Friday, May 2, 2008

Retro-Journal: Crisis and Continuity in Late 2001

Today, audiences are enjoying the Iron Man movie, about a weapons merchant whose own technology is used against him but who fights back.

Back in the summer of 2001, shortly before American technology was turned against itself by terrorists, I had just left the employment of John Stossel — who looks a bit like Tony Stark — and soon thereafter found myself attending the funeral of a decidedly low-tech but powerful personage: my maternal grandfather, lifelong farmer Earl Geer (leaving me with one living grandparent, my still-thriving paternal grandmother, Florence Seavey, now ninety-four). I wore an old white shirt of Grandpa Geer’s to an event within just the past several days — which was partly fun, partly a continuation of my Douglas Hofstadter-influenced eulogy from back in July 2001.

One of the more upbeat gatherings of that summer, though, was a seminar run by political science professor Jeffrey Friedman under the auspices of the political philosophy journal he edits, Critical Review. Each summer, he’d badger a small group of libertarians into confronting non-libertarian ideas and a small group of non-libertarians into confronting libertarian ideas, in hopes of creating some common ground and intellectual flexibility of the sort necessary for serious academic discussion instead of party in-fighting. I’m indebted to Andrea Rich for suggesting to Friedman that I attend (and for putting up with my criticisms, as in my prior Retro-Journal entry, of Szasz, who she admires, as do many libertarians and even non-libertarians).

That tiny CR group — about fourteen people — meeting for a couple days in August 2001 ended up being my first or near-first meeting with several interesting personalities with whom I’d go on to have further contact, including Julian Sanchez and Katherine Mangu-Ward (later members of Reason’s editorial staff), Peter Suderman (later of National Review) [NOTE: different guy], Michael Malice (now a New York Times best-selling author on the topic of ultimate fighting — not to mention a trivia host on May 14), then-philosophy-student now-finance-guy Phineas Upham (who once danced with Natalie Portman at Harvard, I have to note, just in case he doesn’t get credit for it anywhere else), Elizabeth Koch (who’d go on to write for Reason and co-edit Opium), and a Rand-reading dancer who said she suspected she was invited because she has “a nice ass.” The gathering is immortalized (without names being named) in a few panels of the comic book version of Malice’s life story, written a few years later by Harvey Pekar. Malice was the most skeptical member of the whole group, though, since he is, in his own words, “more Rand than Rand,” whereas I, like Friedman (in some ways), am a utilitarian. Unlike Friedman, I believe people can be truly evil — and I don’t just mean Malice.

Another friend of mine who would be drawn into the CR web much later, Dan Greenberg, is now an Arkansas state representative but back then was writing a political column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (like his father, Paul Greenberg, who popularized the nickname “Slick Willie” and whose head graced billboards around Little Rock, an effective reminder to Dan to do something with his life). On September 10, 2001, I e-mailed a list of what I considered the hottest political topics of the day to Dan as suggested topics for his column. That e-mail — which, unfortunately, I can’t locate now but have looked back at in recent years — was a veritable time capsule of soon-to-be-irrelevant controversies. The only one I remember for sure is “the Patient’s Bill of Rights.” Twenty-four hours later, no one would be talking about the Patient’s Bill of Rights — and no, I don’t think Bush annihilated a swath of lower Manhattan to redirect the national conversation away from such hot-button issues or change his poll numbers. The national conversation was so pleasantly dull on September 10 that just doing a handstand on the White House lawn or announcing a new student loan program would have been enough to redirect it.


I know exactly which topic was foremost in my mind on the morning of September 11, 2001 prior to hearing about the terrorist attacks: cloning. At the suggestion of Virginia Postrel, I was writing about the topic in a way meant to appeal to conservatives and keep them from veering any farther into the increasingly vocal anti-biotech camp (not so unlike the implicit, albeit less partisan, message I hoped came across in the last Stossel show I’d worked on before leaving ABC News, Tampering with Nature).

One minute I was typing earnestly in my Upper East Side apartment about how conservatives might be blocking the technology that could someday make us immortal, and the next minute Mom — who had so recently lost her father — was calling from Norwich, CT to tell me about mass death downtown in my own city. And since this is probably the least-dramatic way a New Yorker could possibly have learned about the major events of the day — being called by his out-of-town mother — I think it was best for both of us, psychologically. It felt just slightly more like a distant news event to me and was something Mom could frame and relate to me from a relatively secure position of knowledge instead of getting scary, confusing bad news from me — or simply not being able to get ahold of me. I’d awake with a horrified shudder the next morning, though, as I remembered what had happened the previous day.

Anecdotal evidence — which seems to jibe with evolutionary logic — suggests that people tend to mate more after events that either kill a huge portion of the population or are perceived/felt as if they’ve killed (or may yet kill) a huge portion of the population, and I did find myself romantically involved with two fellow Brown alums over the course of that half-year (for a total of three times I’d been involved with Brown alums since graduating) and, in a moment that truly gave me hope for the future of Western civilization, kissing a rather Annie Lennox-like British leftist/science-buff/comedian/trapeze artist who was opposed to greens and Luddite environmentalists and shared my admiration for Virginia Postrel. In a more highbrow version of the sense of unity sweeping the land, I thought I could see a coalition of pro-technology, pro-Western, pro-progress thinkers forming in opposition to the violent, statist, hyper-religious regimes to the east, one that might hasten the end of the divisive right-left framework and build a shinier tomorrow for all out of the rubble.

Unlike my libertarian friend Katherine Taylor, I wasn’t troubled by the sudden crop of American flags all over the place, either — I’d started out my adult life with the moderately conservative view that the U.S. is obviously good and worth celebrating/defending, even before I had a coherent philosophy, and an upsurge in patriotism seemed healthy to me, and not unlibertarian. I did not yet grasp how divided many of my ideological brethren, once seemingly so united as to be almost boring, would be after 9/11 (note: and just to be clear, Katherine hates America — just kidding!).

Jeffrey Friedman took a decidedly more pessimistic view than I of things and where libertarianism stood in the altered world. Like Katherine, he soon decided to move out of New York City (she ended up in California, he in Texas) and before leaving warned not only that those of us who remained were taking a huge risk but that libertarianism might well become “an irrelevant philosophy.” One more attack like 9/11, he predicted (reasonably enough), and national security would become so central to everyone’s thinking as to erase any strong interest in civil liberties niceties and perhaps in the idea of liberty itself.

At the same party where Friedman issued that warning — once more the work of Andrea Rich, and of her husband Howie (since vilified by Kos and other bloggers as a diabolical free-market puppetmaster undermining democracy, which is one of the reasons I like him) — a libertarian named David B. Brown (not to be confused with the more Rand-oriented David M. Brown) expressed concern to me that the FAA had ordered all planes out of American skies on 9/11, possibly without full legal authority to do so. Normally prone to long philosophical statements, I found myself responding, a bit exasperated, “Who cares?!” And it may have been in that moment that I found myself becoming, for a time, more neocon in my thinking and a bit less patient with my unbending libertarian brethren.


In another early post-9/11 incident that hinted at deeper divides of which we weren’t all yet fully conscious, Friedman suggested to one of my fellow seminar alums, Julian Sanchez, that a pro-war libertarian magazine or website might be a good, timely idea. Julian instead co-founded the Stand Down project, urging the U.S. to avoid military involvement in the Middle East, and has been looking visibly creeped-out any time I say kind things about Republicans ever since — making him perhaps more representative than I of libertarians and of the Reason crowd, though I continue to insist that no clear position on war follows from basic libertarian principles, though one can draw strategic and practical conclusions about specific wars from many other sources. I continue to encounter libertarians who self-describe as everything from pacifist to “bloodthirsty warmonger” (his own words, really). It all hinges on how you think we can best produce a world without either random bloodshed or oppressive regimes and terrorist training camps, and the truth probably lies somewhere in between Ron Paul and William Kristol, which doesn’t narrow things down very much, I know, but the universe never promised you everything would be as clear-cut as a property line.

In any case, cloning certainly didn’t seem like the most urgent issue anymore, but for that article, I interviewed pro-stem-cell-research Dr. Elizabeth Whelan from the American Council on Science and Health — a group for whom I had actually written an article about cloning four years earlier, when Dolly was first unveiled. Instead of merely appearing in the new 2001 piece, ACSH ended up publishing it months later — and hiring me to be their new Director of Publications. With the stock market plummeting (remember 7000?) and those mirage-like dotcom creative-media gigs of the 90s not really returning, I decided to return to the fulltime-job world — though I had had some very fun experiences with Katherine and other minimally-employed friends that fall, despite our hovering fear the world might end.

In any case, the ACSH gig seemed perfect for me: media + science + politics. Unlike unscientific greens and advocates of alternative medicine — not to mention those backward imbeciles attacking us from their caves in Afghanistan — I would fight for the future and for progress, even while being in some ways conservative, not so unlike arch-conservative John Derbyshire condemning “intelligent design” advocates as betrayers of civilization this week. Battlelines, sometimes new and confusing but seemingly no less urgent for it, were drawn.

P.S. Since this is the Month of the Nerd, I may as well mention that while no one I know died on 9/11, to my knowledge (only friends of friends), a few of us in the orbit of DC Comics lost track of Ruth Morrison, who’d written some stuff for DC, after that — and knew she’d been working in the Financial District around that time. Haven’t heard from her since, so if you’re out there and alive Ruth, by all means update us.


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