There was a time a few decades ago when many people I knew did not merely want to be like P.J. O’Rourke, they actually wanted to be him. This largely included me, despite the fact that, even at my most young and stupid I recognized drug use for what it is: enslavement to the most base of physical sensations, masquerading as rebellious personal freedom and masked by the pose of “cool.” Still, a political essayist and humorist who waltzed straight into the belly of the liberal beast and lit it up with explosive mockery and satire for many years held a fascination for me, as for many thousands of others. In books like Holidays in Hell, in which Mr. O’Rourke travelled the globe to experience the effects of left-wing stupidity and mock those who either pretended to like it or, even funnier, actually did enjoy their time in the Soviet Union or Castro’s Cuba, gave the pretensions of the social-justice warriors of his day the treatment they deserved: namely, merciless ridicule.
That Mr. O’Rourke’s talents lay in finding and exposing hypocrisy and self-serving fantasy rather than making constructive arguments or proposals was no bar to enjoying his work. Nor was the fact that his was a libertarian rather than a conservative viewpoint. The drugs, the booze, and the womanizing pretty clearly indicated his cultural viewpoint and limitations. Still, for those like me who were young and stupid, he seemed a kind of swashbuckling privateer, taking down the enemy’s ships in a manner often fun to watch, if less than ennobling to anyone concerned. There was an immature “cool” to P.J. O’Rourke, the self-described “Republican Party Reptile,” which even his too often lazy approach to book-writing and his childish antics seemed not to erase.
Then some of us grew up. We began to recognize that Mr. O’Rourke’s ridicule was doing nothing to embarrass let alone stymie its targets, who lack any capacity for serious examination of conscience for the simple reason that they have assigned their consciences to the abstract principles of their ideology. In addition, we—especially those of us who were conservative from the start, but also those who simply grew into it—began to lead lives that left little room for childish antics. We found good women to marry, had children, and began raising them. Having begun the lives for which we are intended, we also soon recognized that the antics, entertainments, and even the politics of the college student are inappropriate for enjoyment or use in the home, even as they lack the power or even intent to protect that home.
Despite getting married a couple of times and even, rather late in life, having children, Mr. O’Rourke chose not to grow up. He merely grew old. This is not to say that he has no concerns for his children. In a recent review of the vile HBO series Girls (the creature of rape-hoaxer Lena Dunham) he showed clear recognition of the depravity involved in its persistent portrayal of drug use and joyless, almost desperate sex acts. Funny as it was, however, Mr. O’Rourke’s repeated reaction (“they’re only a few years older than my daughters!”) utterly lacked coherence. Shock and horror have their place. They often are the beginnings of wisdom where contemporary culture is concerned. But they provide no constructive plan for dealing with cultural rot.
For all I know Mr. O’Rourke may have decided to absent himself from this cultural rot for perfectly good, adult reasons. He has moved to rural New Hampshire, always preferable to any large city, let alone New York, especially for raising children. That said, in his commentary he has shown not the slightest ability to grasp the nature of this rot, let alone formulate a coherent response to it. Indeed, in growing old, he has fallen into the tired, late-libertarian trap of simply not wanting to hear about the cultural preconditions of ordered liberty.
Not long ago Mr. O’Rourke gave one of his many interviews about politics, this time on “CNN Tonight.” In that interview he lambasted Senator Ted Cruz for “dragging in all these tired, sick, old social issues” to the presidential campaign.” Same-sex marriage, immigration, and the plethora of issues regarding the character of our people and society are unsettling to Mr. O’Rourke. He is willing to satirize Democrats for their attacks on that society, but wants to hear nothing about the virtues of what is being destroyed, let alone talk of defending or even renewing it. Rather, “Republican candidates are supposed to be boring. We’ve got several that’ll do just fine, there’s Jeb. Kasich is a perfect example, a good boring governor of a purple state.”
Mr. O’Rourke does not leave his call for political fecklessness out there to die on its own. He gives it a bit of a push with some libertarian posing by adding that “being a Republican is all about … low energy. We want a smaller government, a more efficient government, a government that doesn’t poke its nose into everybody’s business. We would like the government to go, not away, but to go back to the other end of the room, and sit down.”
Of course, as anyone who has actually lived under a government like Mr. Kasich’s (which is to say, like that of a Bush in the White House) their government does not go away. It continues to tax, spend, and regulate at an only slightly less destructive rate than its Democratic counterparts. The results may not extend to rural New Hampshire (at least until the EPA finds a wetland on Mr. O’Rourke’s land), but the rest of us are having our personal business poked into quite thoroughly.
The comment that sums up Mr. O’Rourke in old age is the following:
I thought there was a Republican Establishment who was supposed to keep things like Trump or, for that matter, Cruz from happening, and then I realized, no, they’re all dead. I’m the Republican Establishment now.
Mr. O’Rourke may have been joking. But the joke is on him. He has done his drugs, booze, and women. He can pretend his social liberalism is not destroying the lives of regular people (after all, he merely visits society on occasion, and then within the bubble of the pundit’s intellectual tourism). Now he can stand pat. His libertarianism, never the political philosophy of the adult, has simply grown old and stale. It sits atop a crumbling culture, declaring the virtues of self-involvement and the joys of the cynical snicker. It grows old for most people, but then there always are more young, aspiring cynics to wow. And plenty of people in our post-Christian society are stuck, like Mr. O’Rourke, in the joyless habits of snark.
But snark always has been more a left- than a right-wing indulgence, particularly when it becomes a way of life. It denies the holy, denigrates the customary, and downplays the damage done to real people’s lives by selfishness and dereliction of duty. The population of snarky cynics on the right is thinning out for the simple reason that the society establishment republicans—in their country clubs, with their trust funds or dreams of setting up trust funds—helped create is destroying the lives of most Americans. Mr. O’Rourke says he needs immigrants to raise his kids. He may be joking. But outsourcing and the mass importation of people from other cultures who often do not want to, or even cannot assimilate are no joke to people whose jobs are gone, whose wages and benefits have plummeted, and whose communities have become atomized ideological battlegrounds.
Comfortably ensconced among the well-off, Mr. O’Rourke does not need a real community and may safely denigrate, for now, the religious beliefs, feelings, and associations in which most Americans continue to find truth as well as comfort. He can enjoy being the Republican Establishment and, fittingly, sounding indistinguishable from Paula Poundstone when he appears on National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” But the chaos most Americans are feeling, as the government forbids them from engaging in rituals dating back from time out of mind, even as it fails to stop riots and to even properly identify terrorism, will come to rural New Hampshire soon enough. That is, unless the people Mr. O’Rourke disparages do not gain the political influence necessary to renew the culture he so disdains.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.