Thursday, February 01, 2007

Molly Ivins is Gone

About the same age as I, Molly Ivins died yesterday from breast cancer. Like the flowers at a funeral, any search this morning returns hundreds, thousands of references to her name, so my little post noting her passing is no more important than a signature among many who sign in as "friends who came" at a memorial service.

For those who don't know the name, Molly Ivins was a newspaper writer from Texas whose witty and colorful phrase-turning shone many a light on government corruption and policy contradictions, both on the national scene and in her home state of Texas. I'm not going to put links here. The interested reader can do his or her own homework. My purpose is simply to say thanks in her memory to a couple of things she said that registered with me.

Like Buchwald who also died recently, Molly Ivins said that writing funny stuff about politics was easy. All one has to do is look at what is happening and write it down. In both cases they were overly modest, but that's the kind of aw-shucks persona that great people sometimes have. I recall that Spencer Tracy once remarked that acting was not hard...all you have to do is remember your lines and not bump into the furniture. Right.

More to the point is something she said in response to a question once posed to her. I don't know who it was but someone asked her how she turned out to be a liberal when her Texas roots were so deep. The Texas soil is not known for growing liberals.

Her answer was clear. She said when you grow up being taught something about people and the world to be true, and later discover that you have been fed a load of crap, after that you tend not to rely on anything else you may have been taught without closer examination. That's the way it was with me. I was spoon-fed racism from childhood but learned when I went away to school that I had been fed a load of crap. My family were good people and bore no bad feelings about black or other races. In fact, I was not allowed to use disrespectful language about others because it showed bad breeding. The N-word or the word "Jap" were not used at our house. And I can recall my grandmother making a distinction between "white lady" and "colored woman," making certain that even the vocabulary of lady and woman did not get mixed up inappropriately.

In conversation with my mother, when I was in the Army in Korea, she told me in no uncertain terms that if I got mixed up with one of those women over there not to expect to bring her home. She didn't want any half-breed grandchildren. This was several years after I had already identified myself with Civil Rights and formulated a liberal point of view that was to follow me for the rest of my life.

I can still remember how surprised I was the first time I was in close physical contact with black people, sandwiched between a couple in the back seat of a VW bug. I was very aware that it was not only the first time in my life that such a thing had happened, but that they didn't smell bad after all. Now, a lifetime later, it seems embarrassing to admit such a thing, but it is not. It shows the degree to which I had been, in the words of Molly Ivins, fed a load of crap that turned out to be wrong. Likewise, when I was exposed in a Sociology class to the notion that a second-generation child from the African bush could be reared in a different environment, like being adopted into a typical American household, he might grow up to become an engineer or a surgeon, that was a piece of information that did not fit with my teaching that black people were racially less intelligent than whites. Again, an embarrassing admission,but one that shows that same load of crap.

Thank you, Molly Ivins, for your truthfulness and tireless energy speaking truth to power and serving as a model for the rest of us with a smaller voice. I heard on the radio a good observation that her columns were a lifeline for many liberals in small-town America who could read her column in their local paper. She was, I suppose, a token liberal for many newspapers whose editors felt they could sell a few more papers by tossing a crumb or two at the sprinkling of liberals in an otherwise solidly conservative readership.

In the same way that super markets now sell specialty products that once were only available in specialty stores, urban areas in many parts of the country have become concentrations of so-called "liberal" or "leftist" thinking that so badly rubs the furs of people like Kobyashu or the Anchoress or Vanderleun the wrong way. I can understand their frustration because I have some of it myself. The values of thirty or forty years ago that meant so much in the context of that era have been so stained by the passing of time that they are barely unrecognizable today. Websites like Democratic Underground, Kos and Huffpo never tire of feeding grist to the hate and frustration mills of their counterparts on the other end of the political spectrum, and we now live in a time when "if you're not fer us you're agin' us." Polarization, unfortunately is the hallmark of today's politic. The moral turpitude and value-twisting of the Clinton presidency was the culmination of the worst qualities of the Sixties and the stony-hearted, sanctimonious "compassionate conservatism" of the Bush years supplies a recoil to that sad betrayal.

Another chapter of the Sixties comes to an end. It is appropriate that Molly Ivins leave the scene just as the lame duck era of George Bush unfolds. It seems to me that in the final months of his presidency he has a chance to advance a few ideas that have real merit but little in the way of political support. Uncoupling health care from employment is a good example. Getting the hell out of Iraq is another. Let's hope and pray that he will seize the opportunities of the next year or two and make a few things happen differently, even though he no longer has this thorn in his side helping to keep him in line.

Good-bye, Molly. Ya done good.

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