Friday, November 16, 2007

Retro-Journal: The Wall Falls, 1989


How could one not turn into a libertarian under the circumstances I faced in the second half of 1989?

My summer vacation reading list, gradually written up as a result of my growing curiosity about the tension between the collectivism touted at Brown and individual liberty, sounds almost excessive in retrospect. While some people have quirky, interesting stories about how they came to accept libertarian arguments — such as having lived in Lithuania under communism or having tried to run a small business despite a tangle of environmental red tape — I basically just read a lot of books. In the summer of 1989, I read:

The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and numerous essay collections by Ayn Rand
•John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government
•Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations
•John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism
Reason magazine
•Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
•plus Diderot, Voltaire, and other Enlightenment bigwigs — including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution themselves, now seen for the first time in the light of the kind of minimal-government, individual-liberty ideas they were always meant to safeguard.

Seeing a common theme in these works of placing only the most minimal, rational constraints on individual liberty — just individual property rights that prevented each person from harming the body or property of the next — I had found a way to reconcile my respect for individual freedom with my desire to see happiness for all maximized (and indeed, the empirical track record of free markets in eliminating poverty, raising living standards, and fostering peace is phenomenal, once one clears away all the confounding factors people insist on treating as part and parcel of capitalism, such as hare-brained imperialist ventures or inept conservative governance — ultimately, the market is a non-governmental phenomenon, and no political party can either take credit for the market or blame the market for the party’s own failings).

The more metaphysical concerns (and intuitions) of the Greeks, religious believers, egalitarians, and even skeptical Nietzsche now seemed like so much hot air — but I retained enough affection for my time studying Nietzsche and the existentialists to suggest “Uber” (from Nietzsche’s term Ubermensch or “overman,” the hypothetical future being who is beyond good and evil) as the name for my parents’ shaggy, playful new puppy. Was she not, after all, beyond conceptions of good and evil — yet fun to be with? With nary a moral or philosophical notion in her furry head, Uber would be a source of delight for the next sixteen years, long after I’d stopped giving much thought to Nietzsche.


Back at Brown that semester (the first of my junior year), a new generation of Film Bulletin writers, some of them probably drawn in part by the prospect of having a sarcastic libertarian as editor, arose, several of them doubling as (libertarian or libertarian-leaning) columnists for the Brown Daily Herald and thereby creating the false but useful impression that libertarians were roughly equal in intellectual influence on campus to the right and left. Among them:

•Dave Whitney, the Soviet-flag-possessing rocker mentioned in my previous Retro-Journal entry — who lamented at one Bulletin meeting that year that Brown is the sort of place where nice, virginal, Christian girls arrive with stuffed animals and bows in their hair and get transformed in one year into smoking, drinking, black-clad depressives — little realizing he was precisely describing the life story of…

•Holly Caldwell, who had begun freshman year by noticing that there was another student in her dorm with the last name Caldwell and deciding to wait outside that other student’s door until she arrived, in the hopes that they were destined to be best friends, as indeed they were, inspiring them to be roommates as sophomores, but…

•Christine Caldwell, the other Caldwell, was surprised at the beginning of their sophomore year to open their dorm room door and find Holly, now black-clad, smoking, shades-wearing, and steeped in the Objectivist thinking of the brother with whom she had just spent the summer, sitting on a bed inside, uttering as her first words of the new year: “Christine, I’m an atheist now.” Christine, by contrast, would remain quietly — even covertly — theist, a few years later enrolling in Yale Divinity School (on the very campus I’d avoided applying to for fear of all the Bible-thumpers — obviously never having read Buckley’s God and Man at Yale at that time, though like countless other right-leaning college students, I was basically recapitulating Buckley’s story). Christine going to divinity school would surprise not only those of us at the Bulletin who knew her for raunchy comedy-writing and alcohol consumption but, in time, those at National Lampoon and MTV who knew her (from short gigs at those establishments) for raunchy comedy-writing and alcohol consumption.

•Chris Nugent, the lapsed Catholic turned Buddhist turned atheist and libertarian whose firsthand experiences with the idiocy of the Brown Disciplinary Review Board — as one of its student representatives — were a powerful source of skepticism about bureaucracy, punishment, and the reliability of police and security eye-witness testimony. Chris’s attacks in the Bulletin on, as he put it, “Dean Inman, the Stupidest Dean” were relentless (Inman being a prominent member of the Disciplinary Review Board) and probably reached their logical pseudo-legalistic climax with his admonishment in one issue that if Inman ever wanted to sue for libel, he would have to demonstrate that there was in fact a stupider dean than he.

This cabal — along with previously-mentioned Bulletin veterans like Scott Nybakken and Laura Braunstein, eight-year-long presence and part-time student Larry Ross, and numerous others (including another libertarian, Bill Madden, who once revealed that he doesn’t drink because “it dulls my hate”) — made fun of Brown in often rude and even scatological terms over the one-year period of my editorship (followed by a year with Christine at the reins), either helped or hindered by my constant efforts to raise the publication’s tone toward something more akin to that of Spy magazine, then the funniest magazine in America and employer for a time of my predecessor as Bulletin editor, David Kamp. I sometimes feel a little guilty about how crude some of the Bulletin’s jokes were, but day after day — with its protests over nothing, angry letters to the school newspaper endlessly expressing “shock” and “outrage” or demanding that “woman” henceforth be spelled “womyn” to avoid including the word “man,” or its catalogue full of classes promising to look at issues from both a Marxist-Leninist and a Weberian perspective — Brown was really asking for it.

Indeed, the Disciplinary Review Board in particular was asking for it, so Chris picked his favorite target well. It seems in retrospect that almost every time Brown did something stupid enough to warrant national press coverage — like threatening to throw a student out simply for having sex with a woman who had been consuming alcohol — the ineptitude of the Disciplinary Review Board was somehow involved. [CLARIFICATION: I refer to an alcohol case that happened years after we were there, but see Chris Nugent's Comment below about a similar case in our day and about the full structure of the DRB and Deans system, which I may have oversimplified.]

Where was the national press, though — not to mention the ACLU — at the end of the previous semester, on one of the very few occasions when the Bulletin was hauled before the Disciplinary Review Board, charged with anti-Semitism (at a time when Scott Nybakken and I were the only non-Jewish Bulletin writers) for a piece by Andrew Clateman that parodied Hanukkah as an ancient sex festival that, according to new archaeological research, began when one man named Bernie, during an orgy, managed, with the help of magical oils, to maintain a miraculous eight-day erection?

I sat in on the strategy meeting between Clateman, editor Kamp, and Film Society president Sarah Idelson (whose brother Matt would later work with Nybakken at DC Comics) prior to their appearance before the DRB. Kamp, ever the smooth-talker, said that they’d stress the underlying fact that they never intended for anyone to take the piece seriously or feel offended or attacked. Clateman, then on the verge of leaving for a year abroad in France and never one to kowtow to the authorities, responded, “What do you mean it wasn’t an attack? Comedy is violence! It was a direct assault on their bourgeois sensibilities!” Kamp gently acknowledged that there was some truth to that but that that would not be the crux of the Bulletin’s defense.

Ultimately, it’s worth noting, the Bulletin’s brush with censorship was the result of a group of brownnosing (no pun intended) students attempting to curry favor with their Bulletin-hating advisor, moronically conservative professor Jacob Neusner, who had himself once brought charges against the Bulletin before the DRB, when the Bulletin ran several obviously-parodic letters from faculty members about the holidays, including one ostensibly from Neusner celebrating the fact that that year Hanukkah fell after Christmas, enabling Jews to get good deals on merchandise returned to stores after Christmas by the gentiles. I didn’t even get half the intra-Jewish jokes the Bulletin did back in those days, but it seemed pretty clear to everyone but Neusner that it was all intended to be all-in-the-family fun.

Nonetheless, Neusner would go on to write that Kamp was part of a historical continuum of anti-Semitic propagandists that included other villains such as Hitler and Woody Allen. Perspective was in short supply at Brown.

Being surrounded by people with such delicate sensibilities probably helps explain why the core Bulletineers noted above — and I — became so very fond of the swearing, angry, misogynistic, substance-abusing, deranged metal band Guns N’ Roses, despite our general strong tendency to be WBRU-loving alternative rock fans (for my part, I saw concerts while at Brown by Brian Ferry, the Fixx, the Alarm, Siouxsie, Stray Cats, the Church, They Might Be Giants, the Feelies, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Young Fresh Fellows, Warren Zevon, and many others — and years later, I’m still bummed I didn’t get to go with Dave to see the Waterboys, which he claims was “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen” — but then, Dave makes a lot of grandiose pronouncements, rock n’ roll guy that he is). Two years later, I would name my first professional column, in Reason magazine, “A Crazy Man’s Utopia” after a line spoken by (Republican) Alice Cooper in the G N’ R song “The Garden.”


If Brown lacked perspective, though, it wouldn’t stop the march of time out in the wider world, and that fall and winter saw the rapid unraveling of European Communism, as if confirming in practice everything I’d come to believe in theory over the summer. With holes punched through the Berlin Wall by German celebrants and the first episode of The Simpsons airing over winter vacation at the end of 1989, the contemporary world had finally been born.

The cherry on the sundae, for me, was seeing a segment on ABC’s news magazine show 20/20 that December called “Relaxing the Rules” that showed how time and time again, experts and ostensibly neutral commentators including ABC News itself had predicted that deregulation during the 80s would bring disaster — only to be proven wrong when prices fell, services improved, and safety records remained clean. You see, I told my apolitical parents, even the mainstream media are coming around — with Communism collapsing, how can they fail to draw pro-market lessons? Of course, that was no ordinary ABC News segment but rather reporter John Stossel’s first foray into political reporting. He was in fact pretty much the odd man out as a libertarian in network news, though six years later he would at least have a few libertarians like me working for him.


marcia B said...

Uber is possibly the best name ever for a pet.

Christopher said...


Just a few small corrections:

The DRB was the last stage in the disciplinary process at Brown (save for, I believe, an appeal to the president). Students only came before it if the offense with which they were charged could possibly lead to a punishment of suspension or greater. There were preliminary procedures that were run entirely by the Dean of Student’s office. While I was on the DRB, starting the second semester of our freshman year, we never heard any cases involving censorship of printed materials. Kamp, et al. would have gone in front of the deans but definitely did not make it to the DRB (same with Neusner’s complaint).

That being said, the DRB did suspend a student for using the word “nigger,” though I was not involved in the case. As the student had lived on the same floor as my girlfriend, he thought I would be biased against him and asked that I recluse myself. Ironically enough, though said student was a drunk, violent, moronic asshole, I would have voted to give him no punishment at all in this particular case.

Also, Inman was not actually on the DRB, but rather brought the cases against the students to it (as, essentially, prosecutor). One of my fondest memories of that time remains watching him down an entire bottle of cough syrup during a long hearing. Pretty hammered at the end.

I will say in defense of the DRB that it had much less of a direct role in the campus insanity than you imply. We did not actually write the disciplinary code, but only enforced it. There was indeed a student who was punished for having sex with a woman who was passed out part of the time, but this was a violation of both Brown’s code and Rhode Island state law. Even so, it was such a problematic case in terms of evidence (with a far from unanimous vote) that the DRB basically decided we simply weren’t equipped to hear sexual assault cases (though I believe this changed some years after we graduated, with predictably unfortunate results). In fact, the DRB came under a great deal of criticism from campus activists for its reticence to get involved in such matters. It WAS a huge mistake for them to suspend the racist student, but it was fully in accord with Brown’s deeply flawed disciplinary code. I personally think that they should have simply ignored the code in that case, but again, it was not of their creation. I think you may be conflating the DRB and the overall disciplinary apparatus plus the student government. As a whole, they much deserved any ridicule we heaped on them.

And let’s not forget that the greatest press coverage at Brown while we were there was about the “rapist lists” appearing on the walls of women’s bathrooms, with which the DRB obviously had no involvement. Most of what we did was punish drunked frat boys (95% of the students who came in front of the board) for smashing college (and student) property and getting in fights.

But let us not distract from the main point, the overall disciplinary structure, and especially the parts run by the administration and the cops, was a joke. I wipe my ass of them all!

Christopher said...

Sorry to take up more space, but I should also note that a Christian group on campus and an interfaith group also brought a disciplinary complaint to the deans about the “It’s Snoopy on the Cross, Charlie Brown” (and “wipe my ass of that man” above comes from our version of the passion play included therein).

I still have a vivid image of Dave’s wonderful illustration for that issue.

Todd Seavey said...

Added a clarification above (and was thinking of a later drinking/sex case).

Brain said...

You don’t have any back issues of the Bulletin lying around, do you, Todd? I’d love to see a scan or three. And it’s nice to see you finally get in some trouble.

Todd Seavey said...

Back issues yes, a scanner no — though I’d love to get to it at some point, among other, more pressing chores. Ditto the soon-to-be-revealed _Bogus University_ comic strip I did with Reid “CuddleParty” Mihalko toward the end of my time there, and a few years later, the mid-90s snail-mailed personal newsletter _The Seavey Post-Intelligencer_, something of a precursor to this website (with lots of unsolicited, trivia-filled mass-e-mails filling the intermediate period, as many of you well know).