The Problem With P.J., a Polemic
Update: P.J. O’Rourke died on February 15, 2022. R.I.P., I suppose.
I am frenemies with P.J. O’Rourke. He doesn’t know who I am. But if he ever does, he would soon know that I would really enjoy being friends with him and would hope that he might really enjoy being friends with me. After all, we share many of the same interests, such as cars and alcohol, and enjoying those things in exotic locales. But our politics have drifted apart. That is to say, my views have changed as I’ve seen what has happened in this country in the last twenty years, and I’ve grown more empathetic by being exposed to and understanding better the difficulties faced by people in less fortunate positions than me. At least I hope I have. P.J., on the other hand, has dug his screeching-dinosaur heels into the tar pit of pseudo-ironic right-wingery, where the fossilized remains of his opinions will be one day dug up by dismayed political archaeologists picking through the ash heap of the American democratic project.
I would hope that my imagined relationship with P.J. wouldn’t turn into a Jesse James/Robert Ford-type of one, but it might. I could be his sidekick, but instead of robbing trains in Missouri we’d just drink gin at the bar in the Le Commodore Hotel in Beirut. Also, instead of killing him for fame and a reward, like the Coward did to Jesse in 1882, I’d just upbraid him in this very essay 135 years later for being the Weekly Standard-bearing, bespoke berserker before the phalanx of plutocrats and corporate zombie-ants that have wrought wreck on this country lo these past decades. For I hold him, even more than the plutocratic cabal for which he shills, responsible for our nation’s nigh nadir and impending immolation.
Having said that, if you’re interested, P.J., I’d love to bring the family up to your place for some merganser hunting, scotch, Nicorette gum, and bon mots. I’m sure we’d have a blast.
Damn it, P.J., you did it again! Curse your innocent, smart-alecky wiles.
Patrick Jake O’Rourke is a good writer with a unique, approachable, conversational style. I admire him. He is, in fact, funny — or used to be — and conveys humor in written form better than most other writers out there — certainly better than most comedians do in their slapdash, ghostwritten bit books. He is especially good with drawing humor out of the mundane and the arcane. He’s witty. He writes tight prose even if he can go on a little long. He has had a wide-ranging and estimable journalistic and lettered career by any standard.
Most importantly to me though, he, more than almost anyone else, inspired me to write. He did so by showing me that to be a successful writer you didn’t have to write dour little short stories for Chaff, the quarterly lit journal of some old Quaker college in the Pacific Northwest, followed by thuddy, meta, semi-autobiographical novels about boarding school and adultery. Instead, you could just write about things that you did, or things you liked, or things you didn’t like, or things that were just absurd, and if you wrote about those things in a compelling way, with a unique point of view, people might want to read it. Through P.J.’s anthologies I also discovered and started reading magazines besides Maxim. In their cleavage-free pages I was able to focus and read writers who did what P.J. did but who weren’t smug caricatures of Robber Baron apologists. So for these things I have to hold “Peej” in some high regard.
I also sometimes envy P.J. because, even more than Dave Barry, he has had the career I wanted but won’t have due to the death of print media, the annihilation of any American cultural mainstream, and my own age and laziness (and perhaps talent, if we’re being honest). After all, the man has been a pure professional humorist at the National Lampoon; a legit, independent, non-Pentagon-approved-and-embedded war correspondent; a well-paid freelance satirical writer extraordinaire for (aside from a host of right-wing vanity rags) great magazines like Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and Rolling Stone; a bestselling author of actual hard cover books sold in airport bookstores; as well as a general roustabout, talking head, gadfly, personage, and raconteur. In sum, he’s been paid to write silly, offensive humor, then to travel to exotic locales and drink in mortar-damaged 4-star hotels, and later to be a writer-of-leisure with a summer home in New Hampshire. The seventeen-year-old me fantasized about that life but had no idea how to achieve it. The forty-two-year-old me knows what it would have taken and doesn’t really fantasize about it. But I do sometimes wish I could live something like his as an alternate life, jumping back and forth between that one and mine, Quantum Leap style.
On the other hand, P.J. O’Rourke is the ne plus ultra of Republican Baby Boomer white privilege, conspicuous consumption, greed, cynicism, and all-around assholery, and I have come to loathe just about everything he stands for. He has slathered a slimy, plausibly satirical literary sheen on Republicanism-minus-morality (a.k.a. Republicanism) for nearly his whole career, beginning in earnest with the publication of Republican Party Reptile in 1987. That anthology popularized libertine libertarianism among a generation of Alex P. Keaton wannabes who went on to remake and run the modern Republican party that today ineptly, cynically, and undemocratically presides over the unwinding of the great, messy twine ball of our sociopolitical life. Not content to stop there, he also unabashedly pasted a smug, perpetually-adolescent imprimatur of genteel social acceptability over the idea of ignoring, lampooning, or actively detesting everyone poorer or otherwise different than you.
Such a mindset has always existed of course, but since the 1910s or so it has been largely suppressed by a commonly understood sense of maturity, propriety, and a shared basic morality, three norms that P.J. O’Rourke torched like a frat house sofa with the tacit blessing of the very elites who had once enforced them. So in a way that Ayn Rand, Barry Goldwater, and William F(ing). Buckley could never, P.J. O’Rourke paved the way for Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, G.W. Bush, Paul Ryan, Donald Trump, and our descent into anarcho-capitalo-nihilist dystopia.
P.J. O’Rourke is the ne plus ultra of Republican Baby Boomer white privilege, conspicuous consumption, greed, cynicism, and all-around assholery, and I have come to loathe just about everything he stands for.
P.J. was able to do this by, insofar as it’s possible, making it cool to be conservative, at least among the young, preppy, Republican elite that is now openly feasting on the American middle class. He did that by spraying cold water on the GOP’s vigorously humping hounds of monopolistic laissez-faire economics and Christian morality. He then chased away the purer pious puppy and took its place under Murray Rothbard’s Rottweiler.
What was spawned of this bestial union was a slick pitch for libertinism without empathy, plus more money for drugs leftover after you pay your taxes. Not surprisingly, this turned out to be very appealing to bookish middle-class white guys in their 20s in the 1980s and ’90s in same way that “More recess!” makes for a winning slogan in a campaign for sixth grade class president. We’ve been dealing with the aftermath ever since.
To be sure, P.J. has friends on both sides of the “aisle,” but that term is now a quaint anachronism when describing the gaping chasm in today’s American political life that P.J. gleefully helped to dynamite out of the rough but well-knit mountains of our civic culture. His dehumanization of the “Left” and “Leftists” (a/k/a anyone who isn’t a party-line Republican voter) as godless D.B.W.T. out to have sex with anything they don’t abort and buy gay drugs for kids with the tax money of “hardworking [white, Republican] Americans” is ironic considering his own status as a smoking, drinking, divorced, former “street pharmacologist,” and serial fornicator/possibly-only-in-persona adulterer.
None of that hypocrisy should come as a surprise given how common it is among high profile Republicans. (There’s a list.) On that note, P.J. has even joined the club of late-in-life, subsequent-wife-“inspired,” questionable-annulment-facilitated, Conversion/Reversion-to-Roman-Catholicism-of-Dubious-Sincerity-but-Certain-Nominality that has become the hallmark of many of the Right’s lecherous, Laffer-curve lieutenants when they begin to come face to face with their demise and look back on a lifetime of greed, philandering, craven duplicity, and/or outright vileness. See, e.g., Erik Prince, Robert Bork, Greg Abbott, Sam Brownback, Newt Gingrich, E. Howard Hunt, Robert Novak, Steve Bannon, and Ernest Hemingway. I guess they like the gender norms, hierarchy, robes, wine, and easy absolution.
But what’s worse, at nearly 70 years old, it seems that nothing that has happened in the world since I stopped reading him in 2002 has caused Peej to change, soften, moderate, add any caveats to, or otherwise rethink any of his false or fantastical neoconservative/paleolibertarian dogmas and — just as importantly you’d think — whether his life’s work has done anyone a damn bit of good. Not even his own near death from asshole cancer. [Though this term could pejoratively refer to any cancer had by P.J. O’Rourke, he did, in fact, have cancer of the asshole. Rich, I know. — ed.]
Reluctantly endorsing Clinton over Trump in 2016 does not redeem him because P.J. helped bring Trump upon us. After all, Trump personifies Republicanism without morality and treating your political opponents as non-humans, which has been P.J.’s raison d’être since he outgrew his bell bottoms and swapped his tie-dyes for ties to die for. [Apologies for the obligatory, tired tie-dyed T-shirt “joke,” a tribute to P.J.’s lamest and laziest shorthand reference for anyone younger than him or his age and liberal.— ed.] In his recent post mortem on the 2016 election, P.J. seems oblivious to his outsized role in creating the tribal, cynical, binary, zero-sum, post-fact political environment where Trump was able to flourish. That is his legacy.
And he well ought to consider the mark he’s left on the world because his life’s work places P.J. O’Rourke firmly in the pantheon of the five to ten people who have done the most since 1975 to destroy the United States of America as it was once known. On a smaller scale, before I had the brains and experience to know better he turned me into one of his GOP acolytes and cheerleaders for about 12 years, causing me to help his terrible cause even if only in a small way by influencing, even if only by peer support, my friends, family, and acquaintances during that time. And he has a full head of hair at 69 years old!
Worst of all, I don’t know what among this litany of crimes hurts me more.
Am I giving too much credit to a guy who since he turned 30 has probably wanted nothing more than to be (as he was for a time on 60 Minutes) the conservative Andy Rooney, complaining about red light cameras and metric labels on soda cans? That is a remote possibility. But there is a more-than-zero chance that P.J. O’Rourke was the harbinger of America’s civic demise, blowing Gabriel’s Horn with scotch-and-Bernaise-sauce farts — and that should terrify us all. Yet I still quite like him. Actually, in a more ways than I sometimes can ignore, I am quite like him. And that terrifies me.
Toledo, Ohio was the seat of House O’Rourke, a middle-class melange of salt-of-the-earth Irish entrepreneurs and provincial Presbyterian patricians. His dad, Clifford, was the sales manager at a Buick dealership owned by his father and uncle, where he and many others in his family worked. His mother, Delphine, was a housewife and a died-in-the-wool Republican granddaughter of a southern Ohio county sheriff. His grandmother was the widow of a Coolidge-appointed postmaster, who until her death bemoaned Teddy Roosevelt’s splitting of the Republican Party in 1912, which, she further bemoaned, allowed the election to the presidency of Democrat Woodrow Wilson (though he, it should be said, Wilson, that is, is no modern Democrat’s ideal president or person, to be sure).
As an undergraduate he attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a fairly respected, public university with a hard-partying reputation. He then earned an M.A. in English at Johns Hopkins, which he attended on scholarship as —no doubt to his grandmother’s eternal shame — a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, (and where — foreshadowing! — he is reported to have been a reactionary police informant who, with malice aforethought or not, posed as, or “merely” subsequently betrayed his theretofor ideals as, a radical lefty only to rat out to the cops his own editor and fellows at the Baltimore “underground journal,” Harry).
The Woodrow Wilson Fellowships were created to lure returning veterans back to graduate school to foster more college teaching careers. Though not a veteran, P.J. graciously rewarded the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s generous investment in him by teaching English to a bunch of smart but troubled inner-city kids, helping many of them become the first in their families to go on to college. He then became the chair of the English Department at the University of Toledo and wrote a humorous yet touching autobiography that was optioned by Gabe Kaplan…
…But of course, none of that is true. That would have been grateful, noble, and the rebooted origin story of Welcome Back, Kotter to boot. Instead, P.J. did drugs, got laid, and wrote for various radical political and humor ‘zines in Baltimore and New York in the early 1970s (including the aforementioned Harry.) He then used his gifts as a writer — and exploited his Johns Hopkins connections — to become a beneficiary of the Golden Age of print media: newspapers, magazines, books, all leveraged into a shallow yet generally well-liked persona as an author and a television talking head: first the supply-side playboy, then the conservative dad-type, then the right-wing curmudgeon.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given his total disregard for the purpose of his scholarship and the stated mission of the organization that generously bestowed it upon him, P.J. is not listed among the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s Fellows of Note.
Fine, you say, but why else is he a smirking canker? Well, to start with, P.J. punches down from a pretty privileged perch. I don’t know what Peej has made in book royalties, but most of his dozen-plus best-selling books, including a couple New York Times #1s, were published in the pre-Kindle era, so I’m sure it’s nothing to sneer at. On top of that, there’s the money that’s been heaped on him since the late-’70s by cackling Republican magazine editors and what he’s earned from his various libertarian think-tank sinecures. Moreover, as he appropriately acknowledges in the acknowledgements to his 1995 anthology of miscellany, Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut, since his books are mostly collections of his magazine essays, he gets paid twice for everything he writes. This stands in stark contrast to most humor writers today, who get paid once. And that’s not even in money, but instead in shares, and, unfortunately, not the stock exchangey kind of shares you could sell to buy groceries or pay rent, but, rather, the worthless, clickey kind. Miami University won’t take tuition payment in Medium “claps” either, though you will get excellent care at the student health center if you get the clap while there. (That’s a very Peejey quip, if you’re unfamiliar and wished for an example.)
Celebritynetworth.com pegs P.J.’s at $700,000. I find that comically low, though he has been divorced. His home in D.C. and his 280-acre spread in New Hampshire alone are probably worth three times that, at least. He sometimes jokes about being underinsured and not having “much money,” but this is most certainly in comparison to his fabulously rich pals scattered around the world. I could probably come up with an estimate of his wealth based on his total book sales over the years and comparisons to what similar big-name freelance writers and Cato Institute fellows get paid, but it really doesn’t matter — suffice it to say P.J. is either mid-seven- to low-eight-figure rich or low-seven-figure pretty fucking comfortable.
So like many Boomers, the young, innocent O’Rourke somehow began his rise from humble origins to either intergenerational upper-class wealth or smaller-scale intergenerational upper-middle-class wealth at the height of New Deal liberalism and progressive taxation. He continued that rise through all the right’s unfulfilled prophesied apocalypses: the George H.W. Bush tax increase, the Clinton tax increases, and the entire Obama presidency. How his success has been possible in what he and the right still see as America’s confiscatory socialist hellscape stays unexamined. Presumably, P.J. believes himself to be like the genius octopus in the aquarium. While us stupid guppies languish inside, munching our government-sprinkled kelp flakes, he uses his super-brain and eight dextrous tentacles to join John Galt, David Koch, and James Woods in glorious libertarian freedom-land. This analogy holds up only insofar as, like an octopus, P.J. too is creepy, slimy, and spineless.
But I don’t begrudge P.J. any of his success — I’m not a communist, though he may think I am since I voted for Kerry, Obama, and Clinton. What I begrudge is how he conveys his conviction that he got where he is solely due to his own merit in the skipping, whimsical manner of a self-assured eleven-year-old girl; and how he wants to tear away from anyone else the economic and civic environment in which he flourished with the deceptively adorable sadism of a budding-sociopathic eleven-year-old boy beating his little brother at Monopoly by convincing him to trade Park Place and Boardwalk for the utilities because they’re the same number of cards.
Anything else that makes him so execrable? Education and health care. They are probably the two biggest financial hurdles facing American families today. What might P.J. know from his experience that he could use to enlighten and entertain his readership with regard to these particularly poignant economic predicaments?
P.J. is not the scion of some wealthy family of Ohio industrialists, but he’s not a Horatio Alger bootblack who worked his way from gutter to glitter either.
P.J. doesn’t seem to have ever hilariously recounted how his dad was able to bargained enough Buicks to put him through college and the hoitiest of toity East Coast graduate schools largely because the unionized employees at the Owens Corning and Willys-Overland plants in Toledo could afford to buy new cars every four years. And I don’t recall him penning a whimsical explanation of the changes to Ohio’s or Maryland’s relative higher education funding levels over the last fifty years. I also must have missed his amusing essay about historical tuition rates at Miami University and Johns Hopkins relative to averages incomes from 1964 to 1968 as compared to today. Had he done so, he might’ve had to admit that governmental policies helped him achieve his education and thus his success, and that would be require P.J. to reconsider some of his politics, which is impossible.
Perhaps he borrowed the money? Well, putting aside that widely available student loans are a governmental policy, I’ve never read P.J.’s humorous articles about his struggling to repay his soul crushing student-loan debt in the early 1970s while ripping bong hits in a commune and writing for the underground humor ‘zine scene in Baltimore or while living in a (probably) rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan editing the National Lampoon where the writers probably got paid with blow scored by Matty Simmons’s assistant. So I can fairly conclude his tuition wasn’t paid with loans either, or if it was, that they weren’t much of a burden. One doesn’t have to wonder what kind of debt a similar education would result in today: About $350,000 given current tuition and living expenses at those two schools.
So how was P.J. able to go to college and then to get an oft-mocked liberal arts graduate degree from one of the most expensive and elite universities in America with such little apparent financial expenditure, let alone hardship, despite hailing from such humble origins? Well, if governmental policies didn’t play a role to make his education affordable to his working-class dad, as P.J. I’m sure would never admit, and he didn’t borrow it with Uncle Sam as a cosigner, which he’s never said, then the money must have come from somewhere.
If his mother had family money that paid for his education, as seems likely, I must have skipped the chapter where he acknowledged with much mirth that he is lucky and grateful to have had the fortune — in more ways than one — of familial funds able to provide for his great education, the connections it provided, and thus the whole launching pad of his career. This might especially include the luxury of smoking spliffs, blowing rails, and writing for street zines for four years instead of having to get a copyrighting job at BBDO like a lot of his fellow English M.A.s surely had to do.
One way or another P.J. got over the hump of his educational financing and earned a lot of money as a famous author and talking head for forty years. He then cruised comfortably into old age. So how did he handle that other major financial obstacle that confronts so many in this the only land without some form of universal health insurance? Just as easily, as it turns out.
His ass cancer in 2008 seems to have not put even a slight crack in the cheeks of his monetary moon. If he were poorer he surely would have gone bankrupt or died in a county hospital, all with a smile on his face, living up to his libertarian ideals to the end. But he didn’t do either of those things. Presumably then, he was covered by either an excellent PPO from the Cato Institute or was able to afford a good health insurance plan on the pre-ACA insurance market. So after a misfortune that would have ruined many, P.J.’s finances survived intact even if his sphincter likely ended up like a popped balloon.
Good for him. What does he have to say about it all? He thanks his fabulous doctors and his fabulous friends, of course. As for his insurers, in the acknowledgements in Holidays In Heck, he jokes that although his life insurance company thanks his doctors for his surviving cancer, his health insurance company “will get back to [them] on that.” As for everyone else, P.J.’s most famous line about health care is “If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it’s free.” In other words, I got mine. So fuck off and die.
As I said, I don’t believe P.J. has not earned his success and don’t resent him for it. He’s succeeded and I’m sure a lot of it is on merit. (Though I don’t think he got the National Lampoon job through a write-in contest.) And I know that everyone doesn’t have to be part of the vanishing fraternity of blue-collar journalists, many of whom are — unfortunately, in this winner-take-all economy — former journalists, or worse, going to law school.
I also know that people read what P.J. writes precisely because he is paid to travel to exotic locales, do exotic things, and have access to rich and important people and that this both creates and requires a writer who is well-off and runs in those circles.
I know too that the audience who would pay to read articles about P.J. O’Rourke trying to get a week’s worth of groceries for $20 at Dollar General, or foregoing asshole-cancer treatment because he’s hit the lifetime limit on his policy — while more numerous by a thousandfold than the readership of Vanity Fair — is not as sought after by the ad buyers for Dolce & Gabbana.
But is it too much to ask that P.J. sometimes acknowledge that not everyone has access to such benevolent financial, educational, and social circumstances as he and that that is not necessarily their fault?
Yes, apparently, because that would take away some of his own credit for his success, and because he is a raging dick.
Can P.J. ever even hypothetically admit after nearly 40 years of our failed supply-side experiment that things might be done by the government (!) to mitigate the damage done to us as a country and an economy when someone who could be the next P.J. O’Rourke or Jonas Salk is instead forced to write web copy for a Chinese restaurant or wrap casts at an urgent care clinic because they can’t afford or take on the debt for writin’ college or pandemic-eradicating vaccine school?
No, because he lives in a libertarian fantasy land where everyone is stopped only by their own faults from being the next Ragged Dick.
Because he spends such little time examining what has enabled him to lead such an amazing life and using those experiences as a basis from which to humorously write in a way that might benefit the world, P.J. has lots of time to complain about his fucking taxes. He has literally literally written books complaining about taxes. How high they are. How they go to pay for stupid stuff for stupid other people. How they are bad as a matter of morality. He was the genteel progenitor of the “Taxes Are Theft” mantra of the modern Alt-Right anarcho-capitalist, khaki-sporting Minute Men soon to storm the streets in support of our own real-life Buzz Windrip. Taxes, taxes, taxes. I’ll spare the reader the details, but from P.J.’s birth in 1947 to the publication of Republican Party Reptile in 1987, the lowest federal income tax rate was cut by 45% and highest rate was cut by 65%. They have changed only slightly since. Relatedly, from 1979 to 2010 incomes for the lowest quintile went up by 29%, while the highest quintile’s incomes went up by 85%.
These figures are widely known by this point. I assume P.J. knows them too. So I can only say this to P.J.: By the time RPR came out the battle was over and your side won so quit your crying, you greedy bastard. Your income has skyrocketed, your taxes have cratered to historical lows, your life is great. Meanwhile, outside the Defense Department the government can barely function and all you and the bratty red-tied army you spawned continue to talk about is cutting spending, cutting social insurance programs, and…still…taxes.
P.J. apparently cannot even consider whether the issue of his patrons’ vast amounts of disposable income needing to be vaster is really of the most pressing concern, especially when its expanding vastness is coming at the expense of bridges that don’t collapse, schools having pencils, courts hearing cases, and Medicare continuing to keep people like him alive. All the while costs for things besides T-shirts and TVs, the little things such as education and health care (not to mention rent and healthy, natural food) continue to become unaffordable to an ever larger swath of Americans.
P.J.’s and the GOP’s longtime public explanation for this — It’s the government’s fault! — was always bullshit, but it has come to defy credulity in an age when the libertarian legions have largely conquered the halls of power throughout the United States and around the world. P.J.’s billionaire publishers and millionaire editors have gotten what they wanted yet the problems persist or are worse.
Predictably then, P.J. and his peeps have largely dropped any pretense. They still half-heartedly trot out their fallback explanation — It’s the immigrants’ fault! — but that requires them to actually enact solutions contrary to their global corporatist precepts. So, shockingly, their private explanation has become their public explanation — It’s your fault!
Though it has always been there, just between the lines and just beneath the surface, P.J.’s message on behalf of the wealthy to American people has explicitly become: If you want a better standard of living, work harder. If that doesn’t work — and for most of you it won’t — shut up and/or die. Abortion’s bad, here’s Neil Gorsuch. Sadly, it seems to have worked.
P.J.’s spin on this was more appealing to a certain influential set due to his hedonism. All that moral stuff is for the rubes, P.J. whispered. You’ll get the tax breaks, but can keep the good stuff. To sum up his worldview, from Republican Party Reptile, annotated by me:
I think our agenda is clear. We are opposed to: government spending [for poor or brown people], Kennedy kids, seat-belt laws, busing our children anywhere other than Yale [poor or brown kids near our kids/equal opportunity], trailer courts near our vacation homes [poor people again, but now using government power to keep them away from us], all tiny Third World countries that don’t have banking secrecy laws [let’s reinstate the Berlin Conference], aerobics [nihilism rocks! science is dumb!], the UN [for daring to even try to avoid war], taxation without tax loopholes [paying taxes at all], and jewelry on men [gay people]. We are in favor of: guns, drugs [look at me, I’m not a Bible thumper], fast cars [weee!], free love (if our wives don’t find out) [adultery is cool, also, not a Bible thumper], a sound dollar [government intervention to favor the rich], and a strong military [government spending on killing and contracts to bloated private companies we have stock in] with spiffy uniforms. There are thousands of people in America who feel this way [adolescent neckbeards], especially after three or four drinks [uninhibited assholes]. If all of us would unite and work together, we could give this country. . . well, a real bad hangover [massive debt, crumbling infrastructure, decimated social insurance programs, nonexistent cyber defense, vacant judgeships, closed or delapidated National Parks, impotent Coast Guard, politicized EPA, inadequate basic science research, defunded health and disease prevention, Gestapo-like law enforcement, and Donald Trump].
This description of the Atlas Shrug-life probably sounded like Avalon to preppy fraternity brothers in 1987. But now that we’re living in the Trumpian reality of its nearly completed actualization, sounds more like Hell, a/k/a USA 2024. Any satirical value in, or “its polemical” excuse for, this screed has been destroyed because it has basically become reality. His shtick doesn’t feel funny anymore if it ever did. Instead it feels like getting glove-slapped across the face by a sarcastic majordomo at the behest of Marie Antoinette.
P.J.’s jeremiads about New Deal liberalism and the glories that awaited us all in the coming globalist, freed-trade, libertarian Utopia resounded in the ’80s and ’90s in a way that they don’t today precisely because he and those he’s carried water for have been proven so wrong.
In the ’80s and ’90s, my dad worked at a small construction company and earned a modest but respectable living, especially for a guy who never went to college. We had health insurance. We had a house. We had two cars. I inherited a few thousand from a grandfather and great-uncle that enabled me to graduate college with under $10,00 in student loan debt, despite no contribution from my parents and only the partest of part-time jobs during my undergraduate career, which ended with the ’90s.
To me, taxes seemed high and I couldn’t really tell or imagine what they paid for. My life had been pretty easy and I was from humble origins too. All of that flat-tax, free-market stuff seemed great to me because I’d taken everything I had as a given. I assumed it had always been that way, in spite of what P.J. told me was the government’s best efforts to take it all away. So I bought in. I thought it would all be great. I assumed I would be a beneficiary of it all, and truth be told, I probably would be, and probably am, though — and this is is, to them, the only point, actually and philosophically — only in a narrow, short-term, and purely financial sense. It never occurred to me who might not benefit and why.
But I still benefited from the liberal legacy of the preceding sixty years, which I took for granted. America’s great right-wing libertarian experiment had only gotten started in 1980. It took 20 years just to get into full swing. In the 20 years since then, it has reached its crescendo, and Obama barely slowed it down.
My dad’s old company no longer offers health insurance. He left and is now an independent contractor. He makes more money at the top line, but has to buy his own health insurance, which for him and my mom amounts to almost $20,000 a year. And as a 1099er, he pays both sides of social security and Medicare, so he takes home less than he used to. He tried applying for other jobs, but after 50 he didn’t get any takers. I had to buy him his last car.
In-state tuition where I live now is three times more than it was when I was in college, and my first kid won’t even start college until 2035, if we make it that long. What’ll it be then? My grad school’s tuition has doubled in the 14 years since I was there. The soaring home prices that current owners love make future buyers despondent. Wages and salaries are flat if you’re not already at least in the top 20% of income earners. The gig economy expands. Automation threatens millions of jobs. Offshoring. Inshoring. Unpaid internships. Uber. Wal Mart. Negative net worth. Looming environmental catastrophe. The libertarian fantasy world promised by P.J. is now here IRL. And for most people including my Republicanish parents, and — especially — those without the socioeconomic advantages I have, not to mention the benefits that come with my white skin and blond hair , it sucks.
I’m actually lucky enough to have prospered in our civilizational denouement so far because I have a graduate degree that resulted in a high-paying job, but I can see what life is like outside that Truman Show dome and it’s terrifying. And the dome keeps shrinking. Each year, many of us are forced outside of it. So all of us except a very few are getting closer to the edge of the dome every day. I hope I won’t have to leave it. I hope my children won’t. Because once you’re out, they have no intention of letting you back in. They’ll forward your mail. By private courier. C.O.D. Nice knowing you and good luck.
If P.J. admitted all this, he would expose his whole career as that of a vacuous shill and demonstrate the he was himself a nincompoop. So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but twenty-five years removed from when I read him as an eager young Republican, the sheer myopia and egoism that remains on display his current public politics is mind boggling. Some Republicans today have seen the error of their ways and now at least pay lip service to the idea of income inequality being bad and that everyone should get some help (even if its just a tax credit) to at least have the same opportunity to succeed on their merits. But not P.J. He’s still spouting tired Reaganisms long after the pendulum has busted through the right panel of the nation’s political grandfather clock. I’m sure his persistent, proven, pugnacious wrongness (and probably the cancer too) has resulted in flagging book sales and fading cultural cachet. But the greater damage has been done to his reputation (and his asshole).
I think sensing that he may be remembered like George Coombe, the chief popular promoter of phrenology, (i.e., with a pitying disdain or not at all) P.J. sort of justifies his existence these days by saying that he’s just one of the club of political satirists, so, “We’re not offering policy alternatives; we’re pointing out political absurdities. We’re the ones switching on the kitchen lights and watching the cockroaches scamper. But we’re not going in there to stamp on them. That shouldn’t be our role.” Political satirist don’t, haven’t had, and ought not to have any ideology? Puh-lease. Whatever he has to tell himself to sleep at night, I suppose, even if it is blatant bullshit.
The obvious shit charade quoted above conveniently ignores the fact that P.J. never turned on the lights. He was the one explaining in an op-ed why we should probably just keep the lights off because they’re powered by a publicly-owned utility and we don’t want to give those socialists any more of our money. He has never spoken truth to power. He’s the sycophantic jester of the billionaires’ court. He’s the chamber of commerce’s ad man. He’s the editor of the business paper they have at the courthouse where they publish the foreclosure notices. He’s not Upton Sinclair or even Sinclair Lewis, he’s the would-be P.R. chief for the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Whether cynically or earnestly, he has consistently and cunningly advocated for a political point of view that has been shown to have been designed by the few to dupe and hurt the many so that the tax bill of the even fewer is kept lower. He’s also mocked and devalued the many to cheaply entertain that same fattened, unfeeling fellowship. He’s not the one turning on the lights. He’s one of the roaches.
Perhaps Peej doesn’t want to break his character of Boozey McScrooge because it’s funnier that way. Maybe he heard that Conan O’Brien said Mr. Burns was the funniest Simpsons character to write for because he’s infinitely rich, infinitely old, and infinitely mean, so P.J. set out to be all of those things. I don’t disagree it’s funnier that way, but at some point you become who you pretend to be and start to create the culture you’re satirizing — if Mr. Burns weren’t a cartoon, he’d be a monster. He’d be P.J. O’Rourke.
There’s a pack of uproariously laughing hyenas that has been feasting on the disemboweled-but-still-bleating wildebeest of the American middle class for 45 years. All the while, P.J. has been sitting in an air conditioned Land Rover, writing about how cool the hyenas are and how all those bumbling wildebeests wouldn’t get eaten so frequently if they could just be hyenas, and also about how nice leather in the Land Rover is, the bottle of scotch in the back seat, how you’ve never seen a bar until you’ve seen the bar at the Southern Sun Hotel in Dar es Salaam, and how he might have done ecstasy and had sex with a lady once or twice. Much of this persona may be “satirical” or for just humorous effect, but that only makes it more insidious — Triumph of the Will starring Zac Efron and Adam Devine.
Molly Ivins said it best when talking about Rush Limbaugh and it applies equally to P.J.:
The kind of humor [P.J.] uses troubles me deeply, because I have spent much of my professional life making fun of politicians. I believe it is a great American tradition and should be encouraged. We should all laugh more at our elected officials — it’s good for us and good for them. So what right do I have to object because [P.J.] makes fun of different pols than I do?
I object because he consistently targets [people who are not] in a particularly good position to answer back. Satire is a weapon, and it can be quite cruel. It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire against powerless people, as [P.J.] does, it is not only cruel, it’s profoundly vulgar.
Lastly on the topic of his abhorrence, P.J.’s politics and economic outlook would be bad bad enough were it not also interspersed with the troglodytic anti-environmental nihilism of a PAVE THE PLANET bumper sticker.
The first chapter of P.J.’s 2011 anthology Holidays in Heck is called Republicans Evolving. It dates to April 2003. In it, P.J. and his rich, Texas Republican friends go to the Galápagos Islands, where Darwin hatched his theory of evolution. It goes about like you’d think.
The Galápagos Islands are expensive as hell to go to and they only allow a very few tourists in each year so as to preserve the islands’ unique and delicate ecology. This limited tourism is allowed out of necessity in the hope that those rich, privileged few who visit the islands will come to understand the ecological crisis the planet is facing and use their outsized social and financial influence to try to check the rapacity of global capitalism so we don’t all drown in a plastic sludge pool while starving from ecosystem collapse.
Unsurprisingly, while P.J. and his cronies were there they drank gin on the boat, snorkeled, and mostly snickered during the scientists’ talks about how the extinction of animals is absolutely hilarious. To paraphrase: Sea tortoises are almost extinct? Must have tasted amazing! Ha ha. Flightless birds are what you get without free market competition! Har har! SAVE THE WHALES bumper sticker on your Congressman’s car?! That’s concerning! Guffaw! Throw vegetarians to the sharks! Waugh-haw-haw!
I’m sure the scientists on the tour despaired of the group’s proud display of willful ignorance, narcissism, and the IBGYBG mindset. Even Gilded Age trophy hunters would have scowled and shouted down his and his companions’ callow mockery of Creation. Any decent person who even likes to go camping once in a while would have stood up and said those were terrible things to say. Eric Trump and Don, Jr. would — well, they probably would have laughed along.
P.J. lately laments a creeping smugness in political satire (largely among us leftists) and would doubtless accuse me of that here. To which I would say: Be funnier. I will laugh at and have laughed at jokes about everything. But the more serious the topic, the funnier the jokes have to be. They can even be fatalistic, but for such gallows humor to work, it has to accept that death is at the doorstep. Don’t expect the audience to laugh at your jokes about how nooses are a hoax, especially when they’re on the gallows with you.
Here, the topic is of utmost seriousness: the coming ecological calamity that could destroy us all and how we just can’t stop ourselves as a civilization from laying waste to our only habitat as quickly as possible, leaving a denuded husk for our grandchildren to starve upon. So the jokes have to be really funny. We Republicans are the true natural predators! The tortoises come in their own casserole dish! Wild equals stupid. I should have realized that in college! Those don’t cut it.
The piece is not funny. It’s not even fatalistic because it doesn’t accept the fatal premise. It was feckless and sophomoric in 2003. Today, now that all those long-predicted mass extinctions are upon us, it’s existentially appalling. Don’t worry, though, P.J. throws in a Paypal e-mail for donations to the Darwin Foundation to absolve himself of his gross, willfully ignorant nihilism. (Actually, please donate to make up for the damage P.J. did by his article.)
The point of the piece seems to be only to ease his presence at D.C. cocktail parties by letting everyone know that he’s not one of those weird churchy Republican people. He accepts evolutionary theory. He’s cool. But he doesn’t accept or doesn’t care about the consensus of the biological sciences as a whole that we’ve got about 30 years left, max, at this pace before a real calamity. So he’s either an idiot or an asshole. I’d bet on the latter. After all, the guy graduated from Johns Hopkins.
To sum it up, P.J. O’Rourke is a privileged yet ungracious man, and a callow, pugnacious ingrate blessed with a smart mind and a sharp pen. With both, he congratulates himself and mocks others. He is cynical and nihilistic. He has the empathy of a virus and the sympathy of a locust. He’s dedicated his life to a philosophy that would have long ago been debunked if it weren’t a figment of Milton Friedman’s imagination to begin with. And need I remind you, he has a full head of hair and has survived asshole cancer.
But he also is funny, witty, urbane, and lives in a way few of us every will. He is also probably more responsible than any other author for making me the budding writer I am today. Echoes of his style infuse everything that I write. I guiltily reread much of his work from time to time, and do not doubt that I would supremely enjoy having a long, lively, liquid dinner with the man.
He is a quantum state: many contradictory things at the same time. His contradictions echo and illuminate my own. (I don’t volunteer, for one.) I enjoy him, but that angers me. I loathe what he stands for but wish there were more more like him in many ways.
I resent what he has done to his culture but will miss him when he’s gone.
He makes me laugh, sigh, smile, growl, groan, and pound the table at one sitting, and shouldn’t we wish more writers could do that?
So what can I say to him as his website goes dark, his writing tapers off, his public appearances end, and he begins the long slow march toward the infinite expiry we all face? Something pithy and insulting. Something he might appreciate…
P.J.: Goodbye, fuck you, and good luck.