In late 1996, the John Stossel team at ABC News was preparing the Freeloaders broadcast that I recently mentioned, a look at forms of parasitism large and small, from petty con men and self-confessed lazy homeless men all the way up to corporations receiving subsidies and favors from the government, specifically the Archer Daniels Midland Company. Twelve years ago, I think the libertarian idea that there’s a big difference between support for free markets and support for “big business” was still rather novel (not that I’m saying the left yet gets it), and I think the overwhelmingly leftist staff of ABC News were a bit surprised to see Stossel taking on ADM — and the fact that it was a big advertiser on ABC’s Sunday morning news talk shows may have crossed some people’s minds.
One left-leaning Stossel Unit member delighted to take on ADM, though, was Frank Silverstein, and in the course of his research he had the oddly Simpsons-like experience of confronting one of his sources on the story with the fact that all evidence pointed to the source secretly being a tool of ARCO, the oil company, to which the source actually replied: “Well, it looks like we’ve reached the endgame faster than I expected.”
Luckily, Frank was not then dropped through a trap door into a shark tank or anything — though, since he’d previously been an animator on Pee-wee’s Playhouse (and helped build Conky the robot), even then Frank might have had some tricks up his sleeve.
Being so much a part of the media establishment at ABC News while also trying to make some radical points was odd, sort of like being a rope stretched across an abyss between the Walt Disney Corporation and Nietzsche.
I learned from my friend Liz Braswell on Sept. 13, 1996 that her brother has no armpits (or rather, that his armpits lack concavity) as a side effect of his brief bout with bubonic plague (now treatable with penicillin), contracted from touching an armadillo.
Fittingly, Bob Dole (R-ADM), friendly to ADM and once called a “tax collector for the welfare state” by the more anti-government Newt Gingrich, appeared headed to defeat in the presidential race that half-year, another textbook case of a Republican whose election probably would have been better for the country (since he would not have resisted Congress during the short-lived budget-trimming phase it was then going through under Gingrich’s leadership) but who nonetheless deserved his defeat, since he had led the Senate in blinking during the confrontation with Clinton a year earlier over Republicans’ attempted budget cuts and the resultant partial “government shutdown.”
While reporters at ABC (other than Stossel) scrambled to find examples of the government shutdown actually making a negative difference in people’s lives (focusing intently on the pathetic handful of examples they found, such as greater difficulty for people trying to obtain last-minute “emergency passports” for foreign travel), the public was probably just on the verge of realizing (as Gingrich explicitly hoped) that it could get along quite well without government. Gingrich suggested that the shutdown in effect become permanent and that a serious conversation ensue about which shut-down parts of the federal leviathan, if any, to reopen.
But Clinton said beloved public parks and your grandmother’s IV tubes would be the first thing to go, the public initially reacted with worry, Dole blinked, Republicans caved, vague promises were made that if Dole became president everything would be made right, he didn’t, they weren’t, Republicans became big spenders, and today the government is about twice as large as it was then — but none dare suggest cutting one dime from its now $3 trillion budget, of course. Perhaps McCain (Maverick-AZ) will cut something. Who the hell knows?
I visited my pals in the Boston area again that half-year, but an important bit of Boston culture also came to New York City: I saw a performance here by the hilarious band Upper Crust, who sound like AC/DC but look and behave and write lyrics as if they’re from the eighteenth century, with songs like “Let Them Eat Rock” — and a fan website called Monarchy in the USA. One member of the band, Ted Widmer, would go on to become a head history librarian at Brown, which is appropriate.
In their small way, the Upper Crust probably helped confirm my desire to embark on my larger philosophical mission: reunifying the traditionalist and progressive/innovative halves of our culture, sundered since the Enlightenment that the Upper Crust so ably parodied. In early 1997, the end of the first half of our Retro-Journal journey, I’d formulate an official plan, or at least submit a grant proposal.
I also saw the Fixx yet again (with future girlfriend Indrani Nicodemus) and saw Dee Dee Ramone perform in late 1996, at the suggestion of fellow New York Press columnist George Tabb, himself the lead singer of punk band Furious George, who were sued at one point by the Disney-affiliated owners of Curious George. Disney is not punk rock.