Friday, December 28, 2007

Retro-Journal: Conservatism for Non-Punks in Late 1992


Bush appeared to be something of a lame duck and Clinton would soon be in the White House — fifteen years ago, I mean (whether that historical pattern will roughly repeat itself may become apparent when the presidential primaries start in less than a week).

In late 1992, while most people were focused on the state of the economy, one of the things that convinced me George H.W. Bush would probably lose to Bill Clinton in the election was Bush’s stubbornly tin ear for popular culture — not that my own vote would be determined by such superficial things (I did a write-in vote for libertarian columnist Dave Barry, who was running his first joke campaign that year, so obviously my vote is not something I thoughtlessly waste). Bush condemned The Simpsons for failing to convey the same “family values” as The Waltons (while his vice president, rightly or wrongly, condemned Murphy Brown for glamorizing single motherhood), and he mocked Bill Clinton for conferring with singer Bono from U2 (or, as Bush accidentally put it, with mangled speech the likes of which we thought we’d never again hear in a president, “the rock grop U2″).

At one point, Bush sarcastically suggested that Clinton start taking advice from “Boy George,” and to this day I’m uncertain whether that simply meant the singer from Culture Club or, in a rare moment of cleverness, was a double entendre meant to imply George Bush himself — which might almost have been cool, though not cool enough to sway the election. When in doubt, it’s wisest to assume Bush is not being cool, though.

While Clinton was playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall’s show, chatting hiply with kids on MTV, and causing even one libertarian female of my acquaintance to have a sex dream about him, Bush was apparently campaigning to govern some country that hates The Simpsons (the longest-running show currently on primetime television, in its nineteenth season) and hates U2 (one of the most popular rock groups of all time — and justifiably so, especially if we judge them by the really early stuff, to which all else still seems like a protracted footnote). I don’t know what country Bush had in mind (perhaps Iraq or Panama), but it wasn’t the U.S., as voters reminded him in November of that year. In that election as in every presidential election since, I would find myself thinking, “There is a case to be made for the Republican candidate’s election being better for the country, I suppose — but he certainly deserves to lose.”

Somewhat embarrassingly, since I have yet to write a book, it was at that point, fifteen years ago, that I first began toying with the idea of writing a book something like the still-gestating Conservatism for Punks, hoping (perhaps in vain) to teach conservatives the basics of symbolic communication and to teach non-conservatives what the right’s handful of valid points are, since those points are so often obscured by conservatives making fools of themselves. (As early as 1994, two years later, I appear to have files with names like “From Punk to Cyberpunk” that emphasize the capacity of markets to foster freedom — and creativity even of the “freaky, liberal” kind.)

In another depressing pop culture development, Superman died that fall, albeit temporarily. Luckily, Bush did not attempt to woo Americans by denouncing Superman or desecrating the fallen hero’s corpse.


Around that time, I worked for a two-week trial period for a man reputed to be an insightful marketing guru — and today, one of the world’s most popular bloggers — Seth Godin. He ran a little publishing and book-packaging operation out of his house in White Plains and decided to see if I might make a good addition to his small editorial team. Unfortunately, he decided that my major assignment during the brief trial period would be to write a book chapter explaining to CEOs how best to invest in the stock market. I explained to Godin (who, again, is supposed to be a major guru when it comes to business decisions) that I knew absolutely nothing about the stock market — and I meant that quite literally. I turned twenty-three that year, had no stocks whatsoever (and have never inherited a dime), and did not even know what the big Dow Jones number measured or stood for (I think it was hovering around 3,000 back then, to me a mysterious epiphenomenon not really essential for understanding supply, demand, and property rights). Pressed by Godin — and fearing a return to unemployment, given all the (technically erroneous) talk of recession that year — I cobbled together an explanation of stocks inspired partly by a Father Guido Sarducci comedy routine (the one about “the five-minute university”) in which he summed up finance as “buy low, sell high.” Keep in mind there was no World Wide Web (as we know it) with which to do research back then.

In a few days, Godin looked over the resulting chapter and declared it “a brilliant forgery” (almost exactly the same phrase that Roger Waters used around that time to describe the Pink Floyd albums done after his departure from the band), saying it sounded as if someone with almost no knowledge of the stock market had written a guide to Wall Street. Bingo, Seth, bingo. He transferred me to writing comedic film trivia questions for the next two days — a much wiser use of the Todd Seavey resource — but soon explained that he had already decided not to hire me based on my writing of the stock chapter.

To this day, Godin is revered by some for dispensing book-length advice such as: Your business should be like a “purple cow” — not just good, but extraordinary. (Some business people, by contrast, stroke quartz crystals for good luck or walk on hot coals.)

I would take my revenge on Godin, in a purely symbolic sense, ten years later when I wrote Justice League Adventures #5 — but I’ll get to that part of the story in a Retro-Journal entry nineteen weeks from now.


From 1992-1993, though, I ended up at another tiny publishing operation, working for theatre- and film-book publisher Glenn Young (himself a Perot supporter with some admitted authoritarian tendencies who gave up on Perot after the strange vice presidential candidate debate in which Perot’s running mate admitted turning his hearing aid off whenever the other candidate was speaking and at one point, based on his time in a prisoner of war camp, claimed to be the only candidate with experience “running a civilization”). I had been a theatre guy in high school and in my first year at Brown, so a theatre-oriented publisher felt “niche” in a familiar way, not so different from how I might have felt working at a comic book store. I am a multi-track geek.

I got the job by going to a career fair I’d heard about, organized by the people behind the Radcliffe Publishing Course. As it turns out, you’re not supposed to go to the career fair unless you’ve actually been through the Radcliffe Publishing Course, though, and the very Margaret Dumond-like woman in charge of the course grabbed me by the elbow as soon as she saw me at the event and escorted me swiftly to the elevators as if ejecting Harpo from a fancy dinner party, loudly telling one of her assistants, “This gentleman seems to be confused about whether he took the course!” She later explained to real graduates of the Radcliffe course that she can’t let every “sob story” in the city wander into such events.

A respecter of property rights, I’m happy to exit when I’m not wanted — youa stick arounda, dassa no good — and luckily I’d already given my resume to the woman running Young’s table at the job fair, leading a short while later to me being hired. Honest fellow that I was (and am), I told Young in the job interview that I should make it clear that I had not taken the Radcliffe Publishing Course despite him acquiring my resume through their career fair. Young smiled and said, “I like that — it shows initiative.”


Despite my libertarian ranting (of which my father once jokingly said, “Todd, we haven’t really understood anything you’ve said since about sixth grade”), my parents had (mercifully) never shown the slightest interest in politics before 1992, and they tracked middle-class American trends by suddenly liking Perot in the middle of that year, then concluding he was nuts after his abrupt departure from and return to the race (which Perot claimed was induced by Republican threats to expose his daughter as a lesbian with blackmail photos, for those who’ve forgotten — and, of course, it does sometimes seem as though every non-left politician has at least one close lesbian relative, so the story is somewhat plausible). I recall Comedy Central commissioning a (real) opinion survey that year from which they concluded that about 60% of people who claimed to have seen UFOs were supporting Perot, if that tells us anything. My parents would later become occasional Limbaugh viewers before simply growing disgusted with the whole political class across the spectrum. Their instincts aren’t so bad, in short, so I refrain from hectoring them.

David Letterman, who one year said on-air that he planned to vote Libertarian (it may have been for Ron Paul in 1988, as I dimly recall), said in 1992 he was considering voting for Perot, reasoning along with much of America (at that seemingly low-stakes juncture in history) that the country would pretty much keep chugging along regardless of who governed it and that it might be worth it to “roll the dice on this guy.”

That’s not so different from the analysis of (Ron Paul associates) Lew Rockwell and Murray Rothbard, who I was lucky enough to meet around that time, not long before the death of Rothbard, one of the most important libertarian economists and activists (and founder of “anarcho-capitalism,” the philosophy I cautiously endorse). Rockwell and Rothbard explained at one of their annual summer seminars that they had tried to forge an alliance between paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan (unlibertarian about many things but inclined to shrink government and radically decentralize it) and paleolibertarians like themselves (culturally conservative but strictly libertarian on virtually all legal and policy questions, quite a contrast with the party-animal stereotype of libertarians pushed by Dinesh D’Souza — as a negative thing — and by Nick Gillespie — as a positive thing). The paleo/paleo alliance is not entirely dead, but Buchanan proved ineducable on economics (hopelessly protectionist), so Rockwell and Rothbard hoped Perot, despite his own protectionist tendencies, might at least be a sort of “bomb” lobbed into the two-party system. Were it not for Perot’s summertime flake-out, I think they would have gotten their wish. Here’s hoping (for at least a few more weeks) that Ron Paul has a more beneficial impact.

Despite Rothbard turning so culturally conservative that he became anti-immigration in the end and even denounced the Marx Brothers for setting a bad example of rude anarchic behavior (such as crashing Margaret Dumond’s parties), I find myself thinking more and more (especially after reading Brian Doherty’s history of the libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism) that Rothbard was the first figure in the history of the movement whose mind feels contemporary with and in some ways similar to my own — a New York City-dwelling prankster, he realized how hopeless and ridiculous the marginal position of the libertarian movement appeared and nonetheless enjoyed triangulating his way toward freedom via different strategies and strange allegiances. And he was funny. When asked if he was a conspiracy theorist, for instance, he replied in his honking, Bert-from-Sesame Street-like voice, “Well, I’m not a conspiracy theorist — but sometimes conspiracies happen.”


Also attending that seminar was Chris Whitten, then still an NYU undergrad but soon to become both my friend and an important intellectual influence, since the tiny bimonthly gatherings of libertarians he hosted in the early 90s — the Classical Liberal Organization (CLO) — remain perhaps the most stimulating series of conversations (per capita) I have ever had, deliberately broaching the topics that are trickiest to resolve from a libertarian perspective, such as the rights of children. It was a room full of people who (in a rare combo) were both brilliant enough to defend complex philosophical positions and flexible and intellectually honest enough to revise their positions on a dime and admit the soft points in their own arguments. In short, it was politics conducted with the standards of a really good philosophy class, seldom the case in the partisan, electoral real world. Whitten would go on to found the first major libertarian website, Free-Market.Net (since absorbed into the small but cosmopolitan libertarian group called the International Society for Individual Liberty — while Whitten has gone on, ironically, to do things that actually turn a profit).

I’d initially met Whitten during a visit to DC that year, during which I talked to him and several of his fellow libertarian summer interns, including my college pals Christine Caldwell and Michelle Boardman, whose love lives — along with that of my traveling companion, Laura Braunstein — I heard about for a few depressing days, me being lonely at the time and our friend Chris Nugent having very wisely opted to skip the trip in favor of visiting his soon-to-be-girlfriend at Harvard. (It is perhaps telling that I still regret a bit that I never did get a chance, as was at one point planned, to leave that Rockwell-Rothbard seminar for a night to accompany a Danish-Belgian-American Stanford student to a rave she wanted to attend. Who knows what became of her, or of that Southern blonde woman at the seminar who thought having gay sex would enlarge the Pope’s worldview.)

I later learned that Whitten ended his summer internship by telling his fellow libertarians that the desire to work in and influence Washington, DC was itself unlibertarian and arguably unethical and that he would never return to the place in an ongoing professional capacity. And he never did. Now he’s a millionaire.


Unfortunately, as the paleolibertarians would agree, Perot proved to be not so much a precursor to breaking up the governmental conspiracy against liberty as much as a precursor to the (left-leaning) anti-globalization movement of the late 90s and the (right-leaning) anti-immigration movement of the late 00s — as I warned he would be in a column in New York Press a few years after his first presidential run.

Before all that, though, around the time of Clinton’s election, the overdue optimism resulting from the Cold War’s end was finally pervading the economy and culture, and I too was content to ride the wave, paying more attention to pop than to politics for a little while. The next year, though, would bring Hillary Clinton’s attempt to nationalize healthcare, about one seventh of the American economy — and the year after would see me getting desperate enough for a dash of libertarianism in popular discourse that I rooted for a Libertarian Party candidate for New York governor who was undeniably far more prankster than libertarian: Howard Stern.

(And I hope tomorrow to post an item reviewing some of the basics of what I wish would happen in politics, for anyone who’s confused or who perhaps is a first-time reader sent here by NRO or SadlyNo this week — trust me, I know it all seems strange.)

No comments: