Eight hundred of the faithful gathered in Austin on a Sunday evening in early October to serenade Molly Ivins and pony up for the feisty and indispensable Texas Observer. Garrison Keillor presided, and late into the night the indicted and unindicted ascended the podium to recite Mollyisms (“If his IQ were any lower, they’d have to water him twice a day”) and recall highlights from her career (including “gang pluck”–her description of a chicken festival she covered for the New York Times). Still, by the end of the program no one had topped Molly’s own “overrated” list–“young pussy, Mack trucks and the FBI.” The essence of Molly Ivins was captured wonderfully by Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper’s, who is launching a new venture, Lapham’s Quarterly, and whose most recent book is Pretensions to Empire. His remarks are reprinted below with the collegial consent of our friends at the Observer. –The Editors
Mary Margaret Farabee asked me to introduce some sort of serious note into the evening’s festivities, to place Molly Ivins in her proper relation to the founding of the country and the best uses of the First Amendment. Given the weight of the assignment, I’m probably well advised to begin with James Fenimore Cooper, the well-known author of The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans, who in the 1820s abandoned his political allegiance to the New York monied interests and cast his lot with President Andrew Jackson’s Western notions of popular government and free expression. Cooper in the 1830s published The American Democrat, arguably his finest book, in which he made the point that among all the country’s political virtues, candor is the one most necessary to the health and well-being of our mutual enterprise. We can’t know what we’re about, or whether we’re telling ourselves too many lies, unless we can see and hear one another think out loud.
Which is what I take to be the purpose of the First Amendment as well as its embodiment in the life and times of Molly Ivins. The working of her mind, like her writing on the page, speaks to the principle named not only by Cooper but also by Archibald MacLeish, the poet and once-upon-a-time Librarian of Congress who identified the dissenter as “every human being at those moments in his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself.” Molly has had so many of those moments that by now I think we can accept her resignation from the herd as permanent.
The country was founded by dissenters, and if as a doubter of divine authority Molly inherits the skepticism of Tom Paine, as a satirist she springs full blown, like Minerva, from the head of Mark Twain. Twain thought of humor, especially in its more sharply pointed forms of invective and burlesque, as a weapon with which to attack pride victorious and ignorance enthroned. He placed the ferocity of his wit at the service of his conscience, pitting it against the “peacock shams” of the established order, believing that “only laughter can blow…at a blast” what he regarded as “the colossal humbug” of the world. So also Molly, a journalist who commits the crimes of arson, making of her wit a book of matches with which to burn down the corporate hospitality tents of empty and self-righteous cant. Molly’s writing reminds us that dissent is what rescues the democracy from a quiet death behind closed doors, that republican self-government, properly understood, is an uproar and an argument, meant to be loud, raucous, disorderly and fierce.
Never in its history has the country been more in need of voices capable of engaging such an argument. Over the last twenty-odd years it has become embarrassingly obvious that we have produced a corporate news and entertainment industry distinguished by its timidity, by its deference to the wisdoms in office, by its subservience to the price tags of economic privilege; the solo voices of dissent have been smothered by a choir of nervous careerists, psalm singing and well behaved, happy to oblige, eager to please, careful to say nothing disrespectful or uncivil.
In concert with the Bush Administration’s increasingly abrupt seizures of arbitrary power, the increasingly polite interpretations of the First Amendment have cleansed the news media of strong language and imperfect hair, inoculated the Washington talk-show circuit against the infection of caustic adjectives and the suspicious movement of subversive nouns. Among the topics currently deemed “risky” by a Princeton Review survey on essay questions to be submitted for college application, in no particular order, were drugs, sex, religion and a host of other contentious issues. The handsomely illustrated cover stories in Time and Newsweek read like advertisements for cosmetics or detergents, the words deserving of the same labels, “risk-averse,” “salt-free,” “baby-soft.” The airbrushed vocabulary shores up the interests of oligarchy with the comforts of cynicism.
As we know from any reading of the morning papers, liberty is never at a loss for ambitious enemies, but the survival of the American democracy depends less on the magnificence of its Air Force or the wonder of its fleets than on the willingness of its citizens to stand on the ground of their own thought. Unless we try to tell one another the truth about what we know and think and see, we might as well amuse ourselves–at least for as long as somebody in uniform allows us to do so–with fairy tales.
Several years ago on its editorial page the New York Times issued the complacent announcement that “great publications magnify beyond measure the voice of any single writer.” As often happens in the Times, the sentence employed the wrong verb. The instruments of the media multiply or amplify a voice, serving much the same purpose as a loudspeaker in a ballpark or a prison. What magnifies a voice is its humor, its wisdom and compassion, opposing the colossal humbug of the world’s injustice with the imaginative labor of trying to tell the truth. Not an easy task, but the courage required of the writer, if he or she seriously attempts it–and the response called forth in the reader, if he or she recognizes the attempt as an honest one–increases the common stores of energy and hope. That is what Molly Ivins does, who she is and why we’re here to say a not-so-simple thank you.