My Political Problem is Me: A Review of “Parliament of Whores” by P.J. O’Rourke

“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” So writes humorist P.J. O’Rourke, in this biting satirical look at the U.S. Government. If I had to read a book on politics this seemed at times like a good one to start with. Partly because O’Rourke is funny and clever, and since I hate politics it made the “medicine” go down smooth. I have been trying to study political theory this year to help myself come to a stronger conclusion about what I believe regarding politics. The truth has been for far too long that I simply don’t care for politics at all. I have an utter disdain for the subject. So does O’Rourke and that helped me continue reading. But his disdain and wit didn’t actually help me change my views about anything. In the midst of my chortling I didn’t come any closer to wanting to continue this study.

O’Rourke is a popular conservative political satirist. He has seen much of the political world and it hasn’t boosted his confidence in government. But Parliament of Whores isn’t just about the bloated and ineffective government policies and programs, it’s about us. In fact the main point of his book seems to be stated rather plainly: Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy, the whores are us (233). One of the more impressive aspects of the book is that it is not simply a rant against the bloated and infective government. O’Rourke is not slow to point out that the reason our government operates the way it does is because we, the American people, are a selfish and greedy bunch. Writing in 1991 he said:

Despite the alleged panic over the budget of ’91, the deficit and the national debt aren’t big enough to wreck America. In the 1980s the annual budget deficit averaged 4.1 percent of the gross national product. This isn’t so bad compared with the average deficit of 22.8 percent of GNP during World War II. And our total national debt now stands at 56 percent of GNP national debt we had at the end of the Great Depression. The problem is we aren’t in a world war or a great depression…In a relatively peaceful, relatively prosperous era, there’s no excuse for these budget trends. There’s also no likelihood that they’ll change. The problem isn’t a congress that won’t cut spending or a president who won’t raise taxes. The problem is an American public with a bottomless sense of entitlement to federal money. (104)

He aptly quotes Scottish historian Alexander Tytler, at this point, saying: A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury (105). O’Rourke applies this specifically to Americans’ insistence on Social Security and Medicare, but this is just an example of what O’Rourke sees as American hubris.

In a rather humours and perhaps alarming scenario he looks at the Sudden Acceleration Incidents filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Here the administration had been receiving complaints about “unintended acceleration or runaway car syndrome. People claim that their automobiles take off at high speed for no reason” (85). The Department of Transportation did a multi-million dollar study on SAI’s despite the fact, says O’Rourke, that they all knew there was no such thing. Why did they do it, why did they waste our money? Because it couldn’t possibly be human error.

The public would say, “Who me? Make a mistake?  Me, the voter? In a democracy we regular citizens don’t make mistakes. We never get in a car and step down on the wrong pedal and run people over. Somebody does these things to us. (92)

We are always in the right, always the victims, always in need. The problem  with our government, says O’Rourke, is us.

O’Rourke points out time and again that we could make a difference, we could change something. “This is a democracy. We’re free to change what our government does any time we want. All we have to do is vote on it” (122). But our problem is that we aren’t serious, as a mass, about politics (119). Guilty as charged. I hate politics and I don’t want to “waste” my time trying to figure out what I believe about it. O’Rourke does a great job of reminding me that the government and those running for office are all lying, deceitful, idiots. And half the time even if I wanted to figure out which policy was the lesser of two evils, these knuckle heads write in such away that it makes it nigh impossible to unpack. What’s a guy to do?

And that’s really where I’ve ended up after reading this rather hilarious, insightful, and surprisingly probing book: indifferent. Where I began is where I’ve ended. Perhaps it was O’Rourke’s snarky comments and wry wit. Maybe in his effort to expose our real problems as a society he has actually just simply undermined the whole thing. His expose on the White House and the budget committees, etc., revealed that in fact politics does suck. And even while I concede his points about our self-absorption as a society, our hubris, our languid attitude, I am no more motivated by his satire than I was by my own self-reflection. I still hate politics, but at least I had a good laugh with P.J. O’Rourke. And that answer, I suppose, makes me exactly the kind of “whore” that O’Rourke is writing about.

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