All right, class, listen up. Today, in place of our scheduled lecture on American culture at the start of the 21st century, we’ll instead have a brief pop quiz. So put down your BlackBerries, unplug your iPods and shut the lids on your laptops.
This is a written quiz; just three questions. Use a blue book for your answers. You have 30 minutes to finish—and there are no extra points for finishing early.
1) Which of the two famous women from Texas who died in the last couple of weeks, Anna Nicole Smith or Molly Ivins, made the largest contribution to American society? Give examples from their work to illustrate your answer.
2) Compare and contrast the coverage (amount and quality) each of their lives will receive in the popular press. Why the huge difference?
3) What does this difference in attention paid to these two women’s lives and deaths reveal about our national values and our future as a civilization?
* * *
I’ve been chewing on those questions for the past couple of weeks, ever since I read about Anna Nicole Smith’s tragic death at age 39, just a few days after I’d heard that Molly Ivins had at last succumbed to cancer after a long struggle with that disease at age 61.
They were, superficially, complete polar opposites. The ironic, irreverent Ivins took on the politically pompous, using her wit like a stiletto, slashing away with great delight in her widely syndicated columns.
Anna Nicole Smith was from another world, the classic bombshell bimbo digging for gold among the infirm wealthy. A Playboy centerfold who struck it rich marrying a billionaire in his 80s, she lived a life that fascinated millions. Of course, she always seemed the train wreck about to happen, and that added to our inability to stop watching.
What these two uppity Texas women shared, however, was a willingness to challenge convention. And that is an attitude in such short supply today that we will miss both of them sorely.
Ivins moved on and off the pages of the country’s largest newspapers, constantly offending editors or publishers with her refusal to buy the company line. We loved reading her columns because she, more than any other pundit, knew how to use humor to help us realize just how nekkid the emperor really was.
Her commentaries about elected officials, especially George W. Bush (both as governor of Texas, where she was inspired to label him “Shrub,” and as president, where she never failed to point out that his mangling of the simplest vocabulary revealed a seriously shaky hand at the helm of state), set new standards for insight.
If only we had listened more carefully.
Ivins was exposing the toothpick-like underpinnings of the Iraq debacle when seemingly everyone else in the country was signing on, blinded by our national arrogance. No wonder she was unpopular with the corporate media moguls.
She was a journalist, not a profit center on a balance sheet. She didn’t fit well into the contemporary conversion of journalism into just another form of business.
In her columns, we learned perhaps the most important lesson about a democracy: We don’t select monarchs, creatures set apart by Divine Right; we elect people with the same predictable human foibles, tendencies and passions as you and I. So they have to be watched and they have to be tattled on.
The journalist’s job is to help us watch … by tattling. When reporters abandon that posture we too quickly tend to forget and slip into the dangerous role of passive consumers of the company (or administration) line. We need to stay irreverent. It will be harder without Ivins around to help.
Smith, in her own peculiar fashion, also made a point of defying the accepted order. She flaunted her, unh, assets, with total disdain for what “respectable” people might think of her behavior. The whole world knew what she was up to … and she got away with it.
Unfortunately, what she was up to was fame and money. And those two pursuits may have been what helped kill her. Many will be content to convert her life into a sort of morality play: See what outrageous behavior will ultimately get you? Better step back in line, young lady.
But I think there’s another, alternative, moral to be found in Anna Nicole Smith’s sad demise. It’s a lot like the one Molly Ivins tried to teach us: There are not two classes of people in the democratic world; those ordained by birth and gender to wealth and power and those sealed off from them forever by virtue of their origins.
We are not limited in this society by preordained convention and categories. Young people of all backgrounds have great opportunities open before them, if they resist permitting themselves to be locked into tiny, cramped expectations.
And of all the confining we face, perhaps the worst is what happens when Big Business and Big Government join forces.
Their united expectations for us are the most limiting of all: that we sit quietly and watch television (avoid reading since that causes unrest), that we buy what we are told to buy (whether it’s public policy or consumer geegaws) and that, above all, we not challenge the official line by asking questions or flouting convention.
Two uppity Texas women spent their lives defying that stay-safe policy. We sure could use more of them.