Friday, November 2, 2007

Retro-Journal: Ron Paul for President -- in 1988 (plus P.J. O'Rourke and more)


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


Laura said...

One of my favorite Bulletin pieces that fall was our selection of fake P. J. O’Rourke protest posters, like the one with excerpts of [made-up] offensive things he had said about dyslexics, ending with the slogan, “Si This Nuffy?”

Ali T. Kokmen said...

At some point during my own Brown career, I took some philosophy class with that same T.A., and at some point he did tell the story of the Nietzche section with Clateman’s philosophically inspired leap from the window. This would’ve been at least one year, and possibly two or three afterward, so he had a lasting effect.

Heck, a little google-surfing seems to indicate that Welshon is teaching at the University of Colorado/Colorado Springs. One wonders if it’s an anecdote he still tells to his students, with due wistfulness at the memory of his time in the Brown trenches…

Todd Seavey said...

And a little Ron Paul update: nineteen years later, his supporters are hoping to make history this coming Monday (Nov. 5, 2007) with the largest-ever single day of donations to a political candidate, so now’s the time, I guess. He’s still a longshot, but then so was hitting that two-meter thermal exhaust port on the Death Star — and that was still clearly worth a try.

Ali Kokmen said...

“He’s still a longshot, but then so was hitting that two-meter thermal exhaust port on the Death Star…”

Oh, come on. I used to bullseye wamp rats in my T-16 back home, and they’re not much bigger than 2 meters…

(We were all thinking it! I just had to post it…)

Jacob T. Levy said...

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).

And this has always been one of the sources of our difficulties! Somehow in your heart you can bring yourself to take New Agism seriously as a threat to reason that must be fought against, but conservative Christianity remains hidden in a SEP field as far as your field of vision is concerned. Whereas I was from the boonies (relatively speaking), at the time still thought I’d move back there, and saw the then-nascent Christian Coalition as the real threat…

Todd Seavey said...

But note that I wasn’t concerned about New Age’s impact on politics so much as on its impact on people’s ability to reason scientifically. Mainstream religion has a tendency to become a sort of background white noise that (when not actively deployed in a very, very few narrow political causes) probably doesn’t result in behavior _much_ different from what would otherwise have transpired (statisticians have to do all sorts of number-crunching just to show whether it has a tiny impact on things like out-of-wedlock births, for example). Rationally or not, people seem — and in the late 80s seemed even more — to be able to reach similar conclusions as engineers or voters to the ones they would reach were they not Christians. They compartmentalize.

New Age — which I suppose really has had some political effect in so far as it, like the hippie aesthetic, has made some people more inclined to Earth-worshiping environmentalism — was/is more prone to make lots of specific (un)scientific claims about things like quartz crystals having healing powers, our emotions being explicable as “memories” from Atlantis, belief actively reshaping reality, etc., etc.

As I’ve said before, I think people can be forgiven for passively accepting — and safely ignoring — the white noise of their native culture, but introducing some novel set of blatantly false claims and fanning the flames of unreason anew should always be troubling to us.

Luckily, no politician of any prominence pushed an explicitly New Age program (something that couldn’t be easily predicted circa 1987) — but keep in mind that over $100 million (no small sum) of our tax dollars here in the U.S. now go to crackpot research at the National Council on Complementary and Alternative Medicine, due largely to the popularity back then of back-to-nature mysticism — and on a purely electoral note, the New Agers did nearly take over the Reform Party (via the Natural Law Party’s infiltration of it), following the philosophy of none other than the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who I worried about in a prior Retro-Journal entry.

His followers are very active in your homeland of Canada, too, so watch out.

Koli said...

I guess when you belong to the dominant segment of a society it’s easy to simply assume that your own experience is, in most relevant ways, the same as everyone else’s.

Christianity isn’t part of the “native culture” of many, many Americans. So, it can’t be “safely ignored as white noise” by those of us to whom it represents a novel, unscientific set of claims. Many of us are much more accustomed to ignoring Eastern mysticism as background noise because it’s part of OUR native cultures. I personally don’t find a guy on TV promoting turmeric as a digestive aid nearly as dangerous as the local school board denouncing my grandparents’ religion as witchcraft.

The idea that Christian fundamentalism is something innocuous that politicians only pay “lip service” to is bull shit, if you’ll pardon the expression. I’m from the South. People there are seriously and actively trying to teach “Creationism” as science, to prosecute people for having certain kinds of consensual sex, and to ban birth control and sex education and interracial marriage (yes, really) — all based on their particular brand of Christianity.

Todd Seavey said...

That, too, is bad, and as I was acknowledging, nineteen-year-old Todd didn’t encounter it much in the Northeast (nor, it’s worth noting as an aside, do those in the offices of, say, _National Review_ or even _First Things_, also located in these parts). I recall Steve Forbes saying in his 2000 campaign that his defeat in 1996 taught him that his low-key, northeastern brand of Christianity was one that he might have to get more vocal about to please some voters — and I think what he really meant was, “Holy shit! Out there in the hinterland, they really _mean_ some of this stuff!”

As an atheist, I find it alarming in every form from Christianity to New Age to Hinduism, make no mistake. One fight at a time.

Christopher said...

“I personally don’t find a guy on TV promoting turmeric as a digestive aid nearly as dangerous as the local school board denouncing my grandparents’ religion as witchcraft.”

Indeed. And those same school boards have created a sufficiently threatening atmosphere in large portions of the country that high school bio teachers simply don’t teach anything about evolution to avoid “controversy” and the possibility of losing their jobs. This doesn’t get a lot of press as it doesn’t make as good a story as the more actively insane teaching of creationism, but there have been a few very troubling articles about the trend in the last couple of years. I think this and similar attitudes are far greater threats than any influence of New Agers. Most of the people pushing, for example, an increased emphasis on environmentalism, are not New Agers in any meaningful sense. And I’ve not heard of anyone saying the history curriculum should be completely revised to account for Atlantis. I’m going to have to agree with Jacob on this one, I’ve always found Todd’s feelings that the fundies are more of less harmless to be mystifying (so to speak). Even if one wants to attack environmentalism as somehow part of a New Age movement, we’re still talking about ideas that legitimate scientists have real disagreement about. And while I’m sympathetic to many of the same ideas about climate change that Todd is, I will also admit that a lot of the scientific community is on the other side. There is, of course, absolutely no legitimate scientific disagreement about evolution, which has clearly become one of the 3 big issues for conservative Christians (with abortion and gay marriage/sex/cartoons/anything else).

Todd Seavey said...

There are only so many ways I can say you’re addressing a reconstructed nineteen-year-old version of me, but the adult version will add that the fundamentalists just might help abolish public education, which should be the larger goal — and then they can send their kids where they want, as can you. To spurn allies in that larger struggle would be like dwarfs spurning the aid of overly-mystical elves in the fight against Mordor. Don’t forget how immense the real foe, the state, is and how very, very few we are.

Nonetheless, I do devote about eight hours a day to promoting science (including defenses of cloning, not too popular with the religious right), and there’s only so much one man can do.

Christopher said...

Yes, the nineteen-year-old version of me had a few issues as well, to put it mildly.

But in terms of the claims of the adult, I think you just imagine fundamentalists to be far more anti-state than they really are, by and large. There are certainly some who just want the gov’t to leave them alone to do as they see fit by their children, etc., but it seems the vast majority would much rather use the state for their own ends. In fact many of them feel they have a moral responsibility to use the state (and any other power they have) to force others to behave a certain way (and as you know, red states and their politicians tend to suck far more off the governmental teat than do blue states). I know YOUR heart and mind are in the right place and when the time comes I will come to you to build my clone army, but I think you are mistaken about whether Christian conservatives are really your ally. They love their god a lot more than they love your freedom, science, and reason. Both the elves and the dwarves (not “dwarfs” if we’re talking about Middle Earth, but I should be the last person to ever correct someone’s spelling!) knew that when it came down to it they both hated Sauron more than they hated each other. The fundies hate scientific atheists more than they hate the state, which is just another tool they’d be happy to use if given the chance.

Todd Seavey said...

It is intellectually irresponsible — to put it politely — to suggest that the net federal tax/spending gain by red states (for which no one claims to have a simple explanation, given the complex geographic, historical, demographic, and economic factors in play, including perhaps more strenuous efforts to “buy off” more rebellious states) is actually _caused_ by the philosophical redness of the red states.

Or if it is, do you now also contend that states more prone to believe federal spending should shrink — as surveys suggest those states do — are the cause of increased federal spending? If so, it’s time for you to repudiate not only the religious right but your own (and my) libertarianism — and, since we live in a universe _that_ paradoxical, perhaps time to start saying black is white and up is down while you’re at it.

Unless all this is somehow meant to show that Shirley MacLaine really hails from Atlantis, I’m done with this thread of the conversation.

Christopher said...

To put it very simply, of course there is a contradiction here, because people of all political persuasions CONSTANTLY claim they believe one thing and act in ways contradictory to that claim.

Oh, and Shirley MacLaine…oh never mind.