Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Friday December 05 2008

P. J. O’Rourke has just been quotulated, the implication being that this is good stuff:

Global imagination, like global climate, seems to have cycles - natural, man-made, or whatever. Sometimes what people imagine for the future is bogged down in the literal - call it “blogged” for short. The last thousand years of the Roman Empire, for example, were no great shakes. The Romans had all the engineering necessary to start an industrial revolution. But they preferred to have toga parties and let slaves do all the work.

The Chinese had gunpowder but failed to arm their troops with guns. They possessed the compass but didn’t go much of anywhere. They invented paper, printing, and a written form of their language, but hardly anyone in China was taught to read.

And here we are in 2008. Name an avant-garde painter. Nope, dead. Nope, dead. Yep, Julian Schnabel is what I came up with too. But it’s been a quarter of a century since he was pasting busted plates on canvas. He’s making movies now. And movies are famously not any good anymore. Name a great living composer. Say “Andrew Lloyd Webber” and I’ll force you to sit through Cats and Starlight Express back-to-back. Theater is revivals and revivals of revivals and stuff like musicals made out of old Kellogg’s Rice Krispies commercials, with Nathan Lane as “Snap.” More modern poetry is written than read. Modern architecture leaks and the builders left their plumb bobs at home. The most prominent contemporary art form is one that is completely unimaginative (or is supposed to be): the memoir.

To top it all off, we have just experienced perhaps the greatest technological advance in the history of humans. And what are we using the Internet for? To sell one another 8-track tapes on eBay and tell complete strangers on Facebook the location of all our tattoos. And, apparently, to tell ourselves what to do with the groceries we just bought.

This is a genre of journalism I especially dislike, namely the grumpy confusion of the average use with the most significant use.  Granted, here at this blog I use the internet to say little of any consequence to any besides me, but even as I (mostly) blog about the equivalent of my tattoo locations, other bloggers are saying more significant things.

They are, to name just one thing that they have been doing today, scrutinising the latest orations of our Prime Minister, here in Little Britain.  Brown yesterday tried to suggest that by spraying public money over the British mortgage problems of the “middle classes”, he will be able to make the financial crisis that he has created go away.  He is taking action!  Unlike his appalled and immobilised opponents, who are now in opposition and are hence denied the solace of being able to rush about doing something.  It’s all lies of course.  Brown’s policies are nothing but frantic running about announcing that he has just covered another huge and hugely disagreeable symptom with a wholly inadequate splurge of government money, for the sake of the only thing this government and governing party seems any longer to care about, namely newspaper headlines.  The only good thing about this particular policy is that Brown is probably not wasting government money on anything like the scale that he claims to be, if only because it is no longer there to waste.  He spent it all.  And bloggers are pointing all this out.  They are combing through the latest effusion of lies for details of why these particular lies are lies.  Lies like this used to last weeks, months, even years, until the lethargic old newspapers finally got around to noticing that they were lies.  Now, such lies last only a few hours, and the next day, the newspapers are full of what lies they were.  The internet did that.  Does all that constitute the incipient collapse of our civilisation?  Not to me.

Besides which, what O’Rourke considers average may not be average to others.  I consider this article of his very average indeed, just a lazy old legacy media hack hacking to a deadline.  But the Quotulator considered it worthy of recycling, and perhaps even profound.  What other people do with their freedom is usually boring and tasteless, but freedom is still a good thing, and the things that free people choose matter to them, or they wouldn’t choose them.  If you thought this O’Rourke piece meaningful and profound, I’m happy for you.  You are proud of your tattoos?  Fine by me.

As for the inventions we are doing nothing with, well, the internet is a classic example of how we are doing things with our inventions, big things.  What happened was that O’Rourke wrote his grumpy article about how “we” aren’t doing anything with our technology, just like those silly old Romans and Chinese, but then he thought, oh, the internet.  Yeah, “we” have rather done that, haven’t we?  I’d better trot out some boring nonsense about tattoos to explain why that doesn’t signify, despite all appearances to the contrary.  But what the internet is being used for - in among many other equally significant things too numerous to list and many other less significant things which together add up to something else very significant - is to do your job, mate.  O’Rourke looks at the internet and deliberately bogs himself down in the literal.

As for art, most art at any given time is tedious.  Most of the music of Mozart’s time was dross.  And as for most of the modern architecture of the fifties and sixties, which O’Rourke praises earlier in his piece, well, where do you start?

I often like O’Rourke a lot, and surely will again soon.  I loved his early books of reportage.  He is at his best when he gets out and about and reports, often very enthusiastically, what people are doing of the sort that the rest of us don’t know about.  He is at his worst when, as here, he stays at home (in this case in his car) and bitches about the commonplace.  Remember the appalling CEO of the Sofa?  No?  Lucky you.

I used that same passage as a quote of the day recently.

I agree with you about the quality of P.J. O’Rourke’s earlier works. The first time I hit the wall with him was his “Enemies List” . . . I had no idea what the heck he was talking about. The humour, what there was of it, seemed to be added as a very late afterthought. It had all the charm of a contractual obligation book.

I’m still hoping that “Enemies” and “CEO” are blips and not the true trend.

Posted by Nicholas on 06 December 2008

Every author has the equivalent of a bad hair day, and I am afraid that CEO of the Sofa qualifies as a very bad, bad hair day indeed.

Eat the Rich is, in my opinion, one of the best of his “late period” books, by contrast.

Posted by Tom on 08 December 2008
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