A rise in economic-protectionist sentiment seemed a non sequitur to me in 1992, the year the USSR formally ceased to exist (three years after the Eastern Bloc’s escape from its orbit) — even though I was unemployed in the first half of that year and half-wondered if this was how crazy homeless people got their start, with crazy homeless people — and crime — being in much greater evidence in New York City in that final pre-Giuliani year than they are now. I wasn’t homeless, but (with Chris moved across town to the West 20s and Christine gone to Oregon) my new roommate was almost enough to make one wish one were homeless. A fat, depressive lesbian, Fern Klein would do things like blast Madonna at 3am and engage in drunken, whining phonecalls in which she made pronouncements such as “I’m hurting, Terry!” I noticed she once scrawled a query to herself (on a foot-pain-treatment flyer) that said, “Will Medicaid pay to have tattoo removed with laser?” Sure, I was unemployed, but life was still classy, obviously.
The day before she moved out of the apartment, a merciful three months or so later, I glimpsed her hobbling around on crutches I had never once seen her use before, talking to a lawyer in our living room about whether she had a case against a restaurant or some other hapless establishment in which she’d stumbled. She was replaced by my final roommate in that first Manhattan apartment, a nice, intelligent public school teacher with the memorable name Addison Love. At least he didn’t stiff me for the last $100 of his rent when I moved out of the apartment in fall of 1992, as Klein had when she departed months earlier.
Despite such petty, youthful economic concerns, I fully expected the collapse of Communism to yield a big, free-market-fueled boom in international trade that would soon enough raise all ships, including my own, so the culture’s turn toward despair, worker anxiety, and economic isolationism seemed crazy and philosophically unjustified. Yet all the presidential candidates were embracing it, from the much-respected and economically-pessimistic Democrat Paul Tsongas to populists Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan.
George H.W. Bush was lame and had famously broken his no-new-taxes pledge, so I was ambivalent about his potential re-election anyway and not too wary of the pro-tax yet pro-business “New Covenant” program that candidate Bill Clinton was pushing — though I was acutely aware from the get-go of his tendency toward doubletalking and appealing to all sides.
While I was focused — like a laser, if you will — on economic issues (as most people were in the 90s, compared to the periods before and after), the magazine most closely associated with Buchanan’s campaign, Chronicles, was very much concerned with cultural questions, and their cultural prescriptions were about as pessimistic as their economic ones: best to keep the culture isolated from foreign influences, lest it erode and lose its natural, customary cohesion. To these “paleoconservatives,” as they’d begun calling themselves, the dichotomy at work in our culture was not so much that between right and left or between individuals in the market and an overlarge government but that between a global, cosmopolitan, traditionless, and seemingly bloodless overclass — whether in big business or big government — and the local, rural people (whether in the U.S. or elsewhere) who wanted to stick to their own old-fashioned ways without experts from the big, centralized cities telling them what to do (whether through government edicts or pressure from bigtime capitalist media).
I would eventually write two articles for Chronicles, one about the Forbes Foundation’s bizarre and culturally self-destructive grant the previous year to Brown’s Marxist/deconstrucitionist Modern Culture and Media department and the other about MTV’s odd mix of global capitalism and leftist sentiments, the latter piece wrapped around an interview (the first one ever, as far as I know) with then-VJ Kennedy, who struck me as a breath of fresh air (a hip, alternative-rock-loving conservative, back when there seemed to be none!) and who was very polite months later when I was one of the few people who made his way past an immense throng at a record store to talk to her during an autograph-signing appearance, while what seemed like a billion other people had come that day solely to see the new pop-punk band Green Day, to whom I had nothing to say. Kennedy was hesitant about claiming any thorough knowledge of politics back then, aside from confessing her crush on Dan Quayle and telling me about her Republican elephant tattoo, but she’d later go on to become a full-fledged libertarian and tour college campuses talking about the topic.
As I would eventually learn while listening to a DJ on Washington, DC’s main alternative rock station, she also writes poetry, including one poem read over the air that day by the DJ, which has stayed with me ever since:
In the sewer,
How many doggies
I still think people who called her one of the more annoying VJs are out of their minds.
In any case, I didn’t then and don’t now embrace too much paleoconservative thinking, but paleoconservatism does strike me as a necessary counterpoint to the tendency of other political factions — right, left, liberal, and libertarian alike — to think that whatever solutions they’ve worked out should be adopted around the planet simultaneously and for all time, without too much quibbling about the local customs ploughed over in the process. It would have been interesting to have had these explicitly traditionalist arguments in my arsenal back when I was at Brown, where all factions tended to take it for granted that while we may not agree on which intellectuals’ arguments should carry the day, the winners would be entitled to reshape the world. It’s sometimes difficult to make a rationalistic argument against the rationalistic-sounding deconstructionists, but what could they plausibly say to the charge of arrogantly casting aside centuries of potentially-useful, organic, nuanced tradition in favor of their new-fangled Marxist or feminist programs, when it was so plain that that was what they were doing?
I alluded to such concerns in one of my columns for Reason magazine, for which I began writing regularly that year, when I recounted going back to visit Brown and seeing Camille Paglia speak there, she being another shining example of how every time I find what seems to me to be a valuable new perspective on the culture, it tends to be yet one more thing the left despises (is it my fault so few valuable new ideas come from the left?). Indeed, more-mainstream feminists in the audience hissed at Paglia, who delightfully shouted back at them, like a professional wrestler, flanked by bodyguards, calling them “you brainwashed toadies!” and rendering them silent at one point with the damning (and to many, no doubt, completely baffling) charge that their real problem was never having “come to terms with Durkheim” — Durkheim being the founder of sociology, who in a manner not so completely unlike the traditionalists at Chronicles, argued that every oft-replicated social pattern tends to serve some practical purpose, even if it is not readily apparent — which is not to say that it is necessarily good, but that it is rarely wholly arbitrary or easily replaced.
Paglia argued that art’s tropes are not arbitrary but rooted in human nature — and in the symbolic efficiency that comes from familiarity and long use — and she therefore had little patience for the remake-it-from-scratch-exactly-to-our-liking attitude of Brown’s spoiled brats. A year after I’d graduated, the idea that “political correctness” was stifling intellectual activity and traditional beliefs alike was finally becoming popular, with the phenomenon being criticized by everyone from Paglia to George H.W. Bush, one of his last positive contributions before being voted out.
An aside about Brown’s perpetual struggle to remain politically correct: I couldn’t help noticing that every time I went back to visit Brown after graduating, the name of the gay organization on campus, as reflected in their posters, seemed to get longer, going from LGA (for Lesbian Gay Alliance) to LGBA (for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Alliance) to LGBTA (for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Alliance) and who knows what next, as various other factions — the questioning, the intersex, the straight-but-supportive, the asexual, etc. — each demand their moment of affirmation, as if that will bring happiness. I will say this for the word “gay”: it may not be as nuanced as the ever-growing name of the Alliance, but at least it’s only one damn syllable, and in a busy world, there is something to be said for that.
Speaking of bisexual members of the tradition-flouting Ivy League overclass (and there seemed to be several among my female acquaintances at that time), the one seeming-friend I had retained from my short stint at St. Martin’s Press, Lisa Kahlden, was something of an embodiment of the most self-parodic aspects of the degenerate rural and urban ends of America’s cultural spectrum — but also one of many examples of my tendency to be indulgent, for both good and ill, of people who are quirky hybrids of some sort, whether politically, culturally, or theologically. Lisa had gone from being a fat rural Kentuckian, with an abusive father who fancied himself the head of his own cultish brand of Christianity until accidentally blowing himself up along with his slapdash “church,” to being a Harvardian who realized that by eating only one McDonald’s hamburger per day and nothing else she could become slim (and very cute, though forever after a bit shrunken and pale) and thus — she was quite explicit about this, though for a long time I thought I must have misunderstood her — could use lies, fear, sex, and social intimidation to dominate her social circle, often likening the lying to theatre and defending such behavior with references to Oscar Wilde. She eventually cut off contact with me on the grounds that the “scenes” to which she was introduced by contact with me were too boring.
Despite these eccentricities, she was nonetheless business-savvy enough to push St. Martin’s toward computer use (still rare in the publishing biz as late as the early 90s, hard as that is to believe now) and naturally preferred Bill Clinton to my libertarian ravings, another reminder that the left by that point had successfully fused radical anti-traditionalism, urban (and even “business-friendly”) sophistication, and not-altogether-rational yet mainstream-seeming liberal political impulses, a winning formula at that neo-hippie yet MTV-subscribing juncture in history, and a formula that made me worry, Chronicles-style, about the long-term sustainability of our shallow, often amoral society.
When I look back, it’s hard to make the case that I’ve undergone much philosophical development that wasn’t already encapsulated in the years 1989-1992, that three-year period that saw me go from arch-rationalist moderate conservative with a nagging interest in Strauss and Nietzsche…to more culture-neutral anarcho-capitalist libertarian…to grudging respecter of local traditions and of cautious, decentralized approaches (with an accompanying willingness to tolerate to some degree perspectives from across the political spectrum, each potentially possessing a piece of a larger, dimly-understood puzzle). Since I remained a utilitarian at base throughout those changes, some might say even those upheavals were no big deal, but certainly everything since seems like mere fine-tuning. Maybe I am boring.
But I don’t think I can fairly be called dogmatic, and to this day I simply haven’t encountered any compelling arguments for abandoning these sorts of ideas altogether nor seen alternate approaches deliver the goods they promise (unless you think government has somehow proven itself superior to markets since then, through its bang-up performance in New Orleans and Baghdad, or you are delighted with the efficacy of government’s standardized accounting procedures in preventing corporate fraud, or are willing to ignore the long waiting lines for healthcare in Canada and England, as most reporters in the U.S. do). In the second half of 1992, I would accept Clinton’s election gracefully and open-mindedly, if I do say so myself, waiting to see what would transpire.