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In the latest Muppets movie, the plot (such as it is) revolves about a villain seeking to destroy the Muppets’ theater. There’s oil beneath the structure, and the evil Tex Richman will stop at nothing to get it. Just in case the subtlety escapes you: he’s the bad guy because he’s rich, he’s mean, and he’s Texan.
If you’ve seen this contribution to the cinematic art, then you’ve mostly got the point of NYT columnist Gail Collins’s latest book — and in light of her recent sojourn in Austin, it’s worth a few words on it. “As Texas Goes: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda” could have been many things: a trenchant leftward critique of the state; an exploration of Texas’s importance in American life and politics; or a stranger-in-a-strange-land travelogue. It is somewhat all of these, and fully none of them. Collins is obviously intrigued by Texas. The question is whether she understands it. “As Texas Goes” leaves one to wonder.
The Lone Star State’s identity is bound tightly with its history, to an extent unfound in most other states, and so it’s important to assess whether an author writing on Texas has a proper grasp of the topic. Fortunately, Collins gives the reader a sense of this immediately, in the second paragraph of her prologue:
“Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may,” [Texas Governor Rick Perry] said, quoting the state’s great founding father, Sam Houston. When Houston made that remark, he was definitely attempting to break away from the country to which Texas was then attached.
Collins apparently believes that Houston’s quote was a rousing call to arms during the 1836 Texas Revolution against Mexico. It was, alas, uttered by United States Senator Sam Houston on June 29th, 1850, during debate in that august body. No secession from any nation was intended. This is easily confirmed with some basic research — the relevant U.S. Senate records are available online — yet it went undone in the course of Collins’s work.
The rest of the book continues in this vein. “[T]o be brutally honest,” writes Collins, “there isn’t all that much to see at the Alamo.” Later: “Davy Crockett should have whacked [Alamo commander Colonel Travis] over the head and gotten the men out of the fort.” If you think Thomas Friedman’s conversations with taxi drivers around the world are insightful, then you’ll value this sort of exposition.
It is possible to critique at length the historical treatment in Collins’s work, but what matters is her assessment of Texas now. This is no small matter: Texas has been the nation’s major job-creation engine for the past half-decade, responsible for more net jobs than all other states combined. Texas has attracted roughly one thousand American citizens, emigrating from other states, each day for the past several years — and also attracts a tremendous share of foreign immigrants to boot. Texas has had a lower unemployment rate than the nation for over five years. Texas has more Fortune-500 company headquarters than any other state except California — and it’s tied with California. Texas has a remarkably diversified economy and is America’s top manufacturing state.
So, Texas is big, and Texas matters. This is one thing Gail Collins gets right.
More the pity, then, what Collins gets wrong in not establishing the contention in her title — namely, “How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda.” Much ink is spilled relating things done by the Presidency of notable Texan George W. Bush, and by various other Texans elected to go to Washington, D.C. Collins is entirely correct that these are nationally significant people — Phil Gramm, Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Tom DeLay —who do nationally significant things. But she never makes a convincing case that they’re doing anything more or less than other men from other states in national government have done or would like to do. The author muses at length on the slow-motion train wreck of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and presents it as a uniquely Texan disaster: yet no one genuinely familiar with the Act or its ideas could fail to note the indispensable role played in its drafting and passage by the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. Was this a Bay State hijacking of the American agenda? Were the Reagan years a Californian hijacking of the American agenda? Are we of the Obama years, replete with Chicagoland policy and politics writ national, living under an Illinoisan hijacking of the American agenda? Collins doesn’t say.
This is the pity of Gail Collins on Texas. For all the remarkable things about Texas and Texans now, she fails to meaningfully contend with any of them. The informed reader is left to wonder: if the American agenda really were hijacked by Texas, wouldn’t the country be producing jobs, attracting immigrants, and economically expanding at a brisk clip? Left-wing pundits briefly grappled with this question in the fleeting weeks of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s Presidential-campaign ascendancy, but were never really compelled to arrive at a good answer. Collins doesn’t even try. That’s a shame, because if there is a good left-of-center critique of Texas, it deserves a hearing. The reader seeking that will have a wait a bit longer.
“Sometimes,” writes Gail Collins, “Texas’s most important export is not oil but irony.” In this, at least, she is right: with “As Texas Goes,” the Lone Star State delivers.