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Ryan Takes on 83 For Truth

My friend Ryan Neugebauer took on “83 for Truth” in this traveling video. As he writes in his preface to “Did 83 For Truth Convert Me to Christianity?“:

I called the 83 For Truth hotline in the United States (833-678-7884). I tried to speak in terms of things they could relate to (e.g. hard drugs). I also was hyperbolic (I said there were like 50,000 species that take part in homosexual behaviors when it’s more like over 1,000 observed and confirmed as of 2019 so far, but it makes my point regardless) and lied about details about me (I actually did grow up in a religious household). Nonetheless, they may have gotten me anyway! Listen to find out….

Ryan takes on the view of Aristotelian flourishing against both relgiously-mandated morality and the relativists who deny any possibility of an objective basis for ethics. Along the way, he touches on questions of sexuality, God, and agnosticism. The cinematographer was pretty good at capturing Ryan’s passion.

All I can say is… “Dale” was left pretty much speechless. Well argued, hilarious at times, and … what an opening thumbnail!

The Enragés: Dialectics with Ryan & Eric

I was delighted to listen to a new podcast of The Enragés at the Center for a Stateless Society (to which I was recently added as a fellow). The show is hosted by my dear friend Eric Fleischmann, who interviews yet another dear friend, Ryan Neugebauer, on his enlightening article, “Market, State, and Anarchy: A Dialectical Left-Libertarian Perspective” (previously discussed on Notablog here).

I have known Eric since he was a junior in high school, and have had the pleasure not only to read and comment on his work but to highlight his music as well. As for Ryan, we’ve known each other for five years now, and our ongoing dialogue has been a Notablog feature. Ryan has recently begun building an impressive series of self-reflective articles on Medium, detailing his many journeys—intellectual, personal, and spiritual. The courage and vulnerability exhibited in these essays speak volumes.

Aside from my friendship with these two wonderful individuals, they have both been, in many respects, students of my work. The good news is that they have had an impact on my life and work as well; I’ve been challenged by—and learned from—each of them.

The first question out of the gate deals with how we were introduced to one another and on how my dialectical libertarian approach impacted their thinking. It then proceeds into a wide-ranging discussion that lasts nearly an hour-and-a-half. They confront a diversity of issues, including the nature of ‘freed’ markets, the commons, authority, class conflict, and the state. Nearly every political ‘ism’ under the sun is addressed, from free-market-propertarianism and state socialism to distributism, democratic socialism, and anarchism (in all its varieties).

Most pleasing is the way in which they put dialectics to work, focusing on the structural and dynamic problems generated by the system that exists. They both repudiate binary thinking and navigate the tensions we face in our analysis of apparent opposites. And in their exchange, they place high importance on the necessity to adjust to changing contexts in our prescriptive thinking.

Ryan’s fine article is enriched by a commitment to genuinely progressive ideals. But ideals—inspiring though they may be—act primarily as guideposts in carrying forth an agenda for social change. As Eric puts it, Ryan shows that an array of traditions promising social change on both the left and the right often skip the most important starting point for prescriptive thinking: that context matters, that we must begin by asking the questions: “Where are you? What do you have? How did it get there? And what can we do to improve people’s lives in that situation?”

This podcast provides us with a thoughtful exchange that is fully accessible in its substance, conversational in its tone, and not lacking in a sense of humor. Indeed, when Ryan jokingly refers to himself as “Mr. Addendum” or uses phrases like “It depends [on the context]”—he’s preaching to the choir!

Check it out C4SS, Stitcher, Before It’s News, Twitter, and YouTube (see below)!

Welcome to the Culture Wars: Pride Month Edition!

This article also appears on Medium and on C4SS.

The Woke Nightmare That Doesn’t End!

It’s in commercials! It’s on storefronts! It’s on social media, on television shows and streaming platforms! We may not be able to define what “woke” is, but, dammit! Like any obscenity, we know it when we see it! They’re ramming it down our throats and shoving it up our asses! Okay, okay, not the best metaphor to use during a “Pride” month celebrating sodomy. But you know what I mean!!!

Just a couple of months ago, Bud Light suffered a backlash because it hired a transgender spokesperson who shared a sponsored post on their Instagram account on the weekend of the NCAA Basketball Men’s and Women’s National Championship. Kid Rock stood up for family values when he used a semi-automatic rifle to shoot up cases of Bud Light for all to see!

Then, Target got caught in the crossfire of another controversy when it removed some “Pride” merchandise from some of its stores to avoid backlash. (And what is it with this “Pride” stuff anyway!? You don’t see Straight Pride Parades! Gimme a break!)

Founded on solid Southern Baptist Christian values by a man whose WinShape Foundation gave millions to bolster conversion therapy, Chick-fil-A’s COO (son of the founder) has always been steadfast in his opposition to same-sex marriage. But even they have now been infected by the Woke Virus! They hired a VP of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”!

As if that were not the ultimate indignity, the Texas Family Project, which has joined with Defend Our Kids to protect “our children’s innocence by uncovering and highlighting the left’s public displays of sexual degeneracy”, has announced: “We take no pleasure in reporting that Cracker Barrel has fallen.” Imagine that. We now have to be subjected to the outright pornographic display of a rainbow-colored rocking chair in a Cracker Barrel Instagram post! The Southern-born Old Country Store chain had the utter audacity to desecrate its Instagram feed with this:

You know it’s the end of the line when this company — a company that once fired employees because of their sexual orientation, that was forced to pay an $8.7 million settlement because it “discriminated” against black employees and mistreated black customers, a company that put the “Cracker” in Cracker Barrel (H/T EY) — goes woke! What is this world coming to?

And mind you, this whole woke nightmare is nothing new. Companies of every brand have been “taking lefty positions on political issues” for years now. Social media platforms and search engines like Google are hammering us with “left-wing algorithms”. In 2019, Nike recalled its Betsy Ross Flag Sneakers after Colin Kaepernick, who had the insolence to take a knee during the national anthem, criticized the design. Even AirBNB, Lyft, and Uber had the gall to protest former President Donald Trump’s America First immigration ban!

Is it any wonder that our courageous state legislators have risen to combat this tide of immorality?! Over 650 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced across 46 states to protect our families, our children, our very social fabric.

Does all this sound a little unhinged? A little hysterical maybe? OVER THE TOP?

Welcome to the Culture Wars: Pride Month Edition!

WTF is Happening?

It was in 2018 that Ross Douthcat introduced the phrase “Woke Capital” in the New York Times. But it was already part of the zeitgeist. Derek Thompson in The Atlantic noted the “politicization of the public sphere” that was leading “nonpartisan companies to take one partisan stand after another.” Thompson wrote:

In many cases, America’s corporate community has become a quiet defender of socially liberal causes. Nearly 400 companies filed an amicus brief in 2015 urging the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage, including Amazon, Aetna, Apple, American Airlines, American Express, and AT&T (and those are just the ones starting with the first letter of the alphabet). Hundreds of executives, many from tech companies, signed a 2017 letter urging the president to protect immigrants brought to the U.S. as children by saving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. When North Carolina passed a law against transgender-friendly bathrooms, the NCAA announced in 2016 that it would pull its college-basketball tournament from the state (and other companies withdrew their business, too).

Make no mistake about it, however. Though some corporate types are no longer quiet in what may in fact be a genuine endorsement of progressive social justice causes, many put their fingers in the air just to see which way the wind blows. As my friend Ryan Neugebauer observes:

Liberal Corporate Capitalism in its welfare-statist form seeks a stable society for profit generation. It doesn’t care what kind of families you have, who you have sex with, or what gender you identify with. All it cares about is profit generation. So, in the 1990s, a corporation could throw gays by the wayside when it was much more acceptable to be anti-gay and then do a 180-degree spin in today’s climate, with very pro-gay policies because the national opinion has changed. Profit determines values and actions.

Despite its general endorsement of conservative economic policies of lower taxes and fewer regulations, companies cannot bolster their bottom line by alienating more and more consumers through exclusion. Nor can they broaden the pool of cheap labor by opposing immigration. Still, even in today’s climate, by seeming to endorse a gospel of inclusion, many businesses are now alienating traditionalists. Just for noticing or marketing to marginalized groups, companies are being eviscerated by traditionalists as exemplars of “woke capitalism” and “woke corporatism”. This is not unusual. As I stated in a recent essay, “as privileged groups of people sense that they are beginning to lose a grip on their ‘traditions’, they fight like hell — [even] 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.”

A Digression: The Problematics of “Woke” and “Capitalism”

It should be noted that, throughout all these discussions, I am bothered by the problematic usage of such terms as “woke” and “capitalism”.

As I’ve argued before, 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. So, the moment I hear that word coming out of the mouths of its ‘critics’, I know exactly what they’re talking about. It’s an all-inclusive four-letter word to denigrate anyone who is interested in addressing the historic marginalization of people because of their race, religion, belief, sex, sexuality, or gender.

But problematic terminology is not restricted to the word “woke”.

For nearly twenty years now, I’ve avoided using the word “capitalism” to describe the socio-economic system that I value. That word was coined by left-wing critics who understood the system’s history in stark contrast to the “unknown ideal” projected by its ideological defenders. As I reiterated in a recent essay, “just as the state was not born of a bloodless ‘immaculate conception’, so too, capitalism, ‘the known reality’, like every other social system, arose from a bloody history. It emerged through the state’s violent appropriation of the commons, enclosure, and mercantilist and colonialist expropriation.”

Libertarian defenders of capitalism have typically used various modifiers to distinguish their model from the historical realities: whether they call it “free-market capitalism” or “laissez-faire capitalism” or even “anarcho-capitalism” in contradistinction to state capitalism or crony capitalism, they project an ideal that has never existed. That’s problematic not only for its defenders but also for its critics. Its defenders can’t easily bracket out state intervention when the state has been so integral to the historic formation of the system. And its critics can’t easily bracket out state intervention when many of the ills of the system are generated by it.

Laissez-faire capitalism has never been, is not, and never will be. Granted, by any measure, state interventionism has increased exponentially in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But not even the “Gilded Age” of nineteenth-century capitalism was absent such intervention. In virtually every industry — from transportation, energy, and manufacturing to the crucially important banking sector, it is big business that has led the march toward full-throttle corporate state capitalism, thru government subsidies, grants of monopoly, regulatory formation or capture, and a foreign policy of intervention abroad.

The economic instrumentalities of the system have always been organically intertwined with the politics of the state. It’s no wonder that theorists who focus on this area of study call it “Political Economy”. It has always been political. And it always will be.

The Importance of Markets

While capitalism has never provided us with free markets, or even freed markets, the importance of markets cannot be underemphasized. Markets long pre-date capitalism. But even within capitalism, at their best, they are conduits of human sociality. And for those who respect the value of “markets, not capitalism”, they can be useful, even virtuous, tools for the dissemination of social knowledge and the peaceful proliferation of exchange along a wide continuum of human interactions — whether through interpersonal, cooperative, or communal arrangements.

But if history has shown us anything, it’s that markets are not neutral. There can be markets in the slave trade, markets in human trafficking — all sorts of markets serving ends that no humanist can support. Markets are always embedded in historically specific cultural and structural contexts. This means that markets are shaped not only by the structures of politics and economics, but also by the cultures within which they function. Markets will tend to reflect the cultural attitudes of those communities they serve. If the dominant culture of a community places a high value on cosmopolitanism, markets will tend to reflect the tolerance and diversity that cosmopolitanism enriches. And if the dominant culture of a community places a high value on illiberalism, markets will tend to reflect the intolerance that such illiberalism breeds.

Because markets are not neutral, it should also be understood that market actors are not neutral. The idea that prior to “woke capitalism” companies were sashaying down the runway of nonpartisanship is laughable at best. Not saying a word is a political stance. Acting in ways that fortify “traditional” values is a political stance. Just because companies didn’t explicitly ‘market’ their products by slapping the colors of the ‘rainbow flag’ on them does not mean that they were being apolitical. If not rocking the boat helped corporations to sell products in states that had a history of segregation and Jim Crow or a history of criminalizing same-sex relationships and alternative lifestyles, their silence was a political stance. And sometimes, as in the case of Cracker Barrel and many other companies, corporate America regularly adopted policies of exclusion directed against marginalized groups.

The Proliferation of Identity Politics

Given that we have always lived in a political economy, and that markets are never neutral, why does it seem that we have reached a point in history where there is this vast proliferation of groups at war with one another? And why has this manifested with such virulence in identity politics?

On these questions, we can draw lessons from two of capitalism’s most vocal defenders: Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand. It was Hayek who argued in The Road to Serfdom that as the state comes to dominate more and more of social life, state power becomes the only power worth having. This sets off a war of all against all, in which groups vie for political power at the expense of one another.

Rand saw further that this power struggle was endemic not only to political economy, but to the very genesis of the state, which was born from “prehistorical tribal warfare.” Political elites have historically perpetuated racial hatred, scapegoating and subjugating racial and ethnic groups to secure power. But “the relationship is reciprocal,” said Rand: Just as tribalism is a precondition of statism, so too is statism a reciprocally related cause of tribalism. “The political cause of tribalism’s rebirth is the mixed economy,” marked by “permanent tribal warfare.” In Rand’s view, statism and tribalism advance together, leading to a condition of “global balkanization.”

Since statism and tribalism are fraternal twins, as it were, and the “mixed economy” has always existed in some form, Rand argued that intensifying state domination of social life has an impact on every discernable group, not just every economic interest. Every differentiating characteristic among human beings becomes a tool for pressure-group jockeying: age, sex, sexual orientation, social status, religion, nationality, and race. Statism splinters society “into warring tribes.” The statist legal machinery pits “ethnic minorities against the majority, the young against the old, the old against the middle, women against men, welfare-recipient against the self-supporting.” Her point here is a keen insight into the inexorable nature of social conflict. Given that these are the conditions that exist, given that “this is a society’s system, no power on earth can prevent men from ganging up on one another in self-defense — i.e., from forming pressure groups.” Got that? In self-defense.

Identity politics, which has proliferated since the 1960s and 1970s, has been characterized as “a political approach wherein people of a particular race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, social background, social class, or other identifying factors develop political agendas that are based upon these identities.” Typically, “identity politics is deeply connected with the idea that some groups in society are oppressed and begins with analysis of that oppression.” But here’s the thing. An insidious form of “identity politics” has always been at work in this country. It began in this country as a tool of the oppressors, not the oppressed. It began with the “Western” conquest of indigenous peoples, the building of a slave economy, and, later, the tyranny of Jim Crow segregation. “Identity politics” was ensconced in this country’s constitution the moment it allowed states to count three-fifths of enslaved people toward their congressional representation. It was furthered even after slavery met its bloody end in the Civil War, when Southern states relied on Jim Crow laws and the KKK to subjugate, oppress, brutalize, and murder ‘uppity’ blacks who wanted to pursue their own rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

So, let’s not kid ourselves when we look at marginalized groups today as caught up in some kind of grand woke conspiracy to destabilize white, male, heteronormative elites. White, male, heteronormative elites were using their identity as the basis for political policies for more than 200 years before marginalized groups began to use political and economic means to redress power imbalances. In self-defense. That doesn’t make it right or wrong, but it does put things in perspective. It also helps us to understand why right-wing traditionalists are now using their power to reassert their historically privileged status.

Concluding Thoughts

That said — let there be no mistake about where I stand on the frontlines of the culture war.

I am on the side of those who have been marginalized and who are fighting against the encroachments of right-wing reactionaries who seek not merely to take away the hard-won freedoms of the oppressed but who are engaged in a cultural campaign against any semblance of “virtue signaling” on behalf of the oppressed.

Even if that “virtue signaling” takes place in the simple act of selling a rainbow-colored rocking chair during Pride Month.

Given my long-time association with libertarianism, I’d like to address, in this concluding section, the campaign against “wokeness” that has manifested in libertarian circles.

I have long identified as a dialectical libertarian. Indeed, given my own values as expressed here and elsewhere, I am a dialectical left-libertarian. For years, I criticized those right-libertarians who had fallen into the trap of reductionism: reducing all issues to the cash nexus or to questions concerning The State and The Market. Rand rightfully criticized libertarians for being oblivious to the role of culture in the struggle for human freedom and personal flourishing — for it is culture that typically engenders bottom-up social change.

Given my dialectical predilections, I appreciated the fact that by 1990, libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard, who had long believed in the sole necessity of a “nonaggression axiom” as the basis for a libertarian society, finally recognized that libertarianism could not succeed without a “certain cultural matrix”, which he called “Liberty Plus”. Those in right-libertarian circles who followed him have indeed placed greater emphasis on the importance of culture. But in doing so, they’ve embraced reactionary cultural norms.

The libertarianism that nourished me in the late 1970s and early 1980s welcomed cosmopolitan values. Today, right-libertarians have championed a stultifying cultural conservatism in their attempts at “Getting Libertarianism Right”. Mind you, it’s not just “right”, but “alt-right”: it is a vision that aims to build a stateless society based on such “Western” “family” values as hierarchy, white-male dominance, the segregation of the races, and the expulsion of “degenerates” (that is, those who identify as LGBTQ+).

As I argued in Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, this vision of “Liberty Plus” will result in minus liberty. Hayek long noted that markets evolve in ways that will challenge traditions. That is part of their dynamism. In an increasingly interconnected, global community, right-libertarians seek a society that will use private property as a tool to hermetically seal off their own chosen set of deplorables. They oppose state-enforced segregation and state-enforced integration, but their anarcho-capitalist vision of private property fiefdoms is based on the centrality of exclusion: the power to segregate, to separate, or to annihilate those whose values they deem as destructive to their bizarre vision of social order.

There is no foreseeable future in which such an anarcho-capitalist social order might be possible, let alone feasible. Hence, we are left with an obscenity far greater than the rainbow-colored rocking chair sold by Cracker Barrel or any of the Pride merchandise offered by Target.

When those who are supposed to be on the frontlines of the battle for a free and open society end up embracing illiberalism of the worst sort — and its war on difference, diversity, and tolerance — I can think of no more insidious way of undermining the struggle for human freedom and individual authenticity.

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.

The Challenges of Becoming: Looking Back — and Ahead

(This Notablog entry is a republication of today’s Medium article.)

I am a political and social theorist committed to a “dialectical libertarianism,” an emancipatory research project that anchors human freedom and personal flourishing to a deeper exploration of the larger systemic and dynamic contexts that nourish them.

I am the author of a trilogy of books — Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (1995), Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995; 2d ed, 2013) and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (2000) — that laid the foundations for this project. I am the coeditor of two other books — Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand (1999) and The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom (2019) — and countless essays on everything from politics, economics, and intellectual history to filmmusicculture, and sexuality. I am also a founding coeditor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, published by Penn State University Press, which just concluded its twenty‑three-year history as the only critical, interdisciplinary, scholarly periodical devoted to the study of Rand and her times.

It is no coincidence that the last book I authored was published in the year 2000. After 2+ decades of coediting The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, producing the equivalent of two robust anthologies per year, it was impossible for me to focus exclusively on my own writing. Still, over that period, I wrote over 3,600 Notablog posts (including multi-part series installments on 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic) and over 80 articles published in various venues, while participating in countless discussions on Facebook and other forums.

Nevertheless, with the conclusion of the journal, I am poised to focus more than ever on writing, which remains my greatest passion. I begin a promising new chapter in my life that will extend my dialectical libertarian project in ways that grapple with the difficult realities and problems of our world — and of my world.

One thing I have learned is that it is both necessary and useful to draw important lessons from all the diverse thinkers and traditions I have encountered throughout my life. My motto has always been: Take the gems of wisdom wherever I can find them. Give credit where credit is due. Criticize that which requires criticism. And move the f&*k on. This last aspect is the most helpful — insofar as it has steered me away from the kind of ideological rigidity that all too often undercuts critical thinking, especially self­-critical thinking, essential to personal learning and growth. The key to that growth has been to accept challenges — even when they arise in ways over which I have no control. It is in those unwelcome instances that I have gained a sense of my own efficacy to rise above. But not without struggle. And not without help.

Where I Have Been

From my beginnings in Brooklyn, New York, still my hometown, even in my earliest years in elementary school (Morris H. Weiss, P.S. 215) and middle school (David A. Boody Junior High, I.S. 228), I was empowered by teachers who challenged me to think critically and who offered constructive criticism as a guide to learning. I began my high school studies at an incredible institution, John Dewey High School, which had a Pass-Fail grade system. Entering that school with a more conservative politics, I was encouraged to pursue my passions in a noncompetitive setting. I completed all the course offerings of the Law Institute (now the “Law Academy”) and studied with many wonderful teachers, including Ira Zornberg, who taught the first class ever offered on a high school level about the history of the Holocaust. It had a profound impact on me insofar as it documented the horrors possible to human beings under barbarous social conditions.

A gifted and learned teacher, Ira also served as advisor to the school’s social studies newspaper, Gadfly, of which I became editor. I knew I was making an impact when one of my lead essays, a conservative critique of the school’s Young Socialists club, was found baptized in a boy’s room urinal. The shock and awe of encountering that sight was softened a bit, since the cover page was printed on goldenrod-colored paper.

In my senior year, I took a year-long college-accredited advanced placement American history class with Social Studies Department Chair, Larry Pero. It was during this course that my conservatism was fundamentally challenged by the first Ayn Rand book I ever read: Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Rand’s critique of the “New Fascism” of those on both the right and the left who favored corporatist government-business “partnerships” and especially those conservatives who supported the segregationist “state’s rights” policies of Southern apartheid, nationalism, the “slavery” of conscription, the Vietnam War, and the war on women’s reproductive freedoms was a revelation. And it targeted in a polemically charged manner, those very aspects of conservative thought with which I was uncomfortable. I read all of Rand’s nonfiction before moving on to her novels, short stories, and plays.

Rand’s work opened the door to a universe of libertarian literature that embraced not only “free markets” but “free minds” as well. Indeed, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that cosmopolitan form of libertarianism challenged my whole understanding of the left-right dichotomy in American politics. I read the works of Austrian-school economists such as Ludwig von MisesFriedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard, and the revisionist works of New Left historians Gabriel KolkoJames Weinstein, and others. This libertarian turn was nurtured during my undergraduate years at New York University, where I was a triple major in politics, economics, and history (with honors). NYU gave me the opportunity to study with many insightful political theorists, including Gisbert Flanz and H. Mark Roelofs, and many great historians, including Gloria MainPatricia BonomiRichard Hull, and Vincent P. Carosso — for whose class on twentieth-century wars and the American economy I wrote what would become my first professional essay, published in The Historian (May 1980): “Government and the Railroads During World War I”. NYU also provided me with access to its distinctive Austrian economics program, in which I studied formally with such scholars as Israel KirznerMario J. RizzoGerald P. O’Driscoll, and Roger Garrison. Even the neighborhood around NYU was a source of libertarian learning. Laissez Faire Books at 206 Mercer Street was a mecca for anyone who wanted to peruse through the literature of liberty. I spent many precious hours in that bookstore. Beyond the confines of the university, I attended conferences that featured a host of libertarian luminaries, from Roy Childs to Leonard Liggio. These gatherings were sponsored by such organizations as the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, whose Vice President, the late Walter Grinder, provided me with immeasurable encouragement and guidance.

Through my continued participation in various Austrian seminars and colloquia at NYU, I met many others in the tradition who had an impact on my intellectual growth, including Rothbard and Don Lavoie. Rothbard’s work inspired my brief flirtation with anarcho-capitalism. Though I grew to reject the right-libertarian approach for its descent into illiberal private-propertarian fiefdoms, I remain inspired by the ideals of a philosophical anarchism, insofar as it draws from diverse traditions offering free and autonomous alternatives to domination, centralization, and authoritarian social relations.

That said, Rothbard’s work heavily influenced my choice of topic for an undergraduate honors thesis, where I applied my knowledge of Austrian economics to an understanding of the ebb and flow of labor strife in American history. Even in this pursuit, I was not content with finding an ideological ally as my thesis advisor. I selected Daniel Walkowitz, a labor historian, to challenge me further as I worked toward completion of my senior honors thesis, “The Implications of Interventionism: An Analysis of the Pullman Strike”.

In defense of that thesis, I learned firsthand about the hostility that could often mar scholarly engagement. On my committee was Albert Romasco, who had written a 1965 book, The Poverty of Abundance: Hoover, The Nation, The Depression, which, unbeknownst to me, was the subject of a scathing critique by Rothbard in Studies on the Left (Summer 1966). Romasco was so irritated with my “ideological” framework that he scolded me: “Maybe you ought to go into political theory instead of history!” When I told Murray that Romasco had given me a whipping in my oral defense, he laughed heartily and explained that it was no doubt a knee-jerk reaction to my use of his own articulation of Austrian business cycle theory throughout my thesis. Romasco was also none too thrilled with the fact that I’d been instrumental in inviting Murray to speak before the History Department on “Libertarian Paradigms in American History”.

Murray gave me indispensable advice during this period; he urged me to carve out my own intellectual niche. I don’t think he was very happy with the area I eventually specialized in, insofar as he knew that my dialectical sensibilities had inspired me to write a critique of his work as part of my doctoral dissertation. My embrace of this explicitly dialectical methodological approach to libertarian social theory grew out of my deepening relationship with a great intellectual of the left academy, sparked by my on-campus student activism.

On the advice of Milton Mueller, National Director of Students for a Libertarian Society, I became a founding member and chairperson of its NYU chapter. SLS was galvanized against Jimmy Carter’s reinstatement of Selective Service Registration. On May Day 1979, I joined with other antidraft, antiwar activists of “The New Resistance” in Washington Square Park, chanting “Fuck the Draft”. As David Dellinger, one of the Chicago Seven, fired up the crowd of around 350 people, I handed out antidraft pamphlets to well-dressed G-men wearing sunglasses standing on the sidelines.

I also became editor of the NYU Politics Journal, Spectator, and wrote op-eds in the Washington Square News, including one that criticized the college for its incestuous relationship with the U.S. Defense Department, which was threatening to withhold funding because of NYU’s antidiscrimination clauses protecting LGBTQ students. By this point, I was out and proud, and where better to be so than in New York’s Greenwich Village, home of the historic Stonewall Riots?

My writing and activism caught the eye of Bertell Ollman, the famed Marxist professor in the Politics Department, who wrote the book on Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, in addition to being the creator of a board game that stood as a proletarian foil to “Monopoly”. “Class Struggle” sported cover art of Nelson Rockefeller arm-wrestling Karl Marx. Bertell wasn’t the first Marxist I encountered at NYU; I studied with Marxist economist James Becker in the first semester of my freshman year. But without a doubt, Bertell was the most provocative.

My illuminating conversations with Bertell changed the trajectory of my entire intellectual and professional life. Alongside those conversations were many that I had with the late Don Lavoie, who had become a cherished friend. In many ways, my journey mirrored Don’s. Whereas he had earned his Ph.D. in the Economics Department, with Austrian-school theorist Israel Kirzner as his mentor and Marxist James Becker on his dissertation committee, I would eventually earn my Ph.D. in the Politics Department, with Marxist theorist Bertell Ollman as my mentor, and Austrian economist Mario Rizzo on my dissertation committee. Don was among those who were very supportive of my work; he would later feature my first book, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, as one of the required texts in his George Mason University course, “Comparative Socio-Economic Systems.”

On April 22, 1981, NYU-SLS and the Center for Marxist Studies jointly sponsored a discussion with Don and Bertell, “Freedom: Libertarian versus Marxist Perspectives”. As I’ve written in a previous Medium article, this debate was an eye-opener for me. In his exchanges with Don, Bertell threw down the gauntlet: “Libertarians are a little bit like people who go into a Chinese restaurant and order pizza.” The central issue, Bertell argued, 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.” I felt as if Bertell had brought into question the whole libertarian enterprise. Too much of what I’d heard in libertarian circles was based on atomistic “state of nature” assumptions and prescriptions that had no apparent applicability to the real world. Radical thinking of any hue — thinking that seeks to identify the roots of social problems — must start from somewhere, not from the nowhere of utopian premises. The very word “utopia” means “no place”.

Already steeped in Rand’s neo-Aristotelian emphasis on the importance of grasping the facts of reality as a means toward changing them, I was highly receptive to Bertell’s exposition of dialectical methodology. Aristotle, after all, was the first theoretician of dialectics, heralded by Hegel himself as its “fountainhead”. A genuinely dialectical and, hence, radical method of examining the world requires that we begin with somewhere, with the real world as it exists, and with the understanding that we are part of that world, embedded in it, that we can never grasp it as if from some Archimedean, God-like “synoptic” perspective.

One of the core methodological principles of dialectics is that one cannot examine any issue apart from the ways in which it is situated in a larger systemic context examined across time. As such, dialectics is the art of context-keeping. Every issue is constituted by a cluster of relations — that is, its connections to other issues, facts, events, and problems. These connections cannot be ignored without doing irreparable damage to our ability to grapple with and/or resolve the issues or problems at hand. Tracing relations is key to understanding how any issue, fact, event, or problem came to be what it is — while providing clues to what it can be, might be, or ought to be.

I was profoundly excited by the challenges of thinking dialectically. But if I wanted to study with a master dialectician, I had to engineer a course correct.

Nearing the end of my undergraduate years, I had initially hoped to earn a joint J.D./Ph.D. — and applied to both law schools and graduate programs in history at Columbia, the University of Chicago, and NYU. Unfortunately, my scores on the 8-hour marathon LSAT were a barrier to my acceptance to any of those university law schools (though I was accepted to Fordham Law, which did not offer a joint degree program). Having taken the comparatively puny 3-hour GRE a week after the LSAT, I scored very high and was accepted to all the graduate programs at those universities.

Bertell advised me to switch my graduate major from history to politics. He also told me that it was less important where I studied and far more important to base my choice on the person who would mentor me through my doctorate. I knew that NYU was the place to stay — and it certainly helped that NYU offered me a full scholarship for my doctoral program, just as it had funded virtually my entire undergraduate education. I also knew that Bertell, more than any other scholar, would challenge me to understand the views I opposed and to grapple with my own views in a self-critical manner. I made the change.

As a graduate student, I studied with many fine scholars, including sociologist Wolf Heydebrand, who exposed me to the work of the Frankfurt school in his comprehensive course on the “Logic of Inquiry”. But it was my studies with Bertell that most energized me — courses on Marxism, fascism, dialectical method, seminars in political philosophy, and independent studies that enabled me to probe even more deeply into dialectics. He was a mentor without parallel. More than any of the classical liberal, libertarian, or Austrian scholars I knew, Bertell encouraged my dialectical investigations and their applications to libertarian social theory. He had worked closely with libertarians in the past and had enormous respect for their principled stances against the draft, war, and imperialism, having befriended both Rothbard and Liggio in the Peace and Freedom Party. Moreover, he had been a Volker Fellow at the University of Chicago under Hayek. He was enthusiastic over the direction of my master’s thesis, “A Brief Survey in Methodological Integration: Dialectics, Praxeology, and Their Implications”. He was a strong presence in the department who defended the topic of my dissertation and guided me toward the completion, with distinction, in May 1988, of my doctoral thesis, “Toward a Radical Critique of Utopianism: Dialectics and Dualism in the Works of Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, and Karl Marx”. The sections on Marx and Hayek contributed to what would become Marx, Hayek, and Utopia; the section on Rothbard contributed to Part II of Total Freedom. As for Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, it was Bertell who persuaded me to delve into Rand’s Russian roots, seeing in her those dialectical methodological elements endemic to the Russian Silver Age and the lessons she would have learned at the University of Leningrad, from which she graduated.

The Personal and the Political

Educational institutions are not the only — or even the most important — avenue for our personal growth. I was born into a working-class family of Greek and Sicilian ancestry, which placed an enormous emphasis on the value of learning and teaching. My mother, a garment worker for most her life, was the first in her family to get a high school diploma (from James Madison High School); my sister, Elizabeth, was the first in our whole extended family to get a bachelor’s degree, master’s and professional degrees as well. She would go on to become a beloved educator who would impact the lives of countless students and colleagues. My loving father, who had worked as an eye setter in a doll factory before becoming a cargo worker with Trans World Airlines, had died in 1972, when I was 12 years old. My Uncle Sam, a graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School and a veteran of World War II, who painted everything from ships to houses for a living, was like a second father to me. He stoked my earliest political interests with a unique blend of fiery commentary and humor. He died in 1994 from prostate cancer. A year later, my mother died after a 5-year battle with lung cancer. Throughout those 5 years, my sister and I, along with my brother Carl (a virtuoso jazz guitarist and teacher) and sister-in-law Joanne (a terrific singer and voice teacher) took care of our mom with great commitment. And when she passed, we continued to take care of each other.

More than anyone, however, my sister was my guide in all things great and small. As a person who suffered with congenital health problems, I was blessed to live with her my whole life. She was my indefatigable supporter, both spiritually and materially, advising me on my educational and personal choices, and by my side for every medical procedure I endured. These lifelong medical issues have been detailed elsewhere, most explicitly in a 2018 Folks interview. Suffice it to say, I was born with a serious illness, known as Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome (SMAS), which, by the time I reached puberty, became a life-threatening condition. It was definitively diagnosed by the great physician, Hiromi Shinya, who was an endoscopic pioneer. A duodenojejunostomy saved my life in 1974, but a variety of side effects from that intestinal bypass surgery led to more than 60 additional surgical procedures — for everything from inguinal hernias and kidney stones to intestinal bleeding. These medical complications emboldened my resolve as a strong advocate for myself and for those I loved. So, when my sister became seriously ill in November 2020, I was her primary caregiver, until the day she died in November 2022.

What I say here about “living with disabilities” is not universal; I can only speak for myself. Though it is impossible to know how things would have turned out in the absence of my disabilities, this much I can say: I am thankful that I have had such caring family, friends, and classmates throughout my entire life, and I believe that I am a far more caring and empathetic person having had these experiences.

But the struggles I’ve endured from these life-long medical problems have been immense. Indeed, I would never have been able to pursue my education at NYU without the enormous help I received from professors, fellow students, and the Office of Disabled Student Services. When my doctoral studies were complete, I found myself unable to work in the traditional academic job market. An earlier attempt at employment in the heart of midtown Manhattan as a business researcher had failed, largely due to my inability to sustain a 9 to 5 workday — though, in fairness, even if I were well, it was most likely doomed from the start insofar as it educated me on the hierarchical mediocrity and stultifying conformity of the corporate world.

In the face of these difficulties, I had no clue how to monetize the achievement of a Ph.D. without the ability to teach and lecture. It was as if my world had come crashing down. Even with Bertell’s help in sponsoring my appointment as a non-salaried Visiting Scholar to the NYU Department of Politics (1989–2009), it took me years to secure post-doctoral fellowships so that I could begin the process of writing my Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy. The trials and tribulations of getting that trilogy published — and the scathing reviews and condemnations it initially provoked — could fill volumes of its own.

And here is where the personal and the political ultimately collide. As a young libertarian college student, I had initially resisted seeking Social Security Disability (SSD) because of my principled opposition to the welfare state. That I, and my whole family, had paid taxes and suffered under the crushing financial costs imposed on us by a healthcare system marred by institutional decay, didn’t seem to matter. At least not until health insurance companies were charging us prohibitively high premiums, not even covering many of my medical procedures. My family was being crippled financially and it nearly bankrupted us.

My decision to pursue SSD came with great personal anguish. When some of my libertarian friends were telling me that things would be better under the “unknown ideal” of free market healthcare, it wasn’t helping me to grapple with the now. They criticized me for my lack of “consistency” and “purity”. It was as if they were tone deaf to the inner contradictions of the system. But I remembered the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay on “Self-Reliance”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

As my principled opposition to government assistance came face-to-face with structural realities, I accepted the necessity of pursuing disability benefits without any sense of remorse. I refused to sacrifice my life on the altar of “consistency” and “purity”; I could not serve the cause of freedom or personal flourishing as a libertarian martyr.

Though I finally began receiving Social Security Disability benefits in the 1990s, it would take many years for my family to emerge from the financial nightmare left behind, not only from my illness, but from my mother’s as well. By the time our debts were paid off, my sister, the family’s primary breadwinner, was struck down tragically by a life-threatening illness of her own. The financial burdens of my care and my mother’s care paled in comparison to the burdens she faced.

A woman who had worked her entire life did not qualify for Medicaid because she was deemed too “wealthy” (as the recipient of a pension and Social Security retirement benefits) and yet, not “wealthy” enough to sustain her own healthcare. We had no choice but to beg for money through a GoFundMe campaign for her. We raised a staggeringly large sum of money only because of the generous contributions that came from thousands of people whose lives she touched as an educator. Not everyone is that lucky. And nobody should ever have to be put in a position to beg for their lives because the system makes it impossible for them to survive. I thought I had seen it all with my own health problems, but the inhumane aspects of the U.S. healthcare system were laid bare by what I witnessed throughout my sister’s devastating illness. It’s a story I will detail another day.

Where I Am Now

Nevertheless, what we raised allowed my sister to die with dignity at home. No stranger to grief, having lost so many loved ones, and all too familiar with the stages of what grieving entails, I am being ever-so-gentle with myself as I process a heart-shattering loss beyond anything I have ever experienced in my entire life. Though my sister provided for me in life — and, to a limited extent, in death — I remain in a precarious situation of long-term financial uncertainty. It is yet another challenge I will have to figure out, with the help of family and friends.

Unlike my sister, however, my healthcare costs will not be the source of financial collapse. I know that, as a disabled man, I could never have survived without Social Security Disability, Medicare, and, later, Medicaid. Despite benefiting from the generosity of family and friends, no amount of charitable giving could have rescued me from certain death without the kind of health insurance I required to keep me medically stable.

Where I Am Going

This essay has told the story of where I have been and where I am now. Where I am going poses yet another glorious challenge.

My love of writing is an extension of my love of life. Now, unencumbered by colossal editing responsibilities, I have begun writing much more extensively on the nature of dialectical libertarianism.

It must be emphasized that while I was the first person to coin the term, “dialectical libertarianism,” my trilogy focused enormous attention on the presence of dialectical modes of analysis in the works of many important thinkers in the classical liberal and libertarian traditions. It may have taken nearly a quarter century, but I am grateful to have lived to coedit a book on The Dialectics of Liberty, which includes contributions from nearly 20 other contemporary thinkers extending this dialectical paradigm in challenging and sometimes diametrically opposed ways, encompassing both “right” and “left” variants, and everything in-between. Indeed, even I don’t agree with every application therein! Dialectical libertarianism is marked by a focus on context specificity. But it is not a monolith; the diversity of approaches on display in that anthology is just one indicator of the vitality of an evolving project.

My convictions can be spelled out on three interconnected levels, “the three Ps”, if you will: the Philosophical, the Political, and the Personal:

Philosophically, the influence of Rand, Nathaniel Branden, and the neo-Aristotelian tradition is deeply ingrained in me insofar as I uphold all those life-affirming values that constitute what it means to be fully human and, therefore, fully social. It should be noted that these values are not to be dismissed as particularly ‘right-wing’, since even Marx expressed a parallel neo-Aristotelian eudaimonistic perspective (on this point, see Scott MeikleCarol Gould, and Sabeen Ahmed.) We are integrated beings of mind and body — and our capacity to nourish our self-esteem and self-worth is best fostered under social conditions in which we are more free. By contrast, that capacity is inhibited under conditions in which we are less free. In broad terms, my vision for social change promotes the organic unity of human freedom and personal flourishing within a cosmopolitan culture of tolerance that is respectful of difference — whether it be along the lines of race, color, creed, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, or gender. If these sound like ‘left-wing’ “New York values”, they are. And I’m proud of them.

Politically, getting ‘from here to there’ requires a more nuanced method for understanding how to act in an imperfect world. All the institutions of civil society and state, be they markets, nonmarket and communal associations, or government agencies, are imperfect because people are imperfect. It’s a cliché, but a true one at that, to say that in moving toward social change, we ought not to make the perfect become the enemy of the good. Self-righteous moralizing over how we have failed to achieve an illusory ‘perfection’ is no friend of freedom or flourishing.

Freedom abstracted from real conditions is an illusion; flourishing without such freedom is an impossibility. And that is the problem with all ideologies that become one dimensional and rigidified: If they are wedded to “principle” without any consideration for the hard facts, they become useless abstractions, making it impossible for any human being to flourish under any conditions. A dialectical approach neither dilutes nor deludes. It doesn’t dilute the project of human freedom and personal flourishing because of its “impurity” or its “inconsistency”. The impurities and the inconsistencies lie not in dialectical libertarianism but in the system that it encounters. A dialectical approach enables us to analyze that system and to act based on the flawed conditions that exist. Hence, it does not suffer from the delusions of those abstract premises that underlie the moralistic pronouncements of some libertarians.

Ultimately, we act within the context of the system we have, not the system we wished we had (H/T DR).

That’s why I believe a social safety net is both necessary and unavoidable. Whether any system could ever arise that would make such a social safety net superfluous is an academic question. I am not oblivious to the impoverishing effects of markets that have been distorted by licensure, regulation, and land and intellectual property monopolies — all tools of the politically privileged rich and powerful. Free-market economist that he was, Hayek himself advocated a social safety net to mitigate the effects of systemic hardships through public healthcaresocial securityand other forms of social insurance. But he also understood the class character of bureaucratic, administrative, and regulatory institutions. He argued that these institutions often benefited those who were most adept at using their instruments, which is why the worst tend to get on top.

However, the institutionalized poverty that the current system engenders makes a social safety net an inescapable reality for those who cannot afford to live. And that net will become wider to the extent that this system makes it increasingly difficult for so many to survive. Given how untenable these harsh realities are, any genuinely emancipatory movement must address what needs to be changed — and how to change it. Whatever shape a future, freer society takes, it’s going to require both analysis and activism with the use of dialectical scalpels, rather than ideological sledgehammers. It requires a dose of empathy that speaks to our common humanity and our common struggles.

I have written elsewhere of my antipathy to all the conventional “isms” — be it “socialism” or “capitalism”. While I endorse the left-libertarian idea of “freed” markets, I reject the use of the word “capitalism” to describe my politics. The very word “capitalism” was coined by its critics, as Hayek has shown. Its historical genesis was nothing like the “unknown ideal” of “vulgar” libertarianism (rooted in the intellectual mistakes of “left” and “right” conflationism). Just as the state was not born of a bloodless “immaculate conception”, so too, capitalism, “the known reality”, like every other social system, arose from a bloody history. It emerged through the state’s violent appropriation of the commons, enclosure, and mercantilist and colonialist expropriation.

Ayn Rand was right that libertarian ideals could never be achieved by merely ridding us of the state, that the project of human freedom and personal flourishing is not reducible to a mere political question concerning the state’s existence. Like the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci before her, Rand understood that no structural change could occur from the “top down”; its achievement requires a massive ideological and cultural shift from the “bottom up” that would ripple throughout a society’s economic and political formations, ridding us of the structural causes of poverty and systemic decay, and the repressions of public and private institutions that subvert individual autonomy and empowerment. So much of our current illiberal culture breeds toxicity and intolerance on both ends of the conventional political spectrum. That’s why challenging conventions and changing culture are crucial to the achievement of a free and open society. It’s also why the right-libertarian’s endorsement of liberty conjoined to deadening reactionary cultural values is at odds with the dynamic processes of spontaneous order that often bring into question, and undermine, traditional mores. As I put it in Total Freedom, this kind of “Liberty Plus” will result in minus liberty.

Just as societies are always evolving, so too, we are all in the process of becoming — a point understood by thinkers as varied as AristotleHegel, and the New York-born writer, poet, and activist Audre Lorde.

Personally, that process is endemic to the pursuit of my own happiness and all that it comprises. I am dedicated to living. At the core of living is love: love of self, love of others — and love of writing. I am happy that I’m now spending more time writing, reading, and learning — all pleasures that intersect with passion. But even more importantly, I’ve been enjoying precious moments with those without whom I would not be here. Even in the face of palpable loss and grief, I continue to build a meaningful life — of fun and friendship. This process of becoming is the most fundamental challenge that I embrace with all my heart.

Special thanks to my very dear friend Ryan Neugebauer for inspiring me to bring this essay together and for being among my most cherished blessings.

See Facebook for comments here and here.

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?

Song of the Day #2040

Song of the Day: The Good Son (“End Credits”) [YouTube link], composed by the legendary Elmer Bernstein, is a lush, melodic closing to the 1993 psychological thriller, starring Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood. This cue is more expansive in its motif and variations than the “opening credits” I featured in 2021. And it provides the “end credits” to my Nineteenth Annual Film Music February Festival. My loving thanks to my dear friend, Ryan Neugebauer, for introducing me to (or reminding me of) so many of the films and entries for this year’s Festival. Till next year …

That’s What Friends Are For!

Two of my friends—who really know my penchant for writing and saying a lot in response to any question asked … did this for Facebook. I’m sharing it with my Notablog readers.

For those who understand, no explanation is needed. For those who do not understand, no explanation is possible. (H/T Benjamin Virnston & Ryan Neugebauer)