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A conciliatory P.J. O’Rourke is not the satirist we know and love

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

A Cry From the Far Middle: Dispatches from a Divided Land P.J. O’Rourke

Grove Press, pp.230, 16.99

There was an acidic bravura and beauty in P.J. O’Rourke’s early journalism and a gleefulness in the ease with which it raised ire. Hitherto, satirists — and especially American ones — had tended to come from the left, none more so than O’Rourke’s mentor Hunter S. Thompson, who campaigned long and hard for George McGovern in 1972.

Not Patrick Jake. He sprung like a jubilant, potty-mouthed leprechaun from a country which had fallen back in love with itself after the self-flagellating miseries of Vietnam, Watergate and Tehran. Under Ronald Reagan, the economy flourished, the Cold War was won and while the left still carped and cavilled, aghast at the demise of the Soviet Union and the triumph of the likes of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, O’Rourke’s banner read simply: ‘Told you so. We were right.’ It was a blast of libertarian braggadocio in which the left, and indeed the rest of the world, were ridiculed for their stupidity and backwardness, just as Belinda Carlisle got to number 1 with ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’, that heaven being the USA.

None were derided more than the Yerpeans, with their awful plumbing, bad teeth, joyless food, remiss personal hygiene and affections for such outré concepts as the mixed economy and the welfare state. O’Rourke wrote with wit, chutzpah and in a manner unfamiliar to American conservatives. Whatever Ayn Rand’s strengths, she never delivered an essay entitled ‘How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink.’ Not least, one supposes, because she did not have a wing-wang. But you take my point.

O’Rourke identified as a Republican — Republican Party Reptile was another early triumph — but this was never quite the whole story. Much like Thompson, he was a libertarian: fiscally dry as dust but on social issues, wet, wet, wet — ferociously pro-immigration, for example, and at ease with (if sometimes waspishly humorous about) homosexuality and feminism. Always anti-authoritarian (which was one reason he was dubbed by left-wingers ‘the conservative it’s OK to like’), he had no truck with populism, or with belligerence as a principal component of foreign policy. So when Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016 he was left estranged from his party. He loathes Trump with more venom than I have ever seen him direct at leftie politicians.

This latest book, then, weirdly, is an olive branch extended to America’s liberals, a wish that they might join him in the centre, rejecting a political debate which is ‘dominated by Left Wing Kooks, Right Wing Nuts, and Random Flakes’. As O’Rourke puts it near the beginning of this entertaining if often slipshod and hurried collection: ‘It’s time for the rise of the extreme moderate. Power to the far middle! Let’s bring the Wishy Washy back together, along with the Namby and the Pamby and the Milque and the Toast.’ His concern is the polarisation of politics. He has no time for the socialists and the uberwoke; no time for Make America Great Again either.

Which leaves him in a strange position for a satirist: ‘I have come to heal’ is not what we expect from the author; and perhaps a little too often, despite the usual high content of witticisms, one notices a nail not being hit squarely on the head. He locates the divide in the USA — accurately enough, but hardly news to the rest of us — as being between ‘heartlanders’ and ‘coastals’, and there is a quiz you can take to see into which category you fit. (Do you eat avocado toast or bread and butter, locally sourced food or ‘microwave to recliner’?) He is in general on the side of the heartlander.

Elsewhere he sticks the boot into climate change, suggesting, a little ridiculously, that the exhalation of carbon dioxide from our lungs exceeds many times that produced by burning fossil fuels. He stands up for patriotism but not for nationalism:

The difference between patriotism and nationalism is the difference between the love a father has for his family and the love a Godfather has for his family — the Bonnano family, the Colombo family, the Gambino family.

He is aghast at the progressive propaganda dripped into his teenage daughter’s ears at school: ‘They are cognisant of the origins of poverty but ignorant of the origins of wealth’ — which is as good a line as any in the book and deserves to be stolen. He daydreams of a kind of coalition in which a ‘good Democrat’ is appointed secretary of health and human services and a ‘good Republican’ is appointed secretary of the treasury; later, in his imagination, the two men hug, ‘and then I wake up with drool on my face’.

I think Donald Trump has discombobulated P.J. more than he can adequately express. Maybe four years of Joe Biden and ‘The Squad’ will restore his excellent bile.

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