January 11, 2007
Conservatism, Freedom, Prosperity...
Jokers to the Right
By: JOSEPH RAGO
January 6, 2007; Page A7
WASHINGTON - Who's funnier, on the whole, liberals or conservatives? It's an old question, but a terrible one. Even to inquire after it reduces the whole curve of human comedy to politics; and besides - sad to contemplate - perhaps the most accurate answer is that they're both humorless. On the liberal side of the register, you can hardly be funny if you're constantly feeling guilty about things; many conservatives meanwhile believe that everything is going to pieces, and there's nothing funny about that.
P.J. O'Rourke, the political satirist, neither hesitates nor hedges. "Conservatives generally tend to be funnier in their private lives," he explains, "because of the hypocrisy factor. I am of course a big fan of hypocrisy, because hypocrites at least know the difference between right and wrong - at any rate, know enough to lie about what they're doing. Liberals are not nearly as hypocritical as conservatives, because they don't know the difference between right and wrong. But anyways the personal lives of conservatives tend to be funnier: They've always got the embarrassing gay daughter, and so on."
In public policy, Mr. O'Rourke claims, "liberals are always much more hilarious. Liberals are always proposing perfectly insane ideas, laws that will make everybody happy, laws that will make everything right, make us live forever, and all be rich. Conservatives are never that stupid. Having conservatives in government is like having a stern talk with your dad in the den about what your allowance will be... Of course, the Republicans always end up giving in: You know, giving you more money than you should have in your pocket, and the keys to the car, and then also a bottle of whiskey."
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So - clowns to the left, jokers to the right: not an uninteresting answer to the "who's funnier?" question, mainly because it presupposes politics as the object of satire and not its wellspring. The circumstance, for Mr. O'Rourke, runs in the other direction: He is one of the foremost comic writers in the Anglophone world, and his mirth derives, as much as anything, from his politics. Over the last several decades Mr. O'Rourke has crowded his C.V. as the scourge of fashionable causes at home and also abroad, serving as foreign correspondent to "the absolute, flat-out, goddamn worst places in the world," as he puts it. His 150-proof journalism is savage, profane, relentlessly irreverent, throwing in various breaches of decorum and moral trespasses for good measure - and usually vertiginously, caustically hilarious. When I meet him, he looks well marinated, cured even, as though he'd be great company for steaks and stiff drinks, with several orders of first and second-hand smoke on the side. In fact, he is.
Mr. O'Rourke divides his time between D.C., where I join him for lunch, and a country place in New Hampshire. His views are firmly of the live-free-or-die variety, though he is unsparing in his commentary on the last election, in which all but one of the New England Republicans were dispatched in favor of "some left-wing gals and other complete nonentities." "I think it was all about the war, and about George Bush," he says. "They just hate Bush in New England, even in New Hampshire, and I don't know why it is that they seem to loathe him more than everybody else. Is it because he's a traitor to the New England tradition of transcendento-liberalism? ... Bush went to Groton, and then he goes to Yale, then Harvard, and at the very worst he should have emerged boring like his old man. Instead he comes out this Southern, borderline-evangelical, hard-right conservative."
Hold one beat. "Except as a hard-right conservative myself," he continues, "Bush has been a pretty miserable failure on that front. It's called failure. Bush and the Republicans are offering a Newer Deal, a Greater Society. Where the hell did this come from? And there's no other word for it but failure: failure to control spending, failure domestically and failure in Iraq."
Mr. O'Rourke is particularly cutting on the situation in the Persian Gulf, which he covered most recently during the war proper, and also in 1990 and intermittently thereafter. "I was very much in favor of the Iraq invasion," he says. "What were the questions? Is Saddam Hussein a bad man? Is he doing bad things? Does he have the oil money to do more bad things? Is he likely to do more bad things? If these were the questions, was the answer more cooperation with France?"
In the aftermath he expected "a great spontaneous return to order," much like, he says, what he saw after the Iraqis were expelled from "devastated" Kuwait. "After they got chased out of there the Kuwaitis totally took control, and it was as though somebody had been chased out of, I don't know, Dayton. Everything was working again within days. Civil society came to the fore - Hayekian social forces. It was amazing. We thought - I know I thought, knowing a fair number of sophisticated, intelligent Iraqis - that this would happen in Iraq. You remove the oppressor, and there would be these self-organizing forces. Well, nooo," he says, drawing out the word. "Instead what you got was Yugoslavia. Triple Yugoslavia. You might call it the really violent Bosnia.
"I have no idea if some societies, anthropologically speaking, aren't really suited for democracy. I don't think that's true. But there certainly are societies that just love to fight. Northern Ireland, for instance. You couldn't stop that problem because they were having fun - they were really, really enjoying themselves. It would still be going on full-force today if the sons of bitches hadn't accidentally gotten rich. What happened was, more and more people started getting cars, and television sets, and got some vacation time down in Spain, and it wasn't that they wanted to stop fighting and killing each other and being lunatics, but they got busy and forgot.
"So our job," he says, "is to make the Iraqis get busy and forget. 'You know, I meant to kill all those other people but, well, jeez, I had to get the kids off to school, the car was filthy and I had to take it down to the car wash, the dog got sick on the rug. Killing all those Shiites is still on my to-do list...'" Mr. O'Rourke argues we are well on our way to creating "Weimar Iraq" - a grave phrase - and concludes, mordantly, "I'm so glad the problem is above my pay-grade."
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When Mr. O'Rourke set out into the world after a youthful Maoist phase (it was, after all, the '60s) there was an element of novelty to his insouciance, and his beliefs, like the larger movement of which he was a part, constituted their own kind of insurgency. Now, all that was fresh and scandalous then has become the stock-in-trade of every other pundit, blogger and radio-show bore, while the right has also made its own establishment - and correctness, of any kind, cripples humor. "Well, I'm almost 60," says Mr. O'Rourke. "It'd be a damn shame if I was the avant garde." But, he allows, "I don't think there'd probably be a place any more for the kind of stuff I was writing," and says, "There is a power to seeing things for the first time, with fresh eyes, that you can't duplicate."
There does, in truth, seem to be a seriousness increasingly smuggled into Mr. O'Rourke's work - if still impertinently expressed. Humor, he argues, comes from "distance, not disengagement," and humor that "stands for nothing, means nothing."
Consider his latest book, "On 'The Wealth of Nations,'" a foray into Adam Smith's 1776 masterwork. Mr. O'Rourke argues we can't understand Smith as a "personality" - "In the 18th century, the neo-Ptolemaic view of the cosmos hadn't come into fashion: the self had not yet taken the earth's place" - but we can understand his ideas. "My book is defiantly middlebrow, the poor, neglected middlebrow," says Mr. O'Rourke. "You're never going to read 'The Wealth of Nations,' and you shouldn't really. It's 900 pages... I wanted to (a) give people a sense of some of the things Smith was getting at, and (b) give normal people a kind of Michelin guide to what they might like to read. And I also hope (c) to send some people back to 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments,' which can actually be read through from left to right in its entirety."
"Moral Sentiments" was published 17 years before "Wealth of Nations," and Mr. O'Rourke sees it as central to Smith's thought, noting that Smith wasn't an economist but a moral philosopher, who argued for the fundamental morality of the unfettered market as a form of social organization and the lodestone for prosperity.
It's a bit odd to hear P.J. O'Rourke - who is always calling attention to the fraudulence of earnestness and its Siamese twin, sanctimony - talk about morality. But his is almost no morality at all, a non-morality, in that it demands nothing: The only basic human right, he says, is "the right to do as you damn well please" and take the consequences. He is not, however, a true libertarian. They're "too logical," he says. "It's a failed but admirable mission. They keep making these suicide attacks on principle, Kamikaze raids on the aircraft carrier of government... Libertarians suffer the same problem that Smith runs into in the last book of 'Wealth of Nations,' which was a pretty considerable failure. He tries to make proscriptions for government that fit his rationalist philosophical and moral logic. Everything comes apart. He's self-evidently wrong, wrong by his own reasoning. The problem with politics is that philosophy and morality are never really options.
"The important thing," he continues, "is negative rights: freedom from. But politics is all about positive rights: what're you going to give me? In a democracy it's always vibrating back and forth. People want the government to do everything for them, then when they see that it sucks, they want the government to let them take charge, and when that doesn't work, they want the government to come back and fix all the problems that they themselves caused when they took charge." There's a kind of separation of church and state, Mr. O'Rourke contends: "You simply cannot put your ideas into action."
Mr. O'Rourke's cynicism is finely ground, but it's also the foundation for his humor: He revels in the untidiness and chaos of the world. Things are funny to Mr. O'Rourke precisely because they're already in pieces, and there's nothing that can be done. You may as well have a good laugh about it.
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Mr. O'Rourke says he is adjusting well to middle age, or, he prefers, "very late youth": "I can't complain. Well, I can complain. It's a f**king nightmare."
"I'm still getting out enough, as much as I like," he permits. "I spent about a month in China recently. I was over in Kyrgyzstan. But I can't do it like I used to. It's a matter of age-appropriate. Again, a lot of the fun of seeing the Third World is first impressions. I covered my first war in Lebanon about 22 years ago. Everybody just gets exasperated. Twenty years ago we were all very interested in what was making these people fight each other, and who was right and who was wrong, and after a while you say: Sit down and shut up. Go to hell."
Mr. Rago is an assistant editorial features editor at The Wall Street Journal.
Copyright 2007 - The Wall Street Journal