Friday, December 7, 2007

Retro-Journal: Beyond Brown, Early 1991


There were two very important reasons I wasn’t too nervous as the semester of graduation from Brown arrived and I faced the prospect of entering the real world: namely, my parents (who I hope are doing well today — hi, Mom!), who had not only paid for college but, simply by always being sane, low-key, and easy to talk to, had provided valuable proof for me that “normal,” in the best sense of the word, is possible.

Even after four years at Brown — and despite the fact that my adult life has in some ways followed the Brown model more than the Connecticut model — it still seemed to me that quiet, blue-collar Norwich, CT was how things are basically supposed to be, with politicized universities and noisy cities some sort of aberration. (Not that I’m complaining.) My parents have always been very good about reminding me that if the outside world gets too crazy, I am welcome to flee back to Norwich, and just knowing that gives me more than enough strength to make the fleeing unnecessary (perhaps a bit like the attitude expressed in a speech I saw this year by Fox News head Roger Ailes, who said he never really worried about failing in the world of New York media because he could always go back to his old job as a ditch-digger, “and I kind of liked it” — in other words, the “worst-case scenario” is still pretty nice, just different).

The Seavey household pets of 1991 were also the last ones I really “shared” with my parents — and mentioned in a Brown Daily Herald column (illustrated by immensely talented Brown cartoonist Brian Floca, who’d go on to be a successful children’s book illustrator) about problems that ought to be raised by animal-rights thinking, such as whether to prevent kills by carnivores like Oscar, the orange, stripy, and tank-like Seavey family cat at the time (Oscar passed away a few years after college, and, just yesterday as it happens, a more-recent Seavey family cat, the aptly-named Rickety, passed away after a couple years of coping with a Catch-22 combo of kidney and thyroid problems that were hard to treat simultaneously — her death after the past couple years still being a big improvement over the anticipated lifespan of mere days that she had when my parents found her, an emaciated stray, in the empty farmhouse, not long before it was torn down, that had belonged to my late maternal grandfather — whose nice white dress shirt I wore while hosting this week’s Debate at Lolita Bar, come to think of it, finally losing one button off the old thing but very happy to still have it around).

As noted in that same animal-rights-questioning column, Uber, the Seavey family dog (who would endure until 2005, a total of sixteen years), ate things much stranger than fellow animals over the years, including bits of brick, a staple, possibly some fiberglass and motor oil, numerous baseball caps (themselves formerly the property of my late paternal grandfather), bits of some old eight-track tapes, and the tail of a squirrel the rest of which had been eaten by Oscar (the sort of incident that makes one suspect cats are smarter, but that’s one debate I don’t want to get into).


That final semester at Brown saw me make one inept stab at getting a fitting job (with most of my attention being directed at things like editorial assistant jobs in book publishing, the default activity of humanities majors across the land, which I would indeed end up doing for about the first two years after graduation, along with freelance writing work on the side), namely an effort to succeed my friend Dan Greenberg as managing editor of the libertarian-friendly journal Social Philosophy and Policy, which would have meant living in Bowling Green, OH, as Dan did during his tenure. Since I suspect life in New York has turned out to be more interesting than life in Bowling Green would have been, it’s probably just as well that (in my youthful naivete) I did things like send a handwritten thank-you letter (on blue-lined spiral notebook paper — what difference does it make, rationally speaking?) after my interview in Bowling Green that probably helped frighten the higher-ups there away from hiring me (though I’m told they still thought I was a decent candidate — the other major contender had a Master’s).

I did, however, follow Dan’s advice in using an issue of Social Philosophy and Policy as a source for my senior philosophy thesis, since both the issue and the thesis concerned evolutionary psychology — or sociobiology, as it was then more commonly called — a topic that would shape my thinking for years to come. My thesis advisor, Jamie Dreier, was one of the most pleasant and amusing professors I’ve ever had but wasn’t too impressed by my (still ongoing) effort to combine sociobiology with the arguments of economist Friedrich Hayek (Dreier himself was more of a socialist-libertarian in the European or Chomskyan sense, I believe) and asked if I was merely trying to imply that libertarians can out-macho rival philosophies. (I can now safely confess that it was me who wrote “Rawlsians do it in the original position” on the blackboard one day before Dreier got to class.)

My trip to Bowling Green had at least afforded me the opportunity to hang out with Dan, build a snowman with visiting Australian libertarian philosopher Chandran Kukathas and his then-young son, and hear the hot schismatic gossip of that period, which was the fact that formerly libertarian philosopher John Gray, an associate of the Bowling Green crowd, had turned against free markets and become, in one fell swoop, a “High Tory” adherent of rigid tradition, an advisor to the Labour Party, and an advocate of strict environmental regulations (he would, in fact, go on to write Susan-Sontag-like books describing humanity as a sort of cancer on the face of the Earth). Kukathas was referring to Gray’s combination of traditionalist and environmentalist thinking when he said “He’s gone blue-green on us,” but he might almost have been speaking of some mildly unpleasant algae. I have since come to love political hybrids and mavericks, but that early impression of Gray as something of a turncoat and disappointment has not abated.

As for Dan, he would eventually go on to work for the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, Rep. Jay Dickey (R-AR), and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (Vertical-AR), among others, before becoming a state rep in Arkansas himself.

While at Heritage, Dan ended up working alongside the woman who I had spent a good deal of free time thinking about senior year: then-freshman Michelle Boarmdan, who was an Ayn Rand fan but also a Trekkie, knowledgable alternative-rock fan, jazz fan, slightly-ahead-of-her-time (and vaguely Lisa Loeb-like) fashionplate, and Nietzsche admirer who said she longed to own a cape and a bullwhip and who got along with me wonderfully but had a lingering high school boyfriend who, despite some rocky patches in their relationship, would go on to be with her for a total of nine years (during which time they’d both become lawyers), which is very impressive — and itself a sign, I think, that Ayn Rand types can be as resolute in their decisions as any rock-ribbed, God-fearing Republican out there.

(But, like me, she’d lean Republican as well, even going on to a stint as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General under Bush — and the administration’s chief defender in Senate hearings of Bush’s controversial albeit traditional use of “signing statements” to explain which laws he’s going to delay implementing pending constitutional review. When I asked about whether she regrets having to do something seemingly so non-anarchist, Michelle claimed her main regret was not being able to work the line “So say we all” from Battlestar Galactica into her testimony, so you can understand why we still get along.)


At the end of the semester, I asked Marc Steiner — the green/moderate who’d been in my freshman dorm, had been my sophomore roommate, and senior year (to my delight) was living on the same hallway I was (after spending his junior year at Pomona) and who remained, as always, as nice as Mr. Rogers yet argumentative enough to warn me that he’d “lose a lot of respect” for me if I continued to listen to the notoriously racist, anti-immigrant, homophobic, and quite beautiful Guns N’ Roses song “One in a Million” — what he planned to do, now that our senior year was finally ending. He replied, with something verging on nervous laughter, “Oh, look for a job or something, first crazy thing that comes to mind.”

Let me note again that aside from the G N’ R fascination, I am not a metalhead and indeed that year went to see Laurie Anderson and Jesus Jones (the only band to really celebrate the collapse of Communism properly, as I would note in a article sixteen years later, when socialistic Hillary Clinton dared consider appropriating the song as a campaign anthem). I saw both bands with charming, bisexual, and hippie-like Deborah Gitlitz, if memory serves, who was in turn friends with Rebecca Hensler, a red-haired, sometimes mohawked campus punk whose leather jacket bore continually-changing left-wing, often pro-lesbian messages, all of which was fine with me then, as it is now, as long as it doesn’t raise my taxes or lead to a regulation. I believe Hensler went on to do both some stripping and AIDS activist work in California after we all left Brown.

More troubling to me, politically, is something like Laurie Anderson’s remarks, during her concert, about watching former East Germans rush to embrace West Germany’s malls, goods, services, and capitalist plenty. She saw it and, she said, wanted to tell them “Go back!” We have come to accept that sort of anti-materialistic remark from left-leaning pop culture figures, but they border on sadism, given what East Germans were escaping, and I wonder sometimes if history will look back and ever really understand just how smart, funny, well-meaning, and respectable the defenders of totalitarianism were.

Similarly, we all tend to look back at, say, instances of medieval tyranny and assume that the nice people back then were probably the ones who leaned most toward skepticism and (broadly speaking) proto-liberalism — when in truth, no doubt, many a warm-hearted Catholic who wanted to make the world safe looked forward to the burning of heretics. So, too, in all likelihood, will a freer future look back casually at our era and forget that it was often the creative, brainy, “open-minded” souls like Anderson who helped shore up pro-Communist attitudes among the intelligentsia, contributing in their small way to the oppression of hundreds of millions. Such a tragedy, the twentieth century. Such a tragedy, the human race.

(And I say this as someone who’s seen three Laurie Anderson concerts, loved Home of the Brave, and probably had his teenage brain shaped in an important way by her hosting of the avant-garde PBS video-art show Alive from Off-Center, which first helped me see as easily bridgeable the gap between “serious” art and the more popular New Wave and punk videos then shown on, say, Rick Ducommun’s eclectic late-night show Rock ’N’ America — but more, oh, so much more, about that in the months ahead.)


I had actually portrayed Laurie Anderson on stage once, when we put on a one-time-only show called The Performance Art Film Bulletin featuring, among other things, Christine and Holly Caldwell parodying notoriously NEA-funded performance artist Karen Finley by covering one Caldwell (Holly) with chocolate while the other Caldwell (Christine, now U. of South Carolina history prof Christine Ames) read a poem called “Todd Seavey Chained” about me being raped by a Communist “illogically, illogically, illogically” (a poem that seems somewhat prophetic given an incident described in the next section of this blog entry). During the performance, I was in a sketch called “Laurie Anderson vs. Mummenschanz,” doing my best impression of the deep, synthesizer-enhanced voice Anderson often used in her shows, facing off against the famous mime troupe Mummenschanz as played by Scott Nybakken and Dan Bornstein (complete with all-black outfits and various doodads such as toilet paper dispensers on their heads), all with Dave Whitney playing notes from G N’ R’s “Sweet Child of Mine” in the background — and later backing me up in my amateurish vocal performance of the Doors’ “Lost Little Girl,” which I enhanced with a few showy paper blasting caps — a foreshadowing of my all too infrequently indulged fondness for karaoke years later.

Christine Caldwell, by the way, received during her stint as Film Bulletin editrix, which had ended the prior semester, an angry phonecall from Petra Brando (a fellow Brown student), due to Chistine’s piece saying (truthfully) that she’d long dreamt of having sex with Marlon Brando but that his daughter Petra might have to do. I still fail to see how something like that is insulting, which is why my sympathies tend to be with writers and artists instead of the people who get angry at them (I like Family Guy — and am pleased, incidentally, that the character Brian on that show supposedly went to Brown; I tried to convince Michael Malice I should be Brian to his Stewie for Halloween last year, but I’m leaping a decade and a half ahead of our story again).

In retrospect, the act of mine that probably caused the most distress during my own stint, prior to Christine’s, as Bulletin editor was another child-of-a-celebrity-related stunt, albeit not one that (to my knowledge) angered the celeb-child herself, namely the issue called L’Eau de Film Bulletin, of which every copy was doused (the key is to stack them and pour onto the side) in Tatiana perfume, named after Brown student (and later celebrity in her own right) Tatiana von Furstenberg, daughter of Diane von Furstenberg. She was a spotlight-seeker even then, though — willing to tell a class full of deconstructionists what lessons she drew from losing her virginity and that sort of thing — so the complaints came not from her but from innocent diners who wanted to read the Film Bulletin in the cafeteria (among the most important points where the publication was distributed each week) and found the stench of Tatiana interfering with their enjoyment of their meals. My apologies.

Tatiana was not necessarily the most attention-seeking child-of-celebrity at Brown, by the way. I think supermarket heir Jay Stuckey has to get the prize for that, willing as he was to show people at parties that he has three testicles. Tatiana didn’t always wear underwear, but, to my knowledge (and this is not based on direct observation), she was no mutant.


I had few regrets as my class graduated, and we left the campus in the able hands of libertarian columnists like young Piper Hoffman and Jacob Levy, with the latter of whom I sat on the green one day that final semester, as part of a pseudo-event I’d organized called “Liberty Awareness Week” (mostly mainstream-libertarian but also calling, in one poster I put up, for chimpanzees to be released from zoos unless they commit crimes), administering to numerous passersby who volunteered the “Nolan Diamond” political test devised by libertarians to see how libertarian people are (as it turns out, not too — and there were no conservatives according to our sample at Brown that day). The test is also meant to get them to expand their political thinking a bit beyond the usual right-left one-dimensional spectrum by adding a second axis, yielding one axis for “personal” liberties (like freedom to use drugs, have gay sex, or read obscene materials) and another axis for “economic” liberties (avoiding having your income taxed, avoiding regulations, living without big government, trading without subsidies or tariffs or protective international rules) — which tends to land textbook-definition rightists over in the right corner, leftists in the left, across-the-board authoritarians down at the bottom, and libertarians up at the top (with a space for centrists in the middle). Your rank along the two axes is decided by a series of points-awarding questions in the two topic areas, personal and economic liberty. Not perfect, but an improvement over the way people usually think about these things.

Noel Rabinowitz, head of Brown’s Young Communist League, happened to pass by and planted his own where-do-you-fall sticker firmly at the very bottom, as if he were an across-the-board authoritarian on every issue — but he did so with as little sincerity and as much humor as he showed when he ran by and planted a sarcastic kiss on me at the end of Campus Dance the weekend of graduation, symbolically overcoming the chasm between him and his political archenemy. Since I was drunk (very unusual for me, I assure you — I didn’t drink at all until turning twenty-one just prior to senior year, since even as an anarchist since age nineteen I didn’t want to break the law any more than Socrates had wanted to, nor to embarrass those aforementioned wonderful parents in any way), I brushed it off with a slurred and magnanimous, “Ah, that Noel, he’s not such a bad guy,” but all my nearby Bulletineer/libertarian acquaintances dutifully made loud “Eyyyewwww!” noises, driven, as per their cultural leanings, more by political disgust than repulsion at an unsolicited man-kiss.

Though overwhelmingly straight, we were, after all, the same clique that had, for reasons I do not fully recall, decided to attend the final Brown Daily Herald dinner that year in drag, with me looking just a bit like Bowie in a tasteful, androgynous, borrowed, blue dress of Michelle Boardman’s and with the future Deputy Assistant Attorney General looking quite natural in a necktie and grey jacket of mine — indeed, looking oddly like her fellow Norwegian-descended Brown student Scott Nybakken, but we all try not to think about that too much.


Far more comfortable with unwanted touching was a group of freshman pranksters who had declared themselves the Leo Buscaglia Love Society and run all over campus giving people, including editrix Christine, unexpected hugs, something that seemed like a harassment suit waiting to happen. One of them sat down with me in a campus snack bar one time, explicitly asking my advice, as a departing elder statesman, on how to spot rising campus celebrities in the Class of ’94. I had no useful advice — and indeed thought I was pursuing far nobler and more philosophical goals than mere fame, then as now — but together with Minnesota-spawned student Ali Kokmen (steeped in deconstructionism from being a Modern Culture and Media major yet somehow as normal and sane as my parents and, like his old friend from high school Jacob Levy, a comic book fan, indeed the comic fan to whom I sold my entire run of Jim Starlin and Peter David’s Dreadstar), I did co-create a short documentary/art film focused on the Buscaglians called Todd and Ali’s Lovehammer, the only watchable thing I produced in that class besides the black and white, silent, and very 1920-ish super-short meant to symbolically depict Holly Caldwell’s life story. For these things, I had endured that freshman-year decon theory class as a filmmaking prerequisite. (And I recently heard from one of the ex-Buscaglians, Mitch Verter, now a left-anarchist living in Canada, where he says the tendency of people to think of government as the solution to everything has him realizing he loves “Amerikkka” after all.)

Senior year also saw me writing a comic strip called Bogus University — about Brown being conquered by left-wing, brain-stealing monsters from space, since my political interests very subtly inform my art — drawn by Reid Mihalko (who’d taken time off and was graduating around the same time as me despite starting a year earlier). Reid would go on to found CuddleParty, a series of events where people do as much hugging as the Buscaglians but with a decidedly greater emphasis on consent and respect for personal boundaries (not that I’ve been to one). Reid had not only been my freshman dorm resident advisor but was the first human being my parents and I saw upon our arrival at Brown. The Buscaglians would be among the last new figures to arise on campus before my departure. In both the Alpha and the Omega of my Brown experience, then, there was love of some sort — though for me the crucial distinction between voluntary and coercive interactions would remain paramount. I’ve devoted a lot more professional time since Brown to promoting that philosophical point than to making people feel warm and cuddly, but we each have our niche.

(I also happened, one month before college graduation, to bump into Heather Shea on the main street near Brown, she being the woman nice enough in high school to ask me to the senior prom, to which I was too uptight to want to go — though, in another reminder that I am a far, far luckier man than I deserve to be, this encounter afforded me a chance to thank her, apologize for my cowardice, and make a mental note not to think solely about philosophy and such all the time, a mistake all too easy for me to make, though I’ve gotten more well-rounded with age, I think. In college, though, even getting a letter from an old high school friend telling me she’d had a dream about me recently, as I did at least once, usually wasn’t enough to make me realize maybe I should ask her out instead of examining the letter for philosophical ideas.)

Before going on in future Retro-Journal installments to describe my grown-up professional, philosophical, and social activities, though, we must, in my next installment, discuss a lightning-fast series of other stops, from DC to Seattle and points in between, that forms a sort of stepping-stone path between the Brown years and the New York years and underscores just how flexible a thing one’s future really is, if you’re willing to improvise a little.


Xine said...

Laura points out that you have plagiarized me in your reference to warm-hearted Catholics burning heretics, as that’s the topic of an *American Historical Review* article I wrote. She and I, with our academics’ zeal, righteously demand a footnote.

I point out that in “Todd Seavey Chained,” it was, in fact, Noel Rabinowitz who was going to rape you (technically, “fuck”–apparently your memory reasonably supplied the factor of your refusal of consent, which Holly and I didn’t specify), and he was going to do so “illogically, illogically, illogically.”

Christopher said...

And I believe he was to use a bust of Karl Marx as his tool of penetration.

Todd Seavey said...

Corrected the poem description above — and she’s joking about the plagiarism, in case that was unclear. Naturally, I do not read the _American Historical Review_ — but do look forward to that book about wine you’re doing.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I’d completely forgotten about Liberty Awareness Week and standing there handing out those dopey quizzes. I paid money for them and that poster, too.

Had certainly forgotten about the Performance Art Film Bulletin. Since I was known to be on the margins of the Bulletin crowd, the friends with whom I went to that event decided it was important to tell me that you were all very strange people.

Last year Chris sent me a picture of us all in drag for that BDH event. Scary stuff.

More bits and pieces:

Jamie Dreier is now one of the key faculty members of the Political Theory Project created at Brown after we were all but memories by libertarian theorist John Tomasi. I’ll be going back to give a paper at the PTP in April, my first return trip to Brown in an academic capacity. Jamie was my freshman advisor and taught my first political theory or philosophy class, too.

Chandran Kukathas went on to advise me during my year in Australia. His kids remembered you, and the snowman. He’s now rejoined his old advisor John Gray, this time as a fellow political theorist at LSE.

I can’t believe you got through all the years of Bulletin reminisces without Scott Poulson-Bryant– who has, after all, gone on to write a semi-famous book about just the topic that made him the star of what I consider the funniest FB during my time at Brown.

The reaction to Noel kissing you really was aesthetic, not political. It wasn’t that he was a guy; it’s that he was Noel.

I’m still waiting for the trade paperback of Bogus University. Package it with the old Post-Intelligencer reprints and it’ll be an underground press best seller.

Todd Seavey said...

But time marches rapidly on, and for now (or rather, this coming Friday) we turn our attention to a coup in Russia…the dawn of grunge…and a move to the Big City that will leave us asking whether Christine can live on bagels alone…

jenny said...

scott pulsing-giant?

Jacob T. Levy said...