Parliment of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government, by P.J. O'Rourke, New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 233 pages, $19.95
Only P.J. O'Rourke could glean a valuable civics lesson from the artificial insemination of a cow.
Imagine you are that cow, in a barn, on a farm, somewhere in New Hampshire. Life as a cow isn't all that bad, if only because you are too stupid and too busy going about the mundane business of being a cow to know that forces beyond your control completely determine your life. Unfortunately, all good things usually end sooner than later, and sure enough, one day three men rudely interrupt your idyllic lifestyle. One of the men, Pete, is wearing two very long rubber gloves.
O'Rourke was also there on that fateful day, and he is thoughtful enough to share a cow's-eye view of the experience in his latest book, Parliament of Whores. "Getting a cow in the family way is not accomplished," observes O'Rourke, "with a bull and some Barry White tapes in a heart shaped stall." It is instead a rather unpleasant procedure, particularly if you happen to be a cow.
"It's an alarming thing to watch, and I am glad to say that I didn't watch it because I was at the other end," recalls O'Rourke. "But I'll tell you this, I will never forget the look on that cow's face."
The moral of the story has little to do with the sometimes-ugly science of making little cows and a whole lot to do with the always-coercive nature of government finance: "The same look—and for the same reason—appeared on my own face when I began reading the 1990 farm bill. Every five years or so the U.S. Congress votes on a package of agricultural legislation that does to the taxpayer what [we] did to the cow."
Get the point?
This bovine allegory is only one of many powerful tools employed by O'Rourke to construct his twisted, mostly libertarian view of government and politics into "a kind of Devil's Civics Text." O'Rourke's political satire is the 198-proof, grain-alcohol type: harsh, outrageous, and intoxicating to the point of unpleasantness, like government itself. But even when describing an apparently sexual admiration for MK-41 Vertical Launch Missiles, he is hilarious. "This," drools P.J., "is the way to waste government money."
High school seemed like hell at the time, but I don't recall civics class being anything like this. In fact, I don't remember even taking civics, although I'm sure I did. As far as I can figure, the lessons of high school civics are still with most of us; they lurk deep in the subconscious mind, torturing the moral sensibilities of the rest of the brain. Civic-minded behavior only occasionally emerges as an uncontrollable reflex, like regurgitating the Pledge of Allegiance, registering for the military draft, or voting for either George Bush or Michael Dukakis. No one, except maybe George Bush or Michael Dukakis, paid enough attention in high school civics class to know why we actually do these things.
O'Rourke's civics text, on the other hand, I would have remembered. Instead of the usual lessons, like "How a Bill Becomes a Law," we learn that "the U.S. Government is a sort of permanent frat pledge to every special interest in the nation—willing to undertake any task no matter how absurd or useless." Or, "voting in the House of Representatives is done by means of a little plastic card with a magnetic strip on the back—like a VISA card but with no, that is, absolutely no, spending limit."
On democracy: "Now majority rule is a precious, sacred thing worth dying for. But—like other precious, sacred things, such as the home and family—it's not only worth dying for; it can make you wish you were dead. Imagine if all of life were determined by majority rule. Every meal would be pizza. Every pair of pants, even those in a Brooks Brothers suit, would be stone-washed denim. Celebrity diet and exercise books would be the only thing on the shelves at the library. And—since women are a majority of the population—we'd all be married to Mel Gibson."
On political parties: "When you looked at the Republicans, you saw the scum off the top of business. When you looked at the Democrats, you saw the scum off the top of politics. Personally, I prefer business. A businessman will steal from you directly instead of getting the IRS to do it for him."
On taxes: "Remember that all tax revenue is the result of holding a gun to somebody's head.…Thus, I—in my role as citizen and voter—am going to shoot you—in your role as taxpayer and ripe suck—if you don't pay your share of the national tab. Therefore, every time the government spends money on anything, you have to ask yourself, 'Would I kill my kindly, gray haired mother for this?'"
On Social Security: "Ninety-two percent of the nation's mortuary bait gets a Social Security check. A typical current retiree's yearly take is $8,674. In order to pay for this, the Social Security withholding tax on those of us who look at a Victoria's Secret catalog with more hope than regret is now up to as much as $3,855.60 a year.…That means some old doll whom I don't even know is pestering her daughter-in-law with querulous long distance calls, littering her front lawn with plaster ducks, overfeeding her toy fox terrier and haunting the bingo parlors—on my dime."
Where, you might wonder, do such keen political insights come from? Like investigative journalism, political humor is only as good as the questions asked. The well-placed query ferrets truth from the most evasive polyester-clad bureaucrat and insight from the most vacuous politician. Here, O'Rourke is no slouch. He asks broad, philosophical questions regarding the merits of rent-seeking behavior within our political institutions ("What the fuck do they do all day and why does it cost so goddamned much money?"); and he asks the specific, technical questions required to make sense out of the economic and legal quagmire surrounding the S&L bailout ("What the fuck, huh?! I mean, what the fucking fuck?!"). It's an ugly job that O'Rourke seems to relish.
So, apparently, do a lot of other people, such as the readers of Rolling Stone. P.J. O'Rourke's Irrational Affairs column is reportedly the magazine's most widely read—an amazing feat, considering the left-of-center political agenda of the vast majority of Stone's writers, and presumably, its readership as well.
In fact, some of the best chapters in Whores originated in the pages of Rolling Stone—the text most teenagers are actually reading in Civics 101, while the teacher (probably the same one you had) drones on about the unique structure of bicameral legislatures and the delicate balance of power between the three branches of government.
Maybe your kids are learning something in the public schools after all.
Matthew B. Kibbe is director of federal budget policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Nothing written here necessarily reflects the views of the Chamber.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Civics from Hell".