American conservative satirist holds court on the baby boom generation at Ulster Museum for the Hay Festival of Literature
In 2006, on an episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, PJ O’Rourke proclaimed that he was always quick to warn his kids against making wrong choices. ‘Don’t do drugs,’ was his advice. ‘Bring them upstairs and give them to me.’
There are few American conservatives who can get away with this kind of snide panache, but O’Rourke’s dry wit has always served to set him apart from the crass stupidity of the right-wing noise machine. A regular on the equally biting Maher’s solidly left-leaning panel show, O’Rourke’s thoughtful libertarian sensibilities regularly see him cast as the man with whom many liberals are eager to do battle.
Satirist and commentator, journalist and writer, O’Rourke is known for a dense, breathlessly acerbic style, honed throughout his career with Playboy, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly and Rolling Stone — where he served as foreign-affairs desk chief. Tellingly, he also had a stint as editor-in-chief for American comedy bible National Lampoon.
An advocate of participatory, Gonzo journalism, O’Rourke’s reporting took him to a variety of places. Belfast was among them, and his presence at the Ulster Museum forms part of Hay Festival 2014, organised in conjunction with No Alibis Bookstore. Based in the small Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye, this annual literary celebration is frequented by acclaimed poets, novelists, musicians and comedians.
Its relocation to Belfast for this particular date attracts a crowd eager to hear O’Rourke’s wickedly amusing take on the world around us. Hosted by BBC Radio Ulster’s Seamus McKee, the event ostensibly allows O’Rourke to promote his new book, The Baby Boom: How it Got That Way… And It Wasn’t My Fault… And I’ll Never Do It Again.
In reality, O'Rourke is more than willing to offer forthright opinions on a range of topics, with the successes and failings of the eponymous group sitting at the core of his incisive polemic. The breed he invokes are, of course, the baby boomers, defined as those born between the post-war years of the 1940s and the mid-1960s.
In rattling off a select reading by way of introduction, O’Rourke sets his opprobrium at the expected level, describing the period in question as ‘a slumgullion of Americana'. He points out that he and his peers are weighed down by self-regard and debt in equal measures. ‘We are the generation that made the greatest impression on ourselves… We’ll never retire. We can’t.’ Ouch.
He picks his way through the various stages of the baby boom, dividing it up into the four terms synonymous with the US education system: senior, junior, sophomore and freshman. He falls into the senior category, he says, birthed from the greatest generation in an era marked first by fear and pain and, later, by joy and prosperity.
Current US President Barack Obama, on the other hand, is a freshman. The difference between the two, O'Rourke suggests, is quite simple: while others would have been outraged at remarks made in sermons by the President’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright – a ‘Black Power equivalent of Ian Paisley’ and a man of ‘strong views, strongly put’ – freshman boomers weren't.
Obama did not object to Wright’s diatribes because, argues O'Rourke, he was ‘paying absolutely no attention at all'. O’Rourke imagines the scene – the then-Senator was probably in the rear pew, looking at his BlackBerry. ‘Behold the baby boom, ye Mighty,’ O'Rourke intones, ‘and despair.’
Settling into conversation with McKee, O’Rourke moves away from the callous critique inherent to his latest work. He soon notes the difference between the Belfast of today and the dark place he visited 30 years ago. He remembers the manner in which soldiers were defiantly and ‘actively ignored’ by residents in Divis; he was quite taken with it. Those times are far away, he notes. 'It’s a normal place now.’
Born in Toledo, Ohio, to a fairly typical Irish-American family, O'Rourke admits to being stumped by the complexities in this corner of his ancestors’ homeland, or, as he describes it, 'the piece of Ireland that passeth all understanding'.
Indeed, on the subject of his heritage, he offers some insights into the family background that formed him. John F Kennedy may have been an icon of the last century and a quasi-saint in Irish communities on either side of the Atlantic, but O’Rourke’s people were less than sure about the future president.
‘My grandfather hated Jack Kennedy in the way only an Irishman can hate another… He called them “lace-curtain Irish with fruit on the table when nobody in the house is sick".’ It is a fascinatingly familial observation from a man often characterised by irreverence and humour.
Before the end, however, O’Rourke manages to get his teeth into politics and current affairs. The post-conflict plans for the Iraq war were, he admits, an ‘unmitigated disaster’. More recently, in his estimation, Obama is a charming individual with no clue about how to conduct foreign policy, an unfortunate flaw in a world where Russia and China do not mean ‘us, all of us, at all well'.
That said, the president should not take such criticism personally because O’Rourke believes in only ever being critical of those in government. ‘Admiring politicians is not advised behaviour,’ he says.
One is left with the impression that O'Rourke suffers no fool lightly, regardless of political outlook. When McKee presses him for comment on the rise of UKIP and Nigel Farage, O’Rourke deadpans slyly. ‘Who is that?’
The Baby Boom: How it Got That Way… And It Wasn’t My Fault… And I’ll Never Do It Again is available now. Visit the No Alibis Bookstore and Ulster Museum websites for information on forthcoming events.