I graduated college in 2001, was 22 while my more fervent peers, in the November before graduation, lost their far-left minds in fury at the election of George W Bush. I was less politically inclined: I’m from Minnesota, and the state of my youth was reliably blue and famously gave Walter Mondale his lone batch of Electoral College votes in the ’84 election, plus in the ’98 election the state (and a good chunk of my peers) elected Jesse Ventura, the former wrestler, as president, and at the time I though politics a bit silly, I guess. Of course I was disabused of that luxury as of fall ’01, and have, since college, been a fairly omnivorous consumer of political info. Of course I’d like to think I’ve got an open mind, but test after test pretty conclusively proves we’re hugely inhibited by the blinders we put on according to our own value systems.
I say all the the preceeding merely to give a background for why I’d here like to cover two books which’ve been recently been published, one of which I loved and one of which I mildly loathed, and of course my surprise that I liked what I did and loathed what I did. The two books are Gail Collins’ As Texas Goes… and Henry A Crumpton’s The Art of Intelligence.
Collins’ book was the misfire, for me: ostensibly something like a chatty, liberal-informed portrait of Texas, As Texas Goes… (a columnist I like plenty, plus a midwesterner [I've a native's inclination toward midwesterners]) is certainly smart, and so far as I know plenty informed (though dig either of these NYTimes review of the thing). Here’s maybe a side-q to address: in the early ’00s I feel like lots of my very liberal friends had like GWBush magnets with featuring malapropisms, or would forward silly things about the president. Sure, gaffes are easy laughs, but—and maybe this is just with hindsight and in the midst of an ongoing financial crisis—it seems insane that we ever bothered finding time to just laugh about the president and his actions and what he said. Maybe I sound like one of Yeats’ worsts, full of passionate intensity, but given the last decade+ in this country, laughing at the president, whoever it’d been, seems…wasteful. A better response seems like it’d've been mobilizing, trying to find ways to compromise, getting more involved. I don’t begrudge the laughter, and didn’t then, but these do seem like fairly dire times, and laughing about some politician’s mistakes simply because I disagree with that politician and want to see him or her pull public boners seems like a less-than-awesome use of my time.
Okay, so with that in the rearview: that’s the big issue here with As Texas Goes. Collins seems absolutely to have a great point—that Texas is a place in which the push toward privatization (in education and jails, for instance) has been huge, and Texas has had, by dint of the last president, several prominent members of congress, and certain ‘character traits’ that may or may not be part of every Texan, an outsize influence on American politics (though given the population and size of the state, this makes some sense). What’s hard, though, is when, for instance in the first chapter, Collins writes “So what we have here is a state that celebrates excess, particularly excess in the pursuit of personal independence or a personal code of justice.” A close reader’s beef with that sentence would be real similar to the one felt when Collins mentions, as if it’s shocking, that Texan presidents have been among the bloodiest in the last half century (a claim which conflates coincidence and causality); a close reader’s beef with that sentence should be, Well, what about Arizona or Florida or any of the rest of the states that celebrate excess, particularly excess in the pursuit of personal independence or a personal code of justice. It’s not that the sentence is untrue: it’s that, in its attempt to be chit-chatty and accessible, it discards the rigor a good critique demands.
There’s lots the matter with Texas, and with the ways this country may or may not be taking political cues from that state. And what’s worst, for Gail Collins is this: I’m exactly the reader who’d like to know about those problems, exactly the reader who’d be compelled by a disinterested record of that issue. Is a book welcome to be totally biased? Certainly: Coulter et all on the right did this stuff for years before the left got on board. However, Collins’ book serves, ultimately, as something like a teaser for what at least this reader would most like: a measured, reasoned account of this state, of this little sliver of politics at present.
Next week I’ll cover Harry Crumpton’s The Art of Intelligence, a book about the CIA and its workings for the last 20 or so years.