Category Archives: Culture

Don Lavoie and the Knowledge Problem

I first met Don Lavoie when I was an undergraduate at NYU. We became very dear friends and followed similarly focused professional paths.

Sadly, in 2001, Don passed away at the young age of 50. But his important work on the “knowledge problem” is among his most significant legacies. Indeed, his insights are deeply appreciated by those of us who adhere to a dialectical vision of human freedom and personal flourishing. That was one of the reasons I welcomed Nathan Goodman​’s wonderful contribution, “Don Lavoie’s Dialectical Liberalism“, to The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, published in 2019, and for which I was a coeditor.

Among those very promising young writers who are carrying forth Don’s remarkable legacy is my friend Cory Massimino​. As Cory writes in his recent essay, “Don Lavoie on the Continuing Relevance of the Knowledge Problem“:

Lavoie considered himself a “radical” in the sense that he thought “our society is in serious trouble and demands a sharp departure from current policies” and affirmed the need to “transcend—through principled and concerted social action—war and militarism, political oppression, and special privilege, and to set in motion progressive forces that will begin to solve such difficult human problems as poverty, disease, and environmental decay.” … For Lavoie, the knowledge problem informed not just a radical critique but a radical vision, a lively, humanistic, cosmopolitan, and emancipatory vision of cultural, scientific, and economic progress through peaceful social cooperation, dynamic experimentation, and mutual exchange. As the knowledge problem continues to be misunderstood, underrated, or downright ignored, and as human freedom continues to be trampled on, it’s vital we keep the legacy and, more importantly, the ideas of Don Lavoie alive and well.

Amen. Check out Cory’s article!

Song of the Day #2067

Song of the Day: March on Washington (“Oh, Freedom”) is a post-Civil War African American spiritual. It was first recorded in 1931 as “Sweet Freedom” by the E. R. Nance Family, and was later recorded by Odetta as part of the “Spiritual Trilogy” for her 1956 “Ballads and Blues” album. In 1958, a 17-year old Joan Baez recorded it as well [YouTube link]. Sixty years ago, on this date, Baez officially opened the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with this song. That massive gathering, famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendaryI Have a Dream” speech, was not carried in its entirety on television. But Baez courageously added the lyric “No More Jim Crow” to her live rendition, a moral denunciation of systemic segregationist policies. Check out the 1931 E. R. Nance Family original, Odetta’s rendition, and Baez’s rendition from the March [YouTube links].

“Conversion Therapy” & The Tragedy of Alana Chen

This article can also be found on Medium.

I have long known about the tragic suicide of Alana Chen, a 24-year old woman who was found dead near the Gross Reservoir in Boulder County, Colorado in December 2019. Chen’s death has been the subject of much controversy. She was a devout Catholic, who dreamed of being a nun someday. But at the age of 14, she confessed to a trusted priest that she thought she was attracted to women. And for all intents and purposes, that confession was the beginning of the end.

Alana was a victim of 7 years of “conversion” or “reparative therapy” — an attempt to dislodge the “impure” thoughts of same-sex attraction. The “pious” counselors who engage in this kind of “therapy” employ an arsenal of tools that equip them to wage psychological and spiritual warfare on their victims. What they leave behind, what needs repairing when they are finished, are the fractured souls of those who earnestly sought their sincere spiritual guidance and were taught instead to disown their humanity and to hate the love that was trapped inside them.

new 8-part podcast series, “Dear, Alana,” on TenderfootTV, produced and narrated by Simon Kent Fung, offers us a grueling, shattering portrait of Alana’s life and death. As noted in the official trailer to the series, Fung had access to Alana’s texts and two dozen journals that chronicle her “deep faith, love of fashion, and dream of becoming a nun.” But Alana “harbored a secret,” and when she shared that secret with her priest, she “was instructed not to tell her parents.” For seven years thereafter, she “covertly received conversion therapy which her family believes played a role in her fate.” Fung’s journey into Alana’s past enables him to share the striking similarities of his own story, as he grapples with “the truth of what happened to Alana,” in “an unraveling mystery and … poignant spiritual memoir about teenage rebellion and spiritual manipulation.” It is a series that details “the price we pay to belong and the systems that pay no price at all.”

I don’t want to say too much about this series. It must be heard in full. It will upset you. It will make you angry. And it will provide a hint at how flagrant abuses of clerical and clinical power are a significant aspect of the ways in which power relations operate in our society.

For many years, I’ve argued that power relations are manifested on at least three distinct levels of generality — the personal, the cultural, and the structural. On the personal level, when an individual’s method of awareness is corrupted by therapeutic practices that cut them off from their own emotions and even their bodily integrity, power is being exerted. On the cultural level, when a religious institution creates an atmosphere of intolerance, subjecting its parishioners to moralizing dictates about every thought and action they deem “impure”, preying (not just “praying”) on guilt, shame, and fear, power is being exerted. And when this translates into economic and political practices that attack the individuals and groups being marginalized, power is being exerted. The reciprocal ways in which each of these levels reinforces the others are crucial to a whole system of oppression. Those who fight for human freedom and personal flourishing cannot underestimate the interlocking components of that system.

Ayn Rand opened her 1970 essay critiquing modern education, “The Comprachicos,” with her own translation of a passage from The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo. For reasons that will become apparent, it’s worth reproducing, in part, here:

The comprachicos, or comprapequeños, were a strange and hideous nomadic association, famous in the seventeenth century, forgotten in the eighteenth, unknown today. … Comprachicos, as well as comprapequeños, is a compound Spanish word that means “child-buyers.” The comprachicos traded in children. They bought them and sold them. They did not steal them. The kidnapping of children is a different industry.

And what did they make of these children?


Why monsters?

To laugh.

The people need laughter; so do the kings. Cities require side-show freaks or clowns; palaces require jesters. … To succeed in producing a freak, one must get hold of him early. … Hence, an art. … They took a man and turned him into a miscarriage; they took a face and made a muzzle. They stunted growth; they mangled features. … Where God had put a straight glance, this art put a squint. Where God had put harmony, they put deformity. Where God had put perfection, they brought back a botched attempt. And in the eyes of connoisseurs, it is the botched that was perfect. … The practice of degrading man leads one to the practice of deforming him. Deformity completes the task of political suppression.

The comprachicos had a talent, to disfigure, that made them valuable in politics. To disfigure is better than to kill. … The comprachicos did not merely remove a child’s face, they removed his memory. At least, they removed as much of it as they could. The child was not aware of the mutilation he had suffered. This horrible surgery left traces on his face, not his mind. He could remember at most that one day he had been seized by some men, then had fallen asleep, and later they had cured him. Cured him of what? He did not know. Of the burning by sulphur and the incisions by iron, he remembered nothing. During the operation, the comprachicos made the little patient unconscious by means of a stupefying powder that passed for magic and suppressed pain.

Rand went on to use this metaphor in her indictment of the pedagogical methods at work in contemporary education. She remarked that educators had reversed the process, leaving traces of the damage they had done not on the face of a child, but on his mind. “To make you unconscious for life by means of your own brain,” Rand wrote, “nothing can be more ingenious.” These are “the comprachicos of the mind.”

I could not help but see the parallel between what Rand wrote in 1970 and the nightmarish realities of the practices of “conversion” therapy. That this is often done in the name of religion is even more ironic, given Hugo’s passage. For if one believes that God provided harmony and perfection, one can see the deformity, the degradation, the “botched attempt” that leaves in its wake broken souls. And the more these souls become aware of their “suppressed pain”, of the reality that they are “botched”, the more trapped they feel, such that the only way out is at the end of a noose at the bottom of an empty reservoir.

Both Hugo and Rand were right that this deformity completes the task of political suppression. In actuality, what it achieves is the suppression of the human heart, the repression of the human mind, the oppression of human life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The political attack on the LGBTQ+ community that we are witnessing today requires a multipronged assault on a person’s psychology, methods of awareness, and moral sense. It requires fostering an illiberal culture of intolerance that undermines a person’s ability to flourish by inculcating guilt, fear, and hatred. It is ironic that the reactionary culture warriors often attack “drag”, but they wear drag of a different sort. They wrap themselves in the vestments of religion and turn the holy into the unholy. Where they see life, they create death.

The Culture Wars are not insignificant. The forces of reaction know this. They are providing the cultural and moral weapons that make the current political assault on LGBTQ+ lives and liberties possible. Their cultural values must be exposed for what they are. And they must be fought.

Alana Chen’s spiritual maiming made possible her death. For Alana, spiritual disfugurement was the necessary prelude to suicide. Those who destroyed her soul have blood on their hands. Her death will not be in vain.

My sincere thanks to Simon Kent Fung for bringing this podcast series to fruition. I implore readers to listen to the entire series. It can be found on multiple platforms here.

If you or someone you care about may be at risk of suicide, contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988, or go to

Robert De Niro: Happy 80th!

Eighty years ago on this date, actor Robert De Niro was born in Manhattan. The recipient of two Oscars, a Golden Globe, the Cecil B. DeMille Award, the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and Kennedy Center Honors, De Niro has given us an enormously important filmography. His legendary collaborations with Martin Scorsese include such films as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” (for which he received a Best Actor Oscar), “Goodfellas,” “Cape Fear,” and “The Irishman“. Add to that his Best Supporting Actor-winning role as the young Vito Corleone in “The Godfather, Part II“, his portrait of Al Capone in “The Untouchables“, and his forays into comedy, and you’d still come up short in recognizing his gifts.

Among these is his enduring gift to the city of New York—not counting his iconic “You talkin’ to me?“, a Top Ten AFI Quotable Movie Line: the Tribeca Film Festival, which he cofounded in 2002.

His body of work remains a cinematic treasure.

Hip Hop 50! / Song of the Day #2059

Song of the Day: Fresh Prince of Bel Air (“Yo Home to Bel Air”), composed by the Fresh Prince (Will Smith) and DJ Jazzy Jeff (Jeffrey Townes), is a storytelling narrative rendered in rap that opened this NBC series, which aired from 1990 to 1996. Fifty years ago, on this date in music history, at a party in The Bronx, DJ Kool Herc played dance music before a large crowd, using two turntables to extend the “breakbeat” in what is recognized as the “official” birthday of hip hop. Tonight, New York City—from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and Staten Island’s Stapleton Waterfront Park to Yankee Stadium in The Bronx, 50 Years of Hip Hop is being commemorated with a huge musical celebration. The origins of hip hop are, of course, much older. But its impact across many genres of rap has been enormous, influencing even TV show themes. This one is among the most memorable. Check out the full rendition [YouTube link].

45 Years Ago: The Birth of Disco 92

Forty-five years ago on this date, July 24, 1978, at precisely 6 pm (ET), the Soft Rock station, “Mellow 92” (92.3 on the FM dial) morphed into “Disco 92“, changing the landscape of FM radio, swiftly becoming the #1 station in New York City. I know Disco is a dirty word for a lot of folks, but this station is memorable for giving us a fiery blend of dance, disco, Latin, and R&B music unlike no other station. (Much credit for the commercial success of KTU goes to general manager, David Rapaport, father of actor Michael Rapaport, whose purchase of 200 disco records initiated the station’s playlist.) Among its disc jockeys were Paco, G. Keith Alexander, Jim Harlan, JD Holiday (Paul Zarcone), Dale Reeves, Freddie Colon, Carlos DeJesus, Joe Causi, Rosko, and Al Bandiero, with whom I spoke on several occasions in later years, reminiscing about the station’s legacy. With artists like Thelma Houston, the Puerto Rico All Stars, Constellation Orchestra, Rick James, and Donna Summer, whose Oscar-winningLast Dance” was the first featured song, here are 39 minutes in the birth of a radio phenomenon …

Check out the interesting Facebook conversation sparked by this post here.

Tony Bennett, RIP

I am so saddened to learn of the death of Tony Bennett, at the age of 96—one of the finest interpreters of the Great American Songbook. I’ve featured so many “Songs of the Day” by him throughout the years. We are so lucky that this native New Yorker left behind such a great musical legacy. A multiple Grammy Award– and Emmy Award-winning artist, he was a Kennedy Center Honoree, and a painter as well.

My sister, Elizabeth Sciabarra, had the pleasure of working with him and his wife Susan Benedetto, during the lead-up to the opening of the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens.

Among my all-time favorites:

I Wanna Be Around

The Good Life

The Best is Yet to Come

I Left My Heart in San Francisco

For Once in My Life

If You Were Mine

Live at the Sahara: From This Moment On

And his timeless recordings with legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans

… the list goes on and on and on…

Postscript: I should also note that Tony Bennett was among the first artists to inspire my rhythmic sense! As a child, I used to walk around our living room coffee table to his bouncy version of “Put on a Happy Face” (from the musical, “Bye Bye Birdie“)

By City of Boston Archives from West Roxbury, United States – Unidentified woman with singer Tony Bennett, CC BY 2.0

Troy Camplin, RIP

I have just learned on Facebook that Troy Camplin passed away at the age of 52. He fought gallantly against cancer these last few years, and I am so very sorry to hear this.

It had been a long time since we checked in on one another personally; back in early November 2022, before my sister died, I told him how great it was to chat with him, and we pledged that we’d stay in touch. Alas, life got in the way—for both of us.

In May 2023, Troy wrote on Medium:

My regular readers may have noticed that I haven’t been posting a lot of late. … I’m not a big fan of self-publication. I held out a great many years before finding a publisher for my novel Hear the Screams of the Butterfly. More recently, I have had pair of poetry collections — companion pieces — published. I’m proud of Words of Gratitude and Songs of Resentment, and I hope my readers have enjoyed the collections. Despite what it may sound like, the theme of the latter is about the dangers of resentment, so it really is a companion piece to the former. And if you’re more interested in philosophy than fiction and poetry, there’s still Diaphysics. … Now, you may wonder why I am self-publishing when I say I’m not a fan of self-publishing. Well, I cannot wait twenty years like I did for Hear the Screams of the Butterfly. I cannot wait, because I have a rare kind of cancer that in the vast majority of cases is terminal. I am currently taking a test medication that at least seems to have slowed down the growth of the cancer, and let’s face it, it needs to stop growing and even reverse. And I cannot count on that happening. Thus, the urgency in getting my books out there. So, keep an eye out here for future announcements of poetry collections and novels. I do want to get the novels I have finished out there, and I hope I can finish writing another one I’m presently working on as well. Perhaps I can find the time to put together a short story collection as well. And I hope I can count on everyone’s support in my literary endeavors.

I’m deeply saddened that he was unable to complete his many works. But I am heartened by all that he did produce, from the literary and the humanities to philosophy and the social sciences, and I hope his unpublished work will be published in due course.

Troy’s dialectical sensibility and interdisciplinary vision are what first sparked my interest in his work. Back in 2015, I invited him to submit a book review to The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. It was the first of four essays he’d write for the journal, including a 50-page contribution to our sixtieth anniversary symposium on Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged. Troy’s essay “Atlas Shrugged as Epic” situated the novel in the tradition of The IliadMoby Dick, and Lord of the Rings.

Fortunately, our work together didn’t end with Rand scholarship. I was delighted to welcome him to the slate of authors who contributed to The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom. His essay demonstrated the enormity of his project just in its title: “Aesthetics, Ritual, Property, and Fish: A Dialectical Approach to the Evolutionary Foundations of Property“. His participation in our Facebook symposium on the anthology was equally broad in its scope. It’s archived on Medium here.

Troy Camplin fought against the forces of reaction. But more importantly, he was a courageous and ecumenical soul who fought for the cosmopolitan values requisite to the achievement of human freedom and personal flourishing. My heart goes out to his family and friends.

Postscript: Todd Camplin, Troy’s brother, announced on Facebook:

Between his friends and I, we will make sure as much of his work we can get out enters the public space. Look for two novels coming soon.

I was very happy to heart this!


Yesterday, my friend Kevin Carson shared an article from The Guardian about an unearthed fresco, dating back two-thousand-years, from the “excavations in the Regio IX area of Pompeii’s archaeological park, which is close to Naples, the birthplace of pizza. The painting was on a wall in what is believed to have been the hallway of a home that had a bakery in its annexe.” The Guardian author, Angela Giuffrida, wrote:

A striking still life fresco resembling a pizza has been found among the ruins of ancient Pompeii, although the dish seems to lack two essential ingredients – tomato and mozzarella – and includes an item that looks suspiciously like a pineapple.

… on which I commented, with New York contempt: “This is OBVIOUSLY an attempt to legitimize pineapple on pizza. smh lol.”

Today I was alerted to a New York Times piece on these same archeological findings, written by Elisabetta Povoledo: “A Proto-Pizza Emerges From a Fresco on a Pompeii Wall”. Povoledo writes:

It may have been no pepperoni with extra cheese, but it still caught the eye of archaeologists working on the ruins of Pompeii, and not because they were hungry. The researchers were excavating the site earlier this year when they ran across a fresco depicting a silver platter laden with wine, fruit — and a flat, round piece of dough with toppings that looked remarkably like a pizza. Proto-pizza might be more like it, given that the city of Pompeii was buried by a volcano in 79 A.D., nearly 2,000 years before anything modern civilization might recognize as a pie came into existence. In a statement published on Tuesday, the archaeologists were insistent that the dish portrayed in the fresco did not mean that the History of Pizza is about to be rewritten. “Most of the characteristic ingredients are missing, namely tomatoes and mozzarella,” they said. Still, they allowed, the flat, round dough topped with pomegranate, spices and what may have been a precursor of pesto might be “a distant ancestor to the modern dish.”

I was tempted to say: “No pomegranates!” But hey, this is nearly 2,000 years ago, so whaddayawant!

The article points out, of course, that the origin of pizza is itself controversial:

It may be virtually synonymous with Italian cuisine, but some like to point out that dough topped with herbs and cheese originated across the Ionian Sea, in ancient Greece, and that Naples was originally a Greek colony. “The Greek history of pizza that the Italians want hidden” accused one headline in The Greek City Times.

Well, I have no problem with this! I’m half-Greek and half-Sicilian, so it’s all good. And while that fresco doesn’t depict anything like what I see at L&B Spumoni Gardens, three cheers for archaeo-pizza! In the end, pizza belongs not to the Greeks or the Italians, but to everybody. Even if you want pineapple on it. Just hold the pomegranates. Sheesh …

Credit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii

Stonewall Pride in Song / Song of the Day #2047

As we near the end of Pride Month, this remains a night to remember.

On this night in 1969, in Greenwich Village, NYC, a rebellion began. It would unfold over six days, taking on legendary significance in the battle for freedom and personal flourishing. This is my tribute to Stonewall Pride in Song …

Song of the Day: The Monkees (“I’m a Believer”), words and music by Neil Diamond, was recorded by The Monkees, with lead vocals by Micky Dolenz. It first appeared on the group’s second studio album, “More of the Monkees“. It was heard in four consecutive episodes of “The Monkees” TV show in 1966.

Though the show ran from 1966 thru 1968, this song remained on the jukebox of the Stonewall Inn in the wee hours of June 28, 1969, when that gay bar was raided by police for the umpteenth time.

For those who don’t understand why there is such a thing as “Pride Month” or why it is celebrated in June, it’s because on that night, the patrons fought back. They had had enough of being regularly harassed and bullied, arrested and bloodied. This was not the first such revolt against state authority, not by a long shot. In NYC, for example, during the “Sip-In” at Julius’ bar in 1966, gay men who identified themselves as such were defined as “disorderly” and denied service. Despite court victories in 1967 against oppressive liquor license laws, mob-owned bars like the Stonewall operated without liquor licenses, with all the corruption, payoffs, and blackmail this entailed.

That’s why the Stonewall Uprising remains a milestone of mythic proportions.

In honor of their bravery, I salute the Stonewall Rebels in all their rainbow glory. Their historic struggle has universal significance for those of us who value human freedom and personal authenticity.

Check out this song in a compilation of scenes from “The Monkees” [YouTube links]