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Parliament of Whores : A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction

    To those who think life is a comedy.
    To those who feel life is a tragedy.
        -Horace Walpole

    Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boy.
        -Parliament of Whores

Perhaps no other statement that I've cited in the many reviews and essays I've written has excited more negative comment than the following :

    Liberalism and comedy are incompatible, humor is fundamentally conservative.

This brought any number of indignant responses, suggesting that there were either many great liberal comedians or no funny conservatives.  The first objection centers around the belief that the politics of a given comedian is equatable to his shtick, which is clearly not the case.  Groucho Marx may have shared the politics of Karl Marx, but his comedy was based on anarchy, not on communism.  And, odd as it sounds, anarchic humor proves conservatism's point.  It is the institutions which conservatives defend that hold back the chaos which the Marx Brothers always sought to unleash.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, it was suggested that programs like M*A*S*H and books like Catch-22 were liberal humor at its best.  Here again the advocates deceive themselves.  Recall Bob Dole's much reviled comment in the 1976 Vice-Presidential debate that the wars of the 20th Century had all been "Democrat Wars."  It is of course true that Democrats got us in to WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.  This despite the fact that Democrats universally hail themselves as the peaceloving foes of the military industrial complex.  Why then do they always manage to get us bogged down in foreign wars ?  Because War is simply the expression abroad of the same ideals they impose here at home.  It is an attempt to dictate how people in other countries should conduct themselves, just as liberalism generally is an attempt to dictate how those of us here at home should live.  War is the ultimate authoritarian big government program.  So when Joseph Heller so brilliantly exposed the absurdity of War, the ridiculousness of an enormous bureaucracy with arbitrary rules engaging in largely counterproductive actions, he sure wasn't going to get an argument from conservatives.  After all, we were the ones--anyone remember Charles Lindbergh--who wanted to stay out of the damn War in the first place.

Numerous other comedians, movies, and TV shows were proffered, all of them supposedly betraying a Left-wing bias, but none met muster.  The overarching reason for this is quite simple : comedy depends on our amusement at the misfortunes of others, while liberalism requires that we feel empathy for those misfortunes.  You can't have both.  Comedy consists of making fun of people.  Black comedians don't use their routines to denounce white people, they use them to poke fun at black people.  Ditto for women, gays, etc.  Or, when they do aim their routines at other groups, it's always straight, white, Christian, men who are the butt of the joke, since they are the only cohort in society that, by definition, are incapable of being victims.  And the problem with this form of humor is that it creates a kind of psychic dissonance ; on the one hand men are stupid, on the other they are the oppressors.  Who wants to admit that they are oppressed by a bunch of bungling idiots ?  What does that make you ?

Humor and conservatism though, go hand in hand.  Firstly, conservatives are just a bunch of fat self-satisfied louts anyway, exactly the kind of people who find the misfortunes of others hilarious.  Second, humor, which cuts people down to size, puncturing their presumptions, and humbling them, fits in perfectly with the conservative understanding of Man's relative insignificance, and men's incompetence.  It is precisely because we are all a load of bumbling fools that we should not allow one group of dolts to dictate to the rest.  Only liberals, who believe in the infinite capacity of their own minds to determine solutions to problems and implement them effectively, have the temerity to suggest that person A should, or can, make decisions for persons B, C, & D.  They are all earnestness and credulity, while we are all skepticism.

Which brings us to the second general objection, that there are no conservative wits.  Asked to name a few, here's the list I came up with off the top of my head :  Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Calvin Coolidge, P. G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Winston Churchill, W. C. Fields, E. B. White, James Thurber, Bob Hope, Frank Capra, Jean Shepherd, Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, Christopher Buckley, P. J. O'Rourke, Joe Queenan, Andrew Ferguson, etc.  Though it's not uniformly true, it is generally so, that most of these men derived much of their material from looking askance at government.  And here we see why it is that there are so many more funny conservatives than liberals : liberals are basically cut off from that rich source of material.  Imagine that liberals and conservatives are "playing the dozens," should the liberal point out the truly comic waste at the Defense Department, the conservative will be more than happy to concede the point, after all, the military is just another branch of government, and to acknowledge the general incompetence of government.  Suppose our imaginary liberal comic decries the inequities of the tax code; fine--we agree--scrap it.  And so on.  Therefore, they've ceded this territory to conservatives, who have proceeded to do much with it.

Among the current crop of humorists, P. J. O'Rourke is one of the very best.  Though it must be acknowledged that he's operating in a target rich environment, his stories of government stupidity, overreach, waste, and arrogance are truly funny.  He's pretty much a libertarian, though made uncomfortable by many of the social behaviors that it would allow and overly enamored of the armed forces, so he's just as likely to light out after stupid Republican ideas as he is to castigate Democrats. Parliament of Whores finds him in the perfect position to flail both, as he follows George Bush the elder to Washington in 1989, and sets out to examine the entire U. S. government.

Unsuspecting readers may assume that O'Rourke is just going to snidely lambaste bureaucrats, politicians, institutions, and government generally, but that assumption really underestimates him.  He's after much bigger game, as he reveals in the title of the book :

    Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy, the whores are us.

The various government employees and elected officials actually come out looking pretty good.  As portrayed by O'Rourke, they seem for the most part to be genuinely dedicated to their work and trying to do the best they can.  It is the American people who come out of this looking pretty awful.  Time and again, as he shows how useless, wasteful, and outrageously expensive the myriad government programs are, O'Rourke also makes it clear that they exist, and exist at such bloated sizes, because they have constituencies.  And those constituencies are not the easily caricatured and vilified underclass, they are more often the regular work-a-day middle classes.  You don't end up with a government as elephantine as ours unless those folks, we folks, in the broad middle have a huge appetite for government services.

In what I think is the best chapter in the book, "Protectors of a Blameless Citizenry," O'Rourke tracks a terrific example of this : the demand for government investigation of sudden-acceleration incidents (SAIs).  If you recall the hysteria, this was the allegation that some vehicles, when you were just parked innocently in your garage, would suddenly lurch forward into a garage wall.  Any objective observer could have taken one look at these SAIs and figured out that they were merely episodes where people shifted into Drive without their foot on the brake, or stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brake.  But to draw such a conclusion would have meant blaming people, blaming taxpayers, blaming voters, for their own carelessness and stupidity, and that would be intolerable.  Instead, it has become the particular duty of government to absolve us of blame for such manifestations of our own ineptitude, recklessness, and stupidity.

P.J. O'Rourke is a national treasure, if for no other reason than this willingness to hold us all up to well deserved ridicule.  The troubling question that he raises in this book, one which Alexis de Tocqueville made in rather more measured tones in Democracy in America, is whether democracy is ultimately doomed by this very phenomenon, of the citizenry trying to avoid responsibility for their own lives.  Once the people in a democracy realize that they can simply blame others for all of the problems in their lives, even those of their own making, the democracy is morally doomed.  And worse, as Alexander Tytler said some 200 years ago, in a quote that O'Rourke cites :

    A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government.  It can only exist until a majority of
    voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury.

Surely, this combination of unwillingness to accept responsibility and eagerness to accept unearned wealth must eventually banrupt a nation, financially and morally.

By all means read this book for the belly laughs it contains, but for goodness sake be cognizant of the broader political message, to paraphrase Pogo : we have met the whores, and they is us.


Grade: (A)


P.J. O'Rourke Links:
    -PJ O'Rourke Web Site
    -Cato Institute
    -American Spectator
    -Weekly Standard
    -Rolling Stone
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Eat the Rich
    -ESSAY : Squishier than thou : Demonstrating against reality in London and Washington (P. J. O'Rourke, The Atlantic Monthly | December 2001)
    -ESSAY : We'll Run this Planet as We Please : And if you don't like it, go back where we came from (PJ O'Rourke, August 25, 2001, Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY : Stupidity in the Golden State (PJ O'Rourke, June 2001, Daily Oklahoman)
    -ESSAY : Bill Clinton and His Consequences (P.J. O'Rourke, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Who The Heck Are These People? (P.J. O'Rourke, Forbes FYI, 03.05.01)
    -ESSAY : 100 Reasons Why Jimmy Carter Was a Better President Than Bill Clinton (P.J. O'Rourke
The American Spectator, September 1993)
    -ESSAY : Why I am a Republican (P.J. O'Rourke)
    -ESSAY : No Fiscal Conservatives Here (P.J. O'ROURKE, NY Times, February 17, 2000)
    -ESSAY : The Liberty Manifesto (P. J. O'Rourke,
    -ESSAY : A Message to Redistributionists (P. J. O'Rourke, Cato Institute)
    -ESSAY : Democrats Are The Bad Guys (P.J. O'Rourke, Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY : A New Birth of Hypocrisy (P.J. O'Rourke, The Weekly Standard, March 1, 1999)
    -ESSAY : How to Explain Conservatism to Your Squishy Liberal Friends: Individualism 'R' Us
(P. J. O'Rourke)
    -ESSAY : An Open Letter to the Other Party. "Dear Democrats..."  (P.J. O'Rourke, The Weekly Standard, 08/21/2000)
    -ESSAY : Catching the Greased Pig (P.J. O'Rourke, The Weekly Standard, February 2, 1998)
    -ESSAY : Welcome Delegates! To Your Democratic National Convention (P.J. O'Rourke,, 08/13/2000)
    -ESSAY : Putting the Moi Back in Memoir (P. J. O'Rourke, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : My Fellow Americans . . .; All My Priorities (P. J. O'Rourke, NY Times)
(P. J. O'Rourke, NY Times)
    -LECTURE : Closing the Wealth Gap (P.J. O'Rourke, June 1997 Cato conference in Shanghai, China)
    -REVIEW : of A Man in Full (PJ O'Rourke, Policy Review)
    -REVIEW : of WHY NOT ME? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency. By Al Franken (P. J. O'Rourke, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing, by Marilyn Schwartz and the Task Force on Bias-Free Language of the Association of American University Presses (P.J. O'Rourke, The American Spectator August, 1995)
    -REVIEW : of L.A.WOMAN By Eve Babitz (P. J. O'Rourke, NY Times Book Review)
    -AUDIO : P. J. O'Rourke (Salon)
    -BOOKNOTES : Author: P.J. O'Rourke Title: Eat the Rich  Air date: January 3, 1999 (C-SPAN)
    -DISCUSSION : Live with TAE : Two men who represent different generations and different branches of conservative thought find they have a lot in common : Robert Bork & P.J. O'Rourke (The American Enterprise Institute)
    -DISCUSSION : 1997 The Year in Review (P. J. OíROURKE, CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, KATE OíBEIRNE,The American Enterprise Institute)
    -DEBATE : WHERE THERE'S SMOKE THERE'S P.J. O'ROURKE Churchillian oratory -- American style -- from the Oxford Union (P.J. O'Rourke)
    -INTERVIEW : with P. J. O'Rourke (Chris Wood, Pure Fiction)
    -INTERVIEW : P.J. O'Rourke talks politics (JIM SLOTEK, Toronto Sun)
    -INTERVIEW : P.J. O'Rourke ... a Q&A  (December 18, 1998, London Observer Service)
    -The Unofficial PJ O'Rourke Homepage
    -PROFILE : Laughing at Big Government, and Crying, Too (Richard Bernstein, NY Times, 1991)
    -PROFILE : P. J. O'Rourke : The Laughing Libertarian (Alysse Minkoff, Cigar Afficianado)
    -ARTICLE : At American Spectator, A Firing Offense (Howard Kurtz , The Washington Post, October 20, 1997)
    -REVIEW : of ALL THE TROUBLE IN THE WORLD The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty (Florence King, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of All the Troubles in the World (Eugene Linden, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of PARLIAMENT OF WHORES A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government. By P. J. O'Rourke (Signe Wilkinson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of GIVE WAR A CHANCE Eyewitness Accounts of Mankind's Struggle Against Tyranny, Injustice and Alcohol-Free Beer. By P. J. O'Rourke (1992) (Terry Teachout, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of HOLIDAYS IN HELL By P. J. O'Rourke (1989) (Tom Ferrell, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of REPUBLICAN PARTY REPTILE Essays And Outrages. By P. J. O'Rourke (1987) (Lewis Burke Frumke, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of EAT THE RICH By P.J. O'Rourke (1998) (Peter Passell, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Eat the Rich  Readers Digest (Gary Marshall, Spike)
    -REVIEW : of Eat the Rich (JIM SLOTEK -- Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Eat the Rich , By P.J. O'Rourke (Diane Hartman, Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of John Preston reviews The CEO of the Sofa by P J O'Rourke (booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of CEO of the Couch by PJ O'Rourke (Griff Witte, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: of Cry from the Far Middle: Dispatches from a Divided Land, by P.J. O’Rourke (Jonathon Van Maren, American Conservative)

    -ESSAY: The real American model: A dynamic free market? No. America's economy is about massive public subsidy of the middle class. The lesson for the world? Don't copy it. (James Galbraith, OpenDemocracy)
    -ESSAY : The Mirth of a Nation : Black Comedy's Reactionary Hipness (Justin Driver, New Republic)
    -ESSAY : Kristol's Ball : William Kristol's feisty Weekly Standard urges on the GOP Revolution (DAN KENNEDY, Salon)
    -ESSAY : The Death of Libertarian Outrage  (Timothy Sandefur, Laissez Faire City Times)
    -Laissez Faire City Times

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