History

Gail Collins Hates the Lone Star State

Times columnist messes with Texas and loses in laugh-free, fact-challenged airdrop.

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As Texas Goes… How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, by Gail Collins, Liveright, 256 pages, $27.95.

How about those Texans, ladies and gentlemen? Can you say "A little bit tacky and a little bit wacky"? The state that gave us Lyndon Johnson, Ann Richards, and…Rick Perry? Cowboy boots, anyone? That place has gotta be nutty as a long-tailed armadillo in a room full of Tea Partiers. All I can say is J.R. Ewing was a pussycat compared to Sen. Phil Gramm (ret.). And don't get me started on Reps. Tom DeLay (ret.) and Dick Armey (ret.). Those guys alone could make the Lone Star State the biggest carbon emitter in the nation! And will those Texans ever stop talking about Texas this and Texas that? I mean, hello, people: The Alamo's over. Newsflash: The Mexicans won!

New York Times columnist Gail Collins has graced our shelves with As Texas Goes…, a lighthearted jeremiad catalogued under "Political Science" by W.W. Norton & Company's Liveright Publishing Corp. At just under 200 pages of text, the book aims to describe the hog-stomping zaniness of Texas from the perspective of a self-amused Northeast Corridor tenderfoot.

That's a reasonable goal, if superfluous in an age when New York–Dallas flights start at $353. And I did learn something from this book. It just wasn't about Texas. It was about Gail Collins. Though her name rang an old-timey New York media bell, I had been laboring under the impression that Collins occupied the Anthony Lewis/Bob Herbert spot in the Grey Lady's columnist lineup: the dull, earnest grappler with injustice whose columns are valued because nobody enjoys them. But Collins, it turns out, is supposed to be a laffmaker.

Whether anybody enjoys Collins' japery is another question. Many of her jokes are of the so-crazy-ya-gotta-love-it variety, as when Collins describes her budding "fascination" with Texas:

Then a friend sent me a headline from a Texas news report: "Man Allegedly Beat Woman with Frozen Armadillo." I was totally hooked.

Many more jokes are elbow-to-ribs phrases laid in at the end of sentences or paragraphs:

The governor's certainty that the rest of us are mooning around wishing we could have secession discussions is sort of touching, in a terrifying kind of way…

And that's the traditional Texas spirit, at its best when there's an enemy to rise up against. Outsized and brave. And frequently somewhat lunatic.

And sometimes there's a mildly amusing found fact—should you opt to trust Collins' facts. (Not recommended.)

Another [sex ed] curriculum has the poor teacher construct an 18-foot-long model known as "Speedy the Sperm" to demonstrate condoms' alleged failure to guard against STDs.

A cowboy hat! On the Washington monument!! Get it?

But while Collins hands down jokes like a newspaper-age Pope Hilarius, she wants to be another serious grappler with injustice, to show us the grim ways in which the Texas model is shaping the nation's political culture, threatening to turn the United States into a "two-tiered economy in which the failing underclass looks resentfully at the happy sliver on the top." In the book's epilogue Collins laments, "We feel Texas' influence in our lives every day, but we'll be feeling it much more in the future, due to its enormous population growth…"

Collins attributes that population growth to a lack of public school sex education and a shortage of state family planning funds. Like most of her conclusions, this is directly contradicted by known facts. Interstate migration numbers [pdf] from the U.S. Census Bureau show that Texas enjoys some of the highest inflows of residents in the country, the largest share of that foot traffic coming at the expense of California, the Lone Star State's only near analogue in terms of size, population, demographics, resources, and economic mix.

Collins prefers to keep California locked away from public view, but like Leatherface, Texas' deformed sibling keeps breaking out. Here's a passage that seems to compare the two states but really doesn't:

California has some of the most stringent gun laws in the country, and it makes a huge effort to restrict sales in ways that keep weapons from getting into the hands of criminals. Texas doesn't, and in 2010 law enforcement officials tracked 368 weapons used to commit crimes in California back to gun dealers in Texas. In the same year, ninety-three Texas guns were used in crimes far away in New York.

Collins is drawing her data from TracetheGuns.org, which shows Texas as a net exporter of guns used in crimes and California as a net importer. The opacity of Collins' language (i.e., how is that "huge effort" working out?) should tip you off that she's trying to conceal something, and sure enough, Texans are not only freer to defend themselves but statistically safer overall. TracetheGuns' gun trafficking report [pdf] shows Texas generating a higher number of interstate crime guns than California; but both states are consistently among the top 10 interstate crime gun suppliers, and the difference in the number of crime guns between the two (2,413 per year for Texas and 1,971 per year for California over a four-year period, a difference of 442) is not striking if you presume strict gun control does limit the total supply of available weapons. Much more to the point, according to the FBI Texas has a slightly lower rate of firearms murders (3.19 per 100,000 population) than does California (3.37 per 100,000 population).

Much of the book deals with education, with Collins accusing Texas of such crimes as "requiring that failing schools provide tutoring services for children with low test scores." This is rich material, which calls into question the shibboleths of both conservatives and liberals, but Collins' two-dimensional approach to her material ensures that she misses the interesting parts.

Again, the comparison with California is both unavoidable and instructive. The "Nation's Report Card" put out by the U.S. Department of Education shows Texas slightly ahead in both elementary and middle school attainment. California does better on SAT scores, according to the College Board, but in Texas a higher percentage of students take the test (54 percent for Texas vs. 48 percent for Calfiornia). The National Education Association [pdf] shows that Texas has more public school districts than California (though it has a lower population). Texas is also increasing its number of high school graduates faster than California is. The Education Department's 2012 Condition of Education report [pdf] shows Texas with a higher high school graduation rate (75 percent vs. 71 percent for California).

Many of the sins Collins describes result not from some libertarian mania but from relatively progressive efforts. It was George W. Bush who drove the campaign for uniform testing as governor of Texas and then as president of the United States. (In her zeal to indict Gov. Rick Perry, Collins is even willing to spare a few kind words for George and Laura Bush.) Bush's signature school achievement—the No Child Left Behind law—was uncut progressive meritocracy: a uniform standard which would uplift every child in the land, overseen by an Education Department Jimmy Carter himself elevated to cabinet level. The state's dominance in national textbook selection was born of the Texas government's generosity in spending 100 percent of the cost of suitable textbooks. Even the Lone Star State's large number of school districts shows a liberal interest in distributed local autonomy. Collins is aware of these contradictions, but chooses to limit herself to jokes like "Sometimes, Texas's most important export is not oil but irony."

In the schools and everywhere, "privatizers" are the true enemies. She accuses Texas conservatives of conspiracy theorizing, but Collins herself has the conspiracist's black-is-white flexibility when describing what her shadowy foes are up to. At one point Gov. Rick Perry is vilified for resisting No Child Left Behind standards. Elsewhere Texans are blamed for being too concerned with standards, resulting in a "test obsession" that leaves kids learning "just enough to pass" standardized tests. Again, the California control group does not support Collins' thesis that this problem is specific to Texas. I have two kids in the L.A. school system. This year they spent more than a week on standardized tests and multiple weeks doing nothing but preparing for the tests.

To be fair, Collins rarely deals in falsifiable claims. The book is long on personal impressions of a state mindset she claims to have become interested in only in 2009. Collins diagnoses Texas as a state gripped by "empty places" nostalgia and delusions of rugged individualism. "Texas politics," she intones, "has become a mixture of Tea Party populism and big-business conservatism that fits in perfectly with the national Republican tide."

You'd think impressions, as opposed to factual statements, can't really be proven or disproven. But Collins achieves the rare feat of forming opinions that are demonstrably wrong. "The current Tea Party strain in the Republican party is all about the empty-space ethos," Collins declares. Yet according to a meta-survey of attendance counts at the April 15, 2009, Tea Party rallies by the statistician Nate Silver (who now shares the NYTimes.com nameplate with Collins), the most prominent rallies took place in Atlanta, New York, Richmond, Des Moines, and Columbus, Ohio. (Collins mentions whenever the opportunity presents itself that she is originally from the Buckeye State and now lives in Manhattan.) The top 15 included such tumbleweed hamlets as Boston, St. Louis, Cleveland, Charlotte, and two communities in San Diego County, California.

Collins' herniated attempts at Molly Ivins–style affectionate ribbing fall flat. She is persuaded that Texans are obsessed with the Alamo. (For the love of Pete there's even a Daughters of the Republic of Texas!) I have a sister and a mother who have lived for many years in San Antonio, and I can say with confidence that the Texan's interest in the Alamo is exactly as passionate as the Philadelphian's fascination with the Liberty Bell, the Trentonian's devotion to Washington's crossing, or the California fourth grader's state-mandated enchantment with the missions of Junipero Serra.

Because her ironic fondness for Texas is a fake, and because the facts are against her, Collins never makes her central point: that the country is being brought into conformity with the state's purported libertarian/conservative political culture. According to its subtitle, the book is about "How the Lone Star State hijacked the American agenda," but again the truth fails to line up with Collins' impressions. If Americans are rejecting the entitlement-state dreams of coastal liberal elites (not at all a certainty), this is the result of iron fiscal and actuarial realities. The Texas agenda had nothing to do with the recent failure of the Wisconsin recall or the successes of pension-reform votes in two California cities.

Collins spends much time on people whose political careers have ended. She lavishes page after page on Gramm, Armey, and DeLay, the three retired politicians mentioned in the first paragraph of this article. Rick Perry is brought in for countless drubbings, but in the end Collins must concede that Perry's presidential bid went nowhere.

The strongest card in the Texas deck is George W. Bush, who served eight long years in our nation's highest office. From No Child Left Behind to the invasion of Iraq (which Democrats hated so much that a majority of them in the Senate and 40 percent of them in the House voted for it), the drawling son of Kennebunkport is the best evidence Collins has that America is being ruined Texas-style.

Sure, he's been out of the White House for nearly four years, and for the Tea Party to work as a villain, you have to posit that the Tea Party is strictly a reaction to the policies of Bush's deficit-doubling, suspect-assassinating, crime-gun-exporting successor. But in the prairie-wide imagination of Gail Collins, close enough for government work is definitely close enough. And have I mentioned: Dubya! Dubya!! Dubya!!!

Tim Cavanaugh is managing editor of Reason.com.