BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

All we are saying ...

As those following along at home will no doubt have a pretty good sense of, I tend towards the depressed side of the bummed-happy gauge, and have been informed (generally in the wake of an infrequent ha-ha outburst) that I almost never laugh, generally going months with the most outwardly expressed levity being a wry chuckle. I bring this up because twice while reading this book I quite literally Laughed Out Loud … and to elicit an LOL event from me is something of a momentous achievement.

Of course, P.J. O'Rourke's Give War a Chance: Eyewitness Accounts of Mankind's Struggle Against Tyranny, Injustice and Alcohol-Free Beer is a collection of humorous articles that he wrote over a period of time, largely from less-than-funny settings where people were shooting at each other, and one would hope that he'd be spinning these tales in a way that wasn't as grim as they could be. Also, Mr. O'Rourke is “on my side of things” politically, and this book seemed to me to be even “more agreeable” on that level than the other books of his that I've read over the years.

Oh, and speaking of years … this is sort of “vintage” at this point, the book having come out in 1992, containing material that he'd written from 1988-1991 … so we're looking at stories that are at least a quarter-century old here. Given that I'm edging into “cranky old guy” territory, and so pretty clearly remember the stuff he's writing about, there is the constant danger that when he's mocking some public figure, said figure may well be long dead at this reading, and in some cases reasonably much forgotten. Fortunately, this is not much of a factor here (well, except in one part savaging the Carters, but they're an evergreen target for mockery) … although a 20-something hitting this might need to Google the hell out of it just to keep up. Why, you may ask, am I just now getting to a book that's been out for 25 years? Well, somewhat predictably, it's a find from this summer's Newberry Library Book Fair, a famed annual event, which is largely stocked by the contents of the libraries of many people who have died in the Chicago area over the previous year … so this is likely to be one of those “dead people's books” that I scored for a buck on NLBF's half-priced Sunday.

Well, on to the book … the pieces here initially appeared in a fairly wide assortment of media, with most being done for Rolling Stone where he is (and here's the first LOL instance) “the 'Foreign Affairs Desk Chief,” a title given to me because 'Middle-Aged Drunk' didn't look good on business cards”, and American Spectator … he does note, however, that ABC Radio ended up sending him to Saudi Arabia (solving his visa issues), where he filed what he admits were less-than-stellar audio bits. Others appeared in (or were commissioned by) such titles as New Republic, Playboy, Inquiry, Vanity Fair, and even Car & Driver and House & Garden. The book is broken into four generally thematic sections, the first, “The Birth, and Some of the Afterbirth, of Freedom”, dealing with the decline of Communism in various parts of the world, next “Second Thoughts”, which takes a look at a number of topics, from cars to drugs to our meddlings around the world, thirdly “A Call for a New McCarthyism”, which has fairly nasty things to say about the Carters, the Kennedys, and Lee Iacocca; and, finally, the titular “Give War a Chance”, with his boots-on-the-ground descriptions of the (first) Gulf War. Needless to say, with 27 pieces, and no unifying narrative arc (well, aside from what he suggests in the introduction), I'm going to be cherry-picking “the good parts” that got me sticking in bookmarks (or actually laughing) as I was reading this.

I did mention the political sympatico, right? Well, this gets off to a roaring start at the very first page, where he's defining the book:
      Anyway, it's a book about evil – evil ends, evil means, evil effects and causes. In a compilation of modern journalism there's nothing surprising about that. What does surprise me, on rereading these articles, is how much of the evil was authored or abetted by liberals. … every iniquity in this book is traceable to bad thinking or bad government. And liberals have been vigorous cheerleaders for both.
Talk about “preaching to the choir” and getting me involved early on! This is followed by a couple of pages picking apart liberalism in barbed detail, and, while I had a bookmark pointing to it, I'm thinking that anything that I'd snag from there would end up being longer than it ought to be here (Amazon's “look inside” feature unfortunately skips p.xx, where the choicest bits are, but does have p.xxi and p.xxii which at least give you a look at this).

One piece that sort of stands out as being somewhat out-of-place amid the other “geopolitical” tales is a May 1988 trip to Ulster to consider “the troubles” from his American Irish viewpoint. Perhaps it's, me, but I can't recall much of anything about Ireland being in the news, except for its burgeoning entrepreneurial and tech sectors … so maybe this was a last gasp for the worst of that conflict. The section that I marked in this was more for the age of the piece than for anything else:
Tony and I spent out last day in Northern Ireland with the police, who are much like the police anywhere in the world – apprehending shoplifters, tracing stolen VCRs, quieting domestic tiffs – except they perform these duties wearing flak vests, carrying submachine guns and riding in armored cars.
Uh, tracing VCRs? I remember (a long time ago) when a perfectly functional VCR could be had a Walgreens for under sixty bucks, so this is a look back into a dim and distant past when that video deck was a serious piece of technological equipment. Just sayin'. Oh, and while we're in the random look-at-that mode, in the intro to the “Second Thoughts” section, called “A Serious Problem”, there is a bon mot that I've already foisted on Facebook … “Seriousness is stupidity sent to college.” … sweet!

Now, sometimes my little bookmarks are hard to figure out when I get around to cranking out these reviews, and there's one sitting right up front in “Second Thoughts About the 1960's”, which I can not figure out what was choice enough to get it placed there. Not, mind you, that those two pages, with “What I Believed in the Sixties” (which starts out with “Everything. You name it and I believed it.”, and the launches into a long litany of specifics), and “What Caused Me to Have Second Thoughts” (with the rather delicious intro of “One distinct incident sent me scuttling back to Brooks Brothers.”), don't have fascinating tidbits, but I couldn't identify something to present to you. The main story of this chapter is about a “counterculture” newspaper that he worked on in Baltimore back in the day, but it then spins out from the “adolescent behavior” aspects of the 60's and into similar sorts of stupidity in assorted unpleasant places around the globe where the third worlders are acting towards Western Culture in general (and, of course, the U.S. in particular) the way a 16-year-old in the 60's acted towards their parents. The payoff on this marker is at the end, but I'm going to type up the whole scenario so that it comes with the right baggage:
In Ulundi, in Zululand, I talked to a young man who, as usual, blamed apartheid on the United States. However, he had just visited the U.S. with a church group and told me, 'Everything is so wonderful there. The race relations are so good. And everyone is rich.' Just what part of America had he visited, I asked. 'The South Side of Chicago,' he said.”
The next thing I marked was also about Africa, but about the delusional approaches that most bleeding-heart types have been trying in an effort to help. The start here is his reflections on the USA for Africa, Band Aid, Live Aid, and similar celebrity ego-jerks, the perpetrators of which “did have that self-satisfied look of toddlers on a pot.” … O'Rourke makes the Voltaire-like connection that:
      A mob, even an eleemosynary {yeah, I had to look it up too} mob, is an ugly thing to see. No good ever came of mass emotion. The audience that's easily moved to tears is as easily moved to sadistic dementia. People are not thinking under such circumstances. And poor, dreadful Africa is something which surely needs thought.
Later in the same piece, he goes into more details on just how bad most “aid” programs have been to Africa (be they originated by the governments there or by carpetbagging NGOs), and makes this rather arch note:
      Getting people to give vast amounts of money when there's no firm idea what that money will do is like throwing maidens down a well. It's an appeal to magic. And the results are likely to be as stupid and disappointing as the results of magic usually are.
Oh, I almost missed one of the best lines here (my bookmark must have dropped out), from his 1989 visit to Berlin, right after the fall of the Berlin wall:
      I had been in East Berlin three years before. And I had been standing on a corner of a perfectly empty Karl-Marx-Alee waiting for the light to change. All Germans are good about obeying traffic signals, but pre-1989 East Germans were religious. If a bulb burned out they'd wait there until the state withered away and true communism arrived. ...
I've gotten shrugs from that line when sharing it with family, but I though it was brilliant, and it's a pretty good intro into the next thing here, his pining for a new “Blacklist for the 1990s”. I'm truncating this a bit to make it more temporally general, but thought the following was pretty great:
God knows the problem is not a lack of Commies. There are more fuzzy-minded one-worlders, pasty-faced peace creeps and bleeding-heart bedwetters in America now than there ever were in 1954. … Academia … is a veritable compost heap of Bolshie brain mulch. Beardo the Weirdo may have been laughed out of real life in the 1970s, but he found a home in our nation's colleges, where he whiles away the wait for Woodstock Nation II by pestering undergraduates with cultural diversity and collectivist twaddle … And fellow travelers in the State Department? Jeeze, the situation is so bad at Foggy Bottom that we'd better hope it's caused by spies. If it's stupidity, we're really in trouble.
There's another bookmark that I'm not sure exactly what I was pointing to (I should, but won't, star the key phrases with a pencil while reading) in a rather odd chapter dealing with his interviewing Dr. Ruth Westheimer (remember her?). The only thing I could figure was this quite delightful observation:
      It can be hard for those of us with SAT scores exceeding our golf handicap to remember that ignorance is a renewable resource. Dr. Westheimer has tapped into vast proven reserves of it. Whatever she tells these people is bound to be an improvement on what they think now.
One of the things I found interesting in here was that he'd done some book reviews, including one of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's Everything To Gain in which he details five fun party games using the book. While these are hilarious (and cruel), it would be far too detailed for me to try to convey the essence of them … but the sense is that the book is so horrid that organized mockery is the only logical response … oh, and he even recommends a sixth game involving it – fetch with the dog. And, as much contempt as he has for the Carters, it's hardly even nasty in relation to the bile he saves for the Kennedys … but I'll leave that for your own discovery as well.

The last ten chapters of the book are all from the Gulf War, and are all, to a certain extent, more “straightforward” than much of the rest, as O'Rourke is actually in a situation where he's being asked to do some reporting rather than just framing stuff in snark. Having very clear recollections of that conflict (it was widely televised), I didn't need so much of the set-up, and appreciated his descriptions. However, it's hard to sift out the quotables from the more general material here … there is, after all (in 10 chapters), quite a lot of it. However, I did have a few places with bookmarks, and – without context of who/what/where – I'm just going to throw these at you. The following struck me as being particularly notable, due to its cynicism towards government spending habits:
We are sending 250,000 troops, six hundred fighter planes, three naval carrier groups and twenty-six B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf, a little late to save Kuwait, maybe but just in time to rescue the U.S. defense budget. One well-placed ICBM and Saddam Hussein would get the message, but that wouldn't prevent Congress from taking all our Stealth Bomber money and giving it to naked NEA performance artists to rub on their bodies while denouncing male taxpayers.
Ouch. He goes on to discuss the concept of our being “the world's policeman”, but says:“America is the World's policeman, all right – a big, dumb mick flatfoot in the middle of the one thing cops dread most, a 'domestic disturbance'.”, which, if you think of it, most of the middle-eastern conflicts do resemble. Elsewhere, he has “a good one” with:“… Aqaba, Jordan's only port and a would-be Red Sea tourist resort that looks like a Bulgarian's idea of Fort Lauderdale”, I seem to recall that the Bulgarians get blamed for a lot of bad architecture in the book. There is an interesting story about how he almost gets himself blown up by a box of RPGs that he discovered (and opened) when moving bricks from some fortifications the Iraqis had slapped together on the hotel roof (he was helping get some broadcast equipment set up), which he later heard from a Special Forces guy (who was unaware that O'Rourke had previously encountered it) that they had found one booby trap – a box of RPGs (right where he'd been), that had a hand-grenade with the pin out – and said “man, if anybody had jiggled that box ...”. One more politically engaging comment (although he doesn't actually mention the decades of Democratic Party management in these locales) is this lovely reflection:
If we want to demoralize the population of Iraq and sap their will to fight, we ought to show them videotapes of the South Bronx, Detroit City, and the West Side of Chicago. Take a look, you Iraqis – this is what we do to our own cities in peacetime. Just think about what we're going to do to yours in a war.
This 1992 hardback of Give War A Chance is long out of print, but there is a 2003 paperback edition which is still available. The new/used guys do have “like new” copies, however, for the magic 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping) price, were you interested in checking this out. As noted, for as old as this is (and being in the “topical humor” niche), O'Rourke's writing has aged remarkably well. Aside from some noted anachronisms like VCRs and mentions of “who was that?” people like Tammy Faye Bakker (who appears in one of the Carter “games”), most of this (especially broadsides at the Left) are as pertinent now as they were then. I enjoyed it, and, unless you're a progressive snowflake, I suspect you will too.

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Tags: book review
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