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1 FASHIONABLE WORRIES
If Meat Is Murder, Are Eggs Rape?
This is a moment of hope in history. Why doesn't anybody say so? We are no longer in grave danger of the atomic war which, for nearly fifty years, threatened to annihilate humanity and otherwise upset everyone's weekend plans. The nasty, powerful and belligerent empire that was the Soviet Union has fallen apart. It's nothing now but a space on the map full of quarreling nationalities with too many k's and z's in their names — armed Scrabble contestants. The other great malevolent regime of recent days, Red China, has decided upon conquest of the world's shower flip-flop market as its form of global domination. The bad political ideas that have menaced our century — fascism, communism, Ted Kennedy for President — are in retreat. Colonialism has disappeared, and hence the residents of nearly a quarter of the earth's surface are being spared visits from Princess Di. The last place on the planet where white supremacy held sway has elected a president of rich, dark hue. Apartheid-style racism is now relegated to a few pitiful and insignificant venues such as the U.S. Senate (and, if you think Caucasians have any claim to genetic superiority, imagine majoring in U.S. Senate Studies).
Things are better now than things have been since men began keeping track of things. Things are better than they were only a few years ago. Things are better, in fact, than they were at 9:30 this morning, thanks to Tylenol and two Bloody Marys.
But that's personal and history is general. It's always possible to come down with the mumps on V-J Day or to have, right in the middle of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a piece of it fall on your foot. In general, life is better than it ever has been, and if you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: "dentistry."
We know the truth of these matters from stories we've heard in our own homes. Existence has improved enormously within the lifetimes of our immediate family members. My Grandfather O'Rourke was born in 1877 and born into a pretty awful world, even if we don't credit all of his Irish embroidery upon the horrors. The average wage was little more than a dollar a day. That's if you had a job. O'Rourkes were not known to do so. The majority of people were farmers, and do you know what time cows get up in the morning? Working outside all day before sunblock or bikinis had been invented, agricultural laborers got very spotty tans. People had to make their own fun, and, as with most do-it-yourself projects, the results were ... witness quilting bees. And the typical old-fashioned diet was so bad it almost resembled modern dieting.
Women couldn't vote, not even incredibly intelligent First Ladies who were their own people and had amazing inner strengths plus good luck playing the cattle futures market. (For all we know, Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes had quite an eye for beef on the hoof.)
Without a voting First Lady, there was no health-care reform. Of course, there was also no health care. And not much health. Illness was ever-present, and the most trivial infection might prove fatal. The germ theory of disease as argued by Pasteur was just another wacky French idea with no more effect on the people of the 1870s than Deconstructionism has on us. Men customarily wed multiple wives, not by way of philandering but because of deaths in childbirth. The children died, too, sometimes before a suitable foot-long nineteenth-century name could be given them. A walk through an old graveyard shows our ancestors often had more dead children than we have live ones.
Pollution was unchecked and mostly unthought of. Sewage was considered treated if dumped in a river. Personal hygiene was practiced, when at all, on the face, neck, and hands up to the wrists. My mother's mother (from the indoor-plumbing side of the family) said that, when she was little, a hired girl had told her to always wear at least one piece of clothing when washing herself "because a lady never gets completely undressed."
Everything was worse for everybody. Blacks could no more vote than women could and were prevented from doing so by more violent means. About 10 percent of America's population had been born in slavery. "Coon," "kike," "harp" and "spic" were conversational terms. It was a world in which "nigger" was not a taboo name, but the second half of "Beavis and Butt-head" would have been.
Nowadays we can hardly count our blessings, one of which is surely that we don't have to do all that counting — computers do it for us. Information is easily had. Education is readily available. Opportunity knocks, it jiggles the doorknob, it will try the window if we don't have the alarm system on.
The highest standards of luxury and comfort, as known only to the ridiculously wealthy a few generations ago, would hardly do on a modern white-water rafting trip. Our clothing is more comfortable, our abodes are warmer, better-smelling, and vermin-free. Our food is fresher. Our lights are brighter. Travel is swift. And communication is sure.
Even the bad things are better than they used to be. Bad music, for instance, has gotten much briefer. Wagner's Ring Cycle takes four days to perform while "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" by the Crash Test Dummies lasts little more than three minutes.
Life is sweet. But you could spend a long time reading, going to the movies, and watching TV and not hear this mentioned. Especially, watching daytime TV. Of course, if you're watching a lot of daytime TV your life probably is dreadful. But, as I pointed out, that's your problem, not history's. History is on a roll, a toot, a bender. No doubt it will all come crashing down around our ears one day when a comet hits the earth or Sally Jessy Raphaël becomes Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But, in the meantime, we should be enjoying ourselves, and we are not. Gloom enfolds the earth. Tales of woe reach us from every corner of the globe. Moans of "unfair," "unjust," and "poor me" are heard around the planet and are nowhere louder than in my own backyard.
Right now, at the end of the second millennium, is the best moment of all time, and right here, in the United States, is the best place to be at that moment. And do I hark to sounds of glee echoing midst purple mountains' majesty and rolling across the fruited plains? No. I hear America whining, crybaby to the world. I behold my country in a pet — beefing, carping, crabbing, bitching, sniveling, mewling, fretting, yawping, bellyaching, and being pickle-pussed. A colossus that stood astride the earth now lies on the floor pounding its fists and kicking its feet, transformed into a fussy-pants and a sputter-budget. The streets of the New World are paved with onions. Everybody's got a squawk. We have become a nation of calamity howlers, crêpe hangers, sour guts, and mopes — a land with the grumbles.
On the Fourth of July, 1993, the lead story on the front page of the Boston Globe read:
The country that celebrates its 217th birthday today is free, at peace, relatively prosperous — but deeply anxious. ... The American people are troubled, beset by doubts, full of anger.
And any peek into the media produces examples in plenty of the same sobs and groans, often from improbable Jeremiahs.
In the April 24, 1994, issue of the New York Times Book Review, Fran R. Schumer made reference to "the modern era, when anomie, caused by any number of factors — the decline of religion and community, the anonymity of modern life — gave rise to selfish, obsessive, 20th-century man." Ms. Schumer writes the Underground Gourmet column for New York magazine. All she was doing in the NYTBR was reviewing a book about food.
"In a world with the cosmic staggers, where the Four Horsemen ... are on an outright rampage" began a profile of harmless comedian Jerry Seinfeld in the May 1994 Vanity Fair.
Licensed psychiatrist and tenured Harvard professor John E. Mack has written a book, Abduction, claiming that spacemen are kidnapping us. Why should the little green men bother? So they can, said Mack, tell earthlings that we're causing ecological ruin.
"Ecological ruin, shrinking white-collar job market and fear of intimacy confronting his generation" is how that journal of deep thinking, People, describes the subject matter of Douglas Coupland, latest young writer to complain his way to literary prominence.
Coupland's first novel, Generation X, was a detailed account of how wretched and spitty life is for middle-class white kids born after 1960. "Our Parents Had More" is the title of chapter 2. In case you missed the point (or fell asleep while the plot ossified) Coupland included several pages of depressing statistics at the back of Generation X. E.g., according to a Time/CNN telephone poll taken in June of 1990, 65 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-old Americans agree that "given the ways things are, it will be much harder for people in my generation to live as comfortably as previous generations."
Of course it's difficult for these youngsters to know if they're going to live as comfortably as their parents did because the kids are so immobilized by despair over ecological ruin, shrinking white-collar job market, and fear of intimacy that they're all still living at home.
But William T. Vollmann — the youthful author of An Afghanistan Picture Show, Whores for Gloria, Butterfly Stories, and numerous other books (who has been acclaimed a genius by the sort of people who acclaim those things) — knows it will take more than a split-level in the suburbs to redeem our ghastly existences. "I'd say the biggest hope that we have right now is the AIDS epidemic," Vollmann told Michael Coffey in the July 13, 1992, issue of Publishers Weekly. "Maybe the best thing that could happen would be if it were to wipe out half or two-thirds of the people in the world. Then the ones who survived would just be so busy getting things together that they'd have to help each other, and in time the world would recover ecologically, too."
Maybe we should also take dope. Listening to Prozac by Peter Kramer spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list. An article in the May 5, 1994, "Drugs in America" special issue of Rolling Stone said, "Given the psychic condition of the nation today [heroin] may be just what the doctor ordered. 'With heroin,' as a former user points out, 'your life can be falling apart around you and everything's still fine with you.'"
But no. It's worse than that. Being and creation are so horrible, even heroin can't make them better. Otherwise Nirvana lead caterwaul Kurt Cobain would still be with us. And what a tortured cry of existential despair that was when Kurt took a twenty-gauge shotgun and splattered his brains, or whatever it was he had in his skull, all over the Cobain guest house.
"That was his message, that life is futile," a twenty-six-year-old named Bob Hince told Washington Post reporter Jonathan Freedland. Freedland was writing a feature piece for the April 24, 1994, Sunday Show section titled "Generation Hex." He found Mr. Hince drinking in one of the Seattle bars where Nirvana got its start. "We all feel the monotony, we all feel we cannot control our circumstances," said Mr. Hince, who is clearly a spokesperson not just for his generation but for all of America and maybe for space aliens.
Freedland reported that "[Hince] has completed six years of study in molecular biology but is now headed for Alaska to work as a salmon fisherman. His dyed red hair nearly covers his eyes, falling behind the lenses of his retro, Buddy Holly glasses. ... 'It's just ambivalence,' he says. 'What am I supposed to be?'"
Personally, I think Bob Hince won't have to worry about what he'll be if the people who paid for his six years of studying molecular biology get their hands on him. But, as Nirvana would say, "Nevermind." The whole world is rotten. Everything stinks. Nobody loves me. Everybody hates me. My name is Legion. I'll be your server tonight. The special is worms.
Why are we so unhappy? Is it, as that Cassandra of food critics, Fran R. Schumer, would have it, "anomie" caused by "the decline of religion and community, the anonymity of modern life"? Sure. Going to church was always one of my favorite things to do. Zoning-board meetings are also a blast. And wasn't that great the way Mom knew exactly who was downstairs in the rec room with you? "Billy, Mary, Patrick, Susan — how come you kids have the lights off?" And what is it with this anomie stuff anyway? We all know perfectly well we've got no idea what the word means. We might just as well say we're suffering from yohimbine or rigadoon or Fibonacci sequence.
Are we depressed by lower expectations? Back in the sixties I expected Permanent Woodstock — a whole lifetime of sitting in the mud, smoking Oaxacan ditch weed, listening to amplifier feedback, and pawing a Long Island chiropodist's daughter who thought she'd been abducted by aliens from outer space. Show me somebody with lower expectations than mine.
Are we disheartened by the breakup of the family? Nobody who ever met my family is.
Or maybe what's got us down is that God created a world with evil in it. Saturday nights would be damned dull if He hadn't.
Yes, there is misery and suffering on earth. Thanks for adding to it, Killjoy. Life seems pointless. This isn't a reason to party? And the world's about to end. As if we were going to live forever otherwise. Will it matter in a hundred years if we went one by one or in a bunch? Besides, the world's been about to end for a long time, Hardly a mythology lacks its Götterdämmerung. The penultimate verse of the New Testament has Jesus saying, "Surely I come quickly." And he wasn't coming over for a swim. (Note to kids: Finish that math assignment. Somehow the world never manages to end before your homework is due.) Also, if the world's about to end, why aren't things more interesting? Why are people abandoning themselves to cares and gripes instead of to booze-ups and orgies? Why aren't I having an affair with Ava Gardner the way Gregory Peck was in On the Beach?
Fear and dread are not what make us upset, or alienation either. (If alienation is your problem, call John E. Mack and leave the rest of us alone.) We whine because it works. We used to be shunned for weeping in our beer. Now we go on Oprah. If our complaint is hideous enough, we get a TV movie made about our life. Congress passes legislation to give us money and special parking places. We get into college with two-digit SAT scores, and we can sue the school for discriminating against Sad Sacks if we flunk. The president feels our pain.
Grouching is a good excuse. We are, as even the pinko, querulous Boston Globe is willing to admit, "free, at peace, relatively prosperous." We have the opportunity and the means to do almost anything. How come we haven't done it? Here we've got all this material well-being, liberty, and good luck, and we're still our crummy old selves — flabby around the middle, limited out on our VISA cards. The job is a bore. The house is a mess. And Melrose Place is in reruns. It's not our fault, it's life's. The world is an awful place so we're not much good either.
We're all geniuses. We know that. But why haven't we had any genius ideas or done any genius deeds? Something terrible must be holding us back, repressed memories maybe. We forgot we were molested as children by someone we loved. It's coming back now. Milk and cookies weren't all Santa was chewing on after he came down the chimney.
Fretting makes us important. Say you're an adult male and you're skipping down the street whistling "Last Train to Clarksville." People will call you a fool. But lean over to the person next to you on a subway and say, "How can you smile while innocents are dying in Tibet?" You'll acquire a reputation for great seriousness and also more room to sit down.
Tragedy is better than comedy for self-dramatization, as every teenager knows. Think how little attention we pay to a teen who's bustling around the house with a big smile on his face, greeting parents and siblings with cheery salutations. ... Actually, we'd pay a lot of attention and rush him to the drug detox center, post haste. But you know what I mean. Would you rather star in Hamlet or Three's Company?
Being gloomy is easier than being cheerful. Anybody can say "I've got cancer" and get a rise out of a crowd. But how many of us can do five minutes of good stand-up comedy?
And worrying is less work than doing something to fix the worry. This is especially true if we're careful to pick the biggest possible problems to worry about. Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.
Thus, in fin de siècle civilization, we find ourselves with grave, momentous concerns galore.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "All The Trouble in the World"
Copyright © 1994 P. J. O'Rourke.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 FASHIONABLE WORRIES If Meat Is Murder, Are Eggs Rape?,
2 OVERPOPULATION Just Enough of Me, Way Too Much of You,
3 FAMINE All Guns, No Butter,
4 ENVIRONMENT The Outdoors and How It Got There,
5 ECOLOGY We're All Going to Die,
6 SAVING THE EARTH We're All Going to Die Anyway,
7 MULTICULTURALISM Going from Bad to Diverse,
8 PLAGUE Sick of It All,
9 ECONOMIC JUSTICE The Hell with Everything, Let's Get Rich,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I went through a P.J. O'Rourke phase a few years back. At the time, I was in a more right-wing frame of mind, so you have to take that into account. Still, I can't deny that I find his stuff well-written and incredibly funny. This book skewers environmentalism and its disciples.As I've thought about why I still find this book amusing even with my political conversion, I can only say that it reminds me of Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier where he describes your "typical" leftist. There's a bit of that in O'Rourke's piece. I don't agree with Mr. O'Rourke's conclusions, but he makes me disagree with him in an amiable manner. He seems like the kind of conservative I'd like to hang out with. But that's just me...
P. J. O'Rourke has long been what conservatives need -- a smart counter-attack to traditional liberal cries of victimhood veiled in a wicked wit. In this volume, O'Rourke takes on all the heavyweights in Chicken Little's Annual Sky is Falling Contest, including famine, overpopulation, plague, and the rest of the apocalyptic horsemen. P. J. doesn't take the easy route and show pictures of starving orphans, nor does he break out the Ethiopian jokes. Instead, he goes deeper into the issues, talking not only to top theorists but also to those most affected by the issues. Not only is the result fascintaing reading, but as even the most casual reader can attest, O'Rourke's wit makes it a treat to read anything he writes, including perhaps his grocery list. Every page has at least one laugh-out-loud line, if not more. This book easily ranks with O'Rourke's other comic-political masterpieces Holidays in Hell and Parliament of Whores. Buy more than one copy, because when you loan this one out you won't be getting it back.
This is a book for those fanatics who get twisted up about their cause (be it famine, overpopulation, world ecology, etc.). It is also a book for people who don't feel the need to be overexcited or over-fanatical about anything. I am to young too be a 'right winger' or a 'left winger,' and too involved with life to want to become either one (Who cares about my stance on famine in Somalia when I have to care about what's for dinner?), and this book is the same; neither left or right-winged. It IS something that both 'lefts' and 'rights' seem to shy away from, it is factual and fun. As the ancient Greeks prescribe, P.J.'s writings are moderate in all things; even in moderation. He is not out to make conservatives or liberals look silly (they can do that on their own). He simply takes a fact that seems impressive and compelling, compares it to a similar fact that is not so impressive or compelling, cracks out a few funny lines to help the reader remember the facts, and then asks 'Why are we all so determined to stress ourselves to death over this?' This book tends to offend those who have opinions not based in fact. So when the book hits you, it may be a little embarrassing to find out that all those things you've been screaming about since 1969, racism, war, famine, are not as bad as you enjoy pretending them to be.
It debunks the psuedo science used by enviro-thugs like Al Gore. The beautiful use of common sense to expose the myths of the left brought tears to my eyes. Favorite chapter? Overpopulation. What a farce it is and how it's basically leftist racism. "Too much of them, just the right amount of us." This book is not right wing politics. It is common sense Libertarianism exposing the power grubbing doomsayers for what they are.
I have been called liberal in the past, and some call me that now. However, PJ O'Rourke is a seriously funny sob, with a serious point. Do I always agree? No. Does he make valid arguements that make you think? Yes. Will he make you laugh til it hurts? Yes. Will you be hit in the next sentence with some very srious thoughts? Yes. A great book...ignore all the pinkos who say otherwise...lol