RIP PJ O’Rourke – the funniest conservative writer of all time
Writing a tribute to PJ O’Rourke – the great American journalist who died on Tuesday – is child’s play, for a very simple reason. It does all the work for you. You don’t have to rack your brains trying to find clever ways to show how brilliant and funny he was. All you have to do is quote it. It does the job much faster. And, frankly, much better.
Here it is on military interventionism: “Wherever there is injustice, oppression and suffering, America will show up six months late and bomb the country next to which it is happening. On the State: “Giving money and power to the government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenagers.” On books: “Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle.” On Europe: “I’m tired of these stupid little countries and all their cramped borders. You can’t dump a cat without sending it through customs. And on chivalry: “A hat should be taken off when greeting a lady and left on for the rest of your life. Nothing looks dumber than a hat.
This is the first thing that made his articles so distinctive: the sheer volume of lines they contained. He was the stand-up comic of journalism.
But it wasn’t just the quality of his jokes that made them stand out. It was their subject. His jokes were right-wing. This makes his work more and more unusual. Most political humor these days is left-wing. Indeed, it is sometimes claimed that political humor at to be on the left. In a 2013 essay for the New Statesman, comedian Stewart Lee — who is, of course, on the left — wrote that comedy should only “hit,” while the right had an unseemly habit of “hit down.” “. And “knock down” wasn’t funny. It was just cruel.
Like so many left-wing ideas, it sounds good in theory, but doesn’t work in practice. On the contrary, being on the left limits an actor. Progressivity is a straitjacket. The dread of offending and being seen “hitting” puts severe limits on what a comedian dares to joke about. Which means left-wing comedians all end up making the same jokes about the same set of rigidly narrow lenses. Tories are bad, Brexiteers are bad, capitalism is bad…
PJ O’Rourke, on the other hand, never cared to offend – even people on his side. He was a Republican who made fun of Republicans. “Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work,” he wrote, “and then they get elected and prove it.”
Likewise, he was a conservative who shocked conservatives. For his 1983 book, Modern Manners, he wrote an entire chapter on the correct etiquette for taking cocaine, and argued that traditionalists should encourage young people to take drugs because the drug had “taught an entire generation of English children the metric system”.
Throughout his career, he wrote lines that by today’s standards would no doubt be considered sexist (“Every kitchen should have a dishwasher, preferably a cute one wearing his apron and nothing else”). And politically incorrect in countless other ways (“What would be a road hazard anywhere else in the third world is probably the road”).
But he didn’t care, and if he was still here, he still wouldn’t. That’s the wonderful thing about his writing: it was so free. And, moreover, liberating. Because he always said what he really thought, he gave you, the reader, permission to do the same. Unlike some commentators, he never lectured you, or scolded you, or made you feel like you were failing some sort of test of moral or ideological purity. On the contrary, his writing absolves you of all guilt. Reading it almost felt like going to a journalistic equivalent of confession. It made you feel like you had been forgiven for your sins – the sins of not agreeing with the kind of fashionable left-wing views that seemed to prevail everywhere else.