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.