This week, in 2007, I’ve just seen a Marxist acquaintance argue in a debate that the government knew in advance about 9/11 — and I’ve seen the New York Times print a notice about the fact that a letter they had run contained plagiarized material — by a plagiarist who is a student at Brown University and had also plagiarized material for his Brown Daily Herald column, from sources including Foreign Affairs. All this turns my mind to events of eighteen years past…
I was in a mood to take a meta-level view of things as the second half of sophomore year started in early 1989: Reagan was leaving office; the Cold War (though not quite yet the Communist bloc) had officially ended during his administration; and I had been reading things like Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach (about recursion, which reminded me of the Escher-like Doctor Who story “Castrovalva,” about a town that loops back upon itself), a tiny sample of Ayn Rand (not yet enough to be effective), and various comic books that in one way or another stepped back and asked in a metafictional way whether superheroic conventions made sense: Ambush Bug, Zot!, Marshal Law, and, not long before that, Watchmen. Somehow, though, the big questions, about which systems made sense and how to frame our views about the good things in life, instead of leaving me thinking like a self-doubting liberal or a deconstructionist, left me thinking a bit more like…a Viking, or perhaps an Egyptian pharaoh, in the following limited sense.
If minimizing human suffering or maximizing human happiness (not quite the same thing, but we’ll leave that aside) is the proper goal of moral and political rules, might not utility have a tendency to become self-defeating by spreading an ethos of risk-aversion and constant efforts to ameliorate suffering instead of daring to do great, even reckless things, sometimes causing harm but occasionally hitting new heights that would redound to the benefit of all humanity in the long run? That is to say — though I had no desire to see people raided like the victims of the Vikings or enslaved like the builders of the pyramids — might there be a danger that an ethos that decreed that every action must be suffering-minimizing would lead, as Nietzsche feared, to a cowardly society in which no noble soul felt comfortable saying, “The hell with all of you — I’m going to go pursue this heroic project whether the rest of you like it or not, indeed, even if it upsets the rest of you, simply because I think it’s great”?
In a world where everyone felt obliged to become, say, a social worker, would anyone become a Shakespeare, a daredevil, or a loner scientist? What social/moral formula could harness our ability to decrease suffering while still affording enough freedom to let each person pursue his own vision of happiness — or even misery-making greatness? These didn’t quite seem like questions appropriate for Brown, where even English classes often revolved around the question “What about the poor?” — while here I was, wondering “What about the great?”
Fortunately, I was in a class on existentialism that semester that heavily emphasized Nietzsche — taught by Rex Welshon, who’d been the T.A. in that Martha Nussbaum class the previous semester in which my comedy-writing comrade Andrew Clateman had leapt out the window. I enjoyed the class, even if I thought it a bit poseur-ish for Welshon to throw in references to the Sex Pistols’ nihilism, the beatniks, and Ayn Rand (calling her “an intellectual charlatan” for so blatantly ripping off Nietzsche — “anti-life” and all — and pretending to have no influences but Aristotle). Eighteen years later, though, who am I to criticize someone for throwing in references to the Sex Pistols and Ayn Rand?
(The class had the odd side effect of leading, without me having any conscious intent to be ironic and certainly no perceived hope back then of looking hip, to me standing, quite alone and no doubt nervous-looking, in the middle of the floor at a great little alternative-rock-friendly Providence concert space called the Living Room, the day after April Fool’s 1989, prior to a Fixx concert, rapidly reading the seemingly interminable and largely pointless existentialist classic Being and Nothingness by Sartre, worried that I wouldn’t finish it in time for class. Walking nearly-abandoned streets, past the silent Rhode Island state capitol and a couple ominous warehouses, to get to that venue at ungodly hours, often to hear bands few other people cared about, was good practice for being a New Yorker two years later. And yes, that’s the fifth Fixx video I’ve linked to on this blog, which shows great restraint on my part, I think.)
I should note that much as I admired his individualistic, system-smashing spirit, I was never tempted to embrace Nietzsche’s relativism — the universe exists and, as science shows, can be understood as an objective phenomenon, independent of and largely indifferent to human perceptions, as I suggested in one of my Brown Daily Herald columns that semester, entitled “I’m OK, You’re a Relativist.”
My sophomore roommate Marc Steiner (who, despite technically sharing more of Brown’s politics than I did, was getting tired of the place and would decide to spend the next school year at Pomona as an escape) and I had entered the campus leftist magazine The RAKE’s contest to invent an explanation for what their traditionally capitalized title actually stood for. Marc and I won with “Radical Alliance for Knowledge and Empowerment,” though we’d suggested several far sillier ones, including “Radicals, Anarchists, Kibitzers, Etc.” — my main incentive for entering being the prize, lunch with the RAKE staff, which included cute Argentine left-winger Astrid Wessels. She didn’t show up, but I had lunch with four RAKE staffers who explained their vision for social democracy to me, and when I asked how anything as unpopular with the majority of voters as comic books or a highly experimental new machine would win approval if everything had to be voted on, they assured me that inventors could simply take their inventions before a national TV audience who might then vote funding for it up or down electronically. This lunch was the first time I started to view naive leftists with something akin to pity. I certainly didn’t see them as monsters.
Two rooms in my dorm provided a tidy little reminder that people can be radically opposed in some ways and kindred spirits in others: on my hall, just one door away, was the dorm room of Dave Whitney, a political moderate who would go on to become a general manager of the radio station WBRU, an architect, a libertarian, a Republican, an Episcopalian, a father of two, and a pillar of his community, fond of rock n’ roll but also of nice ties and dress shirts and not very happy about drug use on campus. In the room directly below him, by contrast, was Noel Rabinowitz, who would go on to become the communications technology organizer for the Communist Party USA. As could easily be seen from outside the dorm, each of them had, by sheer coincidence, put a big, red Soviet flag up on his wall, Dave’s exactly one floor above Noel’s, in pretty much the same spot on the analogous wall. But Dave’s was there because he went on an awesome vacation to Russia, while Noel’s was there because he was a Communist.
Tension between Dave and his roommate, Kenji, may have been a more relevant foretaste of conflicts to come within American popular culture, though: Dave loved alternative rock and was playing a long-sought vinyl classic in his room one day when, to his great alarm, Kenji slapped his hand down on the record and began moving it back and forth under the needle, producing rhythmic screeching. “What the hell are you doing?!” demanded Dave, to which a startled Kenji replied, “Oh! You mean…you don’t scratch?”
Never did I imagine then that within a few years, not only would the Soviet Union be history but so too would the walls between rap, metal, and punk.
On a related note, in a surprisingly prescient journal entry near the end of the semester, I noted that one reason the New Wave fading away was so disappointing was that I’d always believed, as the futurist aesthetics of New Wave videos encouraged, that the world of tomorrow would be ever more New Wave-like, but with New Wave fast becoming an obsolete, hackneyed “80s thing,” that now seemed unlikely. (For the next decade and a half, though — until the spread of electro-clash and cheap fluorescent hair dyes and cyborg-like personal electronic devices and goth-chick bartenders — I would never entirely let the flame of hope die within my heart, as friends can attest.)
Earlier in the semester, I started getting the occasional phonecall — in a pattern that I am pleased to say lasts to this day — from Dan Greenberg (now an Arkansas state representative), who had founded Brown’s libertarian/conservative magazine, the Spectator. Dan was a bit disappointed to hear that at that time I still thought of myself as more the creative than the political type and wasn’t interested in trying to take over the Spectator — I was too busy trying to figure out how to do a good job as the new editor of the Film Bulletin, with some of its best writers, including former editor David Kamp, graduating.
Dan Greenberg had graduated the previous year but continued to follow campus politics a bit via a Brown Daily Herald subscription, something he fully admitted might show an unhealthy obsession, but things were slow in Bowling Green, OH, where he was editing the libertarian-friendly journal Social Philosophy & Policy. Dan liked my columns, but seemed alarmed that I hadn’t read some of the most prominent political philosophers (I was then still focused on the just-plain philosophers). He recommended writers like Robert Nozick and John Rawls (I at first thought he meant the jazz musician Lou Rawls) — but also various comic books, including old issues of The Spirit. And in that strange time before the Internet, an important communal bond was formed, across states, between two people who would never go on to live in the same city, despite their paths crossing frequently.
Dan said he’d considered giving the Spectator the title Voice of Reason when he founded it — the same name I’d subsequently given my Brown Daily Herald column — but his father, conservative columnist Paul Greenberg, convinced him it sounded too arrogant. Paul Greenberg would most famously coin [CORRECTION: popularize] the name “Slick Willie” for a prominent Arkansas politician, one not yet part of this narrative.
It was encouraging to encounter other minds who’d reached what I was increasingly inclined to think of as not only conservative but specifically libertarian conclusions — especially minds who shared my (then far less popular) opinion that the left was a greater threat to freedom of thought and expression than the right.
The idea of campuses as “politically correct” was not in vogue quite yet, but the phenomenon was already quite real. I recall the idea that “every man is a potential rapist” being popular on campus at the time, and an angry anti-rape activist named Naomi Sachs confronted and denounced me for simply writing a column in which I noted that activists’ stats suggesting (a) that 1/3 of women had been raped and (b) that black women were three times as likely to have been raped as the general populace were a bit hard to believe, since that would imply that about 100% of black women had been raped. I told Sachs I wasn’t dismissing the issue of rape — nor even saying the stats had to be wrong — just pointing out the credulity-straining logic of some of the stats being carelessly thrown around, to which she replied “It has nothing to do with logic!” and stormed away.
(This was also a valuable early lesson in the abuse of statistics by activists — the oft-repeated one-in-three stat, which probably created a great deal of anxiety in young women across America and no doubt subtly altered some people’s social lives for the worse, was based on a self-selected survey in which “rape” was defined so broadly as to include having sex due to “emotional pressure.” Doesn’t almost all sex in some sense involve emotional pressure? Another lesson in the importance of putting the left’s numbers in context came from my reading around that time about the work of Dr. Bruce Ames, who’d been much-lauded early in his career for pointing out manmade carcinogens in food but seemed to be attracting less attention now that he was attempting to put those carcinogens in context — by pointing out that nature itself puts carcinogens literally thousands of times more powerful in food, even in the purest and most organic of broccoli, without humans suffering any ill effects, making the regulatory crusade against the weaker manmade carcinogens absurd. The left’s — and the press’s — perfect willingness to drop context on such issues, all the while masquerading as the defenders of science, would bother me for the next twelve years, until I finally got a job fighting back. The most important overlooked story back in 1989, though, was that nearly everything the left says about economics, even more so than culture or science, is based on strategic context-dropping — and shortly, the world and I would get a very loud wake-up call about that.)
I couldn’t help noticing continual examples of the left, out of over-sensitivity and cowardice, being on the wrong side in struggles over free speech and free thought — examples never much emphasized in the news, such as when a fatwa was issued against the brave British satirist Salman Rushdie and the thoroughly progressive Canadian government responded by considering banning his book as “hate propaganda” against Islam.
In retrospect, that was a small sample of much greater troubles to come, but my attention was on other troubles that, fortunately, seemed to be winding down: Nicaragua’s communist dictator, Daniel Ortega, had finally promised free elections, and the Soviets were pulling out of Afghanistan. The Soviet mindset was still going strong at Brown, though, where a slight increase in the number of business majors was declared by Dean Blumstein, according to an interview with her, to be “an unfortunate reflection of our society and its values.” (Would that I had been a business major — I might now have enough money to make withholding donations to Brown mean something.) Worse, a literature professor named Duncan Smith — campus director of Phi Beta Kappa — went so far as to publish an essay about what a great relief it was to exit West Berlin and enter East Berlin, since the communist-controlled part of the city was so mercifully free of advertising and the oppressive presence of commerce.
It’s hard to believe American academics/leftists thought that way such a short time ago — as some still do, of course — but within months it would become obvious (even if they have still never fully admitted it) that history was not on their side.