I saw presidential candidate Ron Paul on a talk show — and was very skeptical.
It was July of 1988, and Ron Paul, then running as the Libertarian Party candidate, appeared on The Morton Downey, Jr. Show, an almost self-parodic harbinger of shoutfest shows to come, complete with a microphone stand referred to as “The Loudmouth,” decorated with a big, bellowing mouth-symbol, for use by audience members with questions. Ron Paul’s desire to legalize drugs met with howls of objection from audience members and from the host, the gangsterish Downey. However, my friend Paul Taylor — who, like me, was home in Norwich, CT on vacation after our first year of college — surprised me by agreeing with the libertarian position, arguing that voluntary means for coping with problems like drug addiction existed (rehab centers and the like) and that legalization would eliminate the incentive to create black-market drug gangs, which are a far more pernicious influence on society than drug use itself.
Influenced by philosophy professor David Schmidtz, from whom he took a class at Yale, my friend was ahead of me in accepting libertarian reasoning, though as an atheist moderate-conservative of a skeptical bent, I was ripe for recruitment. It would take another year for me to be fully convinced, though. Before that (as noted in my prior Retro-Journal entry), I would vote (in November 1988) for George H.W. Bush, who would make neocon icon William Bennett his drug czar and wave a baggie of (fake) crack on TV to underscore the menace of drugs.
I wouldn’t be a Bush loyalist for very long, though. Precisely as horrified neoconservatives would predict, my reading of Machiavelli over the 1988 summer vacation had made me a bit more comfortable viewing government as a product of competing interests and selfish, quasi-economic calculations instead of some pseudo-divine, absolutist enforcer of That Which Is Good and regulator of That Which Is Bad (and, after all, if you really think the state should subsidize all good things and suppress all bad things, you’re essentially a totalitarian, no matter how benign). That same summer I had also read Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land — primed by Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to accept its depiction of bureaucracy and intolerance as absurd yet omnipresent phenomena — and saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for the first time.
Back in 1988, Brown didn’t quite have a David Schmidtz to mold my suspicions about government into a philosophy (though it had a freshman named Bobby Jindal, who would take market-oriented ideas all the way to the governor’s office in Louisiana nineteen years later, by which time libertarian John Tomasi — who I was lucky enough to hear speak in New York City recently — would be one of Brown’s most popular professors, teaching freshmen a balanced intro-to-political-theories course).
As a sophomore, though, I was still more concerned with cultural than with economic issues anyway — and the religion-tinged harangues about the state of the culture that came to define the right in some people’s minds were not even noticed by me then (I was so comfortably anti-religion that I didn’t even take religion seriously as a political or cultural force — not intending to live in the boonies with hillbillies or inbred mental defectives, I assumed religion would not really be a factor in my world, so political leaders paying it occasional lip service was of no consequence). Rather, my view of the culture was inspired by things like the writing of Tom Wolfe — criticizing some of the same stupid aspects of the culture that annoyed me, such as the unmitigated narcissism of New Age spirituality and the dangerous impulse to treat radicalism as chic.
I agreed with Paul Taylor, though, that utilitarianism, the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people — and not some arbitrary metaphysical standard, nor a parochial cultural allegiance — was the proper, humane way to gauge the value of human actions and public policies. That fundamental view hasn’t changed since.
I not only wrestled with these issues in philosophy class (next school year I’d become a double major in English and philosophy, with a plan coalescing to write about political and philosophical issues in some capacity after graduation) and in the dorm room I shared with environmentally-inclined Washington-stater Marc Steiner (the room tragically sandwiched in a no-man’s-land between two fraternities due to our lousy housing lottery number) but also in a roughly biweekly Brown Daily Herald column called “Voice of Reason.” My first editor wore a USSR shirt as he gave me instructions on how to turn in my work, the Soviet Union then being, for just a little while longer, a going concern and one still widely believed to be the future (I recall one student even having a jacket emblazoned with map-silhouettes of the U.S. and USSR, labeled “SLAVERY” and “FREEDOM” in that order). The column would make me something of a campus celebrity over the next three years and train me to expect most public reaction to my work to be negative.
That’s not to say there wasn’t any normal college fun, like my depressive but funny and philosophical friend Dan Shuster demonstrating the ease with which one could glide across the floor of the cafeteria on a chair by placing small sections of banana peel under its legs…or Brown-spawned radio station WBRU going to an all alternative rock format (the first professional station in the country to do so, during a glorious, fertile period after New Wave but before grunge, when somewhat subtler — and for the most part, at that time, more obscure — alt-rock bands like R.E.M. and Crowded House and the Smiths and the Hoodoo Gurus and Violent Femmes reigned)…or the movies I got into free by being part of Brown Film Society, essentially absorbing a decent education in the history of film as a mere side effect of wanting to write comedy for their publication, the Film Bulletin, which in the late 80s had on its tiny staff such future luminaries as David Kamp (now of Vanity Fair), Gersh Kuntzman (New York newspaper editor and columnist), Hayes “Beers” Jackson (now an actual, working sitcom writer in L.A.), Andrew Corsello (now of GQ), and Scott Nybakken (now of DC Comics).
Primed by Tom Wolfe and comedy-writing, I was delighted to hear a P.J. O’Rourke speech on campus that semester (he being both a National Lampoon veteran and rising political satirist), and I never would have known about him or the speech had it not been for the self-defeating posters put up around campus by angry leftists, featuring excerpts of his work and asking “Is This Funny?” — to which the only reasonable answer was, “Say, this guy is pretty funny.”
Comedy was an important tool of rebellion at a resolutely politically-correct college, and it took some serious artistic integrity to keep making breast jokes in the Bulletin when even many of the staff members worried about the partriarchal impact that doing so might have on society (I worried more about the fact that few people liked my short-lived Brown Daily Herald comic strip about philosophy, Craven and Bogus, which would be gently canceled by Herald comics editor Joan Hilty, now at DC Comics, the next semester — but Dave Burrowes, a guy who always dressed like the Grim Reaper and was nicknamed “Death” on campus, liked the one I did about him enough to tape it up on his door, so that’s something anyway).
Some of the most artful college pranks ever to touch my life took place at the start of that sophomore year, so I will commemorate them here.
•A student named Bob had a phenomenal ability to remember names and would deliberately memorize the names of people he’d barely met in order to confuse them later by acting as if he knew them well. When they actually knew him too well to be taken aback by that, he’d resort to tricks like concealing himself and repeatedly calling someone’s name, knowing that he was good enough at throwing his voice that the target would never be able to locate him (I was introduced to that tactic when my friend Jonny Skye, the Oregonian relativist, stoically maintained eye contact with me and kept saying “Ignore it” with repressed anger when her name repeatedly echoed across one dorm courtyard from no easily-discernible direction).
But his coup de grace, which I was privileged to observe as I walked through the Van Wickle Gates onto Brown’s main green one day, was noticing two students — each walking down one of the pathways that met in a V at the Gates, neither of them recognizing him or each other — and, as he passed them at the intersection of the V, doing a split-second introduction of the two (“Doug — Mary; Mary — Doug,” or whatever the hell their names were) and leaving the two of them standing there, staring at each other, and fumbling in vain to remember or understand — while Bob, if that was his real name, quickly but casually strode on up the green. (If I ever find out the two went on to date, this officially becomes the greatest story ever told.)
•A far more ambitious comedic stunt was undertaken that same semester by the campus TV station, BTV, which sent a few of its staffers to take a tour of Princeton, videotaping it as if for tourist/prospective student purposes, pretending all the while not to know each other, while asking the tour guide such inane questions as “And do you know how tall Jonathan Edwards was?” One member of the tour, as if in sudden panic, shouted “I’m not smart enough! I’ll never get in here!” and raced away across the Princeton campus, never to return, while his comrades, continuing to chat with the tour guide, deadpanned spontaneous reactions about how that guy must be really insecure.
•Andrew Clateman (the Film Bulletin writer and fan of the Marx Brothers, Dada, and deconstructionism, noted in my previous Retro-Journal entry) found himself bored to distraction in a section of Prof. Martha Nussbaum’s Nietzsche class, led by a grim-sounding T.A. named Rex Welshon. Andrew stood up, demanded to know who in the class would dare follow him in rejecting the constraints of system and society — as Nietzsche would desire! — then leapt out of the classroom window (subsequently dropping the class). Andrew was later told that after a stunned pause, Welshon said, “He may be the only one here who really understands Nietzsche.”
This would not be the last time Nietzsche would influence my college days, and something of his bombastic, giddily combative tone would creep into my writing — as it had into Mencken’s, in turn influencing O’Rourke — despite Bulletineer Laura Braunstein’s gentle warning that my columns sometimes sounded arrogant. (Similar concerns would be expressed that semester by Rhoda Flaxman, instructor of the training class for writing tutors I was taking — and the same professor, ironically, whose class the previous year had introduced me to Jonathan Swift, greatly influencing my satirical tone as a columnist and thus the rest of my life.) In a related dilemma, but one with implications far deeper than mere choice of writing style, I would soon struggle with the question of how one reconciles a Nietzschean love of unfettered individual freedom with the hyper-rationalistic, calculating mindset necessary for being a good utilitarian. Stay tuned…