The Bluest Pundit: general reactions

Having finished Jon Keller’s new book, “The Bluest State,” my overall reaction is this: Jon Keller is really angry at his own generation — the baby boomers, to whose alleged failings he ascribes most of what’s wrong with politics today.  That’s not my generation, so it’s not really my hunt, but there’s no doubt plenty there to complain about.  He’s also pretty angry about his home state.  I don’t know, I kinda like Massachusetts, but maybe that’s just me.

Unfortunately, Keller’s anger is unfocused and often misdirected.  As a result, the book is an unwieldy amalgam of serious issues (e.g., waste and corruption on the Big Dig), Keller’s personal pet peeves (is political correctness really responsible for crime in the cities?), and a smattering of right-wing talking points (remember the welfare queens?), all swirled together with little regard to what’s a real problem and what just annoys Jon.  Even more peculiar is Keller’s willingness to ascribe just about every one of these perceived problems to “liberals” — even though, as I’ve already pointed out, many of the people Keller is complaining about are not, in fact, liberal.  The tendency that I was concerned about by the time I got to page 11 — conflating “Massachusetts Democrat” with “liberal” — continues unabated throughout the book.

There’s a lot to say about this book — way more than I can say in one post.  So I’m going to lay out some general observations here, and then, over the next several days, write up 14 posts, each constituting a mini-review of one of the book’s 14 chapters.  They’ll all be called “The Bluest Pundit” because (in addition to the droll play on the book’s title), as I noted above, Jon’s really unhappy about the way things are going in MA — in some cases for good reason, in others, not so much.  I probably won’t get all of this done before the book’s official release date of September 4, but it’ll be a start.  And once the book is out, you all can have your say as well.

One last thing before I get into specifics about the book: it’s going to get a lot of attention.  With Mitt Romney’s unlimited bank account, and his campaign’s apparent strength in Iowa and New Hampshire, Massachusetts is again a topic of national interest, and Keller’s book, as the most recent one on the subject, stands a decent chance of making the rounds on the national punditfests — as does its author.  So, as much as some would like to, you shouldn’t dismiss this book.  Rather, you should read it, and you should take the time to write up — dispassionately, and with documentation — where you think the book is right, and where you think it’s wrong.

My overall reactions are after the flip.

Let’s start with this: Keller is right about a fair amount of what he says.  There really are problems with government in Massachusetts, and within the MA Democratic party.  That’s why we started this blog, for God’s sake — because we wanted Democrats to take back the Governor’s office from the Republicans, but we were afraid that the insidery, hackish, bidness-as-usual Beacon Hill crowd wouldn’t be able to pull it off — and maybe wouldn’t deserve to.  After all, it was I believe our own Charley who coined the phrase “Big Dig culture of Beacon Hill” well before the tunnel collapse, and well before candidate Deval Patrick made that phrase famous in a post-collapse op-ed in the Globe.  Progressives, liberals, call them what you will — if it’s us Keller is talking about, we’re as much against the Big Dig Culture as he is, and we’ve been saying so since we started writing.

So yes, there is a cancer that afflicts Massachusetts politics.  But instead of using a scalpel to cut it out, Keller uses an industrial strength roto-tiller.  He scores some solid hits against the Big Dig Culture and other worthy targets, but in the process he takes out a host of people and policies that have little if anything to do with the real issues facing the state.  I’m hoping to work through the specifics in the next 14 (!) posts on this book.  Here are some general issues that span all 14 chapters. 

  • Weird sourcing.  The book recites lots of statistics on how tough things supposedly are here — tax burden, home ownership rates, etc.  But the book contains no footnotes, and many of the studies are not identified, so we often don’t know whose studies these are.  (Beacon Hill Institute?  MassINC?  It matters.)  Even more peculiar is the prevalence of anonymous quotes from disgruntled Massholes.  I understand using anonymous sources in a newspaper — you want to report the news in a timely way, and sometimes sources need to remain confidential for that to happen.  But this is a book, not a news story, so I’m surprised that Keller uses as many anonymous — and therefore impossible to evaluate for credibility, bias, or otherwise — sources as he does.
  • Conflating “Massachusetts Democrats” with “liberals.”  I’ve mentioned this already, so I’ll just flag it again here.  It’s all over the book.
  • Logical gaps.  Correlation does not equal causation.  Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a famous logical fallacy.  And it is dangerous to generalize too much from individual anecdotes — especially if you don’t know how representative the anecdote is.  Just sayin’.
  • Unnecessary nastiness.  Most pundits can’t restrain themselves from the occasional cheap shot, and Keller proves himself to be no exception.  Here’s a particularly unpleasant one.  After discussing some unfavorable press about Keller favorite Rev. Eugene Rivers (such as this story about an accusation of rape at Rivers’ Ella Baker House), Keller says (p. 99):

    It was suddenly open season on Rivers in part because Massachusetts liberals had a new black action figure to play with.  Like Rivers, Deval Patrick grew up poor in the ghetto ….

    Nice.  Needless to say, Keller supplies no evidence at all for his alleged connection between Patrick’s rising popularity and the alleged “thinly sourced articles in the local press” (none of which Keller cites, so we can’t read them) supposedly portraying Rivers as a “‘brutal’ Godfather-like figure.”

  • Out and out mistakes.  As far as I know, there aren’t many of these.  But there are some.  Consider the following from p. 205, where Keller is complaining that liberals tend to rely too heavily on the courts to solve their problems (a complaint that is sometimes justified, IMHO):

    Massachusetts’s most recent pushing of the envelope is a state lawsuit against the federal Environmental Protection Agency trying to mandate by court order the vehicle emission standards that the legislative and executive branches have rejected.

    That is not an accurate description of Massachusetts v. EPA, the Supreme Court case I assume Keller is talking about (again, he doesn’t expressly identify the case).  The question in that case was whether the EPA had the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases emitted by motor vehicles.  EPA had said that it lacked that authority under the statute, and it therefore refused to act.  The Supreme Court disagreed and held that the statute does give EPA that authority.  So what Massachusetts and the other plaintiffs did in this case is force the EPA to exercise the authority that Congress has given it.  This is not a case in which courts are asked to leapfrog the legislative process (or, in Keller’s words, to “mandate by court order the vehicle emission standards that the legislative and executive branches have rejected”).  To the contrary, in this case the courts simply required the executive branch to do exactly what Congress — the legislative branch — has already told it to do, instead of making up bogus excuses.  That’s not judicial activism.  Not even close.

  • The O’Reillification of Blue Mass Group.  Yes, we made the book.  But in discussing this site, Keller takes a page from Bill O’Reilly’s playbook, who in his tirade against Yearly Kos used isolated comments on Daily Kos (unaffiliated with YKos, by the way) by non-front-pagers to paint an inaccurate picture of the entire blog.  We get the same treatment.  It’s a minor point, but since it’s our blog, I get to mention it. ;-)

Much more to come.

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49 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Does Keller actually refer to welfare queens in his book?


    Because whether he's a reporter or a pundit, Keller is a public face of WBZ--and any errors in his book could mess up WBZ's credibility as a news organization.

    • $quot;Welfare Queens$quot;

      Welfare Queens is a weird phrase because its so retro.  I mean it was in vogue in 1983 when Regan was gutting social services but you don't often see the phrase come up any more in conservative fear mongering.  I would expect Keller would be up to date on his right-wing ethnic hate speech.  Maybe something about immigrants... but "welfare queens?" its been done Keller.

  2. I kinda like Massachusetts, but maybe that's just me.

    It's not just you.

  3. Nice review (or first installment, anyway)

    One of the things I like best about BMG...good information that would be hard to find or a lot of work to obtain from other sources.  Plus, I admit that Keller gives me hives - I'd hesitate to put money in his pocket by buying his book.

    • Buy USED!!

      I've purchased perhaps dozens of books spouting points of view I knew I'd likely disagree with when I purchased them.  Everything from The Worm in the Apple to Personal Fouls.

      The author doesn't get a dime, nor does the publisher.  The bookstore -- who's providing lots of points of view -- does.  As an added bonus, reuse is superior to recycle! P.S. I tend not to use the library because I get creamed in overdue book fines, and I've destroyed a book more than once with a tall glass of milk becoming a very short glass of milk.

      • If publishers would get their heads out of their nether regions...

        ...they would figure out a way of downloading the material as e-paper over the Internet.  No trees required.

        You want to print out parts? Feel free.  You want to transfer it to another computer?  ITunes seems to be able to manage that quite nicely.

        • I've yet

          to be able to read more than a few pages worth of text on a computer without walking away.

          I try, believe me I do.  But, it drives me nuts.  Maybe future display technology won't give me fits for long reads onscreen, but presently... no electronic books please.  I prefer mine on paper please.

          • A couple of possibilities...

            ...what is your display technology?

            In the US we use a high-resolution LCD display--they are cheap nowadays, but they weren't a few years ago.  It was pointed out to me that with CRTs, the constant refresh at particular intervals was perceptable to the human eye but very tiresome to the brain.

            When we were here in Germany in the Spring, I read Sean Carroll's General Relativity notes (about 250 pages) without any problem, on a CRT display.  But they were in PDF format, and it took a few weeks.

            Two, you do have the option of printing the material.  It is the distribution methodology that is in issue.  And the control of the publisher regarding further distribution.  it is the latter that ITunes has been able to deal with.  I haven't had to deal with this, but ITunes apparently allows you to put the downloaded material on five computers at the same time, but if you want to put a downloaded work onto a sixth computer, you have to de-register it on one computer to be able to load it onto the other computer.  You can cut CDs of the songs though and play them anywhere.  It's the digital rights issue that is the real problem.

          • I do about half of my con-ed online.

            Although very convenient, reading forty page .pdf's turns my eyes into mush.

            Would not a well circulated book be as eco-friendly as it's electronic counterpart?

            • With respect to your second paragraph...

              ...probably not.  The paper manufacturing process, with its use of bleaches, is not exactly eco-friendly.

              I do much of my reading on e-papers (PDFs) downloaded.  I seriously don't understand what the problem is.  With the full Acrobat suite, people can add comments and the commenters are identified.

      • We don't buy much of anything anymore

        except maybe for a new and improved National Geographic atlas

        Buy USED!!

        We have 30 boxes of books in the basement in the US that we have to figure how to get over to Germany--and that's aside from our 20 years worth collection of both Gourmet Magazine and Bon Apetit.

        Let me ask you all this.  How many of you are familiar with Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg...  The books are all out of copyright, but they are still there.

        • i love project gutenberg

          it is a tremendous resource, especially when wanting to look up a passage from something i read long ago.

          just how green is reading long passages on a computer?  sure, you don't buzz trees and use chlorine, but computers are toxic in and of themselves, you use electricity to run them, and people end up printing out tons of stuff to paper anyhow.  i think a book is a good investment.  it need not be made from virgin fibers.

        • Hadn't seen Project Gutenberg before

          What a great resource.  MP3 versions, too.

  4. For those of us WITHOUT the special advance copy.... may want to consider writing the diaries, and posting them when the book is available.  Otherwise, commenting is in a vacuum.

  5. I have better things to do than... read the blatherings of mindless nincompoops like Keller, but let me ask you this.

    Who is the publisher of Keller's book?  Is it Simon & Schuster, an other of Viacom's subsidiaries?  Viacom, of course, owns CBS, which, in turn, owns WBZ, Keller's employer.

    • Disappointed

      Im sorely disappointed in Mr. Keller, he seemed like a libertarian (i.e rational) conservative at best or even a moderate, basically a professional cynic that mistrusted government (a reasonable position this day and age) and attacked all parties correctly. But from the sounds of it he blames a lot of our problems on being a one party state, which is partly true, cept the party he refers to is one thats in fact socially conservative, favors patronage and corruption, tied to ethnic identity, opposed to racial minorities, etc. and yes its a party that has a D in front of it.

      Much like Howie Carr used to be a great muckraker pointing out the hypocracy on Beacon Hill I guess Kellers days are similarly numbered as hes come out of the closet as another right wing nutjob, and sadly for him right when the conservative movement has finally lost all its credibility.

      PS. I find it amusing and disconcerting that what I and others say on BMG might be quoted and used against us. On the one hand amusing that we are taken that seriously, but disconcerting all the same.

      • JC - have you READ the book? It isn't on sale yet, is it? Can't you despise him LATER?

        • He has a....

          ... large body of work before this book with which one can despise him now.  David's descriptions only confirm the impression that Keller has already left on many of us.

      • $quot;what I and others say on BMG might be quoted$quot;

        As it turns out, jconway, you are indeed one of the two lucky winners!  (Ryan is the other.)  Can you stand the suspense?  ;-)

        • ROFL

          My my my, I'm so excited. I shall have to read it, now, when it comes out. Hopefully, my library will have it, because I won't be buying it.

          • Ryan - do what I plan to do for the Shrum book...

            ...I figure it will be on the remainder table by Halloween; Keller's book should be there by Valentine's Day!

        • Haha!

          And ive been accused of not being pinko enough on these forums . I'll wear that as a badge of honor next time I get accused of selling right wing talking points.

          Maybe Ill need to get the book now.

    • As PP correctly notes downthread,

      the publisher is St. Martin's, which is ultimately owned by a German publishing conglomerate.

  6. 2 things

    1. Right from the very get go (from that linked reply), I said that pundits from across the country may latch onto the book. Thankfully, they blather on cable tv so much these days that not too many people take them seriously these days, one can only hope. They seem to be there only to say the things certain people want to hear, but little else. Some people may scream, "see, I knew it all along!" at the tv, but these people already believed we were big, scary, Taxachusett liberals who couldn't be trusted.

    2. The fact that he has some true things to say, mixed in with a lot of heresay, conflation, and improper sourcing/anecdotes is far from an accident, not that I have to tell you that, David.

    It seems as though Keller's agenda is only thinly veiled and ultimately meant to get him on Big O's Faux shows - which, just because he may get on that kind of press, is far from actually achieving any kind of Best Seller list sort of success. Maybe I'll be wrong, but I doubt it. There are a lot of conservative books out there, from far worse - yet nationally known - pundits. I just don't think a few minutes on Faux shows means Jon Keller is ready for Ann-Coulter-like Prime Time yet, but we shall see. Honestly, if he wanted that kind of attention, he would have had better luck going after Mitt instead of all us ebil Taxachusett liberals.

    • He's been a professional...

      ... cynic for years.  This book is coming out now because it is well timed to aid him in an attempt at a big payday and a shot at broadening his exposure, with the potential career enhancements that comes with.

      • I'm not so sure...

        ...and that's why I asked whether the book was being published by another Viacom subsidiary, Simon & Shuster.

        As far as I can tell, Viacom doesn't own a lot of cable properties that would make use of Keller's "expertise."  Viacom owns CBS (of course--the 16 Minutes show, directed to the elderly), MTV, Showtime, maybe E!, but none of them would seem to be a match with Keller's brand of local minutiae. 

        I sincerely cannot figure out why anyone would want to publish a book like this.

        One query.  I haven't read the book, and I probably won't, but does this book read like an amalgamation of his TV recitations?  That is what many similar books read like: a collection of previously-published material.

        • The book is published by GERMANS!

          A quick search revealed the publisher is St. Martin's Press.

          A quick search os St. Martin's Press reveals the following.

          Please, Raj, with your superior knowledge of all things German and you psychic abilities regarding American politics - you should have a new conspiracy thoery spun in MINUTES!

          It's it POSSIBLE the book is well written?  Since NONE of you save David has read it?

          • Interesting...

            ...Keller's book is published by a publisher that specializes in SciFi, mystery, fantasy and other fiction books.

            I wonder why Simon & Schuster, Viacom's book publisher, wouldn't publish it.

            • Who says S & S wasn't outbid? NOW...about the GERMANS....

              • Could have been

                Who says S & S wasn't outbid?

                I seriously don't know what contract that Keller has with Viacom, but, if I were Sumner, I would have demanded first dibs on anything (like this) that my employees produced.  Maybe Sumner did, and S&S determined that this wasn't worth publishing, and Keller was allowed to market it elsewhere.

                Regarding the Germans, they'll publish anything, regardless of how stupid it is.  I've read "Krimis" (crime novels) published by German publishing houses that were as silly as the worst of the pulp fiction magazines in the US in the 1940s and 1950s.  Stupid, but wonderful for the language lessons.

  7. Thanks David

    It's good to know my decision not to buy Keller's book is an informed decision.

    I guess I should congratulate BMG on inclusion? Markos made it to Meet the Press partly due to O'Reilly's attacks; maybe you and Bob and Charley can be on Beat the Press. :-!

    • Jim - you sound like conservatives who refused to go see Farenheit 911...

      ...and were (in my opinion, correctly) castigated for their small minded attitude.

      I'm not saying BUY the book, but really, you SHOULD read it.  Or maybe Blue State Blues instead, published by ANOTHER hotbed of right wing meda corruption, Weslyan Unversity Press.

      • Life is short, Peter

        I'll read George Will occasionally, or Pat Buchanan, but not Charles Krauthammer, who (in my view) bends facts to support his predetermined interpretation.

        Blue State Blues sounds good; I'll add that to my list.

        • I admit to a personal fondness for David Slavitt - but his book really IS funny!

          • No Excuses

            While we're sliding slightly off topic here, I've been enjoying Bob Shrum's book, "No Excuses" this summer.  But, for a book that calls itself "No Excuses," I'll give you three guesses as to what its full of... excuses!

      • Blue State Blues

        I heartily endorse getting Blue State Blues- its hilarious.  Not only for Slavitt's observations of Cambridge political culture but his unintentionally obnoxious elitism.  I nearly spit milk out of my nose when he said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that society should recognize that some kids shouldn't and needn't be educated past the eigth grade!  But seriously, if you can get past the neolithic conservative opinions the book really is very funny.

        I should note I actually met the author once standing outside my precinct on primary day 2006 proudly wearing a Romney/Healey shirt with a George Bush button and carrying the sign of the Republican sacrifical-lamb candidate in Alice Wolf's district.  It was great to watch the voters recoil in visceral horror as they looked at the shirt then the button, then the sign.  He was definately a happy warrior though and seemed to be enjoying the reactions he was getting from the passing voters.

    • Memories ....

      Funny you should mention Beat the Press.  Shortly before you joined BMG, we had a major dust-up with them.  It's actually very entertaining reading.  Check out these links, in order (and they're only part of the commentary that this incident generated, on our blog and many others): 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 .

      • David is too modest - he is the only human in living memory to force John Carroll to publicly apologize.

        • Carroll's apologia was totally unncessary...

          ...I read the NYTimes graph, that Carroll was using, exactly the same way that he did.  I understood the context, though, and it was evident that Carroll did not.

          It was the NYTimes that screwed up, not Carroll.

          • Carroll's apology

            was mostly with respect to being fooled by an obvious joke post on MyDD and as a result proclaiming that several people were all Jerome Armstrong, not the NYT thing.

            • We'll have to agree to disagree...

              ...I did not find the "inside joke" on MYDD to be an obvious joke at all.  I do not recall the details (and I'm not going to look them up) but IIRC there was no suggestion in the MYDD post that the post was intended to be a joke.

              And that's one reason why I have adopted pseudo-HTML indicators (/sarcasm, /tic) to provide an indication that something is intended to be jocular.  It is very difficult to tell in text.

              • Yes, but

                if you were a professional journalist and were about to go on TV making a fairly startling assertion that had not been repeated anywhere else outside a single post on a single blog -- namely, that several people, including more than one who were paid campaign operatives, were actually the same person -- you might check to be sure you had your facts straight.  That's what Carroll failed to do, was appropriately embarrassed about, and apologized for.

                • Point taken and acknowledge...

                  ...I do not necessarily agree with the (the failing was with the MYDD web site) but I acknowledge your point.

      • I heard a bit about this on Blue Hampshire

        They were up in arms on your behalf.

  8. True, but that's not the point

    Mitt Romney is out of touch with the people of Massachusetts.

    Yeah, but Mitt's entire selling point is that Massachusetts is out of touch with the rest of the country. 

    But then, that sentiment is soooo 2003...

  9. Yeah, Keller is a piece of work

    We knocked this around the other day, and I won't copy the whole "Book description" paragraph (linked in Davids post) that introduces readers to Kellers 'work' on Amazon, but it's pretty funny. It reads like a Karl Rove introduction, with lots of false assertions about "taxes on everything" & "failing public schools", all thanks to "failed boomer politics". Just when the country is moving back towards the 'center', here comes those Ted Kennedy Liberals to destroy everything!

    What I get the biggest yuk out of is this:

    About the Author JON KELLER is widely acknowledged as the most respected political analyst in New England.

    Who knew? Somehow, respected is not a word I've ever heard used to describe Keller, that is, outside of his own PR sphere. I can't wait for the book tour!

    BTW, I am now widely acknowledged as the most respected Keller analyst in New England.

  10. A ha

    I get it -- you ARE Jon Keller!

    (With apologies to the real Jon Keller)

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