Friday, January 11, 2008

Retro-Journal: Man of Letters, Late 1993


The Clintons weren’t all bad, of course. True, they have been a fount of ideas for new government programs — and Hillary, more disturbingly, an advocate of one particularly large program — but Bill, at least, and even his leftist Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, intended in part to use government to make America more ready for competition in a global, mostly-capitalist marketplace — thus all their emphasis on worker retraining and the like (and thus, perhaps, an explanation of how a future libertarian convert like one of last month’s Lolita Bar debaters, Sarah Federman, could fit in as a White House intern in the mid-90s and not feel guilty about it years later).

So, to the delight of the relatively moderate Democratic Leadership Council, 1993 saw Bill — and even Al Gore — arguing for free trade agreements like NAFTA (even while Hillary was trying to Canadianize the healthcare system), Ross Perot all the while lamenting the “sucking sound” of jobs ostensibly fleeing to Mexico.

I didn’t feel as if the culture was in a hopelessly anti-capitalist spot (even lefty Star Trek: The Next Generation had started depicting the evils of collectivism, thanks to the advent of the Borg). I took some pleasure in symbolic efforts like Gore’s “reinventing government” push for greater efficiency. ReGo was full of empty gestures, though, like Gore criticizing complex government regulations regarding ash tray use — even though all federal buildings had long since banned smoking, meaning Gore, cynically, was criticizing one of the few sets of regs that no longer applied anyway, as my friend Chuck Blake noted at the time. No smoking in the Vice President’s office, perhaps, but certainly smoke and mirrors.


I made my own pitch for NAFTA to a group of leftists that met once a month at the Lower East Side performance space called ABC No Rio, whose regular discussions I had joined (I no longer remember how). I wore a cowboy hat as a symbol of partnership across the Rio Grande and brought along some libertarian supporters mostly drawn from Chris Whitten’s Classical Liberal Organization, but I don’t think the leftists found my pro-trade arguments any more convincing than they’d found my argument at a previous meeting that fascism is mainly an anti-individualist, anti-capitalist, collectivist movement related to socialism.

If the participants are still interested in that topic fifteen years later, they, more than anyone, really need to read that new Jonah Goldberg book — especially the oddly burly and mustachioed Midwestern-type guy who liked to talk about how he used to fear a coming race war but had decided to start encouraging a class war instead. (Then again, some of those old Ron Paul newsletters might be a good conversion tool for that guy. Sigh.) When I asked the burly guy whether he really thought talk of a class war was a wise way to peacefully resolve society’s problems, he replied, sounding far more like a cowboy than I ever have, “Oh, it ain’t gonna be peaceful.”

The cowboy hat I wore to the NAFTA meeting would also get worn to the Kaplan company picnic, where, as if in a parody of misguided corporate efforts to “have fun,” we were harried all day long by bullhorn-wielding goons from a company called UniRec who demanded we participate in recreational activities such as the tug of war. The bottle of wine I brought along was confiscated. Out of such incidents are anti-corporate left-anarchists created, I suspect.

One of the smarter members of the ABC No Rio group was in fact the left-anarchist guy with whom, for the only time in my life, I went out “wheatpasting,” that is, putting posters about the NAFTA talk all over the Village and Lower East Side. Not wanting to shirk my discussion-group duties but not wanting to damage any private property, I talked the left-anarchist into only wheatpasting on public property such as mailboxes. While we worked, he told me stories about the real difficulty of organizing his fellow anarchists for marches and such (just like the dumb jokes always say) and said he sometimes longed for a Stalinist to come along and start giving orders, just so something would get done.

The ABC No Rio group was headed by a charismatic young woman who was so committed to egalitarianism that her rock band would occasionally invite random members of the audience onstage to take over playing one of the instruments. “Yeah, I’m glad they don’t use that system for flying passenger planes,” said my friend Dave Whitney, who attended one of the leftist discussions with me. That meeting was headed by two anarchists who had recently returned from Mexico, bringing tales about many Mexican anarchists who were also skinheads — believing not in white supremacy but in the common ancestry of all Mexicans (despite their seeming diversity) in an ancient race descended from Aztec-style sky gods. Upon hearing this, Dave quietly leaned over toward the notebook I was using — I wrote about the group for Reason — and he scribbled the summary: “SPACE NAZIS.”

The egalitarian leader-lady had a boyfriend from Colombia who seemed nice enough but was a living reminder that many countries that are not the U.S. are scary and violent. He once said that leftist militias in Colombia occasionally do “good things” like threaten to kill American missionaries unless they depart Colombia and stop committing “cultural imperialism.” In a bid to rescue leader-lady from it all, I tried inviting her to the short-lived poker circle that I hosted at my second Manhattan apartment (the circle didn’t last long enough for me to actually learn how to play poker; it contained Brown alums Ali Kokmen and Polly Kanevsky and one or two other people — while my apartment contained perky roommate Dana Bopp, later replaced by her event-planner boyfriend Bill Morrison, who would somehow talk me into moving out of the apartment four years later, even though I lived there before he did).

When I suggested to leader-lady that she join us for poker “sometime when you’re tired of politics,” she got on her bike, said “I never get tired of politics,” and rode away down Rivington Street, never to be seen by me again.


Speaking of political leaders, much as I revere Virginia Postrel as a mentor, inspiration, and even friend, she decided after my piece on the ABC No Rio group to retire my bimonthly-or-so humor column “A Crazy Man’s Utopia” in Reason. I’ve written for the magazine only once every two years or so since, having become busier with age. No complaints, though — with that gig over and other libertarian writing assignments several months away, I had some spare time on my hands — spare time with which to write letters!

Yes, back then — for just a short while longer — instead of “e-mailing” friends, you’d actually snail-mail them something fairly lengthy, sticking postage on it, even if the friends were living in exotic places like China and Australia for a year, as libertarian Brown-alum pals X (let us call him) and Jacob Levy were, respectively. Jacob wrote back an almost movie-poster-like summary of conditions in the Outback: “Comic books are scarce. Books are expensive. Meat is cheap.”

X described the beautiful European women, including a model from Spain, who were in the Chinese language program he was in in Beijing, so I used his life as the basis of two (presumably unpublished) letters to Penthouse (which I do not buy — I just sent them the letters because of their well-known and oft-parodied practice of running ribald letters), which he was not at all happy to hear about, though I didn’t use his full name and meant it as an homage, of course. Lesson: do not base letters to Penthouse on your friends’ lives, even as an homage.

My letter-writing was sometimes useful to X, though. I see that I was keeping him informed of celebrity deaths here in the U.S. while he was in China, with that year bringing the deaths, among others, of the following (taken verbatim from one letter):

•Hervé “The plane! The plane!” Villechaize (suicide)
•Raymond Burr (some ailment that big fat guys get)
•Vincent Price (chronic spookiness)
•Federico Fellini (after a stroke)
•River Phoenix (combination of many drugs)
•Bill Bixby (cancer, presumably caused by exposure to gamma rays)

In other celebrity news that year, I narrowly missed seeing Axl Rose walk by that pizza place near Tompkins Square Park because when my friend Soraya Shalforoosh said “Axl Rose!” I assumed she meant a homeless guy standing in the pizza place who looked like Axl Rose, but when I tried to discreetly gesture toward the homeless man, he muttered, “I ain’t fuckin’ Axl,” which ironically sort of sounds like something Axl would say. And with The Spaghetti Incident out that year, destined to be the last Guns N’ Roses album Axl was ever able to complete (as of this writing), Axl would soon be seen as little saner than the homeless guy. A shrieking, laughing, insane black dwarf was thrown out of the pizza place that night, too, dragged by her (?) jacket hood at the hands of one of the restaurateurs. That’s how the Tompkins Square Park area was in those days. (Giuliani was elected around then, not coincidentally.) Did I mention that Fellini had just passed away?


My own life became fodder for snail-mailed personal newsletters around that time, first known as The Seavey Post-Intelligencer (sort of post-collegiate, sort of Seattle newspaper, sort of Sub-Genius, sort of stupid) and later as The Flying Pig Dispatch, since I found a nice rubber stamp of a flying pig. But e-mail — and now this blog — have rendered all that unnecessary. Closest I ever got to a ’zine, I suppose. No regrets.

Oh, and I almost forgot that I basically wrote a whole book manuscript starting around that time. That book was not the still-in-progress Conservatism for Punks (though I continued to note instances of politicians’ pop ineptitude, such as Sen. Fritz Hollings condemning the then-new cartoon characters “Beaver” and “Buff-Coat”). It was instead a straightforward anarcho-capitalist argument for abolishing government. When I was getting close to putting the final touches on the manuscript two years later, though, I’d instead end up cannibalizing some of it for my weekly New York Press column, then working for six years for Stossel at ABC News (which frowned on outside writing of an openly polemical nature), and the next thing you know it’s the twenty-first century and you have grey chest hair like the human equivalent of a gorilla that’s become a silverback, and young people ask you what life was like during the Cold War.

But in next week’s Retro-Journal entry, it’s only 1994, and our magical twenty-year journey is but one-third over.

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