September 27, 2021
Even though he’ll claim otherwise, our esteemed editor P.J. O’Rourke has a lot to say – and right now, all you must do is listen.
Our staff writer Andrew Amundson interviewed the man of a thousand stories, nudging him to unclench his pearls of wisdom for everyone’s benefit.
You’ll learn the best piece of advice P.J. ever got, what every aspiring politician should do (other than lie), and how much longer America has left.
Bites From the Rotten Fruit of Knowledge
School’s back in session, everyone. Did you buy enough rainbow pencil sharpeners, teletherapy family gift cards, and N95 masks? (Just kidding – you can’t get those.)
2021’s the year we try to revive American education – this and a generation of children, all falling casualty to misguided policies and petty partisanship. We left learning and their young minds as neglected as their discarded Chromebooks on families’ living room floors, with the muffled sounds of a 26-year-old grad student trying to eke out minimum wage dribbling out of their pink headphones on yet another Zoom call.
But before corona, Delta, or the inevitable Omega, there’s always been plenty wrong with America’s classrooms. The dismal pay of educators and lack of essential resources is contrasted with the overgenerous compensation of admin… interwoven with the stranglehold of professional mediocrity enforced by the teachers’ unions.
American education was already a mess… And last year nearly killed it.
And now, with mask mandates either enforced or banned by the states, we have posh private school parents and MAGA types joined together (finally) in a war over Critical Race Theory, and in all this fresh hell, the children gaze down at their devices, lost in the shuffle.
As Mark Twain always said, never let a pandemic get in the way of a proper interview…
Heeding the words of this literary beast, I sat down with another guru to try to decipher the wicked core of American miseducation: Our esteemed Editor in Chief P.J. O’Rourke, who dripped this maxim… Never let politics interfere with a classroom.
And here we are, America. This year, the virus of politics and a politicized COVID-19 will be on roll call with our (grand)sons and (grand)daughters in grade schools…
Meanwhile, college remains a bloated, money-hemorrhaging vampiric business while most adults in the country can’t even agree on what reality is anymore.
All this considered, I thought it was time for P.J. to school some wits into you… It may not help, but it will hurt.
A Kinder Garden
If you ask P.J. what the apple of knowledge is, he’ll claim it’s all distilled to awareness.
P.J. O’Rourke: You need to be aware of everything: science, math, literature, and most crucially, history. You don’t need to understand all these, and certainly not in detail. Nobody’s that much of a polymath. But you have to acknowledge that they exist, and you have to grasp a few of the fundamental rules and precepts. And you don’t have to know all of history, but you have to know that it’s there and that maybe you need to know how to look it up. And not just on Google.
And if you were to try and put your finger on one precedent of what makes a well-educated person, it’s someone who knows what they don’t know.
Andrew Amundson: Do you put much stock in an academic pedigree? Do you care, either way, if someone went to Harvard or Yale?
PJ: Aside from maybe picking some possibly valuable social contacts, it’s meaningless. You can always find those hanging around bars, too.
AA: Favorite teacher(s)?
PJ: I’m not sure it matters that much. My theory on college and high school, and for that matter, grade school, or getting a Ph.D., is that you come across two or three teachers that have a real influence on you.
And that could be your music teacher… it may be the theater-arts teacher. It may not have anything to do with what you end up doing in life. I mean, for me, it was a literature professor in college, Dr. David Frazier, that shook me out of my fog of girls and beer and said, “The way you write, you could do something with this,” and pointed me toward essential things to read. He and his wife Sue paid a lot of personal attention to me, and it was a godsend.
And there was a scary 8th-grade teacher Miss Geiger – an absolute bug for grammar. You may not have liked her, but you couldn’t get through Miss Geiger’s class without understanding sentence diagrams and the fundamentals of grammar. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
AA: How do you feel about Critical Race Theory or curriculums potentially or in reality getting politicized for kids? Are eight-year-olds going to start identifying as Dems or Republicans?
PJ: First and foremost, it’s a terrible distraction and a waste of time. You’ve only got a certain amount of time with kids in two senses – school only goes on for so long, and kids’ attention spans, even when they’re in college, are limited. So on two levels, you have a limited amount of time with a kid as a teacher. And it’s paramount to use that time well. Wandering off into the wilderness of political or social theories is a waste of those precious hours.
It starts with cliques in high school and ends with a Holocaust.
Nazi Germany tested Critical Race Theory with absolutely horrifying results. The Chinese are doing it with Muslim Uighurs. People are individuals – you cannot divide them into arbitrary groups according to hair color, skin color, or religious beliefs. It’s poisonous, and the results are disastrous.
P.J. will contend that one of his best educations was on the floor of the National Lampoon magazine in the 1970s: the watershed comedic tour-de-force publication birthed by some of the darkest minds at Harvard. Before this, while getting his MA in English circa 1970, he claims the point of [his] writing was to be as incomprehensible as possible, which he could do in his sleep… But as he puts it, “Turns out it’s hard to make a living with incomprehensibility.”
But parody gave him clarity.
There was always a golden rule at the Lampoon or Weekly Standard – nobody is so good that we shouldn’t edit them.
It was at Lampoon where P.J. reckoned with the form and concentration required to mock something properly. For him, satirizing was a mechanical exercise focusing on how the springs and levers of ideas and syllables fall together, likening it to deconstructing and reverse engineering an alarm clock, albeit with the watch-face mischievously scrambled and gears scattered in its wake.
AA: Do parody and satire have their limits?
PJ: There was this girl in my freshman English class in college who came back from an assignment to read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal [a satire featuring the human trafficking and cannibalism of poor Irish children]. She was just in tears at how horrible this thing was. You know, a nice little farm girl from No Place, Ohio. So there’s a chance that people won’t get it. But the limitation with satire (beyond missing the joke) is that it forces the audiences to contend with a moral point-of-view. It’s all about making a point.
And in this increasingly fraught and angry atmosphere in America, that approach doesn’t work as well.
It should speak to a moral part of the audience that they maybe hadn’t recognized or considered… Jonathan Swift was trying to draw attention to the tragic situation on the next island over, just miles away in a place ruled by Britain. And his text was the wake-up call.
AA: Do you think everyone now is convinced that they’re a writer? Anyone can self-publish on Amazon, and all tweets or posts are technically digital publications. Are you worried about the state of the English language in 2021, and is there still hope?
PJ: We’ve lowered the quality bar, for sure. I’m not certain how it could get much lower than Twitter. But I gather from things like TikTok that it can. Everybody’s an artist. Everybody’s self-realized. And, of course, nobody is edited. Listen, editors perform an essential function.
The friend of the enemies of social media is tedium. I hope it gets boring for everyone, and people realize they’re not getting anything out of it – other than backlash from strangers and family.
And it’s not just amateur digital-content creators who are guilty of this – some of the older, more established, venerable newspaper columnists prove that point. There are lots of novelists who deserve an ax-wielding to their book.
AA: You’re a child of the ’60s. I’ve thought about the hippies of Haight-Ashbury or Woodstock before and how they relate to the social-justice “wokesters” of today. How would you contrast these two?
PJ: If you’re looking for the key to the hippie-dippy movement, it was about drugs, not Vietnam. Of course, we didn’t want to go to the war in Vietnam. We were having a wonderful time. The woke trend is an offshoot of 1960’s social movements with an extreme political bent: The Weathermen, the Black Panthers.
AA: Abbie Hoffman?
PJ: I suppose Abbie, but Abbie’s behavior with girls would get him canceled these days. I knew him – he was a severe Leftist but a fun guy. And that doesn’t seem to be part of the program these days, to be a fun guy… Or even to be a guy.
Bernie Sanders doesn’t even smoke pot. He never did. And he liked country music.
But most of us hippies didn’t have a lot of time for the Bernie Sanders types. They wanted us to go out organizing, knocking on doors. I went to school in Southern Ohio. You show up at someone’s door with your long hair and your bellbottoms asking a person to sign your petition – you could get your head blown off.
AA: Any parallels between Woke and MAGA?
PJ: You have a framed and unframed vision of life. And a sane person has an unframed version of life, knows that it goes off in all directions and dimensions. But some people want everything to fit into a frame: ultra-religious, ultra-patriotic, ultra-Leftist. The big thing they have in common is a framed viewpoint on life. They think they’ve got the answer to everything somewhere in that frame. And even though these social trends get weaponized, they’ll fall out of style.
AA: Who’s the brightest person you know? Other than yourself?
P.J.: You can leave me out of it! There’s a guy who occupies the Henry Went Chair at the American Enterprise Institute named Nicholas Eberstadt. He and his wife Mary – who’s involved with the Hoover Institute at Stanford – they’re scary-smart.
I did have the honor of meeting Milton Friedman. He certainly needs to be on the list. There are so many people out there that are so f***ing smart… I mean, I opened the hood of my car – and I grew up in the automobile business. My family owned a Buick dealership. I grew up with cars. And I opened the hood of mine just f***ing mystified. And along comes somebody with a 12th-grade education and bingo – you know?
AA: The best piece of advice?
P.J.: “Shut up.” It applies in so many situations. I’d have to say all sorts of moral and ethical things to say to my younger self. “Be nicer to your mother,” and such. But “shut up” would rank high.
AA: And knowing when to leave.
P.J.: Yes, knowing when to leave is a first cousin to “shut up.”
AA: Any words for aspiring politicians?
P.J.: Get a set of principles and stick to it. I mean, we’ve seen it work. Of course, it doesn’t always work. It can cause you to lose the election, or it can cause you to lose the primary. I mean, it’s a little scary to do. But you see it work for people like Dr. Ron Paul or – for that matter – AOC. John Boehner. Bernie Sanders.
You know, get a sense of principles. Stick to them. People will – even people who disagree with you – admire you for it. And it just makes it easier to answer questions for a straightforward reason: because you aren’t lying.
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The Future Is Past
AA: What should every American know?
PJ: History. Not to get dangerously friendly with the Critical Race Theory people, but they’re right about us not understanding our history. And we have to understand that history and how contentious it’s been, how fraught it remains, and what the source of those contentions are… And how (and why) in some cases, we have effectively overcome them, and in other cases, we’ve failed miserably to do so.
AA: What do you try to tell your kids? I know maybe they don’t listen to you anymore. My child doesn’t.
PJ: They listen more than you know. I try to convince them that it is vital to be good at something but that it is more vital yet to be good. Character, skill, knowledge, and wisdom are all beautiful things, valuable things. They are things you should work very hard to attain. But goodness is available to everybody… And it’s far and away the most important.
AA: Did your parents instill you with that?
PJ: Yes, I think they did. My parents died when I was young. So, you know, they weren’t through instilling it in me [laughs]. But yes. They very much did. They were both very good people.
AA: If youth is wasted on the young, is wisdom wasted on the aged?
PJ: To a certain extent.
AA: As in, you have all this to give, but maybe you can’t act on it?
PJ: Well, maybe you can’t express it. You and I are in the business of expressing ourselves. And that makes us forgetful about how hard expressing oneself is for so many people. A little check on social media would indicate that.
Also, I think that as you get older, it gets harder to be listened to – you know, everyone likes a fresh voice. Nobody’s that interested in a tired voice.
AA: As a country, how much longer do we have left?
PJ: I think we’ve got a long time left. America has been written off before, but we’re a pretty resilient place. They wrote us off during the Civil War, the Depression…
The decline of America has been a theme that I’ve been hearing since Sputnik.
And we seem to bounce back through the magic of freedom. The Cato Institute concluded that the country gets in less trouble and spends less money when the Administration is divided between one party in the White House and another party in control of Congress. I’d like to see Congress retaken by the Republicans if for no other reason than to provide some balance.
And I hope Biden pays the political price for his imbalance and bungling. He deserves to. Not sure he will. But if he keeps screwing up on the scale of the Afghan withdrawal, he may well do. But it’s not like the Republicans have shown much sign of intelligence for a while, either. So at the moment, I’m quite politically discouraged.
But I could plunk myself down during the War of 1812 or maybe Wilson’s Administration and would find myself equally in despair. So I try and keep it in perspective.
(Remove This) Appendix
So there you go, America. The lesson you didn’t deserve but got anyway…
P.J., the consummate student of history with a voraciously keen eye for human foibles, has told it like it is.
Bernie doesn’t smoke weed… We all missed out on the Lampoon… America’s not dead yet… Be a good f***ing person, because there’s genius everywhere – fair citizenry, from Nobel-prize winning economists to high school mechanics.
Meanwhile, the ultra-Left and Right have more in common than either would like to admit, tethered by the shared ideological crime of absolute certainty and the even graver sin of humorlessness.
Although P.J. was wrong about one thing – some people want to hear a tired voice, as that is one of a life lived, loved, and learned.
But sometimes, you need to know when to shut up. And when to leave.
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Managing Editor, American Consequences
With Editorial Staff
September 27, 2021