All People Are Crazy
P. J. O'Rourke on the Middle East, the universality of the absurd, and his beef with Mark Twain
The photograph on the cover of P. J. O'Rourke's latest book, The CEO of the Sofa, shows O'Rourke, debonair in a pinstriped suit, reclining on a beige sofa with a martini in one hand, a cigar in the other, and a bemused smile on his face as he gazes into the distance. Behind the sofa, away from his view, two small children are wreaking havoc on the contents of his briefcase. This image, with its incongruous combination of the serious and the silly, the cosmopolitan and the mundane, seems a fitting advertisement for O'Rourke's goofy yet deceptively wise writing.
Since joining The Atlantic last year as a correspondent, he has contributed commentary and reporting on America's response to 9/11, the Enron debacle, and the complexities of the Middle East, among other topics. In each of his pieces he makes considered arguments about relevant issues, often in a roundabout, humorous way. For example, in "Letter From Egypt," his report this month on contemporary Egypt, he asks, "Why has Egypt—and the whole Arab world—made relatively little economic progress?" He theorizes that the answer may have to do with land-use management practices:
Farming in much of the area requires irrigation, a horribly communal activity, like being trapped in an endless Amish barn raising. Then the people of the region went and invented writing. Writing is the enabler of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy leads to the Department of Motor Vehicles model of government, with patronage jobs, wire pulling, and a political hack of a boss .
Islamic commercial wealth was not destroyed by European innovations in ocean shipping. Rather, Europeans were driven to the sea lanes because in the 1400s the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt nationalized the spice trade and forced the Kmart of nutmeg-and-ginger caravans into Chapter 11.
One of his specialties is pointing out the absurd and bringing home to readers that the absurdities we observe in others or in other cultures usually have counterparts within ourselves or our own culture. In his November piece on Israel he wrote of Zionism,
What if people who had been away for ages, out and on their own, suddenly showed up at their old home and decided to move back in? My friends with grown-up children tell me this happens all the time. What if the countless ancient tribal groups that are now defeated, dispersed, and stateless contrived to re-establish themselves in their ancestral lands in such a way as to dominate everyone around them? The Mashantucket Pequots are doing so this minute at their Foxwoods casino, in southeastern Connecticut. What if a religious group sought a homeland never minding how multifarious its religion had become or how divergent its adherents were in principles or practices? . Protestant Zion would need to be perfect both for sniping at abortion doctors in North Carolina and for marrying lesbians in Vermont. As an American, I already live in that country.
While some readers take umbrage at his decidedly Libertarian viewpoint (he is probably one of the few commentators to have argued that the Enron fiasco was the result of too much regulation rather than too little) and his tendency to mock liberal-activist types, it is difficult to feel especially outraged by a writer whose overarching message is to lighten up, put things in perspective, and not take ourselves too seriously.
In his first Atlantic article after September 11, O'Rourke described his qualms about going to press with a piece about Israel that he had written before the attacks. The article, he feared, now seemed too upbeat. But upon further reflection, he explained, it dawned on him that perhaps it is precisely our ability to maintain a sense of humor—even in the face of the worst—that keeps us strong. "In Israel," he wrote, "waves of anger and fear circulate all the time, but so do jokes, and gossip, and silky evening breezes. So, too, in America."
P. J. O'Rourke is an Atlantic correspondent and the author of ten books, including Eat the Rich (1998), All the Trouble in the World (1994), and Parliament of Whores (1991). I spoke with him by telephone last week.
|P. J. O'Rourke|
Judging by your recent Atlantic articles about traveling to the Middle East, and by your book Holidays in Hell, you seem to have a penchant for visiting exotic and politically interesting, but dangerous and decidedly unluxurious places. How did you get started doing that kind of unorthodox travel reporting?
I like to have interesting things to write about. And when one says something is "interesting" one almost always means "bad." Now and then these places I report on can get a little hairy. But after all, New York isn't the safest place in the world, either, or Washington, D.C., where I work.
My eternal message about places like Egypt and Israel or the rest of the Middle East or former Yugoslavia or any of these other difficult places (the technical term is "shitholes") that I've covered, is that there are certain things about human beings everywhere that are just unknowable. If we were to inspect ourselves or members of our family and our friends, we would see that we don't really have to go all the way overseas to be mystified—we can be mystified right at home.
I guess it's a bit of an exaggeration, though, to say that Egypt is a "shithole." It was actually very luxurious. I was staying in the Mena House right by the pyramids, and I didn't perceive it as being dangerous in the least. The tourists had been scared away, but that really just made it more luxurious. My friend and I—an old buddy from Hong Kong—were all by ourselves at all the great tourist attractions, like the pyramids, the tombs, the Valley of the Kings, and so on.
It was great. It's the same way I got to see the ancient city of Petra at the beginning of the Gulf War, when everyone else was afraid to go. I'm probably the only modern person to have seen Petra all by himself.
How did you decide on Egypt as a place to visit and write about?
I picked Egypt because it's the center of gravity of the Arab world. It's far and away the most populous Arab country—more populous than any other four Arab countries put together. And it has a very big economy—bigger than Saudi Arabia's—even though it's poor. During most of the twentieth century it's been the intellectual center of the Arab world. So when I kept hearing about the importance of this thing called "the Arab Street," I thought to myself, Well, gee. Cairo's got a million miles of street. Maybe I'll go check it out.
You were in Israel during Passover and in Egypt during Ramadan. How did those experiences compare?
Israel was much more lively. Ramadan really shuts things down. I had always thought of Egypt as a rather secular country. And I think it is, but people are quite observant of the strictures of Ramadan. I was there for about a week before I realized that I was a daytime animal living in a nocturnal culture. Nobody came out until the sun went down. People were up all night, because the fast is a daylight thing. The big meal of the day comes at sundown, and then there's another big meal right before sunrise. So people—even children—are out at three in the morning. I, of course, was asleep every night until it dawned on me to get with the program.
You're sometimes referred to as a cynic and a curmudgeon, but your takes on Israel and Egypt in your Atlantic pieces struck me as somewhat optimistic. (For example, you describe Cairo as "a place that should be depressing but isn't," and you describe Israel as a place that's surprisingly cheerful and ordinary, considering that it's constantly under siege by terrorists.) Do you think that your ability to find things that crack you up no matter where you go ends up affecting your overall outlook?
I think so. The source of the word "humorist" is one who regards human beings in terms of their humors—you know, whether they're sanguine or full of yellow bile, or whatever the four classical humors are. You stand back from people and regard them as types. And one finds, especially by the time one reaches one's fifties, that there are a limited number of types of people in the world, and you went to high school with every single one of them. You can visit the Eskimos, you can visit the Bushmen in the Kalahari, you can go to Israel, you can go to Egypt, but everybody you meet is going to be somebody you went to high school with.
"There is a question," you write in your piece on Egypt, "that less-sophisticated Americans ask (and more sophisticated Americans would like to): Why are people in the Middle East so crazy?" Do you feel that, as a humor writer, you're able to get away with making certain kinds of statements and observations that authors who write in a non-silly tone would get in trouble for?
One nice thing about making jokes is that you don't have to prove them. If the fact checker comes to me and says, "Are you sure about the population of Cairo?" then I have to say, "Well, I got it from this place or that place." But when they get to a joke, they just say, "This is a joke, isn't it?" And if I say yes, I'm essentially off the hook.
Of course the answer to my question about Middle Easterners is that all people are crazy and always have been. Just look at the pyramids, which are as crazy a structure as anybody would ever care to realize. The ancient Egyptians weren't Middle Easterners in our modern terms. They were a civilization all on their own with a different language and a different culture a gazillion years ago. But they acted as perfectly mad as anything modern. There's a deep streak of psychosis that runs through human beings, no matter what their culture.
Do you feel that people sometimes miss the observations and insight contained in your writing because they're delivered in a silly way?
No, I don't think so. But I do think there is a tendency in human beings to love the serious. Not because we actually get any pleasure from seriousness, but because serious things make us feel important. If someone who was reading a heavy, difficult essay were to be honest, they'd say, "It's not that I'm really enjoying this. I'm enjoying feeling important because I'm reading something that's so serious."
It's a sort of Puritan pleasure. And the people who go in for it usually don't like my writing, or the writing of anybody like me, because we just don't provide them with that pleasure.
You mention Chris Buckley in some of your pieces. Is he a humor writer that you especially admire or identify with?
He's an old friend. He and I live about three blocks from each other in Washington. Dave Barry is a good friend, too.
Does it ever happen that after you've gotten together with them you end up going off and all writing on the same subject?
I don't know that that's ever happened. But I've certainly stolen plenty of jokes from Chris over the years. He'll say something funny and I'll say, "Can I have that, or are you going to use it?"
Flashbacks: "Mark Twain in The Atlantic Monthly" (June 25, 2001)
The story of Twain's association with The Atlantic, and a sampling of his writings.
Are there any older humor writers like Mark Twain, or others, whom you admire?
It's funny you should mention Twain. An old friend of mine is up here from Washington, and we were just having a discussion about Mark Twain. Twain was a genius, of course. But we were talking about his annoying, preachy side. Although I do admire Mark Twain's abilities, if you take the whole body of his work, quite a lot of it sets my teeth on edge. So I'm not a huge Twainophile.
Is that because there was a particular argument he was trying to put forward in his writings that bothers you?
Not really. It was just a sort of sanctimoniousness. He was fond of pointing out hypocrisy, particularly about religion. But a little bit of hypocrisy is not such a hideous evil. After all, people who are hypocrites at least know the difference between bad and good. There's a kind of person who doesn't know the difference, or who thinks bad is good. A hypocrite is preferable to someone like a Hitler or a Stalin who always sticks to the party line.
As for dead humorists whom I most admire, I'd have to say Evelyn Waugh and Max Beerbohm. Waugh is just absolutely amazing. And Beerbohm is not read much anymore, but he was an absolutely fantastic essayist.
Do you ever write (for publication) in a serious, straightforward tone?
It happens. Now and again earnestness will overtake me. It would be more likely to be something like a book review. Some years back I remember writing a piece about how reading Josephus can help to illuminate the modern Middle Eastern situation. I think that was pretty close to serious.
Do you usually try to slip in some jokes here and there, so people recognize that it's you?
Yes. A little joke. Or at least a witticism here and there.
You refer to yourself as a "conservative," but a lot of the recurring themes in your writing—on the importance of freedom and the pitfalls of regulation—seem libertarian.
The importance of the individual is certainly important to me. I do have a strong libertarian streak.
Do you consider that to be a kind of conservative?
Not really. Libertarianism is a way of measuring how the government and other kinds of systems respect the individual. At the core of libertarianism is the idea that the individual is sacrosanct and that anything that's done contrary to the well-being of the individual needs some pretty serious justification. The burden of proof should always be on people who want to restrict the individual's liberty and responsibility.
That's different from conservatism. In its worse forms, conservatism is a matter of "I hate strangers and anything that's different." But in its better forms, conservatism simply says that the structures of society, both civil and political, religious and so on, are the result of a long series of trial-and-error experiments by millions of human beings, not only all over the world, but through time. And that you should toss out received wisdom only very carefully. Obviously there are some ideas that were around for centuries that were not good (slavery comes to mind). But when people have been doing something for a millennium or two, there is probably a reason. And you better be pretty careful before you just throw it out.
Do you find that conservative humorists have a different humorous sensibility than liberal ones?
Well, I don't know about that. I think that all humorists are essentially conservative, because humorists depend for a lot of their jokes on getting the reader or viewer or listener to laugh at things that are outlandish and strange. The audience is not laughing at things that are familiar or, as we may say, "conservative." The ridicule of the new and the odd is at the root of all humor, so in a way, even the most left-wing humorist is a conservative. Christopher Hitchens when he's being funny is an example of that.
So humorists are conservative by temperament?
Yes, I think there's a little bit of conservative temperament in all humorists.
In The CEO of the Sofa you write, "I'm from East Yoohoo, Ohio, went to a state college, and rarely make it past the level of 'Who's buried in Grant's tomb?' when Regis Philbin is on the air." Has that background helped shape your political views?
I don't know about shaping my political views. But it's certainly helped shape my literary views, being a very ordinary American from the middle of very ordinary America. That's one of the things that Dave Barry and I share. He too comes from a relentlessly ordinary background.
I noticed that your family turns up in a lot of your essays. In "Letter from Egypt," for example, you mention that your sister is a Christian fundamentalist, and your father was a Shriner. And your wife and daughter are regular characters in CEO of the Sofa. Have you ever gotten in trouble because of something you wrote about someone in the family?
Yeah. Every now and then I get a wince. Of course the little ones—I've got a four-and-a-half-year-old and a two-year-old—don't really get much say. But every now and then I get a kick in the shins from my wife.
Do you show your family what you're going to say about them before you send it out?
Well, not as a matter of clearing it with them, but my wife is (or has the good grace to pretend to be) an appreciative audience. So I have a tendency to read her things while they're in manuscript.
You make frequent reference to the fact that you were a hippie during the sixties. Were you a conservative libertarian hippie?
No, I was a hippie-dippy hippie. I believed all kinds of you know, that rocks had souls, and communism was inevitable, and long hair would end the war. You name it, I believed it.
So how did you get from the way you were then to the way you are now?
I got a job, at around twenty-five I think it was. I remember walking down the street one day, and I caught a glimpse of my own reflection in a store window. Has it ever happened to you that you saw your reflection but you thought you were looking at the reflection of someone else? Well, that's what happened to me. I was just looking at this reflection and thinking That person is a little old to be dressing like that. And then—Whoops, it was me!
But it wasn't really until the late seventies or early eighties that I started to actually think about where I was leaning—to try and put some theory to my gut instincts. My gut instinct was that Carter was a god-awful President. But I didn't know quite why I thought so. So I began thinking about it and talking to other people and reading things. And I developed a more formed conservatism.
What has it been like going from writing for a hip rock magazine like Rolling Stone to writing for The Atlantic Monthly?
I love Rolling Stone. They paid me very well for years to do any damn thing I pleased. They were incredibly loyal. I remember going to Jann Wenner sometime back and saying I wanted to write about economics. He already had Bill Greider writing about economics. And I'm sure the average Rolling Stone reader's interest in economics was slim to none. So Wenner looks at me and says, "You mean to say I own a rock 'n roll magazine, and now I'm going to have two lunatic economists working for me?" But he didn't say no.
Still, going from Rolling Stone to a magazine where I don't have to explain to the readers who Jane Austen was, and that she doesn't have a city in Texas named after her, and so forth is just about heaven. It's a great relief to write for people who, like myself, have no idea who Blink 182 is—and even less interest in finding out.