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The 72-Hour Expert
August 24, 2010 4:03 AM   Subscribe

"If you spend 72 hours in a place you’ve never been, talking to people whose language you don’t speak about social, political, and economic complexities you don’t understand, and you come back as the world’s biggest know-it-all, you’re a reporter." - PJ O'Rourke visits Kabul
posted by TheOtherGuy (55 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
No MetaHate from me. I completely disagree with his politics, but dammit he's funny. (I fell in love forever when I saw him on a talk show during the '92 election, and he admitted he hadn't been able to meet Ross Perot "because I haven't found the bridge he lives under and attacks billygoats".)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:12 AM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


O'Rourke always gets a big meh from me.

Imagine the indignity of winding up in traffic court instead of the terrorist equivalent of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I don't think you end up in traffic court if you get stopped by police with a car full of explosives. But then again, I didn't spend 72 hours in Kabul, so what do I know. But if you defy common sense in an attempt to be funny or whatever O'Rourke is attempting to be in this piece, you're probably not all that funny.
posted by IvoShandor at 4:15 AM on August 24, 2010


O'Rourke used to be funny. Seems like he got old and bitter, and now it's all just:

Random observation, self-deprecating comment, pithy aphorism, man, that Obama sure is an asshole! attempt at joke, swipe at journalists, stab at foreigners, but hey, how 'bout them Obamas! irrelevant anecdote.
posted by kcds at 4:44 AM on August 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


By the time I was politically aware enough to get PJ O'Rourke I was politically aware enough not to fall for his line.
posted by DU at 4:48 AM on August 24, 2010 [10 favorites]


If you spend 72 hours in a place you’ve never been, talking to people whose language you don’t speak about social, political, and economic complexities you don’t understand, and you come back as the world’s biggest know-it-all, you’re a reporter. Either that or you’re President Obama.

Oh hai,

I'm going to wilfully disregard the teams of well-informed specialist advisors surrounding the President who receive information from the largest intelligence services in the world, all so that I can get some lulz.

Hurf durf,

PJ O'Rourke
posted by djgh at 4:49 AM on August 24, 2010 [15 favorites]


He used to make me laugh back in the 1970s, when he was working for the Lampoon.

I hope his bum feels better.
posted by pracowity at 5:00 AM on August 24, 2010


O'Rourke is pretty "meh" for me as well but I do find it interesting that The Weekly Standard is embracing "refudiate".
posted by ghharr at 5:42 AM on August 24, 2010


I keep hearing *snare hit/cymbal crash* sounds in my head, about once per paragraph.
posted by hal9k at 5:44 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Is this the same O'Rourke that apparently spent the whole Bush Jr. Administration bound and gagged in some basement? He used to be funny and to shoot well-deserved darts indiscriminately left and right, now he sounds at times like Sarah Palin's speechwriter. He should certainly understand tribalism, for sure.
It's a pity, because, behind all the cringeworthy anti-Obama jibes, there are a couple of interesting points. I'd suggest skipping the first five pages.
posted by Skeptic at 5:50 AM on August 24, 2010 [7 favorites]


Yeah, those first two Obama jokes are just weak. Ha ha Obama pretends to be an expert on things and ha ha his wife takes expensive vacations! The first is not true; Obama doesn't brag, generally, and yet I'm certain he's more of an expert on Kabul than O'Rourke and most of his colleagues. The second one ... well, I have no idea whether or not it's true, because I don't care, and who in their right mind would? These jabs are typical of conservative humor nowadays that seeks random insults rather than true caricature and satire, which would require knowing your enemy.

To make jokes about Obama you'd have to make fun of his earnestness, his extreme even-handedness, his need to always have consensus, his show of high-mindedness, etc. You know, the qualities he actually has. You could easily caricature him as pompous or professorial. It wouldn't be too hard, and yet I don't see any conservative humor that even tries to accomplish this.
posted by creasy boy at 5:53 AM on August 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


Everything up to All The Trouble in The World was pretty damn funny. Everything thereafter, not so much. To be fair, to him, it's pretty difficult to be an enfant terrible when you're no longer an enfant.
posted by rhymer at 5:55 AM on August 24, 2010


Man, the Obama jokes are really just jammed in there, aren't they? Like his editor just sent it back with "Needs more Obama Jokes, we have these Obama Stress Heads to unload".

I think at his peak PJ was like a rightwing Jon Stewart, but he's lost his mojo.
posted by padraigin at 5:59 AM on August 24, 2010


Well, despite the lame Coulteresque jabs he directs homeward the article seems fairly respectful of Afghanistan and more of a political travelogue than an ideology-driven piece.

Despite his views on some matters I enjoy his writing and hope that one day I can put his devotion to capitalism to the test by offering to pay him to deck Krauthammer and Kristol.
posted by vapidave at 6:01 AM on August 24, 2010


O'Rourke's politics aren't pissing me off here. The premise of his article is. He's finding humor in the idea of "expertise" after spending three days in Kabul and.... oh look, he got the cover of a major political magazine.

My friends Ted Rall and Matt Bors, along with a third cartoonist, Steven Cloud, are spending the entire month of August touring and travelogging Central Asia, primarily Afghanistan. This is Ted's fourth trip to Central Asia; he's already written three books about it. But he's not P.J. O'Rourke writing about the foibles of DC, so they spent three months trying to raise funds for the trip and still paid for half of it out of pocket.

So basically this article is a joke about pseudo-expertise in the form of... giving a cover story to a guy making fun of not knowing jack shit beyond three days in the Green Zone. I'm not laughing.

Being their friend I couldn't FPP their travelouge, but there's the link, by the way. And here's Matt's sketchbook blog for the trip. Seems like there's no better time to emphasize it since it's both funnier and more informative than O'Rourke.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 6:10 AM on August 24, 2010 [22 favorites]


Yeah, whatever.

The article, however, has much of interest about Afghanistan. I'd be interested in hearing from people who know something about Afghanistan if it's essentially true.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:10 AM on August 24, 2010


Oh yeah, I've been following Bors' blog since before he left. I never even thought to FPP it.
posted by DU at 6:15 AM on August 24, 2010


Oh he's such a rogue!
posted by the noob at 6:16 AM on August 24, 2010


O'Rourke used to be funny. Seems like he got old and bitter..."

More like a victim of his formula, like Dave Barry and just about every other humor writer who goes on too long.

Plus, he has the added problem of having to make his material appeal to some people on his side of the culture war who aren't that bright. Under Clinton that was a fertile approach because Clinton really was a funny character. Obama's pretty boring, but O'Rourke's still obligated to follow his formula and make some jibes. It doesn't work.

When people say (generally correctly) that conservatives aren't funny, typically someone used to say "well, P.J. O'Rourke is funny." and everyone would agree and fail to think of another example. Now if someone uses O'Rourke as that example, I will point them to this article and say "No, not anymore. He's old and depleted."
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:17 AM on August 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think at his peak PJ was like a rightwing Jon Stewart, but he's lost his mojo.

Mojo? Is that what kids are calling weed these days? PJ is like a lot of ex-hippie, ex-counter-culture, ex-potheads I know who went all counter-counter-culture, traded-in their bongs in for martini glasses, started smoking actual cigars made of actual tobacco, and who now worry mostly about their "investments." They're not funny anymore.
posted by three blind mice at 6:23 AM on August 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


Yeah, he's not as funny as he used to be and his schtick is pretty lame but you have to admit this article does a pretty good job of showing how utterly messed up Afghanistan really is. How anyone thinks we can win in Afghanistan when there's no easy definition of what "win" might be is just insane.

Had someone just done a little homework before we invaded...
posted by tommasz at 6:25 AM on August 24, 2010


PJ is like a lot of ex-hippie, ex-counter-culture, ex-potheads I know who went all counter-counter-culture...

In looking up how accurate this was, I discovered he only lives about half an hour from me. Huh.
posted by DU at 6:27 AM on August 24, 2010


XQUZYPHYR I've read quite a lot of Rall's work about Afghanistan, and it helps me understand what O'Rourke is doing here. For starters, he's being quite straightforward and self-deprecating about his (lack of) expertise. And the journalism jibe is clearly not directed to people like Rall, but to the sort of talking head who populates cable news and op-eds these days (in particular, I suspect, the ineffable Thomas Friedman, leading exponent of that school of journalism). O'Rourke has done enough foreign and war reporting to know the value of such helicopter journalism. If somebody has to be scolded for this making the front page of the Weekly Standard, then the editors of the Weekly Standard, not O'Rourke himself.
posted by Skeptic at 6:30 AM on August 24, 2010


I had a book written by PJ when I was young. I popped it open during the first book purge and read a few paragraphs and, well, hey, that was easy, toss. Even his early stuff seems tired now, and this latest piece is pretty much just a guy trying to using a twenty year old, never resharpened chainsaw to hack down a few waist-high shrubs. Lots of GRAR but no sawdust and anyway, why bother?
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:34 AM on August 24, 2010


Your friend's blog is great, XQUZYPHYR.
posted by Miko at 6:38 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


“The Suicides usually attack early in the morning,” Amin said. “It’s a hot country and the explosive vests are thick and heavy.” [...]“It’s the same with car bombs,” Amin said. “You don’t want to be driving around the whole day with police everywhere and maybe get a ticket.”

This kind of observation is pretty interesting because no, you don't really think of suicide or car bombing in terms of the practicalities involved. It seems like it just sort of... happens, but really there's an actual guy trying to decide if he wants to be all sweaty or not when he blows himself up.

When you need a flu shot or a dog license or a permit to burn leaves, you have to go see Bulgarians and Bolivians and Nigerians and Fiji Islanders.

This kind of observation though... makes me a little itchy around the edges. The US is a nation of immigrants, so why should it be "scary" to go see a Bulgarian for a flu shot? This is very much pandering to the conservative audience with the rallying chorus of "Oh noes! Not the dreaded 'OTHER!'" Nothing like a little bit of generalized xenophobia to spice up an article about a foreign culture.
posted by sonika at 6:39 AM on August 24, 2010


> make fun of his earnestness, his extreme even-handedness, his need to always have consensus, his show of high-mindedness, etc.

While I agree that the Conservative columnists completely miss the boat when making fun of Mr. Obama, I think you do too - one doesn't make fun of the good parts because they aren't, you know, funny.

If I were making fun of Mr. Obama, I'd mock his desire for approval from his Washington colleagues, his obsession with drone attacks, his weakness in negotiating, and that sort of thing.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:42 AM on August 24, 2010


PJ O'Rourke is basically Brit Hume with a sense of humor, which is mostly pretty unfunny.
posted by lordrunningclam at 6:43 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, despite the lame Coulteresque jabs he directs homeward the article seems fairly respectful of Afghanistan and more of a political travelogue than an ideology-driven piece.

That's how I felt. I don't know that much about his politics, but the writing is pretty good. To add to the other good links on trips to Kabul, I've been reading this blog by an American librarian in Kabul. I like her descriptions of her shopping trips and her job.
(Although, it being about a librarian, I probably saw it on Metafilter, so it may already be familiar).
posted by bluefly at 6:46 AM on August 24, 2010


As all good reporters do, I prepared for my assignment with extensive research. I went to an Afghan restaurant in Prague. Getting a foretaste—as it were—of my subject, I asked the restaurant’s owner (an actual Afghan), “So what’s up with Afghanistan?”

He said, “Americans must understand that Afghanistan is a country of honor. The honor of an Afghan is in his gun, his land, and his women. You take a man’s honor if you take his gun, his land or his women.”


First of all I guarantee you that this is pure bullshit. Afghans do not talk about themselves like this, not at all. This is how conservative humorists who have read a few Wikipedia articles talk about Afghans.

On the slopes of Kabul’s mountains there is another cityscape of small stone houses. They could be from the time of the prophet although they all seem to have aluminum window frames.

If he had asked, anyone would have told him that these developments are entirely new, from the last 20 years or so. I heard this 45 minutes into my first visit, on the first ride from the airport, and I didn't have bureau chief for Radio Free Europe ion my car.

“We are all one nation,” said the Pashtun tribal leader. “In the name of Afghan is included all the tribes of Afghanistan. Outsiders create divisions to serve their own interests.”

Yeah this is what a Pushtun politician will tell you. As the majority but not the plurality the Pushtuns like the idea of Afghanistan because they get to boss the Tajiks, Hezaras, Turkem, etc., around. But really there isn't such a glorious national flag to rally around, and people identify first by ethnicity.

Nonetheless Afghan patriotism obtains. Maybe because, as the Turkmen tribal leader pointed out, every “old country” to which an Afghan ethnic might turn manages—somewhat extraordinarily—to be a worse place than Afghanistan.

This is absolute bullshit and PJ knows it, as he is been to these "worse places", all of which have stable government, no war, all that good stuff... Myself having seen Pakistan and Soviet Central Asia, there is no question that these uncolonized guys got the shit deal.

The governor told a story about wisdom. There was a student who had been studying for many years at a madrassa...

Again, bullshit. Poor old PJ knows you should end your piece with some homey folk tale type story, but sadly it doesn't really tie into anything that came before.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:05 AM on August 24, 2010 [12 favorites]


Obama jokes aside, it was a pretty good article.
posted by empath at 7:15 AM on August 24, 2010


His book full of essays from when he was a hippie was pretty funny.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:17 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Now if only we could send Dave Barry to Afghanistan, we could get a decent toilet/coffee table/airport book out of it filled with comparisons between Afghanistan and Florida.

Which one is the heavily armed narco-terrorist state filled with extremist leaders and their ignorant followers? YOU DECIDE!
posted by Azazel Fel at 8:01 AM on August 24, 2010


There's only two Afghan restaurants in Prague that I know of, and I know one of them well. This gives me a 50% chance of fact checking PJ on this one. Can I put the lamb chops on the Mefi account?
posted by Gratishades at 8:06 AM on August 24, 2010


Great links, XQUZYPHYR, thanks for sharing them.
posted by emperor.seamus at 8:11 AM on August 24, 2010


Great article. Yes, it's a bit jokey at the beginning, but it settles down into actually being informative. (And it's long. If you quit reading in the first page or two, you didn't even scratch the surface.)

And thanks to listening to Wait Wait Don't Tell Me regularly, I could read the entire thing in O'Rourke's voice in my head!
posted by hippybear at 8:27 AM on August 24, 2010


More like a victim of his formula, like Dave Barry and just about every other humor writer who goes on too long.

Yeah, this. At his peak he was the master of the comic metaphor. People who balk at his politics might pick up Holidays in Hell and check out his essay about the religious theme park. Back when PJ was at his peak he was positioned well for comedy with his "Republican party reptile" thing, because it meant he could make fun of both the left and the religious right at the same time. If he were to take on the Tea Party, I bet he could still make sparks fly, but I'm guessing that's not going to happen.
posted by Bookhouse at 8:28 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Obama jokes aside, it was a pretty good article.

If he had just taken out every third sentence (hint: all the ones with 'Obama is a dummy!') it would have been a piece of clear-headed observation. As it is, it's a piece of clear-headed observation with bizarre political non-sequiturs.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:44 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I haven't listened to Dennis Leary in a while, so I don't know if you become as unfunny when your views metastasize to the left.

Bachelor Home Companion, and many other things he's written, made me laugh really really hard, way back when, though. I'll always thank him for that.

And, "How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink" should win some sort of award for best title.
posted by Trochanter at 9:07 AM on August 24, 2010


PJ is like a lot of ex-hippie, ex-counter-culture, ex-potheads ... who now worry mostly about their "investments." They're not funny anymore.

I'll take the investments.
posted by Faze at 9:08 AM on August 24, 2010



it's a piece of clear-headed observation with bizarre political non-sequiturs.


Gotta tailor to the editors' tastes.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:53 AM on August 24, 2010


Everything up to All The Trouble in The World was pretty damn funny. Everything thereafter, not so much. To be fair, to him, it's pretty difficult to be an enfant terrible when you're no longer an enfant.

Seconded.

The thing with his '80s Rolling Stone stuff (the collection Holidays in Hell is probably the best of it, though All the Trouble in the World has its moments) was that he was irreverent and funny first, a moderate coke-and-fast-cars whats-so-bad-about-money? Republican a distant second. He was genuinely willing to state baldly all the stuff all the other hotspot correspondents were thinking - the Somalis were the nastiest bunch of pricks on the planet, the Philippines was the craziest political basketcase the world's ever seen, etc. - and he had a real talent for uncommon, impolite, telling detail and the decapitation of sacred cows. Like any great comedian, he was drawn to what was tragicomic and true.

Now? He's the sacred cow. He's the bloated early-retirement rich dude, defending the fat centre of the status quo. He's a party hack first, a "humourist" second. How about that Obama? What a librul moran! And hey, what's the deal with the food on Afghan airplanes? Complacency and smug contentment and empty sanctimony are the sworn enemies of good satire.

It's not that PJ's schtick got old; it's that he did.
posted by gompa at 9:54 AM on August 24, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'm in the P.J. used to be funnier camp. The cover illo is great though.
posted by Scoo at 10:37 AM on August 24, 2010


It's not that PJ's schtick got old; it's that he did.

This is true. It's really quite difficult to be funny when you're old. The main reason is because a young man's humor is a form of sexual display, and once you've passed out of your mate-seeking years it no longer comes as naturally. Then you've got a problem, because being humorous is still part of your social persona, and so a young man's playful humor is replaced with an old man's aggressive humor -- the memorized joke, the reflexive unfunny pun, the conversation-stopping non-sequitor -- whose point is not to amuse the audience but to subdue and to dominate social space. If O'Rourke had aged gracefully, he would have morphed from a seeker of belly laughs into a wry-but-mostly-serious essayist. Whatever he is now, at least he hasn't become as bitter as his fellow right-leaning humorist Joe Queenan .
posted by Faze at 10:49 AM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


If I were making fun of Mr. Obama, I'd mock his desire for approval from his Washington colleagues, his obsession with drone attacks, his weakness in negotiating, and that sort of thing.

Or this.
posted by mattholomew at 1:02 PM on August 24, 2010


I loved Parliament of Whores, and still bring it up in discussions about taxes -- would you send your mother to jail to fund (insert name of government program here)?

I think O'Rourke takes himself less seriously than most of the folks here. But his overseas work has always been his most interesting stuff, where he just goes to places and asks stupid questions and writes down what gets said.

I mean, consider for a moment ... think of your most respected foreign correspondent. Christiane Amanpour, perhaps? Can you imagine her walking into an Afghan restaurant in Prague, asking the owner, "What's up with your country?"

I can't imagine her ever leaving the hotel. I'm sure she does, but most foreign correspondents deliberately craft an image that's above it all.

O'Rourke actually does interesting man-on-the-street interviews, like this bit from Page 5.

Zero percent of U.S. aid to Afghan education is spent through the Afghan government.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because the Ministry of Education is not certified by USAID because no one from USAID has evaluated me or my ministry in the two years that I’ve held the job.” Without the evaluation he can’t get the certification.


For all the talk about Afghan schools for girls ... did anyone from CNN talk to the Ministry of Education and ask simple questions like "Why"?

O'Rourke is like Colombo with a jokebook. Excuse me, sorry to bother you here, just one more thing...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:33 PM on August 24, 2010


Meanwhile, freelance journalist Paul Refsdal embedded himself with a group of Taliban and brought back this footage: Living with the Taliban.
posted by homunculus at 2:16 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Usually I would be be right in line to diss PJ's smug-glib musings, but he actually does have some interesting insights into the Afghan conundrum.
posted by ovvl at 5:46 PM on August 24, 2010


Everything up to All The Trouble in The World was pretty damn funny. Everything thereafter, not so much. To be fair, to him, it's pretty difficult to be an enfant terrible when you're no longer an enfant.

....Come to think of it, you're right about that.

Although I do swear I read somewhere where he and Hunter S. Thompson had this weird conversation speculating about what would happen if they locked Ed Meese into a phone booth along with a stoned goat.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:50 PM on August 24, 2010


The Afghan conundrum: what does the American Government really want to do in Afghanistan? And if it really wants it, how does it achieve its goals?
posted by ovvl at 6:23 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Schoolgirls and teachers sick from poison gas in Afghanistan
posted by homunculus at 2:11 PM on August 25, 2010


America’s Corruption Racket in Central Asia

More on the CIA Paymaster in Kabul
posted by homunculus at 11:55 AM on August 28, 2010


His schtick always seemed to me (even in the 80s) to travel the world snarking about how all those unwashed who unaccountably failed to get born Americans were pathetic losers. There was supposedly something ironic going on, but I failed to detect it, it just seemed like fratboy snark. He seemed to appeal to the same people who liked HST, but if HST was the Beatles of that kind of thing, O'Rourke was the Freddy and the Dreamers.

On the plus side of the subject, Adam Curtis is currently researching the history of the West's relationship with Kabul and posting a lot of it on his BBC blog. Fascinating stuff.
posted by Grangousier at 12:16 PM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Collapse of Kabul Bank Points to Fatal Corruption of Karzai Government
posted by homunculus at 8:46 AM on September 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


War And Corruption Are Swelling The Ranks Of Street Kids In Afghanistan
posted by homunculus at 12:55 PM on September 7, 2010


Afghans brave Taliban to vote in parliamentary election

Risky climate for women candidates in Afghan elections
posted by homunculus at 9:28 AM on September 18, 2010


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