11 August 2012

Collins’ ‘As Texas Goes’

According to Gail Collins’s own account, she didn’t get interested in the outsize influence of the state of Texas until 2009 — after George W. Bush’s presidency ended. This suggests a shameful lapse in her otherwise admirable reporting instincts. For eight years, a Texan cowboy herded the nation through two wars, No Child Left Behind, and subjected us his other peculiar notions of what government should do (torture prisoners; privatize everything) and should not do (help its own people in the aftermath of a hurricane; pay for anything), all predicated on the cultural history and political philosophy of his adopted home state — and yet somehow Collins expects us to believe that she didn’t find the situation at least a little intriguing. She claims that it took Gov. Rick Perry to get her fired up.

But the fact of the matter is that Molly Ivins died in 2007. While Ivins lived, there was no need for another wise, witty, leftwing scribe to record the pathological hypocrisies and to explain the loopy shenanigans of Texans in public office. In the immediate aftermath of her death, I daresay a number of other journalists took a moment to grieve, and then took another moment to look around to see whether anybody else would take up the mantle. By 2009, nobody else had, and so Collins did. As Texas Goes is the result.

Gail Collins is herself a wise, witty left-winger, and I’ve valued her writing since her distinguished tenure at Newsday. But it’s no disrespect to say that she’s no Molly Ivins. (Just being Gail Collins would be more than enough for most of us.) Try as she might — and Collins does try mightily — three years’ worth of research and reporting can’t compare with Ivins’ lifetime of on-the-ground experience. Collins isn’t even a Texan, and in reading her book, I’m reminded of the grumbling I still heard from Las Vegans in 1999, whenever they talked about the interloper Joan Didion. That majestic lady (they said) swooped in from California for a weekend and thereupon figured she knew enough about the town to write about it, with all of her Didionian presumptions of omniscient authority.

Collins is more easygoing than Didion ever will be, and as I say, her model here is another woman entirely. Still, while there’s something to be said for the objective perspective of outsiders, As Texas Goes finds Collins so busy catching up that she never quite assembles a coherent argument that would make her quirky factoids more compelling. She’s at her best in individual chapters, and it’s perhaps no surprise that she’s extracted so many of these and dispatched them to several publications, including The New York Times, her home base, and The New York Review of Books. If a lot of her book seems familiar, it’s because you really have read it already, whether in her column in the Times or elsewhere. The adept Internet surfer could read a significant percentage of As Texas Goes without ever picking up the book. But I like Gail Collins, so I bought a copy.

Gail Collins

Collins does herself a favor by focusing on specific areas in which Texas has not only pursued a policy but also promoted it as a model for the rest of the country: these areas include education (“No Child Left Behind” began as a Texan program), taxation (or, more properly, the lack of it), health care (or the lack of it), immigration, and employment. Texas is a state in which a certain swagger is pretty much ingrown, or else an ingredient in the water supply, but Collins is swift to point out that in virtually no case do real results match the boasting promises.

Charter schools, for example, make profits but also produce students with inadequate skills, Collins says, and these schools are hardly supervised by the state in which draconian budget cuts and an emphasis on testing have crippled public education. Even the state’s public universities are suffering, and while Texas boasts of its budgets and its business opportunities for educated workers, it simultaneously depends on graduates of the better-funded schools in other states in order to keep the system functional.

Certain philosophies dominate political discourse in Texas, Collins finds, including an overwhelming insistence that free-market principles are the solution to any problem. In the service of that belief, the state bends over backward to make itself more “business friendly,” in ways that aren’t sustainable and may be harmful in the end. Lax regulation, for example, means that the state’s pollution is among the worst in the United States.

Collins also identifies what she calls the “open spaces” mindset, a frontier mentality that leads one to believe, for example, that it’s okay to pollute the water supply, because one can always pick up and move somewhere else. This belief informs every kind of legislation and policy Collins can name, but especially Texans’ attitude toward gun control.

In general, she observes a paradox among Texans, inherently convinced of their own superiority as a state and yet constantly terrified that the federal government is about to subjugate them. Where she stumbles — badly — is in addressing why the rest of the country is destined to follow Texas’ lead. Sure, there are plenty of Texans, and sure, they’ve got plenty of PAC and think-tank money to promote their ideas. But Texas’ current program — gutting its infrastructure, crushing the programs it needs, and depending on other states to do for Texas what Texas is no longer willing to do for itself — is self-defeating and unsustainable. As Collins observes, it’s simply impossible for the entire nation to do what Texas does. Why, then, do so many of us insist on trying? She never quite says, and neither does she manage the Puckish glee with which Molly Ivins would have laughed at our mortal foolishness.

As Texas Goes is a fair enough introductory survey, but honestly I expected more from Gail Collins, whom I admire so. And she’s going to have to work quite a bit harder if she expects even to try on Molly Ivins’ boots, much less wear ’em down to the dance hall.

Sugar, we got a name for Yankees who come south and try to take over, and it ain’t purty.

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