Living as the one third-year student amidst a nice bunch of freshmen in early 1990, I felt fairly at home in the role of pseudo-old-man. One freshman, Naomi Camilleri, introduced me to Flaming Carrot comics, leading me to trend weird-ward in my comics reading after the preceding decade and a half of sticking almost exclusively to Marvel and DC. Another of the freshmen lost his shoe at a They Might Be Giants concert at the Living Room, which a substantial portion of my acquaintances attended (bumping into people at a TMBG concert was more good practice for becoming a New Yorker later). Oddly, given the light-hearted nature of the band, the entire crowd was pogoing and slam-dancing, with nary a spot of the small concert space beyond the mosh pit, to the clear surprise and alarm of the band.
I was on the fringes of a few overlapping, mostly media-oriented cliques (writers, editors, English majors, political people), in a pattern that looks not so different from my adult life, in retrospect — and in some ways similarly myopic, I suppose, given the way both Brown and New York divide into insular subcultures. Lorrie Giventer, who had dated the Brown Spectator founder Dan Greenberg, knew the Brown Daily Herald’s Alison Barth, who in turn knew grumpy but oddly entertaining leftist Nancy Tewksbury, who in turn knew more-noxious characters like Andrew Rubin, an irrational leftist writer who condemned me in print as a fascist (and a “performing seal” of a writer), and so on. The gist of the fascist charge was that libertarianism, by reducing the government to minimal nightwatchman-state functions (just making sure people don’t assault, rob, or defraud each other and otherwise leaving them alone) was in effect creating a “police state” (which is a bit like saying that if you consider murder a stunt, then a stuntman is a de facto assassin).
One of the campus’s tiny handful of conservatives, Jerry Mayer, sprang to my defense in print, noting that fascism in fact arose, like Rubin’s views, from socialism, not from the right and certainly not from free-market ideology (but I’ll write far more about that overlooked historical fact in my Book Selection of the Month entry late next month, on Jonah Goldberg’s magnum opus, Liberal Fascism).
One important crossroads for many of the campus figures I knew was the three-semester course on modern European intellectual history (from the Enlightenment to the late twentieth century) taught by Prof. Mary Gluck. In that class, I saw punk Ed Batista — who would often wax poetic about the sense of community one found in a mosh pit or caution me not to sound so harsh in my political judgments as to make leftist women cry. What an amazingly different story that class seemed to tell — suddenly more postmodernist than socialist (like a great many of the hastily-rewritten course descriptions in the course catalogue that year) — now that we all knew the happy ending of the story, all knew that (just months earlier) it had concluded with the ’89 collapse of Communism, rather than the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the apparent “end of history.” Another student in the class, Erich Horn, was an Objectivist and drew from the class the lesson that if Brown continued to think in an unrepentant collectivist fashion, the campus was marching “lock-step straight to Hell.”
One year earlier, the capitalist/communist stalemate had seemed as permanent as the eternal war at the heart of Manicheanism — but by spring 1990, as my journal noted, the only country in Central Europe that was still officially Communist was Albania (a fact soon to be mocked on the Simpsons episode in which their young Albanian exchange student proves to be a spy out to photograph the workings of Mr. Burns’ power plant).
Yet not everyone was eager to throw Marxism on the ash heap of history. “Do I detect sarcasm? Are you saying this is bunk?” said Peter, an effete, nerdy grad student in Prof. Spilka’s lit class after he heard my reaction to reading Marxist theorist Lukacs, one of several latter-day Marxist thinkers studied in the class. “Why would people go to work each morning if not to fit into the dominant ideology?” Peter asked in one class, causing even the thoroughly left-wing Prof. Spilka to impatiently mutter, “There is the matter of a paycheck.” In mere months, the left had gone from being the vanguard to being also-rans.
It was a fun, optimistic time to be alive. Still, I half-jokingly wrote a “Nostalgic for the 80s” column that very year. (And I still am, of course. That decade laid the groundwork for the freedom and prosperity we’ve come to take for granted since, though you won’t hear the decade described that way in most glossy magazines or on sitcoms.) That year, I also wrote a lengthy “Capitalist Manifesto” for the Spectator under the editorial gaze of a brilliant freshman who’d already taken control of the Spectator, Jacob Levy.
Other segments of the political spectrum were already regrouping, though. Earth Day 1990, which to the untrained eye might appear essentially identical to all the Earth Days that have followed, was in fact a nearly unprecedented eruption of twentieth-anniversary eco-fervor (the original Earth Day having taken place in 1970 and been largely forgotten about for the next two decades), seemingly intended to help the left gloss over the massive wound it had just suffered with the collapse of Communism — by changing the subject. I recall a nice leftist guy named Sasha (who let me read his entire Love & Rockets collection) saying around that time that he and many others had suddenly realized that capitalism would, as he put it, end to the sound not of marching proletarian boots but of falling trees. MTV then began its familiar pattern of making recycling somehow seem like a deeply rebellious yet virtuous act. Formerly rule-breaking performers like Johnny Rotten and the B-52s now churned out educational-sounding songs about omnipresent pollution.
Still, whatever their philosophical differences, most people seemed to recognize that with the Cold War over, it was a very nice time to be on the planet, whether its ecosystem was fragile or not. Not everyone was happy, though:
•My depressive friend Dan Shuster, the one who’d shown me how to slide across the cafeteria floor on banana peels a year earlier, shot himself. Our friend Marc Steiner, spending a year away in Pomona, was greatly saddened to hear about it but in a way unsurprised — it in some way affirmed his decision to get away from Brown after the sophomore year he and I had spent rooming together and feeling trapped, as he put it, between frat parties on one side and protests on the other. I blamed Dan’s what-difference-does-anything-really-make Zen relativism for his despair in my speech at his memorial service. Afterwards, Dean Blumstein, who attended, chuckled good-naturedly over the fact that I had earlier criticized her in one of my columns in the Herald (alluded to in a prior Retro-Journal entry), and she ended up driving several of us back from the memorial service in a crowded car.
•An editor from the Herald who interviewed me about my negative view of deconstructionism turned out to be having a nervous breakdown and obsessing over that philosophy. The article containing the interview with me never appeared.
•A friend of mine who’d gone from sweater-wearing Christian to black-clad Objectivist atheist over the summer after freshman year was now severely depressed and took a semester off. (While perhaps, like half the people on campus, eccentric, she had always seemed reasonable to me: libertarian, Smiths fan, comedy writer — what’s not to like? — though she smoked, something I regarded as irrational even back then, long before working for a public health organization, but which some of my most sophisticated college acquaintances almost seemed to admire — and something my high school pal Chuck, when I spoke to him about it once, said no students at his college, CalTech, did, rational risk-calculators that they were.)
•Ken Dornstein, with whom I’d written for a dying comedy mag called Philtrum Press freshman year (along with improv comic Steve Melcher and others), seemed a bit lost (deliberately taking — even inventing — non-paying odd jobs in a vague effort to help humanity), as his brother’s death at the hands of Libyan terrorists over Lockerbie, Scotland continued to haunt him, and he’d later write a book about it. He would also go on to do some stand-up comedy, get a philosophy degree, live near California’s Muscle Beach, and become a de facto detective for insurance companies (writing a funny book about that, which was harshly reviewed, in a bizarrely humorless fashion, by Brown polisci prof Ross Cheit in the alumni magazine, Cheit mainly condemning the book for failing to take seriously the plight of poverty-stricken people who are driven to commit insurance fraud, as if that would be any fun).
I too had by now become a philosophy major (doubling in English), one of only a tiny handful of students in the class of ’91 who were — and it was the (now deceased) philosophy professor Roderick Chisholm, brilliant though he was (an acolyte of the great Bertrand Russell), who helped confirm my decision not to pursue the discipline into grad school, with his weary, meticulous analyses of issues that struck me as comically irrelevant, such as whether the statement “Fido is a dog” means that Fido belongs to the set of things which are dogs or that Fido possesses caninity (a discussion that led me to walk out of class and then run from the philosophy building — though I would still go on to write a lengthy paper for the class on the question of whether the statement “The fusebox is on fire,” when uttered in regard to what is in fact an electrical meter, is a false statement or merely a case of misnaming, also arguably a question that doesn’t matter). Dornstein once referred to Chisholm, with a touch of sadness, as “the Willy Loman of philosophy.”
Given the ambient emotional instability among some of my acquaintances, it seemed a fitting semester to be watching the unsettling David Lynch series Twin Peaks with gatherings of people like Jerry Mayer and fellow Bulletineer Margot Weiss. No more Cold War meant having the time to focus on subtler problems, like nightmares about dancing dwarfs.
Of course, it was also the beginning of a somewhat petty, self-absorbed period for our culture. That was the semester Sandra Bernhard came to speak to Brown and, as I wrote in the campus magazine Issues, attracted a “meta-audience” that relentlessly asked her non-funny questions about whether she was living up to her responsibility (as they saw it) to promote lesbianism, disco, even punk, and various other subcultures they cared about, while she was trying to make jokes. The audience came to talk about itself, and the whole thing struck me as very New York. I decided never to live in that city.
There was no getting away from people who were one step removed from celebrity at Brown, though. The whole place was crawling with the children of celebs — such as Kara Dukakis (whose wardrobe I inadvertently insulted in one column while trying to make a subtler point about the rich and famous striving to look like hippies at Brown), a Brando child, the motorcycling daughter of Ringo Starr, the drug-buying daughter of Jane Fonda, and RFK’s daughter Rory (who I hope didn’t notice the joke bit I wrote in the Bulletin about Duran Duran assassinating RFK — you forget that living history is around you sometimes). Harvard and Yale seemed to house tomorrow’s leaders while Brown housed the children of yesterday’s leaders. And there were those who were not yet celebrities but soon would be: Bulletineers Chris Nugent and Dave Whitney, like me, were at the farewell concert of Lisa Loeb (Class of ’90) and her then-partner, Liz. (Perhaps WBRU DJ and future MTV fixture Karyn Bryant was there as well.)
That semester, Dave (a DJ and later general manager) also let me into WBRU to tape a whole bunch of stuff from their vinyl collection onto a mix tape, something that seems laughably technologically-archaic now but was an awful lot more fun than downloading files. Fittingly, given that retrograde sentiment, I think Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” was one of the things I taped that day (part of a collection of about 150 mostly-alternative-rock, heavily 80s/90s mix tapes I have, with an accompanying index in tiny handwriting dating back to 1982, that will somehow never be topped for me, sentimentally, by an iPod of any imaginable storage capacity in the decades left to me in this world, I suspect).
I did not seek glamour: I’d spend the summer of 1990 with my down-to-earth parents back in Norwich, CT — and with their rapidly-growing, shaggy dog Uber, who was proving to have the most upbeat and friendly personality I’d seen in a living thing and was developing adorable habits like tottering on her hind legs and leaning her front paws against my parents in order to dance with them if they slow-danced in the kitchen, as they sometimes do.
As a thrilling side trip, I’d attend a libertarian seminar in Maryland that summer conducted by the invaluable Institute for Humane Studies (a hot topic among libertarians then was the schism among Ayn Rand followers that had led to one prominent Randian, David Kelley, being “excommunicated” by the West Coast Rand establishment and starting his own East Coast splinter group, the kind of thing that seemed apocalyptically important in a relaxed decade with neither a Cold War nor a War on Terror). Immersion in this somewhat obscure political movement may have seemed odd, but note that it was quite mainstream compared to some of the oddities to be found back at Brown, such as a friend of Chris Nugent’s who was an aristocratic, authoritarian conservative Republican who dressed like a tie-dyed hippie and loved marijuana but vehemently opposed the idea of legalizing it, saying the masses, unlike him, could not handle it (which may not be such an incoherent or unpopular position, I suppose).
Looking back, though, it was Bulletineer Scott Nybakken who most accurately foresaw that the pleasant, optimistic mental-recess-period that was the 90s would not last. As he graduated in the spring of 1990 (without leaving Providence for another year, since he had a job with an early computer animation company called COSA, later absorbed by Lucasfilm), he wrote a farewell message in the Film Bulletin in which he said he had just one word to say to Francis Fukuyama, the conservative writer who had just declared the end of the Cold War to be “the end of history,” and the word Scott conveyed, in all capitals without further explanation, was: ISLAM.