Raise Hell

Last weekend, a newspaper writer who asked me what I thought of the new documentary, Raise Hell: the Life and Times of Molly Ivins, told me he “always” thinks of me and “the pressure funny women are under to ‘be like Molly,’” and I was reminded anew of just how stuck we are in this idea that there are limited roles available for women, period, but especially for women who don’t take shit. And Molly was a shit-rejecter of the highest order.

The first thing I ever wrote for the Texas Observer, where Molly worked early in her career as co-editor, was a brief tribute to what Molly’s work had meant to me as a college student learning to do journalism:

Molly’s writing, mostly about people I only vaguely recognized from skimming the front page of the Star-Telegram at my folks’ house in Mansfield, was miserably funny and yet somehow generous and good-willed and accessible and righteous in this way that surpassed snark and just soared off the page.

I couldn’t put her down. My journalism and writing professors at NYU had been shoving Hunter S. Thompson and John McPhee and Tom Wolfe at me. Molly was a revelation. I didn’t know women could write like Molly wrote. I didn’t know anybody could write like Molly wrote.

Do you know Molly Ivins? Maybe not. Too few people do; this is perhaps the consequence of her being very fucking good at writing about political moments and the people who influence them -- the jokes kill, but while a few are timeless, many also die like snarky mayflies feeding off of fleeting front pages. It is also, heartbreakingly, the consequence of a talent lost too soon. Molly died in January 2007 at age 62; when she passed I was 23, just beginning my career, and hadn’t yet been radicalized into anything close to the lefty political consciousness I have today.

I wish I had better understood her legacy and perspective when I was a younger writer. Much more than that, I wish that Molly hadn’t been called to her lawn chair in that great back yard in the sky before so many generations of Texas feminists, most notably the unruly mob who would drown out the midnight clock to stave off an unprecedented round of anti-abortion legislation, had the opportunity to draw strength from the power and promise of her wit. This dipshit world is made all the worse for the fact that Molly Ivins never got to drag Dan Patrick; what a joy it would have been to see that humorless fuck flail at the mercy of her pen.

What struck me, midway through the Raise Hell documentary, was the timelessness of Molly’s righteous indignation and frustration -- that if we had more writers like her being encouraged (and not merely allowed) to be in conversation with readers and voters, and fewer writers like David Brooks or Bret Stephens empowered to deliver their wanky crankery, we might not be in this moment of accelerated political deja vu. Molly’s work presaged the Occupy movement; she was writing and talking about the one percent and corporations pretending to be people and the bullshit fear-mongering around immigration back when Dubya Bush was still in his first term, and even well -- like, ten years well -- before.

Of course I wonder how Molly would approach Trump, and whether the devastating reality of facing the most perfect and terrifying iteration of what was probably her most loathed brand of politics -- pay for play, and fuck the little guy -- would send her into a kind of nihilistic furor. Would this moment unleash the best of her wit, or invite the worst kind of resignation? At some point real-life harm -- putting children in cages, prosecuting women for self-managing their abortions, turning hurricane refugees away, no-billing racist cops -- actually does supersede the potential for parody. But I think Molly would know whether, how, and when to cross that threshold.

Molly Ivins was a singular talent, but there is so much room for thinkers like her; perhaps more so in the digital era. Those with a passion for politics and humor can take to Twitter or a blog or a newsletter -- they (we!) don’t need to wait for dailies to offer column inches or fight with chilly and censorious editors who refuse to run the hottest burns or who want yet another shallow dive into white voters experiencing anxiety about anything but whiteness. Raise Hell isn’t directly about this, but it makes it clear that establishment journalism -- which Molly struggled to find her place in for the whole of her career -- is much the same as it ever was, nervous and sweaty-palmed and concerned with the gotta-hear-both-sidesism that legitimizes oppression, gives voice to ignorance, and celebrates anti-intellectualism. 

Media outfits which today would likely love to claim Molly’s legacy of speaking truth to power (the Houston Chronicle and the New York Times famously couldn’t handle Molly’s fearless intelligence, relentless curiosity, and unmitigated honesty) are in fact ballsy in the worst way, concerned with the preservation of the hairiest and holiest of sacks, to wit: The bundled bullshit of access journalism and the lie of objectivity.

Molly never asked whether she had something to say. She said what she had to say and challenged the people who ran the presses to publish it. The people always already had earned her wit and perspective; it was the journalistic gatekeepers who had their drawern in a wad over the threat of her talent. Journalism remains the worse for this brand of reticence, but it’s all of us what pay the price when our truth-tellers are hamstrung by the weenie, silencing nonsense of the good old boys’ club. 

There’s as much room for as many funny women — women who talk about politics and anything else — as there has ever been for the benches-deep lineups of wanky white dudes who have nothing novel to offer to the world but who nevertheless end up with book deals and newspaper columns and blue-badged Twitter profiles.

The key is to claim space.

It belongs to you.

Say your thing.