BOOK REVIEW: ‘As Texas Goes …’

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By Gail Collins
Liveright, $25.95, 288 pages

I think what’s generally expected of a seventh-generation Texan, not to mention a Rick Perry voter, reviewing a New York writer’s put-down of his homeland is some high-class fuming and frothing. I close Gail Collins‘ cantankerous book in unaccountably good temper.

Being lectured by a New Yorker about your state’s various defects is like receiving etiquette tips from Snooki. I mean, look, lady, if you’re so cotton-pickin’ much smarter than Texans are, how come you got Al Sharpton and Keith Olbermann for neighbors? How come you love sky-high taxes? How come you read rags like the New York Times?

I retract that last query. I read the New York Times myself - daily. It is where Ms. Collins functions as a national columnist - a decided step up from her former perch as head of that paper’s cretinous editorial page. She’s a good - meaning clear and opinionated - writer who vies with Maureen Dowd for the title Queen of Snark. Ms. Collins calls the state of Texas “cranky.” Takes one to know one, I reckon.

Her, you might say, generous, thesis is that “Texasruns everything” - “a super-big state with a young citizenry and a very high birth rate.” Our state “is the natural leader, because it’s managed to hold tight to its historic alone-on-the-prairie worldview while growing by leaps and bounds” - a highly fruitful contradiction. We keep forcing presidents and politicians on the rest of the nation: George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, Phil Gramm, Dick Armey. They carry their Texas values to the halls of power, which is the point at which, from Ms. Collins‘ standpoint, all the trouble starts.

Texans value, generally speaking, liberty from government, expressed as opposition to taxes, regulation and spending. We’re the diametric opposites of New Yorkers, who never met a tax or regulation they didn’t love until they looked around, realized how said tax or regulation was undermining their well-being, then decamped for places like, well, Texas.

Our state’s conspicuous lack of an income tax galls Ms. Collins a bit; reliance on the sales tax, she reports dourly, means the poor pay more as a proportion of income than do the non-poor. True enough. Wouldn’t a state income tax inhibit the creation of jobs that feed and house the poor? What’s the right level of taxes? What about that recent front-page story in Ms. Collins‘ own newspaper to the effect that high taxes and labor costs are starting to drive “the vast middle tier” of Wall Street jobs right out of the state?

A regular feature of political discussion these days - though Ms. Collins doesn’t go into it - is the California-Texas dichotomy. Even more perhaps than New York, California is the un-Texas: too broke after years of welfarism even to maintain the great universities that once were its calling card.

Ms. Collins spends a lot of time deprecating Texas schools - their dropout rates, their supposed overreliance on standardized testing, the tendency of the “religious right” to gussy up the curriculum with encomiums to patriotism and free enterprise. She moans at the sight of Northern college grads migrating for jobs to a state unwilling to educate its own future workforce.

Why, then, am I not out of countenance with Ms. Collins for laying on the quirt with such gusto? Partly because, in so doing, she reminds me of Mel Gibson having his Roman soldiers whip Jesus to a frazzle in “The Passion of the Christ.” Excess tends after a while to mock itself. With Gail Collins, I think snark is a shtick - something you do to show you write for the New York Times.

Another thing is that the questions she raises, even when she misunderstands the answers, are intelligent enough to merit examination. We’re pretty good down here, but we’re not perfect. We have a lot of business in need of sustained attention. Education (for instance) is indeed a problem, much more than in the 1950s. Isn’t a lot of this caused by widespread breakdown in the family structures that are our principal classrooms? The chapter on the transition of Texas from white to brown majority puts the finger on a social phenomenon that the Lone Star state needs to work harder on but is responding to, it seems to me, with good spirit.

Possibly the key weakness in “As Texas Goes” is that Ms. Collins, so far as I can tell, didn’t talk to a single conservative Texan to find out what goes on around her. She appears to have chatted up liberals - New York Times subscribers, I warrant - with great abandon and also much repetitiveness. I kind of wish she would come back and expand her conversational opportunities. I mean, if we’re going to run this country, people ought to try to understand what they’re in for.

William Murchison is a syndicated columnist.

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