“If there is an underlying argument here, though, it is that Americans ought to quit taking themselves—and their own tribe’s political convictions—so darn seriously.”
n A Cry from the Far Middle: Dispatches from a Divided Land, P.J. O’Rourke ties together a number of columns from his American Consequences magazine with some original content to provide readers with a bevy of laughs. A former Atlantic and Weekly Standard writer, O’Rourke surveys America’s political and social landscape and finds plenty of targets—from politicians to woke activism—for his biting wit.
It is difficult to draw out a central theme of A Cry from the Far Middle. O’Rourke bounces around from critiquing woke ideology, socialism, and the nationalist right to praising traffic jams, fast food, and sixties drug culture. If there is an underlying argument here, though, it is that Americans ought to quit taking themselves—and their own tribe’s political convictions—so darn seriously. Especially as we approach the close of an incredibly divisive campaign season occurring in the midst of an extraordinarily challenging national moment marked by a pandemic and ongoing social unrest, it is worth engaging with O’Rourke’s dry-humor-saturated political takes.
The overweening self-seriousness of the American political and activist classes serves as the principal motivator behind the biting critiques of O’Rourke, a self-described “humorist.” He writes: “We need a political system that isn’t so darn sure of itself. It’s time for the rise of the extreme moderate. Power to the far-middle! Let’s bring the Wishy and the Washy back together, along with the Namby and the Pamby, and the Milque and the Toast.”
Atop a penchant for humor, a deep appreciation for the complexity of the individual and the society that he inhabits pervades O’Rourke’s work, which is why it is such a worthwhile read.
At the root of O’Rourke’s explicit call for “extreme moderation” and his critiques of our political extremes (in a particularly fun and insightful chapter, for example, O’Rourke draws out the Puritanical strain embedded within woke ideology) is O’Rourke’s embrace of complexity. Atop a penchant for humor, a deep appreciation for the complexity of the individual and the society that he inhabits pervades O’Rourke’s work, which is why it is such a worthwhile read. Although the plays on words and sometimes forced humor can be a tad tiring, A Cry from the Far Middle serves as a useful reminder that the issues confronting American politics and society tend not to be simple nor have straightforward solutions—and those who claim they do are likely full of it.
And so, writes O’Rourke, American politics must rediscover a sense of limitation. A recovery of reality (along with a bit more aloofness) is the medicine O’Rourke offers to our ailing body politic. And while dry humor can only take us so far, he is putting his finger on something very real here. We do face immense challenges, but we are never going to rise to the occasion if we are so caught up in petty squabbles, tribalism, and self-righteousness to assess our past, present, and future (not to mention ourselves) with the sort of dispassionate critical thinking that is so badly needed.
Out of his critiques of contemporary American politics—and the many jokes he makes at its expense—comes O’Rourke’s articulation of his own political philosophy, which is best described as libertarian-leaning conservatism or classical liberalism. His distrust of the morally righteous and the oversimplifiers that dominate American political discourse today lays at the core of his rather enjoyable and persuasive defense of free-market capitalism. A belief in the abilities of everyday people to make their own decisions for themselves must reside at the core of any belief in a free market—as opposed to an economy overseen by some controlling authority that, well, knows better.
In the midst of its many (perhaps too many) humorous quips and asides, A Cry from the Far Middle treats its readers not only to a worthwhile defense of the free market but also to a few particularly interesting policy ideas. If the polls are correct and President Donald Trump’s time in office will soon be over, we might get back to debating policies again, so it is worth paying attention to the policy recommendations of intelligent, reasonable people like P.J. O’Rourke.
O’Rourke runs the numbers and makes a persuasive case that if we are serious about combatting poverty in this nation, it might be high time that we just give poor people money instead of funneling millions upon millions of federal dollars into a bloated and complex welfare and social services bureaucracy each year. In the words of O’Rourke: “What makes people poor is not having money.” Therefore: “Just give them the money.” It is a simple yet radical idea, one whose time might have finally arrived, I hope.
While less tied to policy itself, O’Rourke’s discussion of the rhetoric of positive rights is especially illuminating. The issue with positive rights, in O’Rourke’s telling, is simple enough: Someone has to finance your positive “right” to health care, education, etc., which is why the rhetoric of rights to advance the cause of universalizing these social goods can be somewhat unpersuasive. He writes, “Idealism should be expressed as moral obligation not political cant…When liberals, progressives, and democratic socialists quit demanding rights and begin invoking duties—our society’s duty to fund education, provide health care, and pay living wages even to congressmen—then I’ll start listening.”
Indeed, we might usher in a less silly politics by acknowledging where rights end and where duties begin. A sense of limitation and an acceptance of reality—imbued with a deep desire to, in fact, foster the common good—would help our politics reach this simple yet seemingly unattainable goal of being a bit less stupid. That is the upshot of O’Rourke’s very readable book, though the chances that the “far middle” will be gaining any semblance of political power anytime soon are, shall we say, low. In the end, humor and humility are not the markers of our politics these days. While this fact diminishes the potential impact of A Cry from the Far Middle, it also is the reason why reading through tracts like this one can be rather enjoyable. Instead of tearing one’s hair out in frustration, it can be nice to step back and giggle at the craziness of it all.
But the utility of laughter—and, thus, books like O’Rourke’s—has its limits. The quips and critiques of a gadfly like O’Rourke can prove useful starting points for forging a way out of our contemporary, irksome politics of blab and unthinking dogma. However, after we recognize the absurdity of it all, we must begin articulating a positive vision, a way forward. Readers looking for such a vision ought not look to O’Rourke. But if one is feeling particularly fed up with the unreasoning, self-righteousness, hysterics, and other less than savory aspects of our politics, A Cry from the Far Middle might be exactly what one needs. Before we start laying out big-picture agendas, some catharsis might be in order.
Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. He can be found on Twitter @TomsTakes98