Thursday, February 01, 2007

Molly Ivins

[posted by Callimachus]

Reading the Molly Ivins obituary in the New York Times reminds me of how she had the "left/liberal blogger" voice going on long before there was an Internet.

"There are two kinds of humor," she told People magazine. One was the kind "that makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity," she said. "The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule. That's what I do."

Yep. She was a Mozart of mockery. Her style is all over the blogs now. She truly was the godmother of the left side. On the right? I don't see anything like it, anything like the assured put-downs and deftness of tone. Lileks can get there sometimes, and a few others. But most of the right side is rather leaden and bearish and style-challenged. Who laughs at a Glenn Reynolds joke?

Would so many of the left-side bloggers write as they do today without her influence? Perhaps. It's a natural tone for a nasty clique of bullied art school students. But she had it first and she put the polish on it when the Internet is just a twinkle in Al Gore'e eye.

Reading about her made me recall Salvage's brief comment-kazi run here a few weeks ago, which crashed and burned on a factual level, but left him/her gloating supremely because the mission was mockery and the mission was accomplished, as it always is, no matter whether you look like an oaf in the process or not.

... I wasn’t criticising language, I was mocking you. I’m not surprised you didn’t get it, I expect that happens often.

It's true, isn't it? When you set out merely to mock, you always win. Because only you decide whether you've succeeded or not. E.J. Dionne opens his tribute to Molly Ivins with this example of her style:

She explained her views on gun control this way: “I am not anti-gun. I’m pro-knife. Consider the merits of the knife. In the first place, you have to catch up with someone in order to stab him. A general substitution of knives for guns would promote physical fitness. We’d turn into a whole nation of great runners. Plus, knives don’t ricochet. And people are seldom killed while cleaning their knives.”

Which is a political push, yet it's not an argument. How can you argue back to that? How can you argue with a joke and not look as clueless as a stump? It's like trying to bite into a bowling ball.

This is a style I see all the time around me, among my peers. For me, it always will seem to have originated in Molly Ivins.

Given the steady tenor of personal offendedness in Molly Ivins' columns, somehow I'm not surprised to learn this about her:

Her father, James, a conservative Republican, was general counsel and later president of Tenneco Corp., an oil and gas company.

... She developed her liberal views partly from reading The Texas Observer at a friend's house. Those views led to fierce arguments with her father about civil rights and the Vietnam War.

"I've always had trouble with male authority figures because my father was such a martinet," she told The Texas Monthly.

After her father developed advanced cancer and shot himself to death in 1998, she wrote: "I believe that all the strength I have comes from learning how to stand up to him."

It's possible all of us, except a few severe geniuses, build our family-of-origin grudges into our politics and pet causes. It's a twist on the "all politics is personal" quip.

I once dated a woman who was passionate to the point of fanaticism about animal cruelty. She was a sensitive soul who had grown up in an emotionally abusive household. It was not difficult to listen to her talk about her pet cause without understanding that, on some level, she identified herself with the helpless, caged, cowering creatures. On some level it's always the tongue-tied teenage girl finally finding the words to spit at the emotionally insensitive father.

Which doesn't mean she was wrong or that the things she marched against aren't cruel and intolerable. But somehow what she was doing was transparently more than advancing political and social causes, despite the coincidental overlap.

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