Political satirist P J O’Rourke has more citations in The Penguin Dictionary of Humorous Quotations than any other living writer. His bestselling books include Parliament of Whores, Give War a Chance, Eat the Rich, The CEO of the Sofa, Peace Kills and On the Wealth of Nations. His latest book, Don’t Vote – It Just Encourages the Bastards, was published this year.
The category of political satire books is simply closed. The top five are so good that in order to make any surprising choices one has to go a long way down to the next level.
Let’s hear the top five. Gulliver’s Travels.
Well, in the first place it is very funny. We read it first as kids as an adventure story, without understanding the political context in Europe or the philosophical context. Then when we read it again as adults we realise that Swift is having a good deal of fun here. Just the religious allegory with the Big-enders and the Little-enders and the idea of people who live for ever. And don’t they just turn out to be the kind of people who live for ever today? They show every sign of Alzheimer’s.
When did you first read it?
I was about 14, I think. It was a little bit of a slog, but such a good story that I pushed forward with it. Swift’s take on human nature is evergreen. Whether people would use horses any more [as the perfection of nature], I don’t know. I don’t suppose we’re as familiar with them as Swift was; we’d use dogs or cats. No, not cats. There’s something a little wicked about cats.
Aldous Huxley. Brave New World.
Well, this is the perfectibility of mankind. He posits the idea that the political system actually does perfect things for people and it turns out to be nearly as scary as the horror shows actually created in the 20th century in the attempt to create the new man, whether as Aryan super-German or Marxist and whatever Mussolini and Franco were up to. So Huxley was showing us that this is a rum goal however ‘well’ it turns out. Even if our dreams of Utopia were to come true it would be a horror show.
Why do you think that is? Do we like each other with equal components of good and bad? We enjoy the struggle?
I haven’t really thought of it that way. We should just leave people alone. Leave them alone! I mean, there are some wonderful things that political systems provide – protection against external aggression and internal disorder, rule of law, property rights and that kind of thing – but, you know, just…stop! Enough already!
But where do you stop?
Ah, well, that’s a very good question and I’m so glad that I’m not a politician and I don’t have to answer it. I do know when one has gone too far. When one turns on BBC television as I did this morning and the lead discussion is whether cigarettes should be wrapped in plain brown paper to make them less attractive. I’m thinking: ‘Taxpayers’ money is being spent on this?’ Surely the people in parliament, the people in 10 Downing Street, have something better to think about than this.
Maybe I should be careful what I wish for. Maybe this is politics at its most harmless, but I’m thinking about smoking, which I still do and have to sneak. My grandmother was able to keep people from smoking indoors with one cold stare. Why would laws and parliaments and police powers and courts and all sorts of annoying and ugly signs everywhere be necessary? All this expense and exercise of power of one group of people over another – why is all this needed to achieve what my grandmother could achieve with one cold stare?
She didn’t manage to stop you smoking.
She stopped me smoking around her though.
Hmm. I was brought up by two smokers in the 1970s in Britain – I think you knew my father. Anyway, he smoked in a way that most middle-class parents now wouldn’t around young children and babies. That strikes me as a very good thing. Progress.
I suppose it is. Politicians would love to take credit for this but it’s one of those things that just happened in society and would have happened anyway, maybe at a slightly slower rate. I give you the example of spittoons.
Spittoons were everywhere. Even when I was a little kid, in the fifties, they were everywhere, no longer being used much. But up until some time in the 1920s or so, virtually every American male chewed tobacco and spat constantly. It went away because women put their foot down and said: ‘That’s disgusting!’ I suppose that all had to do with the changing role of women but there didn’t have to be any politician around to think of taking the credit for that, though I’m sure they would have been glad to. Then, on the other hand, we have the example of prohibition in the United States, which worked almost in reverse and made drinking chic. You have to be very careful if you hear any member of the political system taking any credit for the diminishing social acceptability of smoking, especially around infants.
I’ll be careful. Animal Farm and 1984.
Yes. One is comic satire and the other is tragicomic satire.
Let’s start with the comic.
Well, Animal Farm sticks in everybody’s mind. All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. Again, something read twice. I read it for the first time when I was 14 or 15 and it was a funny story about badly behaved animals and then I read it again at college and someone pointed out to me that this was sharp social satire. I thought it was an animal story, a kids’ book, but when I took another look at it I realised what he was getting at. The Soviet leadership was pretty well represented there. But one of the things that’s interesting to me about both Animal Farm and 1984 is that they are warnings against collectivism from a man of the left. Sure, any old Tory or Republican might be likely to make this point, though not so well, perhaps, nor so amusingly, but the fact that it comes from a man of the left is interesting. It seems to me to be something Orwell never fully came to grips with. Maybe if he’d lived longer…
What do you mean?
The necessity for collectivism under his leftist ideals and yet the danger of collectivism no matter who it’s done by seems like something he really wrestled with. I think we all buy the necessity for collectivism in a way. I consider myself to be pretty politically conservative, though it has a somewhat different meaning in America – none of the Lords and wondering whether or not bishops should vote in parliament.
I’ll give you a small ‘c’.
It simply has to be faced that one of the purposes of political society is redistribution. There is no political society that doesn’t do a certain amount of redistribution and there’s no political society worth a damn that doesn’t take some responsibility for those who are unable to be responsible for themselves, especially those who have no one else around fit or capable of doing it. I mean, that would just be a very weird place to live. Though, God knows, there are plenty of them. Way too many. But in a prosperous, democratic society we would be shocked. If we heard that somebody starved to death in Sweden or Switzerland, we would be shocked. Even in America, when you find people in severe want, there is always some pathology attached. It may not be their own pathology, it may be that of their immediate caretakers, but there is usually slightly more to the story than material want. In fact I could honestly argue that there is always something more to it.
If you are taking the example of starving to death, that is probably right. I think that poor people die of asthma in America who wouldn’t in Sweden though. In the US it is mainly treated in emergency rooms if you haven’t got enough money and you might not always make it there.
I think people die of asthma because they don’t understand it very well. You are dealing with a part of the population that is probably much less educated than even exists in Sweden and so I think what will happen is that kids and adults will have asthma without people around them understanding what it is. Payment for medical treatment is incredibly complicated in America and you’re right about it being treated in hospital, but if you go to hospital with anything from a runny nose to your head being cut off, they have to treat you. It’s the law.
Have you actually been to Sweden? I’ve never been, but I find myself constantly holding it up as the pinnacle of socialist marvellousness. It could be a complete shithole for all I know.
I have been and you know what it is? It’s very foreign. It’s full of Swedes. I mean, there are a few immigrants, and it has more now than it did 15 years ago when I was there, but Swedes are really Swedish. They are just remarkably alike. So, when you have a country of only eight and a half million people and they’re very like each other and you take 80 per cent of their income away and redistribute it through political means and they go: ‘Ya, ya, dat’s vot I vonted! Abba records! Herring and a PhD!’ And it’s all okey-dokey. But if you take a country as diverse as the United States and you take everything away from everybody and redistribute it – oh my God, there’d be hell to pay! I mean, some people would want guns, and some people… I wouldn’t even want to ask what some people would want. So Swedish socialism… I was complaining about it to a friend of mine when I got back. He’s also pretty conservative, but probably a little more open-minded than I am. A fellow named Arch Puddington, involved in Radio Free Europe.
Yes. He’s a researcher for a bipartisan, pan-political democracy consultancy.
That is a very silly name.
What? Arch Puddington? Sounds like a tube stop, doesn’t it?
Sounds like something with raisins in it to me.
Yes, it does. However, he is a very serious man and I have worked with him at Freedom House, a pro-democracy organisation, and I was complaining. I said: ‘When we do our freedom ratings around the world, we don’t take into account things like how little economic freedom, certainly on a micro-economic level, there is in Sweden.’ It’s very, very hard to open a small business, for example. He looked at me and he said: ‘PJ, Sweden is a democracy and you may not much care for it but they can change it any time they want. Not the case with Zimbabwe.’ So he was pointing out to me that we measure freedoms and, while I may or may not have a point, that wasn’t the kind of freedom we were measuring.
That’s satire more in the Roman mode. The usual definition of satire is humour used to a moral end for a moral purpose, and there’s certainly a moral purpose to 1984 but it’s not funny really. I mean there is a certain dark humour to rewriting history and things going down a memory hole.
It’s funny in the Russian sense of the word.
I like that. Believe me, I’ll steal that phrase.
I’ll see you in court.
It’s sort of like being popular in Japan.
It’s eerily predictive of the sort of video camera surveillance world that we now live in. It would be interesting to update 1984 and make all of the things that Orwell foresaw more annoying than dangerous. Well, some of them do get pretty dangerous, but things like television that looks back at you turns out to be a real pain in the ass more than an instrument of government control. We’ve come into the world of 1984 but it turns out to be 1984-Lite.
There’s something surrealist about the absolutely unspeakable horror of somebody’s imagination being actually slightly banal.
Sad in a way. Sad, but at the same time quite a relief. Sad, but a relief.
That’s also quite Russian. One more book. Evelyn Waugh.
In the case of Waugh I would actually say that Put Out More Flags is more directly politically satirical. It explores pretty well the European reaction to Communism and Fascism in the 1930s. It’s one of his six comic novels and it’s Ethiopia. Waugh was sent to cover the coronation of Haile Selassie and from that he spun three novels: Black Mischief, Scoop and Put Out More Flags. I suppose Put Out More Flags is the least known of his comic novels. There’s A Handful of Dust and…they’re like the Seven Dwarfs, I can never name all of them. The satire of Black Mischief involves a primitive society getting all sorts of modern ideas.
Can you give me a taste of the satire in Put Out More Flags?
Gosh. Can I? No, or I’d be as good as Waugh. It is kind of a political version of Scoop. It’s about blacks who are in fact red, as in Communist and then there are the blacks who are black, and there is an explanation of the political situation in this imaginary African country that is every bit as good as Mr Salter and Lord Copper at The Daily Beast [in Scoop]. Whenever Lord Copper was right Mr Salter said: ‘Definitely, Lord Copper.’ Whenever Lord Copper was wrong Mr Salter said: ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’ ‘Hong Kong belongs to us, doesn’t it?’ ‘Definitely, Lord Copper.’ ‘Yokahama, capital of Japan, isn’t it?’ ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’ But I can’t recite it.
This interview was first published in November 2010.