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PJ O’Rourke: No more troubling the world

Patrick Jake (PJ) O’Rourke would not be too well known in Ireland because he would not be the right kind of journalist or political commentator to be celebrated. He died from lung cancer on February 15th, aged 74, with little more than a notice of his passing.

He is slightly too much to the right, a little bit too much of a conservative, a little bit too clever and just not fawning enough to the modern-day progressive shibboleths. He was funny and there were no sacred cows for him. He was probably the last of his type. He will be missed.

I can’t pretend to know too much about him. I fell on his writing by accident more so than anything else, picking up one of my brother’s books in a fit of boredom and slight intrigue at the title: ‘Don’t Vote. It Just Encourages the Bastards’.

Aimed at politics in the United States, such a title would be ever so relevant for the Ireland – whether talking about Fine Gael, Fianna Fail or Labour. Equally, now with the Greens and their performance in government many years ago now, and in what they have done to traffic in Dublin City Council in the last couple of years.

As a warning to voters wanting to hand over ever greater control of their lives, sacrificing freedom for security/wellbeing or any other government given promise, he advises “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” Anyone considering voting Sinn Fein would likely take double heed.

Describing himself at one stage as a libertarian, he never wavered from his belief that big government meant big trouble but also a huge amount of waste:

“It is a popular delusion that the government wastes vast amounts of money through inefficiency and sloth. Enormous effort and elaborate planning are required to waste this much money.”

For anyone fooled by pre-election promises of cargo-cult (tax and spend) politics or nonsense such as public travel subsidies or carbon taxes:

“A politician who portrays himself as ‘caring’ and ‘sensitive’ because he wants to expand the government’s charitable programs is merely saying that he’s willing to try to do good with other people’s money.”

Described primarily as a satirist, the label does O’Rourke a disservice. He was also a serious journalist but knew that sometimes lampooning is the only way to highlight the stupidity of much of what passes for politics in all of its guises. In Parliament of Whores he wrote:

“Authority has always attracted the lowest elements in the human race. All through history mankind has been bullied by scum. Those who lord it over their fellows and toss commands in every direction and would boss the grass in the meadows about which way to bend in the wind are the most depraved kind of prostitutes. They will submit to any indignity, perform any vile act, do anything to achieve power. The worst off-sloughings of the planet are the ingredients of sovereignty. Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy, the whores are us.”

Probably what is least forgivable for many who would choose to ignore him rather than acknowledge his existence is that he is a self-proclaimed convert – from 1960’s hippie to conservative

“I like to think of my behavior in the sixties as a learning experience. Then again, I like to think of anything stupid I’ve done as a learning experience. It makes me feel less stupid.”

And he probably came up with the fairest and easiest description of the conservative philosophy: All change is bad. But sometimes it has to be done.

Though often perceived as a Republican, he was happy to roast his own party as much as the Democrats.

“The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.”

The problem for the Democrats and their supporters is that they just can’t laugh at themselves. They take everything too serious and their worldview is their religion.

He wrote in ‘Give War a Chance’:

“The principal feature of American liberalism is sanctimoniousness. By loudly denouncing all bad things — war and hunger and date rape — liberals testify to their own terrific goodness. More important, they promote themselves to membership in a self-selecting elite of those who care deeply about such things…. It’s a kind of natural aristocracy, and the wonderful thing about this aristocracy is that you don’t have to be brave, smart, strong or even lucky to join it, you just have to be liberal.”

He even admitted voting for Hilary Clinton in the 2016 general election (“She’s wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters”) and one of his last books was a biting, satirical commentary on how the Trump presidency came about: ‘How the Hell did this Happen?’

He is often considered to be a proponent of ‘gonzo journalism’, writing without objectivity but really he wrote with objectivity nearly all the time – just without sparing anyone’s feelings. It is often forgotten that he was a war journalist who travelled – he says – to over 40 countries covering many different conflicts – though he claims most of the coverage was done from a bar stool and he would be more Blackadder than Fisk when it came to getting to the frontlines.

His writing is full of stinging, pithy one-liners, often hidden between angry and genuine rants about the ills of government. He basically thought all politicians sucked. But he had little time for social justice warriors that are ubiquitous in the world he lived in

“Everybody wants to save the world but nobody wants to help mom with the dishes.”

But most of his ire was saved for socialist liberal progressive types – the ones that cannot laugh at themselves nor see their inner contradictions:

“Liberals have invented whole college majors – psychology, sociology, women’s studies – to prove that nothing is anybody’s fault. No one is fond of taking responsibility for his actions, but consider how much you’d have to hate free will to come up with a political platform that advocates killing unborn babies but not convicted murderers. A callous pragmatist might favour abortion and capital punishment. A devout Christian would sanction neither. But it takes years of therapy to arrive at the liberal view.”

With 16 books, all of them easy, written with a sharp wit and languid style, everyone should pick one up to just lighten the mood. He got the seriousness of the world but also knew that the best way to deal with it was to laugh with it, at it or just to skewer it.
He advised to

“Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it” – and taking that advice, always read PJ O’Rourke.



Dualta Roughneen

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