“I don’t have any children, so I’ve decided to claim all the future freedom-fighters and hell-raisers as my kin. I figure freedom and justice beat having my name in marble any day.”
Molly Ivins was a wonder of the written word. She was a sharp, acerbic, no-nonsense writer who knew how to take shots at people in power like no one else. She enjoyed nothing more than taking on a politician who thought that no one would dare speak the truth about him, and taking him down as many pegs as she could. She once likened George W. Bush to a “post turtle”, i.e. a turtle than has been put up on a fencepost. “You know he didn’t get up there by himself. He doesn’t belong there; he can’t get anything done while he’s up there; and you just want to help the poor, dumb thing down.”
She was one of the great political satirists of her day, and said of her own mission, “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.” Alas, she contracted what she called “an outstanding case of breast cancer,” from which she passed away in 2007.
Ivins’ view of the powerless taking shots at the powerful is what underlies this quote, a hope for some kind of legacy after she is gone. The full quote comes from a letter to the ACLU, the rest of which is worth reading:
“Every time someone down the line is irreverent about authority, I’ll have my monument. Every time some kid who was born a nigger, a kike, a wop, a Polack, a gook, a gimp, a fag, or just a plain maverick lifts up her head and dares anyone to stop her, I’ll have my monument. Every time they peaceably assemble to petition their government for redress of a grievance, I’ll be there. Whenever they worship as they please (or not at all), I’ll be there. Whenever they speak up and speak out and raise hell, I’ll be there. And every time some blue-bellied, full-blooded nincompoop who holds elected office is called to the floor for deciding to keep us safe by rewriting the Constitution, or by suspending due process and holding a citizen indefinitely without legal representation, I’ll be there. Now that is immortality. I don’t have any children, so I’ve decided to claim all the future freedom-fighters and hell-raisers as my kin. I figure freedom and justice beat having my name in marble any day. Besides, if there is another life after this one, think how much we’ll get to laugh watching it all.”
This passage speaks clearly to those of us who have a deep distrust of authority, and are even more deeply disappointed with the way authority often comports itself. It’s not hard to find examples of the powerful taking advantage of the powerless, whether we’re talking about police officers, politicians, bankers, lawyers, or even people who just plain believe that they’re better than everyone else.
In the United States, we are somewhat divided on this. On the one hand, we love an underdog.
How else could you explain shows like American Idol, where people are brought out of obscurity to rise to fame? We like to see the Little Guy get the prize and come away big.
On the other hand, however, we believe in a kind of meritocracy, where talent and hard work deserve to be rewarded with money and power. This by itself is great, except that we then assume that those who have money and power must automatically be deserving of it. And just as not everyone who works hard gets rewarded, not everyone who has those rewards have earned them.
That’s where Molly’s hell-raisers come in. A good society should be a self-correcting mechanism, constantly trying to stay in some kind of balance that works out best for as many people as possible. When things get out of whack, corrective measures need to be taken. When the powerful start doing their best to keep people down and to keep people quiet, then those people have to rise up and say, “This isn’t right.”
And no matter how it might seem to those observing, standing up to power is never easy and never safe. Whether it’s standing up to a legal or economic system that is inherently unfair or standing up to your friends and family who think its okay to pick on the little guy, there is a lot of risk involved. Not all of us can build up the courage to pick a fight like that, and those who do are worthy of our respect.
I wish Molly had been around to see the end of the Bush years and the history-making election of Barack Obama. I wish she could have seen Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. I wish she could have seen the Romney campaign, because she would have just had so much damn fun with it. But alas, she left us too soon. She stood up for her beliefs in a very public and very loud way, and we could all do well to follow her example.