P.J. O’Rourke’s Commencement Advice (or: “Fairness, Idealism and Other Atrocities”)

P.J. O’Rourke
My favourite humourist on the rightward side of the political spectrum is P.J. O’Rourke, whose stuff I’ve been enjoying since high school. Along with Ben Stein (if we ignore his idiocy with his film Expelled for the time being), there’s enough sense and broad appeal in his writing for him to be able to contribute to Vanity Fair, 60 Minutes, Rolling Stone and National Review; perhaps the only progressive humourists who could make the same claim of broad appeal might be Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

The Los Angeles Times recently published an essay of his, a hypothetical commencement speech for kids graduating from high school titled Fairness, Idealism and Other Atrocities. I give it two thumbs up for its “funny because it’s true” qualities.

Here are my favourite parts:

Go Out and Make a Bunch of Money!

Pizza in a box

There’s nothing the matter with honest moneymaking. Wealth is not a pizza, where if I have too many slices you have to eat the Domino’s box. In a free society, with the rule of law and property rights, no one loses when someone else gets rich.

Don’t Be an Idealist!

Julia Butterfly, hanging out in “Luna” a giant redwood.
Julia Butterfly Hill, who lived in a redwood tree for two years.

Don’t chain yourself to a redwood tree. Instead, be a corporate lawyer and make $500,000 a year. No matter how much you cheat the IRS, you’ll still end up paying $100,000 in property, sales and excise taxes. That’s $100,000 to schools, sewers, roads, firefighters and police. You’ll be doing good for society. Does chaining yourself to a redwood tree do society $100,000 worth of good?

Idealists are also bullies. The idealist says, “I care more about the redwood trees than you do. I care so much I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. It broke up my marriage. And because I care more than you do, I’m a better person. And because I’m the better person, I have the right to boss you around.”

Forget About Fairness!


Life sends the message, “I’d better not be poor. I’d better get rich. I’d better make more money than other people.” Meanwhile, politics sends us the message, “Some people make more money than others. Some are rich while others are poor. We’d better close that ‘income disparity gap.’ It’s not fair!”

Well, I am here to advocate for unfairness. I’ve got a 10-year-old at home. She’s always saying, “That’s not fair.” When she says this, I say, “Honey, you’re cute. That’s not fair. Your family is pretty well off. That’s not fair. You were born in America. That’s not fair. Darling, you had better pray to God that things don’t start getting fair for you.” What we need is more income, even if it means a bigger income disparity gap.

Be a Religious Extremist! (or: What’s up with the 10th Commandment?)


So, avoid politics if you can. But if you absolutely cannot resist, read the Bible for political advice — even if you’re a Buddhist, atheist or whatever. Don’t get me wrong, I am not one of those people who believes that God is involved in politics. On the contrary. Observe politics in this country. Observe politics around the world. Observe politics through history. Does it look like God’s involved?

[Consider the Ten Commandments] Here are God’s basic rules about how we should live, a brief list of sacred obligations and solemn moral precepts. And, right at the end of it we read, “Don’t envy your buddy because he has an ox or a donkey.” Why did that make the top 10? Why would God, with just 10 things to tell Moses, include jealousy about livestock?

Well, think about how important this commandment is to a community, to a nation, to a democracy.
If you want a mule, if you want a pot roast, if you want a cleaning lady, don’t whine about what the people across the street have. Get rich and get your own.

2 replies on “P.J. O’Rourke’s Commencement Advice (or: “Fairness, Idealism and Other Atrocities”)”

I love P.J. O’Rourke. If you haven’t heard him on NPR’s Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, I suggest you check out the podcast / radio show. High-larious.

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