Covering the Democrat primary race, The Australian’s Stephen Romei makes reference to a joke made by Canadian columnist Mark Steyn.
That’s quite an amusing line from Steyn …[it] helps explain why neo-cons love him so. He possesses something they dearly like to have but know in their dreary hearts they never will: a sense of humour. Too bad his political analysis is a joke.
Going on Steyn’s record for the past two years I’d back his sometimes crazy analysis over Romei’s any day, but that’s another story. Of interest here is the reference to neo-cons and their sense of humour, or lack thereof. The implication is fairly clear, neo-cons, conservatives, indeed all those "dreary hearts" on the Right of the political spectrum just aren’t funny.
This certainly holds true in Australia where the liberal Left dominates the world of satire and humour. Columnists, cartoonists, playwrights, radio announcers and comedians find the Right rich with subjects for mirth and ridicule. Though with so many singing from the same hymn sheet, sometimes it gets a little stale and predictable. For example, it’s hard not to yawn when the day after Saddam is captured The Sydney Morning Herald runs a cartoon of a diminutive George Bush swearing allegiance to Halliburton. However, outside sheltered and cloistered Australia the "dreary heart" Right stereotype is under threat.
Andrew Sullivan noted in The Australian before Christmas that conservatism was becoming cool among the young in the United States. He observed that "the next generation sees through the cant and piety [of the Left], and cannot help giggling." Sullivan argues that there is an irreligious Right in the US, the kind that watches South Park and The Simpsons, an "urban, culturally liberal, fiscally conservative slice of the population who are as appalled by Left-liberal humbug as they are turned off by evangelical theocrats." It seems that the Right might just have a sense of humour after all. Should we be surprised? P.J. O’Rourke wrote "neither conservatives nor humorists believe man is good. But left wingers do". So it makes sense that some humorists are conservative and some conservatives are humorous. If we are talking about humorists and conservatives, we can’t go past P.J O’Rourke and Mark Steyn.
O’Rourke first made a name for himself with the National Lampoon, before writing for a range of magazines from Playboy, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. O’Rourke’s brand of humour manages to combine self-deprecation, libertarianism, cynicism and an amazing ability to deliver a knockout line. In Parliament of Whores O’Rourke wrote "giving money and power to government is like giving whisky and car keys to teenage boys". You get the feeling that O’Rourke knows this because he was the teenage kid with the whisky and car keys. It encapsulates O’Rourke’s political philosophy: people are bad and they do crazy things and government is made up of people, so putting faith in them to solve your problems would be just plain crazy.
O’Rourke pioneered a new style for conservative writers, cynical ("you don’t despair about something like the Middle East, you just do the best you can. Do the right thing and be brave and it will never get any better"), ironic and above all humorous. It is a peculiarly North American style, both brash and unapologetic, a style embraced by Mark Steyn, who like O’Rourke, lives in New Hampshire.
Steyn relies on humour to make his point but he is less stately than O’Rourke. Despite the breezy style his articles rocket along, liberally dishing out crushing put-downs. Though popular and published widely in the rest of the English-speaking world, Steyn is largely unknown in Australia. The Australian occasionally and bravely publishes one of his articles but one would imagine Fairfax journalists recoiling in horror. Alan Ramsay’s brain would probably explode.
Steyn appears to take a schoolboyish delight in playing the enfant terrible. On the cover of the his latest book, The Face of the Tiger, he quotes the Saudi Ambassador to the UK "Mark Steyn, the dismantler of sovereign nations and destabiliser of whole regions." On the back cover under the heading "Praise for Mark Steyn" he quotes The New Statesman calling him "Dangerous Idiot of the Week", and one Lesia Dickson from Winnipeg asking him to renounce his Canadian citizenship.
For a "dangerous idiot" Steyn is remarkably astute. In March 2003 he wrote:
Last May, I predicted that Bush would invade Iraq before the end of August. I was wrong as usual. Instead, the President was prevailed upon to “go the UN route”, as a sop to Colin Powell, and to provide Tony Blair with some multilateral cover. And now that we’ve reached the season finale of this interminable, unwatchable unreality show – “I’m A Superpower, Get Me Out Of Here” – the end result is that we’ll be going to war with exactly the same participants as we would have done last August, and the one person weakened by going the UN route is the very one it was designed to protect: Mr Blair.
It’s hard not to see that observation as remarkably prescient, the sort of thing Australian journalists didn’t stumble over until the Hutton inquiry.
One thing that characterises these conservative columnists, aside from their sarcasm and rudeness, is their dispassionate detachment. This is a good thing, because passion is the enemy of common sense and logic. For instance, a coterie of anti-Bush columnists around the world have been unable to move past George Bush visiting the troops in Iraq and holding a turkey for the cameras. For the Right, quite correctly, this is a non-issue. He was photographed with a turkey? Big deal. For the anti-Bush Left crowd it’s case of "he may have caught Saddam, but he used a fake turkey made by Halliburton to fool the American people into thinking that that US soldiers were enjoying their Thanksgiving meal in the quagmire that is Iraq". Being passionate about things can just make you look stupid.
Passion is about feeling and feelings. The Left feels things, it feels that the United Nations should solve the world’s problems, it feels the need for dialogue and it feels the need to understand "root causes". And as Horace Walpole remarked, "Life is a comedy for those who think … and a tragedy for those who feel". Neo-cons with "dreary hearts"? It might be more instructive to think of the laughing Tory Cavalier and the dour Puritan Roundhead.