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Rick Robinson: Chatting with P.J. O'Rourke on "A Cry from the Far Middle"

The following article was written by Rick Robinson for RCN after he interviewed political satirist and journalist P.J. O'Rourke.

In his newly released book, A Cry from the Far Middle – Dispatches from a Divided LandNew York Times-best selling Author P.J. O’Rourke has become the old Irish guy at your local pub that sits at the end of the bar and complains about the state of the world.

“What this country needs is fewer people who know what this country needs,” says O’Rourke in the opening line of the book. 

The difference between P.J. O’Rourke and all the other people offering up opinions over a Guinness with a sidecar of Jamesons (like me, for instance), O’Rourke happens to be pretty much on point in his assessment of today’s political climate and what caused it. In what may be O’Rourke’s best book to date, P.J. offers us a view on how we have become a divided nation and what we might do about it. 

And just in case you were wondering, no person or group is safe from his humorous scorn and no topic is out of bounds from his witty rants. 

Congress and George Floyd: “He (Floyd) was accused of spending twenty dollars in the form of a bank note that had no actual value. The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are currently spending billions of dollars in the form of banknotes that have no actual value.

Free Speech: “… should not only be protected, it should be compulsory. Everyone with a strong political opinion should be required to wear a sign proclaiming it. Hang an ‘Immigration is Ruining America’ placard around your neck and see how you’re treated by restaurant staff, Uber drivers, the people who change your hotel linen and your immigrant grandparents.”

Mark Zuckerberg: “But, honestly, young man, you’re thirty-five years old, worth $72 billion and you’re wearing what a preschooler would wear the first time he’s allowed to dress himself.”

The New England Patriots: “Nationalism turns people into assholes or – as they’re called around everywhere in America except the part of New England where I live – Patriot fans.”

Even O’Rourke’s own children are not immune from his wrath. “I have three school age children with strong opinions about climate-change, but who can’t remember to close the front door in the wintertime. The traditional dad line ‘We’re not heating the outdoors,’ hasn’t worked, so I appeal to their wokeness: ‘That would cause global warming.’”

The normal string of O’Rourke one-liners aside, this book delves deep into what is dividing this nation and how we got to this point. From the death of personal freedoms that was once the foundation of Classical Liberalism to the birth of social media, O’Rourke take his readers on a thoughtful journey into the heartland of our fractured selves.  Buy the print version of Far Cry. You will want to make notes in the margins. There were three particular points where I had to stop reading and think things through.

My first “think this one through for the day” moment in Far Cry was when O’Rourke looks at literature, like George Orwell’s 1984. To remind readers of a book probably none of us has picked up since college, 1984’s hero (Winston) can’t turn off the television screen that is constantly spying on him. “Our situation is much worse,” ponders O’Rourke. “Winston had one telescreen. We have dozens of the things – desktops, laptops, iPads, iPhones, game boxes. And we, of our own free will, refuse to turn them off.” I filled up a page with notes on that chapter.

The second place where O’Rourke is directly on point is a chapter entitled, “Whose Bright Idea Was It to Make Sure That Every Idiot in the World Was in Touch with Every Other Idiot.”  Congress held hearing on how Russia and China influenced the election in 2016 by posting lies on Facebook. I’d like Congress to hold a hearing on people stupid enough to decide to cast a vote based upon what they read on Facebook.

O’Rourke recognizes that once our citizens became fearless behind a keyboard; the drawing of lines in the sand was not far off. “Social media polarizes our politics – no matter how wrong we are about a political issue – to find a large, enthusiastic group of people who are even wronger. … With social media, we’ve done something worse than create a world where we can hear what everyone says. We’ve created a world where we can hear what everyone thinks.”

Finally, unlike the opening line to his book, O’Rourke does offer advice in a chapter entitled, “What We Can Learn from the Sixties Drug Culture.” Now, I was too young to be a part of the sixties drug culture, but I was certainly interested in learning how it compared to the seventies drug culture. There I discovered we all had one thing in common – it took a lot of weed to believe a Grateful Dead show was paradise found. Maybe this means there is a foundation for mutual understanding.

I recently interviewed O’Rourke for Zoom into Books and he laughed about the drug chapter. “We had such a pious attitude toward drug taking,” O’Rourke admitted. “We actually thought we could create a better society by taking drugs.  Which is like thinking you can build a better automobile by driving it off a bridge. We were so completely wrong.”

In the end O’Rourke believes the foundation for mutual understanding seems to be the point. “I don’t want us to quit arguing about issues,” he said in our interview. “The issues merit argument. They may even merit anger and indignation, but within the bounds of civility.”

The most interesting thing about O’Rourke’s book is that he finished it in 2019 – pre-COVID and pre-BML protests. A pre-preface he wrote after submitting his final version of the book for publication acknowledges these events, referring to the problems of 2019 as the good old days. 

In this pre-preface O’Rourke ponders whether the problems of 2020 will fundamentally change the nature of politics, or will we simply revert to petty arguments. O’Rourke answers his own question in classic P.J. style: “I’m betting that human nature will triumph over adversity and challenge. And I don’t mean that in a good way.”


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