Witte Lecture with PJ O’Rourke: How to (Grimly) Laugh Again

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PJ O’Rourke

By Cole Cronk | Special to the NB Indy

After attending the Newport Beach Library Foundation’s first virtual Witte Lecture on Friday, Feb. 19 featuring author PJ O’Rourke, I have no doubt that the name of the series is accurate.

PJ O’Rourke is a political satirist and best-selling author whose latest book, “A Cry from the Far Middle: Dispatches from a Divided Land,” was published in 2020.

After experiencing this event, I can say that PJ is one of the wittiest and sharpest political voices I’ve ever heard. Hilarity is not a word I’d use to describe the current state of America, but listening to PJ was a pleasure despite the somber nature of today’s politics.

PJ talked about growing up in Toledo, Ohio, with an ill mother and an alcoholic mother. “The only thing I had going for me was books,” PJ noted. “My home was chaotic and loud, but the library was calm and quiet, a place where respect was given to everyone.” As PJ grew up, he got into a lot of trouble, but after contemplating the fact that prison libraries were likely far less impressive than the Toledo Public Library, he straightened his act and started on the path that would lead to a prolific career in political commentary.

After introducing himself and his story, PJ jumped to the present. He talked about how his job is to make fun of things; specifically, politics. But what’s happening these days simply isn’t comical.

“On January 6, I wanted to laugh at the bare-chested Viking that stood over the Senate floor. I thought to myself, ‘is that the most incapable person who has stood there?’ But I had to catch myself. It is too grim to be funny,” PJ said.

Although PJ aligns with the Republican party, he’s denounced Trump from the beginning.

“He’s a politician dressed in a knockoff Republican Halloween costume. All tricks, no treats,” PJ noted. But time moves forward. Two weeks after January 6, Trump was out of office, President Biden was signing executive orders, and America avoided falling into civil chaos. “The best part about January 6 is that it’s over,” PJ said optimistically.

The host asked PJ whether he thinks Trump will remain on our minds and in our media. “America has a very short attention span,” PJ answered. “I hope and believe that we will be saying ‘Trump who?’ in one or two years. Unfortunately, he is not the first phony to be in power. There have been others in the past, and we’ve moved past them.”

Another topic PJ was asked about was social media. He noted that the conundrum of social media is a part of the much larger problem around developing technologies.

“The things they’re coming up with now make the Industrial Revolution look like tinkering with nuts and bolts.” The pace of technological advancements in virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and so much more is too quick for legislation to keep ahead of.

However, after Trump’s falling out with these platforms, PJ is sure laws are coming. “Trump is a nut, but I want to know what he’s saying!” PJ said. “When Twitter and the rest of them take his digital voice away, that doesn’t zip his lips. He will find other ways to talk to his cult following, and then we won’t know what they’re talking about. That’s dangerous.”

Plus, both parties are angry with these platforms, but for different reasons. Democrats are worried about big tech monopolizing the space, and Republicans fear for their freedom of speech.

To wrap up the event, PJ talked about the past and how things have changed for better and worse. “Everything is bipartisan now,” he said. “We used to talk about things. Democrats and Republicans had honest debates, and we respected each other.” However, that doesn’t mean PJ wants to go back to the 1950s. PJ recalled that back then, all of the seats at the table were taken by white men.

“With racial inequality, failing infrastructure, climate change, the pandemic, lazy politicians… America has a long way to go. But it’s great that we are aware of all of these issues so that we can continue to work. We are all in favor of peace.”

The next author in the Newport Beach Library Foundation’s Witte Lectures is Sam Quinones (“Dreamland – Opioids in America: Past, Present, and Future”) on March 12, followed by Shahzia Sikander and Samin Nosrat. All Witte Lectures start at 6:19 p.m.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit https://nbplf.foundation/programs/witte-lectures/.

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