I can remember being quite young and looking for books by Dave Barry in my local library. Invariably, I happened upon large collections by such venerated humorists as Lewis Grizzard and P.J. O’Rourke, who even in the early 90s had a large œuvre. I never got into O’Rourke at the time, because I was concerned more with Barry’s slapstick and sometime scatological approach to humor, as opposed to O’Rourke’s which was more straightforward political satire.
When I learned sometime about a decade ago that Barry was a Libertarian, I wasn’t even quite sure what it meant (I was probably about 14), other than he apparently disliked government. This is no surprise, given that a large portion of his work was dedicated to criticizing people in authority, especially the government, which was a fair target for lampooning not just by Libertarian humorists, but just about anybody. Let’s face it: the government is a big dumb ox of a target, and even dyed-in-the-wool liberals have little trouble lambasting it for wasteful spending and making jokes about Congress being the opposite of Progress1.
One of the big differences between a straightforward humorist like Dave Barry (who just happens to be a Libertarian) and a pundit-cum-political-satirist like P.J. O’Rourke (who just happens to be a Libertarian) is that Barry goes for the laughs approximately 99.8% of the time; O’Rourke, by comparison, inhabits a grey area intermediate of yuks and real political commentary. He’s joined in this space by Al Franken (whose books, though not particularly funny, fall back on the “I’m a comedian” defense too often) and Jon Stewart of The Daily Show fame, and it hurts him for a number of reasons.
Let’s say that you’re a reader, like me, who considers himself something of a Leftist Libertarian2, and you’re reading O’Rourke’s book. On his basic belief that, w.r.t. government, less is more, you are in theoretical (if not necessarily practical) agreement; you quibble with him on some fine points when he’s rearticulating some report from the Cato Institute. Yet you can’t help but be annoyed that whenever he feels his text is getting too turgid, he shoots his clay pigeons, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. As often as not, these aren’t even political jokes as much as they are jokes about old hags; as a common substitute, enter Bill Clinton as befuddled cocksman. It’s a startling and unnerving contrast, and one can just hear it coming out of Thomas Jefferson’s mouth: “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it [and isn’t Nancy Pelosi a stupid, wrinkled Bitch?]”. Or not.
Therein lies the danger of political satire: it’s not particular funny. O’Rourke is a seasoned veteran of the field, and should know better than to peddle such easy, cheesy ad hominem blows, even if they are merely a cheap façade for his more principled political objections. The Daily Show manages to avoid a lot of this by (a) avoiding lengthy political discourse altogether and (b) doing less blatant ad hominem jokes in favor of ad argumentum jokes. For better or worse, The Daily Show doesn’t positively stand for much (recent Zadroga Bill activism excepted), and so avoids much of this problem. It’s a problem especially for O’Rourke because although he’s generally considered a satirist/humorist, he’s a very smart guy; we need conservative voices who aren’t greasy douchbags (Sean Hannity), complete nincompoops (Bill O’Reilly), or batshit-crazy caricatures (Ann Coulter). What’s more, we know he’s capable of serious journalism (or at least genuine activism); try saying that about today’s talking heads or weekly columnists squeezing out their quotidian partisan bitch.
O’Rourke is at his best when, like Franken, he isn’t going for the punchline, per-se, but rather sounding out his argument in meaningful—if flippant—way. Whether he’s right or wrong isn’t necessarily a debate for the book review; Franken has too much faith in government, and O’Rourke has too much faith in self-governance, and wherever the twain shall meet is a source of conflict. Needless to say, O’Rourke is bright, relatively amusing (especially during pieces when he’s not being overtly political—e.g. his transplanted magazine article about cars), full of genuinely good points about small government, and a talented writer in his own right. It’s easy to see why he’s become a part of the cultural landscape (he’s a frequent contributer to many magazines, a fixture on NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me…, &c.), though he’s likely put better compendia than Don’t Vote.
- For those of you wondering, the etymology of “progress” does indeed indicate forward movement; congress, however, comes from con- in the sense of “coming together” (Latin com-), in much the same way that “sexual congress” has been in use since the 16th century. You see, con- doesn’t actually mean “against” as the old canard posits; contra- means “against”, but was originally in the sense of “in comparison with”, and which is a combination of con- (with) and -teros, a comparative suffix.[↩]
- If such a thing exists, it’s a Jeffersonian distrust of government power coupled with a Hobbesian acknowledgement of our inescapable individual brutishness[↩]