What’s the Matter with Collins?

March 23, 2012   ·   3 Comments

Source: NYTX

Gail Collins

By Marie Burns:

In today’s New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman makes a convincing case that some of Mitt Romney’s lies matter. Krugman zeroes in on Romney’s embrace of the conserv-o-myth that President Obama has plotted to raise gas prices. Krugman characterizes Romney’s remark as a “sort of craziness triple play — a lie wrapped in an absurdity swaddled in paranoia.” After debunking this particular myth, Krugman points out that Romney’s lies are part of a larger pattern of right-wing disinformation that has created “an alternate reality…. Naturally, people who constantly hear about the evil that liberals do are ready and willing to believe that everything bad is the result of a dastardly liberal plot.” Whether or not Romney shakes his Etch-a-Sketch and tells a different story during the general election, and “whatever Mr. Romney may personally believe, the fact is that by endorsing the right’s paranoid fantasies, he is helping to further a dangerous trend in America’s political life.”

In reading Krugman’s column, I was struck once again that he does most of the heavy lifting on the New York Times op-ed page. Krugman is not entirely alone. Charles Blow and Nicholas Kristof write some columns about true outrages: Blow recently helped bring the murder of Trayvon Martin to national attention; this past Sunday Kristof brought to light how the ostensibly progressive Village Voice is actively participating in the American female slave trade. But from Tom Friedman’s hollow, repetitious foolishness to David Brooks’ weird navel-gazing to Ross Douthat’s religio-sexual repression fixation to Maureen Dowd’s snarky inanities, the New York Times op-ed page is long on trivia and short on substance.

This brings us to Gail Collins. Collins is smart, liberal and accomplished. You would not necessarily know that from reading her columns. She is most famous for repeating, by some counts 50 times, the fact that Mitt Romney once drove to Canada with the family dog strapped to the roof of his car. This is apt material for David Letterman, but the PETA crowd’s beliefs to the contrary, an incident that happened nearly three decades ago probably does not say much about whether or not Mitt Romney would make a good president.

While Krugman was prepping his column on the consequences of Romney’s lies, Collins was bantering with Brooks on “the Etch a Sketch doctrine.” During the course of the banter, Collins pretty much gives Romney a pass. She writes that he probably has the right instincts on women’s reproductive rights, even if he lies about it; she sees him as a bit like “the guy in high school who was head of the Courtesy Club and danced with the unpopular girls” – in other words, a kind-hearted fellow; even when she questions Romney’s dearth of experience in working with women, she lets Brooks get away with claiming he knows a Democratic woman who worked with Romney and thinks Romney is “a remarkable executive.” Okay, you say, “The Conversation” is a place for fun, not a venue for going Kierkegaard.

So let’s look at Collins’ most recent column, titled “Pity the Poor Gun Lobby,” in which she takes on the National Rifle Association’s successful lobbying efforts to loosen firearms restrictions throughout the nation. Maybe “takes on” is not the best way to characterize Collins’ look at the NRA and the state legislatures that have done its bidding. No, Collins makes a big joke of the whole issue. Ha ha. The NRA has been so successful, its lobbyists are running out of issues to push. “You can only legalize carrying a concealed weapon in church once.” Ho ho. “Why, other than a frantic search for ways to show your gun bona fides, would legislators pass something like the Stand Your Ground law?” Hey hey. “… they recently pushed Virginia to repeal its one-handgun-a-month purchase law…. It did pose a considerable hardship for hard-working small businessmen involved in the transport of large quantities of weaponry up the East Coast to drug gangs in Philadelphia and New York City.”

I know what satire is. It can be a most effective tool for skewering the stupid. But some actions are so outrageous and have such dire consequences that making jokes about them is nearly as depraved as the actions themselves. The activities of the NRA and its legislative lackeys, in my estimation, are not laughing matters. People of good conscience have a duty to decry them, not to merely belittle or mock them. Yet making light of the the worst abominations is Collins’ first inclination.

Here’s my rule on satire. If it makes you – or others – laugh, it’s probably appropriate. If it creeps you out, it probably is not. The effectiveness of satire, of course, may depend upon the audience. When Stephen Colbert roasted the press at a Washington Correspondents dinner, the audience in the room – that is, the press – was not amused. But the larger audience – the general public – thought Colbert got his critique just right:

The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ‘em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!

Yes, journalistic stenography is a serious problem. But – usually – it is not life-threatening. Reporters who think they’re so smart are ripe for ridicule. A purpose of satire is to deflate windbags. In fact, that’s precisely why Colbert’s teevee persona is a windbag. Colbert’s whole schtick is a riff on the punditocracy. They’re so bad, they’re funny. The NRA, by contrast, is so bad, it’s scary. Collins’ column made me uneasy, and not because I disagreed with her. She made me uneasy because she didn’t take a life-and-death matter seriously.

I know what black humor is, too. You might argue that Collins is engaging in black humor to make her point. But I don’t think that’s the case. Black comedy often takes the victim’s point-of-view, and Collins does not do that. Black humor also deals with subjects that are taboo, treating them in a way that both tickles the funnybone and makes the reader uncomfortable. I don’t think Collins does that, either. Collins’ humor isn’t dark; it’s dismissive.

What Collins does in the NRA column and, well, usually, is to trivialize serious subjects. I think Collins’ models might be Molly Ivins and Erma Bombeck. But Bombeck wrote about household domestic issues, and Ivins knew how to use satire to emphasize, not diminish or trivialize, bad behavior. Ivins mocked Pat Buchanan’s keynote address at the 1992 Republican National Convention by writing that “it probably sounded better in the original German.” That sentence has gone down in history because it captured Buchanan’s xenophobic paranoia better than even Buchanan did in his speech. (And, yes, I’m sure some original Germans would object to Ivin’s witticism.)

As Krugman points out, Mitt Romney’s lies have societal consequences. Collins, in her “Conversation” with Brooks and elsewhere, treats Romney’s shenanigans as lots of fun. This is not inappropriate in measured doses. I’m grateful when she makes me laugh. But at some point, Collins has an ethical obligation to do more than play the jester. She has a platform on the New York Times op-ed page. She should use it to do more than make fun of underemployed NRA lobbyists.

I took a look at the most popular comments to Collins’ column, and apparently I am alone in my view that Collins is too light-hearted about a serious matter. Her readers wrote passionately against the NRA and the legislators who kowtow to them (and accept their campaign contributions), but not one called out Collins for her hilarious approach to gun fatalities. Based on that commentary, I suspect quite a number of readers here will disagree with me. I’d like to hear from you.

Marie Burns blogs at



Readers Comments (3)

  1. maineprep says:

    Marie, is it possible that America has jumped the shark and Collins knows it? I detect gallows humor in her recent columns, as if she knows that the American endgame has begun, and it’s unlikely that speaking sensibly will retard the nation’s descent into the echo chamber. Kudos to Krugman, to Frank Rich, and to you, and I fervently hope that your efforts matter. Sadly, I’m less convinced every day that speaking and writing sensibly has any effect on American policy making.

  2. PD Pepe says:

    Charles–Washington State
    Gail Collins, you are mistaken as usual. The NRA and it members are not advocating that anyone carry a gun on school buses or in schools. Where do Liberals get their facts? They make them up just to get public opniion on thier side whether it is based on lies or not. Try harder Gail, maybe the truth will break through your stupid, fear mongering liberal haze! [spelling intact].

    The above is someone who didn’t cotton to Collin’s stance on gun control for an entirely different reason than Marie’s. Rereading Gail’s piece–––and I must confess I wasn’t bothered by her approach on first reading–––I can see that this issue is not one that lends itself to “light-hearted” frivolity, but I did not find her piece “hilarious.” I do think she made her point as seriously as Collins can make points which always have that sprinkle of “Can you honestly believe such shit?” I think Maineprep above says it very well.

  3. alphonsegaston says:

    I see some truth in the above two comments. Perhaps she sees that all is lost. Perhaps she is playing good cop to Krugman’s bad cop. My personal reaction to the piece was that the situation is so awful that perhaps her humor is understandable, but I did not laugh. When Rachel Maddow was finished with the NRA tonight? last night? I felt depressed. How can this be happening?

    It almost almost makes one believe in original sin :).



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