jokes, Ms. Collins misses the chance for a more substantive critique,” she judged—right in the New York Times!
(This was the headline atop the review: “Everything There Is Big, Stereotypes Included.”)
Lloyd Grove wasn’t much kinder in the Sunday Times' Book Review section—although, as a press corps insider, he observed a few etiquette points. (Earlier in his career, Grove worked for two major newspapers in Texas.) In the passage which follows, he pretends to believe Collins’ claims about the genesis of her book. And as is required by Hard Pundit Law, he remembers to say he's a “fan” of Collins’ “wisecracking style.”
That said, Grove joined Greider and other reviewers in citing some of Collins’ unfortunate intellectual tendencies. In this passage, he cites her fondness for drawing Texas-sized conclusions from tiny, utterly pointless events—events which have been chosen for the way they make (white) Texans seem like bozos:
GROVE (6/10/12): Herself a native Ohioan who has spent much of her professional life in Connecticut and New York, Collins is an admitted Johnny-come-lately to the Texas phenomenon, having been swept off her feet by two recent occurrences. The first was a spring 2009 Tea Party rally at which the fabulously coifed Perry invoked Sam Houston's famous warning against Texas' ''submission to any oppression'' and threatened secession as a possible response to President Obama's stimulus package. The second was a Texas headline sent by a friend: ''Man Allegedly Beat Woman With Frozen Armadillo.'' ''I was totally hooked,'' she writes.Surely, no one believes that Collins decided to write this book based on that frozen armadillo assault. But the pointless incident serves to make (white) Texans sound stereotypically dumb. As such, it fit that “wisecracking polemical style”—a style which one other major reviewer described as an agenda.
So she set off on a whirlwind tour to discover the Lone Star State and its transcendent meaning, deploying a breezy, wisecracking polemical style familiar to fans (including me) of her twice-weekly column in The Times. Alas, she also exhibits a fondness for generalizing from eccentric particulars, positing what ''21st-century Texans'' must believe about this or that nutty idea, like dropping out of the United States to become a sovereign country—a notion that, despite Collins's insinuation to the contrary, was overwhelmingly rejected by Texans in a Rasmussen poll around the time of Perry's musings.
In the Washington Post, Brian Burroughs took the clever way out. He penned a satirical review of Collins’ book in the form of a memo from a Texas power broker. In the process, was Burroughs perhaps mocking Collins a tad? We thought it was hard to tell.
Where does an insider have to go to get a good review? Certainly not to the Texas Monthly, where James Henson didn’t feel the need to pose as a fan.
Henson isn’t a press corps insider. He’s an influential political science professor at the University of Texas—and, on balance, he isn’t a fan of Collins’ book. As he started, he joined Greider in complaining about Collins’ facile, wisecracking style. And he said that Collins doesn’t much know what she’s talking about:
HENSON (6/12): During Rick Perry's brief presidential campaign, New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote frequently about the governor and his home state. Her columns took all of the obvious swipes—she was particularly taken with the time he seemed to flirt with the notion of secession and the time he shot and killed a coyote while jogging. But she rarely offered original insights about Perry or Texas, at least to anyone who had more than a passing acquaintance with either. Yes, it's utterly hilarious, and so telling, that Perry wears boots stitched with the words "freedom" and "liberty"! Got it.As she breezes along, Collins is willing to work with armadillos and coyotes, along with Irish setter. But uh-oh:
Collins, for all her wit, epitomizes a coastal take on Texas that frowns on the state's political ideology even as it misses the underlying politics that actually explain things. And there are real consequences to this sort of blithe indifference. Collins's columns doubtless amused her loyal readers, but Team Perry long ago learned to use press criticism to its advantage. Every time the "liberal media" takes on Perry in clichéd terms, his surrogates cry, "Bias!" which electrifies the echo-chamber conservative networks that have supported his last two political campaigns.
According to Henson, Collins’ “clichéd” approach represents a gift to Texas right-wingers like Perry. For that reason, Henson said, “It’s disappointing to open Collins's new book...and discover that it deploys pretty much the same tone as her Times columns.”
The book is “chock-full of jokey little asides,” the disappointed reviewer notes. “But I suspect that even the fans who enthusiastically email me links to her latest Texas takedowns will admit that the devices that pep up an eight-hundred-word column become tiresome over the course of a two-hundred-page book.”
In fairness, Henson did have some good things to say about Collins’ padded book, which runs a bit less than 200 pages. On balance, though, he was negative. “Collins draws a one-dimensional portrait of the state,” he judges at the end of his piece. “This suits her agenda just fine but exposes her as a smart writer looking at Texas from too great a distance to convey much more than the obvious.”
(As he concludes, Henson really sticks in the porcupine quill: “When it comes to taking potshots at Texas, Collins is almost as quick on the draw as the governor she relies on for easy laughs. Unlike Rick Perry, though, she only wounds her prey.”)
Where does an insider have to go to get a fawning review? (Before our award-winning series is done, we will be happy to show you.) For ourselves, we aren’t fans of Collins’ work, although she occasionally writes a real column. That said, we won’t attempt to assess her whole book in the series of posts which will follow.
We won’t assess her sweeping claim about the way Texas is running the nation. We’ve mainly been struck by the parts of her book which deal with the Texas schools.
Collins devotes a large chunk of her book to the Lone Star State's public schools. In one major part of her (clichéd) presentation, she commits what can only be called an act of intellectual fraud. Granted, she states a familiar party line, one which may seem pleasing to liberals, in which she claims that excessive testing has harmed the Texas schools.
That said, it’s amazing to see a major journalist wallow in bogus and cherry-picked data to the extent Collins does. It’s amazing to see the liberal world keep accepting such scams as OK.
Collins claims to be upset about the way Texas is running its schools. She claims to be especially upset about the way Hispanic kids are getting educated in Texas—more precisely, about the way Hispanics kids are failing to get educated.
To our ear, her public comments about Hispanic kids have tended to sound rather odd, with just a hint of a high lady’s fear of a brown peril emerging up from the south. But for now, let's put that sense to the side! In the posts which follow, we’ll describe one of the basic ways our modern “journalism” works.
In fact, the Texas schools are relative high achievers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the widely-praised “gold standard” of American educational testing. In her book and in her columns, Collins cites the NAEP as our most reliable educational data. But there’s little sign in her joke-ridden book that she has ever consulted the NAEP’s voluminous data about the Texas public schools, except in the search for misleading data-—data she plainly cherry-picked from the NAEP's bounty.
(It's always possible that one of her "expert sources" cherry-picked those data for her. We think of the expert Collins quotes making a flatly false claim.)
There's no sign that Collins knows what the NAEP data say about Hispanic kids in Texas. Jokey asides to the side, there’s also no sign that she cares.
Does it matter if the public is told the truth about our public schools? About the children who attend them? About our public school teachers?
About Hispanic kids in Texas, who outperform their counterparts in Collins’ more upscale home states?
Or are the children and teachers of Texas merely tools for this jokey insider’s use—useful tools with which she can fuel her “breezy polemical style?” Useful tools with which she can make us pseudo-liberals feel better, even as she tries to dumb us all the way down to the ground?
In major ways, this wisecracking book with the jokey asides constitutes an act of journalistic fraud. What kind of “journalist” functions this way?
What kind of “liberal world” is willing to let this shit happen?
Tomorrow: Some breezy, wisecracking history