P. J. O’Rourke
“How should the political institutions of America be approached? Do we overthrow them with violence? Do we screw around with them while they screw around with us?”
In the middle of a cycle of very serious books about politics and society, I felt the need of a bit of a colonic, a tonal tonic as it were. What I found was P. J. O’Rourke’s irreverent political analysis, Don’t Vote (It Just Encourages the Bastards).
The other way in which Don’t Vote contrasts the rest of the books I’m reading now is, of course, that O’Rourke is a right-winger, one of those heartless libertarians whom many of us on the left love to hate.
The problem is that hating O’Rourke is made more difficult because he’s often funny. Don’t Vote is like the edgier insults at a celebrity roast — you have to laugh, even when the joke comes too close to home to be comfortable. O’Rourke invites us to laugh with him while he’s laughing at us. It’s a nice trick, one not many political writers, left or right, can manage.
O’Rourke’s approach in Don’t Vote is as far removed as possible from the missionary scorn of Chris Hedges’s The World As It Is, reviewed here recently, and that’s just what I was looking for — a small dish of sorbet between the appetizer and the main course, just to cleanse the mental and emotional palates a little.
That doesn’t mean that O’Rourke has nothing to say; he just says it differently than Hedges does. Here’s an early example of O’Rourke’s way of making a point:
Freedom is a personal ideal. Because politics is an arrangement among persons, we can plausibly assume that freedom is a political ideal. Our favorite political idealists think so. They’ve been unanimous on the subject since Jean-Jacques Rousseau convinced polite society that human bondage was in bad taste and John Locke showed the divine right of kings to be a royal pain.
Lightly written, but not ultralight in thought. Just the thing to lift the burden on my overladen old brain!
In some his more serious paragraphs about freedom, O’Rourke points out that politics is one place where two kinds of freedom regularly clash. I may cherish tolerance (my freedom from your intolerance), while you may cherish autonomy (your right not to be bothered by having to tolerate me). In simplest terms, politics is about the conflict between freedoms and rights. And the deck is stacked: “The ontological freedom known as autonomy isn’t part of practical politics, it’s all of practical politics —imposing my will and thwarting yours.”
You know that a book isn’t all sarcasm and one-liners if it includes the word “ontological.” And, even though he’s way to the right of the right path, O’Rourke has pretty much nailed it on the essence of the political divide.
And there’s more on the unequal nature of politics:
This leaves us with the nub or butt end of politicking: privilege and opportunity. Ignore everything politicians say about opportunity. They’re lying. … And ignore all of politicians’ sniffing at and scorn for privilege. Privilege and opportunity are the names for rights—opportunity being rights you’d like to get and privilege being rights you’d like someone else to surrender.
One of the great rights and privileges, according to O’Rourke, is the freedom to fail. He devotes a comparatively complex chapter to an analysis of capitalism, arguing that its great success is due to its capacity for failure.
Bulgarian blue jeans, his example of a product that’s too big to fail, didn’t fit, didn’t last, and no one wanted them. But they were immune to failure, so they were produced by the millions of pairs anyway. Capitalism would have let those jeans fail, and everyone would have benefitted — and been better-fitted — as a bonus. “Fortunately,” O’Rourke writes, “most of America is still allowed to fail.”
Unfortunately, O’Rourke believes — or, if you prefer, O’Rourke believes, unfortunately — government is the huge exception to the right to fail. For that reason (among many others, in his view), O’Rourke warns: “We have to be careful about giving power to people—for their own sake, among every other reason. We won’t get our power back easily.”
Nonetheless we are continually tempted to confer power on government—to delegate our power (as some would have it), to alienate our power (as Jefferson would have been more likely to say). And it’s not only a desire to escape from our responsibilities that tempts us. The American government is a huge tool, a formidable engine, mighty in its operation and nearly irresistible in its movement (never mind that it doesn’t know where it’s going). The temptation is to use a tool like this when something needs fixing.
Part II of Don’t Vote moves from O’Rourke’s take on political theory to the practical question: “What Is To Be Done?” The answers aren’t much of a surprise: Less government, lower taxes, and a greater appreciation of the contributions the rich make to the country.
Pretty standard libertarian stuff, and no more convincing here than elsewhere, but O’Rourke’s light touch makes it almost as easy to read as prose as it is to reject as policy. For instance, his position on global warming is to take no position — other than to tell us to just man up and accept it, because the Chinese have as much a right to Buicks and air conditioning as we did when we got them. Now, that’s a solution that’ll sure work!
In Part III, “Putting Our Big, Fat Political Ass on a Diet,” O’Rourke spends a lot of time making his single big point: “By the early 1990s my political philosophy was completely elaborated. I didn’t have one. I simply thought—and I continue to think—that it is the duty of every politically informed and engaged person to do everything he or she can to prevent politics.”
“Prevent Politics!” has some of the snappy fervour (and catchy alliteration) of better-known slogans like “No Nukes!” — although the Tea Party, the current incarnation of the approach, is a pretty bad exemplar if you really want your ideas to spread.
It’s O’Rourke’s fairly even-handed disdain for politics and government that gives Don’t Vote much of its appeal. He’s almost as willing to skewer the moral interventionists of the religious right as he is to blast the do-gooder buttinskis of the left. Almost.
Now, I’ll lay my guilty pleasure aside, like the priest who quietly slides the latest copy of Altar Lust Monthly under his surplice, and go back to reading worthwhile books — most of them about the evils of listening to people like P. J. O’Rourke.
Honest, I only read it for the jokes.