OBITUARY: Famed political satirist PJ O’Rourke died last week. Irfan Yusuf pays tribute to a conservative icon who was forever a rebel in his rationality.

Patrick Jake (PJ) O’Rourke passed away on 15 February, 2022.

A conservative author and essayist, PJ’s books and essays dealt with the usual Anglosphere conservative – the absolute superiority of Western Christian civilisation, the inferiority of non-Western cultures the extreme correctness of the politically incorrect, the undesirability of non-heterosexuals teaching schoolkids and the greatness of all things right-of-centre.

And if you believe that, you’ll also believe that Scott Morrison is a transgender Satan-worshipper.

Speaking of Satan-worship, PJ wrote about a trip in 1987 to Heritage USA, a Christian fundamentalist theme park run by Jim and Tammy Baker. PJ acknowledged that he and his companion came to scoff at the whole joint but ended up becoming converted.

“Unfortunately, we were converted to Satanism. Now we’re up half the night going to witch’s sabbaths and have to spend our free time reciting the Lord’s Prayer backward and scouring the neighbourhood for black dogs to sacrifice. Frankly, it’s a nuisance, but if it keeps us from going to the Heritage USA part of heaven, it will be worth it”.

Yes, PJ was a conservative.

He liked the free market and preferred governments to be kept small. But he also defined his form of libertarian conservatism in a way that would horrify many conservatives.

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Where other conservative writers used exclusionist self-righteous polemics, PJ used good-natured and often goofy humour. His work at National Lampoon and Rolling Stone (where he was foreign affairs editor) characterised his strong satirical style of gonzo journalism. He authored a shit-load of books (22 in all), out of which I have read … um … I can’t remember. One was Holidays In Hell, his foreign affairs dispatches. Another was Republican Party Reptile, in which he mercilessly pokes fun at his own side of politics. Oh, and Parliament Of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts To Explain The Entire U.S. Government. I should have read his account of the 2016 election How the Hell Did This Happen? But I ended up giving my copy to my ex-girlfriend’s landlady in Taipei as a Christmas present.

I don’t remember the minutiae of PJ’s work but what I do remember is that that it was all lough-out-loud funny. PJ was happy to poke fun at himself, his politics and his craft. Writing in 2010 about his trip to Afghanistan, PJ described the work of a reporter as follows:

“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”.


Like any conservative libertarian, PJ spent a lot of time focusing on freedom. But unlike the antivax nutcases, PJ acknowledged that freedom isn’t free.

“There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please,” he wrote. “And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences”.

March all you like, antivaxxer morons. Evade vaccines, lose your jobs and donate all your money to Clive Palmer. But don’t force your disease on me or my elderly parents.

My favourite PJ moment is when he appeared on ABC panel discussion show Q&A in April 2009 seated next to then foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop. The topic of asylum seekers arose. Ms Bishop tried to talk tougher than she did in a subsequent leadership ballot (when she gained zero votes from her fellow West Australian colleagues). She ranted of how “since last August there has been an increase in the number of people arriving by boat” and how “the people smugglers are back in business”.

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PJ wouldn’t have a bar of it. Many conservatives would have been shocked by his bringing indigenous people into the discussion.

“I’m not seeing any Aborigines on the panel here. I am not a Comanche or a Sioux. You know, my people came over to the United States in a completely disorganised way. Doubtless by way of people smugglers”.

It gets better.

“You know, we in the States have much, much more experience with being all wrong about immigration than you do. I mean 36,000 you said in Italy? … We laugh. That’s a day in the United States. And we are so wrong about it. I mean, build a fence on the border with Mexico, give a huge boost to the Mexican ladder industry, you know … the thing is when somebody gets on an exploding boat to come over here — they’re willing to do that to get to Australia — you’re missing out on some really good Australians if you don’t let that person in.”

Who needs the English language and values test when you have the exploding boat test?

“Let them in. These people are assets. One or two of them might not be, but you can sort them out later … I think conservatives are getting this wrong all over the world, I really do.’

PJ gave more than just the usual bleeding-heart reasons to show compassion to refugees. Compassion also paid economic and nation-building dividends.

This, dear readers, is real conservatism. PJ combined hard-headed economics with common sense compassion. You won’t see this normality in the Coalition.

About Irfan Yusuf 26 Articles
Irfan Yusuf grew up in Sydney and has worked as a lawyer in NSW, QLD, Victoria, Tasmania and WA. He is an award-winning author and has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Canberra Times, NZ Herald, Crikey and ABC The Drum.

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