Sunday, November 7, 2010

When Politics Meets Sarcasm

Don'tVoteTuesday’s mid-terms elections were met with instant fanfare among the chattering class. Depressed though they were, pundit after pundit grudgingly conceded that a Republican wave was sweeping the country. According to the latest tally, some 80 Republicans will ascend the steps of the Capitol in January as the 2010 class of freshmen Republicans.

By Wednesday afternoon, even while the ink was barely dry on the final returns, politicos of all stripes had left the mid-term election story behind for want of greener pastures – such as Keith Olbermann’s suspension from MSNBC for <gasp> making political contributions to liberal politicians, and President Bush’s memoirs of his eight years in office. Aside from being relatively uninteresting and unsurprising, such a shift in focus could easily leave the uninformed wondering whether there was an election on Tuesday or not.

It is exactly this myopic perception of politics that P.J. O’Rourke takes on in his latest book, “Don’t Vote, It Just Encourages the Bastards.”

It Just Encourages the Bastards
By P.J. O’Rourke
288 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press. $25.00

As if the point needed clarification, O’Rourke’s literary mien is snark. And for some 270 pages of text, O’Rourke cracks wise  on a smorgasbord of policy topics ranging from taxes to terrorism. The table of contents gives the book the appearance of careful organization, neatly divided into three parts (Part I: ‘The Sex, Death, and Boredom Theory of Politics’; Part II: ‘What Is to Be Done’; and Part III: ‘Putting our Big, Fat Political Ass on a Diet’). But in practice “Don’t Vote” actually reads more along the lines of a compendium of essays, loosely tied around O’Rourke’s “Kill, Fuck, Marry” theory of politics – which, by way of disclaimer for the more wholesome of Pax Plena readers,  is actually the title of chapter one.

The early part of the book explores the implications of O’Rourke’s theory. His point, in less provocative language, is that Americans are obliged to endure trade-offs in the amount of power, freedom, and responsibility we enjoy, for each policy that governments and politicians enact. For example, while we might want an ironclad guarantee of our social security entitlements, we are invariably screwed over by agricultural subsidies, and the latest healthcare reform might very well kills us. And so goes, ‘kill, f&ck, marry.’ (p.7).

Fortunately, the gratuitous vulgarities end, mostly, after chapter one. The remainder of the section outlines O’Rourke’s ruminations on his theory. In the chapter on establishing political principles, O’Rourke discusses at length the problem of ‘progressive’ taxation,’ and the quandary of deciding who is affluent enough to have their wealth redistributed:

But who’s rich? You are. To someone who lives in the slums of Karachi you’re rich. I don’t care if you’re driving a 1990 Geo Tracker, haven’t had a job since Cher was a babe, and your trailer home just burned down because your wife’s boyfriend’s meth lab exploded, you’re rich. (p.58).

The points are well-taken. For anyone who has worked a job of any stripe, seeing the pay stub and all the money you could have earned is nothing short of depressing.

Part II is said to explore solutions to the problems identified in Part I, but the section differs only slightly. The solutions offered are uniformly glib, but by now most readers aren’t expecting profundity from America’s most gifted satirist. Naturally, the absence of gravity isn’t to say O’Rourke loses his touch as the book marches on. In the chapter discussing ‘solutions’ to campaign finance reform (as if the Citizens United decision didn’t already resolve the issue), O’Rourke sardonically questions the influence of money on the political process:

Yet the telecommunications industry, comprising some of America’s richest corporations, is constantly pestered by government regulatory agencies while agriculture, making up 2.3 percent of the GDP, is lavishly subsidized. Government is so inefficient that it can’t even get bribe-taking right. (p.175).

I won’t quote them, but O’Rourke also has similarly amusing observations on the trade ‘imbalance’ with China (there’s no such thing, p.159), the concept of the Family of Nations – a family that is at best dysfunctional (p.186), and the state of political conservatism (p.219).

In all, “Don’t Vote” reads as a welcomed deviation from the political-book norm. In a style all his own, O’Rourke’s presents a velvet glove of intelligent commentary ensconcing the iron fist of sarcasm. What it lacks in organization it compensates for in wit. And unlike some, recent volumes, “Don’t Vote” offers no shrill paeans to first principles, or anything even remotely similar to what Glen Beck might publish. It’s shtick is its author. And somehow the arrangement works.

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