Flashback! Shocking Origin Saga Begins Here! Now It Can Be Told!
As I entered Brown in the fall of 1987, I didn’t expect to be the sort of person who takes an interest in politics (just literature). The only way in which America had seriously disappointed me up to that point was by going four — rather than the originally planned three — years without a new Star Wars movie (I would wait another twelve years, but perhaps that disappointment can be revisited in a future installment of these weekly Retro-Journal entries — forty total, each recounting half a year, from 1987-2007).
Twenty years later, I’m a cranky, somewhat pessimistic libertarian — who hopes fellow 90s Brown alum Bobby Jindal will win the Louisiana governorship in tomorrow’s election there, allowing him to restore Katrina-ravaged New Orleans free-market style (with the side benefit of reducing author Naomi Klein to tears, given her recent book denouncing post-disaster market-based reforms). But I wasn’t always like this…or was I?
Entering Brown, I had come from a stable, two-parent, one-child, middle-class, suburban/rural, literally red-white-and-blue home with Colonial decorations and a white picket fence in Norwich, CT — where emotions, in the time-honored New England fashion, rarely ran high, unless I was denouncing my parents for something like not being New Wave enough in their musical tastes (the small handful of vinyl albums I bought as a teenager — before becoming obsessed with audiotape, the oft-derided but then most-flexible format — began on a high note with the Police’s Synchronicity, and I’m not confident I’ve bought a better album since). In retrospect, of course, I realize my mild-mannered parents liked the Police and Prince — and the Stones and Motown and Elvis — and were (and are) right about most things.
Even at the time, I never disagreed with them so much as to question their — our — whole way of life. America, to the extent our chunk of it was representative (and I still don’t think it was that abnormal), seemed to work OK. Even though I was already an atheist and thought plenty of popular trends were stupid, I was fairly accepting of the whole U.S. package, from NASA to TV to the Cold War to classic rock to shopping malls (even if malls bored me personally, aside from bookstores). No major complaints, no carefully-formulated ideology (and no known party affiliation for my parents).
I picked Brown University, though I was accepted to all the Ivies (except Yale, where I did not apply because its world-class divinity school caused me to worry, wrongly, that the place would be crawling with Bible-thumpers). I interpreted the brochures about how Brown students should be “liberal” in their thinking to mean liberal in the classical sense (though I wasn’t yet familiar with the classical/modern liberal distinction): open-minded and individualistic, making it the sort of tolerant place that encouraged people to invent their own majors if they so chose.
Brown was certainly full of individualists and creative oddballs — and I’m grateful for that to this day — but it became clear upon my arrival in September that many of those quirky people interpreted “liberal” in a much more modern, even revolutionary, sense than I had.
The very first entry in my college journal noted some of the strange — and annoyingly, stridently political — things that struck me about the place (and the very first sentence mentioned one creative oddball, then a sophomore and dorm counselor to freshmen, who remains my friend to this day). Here’s the verbatim opening paragraph of the diary, revealed to the public for the first time:
One of my residential counselors is a cheery fan of love-guru Leo Buscaglia named Cherry, the other a muscular Rambo fan named Reid. The previous occupants of my room here at Brown University painted the walls in numerous horrible colors, covering them with the word “Anarchy,” some kind of fish-cow thing, and a bad-looking cyclops. I was rebuked by a Christian speaker here named J.P. Moreland for being “only a freshman” and claiming to know that the design argument for the existence of God fails. Fuck the Central American Solidarity Organization, all “collectives,” the Organization for Marxist Studies, and the Block Bork Coalition. One girl from the Block Bork Coalition, Laura Petricola, wrote an editorial in the Brown Daily Herald supporting Gus Hall, General Secretary of the U.S. Communist Party, for president. The Brown Film Society’s [comedic] Film Bulletin suggested revising sexist history texts by changing the word “men” to “men and skirts.”
That first week of the journal, while I was in this alternate universe, the outside world — which had just recently gone through the Iran-Contra hearings — was experiencing another important death-pang of the mostly-happy 1980s, the major stock market dip of October 19, 1987 — exactly twenty years ago as I type this. I didn’t really hear about it until the next day, as recorded in my journal entry for Oct. 20, 1987:
I was up far too early this morning, typing a physics report, half awake, when [roommate] Allen’s alarm clock/radio went off, saying “Bzzt fzzzrrrt worse overseas, with Australia’s stock market falling 25%…” I was so unsettled, I had to go buy a newspaper before completing the physics report. They’re already calling yesterday’s stock market crash “Black Monday.”
Not a bad time to embark on a four-year vacation from the real world, actually. The entry for Oct. 21, 1987 again mentions Allen, my born-again Christian roommate from Kentucky, as well as the three core members of my nerdy high school clique, who’d also gone on to prestigious schools (none of us aristocrats or legacies, just smart kids from a fairly blue-collar area who always did our homework):
Two guys from Allen’s group, the Campus Crusade for Christ, tried to convince me in the snack bar called the Gate that Christ rose from the dead and that I’m “biased” against the supernatural. Eat me.
I’ll bet Paul Taylor is finding John Hersh hard to live with at Yale after the big market correction, since John kept saying in high school that it would come eventually. I wonder how Chuck Blake enjoyed the earthquake out at CalTech.
The next day brought conspiracy theorists and race activists, plus evidence Brown was becoming annoying enough to turn me into a reactionary:
THURSDAY, OCT. 22, 1987: Central American Solidarity Organization showed a conspiracy videotape from the Christic Institute attempting to link Iran-Contra to everything from the Nazis to Nixon. On Wednesday, our entire freshman unit (about twenty-five people) had to meet with the organization RACE, which defined racism as the existence of a powerful white majority and started a list of “racist institutions” which they never completed, stopping after I suggested adding affirmative action to the list, but which probably would’ve included everything in the U.S. if they kept going. [Brown was then a place where the non-white freshmen were literally asked to show up on campus three days before white students, to be educated about racism at the "Third World Transition Program" meant to help them fend off the oppression by the later-arriving whites like me -- yet no one thought the left might be fueling rather than defusing racism.]
On Oct. 26, I noted the tension between Marxist theory and the classics: “Lots of semiotics bullshit in one English class. King Lear in the other.” Only in retrospect do I notice that that Shakespeare play is fitting, since I also noted that day that my paternal grandfather passed away in New Hampshire — where many Seaveys had lived since William Seavey oversaw construction projects there back in 1631, I now know. And speaking of patriarchs, the next day’s entry says…
Girls from the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center met with our freshman unit and asked the no-win question of whether feminists should be working harder to change men’s attitudes or women’s. I said women’s, since all but one of the men in my senior high school English class [when surveyed by our highly sensitive and then not-yet-famous English teacher, Wally Lamb] said they wanted a marriage of equals, while all the women said they wanted a “traditional” marriage with the man in charge. The Sarah Doyle girls didn’t have much of a response. Residential counselor Reid suggested the creation of a Fred Smith Men’s Center...
WEDNESDAY, OCT. 28, 1987: Unable to find a cable adaptor to get Brown-TV’s “adult uncensored cartoons,” I settle for watching the Republican presidential candidates debate on PBS…
Back then I knew nothing about libertarianism but apparently was already bothered by the usual right-left political categories, as suggested in this entry:
SUNDAY, NOV. 1, 1987: Thinking about the weird party-line consistency in politics. Where are the vegetarian Reaganites? Why do the strange New Age newspapers sold on Thayer Street have to be anti-nuke, anti-police, and anti-capitalism?
No time to solve that question back then, though — college was a fast-paced intellectual environment, as alluded to on Nov. 5:
Finished relativity and the history of the universe in physics today, read the rest of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and now must finish Villette.
Note: Yes’s Big Generator album has “A Song for Harmonic Convergence” on it, and the Maharishi [Mahesh] Yogi’s nationwide Ghandarvan peace-n-harmony music festival will be held partly in Brown’s Alumni Hall, thanks to Brown’s Transcendental Meditation Society. I fear this kind of mysticism could come to dominate our whole culture...
FRIDAY, NOV. 6, 1987: One other kid in philosophy agrees with me in seeing the soul as an unnecessary, unsupported hypothesis. Last night’s Late Night with David Letterman featured a list of “The Top Ten Dark Secrets from [Supreme Court nominee Douglas] Ginsburg’s Past,” including the clever “Beat a drifter to death with a tube sock full of wood screws”…
MONDAY, NOV. 9, 1987: The Organization for Marxist Studies is stupid. I went to one of their meetings, at which they argued that the U.S. mass media paints a negative picture of the USSR. Apparently lots of high schoolers think the USSR sided with the Axis in WWII, which the OMS blames on media, Reagan, corporations, and G.I. Joe cartoons, all of which “serve the ruling classes”…Laura Petricola (of Block Bork Coalition fame) says condescendingly, “Many U.S. history books even try to create the impression that the USSR was reluctant to fight fascism at the outset of the war, which is a blatant misreading of history.” Non-Aggression Pact, Laura. I left about 9 to watch (ironically) The Billionaire Boys’ Club, with Judd Nelson as a billionaire murderer…
Already, the tensions that would dominate our age were apparent in that first Gorbachev-era semester: capitalism and anti-capitalism, highbrow theory and pop culture, Letterman and Batman. But stranger developments lay ahead, as I will recount in my second Retro-Journal entry, one week from today (blogging in the normal fashion in the meantime, aiming for shorter and more frequent entries — and now with a glorious RSS feed, down in my front page’s right margin, to keep you updated, should you choose, on when I’m updated — thanks, webmaster!).