February 13, 2007

Taking the baton from Molly Ivins

Journalist Molly Ivins died of cancer last week at the age of 62. I was a regular reader of her monthly columns in The Progressive magazine. There have been many marvelous remembrances of her all over the media. Paul Krugman had a good article on Molly's ability to see right through bogus arguments, and nowhere was this skill more visible than in her columns about the Iraq war. As Krugman says:

Molly never lost sight of two eternal truths: rulers lie, and the times when people are most afraid to challenge authority are also the times when it's most important to do just that. And the fact that she remembered these truths explains something I haven't seen pointed out in any of the tributes: her extraordinary prescience on the central political issue of our time.

I've been going through Molly's columns from 2002 and 2003, the period when most of the wise men of the press cheered as Our Leader took us to war on false pretenses, then dismissed as "Bush haters" anyone who complained about the absence of W.M.D. or warned that the victory celebrations were premature. Here are a few selections:

Nov. 19, 2002: "The greatest risk for us in invading Iraq is probably not war itself, so much as: What happens after we win? … There is a batty degree of triumphalism loose in this country right now."

Jan. 16, 2003: "I assume we can defeat Hussein without great cost to our side (God forgive me if that is hubris). The problem is what happens after we win. The country is 20 percent Kurd, 20 percent Sunni and 60 percent Shiite. Can you say, 'Horrible three-way civil war?' "

July 14, 2003: "I opposed the war in Iraq because I thought it would lead to the peace from hell, but I'd rather not see my prediction come true and I don't think we have much time left to avert it. That the occupation is not going well is apparent to everyone but Donald Rumsfeld. … We don't need people with credentials as right-wing ideologues and corporate privatizers — we need people who know how to fix water and power plants."

Oct. 7, 2003: "Good thing we won the war, because the peace sure looks like a quagmire.

"I've got an even-money bet out that says more Americans will be killed in the peace than in the war, and more Iraqis will be killed by Americans in the peace than in the war. Not the first time I've had a bet out that I hoped I'd lose."

So Molly Ivins — who didn't mingle with the great and famous, didn't have sources high in the administration, and never claimed special expertise on national security or the Middle East — got almost everything right. Meanwhile, how did those who did have all those credentials do?

With very few exceptions, they got everything wrong.
. . .
Was Molly smarter than all the experts? No, she was just braver. The administration's exploitation of 9/11 created an environment in which it took a lot of courage to see and say the obvious.

This is a very important point. Now that Iraq is a mess, all the government officials, journalists, and pundits who egged the country on to war have been proven disastrously wrong on almost everything. There is no reason to take anything they say seriously anymore. But in order to maintain their positions as 'respectable authorities' and continue to pontificate, they are now rewriting the history leading up to the war.

Some, like the infamous Michael Ledeen and Time magazine's Joe Klein, adopt the tactic of shamelessly claiming now that they were always against the war. But in this age of the internet, those lies have been exposed. (See here for Klein and here for Ledeen.)

Others have taken the tack that everyone at that time believed all the lies that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Rice were peddling then (about how Iraq and Saddam Hussein were on the verge of unleashing nuclear weapons, that Iraq had links with al-Qaeda, that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks, etc.). This enables them to look on themselves as being the serious people who were trying to avoid a catastrophe, while those of us who opposed the war were know-nothings, pusillanimous peaceniks, or appeasing Chamberlains, who were not serious people then and thus should not be taken seriously now.

But there were plenty of people like Molly who correctly judged the situation, both with regards to the 'threat' posed by Iraq and the possibilities of disaster afterwards. When I go back and read the notes of the talk that I gave at the anti-war teach-in at Case Western Reserve University on February 11, 2003 just before the invasion, I find that even I, as a complete outsider with no special inside information, was totally skeptical about the case being made for war. All my information was based on public sources. My talk was given just three days after Colin Powell's infamous speech to the UN that caused the entire media establishment to swoon in admiration. Read Norman Solomon's round up of the fawning coverage Powell's dishonest speech received. And yet, again from purely public sources in the international media, I was able to show why many of his allegations were suspect.

And there were millions of equally skeptical people around the world. So this idea that 'we' all were misled by the wrong intelligence is a canard that Molly Ivins' column exposes. What is amazing is that just a few years later, the same kinds of arguments are being used to ratchet up for attacks against Iran. Various anonymous sources are being put forward to make another fraudulent case for war. (I will write more about this later.)

But what really put Molly Ivins into the very top rank of columnists, apart from her courage and insight, was her way with words. She had the ability to routinely turn a phrase that left you smiling with admiration because she could make it look so easy and you knew that you would never come up with something like that in a million years. Like this one:

I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn't actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.

"Gummed by a newt." Priceless. And vintage Ivins.

When people whom we have looked up to die, there is always a sense of loss. We think they cannot be replaced and feel that the world will never be the same. We want things to continue as they always were. It is good to remember what John Lennon is supposed to have said to someone who wanted the Beatles to get back together to continue the music they loved to hear. "It's your turn now."

If there is any lesson to be learned from Molly it is that we cannot expect others to do all the work for us forever. As she said in her last column on January 11, 2007: "We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders."

We have to learn from people like her and pick up the baton they offered to us. Although we are going to miss Molly Ivins and should offer grateful thanks to her for everything she has done, there is one thing we should never forget.

It's our turn now.

POST SCRIPT: The Trial of Tony Blair

Channel 4 TV in England has produced a brilliant political satire. It is set in 2010 and Tony Blair, just stepping down from his position as Prime Minister, finds himself at risk of being tried for war crimes at the Hague.

The satire captures his vanity, self-importance, insecurity, neediness, obliviousness to his changed circumstances, his fawning obsequiousness to the US, as well as his hidden sense of guilt at the death and destruction he has wrought. The actor playing Blair does a remarkable job of capturing his smug self-righteousness.

You can see the film here.


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I distinctly remember that teach-in. I also stood up and said that 'The United States will get away with this because it has a huge number of nuclear weapons and the strongest economy in the world - nobody can afford to NOT do business with us.' We have gotten away with this. There are no sanctions, no indignant NATO allies severing relations, no anything. All of the damage to American interests is completely self-inflicted on our part.

Posted by Rian on February 13, 2007 03:52 PM

Thanks for your thoughts about molly Ivins.

I scraped the "Attack Iraq? No" bumpersticker off my car when someone who "believed the earliest lies" about the Iraq conncection to 9/11 dumped a milkshake over it. I didn't want my contrary views on the Iraq situation to cause damage to my car.

Pretty gutless on my part considering that I joined hundreds of CWRU students and faculty to protest the Vietnam War in Washington in 1969.

Now we know Molly's comments were on the money, before and during this war. How long will it take Don Rumsfeld to make the admissions that Robert McNamara eventually did about the Vietnam War?

On the next inauguration day, our country's nightmare will be over.

Posted by Norm Pilch on February 13, 2007 10:44 PM