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DWR (12): The NYC “Warzone”

As we move closer to the 2024 election, it is only natural that we are entering the Period of Hyperbole. That’s a polite way of saying the Period of Hypocrisy, Twisted Logic, and Outright Lies.

The Right-Wing Attack on New York

I’m one of those born and bred New Yorkers who finds it maddening to read the litany of familiar right-wing attacks on my hometown, which typically intensify during election cycles. It’s so predictable that I can practically check off all the right-wing talking points in my sleep. Anytime I hear the phrase “New York values”, for example, I know that it’s a code word. No, not for “rude”, “brash”, or “loud”. It’s hurled as an epithet and it’s meant to disparage New Yorker’s tolerance — nay, embrace — of difference. Most Gotham dwellers have a cosmopolitan ‘live and let live’ perspective on the world and for this, they are routinely excoriated.

But since the pandemic and the protests and riots that followed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, right-wingers have been harping on New York’s ‘lawlessness’. Just turn on Fox News and you’ll hear that crime in NYC is “worse than the 90s”! This meme — an exercise in gallows humor that has been circulating on social media platforms — is not too far from the vision that Fox News presents to the world … even more hilarious because Fox is based in New York City!

The clear pattern is: Don’t just denigrate New York City. Make sure you blame the Democrats for the city’s collapse into “a hellscape of unchecked violence and chaos”. Donald Trump rails against the city of his birth as “one of the most dangerous and violent cities in the United States … where killings are taking place at a number like nobody’s ever seen.” Missouri Republican Josh Hawley asserts that “you can’t go out on the streets without being shot.” And GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley tweets: “Gov. Kathy Hochul has sat on the sidelines while liberal district attorneys like Alvin Bragg turn New York City into a war zone where innocent people are scared to take the subway and criminals get a free pass. Governors are supposed to protect their people. She can send a message to criminals by announcing her intent to pardon Daniel Penny. She can remove Alvin Bragg for endangering Manhattan residents. One thing is clear: doing nothing only continues the crime wave in New York.”

Alas, as James Peron points out: “These false perceptions about ‘out-of-control’ crime are used by Republicans routinely to terrify voters. Like politicians in general they are prone to use fear to rally the terrified.” Yes, all politicians, left and right, use fear as part of their arsenal of Machiavellian manipulation. And in this case, it’s the right wingers who need a history lesson. Any simple fact check would prove how debased their hyperbolic claims are.

History Lessons

Nothing compares to the crime rates of the late 1980s and early 1990s. There were over 2000+ murders per year between 1987 and 1994, reaching a peak of 2,262 murders in 1990. Despite an uptick in crime in the year after the pandemic, 2022 murders numbered 438. That’s about as far from Fox’s Grimm Fairytales as one can get. NYC remains the most densely populated city in the United States; with an estimated population of around 8 million, it is home to more people than the populations of 38 individual states. And if one counts the NYC metropolitan area, we’re talking nearly 19 million people — certainly the most populated metro area in the country and still among the most populated metro areas in the world. But “the NYPD’s historical CompStat figures show that the Five Boroughs [of NYC] are still far safer now than they were back in 2000.” Murders are down, shootings are down. And even though there has been an increase in robberies, burglaries, and grand larcenies, they don’t even remotely compare to the city’s historic heights in 1990.

How about a little dialectical context-keeping? Here’s the historical data:

Overall, crime in 2022 was 76% lower (and lower in every major category) than it was in the peak year of 1990. And, except for a few outliers, it is lower than it was in 1990, 1993, 1998, and 2001.

The city’s declining crime rates were part of a national trend. As Radley Balko explains, even though U.S. murder rates increased in 2020–2021, “they were still well below the rates of the early 1990s.” NPR reports that, currently, New York is experiencing “a downward trend … According to NYPD, in March 2023, New York City saw a 26.1% drop in shooting incidents compared to this time last year. And homicides fell by 11.4%.”

Why Target NYC?

So, the question remains: Why do right-wing politicians target NYC?

As my dear friend Ryan Neugebauer points out with characteristic bluntness:

There are so many cities to choose from in this country. And actually, for the largest city in the country, [New York City’s] crime is massively low, even compared to many U.S. cities pre-pandemic. Little Rock, Arkansas has been shit for a while, way worse than NYC. But no, we won’t talk about that. Houston, my neck of the woods (4th largest city), is also worse than NYC, and has been for a long time. No focus on that. You have to ask WHY a location is being uniquely focused on.

The right-wing focuses on its rise since the pandemic, while neglecting its performance in comparison to so many other cities in the country also dealing with a rise since the pandemic.

The whole issue speaks to right-wing disingenuousness and hypocrisy, as Ryan observes. Indeed, in claiming that the city’s crime rate is uniquely bad today, Nikki Haley, in her tweet above, focuses specifically on Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg — who, it just so happens, recently announced an indictment of her former boss, Donald Trump. It’s convenient to focus on the Demonic Democrats, whom Republicans blame for turning NYC into a “warzone” — and yet, they never look at the “warzone” in their own backyards. For example, if we compare Columbia, a city in Haley’s state (which isn’t even the most violent city in South Carolina) to the five boroughs that constitute New York City, here’s what we find:

As Ryan observes: “It’s potent to deconstruct a false narrative with facts, but it’s even more potent to show how that false narrative ignores facts about areas that go counter to your simplistic (in the right-wing case, ‘Democrat-run cities are bad’) narrative.” Current statistics show that red states have higher murder rates than blue states. Eight of the Top Ten “Murder” states are led by Republicans — Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. But these states also have higher poverty rates and greater economic decay, factors that have more nuanced relationships with crime than, say, the party affiliations of city and state politicians. And I’d say the same thing about New York City, which has seen dramatic declines in its crime rates under Republican, Independent, and Democratic mayoralties.

Still, Ryan adds:

If you are going to make the point that NYC is a warzone, you have to delineate what criteria counts for being a warzone. And comparison is not an unfair thing to use in that discussion. If South Carolina has worse stats in some of its cities, it’s fair to ask “what makes these places NOT warzones?” Why do they have worse statistics and aren’t the focus? What’s so unique about NYC that it has your attention?

I think most New Yorkers know the answer to that question. Save for the singular event of 9/11, New York City has always been the focal point of right-wing hostility. “Anti-New York sentiment is a longtime conservative shibboleth,” explains David Birdsell, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Kean University. “It’s very popular and easy to demonize New York as fundamentally alien.”

This view of the “alien” nature of New York has been bolstered more so ever since its designation as a “Sanctuary City” in a 1989 executive order, signed by Democratic Mayor Ed Koch. But that policy protecting undocumented immigrants from deportation and prosecution has been upheld by Republicans and Democrats alike. In 1994, upon becoming Mayor, even Republican Rudy Giuliani embraced the policy (as did his successor, Mike Bloomberg). This town has always been a city of sanctuary, a city of immigrants. It is estimated that about 40% of the U.S. population can trace its lineage to Ellis Island, “the gateway to America”. Till this day, NYC is consistently ranked as the most cosmopolitan city in the world. And that makes it a target especially for those who want to close the borders to those troublesome “invaders”—or who seek to overwhelm the city’s sanctuary status by using migrants as political pawns.

The Historic Drop in NYC Crime

Let’s give some credit where credit is due. Crime rates began their decline under Democratic Mayor David Dinkins, but it was during the moderate Republican administration of Rudy Giuliani that New York’s crime rates began to decline precipitously. There has been a huge debate over the causal factors behind this decline. Some argue that this was a national trend and not exclusive to New York City. Others argue that while violent crime declined 28% nationally in the 1990s, New York City’s violent crime declined 56% in that same period, thereby driving those nationwide trends. Some cite better economic conditions as key, while others cite a combination of community policing and “Broken Windows” policies and an increase in the prison population. A Brennan Center Study argues persuasively, however, that mass incarceration had zero effect on crime rates, but that CompStat was responsible for a 5 to 15 percent decrease in crime in those cities that adopted it. CompStat, used to track crime trends, was the brainchild of NYPD deputy police commissioner Jack Maple. In New York City, this innovative tool guided more police and other resources to high-crime areas that most needed them.

Ironically, it was during this period — far closer to the “warzone” metaphor than anything one might find today — that Donald Trump forged his New York real estate deals. One would think that at a time when crime had hit historic heights in this city, a savvy businessman would be less inclined to do business here. But that wasn’t the case. Despite his notorious feuds with Mayor Koch, Trump used his family’s political clout with former Democratic Mayor Abe Beame to bolster his real estate ventures. At the time, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York was Rudy Giuliani, who implicated Trump at the center of a “cesspool of corruption” entailing “the buying and selling of public office” and extravagant real estate deals that clobbered New York taxpayers. Trump had cashed-in on his crony capitalist connections big time. He renovated, built and/or acquired such properties as the Grand Hyatt Hotel (1980), Trump Tower (1980), the Plaza Hotel (1988, which subsequently filed for bankruptcy 2 years later), the Trump Building (1996, of which he’s still, apparently, the landlord), and the 76 acres that constituted the Lincoln Square neighborhood, which, due to his own struggles with debt, were sold off to investors based in Hong Kong in 1997.

The Real Problems in New York City

And this, perhaps, is just a glimpse into what have been the real problems in New York City. Republicans and Democrats alike have done enormous damage to this city’s economy and its social infrastructure. From the days of those epic struggles between big developers like Robert Moses and decentralists like Jane Jacobs, this city has seen enormous changes to its landscape that have led to prohibitively high costs of living and draconian regulatory policies. Rents and housing prices remain high, as do taxes. Those taxes are used to support robust systems of public welfare and public education. The poor and working classes suffer disproportionately as affordable housing has been war-“zoned” out of existence, while wealthier landowners exploit rent stabilization laws for their own benefit. NYC remains one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to live.

It has also been battered by a historic drop in its population. New York State saw its steepest population decline in the last year alone. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that this city was hit hardest by the pandemic. Its population declined not only due to nearly 40,000 recorded deaths — “one of the deadliest disasters by death toll in the history of New York City” — but also to an exodus of 300,000 people during the period from April 2020 to June 2021. An additional 123,000+ people left the city in the July 2021-July 2022 period. And as many began working remotely during the pandemic, fewer people have returned to their offices in Manhattan. Even with hybrid work schedules, workers who are commuting to the city’s epicenter “are spending $12.4 billion less per year than they were before the pandemic.”

Ever the New Yorker, I’d like to think that that statue in the harbor, which lifts its lamp to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, is just as much a testament to this city’s resilience. But this is what makes the right-wing narrative on the New York City “warzone” so tragic. It shifts attention away from profoundly systemic problems and prevents us from tackling the much larger socioeconomic issues that need to be addressed fundamentally. That would require the kind of dialectical thinking that is anathema to ideological rigidity of any kind, right or left.

This article was also published on Medium.

DWR (11): Trans Hysteria

Recently, I had a public Facebook dialogue with my friend, Ryan Neugebauer, on the growing hysteria surrounding Trans issues, especially among people in Randian and right-libertarian circles who dismiss any discussion of “gender identity” as yet another example of left-wing “woke” politics. It is so prolific in Facebook discussions that even a single post on the issue will generate hundreds of vitriolic responses that go on for weeks. As Ryan put it:

These people have lost their minds! Unfortunately, so many of these people, who like shouting about “liberty”, are more about “liberty for me, but not for thee”. They have a “get off my lawn” attitude on everything. “Don’t tax and regulate ME!” “Don’t tell ME what pronouns to call you by!” “Don’t tell ME to wear a mask!” “Don’t tell ME to respect gay marriages!” Nothing healthy about it. It’s like the state of being 2 years old became a political ideology!

Indeed, in all my 37 posts during the COVID pandemic, I observed how politicized the discussion was. I never wrote a single post endorsing draconian measures to deal with the pandemic, and yet, for having acknowledged that I’d taken the Moderna vaccine and its various boosters, I was excoriated as a “Total COVID Warrior”. We can debate for eons the effectiveness of “lockdowns” or the use of masks or the pros and cons of the vaccines. But everything became so politicized that you couldn’t have a decent conversation that didn’t devolve into an exercise in confirmation biases.

Just as people continue to debate the science and politics of COVID, so too, the Trans issue has been highly politicized. Ryan observed that it’s gotten to the point where “any defense of the legitimacy and dignity of people who identify as Trans or Nonbinary gets one labelled as ‘woke’”—a word that has become one of the most blatant “anti-concepts” in modern discourse. It’s an expansive, elastic, all-inclusive pejorative used to bludgeon anyone who has even a semblance of concern for social justice.

In my reply to Ryan, I wrote:

The issue cannot even be addressed with any sense of balance or proportion—or any remote sense of concern for those whose lives are affected by the toxicity of the discussions. What astounds me more than anything is that so much hysteria is being raised over 0.05% of the [U.S. adult] population [and 1.4% of youths between the ages of 13 and 17] that identifies as such. I had hoped that people who are concerned with the fragility of individual rights would pause, for just a single moment, to consider what it’s like for such a small minority to be targeted by a plethora of rhetorical, political, and legislative bullying. And it’s now taking on a life of its own as political forces are being mobilized in favor of censorship in libraries, classrooms, parades, and in theme parks.

For the record, I have long renounced illiberal authoritarian tendencies on both the right and the left. But ultimately, when a society recoils at the prospect of even attempting to understand those who are “different”, the battle for human dignity and personal autonomy is already being lost.

One of the bedrocks of a cosmopolitan society is toleration. Toleration of difference. You don’t have to “accept” anything you don’t value. But your lack of acceptance doesn’t give you the right to weaponize legislation that undermines the very basis upon which any society, aspiring to protect and defend individual liberties, depends.

And this is what makes the hysteria surrounding this issue even more infuriating. We are talking about individual human lives. Each person facing gender identity issues has their own highly specific and unique context, which requires some form of care. The rising tide of hysteria around this issue is impacting the lives of so many individuals who are grappling, ever so delicately, with crippling self-doubt and their own fears—of being cast out, bullied, demeaned, and destroyed. As one study puts it, “Data indicate that 82% of transgender individuals have considered killing themselves and 40% have attempted suicide, with suicidality highest among transgender youth.”

Ryan agrees that Trans Hysteria is not clarifying; it’s obfuscating the fact that people are being put at risk. And under such conditions, it makes it ever more difficult for anybody struggling with gender identity, or for their loved ones, to seek a way through.

Worse, the fears that are being tapped into by those seeking to make America a place where “woke goes to die”, are now being spread in such a way that they’re also seeking to push back against difference, per se. Don’t say Trans. Don’t say Gay. Don’t say Black. Heck, Don’t Say Anything that even hints at extending a modicum of sensitivity toward—or tolerance of—those who have fought and died for their very right to exist.

The science and sociology of gender identity is a developing area of study, which is still assessing the various “nature vs. nurture” factors—those genetic, biological, developmental, and environmental causal forces at work in gender incongruence. That this area is not fully understood lends even more support to the battle for protecting those who are struggling with gender identity issues. Instead, we are faced with the hysterical assertions of authoritarian Florida Governor Ron DeSantis—who claims that “they are literally chopping off the private parts of young kids” as the medical community bows to “woke” activism. That is simply not happening. Reasonable concerns have been raised about some of the practices surrounding gender-affirming care. But “decades of data support the use and safety of puberty-pausing medications, which give transgender adolescents and their families time to weigh important medical decisions.” Such decisions are not made without teams of medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, endocrinologists, and other professionals working closely in concert, weighing the pros and cons of various treatment options. As one concerned mother of a Trans youth said to me, a hyper-focus on the uncertainties and risks of any kind of medical intervention muddies our understanding of the uncertainties and risks involved with not intervening at all. One would think that Randians and libertarians who have a genuine distrust of state planning of any sort would be just as “laissez-faire” in their attitudes toward government dictating the difficult choices faced by such individuals and their families under these circumstances.

Alas, state interference is not restricted to curbing gender-affirming care. It is shaping up into a grotesque all-out assault on a tiny minority of people. Even some self-identified “radical feminist” groups have aligned themselves with reactionary GOP politicians—who have typically shown no respect for any woman’s right to make basic choices about her own body—in an attempt to bar Trans athletes from competition in women’s sports. While I certainly don’t have all the answers to these challenging problems, the statistics don’t line-up with the hysteria. Because the answers are not clear, because our knowledge is limited, reliance on the state to chart a course through such politically charged cultural issues is no solution at all. It’s probably going to take a lot of trial-and-error policies proposed by alphabet-soup sports associations to figure out fairer, more equitable and more inclusive policies over time. Let’s keep the state out of it!

But the culture warriors don’t stop there. They view Trans women especially as villainous perverts. They spin nightmarish scenarios in which Trans women are exposing themselves en masse in women’s bathrooms and committing sexual assaults against “real” women and “real” young girls. Well, in NYC, we’ve had liberal bathroom policies in place for over a decade and the statistics don’t even hint at an uptick in “Trans” assaults. If anything, violence against transgender people has increased dramatically, as they are being targeted and assaulted—the “collateral damage” of a growingly toxic culture war.

As Ryan has pointed out again and again, too many Randians and culturally conservative right-libertarians have turned a blind eye toward state regulation of social mores. (It should be noted that among Randians, there are exceptions.) Indeed, in the case of the “Free State of Florida”, lower taxes and a rollback on regulation has led even the Cato Institute to proclaim it the second “freest” state in the U.S. (the more socially liberal New Hampshire ranks #1). But that just illustrates how low cultural and social freedoms are regarded in the grand scheme of things. Florida’s interventionists are using government power to forge a new, reactionary ‘politically correct’ curriculum that is hellbent on sanitizing any mention of the civil rights struggles of blacks, LGBTQ people, and others. They have also enacted into law, “Protections of Medical Conscience”, which grants healthcare providers and insurance companies the right to deny care to anyone on the basis of “religious, moral, or ethical belief”. That law, apparently, was designed to pushback against vaccine mandates, but since it allows for discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender identity, it can be used broadly to deny care to LGBTQ people. Any doctor or healthcare provider who morally objects to medical treatments for transgender people or even the use of antiretroviral drugs in the treatment of HIV/AIDS can deny care—and no medical board has the right to discipline anyone who denies such care. And this is precisely why Ryan has warned about the dangers inherent in healthcare nationalization, since “the politicization of Trans issues” could very well “destroy the ability of people to obtain transitioning care services and the like. Do you really want more of your life’s important decisions and necessities being up to partisan political meddling?”

Defenders of “capitalism” though they claim to be, the Florida Anti-Woke Crusaders are even attacking capitalist companies like Disney because it refuses to fall in line with their political agenda. Disney World has had “Gay Days” since the early 1990s! But now, even Drag Shows have become the target of Florida’s legislative initiatives because they too are apparently harmful to minors.

I’m tempted to conclude with a none-too-subtle variation on Martin Niemöller’s adage: First they came for the Drag Queens, and I did not speak out because I was not a Drag Queen. Then they came for Trans people, and I did not speak out because I was not Trans. Well, in truth, I’m neither Drag Queen nor Trans. But I am speaking out. I am a gay man of Greek and Sicilian descent, and it wasn’t too long ago in this country that even my rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were being marginalized. It is not unusual that as privileged groups of people sense that they are beginning to lose a grip on their “traditions”, they fight like hell—passing laws and regulations—to keep them in place. But the very dynamics of the market society they claim to value are such that traditions are among the practices that are often brought into question. That’s one of the reasons that Friedrich Hayek himself proclaimed he wasn’t a conservative.

Trans Hysteria must stop or the tragedies in its wake will continue down a nightmare path on which no “libertarian” should ever feel comfortable treading.

Postscript (2 July-11 December 2023). I’ve had various discussions in the wake of this post, touching upon everything from sex ed in schools to adolescent “surgeries”.

  1. In New York State, Sex Ed isn’t taught in the schools until middle and high school; nobody in kindergarten or thru grade 5 is learning about transitioning or anything of the sort. See here. Health topics are addressed; all the 9-12 grades (100%) are taught about the benefits of abstinence from sex and about STDs; about 65% address sexual orientation in grades 6-8, 90% in grades 9-12, and around the same stats cover gender identity. None of this is going on in kindergarten or anytime prior to grade 6.
  2. This Reuters Investigates report provides actual “numbers on the rise in children seeking gender care”. There has been a noticeable increase in the number of young people being diagnosed with gender dysphoria (ages 6-17) in the United States. In 2021, around 42,000 were diagnosed. That figure is 121,000+ in the years between 2017-2021. Of those given such a diagnosis over that 5-year period, only 4,780 were given puberty blockers (around 3%), while only 14,726 were given hormone therapy (around 12%). Mastectomies are extremely uncommon; only 776 were recorded (ages 13-17) from 2019-2021. This extremely difficult issue is typically managed with a focus on the person needing treatment, in league with the family and hordes of medical and mental health professionals. That team weighs the pros and cons of intervening versus not intervening, and what kind of intervention is merited, if any, be it mental health services, puberty blockers, hormone therapy, etc.
  3. What also must be emphasized is that this is not some kind of “Trans Epidemic“, as right-wing demagogues put it. One recent report “estimates that 1.4 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds and 1.3 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds were transgender, compared with about 0.5 percent of all adults.” That so much hatred, bigotry, anger, and fear has been generated over such a small and vulnerable population in this country is a disgrace.
  4. As for those who believe that children are so impressionable that they can easily be “groomed” into being L-G-B-T or Q+, all I can say is: Studies show that while there is “situation-dependent fluidity” in sexual responses over time, the overwhelming majority of people are “hard-wired” (perhaps thru a combination of genetics, biology, and environment) from a very young age in terms of their responses. No matter how “impressionable” children might be or how “experimental” adolescents might be, nobody is “forced” to be gay, anymore than they are “forced” to be straight. Or “forced” to be bi, trans, or otherwise. People just are. I often wonder just how fragile some people’s self-conception of their sexual identity is that they see every “alternative” response as a threat. I grew up watching TV shows and films that featured people of the opposite sex being intimate with one another. I saw heterosexual people on the street holding hands and kissing. All the impressions in the world around me didn’t “force” me to become straight or alter my gay trajectory. This is all BS, and it’s exhausting to have to keep responding to it.
  5. As for those who believe that there’s been some kind of “explosion” in “acquired” LGBT identity or that social pressure is leading to “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria“, I’d say that in the current environment, especially in communities that are targeting people for their sexual orientation or gender identity, people are far more likely to be bullied and marginalized precisely for their differences, rather than for having been subject to some kind of social “contagion“. All of this is out-and-out fearmongering (now on full display especially in the Republican Presidential Debates).
  6. And now, some states are moving toward “forced outing“, yet another sign of the erosion of civil liberties from this right-wing assault.
  7. With regard to those on the right who point to the European continent as having rolled back gender-affirming care, the facts are that no country has banned such care. The United Kingdom, France, Sweden and Norway have adopted a more nuanced approach than those who are opposed to the practices here in the United States. See this Politico report. (And on the issue of “detransitioning”, which affects a small minority of a small minority of people, see here.) The only model that the right-wingers in this country would embrace is that offered by Putin’s Russia. What a surprise!
  8. It is certainly true that there are people who have “detransitioned“—and both the right-wing and “progressive” left wing have made a lot of noise about this. Turning this issue into a political football, in which each side scores points on the backs of people struggling with gender identity, is among the biggest tragedies we face in the current climate. All the more reason why doctrinal rigidity needs to be repudiated in favor of a more measured approach.

DWR (10): Free Will vs. Determinism: A Dialectical Path Forward?

One of the topics that makes my brain squirm is the issue of free will. I consider myself neither an expert nor even a truly qualified interlocutor on this topic. So much has been said from every perspective over the course of centuries on this issue, and in the light of developments in neuroscience, the debates have only become murkier and more tangled than ever. It has impacted our epistemological, cognitive, and, perhaps most importantly, psychological understanding of what it means to be human.

The problem of free will vs. determinism is often framed by several presuppositions: 1. There are “laws of nature” and these laws have an objective reality that are independent of us, even though we are ever engaged in trying to understand them. 2. We are part of the natural world and, hence, subject to those laws of nature. 3. Human beings are conscious beings.

It is the nature of that consciousness that is the central point of contention among those on either side of the debate. In terms of gross simplification, we can say that those who advocate libertarian free will believe that we are not determined by forces beyond our control and that we are agents of causal efficacy. Those who advocate strict determinism believe that human actions are as determined by the laws of nature as are any other entities in the universe and, given that we are determined by previous causes, we, ourselves, do not have causal efficacy. As I said, this is a gross simplification, and there are scores of positions between these two extremes. The one that I find most appealing is “compatibilism”, which sees mutual compatibility between free will and determinism. More on this below.

I need to preface this conversation with a Hayekian word of caution because many of these issues are ultimately entwined with the question of whether we will ever truly understand the functioning of human consciousness, of the human mind, let alone whether that functioning is “free” or “determined”. There are compelling reasons to remain agnostic, in the ultimate sense, on these questions. Borrowing from Hayek’s discussion in The Sensory Order, on the nature of the mind’s organic, dialectical “interconnectivity”, Gary T. Dempsey writes:

The implication of this interconnectivity is that a sensory experience cannot be analyzed without regard for the other contents of the mind that contains them; that is, to describe a sensory experience all the way through, one must describe its relations to other bits of information which in turn are related to further bits, and so on in an infinite regress. Logically, any attempt to describe a sensory experience would have to take into consideration the complete “sensory” order that arises from each person’s previous sensory experiences. Moreover, to demand that one sensory experience be removed means to change all the others in some subtle way, and to demand that one sensory experience be added means causing all the resulting connections to occur.

As a result of this interconnectivity, the “sensory order” cannot be broken down into component sensory events. No sensory experience is autonomous. Rather, all sensations are embedded in a complex of relations to other sensations or, as Umberto Eco might put it, a sensory event becomes different when it is connected to another. “The connection changes the perspective” so that “every detail of the world, every voice, every word written or spoken has more than its literal meaning, it tells a secret.” It “resonates” with what Jacques Derrida might call “traces” of something “other.” Consequently, where one part ends and another begins is undecidable. There is only sensory information in intersubjective relations with other sensory information; their essence lies in their relation to the others and their interpenetration of the same. Recognizing this, Hayek concludes that the “sensory order” is irreducible. Its elements cannot be broken down into linear, A causes B terminology and reassembled into an explanation of the whole.

This interconnectivity of mind is what led Hayek to reject the idea that a mind could ever fully understand the functions of itself. Indeed, for Hayek, “the whole idea of a mind explaining itself is a logical contradiction”, insofar we would have to explain the process by which the mind explains its own functioning and then the process by which we explain the process by which the mind explains its own functioning, ad inifinitum.

These observations, however, do not prevent us from defining a specific context or contexts within which the whole question of “free will” and “determinism” makes any sense at all.

A recent discussion of the issue by Marxist philosopher Ben Burgis, in his article, “Slavoj Zizek and the Case for Compatibilism” is a case in point. Personally, I have long found the case for compatibilism to be the most dialectically persuasive in transcending the free will/determinism dichotomy. Indeed, compatibilism finds its roots in the ancient Stoics, Aristotle (the father of dialectical inquiry) and Thomas Aquinas, who carried on the Aristotelian project into the age of the Scholastics.

As Burgis writes:

Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them. … There is no question that human beings can imagine and plan for the future, weigh competing desires, etc.—and that losing these capacities would greatly diminish us. External and internal pressures of various kinds can be present or absent while a person imagines, plans, and acts—and such pressures determine our sense of whether he is morally responsible for his behavior. However, these [phenomena] have nothing to do with free will. … If being the “deep cause” of your actions means that you’re their First Cause—like a miniature God, you cause things without anything causing you to cause them—then … [t]hat’s a level of control over your actions that it’s impossible to have in a deterministic universe. It might also not be possible in an indeterministic universe since it’s far from clear that it’s even a coherent idea.

My friend Ryan Neugebauer recently discussed the Burgis article on Facebook, prompting a thread that has now been going on for more than a month. (And, yes, this constitutes another installment in my DWR series.) What Ben makes clear in his contributions to that discussion is that compatibilists think deeply about those choices that make human beings causally and morally responsible for at least some of their actions, while distinguishing these from those actions that plausibly account for “determinist” concerns. Other participants to the discussion include my friend Roderick Tracy Long, who defends a libertarian incompatibilist account of free will [pdf]. (And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the many articles written by my friend Roger E. Bissell, defending a form of compatibilism that integrates “value-determinism” and “conditional free will”.)

Ryan’s concerns about the notion of libertarian free will echo my own. As he puts it:

If parts of your brain are messed with or missing, or if you have some sort of psychological disturbance, it seems that “free will” in the sense that most people typically mean (reasonable control over ourselves with deliberation abilities) goes away. … Our development does shape us in significant ways. We’re not “blank slates”. As one example, I don’t “choose” to enjoy or like Oreo cookies. I just do. Similarly, I don’t “choose” to have certain preferences or thinking patterns (think of the way people on the Autism spectrum might differ from those off the spectrum) that can radically shape the way I process and interact with the world.

But this doesn’t commit Ryan to strict determinism. For example, though he is ultimately agnostic on the proposition of a “Block Universe Theory”, he criticizes it as counterintuitive for its physics-driven belief that “everything has, in a sense, a manner of speaking, already happened. … [a]nd … that what we think of as free will is, in a sense, an illusion”. I especially like Ryan’s emphasis on “freedom of will” over “free will” for much the same reason that he prefers the notion of “freer” or “freed markets” over the ahistorical, abstract notion of a “free market”. Indeed, both freedom of will and freer markets exist on a continuum of sorts. This reflects Ryan’s contextualized sensibility and places him squarely in the compatibilist camp. He writes:

Let’s take a more mundane example. I went to the electronics store and had to decide between two TVs. I went back and forth on it and struggled to decide. I eventually just chose one over the other because maybe I liked the physical design more or something. I would say the same holds in that scenario. Given that we turned back the clock (which isn’t possible, so we can’t actually test it), it would make sense that I would make the same exact decision based on all factors affecting me in that moment (thought processes, including reasoning abilities, biological urges, external pressures, social upbringing, etc.). … We can move forward and be put in similar circumstances and act differently because we have different conditions (experiential knowledge, more information, different urges or preferences, thought patterns/brain states, etc.). But absent something changing, I don’t see why there would be a different result. That doesn’t take away freedom of will. It just means that there’s no reason I’d freely choose differently under the exact same conditions with nothing changing.

I think it’s fair to say that we have a constrained freedom of will that is on a spectrum but allows us to actually make decisions. … Freedom of will is not something that is absolute and instead has definite limits. I’d say it varies for all of us every day. Catch me at a time when I’m hungry, tired, sick, or irritable for some reason and that can lead me to acting in ways I wouldn’t otherwise. … Various mental issues and struggles all affect my ability to act in the way I would ideally prefer too. I wouldn’t have shouted at my mom when she was asking me a simple question if I felt good, but due to not feeling great I did. My ability to respond in the way I would have preferred was hampered by the effects of my discomfort. I don’t see how that doesn’t count as restricting freedom of will in a similar way as we’d accept that something like schizophrenia can. … That’s not an argument against there being ANY freedom of will, but rather not a perfect one. Just as I don’t think there can be a perfectly “free” market, I don’t think there can be a perfectly “free” will. Some proponents don’t seem to think that’s the case. I’ve argued about that for many years and always find someone who wants to push back on it.

Like Ryan, I too take issue with the very framing of the question and the labels that are used in the debate. I also agree that nobody has fully resolved this issue and it’s not likely to be resolved. Given our ever-evolving knowledge, shifting definitions, and the enormous complexity of the human mind, I think the dialectical-compatibilist ‘middle way’ through the strict free will/determinist duality is almost unavoidable, precisely because it doesn’t depend on us knowing, thru some “synoptic delusion”, the ultimate answers to all the deepest questions. As I wrote on Ryan’s thread:

Just as I am always emphasizing context in my adherence to dialectical methods, I’d say the same thing about freedom of the will. We are ALL embedded in a context, or MANY contexts, each of which shapes who we are and how we evolve and even how we respond to our own evolution over time. Our contexts include not only our in-born capacities, but also our familial, communal, cultural, and structural contexts, and how each of us responds to these is not a given.

Heck, we’re not even tabula rasa at birth, if you count for the fact that biologically and genetically, we’re affected to varying extents, in terms of our physical, cognitive, and emotional capacities. Some of us are born prodigies and can pick up a violin and play a concerto at age 2. Others struggle with in-born impairments to our physical and even mental health. Studies show that we’re even affected by what’s going on outside the womb: the sounds from outside our protected environment, the effects of the mother’s health, hormones, etc.

That doesn’t mean that we’re “programmed” like automatons, but it does mean that we all function on a uniquely individual spectrum of “freedom of the will”—which also holds out the hope that changing contexts can either nourish us to greater freedom, or further impair our ability to choose. If we didn’t have any such freedom, then we should abandon all hope that any education, pedagogical methods, clinical psychology/psychotherapy, medical attention, changes to our family and community environments, even cultural and social change, would make any difference at all.

On that basis, it seems to me that, yes, we do live on a continuum, and just as factors can shape our decisions, so too can our decisions shape factors.

Yes, we live in a world governed by the “laws of nature”. Yes, we are part of nature. Yes, we engage the world with our minds, while also attempting to understand the means by which our distinctive consciousness grasps that world. But since we are not omniscient, we need to define those contexts that give real, nay, transformative, substance to what is meant by “freedom of the will”. I find it interesting, therefore, that the social-psychological dimension that both Ryan and I touch upon resonates too with philosopher Stephen Cave, who writes:

The kind of free will that I do think exists is one that is actually entirely compatible with the laws of nature as we know them. This kind of free will doesn’t happen at the level of quantum events, or even of individual neurones. It happens at the level studied by psychology—the level of decisions, deliberations and imagination. … The free will debate is such a hardy perennial because these two levels of explanation appear to contradict each other: On the one hand, seeing humans as part of nature’s causal chain; on the other hand, seeing humans as autonomous, creative, deliberating beings. But we are slowly moving towards a better understanding of both levels, and this—more than any fanciful ideas of free-floating consciousness-transmitters—will help us eventually to become the best we can be.

As Cave suggests, we need to focus on both levels in their interconnections, such that no single aspect is grasped to the exclusion of the other. The need to understand the larger contexts that condition our focus and the means by which we are empowered to alter those conditions are two interrelated aspects of the same whole. Indeed, they are deeply connected to the whole project of human freedom and personal flourishing. Freedom—be it the freedom of the will or the freedom to act in the world—external to conditions is an illusion; flourishing without such freedom is an impossibility. But that’s a post for another day …

DWR (9): Woke Warriors and Anti-Woke Crusaders: The Ominous Parallels

This Notablog post is another installment in my ongoing “Dialogues with Ryan” series, an index to which can be found here. Ryan Neugebauer is a very dear friend. I recently highlighted his wonderful interview on The Enragés [YouTube link].

In considering the topic at hand of “Woke” and “Anti-Woke”, let me just say that the very word “Woke” verges on becoming what Ayn Rand once called an “anti-concept” insofar as it entails some kind of “’package-deal’ of disparate, incongruous, contradictory elements taken out of any logical conceptual order or context”. Indeed, at this stage, it has become a mere pejorative, which in the hands of its ‘opponents’ is used as a bludgeon against any legitimate social justice cause.

Given these conditions, I’d like to state upfront that my values are fairly in sync with the causes of social justice. When I hear prospective GOP presidential candidate Governor Ron “DeSantimonious” tell folks that the “free state of Florida” is the place “where woke goes to die” and that he’d like to extend his anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-“CRT”-bullying to the country-at-large, I want to puke. Not because there aren’t problems with some of the Woke Warriors (I’ll get to that in a minute), but because his agenda is blatantly authoritarian and no friend to the cosmopolitan cultural values requisite to the sustenance of a free and civil society.

That said, over the course of the past few months, my dialogues with Ryan have focused on several things that need qualification and clarification. Because from what I’ve seen from both the “Woke Warriors” and the “Anti-Woke Crusaders”, I think there is a “false alternative” at work, which is rarely if ever acknowledged. As Rand often said of many of the conventional dichotomies we face in philosophical, cultural, and political discourse: “These two positions appear to be antagonists, but are, in fact, two variants on the same theme, two sides of the same fraudulent coin …”

And in the case of the Woke Warriors and the Anti-Woke Crusaders, the parallels have become all too ominous.

Some of this was touched upon in my previous discussions with Ryan over the problems with cancel culture, but so much more has come to light in the wake of two recent events: 1) the release of the Hogwart’s Legacy video game, which prompted a call to ‘boycott’ that game and all things related to J. K. Rowling because of her strident anti-trans views and 2) this past weekend’s 95th Annual Academy Awards, which prompted condemnations right and left. The Oscars are typically dismissed by conservatives for their ‘woke ideology’ that caters to “inclusivity”. Some of my Objectivist pals went so far as to condemn the Best Picture-winner, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” for its alleged “postmodern incoherence”—perhaps a sign that their “crow” was overloaded, and that they couldn’t quite compute a storyline steeped in nuance and complexity. Some keen observers have interpreted that unique, if challenging, film thru the lens of ‘metamodernism’, in which chaos and catharsis meet, providing us with a reaffirmation of shared values that underscore our common humanity (“we are all useless alone”), our need for efficacy (“it’s only a matter of time before everything balances itself out”) and our yearning for connection (“I will always, always want to be here with you”)—all gloriously sentimental lines that one could not possibly find in a film derided as “nihilistic.”

But then there were those among “cringey ‘progressives’”, as Ryan calls them, who dumped on Best Actor Oscar-winner Brendan Fraser, who starred in “The Whale”. Why? — you may ask. Because he portrayed an obese gay man, while being neither obese nor gay in real life. The Guardian went so far as to call the film “a joyless, harmful fantasy of fat squalor”. Such cringey ‘progressive’ attitudes ignore the remarkably humane, moving, and heartbreaking performance of its lead actor, who embodied (in more ways than just the physical) a character full of regrets, trying to bridge the gaps in his life among family and friends. Along the way, that film confronts not only issues of sexuality, grief, disconnectedness, and alienation, but also the tragic consequences of religious bigotry, and how it can erode the human soul.

Alas, all of this is symptomatic of a deepening cultural divide. Anti-Woke Crusaders on the right have been trying to suppress every and any mention of ‘the other’ in libraries and books, in classrooms and even in Disneyworld—a clear swipe at people who are not white, male, heteronormative, or otherwise ‘normal’ and ‘decent. But their campaign has metastasized, leading to the banning of literary classics—such as A Room With a View, Madame Bovary, and Paradise Lost. Even Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead has been targeted for its “rape-by-engraved invitation” scene. (What’s next? The Dictionary?) Likewise, the Woke Warriors on the left have been denouncing and trying to suppress anything that does not fall perfectly in line with their social justice ideals. And if a book can’t be suppressed, then it must be ‘sanitized’ and ‘rewritten’ to conform to those ideals. What we continue to witness is a ‘take-no-prisoners’ culture war, where each side is so caught up in its own narratives, so undialectical, that they blind themselves to the fuller context of any specific issue they address.

Can “Bad” People Create “Good” Art?

Back in 2019, in an article entitled “Michael Jackson, Ten Years After: Man or Monster in the Mirror?”, I addressed the issue of whether people whom we perceive as “bad” can in fact create good art. I am the first person to stand up for the principle that our understanding of any artist or thinker is deeply enriched by understanding their life and context (Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, anyone?). I am also of the belief that it is possible—even necessary—to be able to separate the creator from the creation. It’s a hermeneutical truth, as Paul Ricoeur would have emphasized, that every creation is “detached from its author and develops consequences of its own. In so doing, it transcends its relevance to its initial situation and addresses an indefinite range of possible readers.” Every time any creation—be it a book, idea, or artwork—enters the world, it leaves the domain of the creator and begins to speak to countless individuals in myriad ways. And every time each of us, as “readers”, is exposed to that creation, our response to it remains deeply personal, profoundly entwined with our own emotions and life experiences. And that is as it should be.

But things are never quite as they should be.

On February 10, 2023, after the Potter video game was released, my friend Ryan remarked in a Facebook post:

I don’t think it’s inherently wrong to enjoy Harry Potter stuff while opposing JK and her transphobia. I’m tired of puritanical nonsense in social justice circles. There are people who would say that if you grew up enjoying those movies and got a set of the movies before you knew anything about her transphobia, you’re still expected to give up watching and enjoying them. I find that so utterly absurd.

When Ryan wrote that, it was as if the world stopped spinning on its axis for a few folks; many people became incensed over it. And so, I not only came to Ryan’s defense, but took it a few steps further:

This whole thing is INSANE. And now, I’m just going to get on my soap box and let the chips fall where they may! I understand people’s concerns over this issue of putting money into the pockets of those whose views or actions we find abhorrent. Everybody is entitled to make their own decisions on this. But … I have every Harry Potter book, audio book, and DVD, not to mention all the soundtracks to every one of the films. I even bought Harry Potter figurines for loved ones who were in love with the Potter franchise. I despise Rowling’s anti-trans views, but dems de breaks. In the wide scheme of things, my dollars mean little. But if I had to stop myself from purchasing the products of artists / intellectuals who have had moral and legal issues, FUHGEDABOUDIT. I might as well start climbing down into hell right now.

Michael Jackson may very well have been a pedophile, even though he wasn’t convicted in a court of law. I love his music and have bought every MJ release in history; I saw him in person twice, and even saw “MJ: The Musical”. Roman Polanski is a fugitive from justice for having been arrested for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl; I have purchased DVDs and Blu-Rays of some of his greatest films: “Chinatown”, “Rosemary’s Baby”, and “The Pianist”. Frank Sinatra may have been involved with the mob and may have been a notorious ‘womanizer’; I can’t count the number of CDs or the number of films of his that I have purchased over the years.

Suppose the estates of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin and Richard Wagner were still collecting royalties. Those notorious anti-Semites! Woops… I own a lot of the literature of Proudhon and Bakunin and some of the great music of Wagner. To hell I shall go! (I’ll sidestep Kanye West, because I’m not a fan!)

I’d like to find other means of procuring stuff so that it doesn’t appear that I’m “sanctioning” flawed human beings. (Christ, that sounds so Randroid!) But if I can’t, I won’t, and I sure as hell will NEVER censor my aesthetic responses based on the fact that so many people who have contributed to the art and thought of this world are terribly flawed human beings in real life. It may be easier in this day of YouTube to create playlists of musicians without having to pay for it, and I’m all for getting things for less money or for free. But finding pirated copies of films to substitute for the real thing typically doesn’t work; their quality sucks. And in the end, life is too short. I’m just not going to deny myself the pleasure of enjoying the things I love because some of the people who create these works suck as human beings. I’m sure if people look into my past, they’ll find a few skeletons too. “He who is without sin” and all… and yep, I’ll die on this hill.

Moreover, I lamented that —

We live during a period where intolerance of difference has become a virtue. And I’m NOT saying that tolerance requires us to hug Nazis and Tankies; I’m only saying: let’s cut each other a little slack. It’s possible even for people who share broad fundamental values to have lots of differences between them. I relish that! Celebrate the differences, be open to discussing and learning from one another, give people the benefit of the doubt. It’s not all “black-and-white”; life is often an exercise in many shades of gray. And moreover, life is too short.

Greater Clarity

The following day, Ryan observed:

Since September 2018 (when I made this account), I’ve been unfriended by several Left-Libertarians and several Conservatives. Funny enough for different stances on the same issues. The Left-Libertarians unfriended me over my lack of puritanism around their conception of identity politics and the Conservatives unfriended me for my defense of Trans/Non-binary identities. Most recently, a right-wing moron from my high school days unfriended me because I called out his stupidity on Trans/Non-binary people. And yesterday I got unfriended by a Left-Libertarian for defending my continued consumption of Harry Potter content. You can’t please everyone and you shouldn’t submit to someone just because they throw a fit. I’d rather people who you have to walk on eggshells around take themselves out of my life. I don’t enjoy being around such suffocating energy. … I don’t kick people out of my life who go to Chick-fil-A, despite my issues with that company donating to anti-LGBT causes. If you do, that’s your prerogative and I won’t shame you for it. But I don’t think these are healthy ways of relating to others. … People who have a certain rigidity on social justice discourse … act like religious conservatives who are investigating thought crime.

Upon reflection, that last sentence, which I’ve highlighted, struck a chord in me: indeed, it is the key to the title of this post. And it wasn’t until after Brendan Fraser won his Best Actor Oscar that it all became clearer. As Ryan remarked:

I swear, some people spend all their days looking for things to be outraged about or to critique. And they cannot stand when others are not in agreement with their critique. …

Just as I call out and condemn the right-wing for their “anti-wokeness” and bigotry, I try my best to call out what I consider absurd, cringey, and outright wrong social “progressivism”.

There’s a contingent of people who will shit on just about anything that doesn’t meet their conception of purist standards. On their view, only a gay man can play a gay man. Only a Trans person can play a Trans person. And so on. Some critique this film [“The Whale”] because Brendan Fraser used prosthetics. First of all, his character was supposed to be like 600 lbs. Goodluck finding a solid actor who weighs that much and can actually do the role without negative consequences. Not to mention, I don’t think any of us would say that’s a good state of affairs to be in (it’s objectively unhealthy and a serious situation).

There’s something to be said for opposing fatphobia, but there’s also something to be said for not glorifying truly unhealthy situations. You don’t castigate and dehumanize people, but you also don’t sugarcoat brutal realities. And in fact, the most HUMAN person in the whole film IS Brendan’s character. This movie made me tear up throughout the entire thing. It addressed multiple difficult issues that intersected (struggles of coming out, a family broken up, struggles with intense weight, grief, etc.). It also involved an actor who was abused in real life. Seeing him triumph, as a survivor of sexual assault myself, was a beautiful thing that made me tear up all over again.

Seriously, if you can only think in such a narrow, one-dimensional way, I feel sorry for you. It cheats you out of the much more messy and complicated (and RICH) realities of actual life. And it leads to, in my opinion, overly rigid and hasty condemnations of things that aren’t even given a fair shake. If you don’t like the film, that’s fine. But if you just want to write it off as a flop that is only about “a fat man” portrayed with prosthetics and nothing more, then you’re just so wrong. It’s so much more than that! Brendan deserved the award, not out of pity due to his very real struggles, but due to an actually brilliant performance!

As a parting shot, he added:

St. Augustine supposedly self-flaggelated himself for essentially just being horny in his teens. Though, I can imagine today a cringey secular “progressive” violently whipping themselves for enjoying imperfect works of art. Or a Conservative “anti-woker” doing similarly for enjoying an actor who is Trans that they didn’t know was Trans. …

Ryan’s comments brought me to a realization about the nature of this conflict between the Woke Warriors and the Anti-Woke Crusaders, “two sides of the same fraudulent coin”. Not quite a “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” (which wasn’t even Hegel’s formulation)—but a necessary insight nonetheless. I wrote:

In truth, I have friends who are among the ‘anti-woke’ crowd and the cringey ‘progressive’ crowd, and I’ve noticed that they are almost two sides of the same coin, offering a false alternative of sorts. And you see this just in their reactions to a film or a performance alone. Each sets up an “ideal” of what they think is “right”, and they will censor their responses to art and deny every emotional reaction to anything that conflicts with their chosen ideal. And then, they’ll attempt to shame others who don’t respond similarly.

When we look at the craft of filmmaking, we can certainly judge some things “objectively”: the authenticity of the costumes, the quality of the cinematography, visual effects, sound effects, etc., in other words, the science of the craft of filmmaking. But when it comes to things like the performances by an actor, yes, there are technical “rights” and “wrongs”, but if the performance doesn’t speak to you, if it doesn’t get you ‘RIGHT HERE’ (in your heart, soul, etc.) … you’re just not going to respond to it positively. That’s where the “subjective” response of the viewer, who has a lifetime of emotional responses to countless events and experiences, either connects with what they’re seeing on the screen … or not. And ultimately, that’s what the response to art is about on a profoundly personal level: Do you connect with it?

I sometimes think that the “anti-wokesters” and the cringey “Woke Warriors” are trying to sever that connection on the basis of “principles” that they themselves can’t practice on a personal level. God forbid they react positively to something that “in principle” they denounce. They’re forced to twist themselves into ideological [or psychological] pretzels in order to justify how “awful” something actually is. They will engage in an act of self-censorship if that’s what it takes, or in an act of shaming those who have positive reactions to the things that they’re so busy denouncing. The Anti-Wokesters and the cringey “Woke Warriors” end up becoming mirror images of one another.

My response to art is never going to be dictated by ideology; I either like it or I don’t. I can give credit where credit is due to a technical achievement, but I think all this howling from both sides is so counter to the very human connection between the viewer and the artwork. If the art speaks to me, it speaks to me. Rigid ideologues be damned.

And that’s the bottom line: The Crusaders and Warriors, right and left, are ultimately adapting a rigid ideological, quasi-religious manner of engaging with the world.  And on this, I’ll give the final word to Ryan:

If the “anti-woke” crowd and cringey “progressives” tore each other apart on an island somewhere, I think the rest of us would go on living in peace.

Amen, brother, amen!

Postscript (19 March 2023)

A H/T to my friend Michael Zigismund for bringing to our attention an article by my friend Cathy Young in The Bulwark, published on March 1, 2023. In “Ron DeSantis’s Illiberal Education Crusade“, Young writes:

In some ways, red-state “anti-woke” bills are broader and cruder in their attempts at speech regulation: No campus policy against “discriminatory speech” has ever tried to kill entire academic programs and majors the way HB 999 would kill critical race scholarship and gender studies. (Here, DeSantis is taking a page from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the proud champion of “illiberal democracy” and the darling of American “national conservatives,” who signed a decree effectively banning gender studies programs in Hungarian universities five years ago.)

One may debate just how bad things have gotten in the academy. (The Knight Foundation, which has done annual surveys on the campus climate for speech since 2016, finds that close to 60 percent of students believe freedom of speech is more important than for a campus to be made “safe” from offensive speech or ideas.) But in any case, the notion that political pressures on the right can “fix” the damage from political pressures on the left is deeply misguided. The most likely result of these interventions in Florida—and similar legislation now being proposed in other states following Florida’s example—will be further polarization and wagon-circling. The left will brush aside critiques of speech suppression by institutional power and cultural diktat, arguing that only censorship by the government matters. The right will defend political interventions as the only way to curb the progressive stewards of culture and academe. This particular culture war may turn into a race to the bottom between the “red” and the “blue”: legally and institutionally coercive crusades to squash “wokeness” on the “red” side, knee-jerk defenses of “woke” institutional and cultural coercion on the “blue” side.

Indeed, the illiberalisms of left and right are slowly eroding the cosmopolitan values upon which a free and open society depends. The conservative right goes crazy when it hears that the books of Mark Twain or Roald Dahl are being sanitized, but instead of standing up for preserving the integrity of texts or contextualizing them for the importance of historical authenticity, it strikes back with policies that try to eliminate all mentions of “wokeness” in the curriculum, such that one publisher, Studies Weekly, has now gone to extensive lengths to publish “multiple versions of its social studies material, softening or eliminating references to race — even in the story of Rosa Parks — as it sought to gain approval in Florida,” as the New York Times has reported. When will the madness end?

DWR (8): A Dialectical Journey from Religion to Politics and Elsewhere

As readers know, I have had an ongoing dialogue with my very dear friend, Ryan Neugebauer, whom I have known for nearly five years. In those five years, we have developed a remarkable friendship, uplifted by spirited intellectual engagement, mutual inspiration, support, and love through good times and bad.

I’ll have more to say about some of his future activities in the coming weeks, but today, I’m just pausing to say how proud I am of his newly published wonderful essay—his first ever posted on Medium—entitled “A Dialectical Journey: From Religion to Politics and Elsewhere“. I’m not promoting the article simply because he describes himself as a dialectical left-libertarian, who places a high value on “the art of context-keeping”, with an explicit nod to my “conception of what dialectics is.”

What impresses me most is Ryan’s intellectual honesty and vulnerability, his willingness to explore his intensely personal evolution that has shaped his attitudes toward religion and ritual, politics and culture, sexuality and social change. As he writes:

It would be easy for some people to wonder why they should trust my thinking after having admitted that I have changed and evolved so much. I’d first respond by saying that I’d be skeptical of the thinking of anyone who hasn’t changed or evolved. No human has a synoptic or total view of everything, so we are all going to get plenty wrong and must engage in a life-long learning process. I also think that most people just go about their lives unreflectively and take whatever they think as “the truth”, which takes little effort. So when they see someone who has changed a lot and expelled a lot of effort, they look down on it and pity the person. Well, much like Socrates, I think the unexamined life is not worth living.

As I briefly mentioned earlier, moving forward I hope to get better in touch with my principles and provide even greater evidence-based arguments in defense of them. I also hope to keep an open mind to conflicting information, which is why I watch content and engage with others that I don’t agree with. It’s unhealthy to stay in an echo chamber where you only hear arguments and commentary in favor of your positions. That’s a sure way to grow callous toward those opposed to your views and to remain quite ignorant. That goes for strict Fox News watchers and MSNBC watchers alike, just as two examples.

A good framework for moving forward would be to get in touch with your own perspectives and arguments. Know why you hold them and what their strengths and weaknesses are. There are no risk-free or negative-free options, as pretty much everything comes with a tradeoff of some kind or another. Know what tradeoffs you’re willing to put up with and why (as one example, do you think that high economic inequality is worth putting up with in the pursuit of some rigid free-market perspective? Why?). Be open to hearing arguments opposed to your position and seek to buttress your position by taking into account criticism/feedback. Be charitable to those who respectfully disagree with you and seek their best, most steel-manned argument to deal with rather than some weak strawman argument. Doing all of that is what I strive to do, even if I still fall short. I think it’s the best way forward if we are to progress in any meaningful sense, personally and as a global community. So, let’s get to it then!

I can’t think of a more refreshing approach to ideas—and to life itself. Here’s to many more articles and much future engagement!

DWR (7): On Free Will, Rand & Branden

Notablog readers should be familiar with my “Dialogues with Ryan” series, which began on November 7, 2021, and continued with Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6. Today, I add my reflections on a new live streaming video that my friend Ryan Neugebauer posted earlier this afternoon. In it, he discussed a wide range of issues, including the debate over libertarian free will, soft determinism/compatibilism, and hard determinism, the Libet experiment, the self and to what extent it’s an “illusion”, religion and religious ritual, and John Vervaeke’s views on the meaning crisis (a subject to which I will return later this year, when I complete Vervaeke’s brilliant series on the subject). Ryan asked me to comment on the views of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden with regard to the free will issue. Below are my lengthy comments:

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I was finally able to watch the full stream and, like the earlier one, I thought it was wonderful. Since I was invited to say a few words, I’ll try to do so in a concise manner! (STOP LAUGHING! I will TRY!)

  1. On the libertarian free will vs. hard determinism debate, I agree with you 100%. I’ll preface this by saying I am a political and social theorist by profession, neither a trained philosopher nor a cognitive scientist. But, as you know, I look at things from a dialectical perspective, and this almost always leads me to charting a middle course through ‘extremes’ of all kinds. Like you, I too don’t like labels such as ‘soft determinist’ or ‘compatibilist’, but I think these approaches seem far more context-sensitive than the polar alternatives. I think that no choice is made outside a context and that context includes a mixture of in-born qualities, cognitive and emotional development distinct to each individual’s experiences, the social and cultural context within which we live, and the ways in which these contexts either nourish and promote or constrain and inhibit our ability to make choices. Hence, we choose, but our choices are never made outside a context, which both frames and influences them. (How much and to what degree is an open question…)
  2. I mentioned the work of Nathaniel Branden during the stream, but I’ve also been asked to comment on Ayn Rand’s approach to the issue of free will. While hard-core “Objectivists” will tell you that Rand was an ardent advocate of what is today known as ‘libertarian free will’, contained in her comment that the choice “to think or not to think” is the essence of that approach, it is true, as you note, that it’s far more centered on what she and Branden called the ability to volitionally raise or augment our focal awareness. That’s a far more meta- approach to this question (what Rand and Branden saw as a ‘psycho-epistemological’ issue).

    But I think she and Branden end up far closer to the ‘soft determinist/compatibilist’ view than most people realize. Each recognizes that there are myriad experiential factors that go into any individual’s capacity to augment focus and Rand was particularly critical of the anti-conceptual means exhibited in both culture and education, which undermined children’s abilities to augment focus and to move toward critical thinking. Having those abilities stunted by what she called ‘the comprachicos’ (a term meaning ‘child-buyers’, borrowed from Victor Hugo’s “The Man Who Laughs”), Rand argued that the cognitive damage done to people from a young age was fully in keeping with a distorted social system that required the stunting of that ability, the inculcation of obedience, and the bolstering of hierarchical authoritarian social structures.

    Branden, of course, went further, insofar as he added a substantive psycho-therapeutic dimension to this issue. He used an array of clinical techniques based on an integrated biocentric view of the human organism (with no bifurcation of body and mind ever implied), designed to help individuals in their own lives and in the context of the larger culture and social system in which they live to ‘break free’ of many of the constraints imposed by this context. Neither he nor Rand suggested that it was possible for anyone to jump out of their own skin and view things from a ‘synoptic’ vantage point outside the larger context of which they were a part, since we are both creatures of it, and creators of it. But he was committed to helping individuals reclaim aspects of their disowned selves, so often a product of their embedded past patterns, influenced by personal, cultural, and structural factors.

    I know that we often joke about the Randroids; I have been a frequent target of their scorn and they have been a frequent target of my ridicule. And they have done, in my view, more damage to the legitimately radical and enlightened elements in Rand’s approach than any of her critics.

    That said, my take on Rand has always charted a ‘middle course’ between the extremes of those acolytes and sycophants who believed she had popped out of the head of Zeus as a modern goddess of wisdom and those critics who have ridiculed her as a cult figure of no philosophical, intellectual, or critical importance. I reject both approaches unequivocally. I state that here only because what I’ve said about Rand above might strike those on either side of this divide as … surprising.

DWR (6): Market, State, and Anarchy

Today, the Center for a Stateless Society publishes an article by my very dear friend, Ryan Neugebauer: “Market, State, and Anarchy: A Dialectical Left-Libertarian Perspective.” Though this is not strictly a part of the series I’ve dubbed “DWR” (“Dialogues with Ryan”), the article certainly evolved over a period of time during which Ryan and I have had many lengthy discussions about so many of the issues addressed in this new piece.

The article offers a wide-ranging critique of the status quo of “Liberal Corporate Capitalism”, before launching into a detailed critique of proposed “alternatives to the status quo”, including “Free-Market Propertarianism”, “State Socialism”, and “Anarchism.” Since Ryan considers himself at minimum a philosophical anarchist (as do I), much of what he has to say entails a perceptive engagement with some points of view that he himself has held over the years. Indeed, what makes the article worthwhile is that it is a dialectical combination of both critique and self-critique.

The article includes many wonderful citations, including some to my own work on the usefulness of a dialectical methodology for a critical libertarian socio-political project. Ryan grapples with the need of radicals to function on the basis of the real conditions that exist. His left-libertarian framework—a framework with which I, myself, have been associated—is one that “seeks to make the best of what we have where we are presently at and always push to do better. It will not however paralyze itself with rigid dogmas and face destruction.” He writes:

Ultimately, I fall on the Left-Libertarian side of things. I especially like its emphasis on a sustainable, non-bloated autonomism—that is, the building of spaces of autonomy in the now and outside the current system. Such autonomism requires the freedom to create without asking for permission in a system that provides signals for judging individual needs and relative scarcity. This will most likely entail a complex mix of commons, markets, and cooperatives. It will also require a movement away from a system that treats land like a typical commodity, a system that encourages dependence on capitalists through subsidies, intellectual property rights laws, crony trade deals, and regulations that restrict competition. Politically, more people need “skin in the game” on a decentralized, local level

Given its wide-ranging scope and its accessible, succinct delivery, I strongly recommend Ryan’s article to your attention! Check it out here.

DWR (5): On Cancel Culture, Comedy, and Compassion

The other day, in the New York Daily News, one of my favorite comic strips, “Pearls Before Swine”, by Stephan Pastis, featured this commentary on our age:

“The Judgment Age”… or maybe, the “Snap-Judgment Age”… either way, Pastis is just touching upon a very touchy subject.

In my ongoing Facebook engagement with my very dear friend Ryan Neugebauer, the discussion turned to these touchy subjects—to issues of social justice, cancel culture, the limits of comedy, and the effects of the 2020 riots in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

As Notablog readers know, I’ve addressed many of these issues before in my own Notablog posts. See, for example, my discussion of the Floyd murder—and its aftermath (“America: On Wounded Knee”), my examination of the attack on statues and monuments (“On Statues, Sledgehammers, and Scalpels”), and my exploration of the commonality between Rand’s view of racism and Critical Race Theory (“Ravitch, Rand, and CRT: The Ominous Parallels?”).

A professional psychotherapist, Ryan comes from a dialectical left-libertarian perspective. In a very personal, wide-ranging Facebook post, Ryan grappled with many of the issues mentioned above. That post is not public, but is worthy of a larger audience, in my view, for the thoughtful compassion it exhibits and advocates. Here’s what Ryan had to say:

***

This should be prefaced by the fact that all of my positions are constantly evolving, so what I am going to write is not the final word on anything (nor should it be). I welcome all helpful, critical feedback.

Where to start? It’s difficult because there’s so much in all of this and so many people feel very strongly about where they stand on these issues. So, I think it might be helpful to start elementary by discussing a foundation for handling any issue, social justice or not.

My foundation is a “Dialectical Left-Libertarian” one. The dialectical part is based in Chris Matthew Sciabarra‘s “dialectical libertarianism”, where he conceptualizes dialectics as “the art of context keeping”. In a 2005 article of his for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), he states: “If one’s aim is to resolve a specific social problem, one must look to the larger context within which that problem is manifested, and without which it would not exist.” Kevin Carson, in further describing Sciabarra’s approach, states that: “Individual parts receive their character from the whole of which they are a part, and from their function within that whole.”

Despite my differences with him—I’m not as much of a free-market propertarian and not big on the “nonaggression” principle—I love Gary Chartier‘s description of the “Left-Libertarian” here. Wikipedia describes it as “a political philosophy and type of libertarianism that stresses both individual freedom and social equality.” That Wikipedia article mentions Anthony Gregory and says that: “Gregory describes left-libertarianism as maintaining interest in personal freedom, having sympathy for egalitarianism and opposing social hierarchy, preferring a liberal lifestyle, opposing big business and having a New Left opposition to imperialism and war.” Ultimately, the Left-Libertarian framework has a concern with social authoritarianism, whether from government or culture or both, and a concern with economic injustice and dependence on wage labor relations. The core concern is with individual freedom & flourishing.

Now that I have sketched out that foundation, I would like to talk about an important communication concern. Whenever you are discussing issues with someone who disagrees or who holds a very different framework than you do, you have to “know your audience”. You have to get in touch with their concerns and learn how to frame your responses in a way that speaks to those concerns. You don’t want to be dismissive and you don’t want to get them wrong. Otherwise, you will probably do a lot of talking past each other or find yourself in tense and hostile space. Therefore, if you are a Leftist talking to a typical American Conservative, you have to address their concerns with societal stability, government overreach, and family values. If you are a Conservative talking with a typical present-day Leftist, you have to address their concerns with social equality, economic justice, and environmental protection. If you are instead interested in beating these people over the head with how right you are and how trivial their concerns are, you will have ended any hope for reaching them.

Let’s get started on “social justice” (I have to make headway at some point!). The John Lewis Institute for Social Justice describes it as follows:

“Social justice is a communal effort dedicated to creating and sustaining a fair and equal society in which each person and all groups are valued and affirmed. It encompasses efforts to end systemic violence and racism and all systems that devalue the dignity and humanity of any person. It recognizes that the legacy of past injustices remains all around us, so therefore promotes efforts to empower individual and communal action in support of restorative justice and the full implementation of human and civil rights”.

I feel like that’s a difficult thing to oppose for most people. You may see differences on the specifics, but at least the spirit of it is hard to oppose for most. Personally, I am absolutely committed to this conception of social justice.

In contrast, there are people called “social justice warriors” (SJWs) or “woke” individuals, more often used in a pejorative sense these days (though some own one or both of these terms in a positive sense). A Wikipedia entry on the matter describes social justice warrior as “a pejorative term and internet meme used for an individual who promotes socially progressive, left-wing and liberal views, including feminism, civil rights, gay and transgender rights, identity politics, political correctness and multiculturalism”. That’s a mouthful and not very helpful. On that description alone, I would count for a significant chunk of it (I take issue with the varying ways “identity politics” and “political correctness” get used though). In regard to “woke”, one article states: “The dictionary defines it as ‘originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’.” That article goes on to say: “It has become a common term of derision among some who oppose the movements it is associated with, or believe the issues are exaggerated. It is sometimes used to mock or infantilise supporters of those movements”. This gets at the key point of all of this: application.

Two people could both advocate strongly for social justice but take very different approaches to it. When people are derided as “SJWs” or “woke”, it is sometimes used to indicate the degree of aggressiveness or rigidity surrounding their advocacy for social justice. And to be fair, there is no shortage of examples of people who advocate for social justice in the lousiest of ways. You have people (taken from my own personal interactions) who say ridiculous things like “science is white male supremacy” or “the only legitimate pronouns are they/them” or “all Trump supporters are fascists”, etc. They often make very extreme or harsh claims that don’t stand up to the slightest of scrutiny. When they get pushback, they often get even more aggressive and dogmatic. Much like very dogmatic religious individuals. I will say without hesitation that I don’t defend these approaches and find them counterproductive to social justice efforts. Putting aside their inaccuracies or foolishness, they push people away from seriously important causes. Therefore, a Dialectical Left-Libertarian approach would want to find ways to communicate effectively with others and ensure that any actions are not harming the push towards greater freedom and flourishing for all.

And here we get to “cancel culture”. First, we must point out that “cancel culture” to the degree that it exists, happens on both the right-wing and left-wing. McCarthyism was institutional cancel culture from the Right in a very extreme way that present-day cancel culture accusations can’t put a candle to, especially with the “wild west” of the World Wide Web at our fingertips. Just watch the movie “Trumbo” (2015) to see how bad it got in one area: cinema. That said, it is more often discussed in association with the Progressive Left these days, so we will focus on its widespread association today. Dictionary.com describes it as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming”. It has more broadly been associated with shouting down speakers, physically shutting down events, getting speakers cancelled from universities, and preventing certain media or materials from being consumed. This topic overlaps with the topic of “comedy” mentioned above.

From a Dialectical Left-Libertarian perspective, one should be concerned with how the things associated with “cancel culture” aid or curtail the project of increasing freedom & flourishing for all. Some actions are perfectly legitimate, such as boycotting when harmful actions are done. That signals that we want the boycotted to do better and potentially to do restitution before we are to support them in any sense again (if at all). However, shutting down speakers and banning books I am much less comfortable with. This more often than not leads to negative pushback and people seeking out or defending the shutdown or banned entities more. In my opinion, this happened with the awful Milo Yiannopoulos. The aggressive demonstrations against him drew more attention than his talks could on their own. It was the highlighting of his comments on adult sexual relationships with 13-year-olds that led to everyone distancing from him and him losing his limelight. You rarely hear from him today (please let’s keep it that way!). Nonetheless, most people I have spoken with across the political spectrum have been uncomfortable with a lot of these previously mentioned “cancel culture” tactics. They may support the underlying causes and some specific implementations of the various tactics, but they don’t like the normalization of the tactics against everything perceived as wrong or offensive. Maybe there are times when stopping someone’s speech is necessary, especially without question when it treads into dangerous territory of inciting violence. However, it’s hardly clear that it should be something we are comfortable with normalizing.

When it comes to comedy, I can’t help but think about this George Carlin interview [YouTube link]. He talks about the importance of comedy targeting people in power and those that abuse others. He appears to have a concern with those who target the marginalized in society, even if he wouldn’t want to ban any comic’s ability to make such jokes. However, there is an ethical question regarding when comedy can “go too far”. On this question, I mentioned in a recent Facebook livestream that I laughed very hard at Lisa Lampanelli’s comedy routines [YouTube link]. They were very offensive without question. And her packed, very diverse audiences were always laughing very hard.

However, in the chat section of the livestream, I responded to a dear friend by saying: “On the one hand, few of us can deny that we find her comedy hilarious. People of all backgrounds in her very diverse audiences were on the floor. On the other hand, there does seem to be a limit of ‘going too far’, but that’s going to vary with each person and their values. So, what’s the way forward? A messy, difficult one that probably has no absolute standards.”

So, in short, I don’t know what the reasonable limits of comedy are. I imagine the answer isn’t “everything is permitted” or “nothing offensive can be permitted”. If that’s the case, and we can’t fall back on simple standards of condoning everything or condemning anything offensive, then we have to make the tough calls, risk being inconsistent or wrong, or, in dialectical fashion, look at the context and see that something may not be right under one context rather than another. But I won’t claim to know where to come down on everything. I just know that I reject the rigid extremes here. Check out one approach to this subject by George Carlin [YouTube link; especially 9:42 to 11:50). I have issues with it, but I still like hearing his perspective as a comedian who was sensitive to these issues. Just like me, he doesn’t get the final word.

You might ask: What should we do about all of this? Well, that’s easier said than done. And I am not going to claim to have all the answers here. However, I think we have an obligation to stand up for those who are oppressed and should not remain silent just because it is easier or more comfortable. I think we should organize and seek to increase inclusivity and justice in our culture and governance institutions. We should have more than deconstruction and disruption. We need a positive way forward. We need an opening of society. No such opening will come without significant changes to our society, including, importantly, to the economy. Supporting gay marriage and transgender inclusivity in schools isn’t going to help the homeless gay or transgender individual. Those things matter but they are not the only things that matter. At the end of the day, unless we start having more open and honest conversations about these matters, rather than avoiding discussing them (common with the right-wing) or shutting down anyone who doesn’t measure up to peak SJW performance (common with the Progressive Left), we will not make the progress we want on these various important issues.

What about the 2020 demonstrations and riots following the killing of George Floyd by police? First, let us point out that the killing of George Floyd took place in May, just two months after the COVID pandemic took off in the United States. So much of society shut down, many had died or were dying with COVID, people were out-of-work with little to do, finances were rough, tensions were high, we were in a heavily divided election year, and had a president who played on the discord for his own gain. Whew! That’s a lot! This was far from the first wrongful killing of an African American man by US police. But it was the first one that gained major attention post-pandemic. Once it happened, the long history of anger and frustration surrounding this ongoing problem with police erupted into mass protests and riots across the country. My knee-jerk reaction was to come out in full support of anything fighting against this despicable institution. However, I dialogued with a lot of people who disagreed, including African Americans themselves. Several pointed out the harm it caused to so many minority neighborhoods. It’s one thing to protest, demonstrate, and disrupt powerful institutions (like Wall Street and the police). It’s another to burn down and destroy small businesses, the local pharmacy, and homes.

Some may say this is the price of activism and standing up for what is right. I’m not so sure that’s the case. I wouldn’t disagree that it is the price of a very immoral and bankrupt system. But it’s true that once people take to the streets en masse, you often get people who take advantage of the disruption to cause reckless damage with little concern for the lives and well-being of others. Most protesters and most people were not in support of such destruction. An important point is that we should be more angry with the cause of the discord than the discord itself. In contrast, the reactionary who is fine with things being as they are gets more upset with the discord. The reactionary would just love for everyone to go home or protest in ineffective ways that don’t stress the system and incentivize it to change for the better. I certainly don’t want to come across as defending that. However, I think we need to do better than raising our fists and getting excited over watching the local pharmacy burning to the ground. I reject the idea that we must defend every action that happened during the summer of 2020. I also reject the idea that that was the most effective way to address these matters. Regardless, I also know that such social upheavel is difficult to manage or plan ahead for, so we should put more of our resources and thinking towards making our society better so that we don’t warrant such upheaval in the first place. My Dialectical Left-Libertarian approach applied to the 2020 George Floyd protests/riots would want to ensure that any actions were in line with increasing freedom & flourishing for all, especially those most marginalized. If a given tactic or action leads to the destruction of the very lives and neighborhoods that we seek to strengthen and empower, then something is very wrong.

My last point applies to all these topics. There is a real problem with forgiveness, compassion, and flexible thinking in many social justice circles. Though I have hit on the dogmatism and rigidity already before, it is necessary to bring it up again because it is linked with an increased difficulty with forgiveness and compassion. Many people in these circles become so charged, rigid, and intense, that they start to treat others who fall short of their views with callousness, indifference, and aggression. You could be largely in line with them on most things—but fall short anywhere (how dare you, imperfect human!) and get prepared to be cancelled, attacked, smeared, and thrown away without a moment’s thought! We need to distance ourselves from some people or get them out of our lives—especially when they are actively hostile and don’t care. It’s not our responsibility to engage and try to “reform” everyone. But people like the ones being addressed here go to such extremes. They tend to lack compassion for others and look for things to condemn them for with no forgiveness on the horizon. That’s a toxic phenomenon that has no potential for building a just world. If we can’t forgive and show compassion, we fall into permanent war with nearly everyone. Permanent war is not preferable or sustainable, and it doesn’t have seeds for building a free and flourishing society for all. So, if we are to advocate for social justice, we are going to need to get in touch with compassion and forgiveness. If we don’t, we won’t get social justice. Instead, we will get social isolation and decline.

Like I have said many times at this point, this is not my final word or the final word on any of these matters. However, I wanted to cover these various contentious issues and find a way to apply my Dialectical Left-Libertarian approach to them. Let’s continue the project of “context-keeping” for freedom & flourishing together by continuing to dialogue and finding out better ways to approach very difficult issues and topics.

And don’t forget! You (which includes me) most likely didn’t always hold the views you do now. You most likely didn’t always advocate for social justice for all. You most likely suffered (and maybe continue to suffer) from serious ideological blindspots. Before you beat people down with the social justice stick, think instead about the compassion and support you would have liked to have had during a previous stage of your life. Then attempt to give that to the person in need. If they reject it and get hostile, move along. At least you tried rather than writing them off. And who knows, maybe a social justice seed was still planted and will sprout down the road.

***

In the Facebook thread that followed, I stated:

I am so very impressed with the careful way in which you laid out your case, and even more impressed with the ways in which you have applied the whole notion of context-keeping, so essential to dialectical thinking, to the process of exposition. If people cannot articulate their views in ways that even attempt to “reach across the divide”, they will forever be speaking in an echo chamber. And if they surround themselves with nobody but people who think likewise, they will find themselves caught up in the righteousness of their ideas without any concern for how those ideas are to be implemented in a pluralistic society. In other words, people need to exhibit the very charitable and compassionate ideals they claim to extol in the communicative process. If folks can’t even do that, then they are likely never to achieve those charitable, compassionate, or just ideals. To “know your audience”, as you put it, is essential, therefore, not only to the ability to communicate, but also essential to effectively making your point.

I also think that it is important to note, as you do so clearly, how we all need to have active minds that are open to our own self-acknowledgement of an evolution in our thinking—intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally.

I cannot take issue with anything you’ve said above. A job so very well done. It does not solve every problem—nor is it intended to—and if it leads to “pushback”, so be it. And if that “pushback” only goes to prove the points you have made (something that I’ve seen in threads on my own Timeline), so be it. It is just refreshing to see honesty, self-awareness, and compassion shedding light on topics that too often generate heat. …

Since this is a very touchy subject, there are many people who are literally afraid to discuss this issue; hence, they engage in the self-censorship of silence. And that, perhaps, is the greatest casualty of the phenomena that you so bravely address.

Since I’ve devoted so much space to Ryan’s post, I’ll let him have the last word here:

That’s a very fair point. To speak positively about social justice in most right-wing spaces gets you hit with nasty comments, accusations, and demands that you answer for every extreme taken by someone in the name of social justice. To speak critically about social justice in most left-wing spaces gets you cancelled, accused of being a fascist or racist, told you are simply speaking from a place of privilege, or some other dismissive or harsh response. Very unfortunate. Maybe we can work towards undoing that with more of these type discussions. ❤  

DWR (4): Navigating the False Alternatives

This is part four of my ongoing dialogues with my friend Ryan Neugebauer (my DWR series, as I call it). In today’s Facebook posting, Ryan stated:

There are two significant perspectives that compete with each other and are in contrast with the dominant Liberal Democrat and Conservative Republican visions: Free-Market Right-Libertarian and State Socialist.

The former wants to reduce everything to market competition to the greatest extent possible (including in its purest form with police, courts/law, and national defense being provided by competing market entities). The other (State Socialist) wants to shrink market competition to the greatest extent possible and sees “public control” (read nationalization) as preferable in all cases but will simply cede to the market if it doesn’t look likely to go well to them.


I reject both of these positions, never having defended the second but having defended the former for a solid 5 months and having some affinity towards it (though not all out acceptance) for several years.


I accept F. A. Hayek’s defense of markets in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (1945) and am not convinced you could completely replace them if you want a modern, technologically advanced society (and I do). I could be wrong but that would take a change in humans and technology that no Socialist/Communist has successfully argued or demonstrated at this point. I’m just not ideologically committed to markets. If they could be replaced in an anti-authoritarian way, you’d get no tears or fuss from me.


Similar to Hayek, I don’t think all societal mechanisms or norms should or could be market-based. I’m also not hostile to all welfare and regulations, just as he wasn’t in The Road to Serfdom (1944). If we could produce a society without the state or with the state greatly more constrained that achieves the goals I have in the human welfare and environmental preservation dimensions, then I would be very fine with that. I’m an Anarchist at heart and a philosophical Anarchist at an absolute minimum. But, I admit the pragmatic difficulties with bringing an actual Anarchist society (whatever that would look like) about and believe instead in a never-ending evolving process towards increasing freedom and flourishing with no end point.

My framework is what I call “Dialectical Left-Libertarian”, though I’m not big on terms and always see them as unnecessarily limiting. The dialectical portion comes from my dear friend Chris Matthew Sciabarra who states that “dialectical” is about context keeping and whose “dialectical libertarianism” seeks to bring about freedom and flourishing through the utilization of this process of context keeping. This process involves examining the world from different vantage points and modes of analysis. I state similarly in my Facebook political beliefs section: my perspective subjects all facets of society to critique (state/governance, business/economy, school, social norms, etc.) and seeks to reduce hierarchy and increase autonomy wherever possible. This latter portion speaks to my Left-Libertarian dimension that wants to increase freedom & well-being in a comprehensive manner that doesn’t just reduce things down to state vs market like the Right-Libertarians do.


I’m not convinced that the State Socialist framework, even in its more benign Social Democratic forms, is the way to go long-term. Firstly, normalizing a relation of dominance and subservience, ruler and ruled, is always problematic. It allows massive war crimes and levels of abuse to occur that couldn’t as easily without them. But as Frederic Bastiat shows with “the seen and unseen”, governments and their supporters tend to miss all the ways in which their policies lead to bad outcomes and turn out to be very problematic. They simply deal with their immediate expectations and not unintended consequences. Then there is the problem of cronyism and regulatory capture that a state with a class structure will always be prone to, as Marx himself would note. There are also forms of governance that are not nearly as unaccountable and bad like ours like Libertarian Municipalism. So even if some form of government turns out to be necessary, we can do much better than the current modern nation state model.

So there you have it. I could say so much more, but this speaks to my (in my view) balanced approach to libertarian and left-wing thinking.


This article by Jason Lee Byas helps highlight the significance of markets from a Left-Libertarian perspective, even if I don’t hold a commitment to the larger specific framework that he holds to. A nice complement to this in a similar but different spirit is this article by Nathan Goodman.

In response I stated:

As always, I applaud the ways in which you articulate your position—trying to work through all the limiting conventional ‘isms’ of our era. I find myself in agreement with so much of what you say (especially the stuff about that Sciabarra fellow). At the core of your perspective is your rejection of what I think has become a false alternative between a certain form of anarchism that embraces a reductionist “market” resolution of the perceived duality between state and markets, and a certain form of statism that embraces a reductionist “state” resolution to that same duality. What neither side is addressing is the larger context of authoritarian social relations that can stretch across the state-market divide; what neither side is addressing is how culture contributes to hierarchical and oppressive social relations, serving as both the foundation for and reflection of political domination.

I do think that your own affinity with Hayek’s path-breaking essay (“The Use of Knowledge in Society”) is key to whatever social change eventuates. Which is why I think that societies will likely never dispense with markets. Hayek made a “semiotic” case for prices as a reflection of the division and specialization of labor and knowledge. Prices are ‘signals’ as interpreted in an agent-relative manner; that is, they mean different things to different people, given their own context of knowledge (and knowledge here applies not merely to quantifiable data, but to tacit ‘know-how’).

I’m not reifying ‘markets’ or ‘prices’ here; I’m not saying they are categories that have always existed and therefore must always exist. But I take “markets” to be part of a broader category of social relations of exchange, whatever shape they have taken in the past or in the present. Such social relations will exist as long as our infinitely complex world becomes more globally interconnected. Whether we are talking about prices or some as-yet-to-be-manifested system of “non-monetary” signals, Hayek’s argument stands, and is a bulwark against the social relations of dominance and subservience, ruler and ruled that we both oppose.

DWR (3): Rhetoric Right and Left

Back on November 23, 2021, I posted a dialogue I had with my friend Ryan Neugebauer (the third in my ongoing DWR Series) prompted by a Les Leopold article asking if F. A. Hayek was really a Bernie Sanders socialist in disguise. This week, we’ve had some additional discussion, prompted by a Matt McManus article, “To Beat the Right, We Have to Understand Their Arguments.” McManus focuses on the work of Albert O. Hirschmann, who has examined The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. As McManus puts it, Hirschmann argues that

conservatives use three rhetorical “theses” to make their case: the perversity thesis, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis.

The perversity thesis holds that when the Left tries to produce some beneficial change, “the exact contrary” occurs; their aspirations backfire, done in by the law of unintended consequences. In his Considerations on France, Joseph de Maistre went so far as to argue that God would punish the French revolutionaries and bring about the “exaltation of Christianity and monarchy.”

The second argument Hirschman analyzes is more sobering. It is the futility thesis, or the claim that “any alleged [progressive] change is, was, or will be largely surface, façade, cosmetic, hence illusory, as the deep structures of society remain wholly untouched.”

As Corey Robin has observed, the futility thesis is the most effective against the Left because it bears more than a passing similarity to the structural analysis that radicals favor. If the ambition is to fundamentally reshape the institutions and power dynamics of society, and the best progressives can do is make superficial alterations, conservatives will be on hand to declare: “I told you so.” The result is a sense of powerlessness and, well, futility, on the part of the Left.

The last reactionary trope is the jeopardy thesis. While the perversity and futility theses are “remarkably simple and bald,” the jeopardy thesis takes a more elliptical approach to combating left politics by asserting that a “proposed change, though perhaps desirable in itself, involves unacceptable costs or consequences of one sort or another.” In other words, our desire to have it all jeopardizes what we’ve already achieved.


In the discussion that followed, I remarked:

I’ve read Hirschmann over the years, and he’s very good on these issues.

In truth, however, these arguments—especially those that highlight the important role of unintended consequences and the boomerang effects that happen such that policies enacted achieve the opposite of their alleged intentions—have been and should be used effectively against any “top-down” state planning, be it that of the “right” or the “left”. They are applicable not only to the genesis of “state capitalism” and “state socialism” but even to the rise of the regulatory state, the national security state, and the permanent war economy, each of which taken in isolation, and all of which, taken organically, have produced a host of consequences, both intended (typically, by the ruling elites) and unintended (by those same folks), that have fundamentally undermined the radical, progressive agenda.

Ostensibly, regulation was supposed to rein in the “excesses” of markets, but it typically enriched the very industries being regulated (that’s the history of the Progressive era and everything that has happened since). This is how regulatory capture by corporatist “planners” has panned out. Even the building of a national security state and a permanent war economy were justified to keep the citizenry both “free” and “secure”—and have achieved neither freedom nor security. This was, indeed, “the triumph of conservatism”—as Gabriel Kolko and scores of historians have argued.

Rhetorically speaking and historically speaking, one can turn the tables on the “conservative tropes” by pointing out that “top-down” planning of any political hue typically leads to the entrenchment of the most reactionary elements in global political economy.

The very last sentence in the article hits on a crucially important issue: “This should give the Left confidence that, even if the arc of history doesn’t inevitably bend our way, our ideas will convince more people in the long run. And that’s because they are the right ideas.”

To me, this strikes the most significant chord in the symphony that constitutes progressive social change. It means that the triumph of genuinely progressive social ideals can only happen because more and more people have been convinced of their efficacy—at which point, fundamental change, through a cultural shift from the “bottom up”, rather than the “top down,” will indeed bend “the arc of history.”

Ryan responded:

I think there are weak forms of the theses/arguments that are legitimate. For example, Bastiat’s “the seen and unseen” is an example of how statists often don’t factor in unintended consequences or the ways in which their policies can have negative consequences. So it’s important to not naively think you can just tinker from the top-down and everything works out as intended like so many seem to assume.
 
Furthermore, as you point out with Kolko, there’s the issue with regulatory capture and regulations being used to benefit major corporations. Therefore, any actions will likely be filtered and constrained by the crony system.
 
That said, given that we have the system that we have where business and the state grow closer together and mutually benefit from each other, people like the author and Hirschmann believe we should still try to take actions to reign in the problems that come out of the very imperfect system that we have. This is what the strong versions of the theses/arguments seek to undermine. They want hands off and no regulation, at least in their preferred areas. As you note, the right-wing has their own favored regulations. But we don’t have a non-crony free market system and we can’t just sit around waiting for things to potentially correct themselves.
 
The response “just take away all of the benefits/regulations” that Classical Liberals and Right-Libertarians love is just lazy. It’s like “cool, but that’s not on the table”. I like what you said your Marxist dissertation supervisor Bertell Ollman once said (I’m paraphrasing): “Libertarians act like someone who wants to order Chinese food at a steak restaurant. It’s not on the menu!” Heck, I’m not even convinced we can have literally zero regulations anyways, even if it’s not a nation state implementing them. The Montreal Protocol comes to mind as a clear example of the need for swift action that didn’t just depend on markets eventually shifting things.
 
Ultimately, I think the article’s arguing against the theses was more about opposing the strong versions (which you and I would too) than the weak versions (which you and I would see as necessary).

I replied:

I know Ryan is traveling, so he couldn’t look up the exact quotation from Bertell Ollman, my mentor and long-time colleague and dear friend, but the exact quote is even more stinging. I’ll take it from Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism:

In a 1981 debate with libertarian theorist Don Lavoie, [Ollman] opined: “Libertarians are a little bit like people who go into a Chinese restaurant and order pizza.” The issue here is: What’s on the menu, given objective conditions and constraints? There may be lots to choose from, wildly different meals that one can order in a Chinese restaurant, “but pizza isn’t one of them.”

(As an aside, it is my hope to finally digitize that debate between Lavoie and Ollman and to put it on my YouTube channel before too long. We’ll see how it holds up to the transfer, but it’s full of many such gems.)

We may not like and have not chosen to live in the societies into which we have been born and within which we all live. But given that these are the conditions that exist, there is not a single person alive who can function outside that context. We are a part of the societies we seek to change. Even as we try to influence a society, we are embedded in it and its institutional constraints will, by necessity, shape the choices we make.

I have argued time and again that fundamentalist “libertarians” have dropped the ball on so many issues that I’ve lost count. The libertarian response to the pandemic could be extended to any number of other huge “externalities”, be it climate change, a tsunami, an earthquake, or any other natural or human-made disaster. We try everything we can to check the powers of states from using ’emergencies’ so as to augment their power and to simultaneously enrich the eiltes to which they are beholden. But given that these are the conditions that exist, every one of us is put at a comparative disadvantage if we choose to completely ‘opt out’ of the political give-and-take. The “strong” versions of the conservative ‘trope’ arguments are self-defeating and utopian; they apply, literally to ‘no-where’ (that’s what ‘utopian’ means). We all live some-where, in the world, as it exists, and if we don’t act to counter the forces that oppress us, thinking that ‘hands off’ is going to take care of itself, we’re conceding all political action to those who are most adept at using it—which is why, as Hayek said—the worst always get on top. If fundamentalist “libertarians” opt out of all politics because they think it “sanctions” actions that are immoral by definition, they will forever marginalize themselves to the point of total and complete irrelevance.

This is not just a battle against high taxes and regulations (whether they are endorsed by the tankie left or the nationalist right). It is a battle against laws that are never neutral; and sometimes, advocating a ‘rollback’ on one regulation, as Kevin Carson has argued, will not lead to a net decrease in state and ruling class power, but actually a net increase. That’s why one cannot opt out of the political battles; sometimes, you might eke out a change that alters the balance of power on an issue-by-issue basis that will benefit the most oppressed classes among us, even if it does not change the system fundamentally.

We have a very profound cultural problem. If we don’t do the hard work that is necessary to change the larger culture—a necessary precursor to fundamental social change—the battle is lost.

Finally, on the issue of political labels. I’ve had a lot of issues with words like “socialism” and “capitalism”, which mean so many things to so many people that it’s almost impossible to have a civil discussion about them anymore. I fear that the term “libertarian” is nearing the point of uselessness for the same reasons. Its first use as a word was in the debate over “free will”; but its first use as a political term was by left-wing European anarchists in the nineteenth century. I can live with that, proudly.

I retain the term “libertarian” to describe my politics and approach to social theory only because I always, and without fail, place the adjective “dialectical” before it; it modifies it sufficiently to keep me out of the fundamentalist camp. And it’s mysterious enough to some folks with thick skulls who are still asking me: “Now, what does ‘dialectical’ mean again?”

I’ve spent the bulk of my professional life fighting for the right to conjoin the words “dialectical” and “libertarianism”, and perhaps I’ve got so much intellectual energy invested in it that I won’t give it up, on principle. I won’t surrender either the terms “dialectical” or “libertarian” to those who are not sufficiently one or the other. The terms require each other because together they are integral to the larger project of human flourishing and human freedom.

Though Ryan and I come at this from different places, he agrees

that we are definitely on the same page and think similarly. As for the label “libertarian”, like Chris, I can’t use it in isolation. I say “Dialectical Left-Libertarian” on my profile to speak to accepting Chris’s wonderful approach and the more leftist variants like you get with Kevin Carson, David Graeber, Kropotkin, Proudhon, etc. It can also be seen as some synthesis of left-wing and libertarian thinking more broadly, not just anarchistic ones.

Sheldon Richman once wrote an article on how you can’t escape regulation but rather it comes down to how it is coming about. So he opposed government/community regulation but supported the kind of regulation that comes about through the market process. Sheldon never really shed his right-libertarian thinking even in his most supposedly Left-Libertarian days. Nonetheless, I liked the point on regulation of some sort always existing. What we are usually talking about is in the legislative and community senses, which Sheldon and most typical libertarians oppose or are very uncomfortable with.
 
Personally, I’ve become more comfortable with regulation of that sort and see it as necessary. I don’t think we can have a peaceful and healthy society without at least some of it. That said, there will always be an ongoing battle with reigning in its excesses and making sure it is done when it needs to be.
 
The typical libertarian hears that description and wants to solve it by eliminating the ability to regulate in the first place. Ha! Then there’s nothing to capture! Ha! And as tempting as that picture is (I ate it up for a short period many years ago), I ultimately think it is wrong. Yes, I’d like to see different governance than the state. But it’s not going away any time soon and may never go away. So, we have to do our best with the context we are in. Furthermore, even if it did go away, there would still be some form of community or federation style regulation. It is just how we operate. Then the question becomes “how” and in what way?
 
Unlike the typical libertarian, I want to deal with the difficult situation, not by eliminating any ability to regulate in a legislative or community sense, but rather seek to produce a situation where we don’t need to regulate as much and have a healthier mechanism/arrangement than the state to achieve it.
 
One more comment on tHe FrEe MaRkEt before I go skiing. We can clearly have freer and freed markets that open up competition and make things cheaper. Those still can exist in an environment with at least some regulation. So, I prefer “freer” and “freed” as descriptors over “free” which sounds so absolutist and “perfect”. That said, markets are not magical things. Just like governments are not magical things. Both are mechanisms or tools that operate with humans and all of their problems. Neither mechanism is equal to morality. It produces what the sum of the humans involved happen to push towards. A market where people overwhelmingly support sexual relations with children will likely give those people exactly what they want. Same for a government. Which speaks to the necessity of culture in the equation as you both wisely noted. That said, I don’t think any of us wants sex with children permitted, so then we have to ask how that is to be achieved. This is where I strongly oppose fundamentalist free-market thought that says “let the market decide”. The market is not a moral agent. It’s not a thinking decider. It’s a process engaged in by human thinking agents with all of their faults/imperfections and incentives. Therefore, it cannot be counted on to simply bust out what is moral. So what do you do then other than fight for some sort of government or community regulation with consequences for violating it?
 
This is not an easy conversation for someone like myself, who came from the free-market libertarian tradition, and in the fundamentalist Ancap sense. But it’s important to have.

In my JARS review of the Yaron Brook-Don Watkins book, Free Market Revolution, I too argued in favor of “freed markets”—markets liberated from their statist and authoritarian political and cultural structures of oppression, and from the history of state violence that has been the foundation for “capitalism: the known reality,” so unlike the Weberian “unknown ideal” projected by Ayn Rand.

All in all, this was a good conversation, which I wanted to preserve on Notablog, for those who don’t have access to Facebook.