Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Don't Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards by P.J. O'Rourke

It's a sad thing to see the idols of your youth brought low. P.J O'Rourke was once the globe's foremost "trouble tourist," going to the worst places on earth and reporting back. Even before that, he was a fearless writer, pushing his own gonzo brand of libertarian near-anarchism as the token "conservative" for any publication he wrote for. But the last decade has seen his scope drastically shrink; the man who once covered All the Trouble in the World settled in to be The CEO of the Sofa, and his thinking, perhaps finally influenced by a long affiliation with the Cato Institute, bent to blandly standard Republican dogma -- if with slightly fewer dogwhistles than usual -- over the course of the disastrous GW Bush presidency. And now Don't Vote finds O'Rourke high and dry: on the far side of sixty, on the far side of the right wing, landlocked in Libertopian New Hampshire, grumpy and curmudgeonly where he was once insightful and cutting, wanting nothing so much as to order Nancy Pelosi off his lawn.

Don't Vote is a rag-bag collection: according to the way O'Rourke describes it, this book was written as a single entity, but out of the detritus of fifteen years of speeches and assorted columns. It doesn't show any evidence of having been assembled to fit any blueprint, or to have any animating central argument other than "O'Rourke has three growing kids who will want to go to college soon -- and no good conservative intellectual can let his kids go to a state school." There's no through-line, other than the fact that O'Rourke is now old and tired, and what little point of view Don't Vote has can be summed up as "things suck." So the book meanders through the usual tired political issues, and treats them all in a purely cartoon manner. (His take on global warming is essentially the same as the idiot Congressman who said it couldn't possibly be happening, since God wouldn't let it -- more damningly, and characteristically, O'Rourke's is an old man's argument, a demand not to ever have to change anything he likes, no matter the consequences. Most of his other arguments here are the same -- and his defense of conservatism is pure special pleading for not wanting anything in the world to ever change again.)

Everything wrong with the world is the fault of Big Government and the Nanny state, of course -- with an occasional feint in the direction of reason, as if the man who saw anarchic Somalia, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and both Gulf Wars first hand is still inside there, somewhere -- and conservatives/Republicans are all pure-hearted free-market advocates who only want Americans to be allowed to chose their own prosperity. This seemed slightly more plausible last March, when O'Rourke was finishing this book, and only mildly wrong-headed in October, when Don't Vote was published. Today, though, we can see what those folks really want to do -- eliminate health care, eliminate collective bargaining, eliminate pensions, eliminate family-planning spending, eliminate just about everything the government does that doesn't fire bullets from one end, and let corporations dictate pretty much everything else -- and it doesn't bear much relationship to O'Rourke's lazy man's laissez-faire utopia. Though, come to think of it, O'Rourke concentrates all of his energy on what's wrong with liberals/Democrats rather than explaining what government should do -- and, even there, he relies primarily on heights of rhetoric and random quotes from books Cato friends sent him rather than citing more than a couple of actually damaging policies. (He fulminates against both child car seats and the requirement that children's pajamas now be flame-retardant -- does he expect us to believe that he'd rather that his kids were killed by fire or impact? Many of his complaints are of that nature -- how dare people make the world safer?)

Don't Vote is a windy, whiny, annoying book, even if you want to agree with it. O'Rourke has sadly moved beyond his pandering stage of a few years back -- it's clear that this is the way he really thinks now. He's old and grumpy and the world is awful because of it -- so we should treat him like any other aged curmudgeon: let him sit in a comfortable chair near the fire, fluff his pillow every so often, and resolutely ignore anything he says.

(See my review of O'Rourke's 2009 collection Driving Like Crazy for further details of his slide into tedious grump-dom.)


Kaz Augustin said...

Oh this is so sad. As an avowed socialist, I LOVED O'Rourke's earlier books. They were cutting, hilarious, witty, and incisive. I'm sad to hear of his decline. In light of your comments, might have to give this one a big ole miss.

jmnlman said...

Sounds like he's swallowed the libertarian kool aid completely. I remember Charles Murray whining about meat inspectors and how it wouldn't matter because in a libertarian paradise you would just file a lawsuit. Too bad every couple of years I reread Holidays in Hell and laughed uproariously.

Anonymous said...

I saw an interview with him promoting this book, and, yeah, the whole thing was basically, "Damn you kids! Get off the lawn!" Very disappointing, and wholly devoid of intellectual rigor.

Great review--now I know to avoid this thing!

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