Once upon a time…
I used to write mind-altering, self-righteous right-winger-infuriating opinion columns for the University of Notre Dame Observer student daily newspaper.
One column even got me over a hundred indignant “you leftie pinko commie we came here to get away from you” emails. A couple more got some fairly aggressive “replies” via Letters to the Editor. After about a semester of this, my advisor became concerned that I wasn’t writing enough fiction to graduate.
See, my attitude was that, if I wanted to be a writer, that I should practice writing all sorts of styles, modes, and genres.
Me, the writin’ rebel. Who knew?
At any rate, I’m presenting the columns I could find from the Observer archives for posterity. Or at least for my own edification / self-congratulatory back-slapping. “Warts and all.” I’m not proud of some these; I’m proud of others; and I’m appalled that I used to be a really decent firebrand when I was in my early 20s.
A bit of context is provided in some cases (in others, not so much; 20+ years is a long time…)
In a way, it’s a shame that Twitter, F’n’cebook, Instagram, et al has destroyed the need for student newspapers. I got to hear from and read people whose opinions I would have otherwise never bothered with (and vice versa, obviously). No algorithms to lock us up in our private inboxes; no hermetically, electronically-sealed virtual bubbles. We used to sit down for lunch in the cafeteria and talk over a printed opinion column.
Imagine that! Talking with other people. In person! Wow.
1995 Fall semester
“The calcium controversy: Pass the moo juice, please”
At the time, ND was furiously debating the rampant alcoholism/binge-drinking on campus. I decided to lampoon it using milk.
“Is Notre Dame merely a football fun factory?”
This is the column that earned me “liberal pinko commie” status. Nota bene: The headlines were usually rewritten by the editors, sometimes based on my original suggestions, and sometimes not. This one was NOT my suggestion. But, hey, it got me some notoriety, so it wasn’t all bad…
“Federal student loans: The price of intellectualism”
So of course I followed up an inflammatory column assailing Midwest culture with a boring, draw-out explanation of why I am not a big banker. Oops.
“Fear and loathing in South Bend, Indiana”
This one established my “gay-friendly” credentials, years before that became a term. After this, most of my classmates were convinced I was gay. Sigh. At least they didn’t think I was conservative.
“The Show – 1,000,000 and counting…”
The first of several columns devoted solely to baseball, my ongoing, inexplicable passion – considering my favorite team is the New York Mets, whose performance has been anything otherwise than passionate in recent years…
“Where will the budget and our leaders take us?”
This was DEFINITELY not my suggested headline. Absolutely dripping with sarcasm, this was one of the first to develop my non-fiction writing style of “in your face liberalism.”
“Weird things that make South Bend our home”
Again, definitely not my original headline – which is lost to time, but was probably fairly cynical/insulting. I still remember telling my NY former roommate my mailing address, and his laughing out loud on the phone when I got to “Indiana.” – “Man, you live in Indiana…”
“Columbus and his supporters – the Eurocentric savages”
This requires a bit of context. ND has a series of murals by Luigi Gregori depicting the conquering of “America” by Christopher Columbus, which have adorned the Main Building since 1884. Although a spate of blog posts by renowned open-minded web sites such as Breitbart would have you believe the protests against 19th century white supremacists are a “snowflake” reaction of Millenials from 2017 and 2018, students at Notre Dame have been debating these murals since at least before 1995 (when I was a grad student there). A professor of law (Charles Rice) and a random law student (who is still unimportant today but at one point seemed a really important, self-righteous pugilist) ranted about how Native Americans were savages and that Christopher Columbus and white European culture were needed to “civilize” them.
A lot of people were outraged. I was outraged. And I wrote. Without a lot of thought, to be honest. I made at least one big mistake (the Thomas Hobbes quote) and provoked even more controversy about the value and meaning cultural relativism and multiculturalism.
I note that, in 2018, 23 years removed from these writings, not much has changed in the US. In fact, things may have gotten even worse. But this issue is obviously not going away.
PS. Columbus was a major shit head. The Queen of Spain hated him and so did everybody else he came in contact with. Fuck him.
“A four-day holiday: Let us give thanks”
The first of probably many times I skewered popular US culture and its misconceptions and myths about modern holidays.
“Recipe for a disastrous holiday season”
This is a slightly fictionalized (i.e., not at all, really) account of how I spent my Thanksgiving weekend in 1995. And yes, Beavis and Butthead was still on MTV at this point. So were actual music videos.
“Throwing down the gauntlet of debate”
In this extended diatribe, I launched my Pre-Xmas Offensive against bigots, morons, and the ultra-conservatives. Little did I know that by today’s standards, the Right of 1995 would be considered Moderate. For example, they actually formed sentences that made sense – though I disagreed with them. After this column, I ceased receiving hate emails. I also got into a nervous breakdown that lasted about a week. Fortunately, I had six weeks to recover before my next column.
1996 Spring semester
“Baseball’s owners grasping at straws”
This was me complaining about interleague games and the three-division partition, which I hated. Still do. I’ve gotten softer on interleague games.
“Defining the Catholic and apostolic university”
One of the last remnants of my lapsed Catholic lifestyle…
“Modern wonders: ND joins the coed debate”
The word “parietal” derives from the Latin “parietalis,” meaning “belonging to the wall.” To this day, I still haven’t the foggiest clue why ND used this word to mean “visits from the opposite sex to your dormitory.” Infantile attitude.
“Telecommunications act amounts to censorship”
This is the column which mentions the website that nearly got me expelled from ND for “indecency.” As I later found out (and wrote about in a later column), the US Constitutional Bill of Rights does NOT apply to the private sector, but only to publicly-funded enterprises and public facilities.
It was a hot topic at the time – supported by Bill Clinton, who never should have signed it, and which still to this day influences government control over our private digital communications and identities. For context, I have uploaded an article about the debate at the time.
And, no, I have NOT changed my opinion about this and any such “act” of government. Freedom of expression is an absolute. End of discussion!
“Fat Tuesday and the Fat Heads – Separated at birth?”
I’m quite proud of this one. Part send up of Catholic “Lent” traditions, part send-up of presidential “debates.” The 1996 presidential election was a laugher at best, but probably the last time the US had an election free of external influence and/or outright fraud. In addition to all the other ones before it, I mean.
“Zapped: Elimination of affirmative action leaves little hope”
This was a response to an action by the racist governor of Louisiana; plenty of white ND students praised it, claiming “reverse discrimination.” Well before the dawn of the “white privilege” era. As I noted, ND crowed about its 6% “minority student” population. The same year, my undergraduate college had 30%. And unlike ND, it had no football or basketball scholarships. #hypocrisy
“Lawmakers must base abortion laws on scientific evidence”
I’m fairly certain I’m missing one or two columns in-between Feb 27 and Mar 19, but you can see I didn’t hesitate to throw my hat into the ring. I antagonised students at my undergrad school by saying that I didn’t think abortion was a good idea and that people should use contraception and think about the possible consequences before having sex. With this column, I pissed off most of the ND campus by saying I still didn’t think abortion was a good thing, but in the end, I’m a man, so why should I have the right to tell women what to do with their bodies?
In the end, abortion rights are a complicated issue, and the US ultimately fails by falling back on “religion” and “morality” – which fail to convince those who are not religious, of course, and is constantly undermined by those who pretend to be religious but who actually do whatever they want because they have money.
And, yes, it was around this time that I first read The Handmaiden’s Tale. And, yes, the Hulu show should have stopped after the first season.
“Easter: The full moon fever of those Europeans”
Again, not exactly my original title. I think it was around this point I realized I would never go back to “the fold” from my lapsed status. Also, I had availed myself of the wonderful ND Hesburgh Library stacks of the “idolatrous” writings of Giordano Bruno, Meister Eckhardt, and others defrocked, impugned, or martyred in the name of doctrine and dogma.
I became an agnostic at this point. “For I was blind, but now I see” (John 9:26).
“Learning some tricks of the trade”
In which I complain that the movie I wanted to see – Pride and Prejudice – had been suddenly replaced by Braveheart. Actually, most of the column is about the stereotypical “I love football” man and “I am a Midwest ditzy blond” couples who went to the movie. And, yes, I was not dating at the time. Dude. I was in Indiana.
“Appalling ends: The shot across the bow”
I’m rather proud of this one, too. I don’t take sides. I don’t have to choose a “team” or “school of thought.” I am that I am.
In another column, a liberal-leaning Catholic writer bemoaned my refusal to join a “liberal” group that opposed the right-winger group which published the extremist “Right Reason” mag. He wanted me to write an extra column each month called “The Fifth Column.” Cool name. But I just couldn’t do it. Even though I agreed with much of what the “liberal Catholics” said, I just couldn’t join a group. Not if meant giving up any of my independence.
1996 Fall semester
I had just returned from a four-week homestay in the Gaeltacht of eastern Ireland – where I wrote the first version of “Cois Fharraige” and several poems that were first printed in the ND magazine Scholastic and later revised and reprinted in Notes from the Nineties. The Observer asked if I wanted to write something snappy for incoming freshmen. I obliged. It’s a little snarky.
“Clearing the air within the confines of ND”
The headline is clearly not mine. Basically, this is a response to a radical right-wing magazine that claimed they would “challenge” Bill Clinton’s veto to a bill banning partial birth abortions (he vetoed it because it didn’t include exceptions for when the woman’s life was in danger or for rape or incest cases). Note the editorial cartoon above it. I was clearly operating behind enemy lines…
“Generation X: The culture that lacks a brain”
Again, my original headline taken and twisted. I wasn’t criticizing the entire “Generation X” but rather the concept of “generation” and how mainstream media had labelled people, then used them to make money.
In a twist of pure ironical timing, the pages following this column covered Jennie McCarthy’s visit to a nearby shopping mall where she pandered her own goods to a brainless crowd. MTV’s “Real world” was popular at this time. The year after I left ND, they came to Boston and royally pissed off most of the city.
“Campaign ’96: Act One, Scene Two, Take Two”
My lampoon of one of the presidential debates of the ’96 campaign between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. It was a complete and utter farce – by the standards of the time – that now seems almost like an alternate reality compared to ’16.
“Remember, remember, the fifth of November…”
Probably my best column. The election of 1996, indeed, did fall from collective memory. But it was likely the last election to have been contested fairly, and the last time the GOP nominated a politician who actually had some brains and was a decent person, to boot.
“Notre Dame and the web: Let the censored speak”
By this point, I had appeared before a committee of indecency, which charged me with violating the ND community standards and threatened me with expulsion. My claim that I had the freedom of speech to write or post anything I wanted online was dismissed. In the end, they removed my internet privileges and I had to pay for a service off campus.
And of course I wrote a column about it, mostly using quotes from materials involved in the proceedings. I was also interviewed for a Scholastic article about internet and censorship. I’ll see if I can find it. ND students and student groups were up in arms about the administration’s heavy-handedness around this time period.
“Pigskin vs. plastic skin: Classic confrontation?”
A light piece about nothing, really. Me complaining about the US obsession with turkey and football. Oh, and how boring and elitist golf is. Some people wrote to complain that golf wasn’t elite. Um. Guess how many of those who wrote were upper middle class Midwestern whites.
1997 Spring semester
“The rising specter of societal shame in America”
A light-hearted piece I wrote in an attempt to inject actual philosophical discussion of what makes a moral person.
I also noted it would be my final column for a while. In the end, though, I only took off two months to finish my master’s thesis (Approaching Twi-Night, plus two short stories that now appear in Notes from the Nineties).
When I came back, I came back with a bang.
“Star Wars: In pursuit of the hero within”
At this time, the “new” digitized versions of the original Star Wars Trilogy (Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi) had just been released in theaters (yes, I saw all three; yes, they got changed again when they were released on DVD…just before George Lucas removed all analog versions and claimed he destroyed the original tapes).
I psychoanalyzed the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader / Anakin Skywalker. I mention this because it’s easily done with the “new” trilogy (Episodes VII~IX).
I still find the illustration funny. Darth Vader looking in a mirror and seeing a teenager. Should have been the opposite!
“Comets and cults: Nothing new under the sun”
I probably should have left well enough alone, but I knew by this time that I would be leaving Notre Dame soon. So I took the opportunity in three of my last four columns to take a few pot shots at Christianity.
It’s a myth and a cult. Nothing more. No different than any other superstitious belief system. The end.
“Honoring Jackie Robinson and his long overdue dream”
On April 15, 1997, Major League Baseball and then-President Bill Clinton celebrated the 50th anniversary of the “integration” of the sport by Jackie Robinson. He had been one of my childhood heroes, and I jumped at the chance to write an extended column about his life and legacy. It proved to be my most popular column in the two years I was at Notre Dame and as a result there was a full house at the Graduate Student Reading event two days later.
But of course I tricked them. I read my Irish story instead of my baseball story. Hah!
(I was also asked to write an additional column on the next page, about web sites. I introduced the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, featured in the then-recent movie A League of Their Own. It turned out that most of the teams had existed around the city where I was living (South Bend, Indiana), and many of the Observer readers had relatives who either played in the “girls'” league or knew someone who had.)
(Yes, there are still more columns and witty banter to follow…after another coffee…and maybe a whiskey…OK, two…)