Category Archives: Culture

Charles Schulz, “Peanuts” — and Hugs!

Twenty-one years ago this month (on 12 February 2000), the famed creator of “Peanuts,” Charles M. Schulz, died. Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the gang still make me chuckle, while also melting my heart. Thanks to my pal, Merlin Jetton (a long-time contributor to The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies), for emailing me some “Peanuts” gems this morning!

One of those gems I dedicate to a couple of very special people (family and friends), whom I’ve not seen in a long time. I’m sending this out with a Very Warm Big Brooklyn Hug! I miss you all very much—and hope to see you before too long!

Sending “Positivity, Love and all things Good” to my Friends …
(courtesy of Charles M. Schulz and “Peanuts”)

Coronavirus (30): “Cuomogate” and Systemic Crisis

Back on 5 May 2020, in the twenty-first installment of my ongoing Coronavirus series, “Lockdowns, Libertarians, and Liberation,” I wrote about the state of the COVID pandemic in New York:

Today, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York state are at a staggering 320,000+ and rising; the number of deaths attributed to the virus nears 25,000. And, of these, New York City accounts for nearly 19,000 deaths. New York state has a death rate of 126 per 100,000 people; the city itself has a death rate of 219 per 100,000. Even if some of my libertarian colleagues wish to dismiss 20% of these casualties because they are typically listed under the category of “probable” rather than “confirmed” deaths, that still means that in excess of 20,000 people in my home state are dead from this virus in two months. We need to put this in perspective because I’m tired of hearing how accidents kill more people in a year or how influenza and pneumonia kill more people in a year, and nobody talks about it. In a typical year, like, say, 2017, 7,687 people died in accidents and 4,517 people died from the flu and pneumonia in New York state. COVID-19 has now killed more than the annual total of these two leading causes of death combined in this state in just two months. It is therefore astonishing to me how any person would indict the state’s healthcare system as somehow to blame for the horrific death toll—whatever problems that are inherent in that system—especially when it has been stretched to its limits, and its doctors, nurses, and first responders have worked heroically to treat and save so many lives.

As a postscript to that installment (25 May 2020), I addressed the issue of  how state governors (such as NJ Governor Murphy and NY Governor Cuomo) were being blamed for having “spiked” deaths in their own states by returning recovering COVID-19 elderly patients to the nursing homes from which they came. I stated:

Well, if you listen to the folks at Fox News, Cuomo, Murphy, etc. purposely sent patients, who previously lived in nursing homes and were subsequently hospitalized for and designated as having recovered from COVID-19, back into the nursing homes from which they came. The Fox Folks claim that this was some diabolical plot to kill off the elderly population and/or to inflate the death tallies in NY and NJ, since many of those who were designated as “recovered” were still capable of infecting others.

But yes, aside from the Fox Folks, there are legitimate questions about the wisdom of the policy of sending these patients back to the nursing homes—though it is not at all clear that the infection rate within nursing homes was strictly a result of this policy. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the spike in nursing homes was as much the result of nursing home residents coming into contact with asymptomatic infected staff.

The initial policy was adopted because the hospitals in NY were being overrun and taxed to a catastrophic degree, and when the USS Comfort arrived, and the Javits Convention Center (along with four other centers in the outer boroughs) were set up, they were opened to take in patients who were not sick from Coronavirus; they were to be places where folks facing traumatic medical problems unrelated to the virus could be cared for under “virus-free” conditions. The private and public hospital network were to shoulder the burden of the growing population of sick and dying patients from the virus, while these other places (the Comfort, Javits, etc.) would provide medical care for those not infected with the virus, but in need of urgent medical care (so-called “elective” surgeries were all postponed, but, obviously, there are many other medical problems that people face, for which they require treatment, in medical facilities that are not death traps for those with underlying pre-existing conditions).

Though the official reversal came at the beginning of May, the policy actually started to change at the beginning of April. It was at that time that the Comfort and the Javits Center were finally opened up to care for the overflow of COVID-19 patients. … [I]t was a policy that was shaped by the exponential growths in hospitalizations and intubations that were happening in late March and early April, until the state hit a plateau of 800-1000 deaths per day. Once it became clear that the healthcare network, as taxed as it was, would not collapse, and that these other facilities could take in COVID-19 patients, the practice of sending recovering nursing home patients back into nursing homes started to change. And extra precautions were put into place at the beginning of May.

Clearly, mistakes have been made at every level of government; but it’s a huge leap to characterize something that was a tragic mistake to viewing it as a criminal act. I live in NY; I’ve lost neighbors, a cousin, friends, and even cherished local proprietors, to this horrific disease. There’s a lot of blame to go around; those most at fault, however, were the folks who denied that there was even a virus at work, that the whole thing was a hoax, and that one could just wash it away with a little detergent or by mainlining bleach.

On 16 July 2020, in the twenty-eighth installment of my Coronavirus Series, “Sweden is Not New York,” I pushed back against those who were comparing New York unfavorably to Sweden in its response to the pandemic. I wrote:

Jon Miltimore’s essay “Why Sweden Succeeded in ‘Flattening the Curve’ and New York Failed” is, sadly, an exercise in comparing apples and oranges. From the article:

If flattening the curve was the primary goal of policymakers, Sweden was largely a success. New York, on the other hand, was not, despite widespread closures and strict enforcement of social distancing policies. The reason New York failed and Sweden succeeded probably has relatively little to do with the fact that bars and restaurants were open in Sweden. Or that New York’s schools were closed while Sweden’s were open. As Weiss explains, the difference probably isn’t related to lockdowns at all. It probably has much more to do with the fact that New York failed to protect the most at-risk populations: the elderly and infirm.

The article goes on to discuss the debate between the implications of different public policy responses to the virus. In response, I wrote:

There is absolutely no comparison between the Swedish and NY cases, regardless of the public policies adopted by either government. First, in NY, the share of COVID-related deaths in long-term care facilities was 20% of the total number of deaths (about 6,500 of the total of 32,000+ deaths in the state of NY). That means that the vast majority of deaths did not occur in nursing homes. Moreover, though damage was done early on, by putting recovering COVID patients back into nursing homes, that policy was influenced by the huge surge in cases at a time when not even the Comfort or the Javits Center were open to COVID patients (a policy that changed at the beginning of April). Conditions were evolving swiftly. Moreover, unlike other states that are experiencing a surge now, therapies based on steroids, plasma, Remdesivir, etc. were not in widespread usage. It’s largely on the pile of bodies in NY that current medical advances have been made, sad to say.

Second, studies have shown that, at least in NYC, the highest transmission belt for the virus was its vast subway system, serving 5-6 million people per day prior to the city’s curtailment of “business as usual” in mid-March and most of the communities that were disproportionately affected by the impact of the virus were minority communities, many of whose members continued to work and crowd the subways and buses, becoming infected and bringing that infection back to their families and neighborhoods. There is no similar density in Sweden (the Stockholm Metro typically serves one fifth the number of people compared to the subways in NYC).

Of course, I got push-back from one commentator who claimed, without offering any evidence, that in New York “COVID-19 has killed at least 11,000 to 12,000 nursing-home and assisted-living residents in New York, nearly double what the state admits to. And as the deaths mount, so have the lies and cover-ups. States like New York exclude from their nursing home death tallies those who die in a hospital. Outside of New York, more than half of all deaths from COVID-19 are of residents in long-term care facilities., even if they were originally infected in an assisted living facility.” To which I replied: “Even if I accepted your statistic—which I don’t—it does not explain the other 20,000 deaths that occurred in this state. Or are those lies too?”

Well, recently, an investigation into the nursing home deaths, completed by New York Attorney General Lettia James, concluded that the state had indeed undercounted nursing home deaths.

I was wrong. There were not 6,500 nursing home-related deaths. Nor were there 11,000 to 12,000 deaths as my interlocutor claimed. In fact, the deaths were more than double the original estimate. Current statistics in an ongoing investigation, combining deaths in nursing homes and nursing home patients who died subsequently in hospitals, now place the total at 13,382, perhaps as high as 15,000, which accounts not for 20% but for around 30% of the nearly 47,000 deaths thus far recorded in the state of New York.

Which means, of course, that my central point stands: The vast majority of the deaths in this state were not nursing home-related; something horrible happened here precisely because it happened here first, in the New York metropolitan area—the densest population center in the United States. None of the newest, scandalous revelations alters this fact.

But these revelations do show that Governor Andrew Cuomo did indeed fail the public trust by withholding information and needlessly endangering lives. Cuomo should have acted differently and decisively in being fully transparent. In thinking about “Andrew’s Next Move,” New York Post writer Bob McManus makes an important point:

“A less fearful, more self-confident governor … would have admitted upfront that a fateful, though defensible, error had been made last March. That’s when the state Department of Health ordered nursing homes to accept COVID-infected patients to clear hospitals for an anticipated wave of new patients. That crisis never came, but that doesn’t make the policy evil or even unreasonable, just tragically mistaken. Cuomo should have owned it and moved on.”

I should state for the record that I am not one of those libertarians who believes that every politician is evil by nature of being a politician. Some do believe, honestly, that they have a calling to public service. And I have no doubt that many politicians, acting during the time of a serious public healthcare crisis, were flying blind and doing everything they could, given the ever-evolving conditions that existed, to meet the challenges before them.

But “flying blind” led to tragedies far beyond the deaths of nursing home patients.

This whole affair has revealed far more about the gaping holes in our healthcare system and in the insidious ways that our medical-science-state-corporate nexus works, often to the detriment of the very thing it is ostensibly supposed to protect: human lives.

Ultimately, what might be the worst legacy of the Cuomo administration’s handling of the pandemic is how the machinations of that nexus have become transparent in all their ugliness. As the Daily Poster reports: Cuomo’s political machine raked in “more than $2 million from the Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA), its executives and its lobbying firms,” which funneled more than $450,000 to New York legislators in 2020 alone. Moreover, the administration moved to shield “hospital and nursing home executives from legal consequences if their corporate decisions killed people during the pandemic.” This wasn’t merely protecting frontline health workers from lawsuits; it was a deliberate attempt to provide “liability protection to top corporate officials who make staffing and safety decisions.” Today, 27 states have adopted this policy, granting legal immunity to nursing home executives.

And let’s be clear: This is not a Cuomo conspiracy. It is a policy that has been fully embraced by top Republicans, who often decry Cuomo’s “murderous” response to the pandemic. By shielding from civil litigation (forget criminal prosecution!) politically connected hospital and nursing home executives (who heavily fund political campaigns), patients who have been put at serious risk and the next of kin of those who have lost their lives have no legal recourse for compensation, given a broken healthcare system that can’t provide basic health insurance for the vast majority of people in this country. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell has been calling for a national policy guaranteeing such immunity, especially for corporate executives who might be putting their workers at serious risk, as part of any relief package.

So, like everything else: While some public policies may lead to progress in combatting a serious health crisis, they are still filtered through a system that must, by necessity, corrupt.

From the very beginning of this nightmarish pandemic, governments at every level—city, state, and federal institutions—have played a part in this systemic corruption. This is not an exercise in “What-about-ism.” Let us not forget that Former President Donald Trump admitted to Bob Woodward that he wanted to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic so as not to cause a public “panic.” He claimed credit for a vaccine because of “Operation Warp-Speed,” giving billions of dollars to Big Pharma companies to fast-track vaccine development, fully socializing their risks, fully guaranteeing their profits in a public-private “partnership.” Little thought was given to how that vaccine was supposed to be delivered to the vast majority of Americans, stranding millions of people with no ability to even schedule an appointment. People are standing for endless hours in long lines outside stadiums or massive makeshift fields hoping to get vaccinated, and are often turned away. Big Box stores are being subsidized to participate in the massive effort, but serious shortages remain, even as this country reaches half-a-million fatalities from this pandemic.

Even a simple alteration of policy to allow primary care physicians to inoculate their own patients hasn’t been entertained.

I will take whatever vaccine is available to me whenever it becomes available because I’m a guy with plenty of pre-existing medical issues. But that doesn’t mean I have to like the politicized processes that have poisoned this country’s response to a crisis of such horrific magnitude.

Scent and Sensibility

I am way behind in my newspaper and magazine reading, but I came upon an article, “The Forgotten Sense,” which appeared in The New York Times Magazine, by Brooke Jarvis, which was among the most fascinating pieces I’ve read in a long time. The article focuses a lot of attention on the ways in which up to an estimated two-thirds of post-COVID-19 infected patients lose their olfactory senses (and in many instances, their sense of taste, which is intimately connected with the sense of smell). Lacking the sense of smell is hazardous to your health; not being able to detect food poisoning, a burning dinner or a gas leak is, indeed, problematic. “This month,” writes Jarvis, “a Texas family whose members lost their sense of smell to COVID narrowly escaped a house fire after the only uninfected member, a teenager, smelled smoke and woke everyone else up.” Indeed, “Smell is no big deal, until it’s missing.”

Those who have suffered this abnormality struggle “with depression, symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder and feelings of relentless isolation and disconnection from the world around them. It felt, some people said, as if they were living their lives in black and white, or trapped behind a sheet of glass; their sense of normalcy and well-being had disappeared with their olfaction. ‘I feel alien from myself,’ one person wrote. ‘Detached from normality. Lonely in my body. It’s so hard to explain.’ Another described feeling ‘discombobulated—like I don’t exist.’”

Our sense of smell is taken for granted and often dismissed as almost irrelevant to who we are as human beings. So many philosophers and scientists—from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes, Kant, and Darwin—have relegated it to the more “primitive” of our five senses, the “province of lesser animals.” But as Jarvis writes:

“Smell is a startling superpower. You can walk through someone’s front door and instantly know that she recently made popcorn. Drive down the street and somehow sense that the neighbors are barbecuing. Intuit, just as a side effect of breathing a bit of air, that this sweater has been worn but that one hasn’t, that it’s going to start raining soon, that the grass was trimmed a few hours back. If you weren’t used to it, it would seem like witchcraft.”

Jarvis notes that there has been a “renaissance” in “smell science” over the last 30 years. Linda Buck and Richard Axel, awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004, identified “the neural receptors that allow us to perceive and make sense of the smells around us. … The revelation opened the door to a new way of understanding the olfactory system, as well as to a new, ever-expanding world of research. A system assumed to be unsophisticated and insignificant turned out to be quite the opposite. Where vision depends on four kinds of receptors—rods and three types of cones—smell uses about 400 receptors, which are together estimated to be able to detect as many as a trillion smells. The complexity of the system is such that we’re still unable to predict how, or even if, a given chemical will be perceived by our olfactory system. The old quest to map odorants and their perception is now understood to be a wildly complicated undertaking. Joel Mainland, a neuroscientist at the Monell Center who is working on the problem, told me that while maps of color vision are easily presented in two dimensions, an eventual olfactory map might require many more.”

Smell is indeed one of the most remarkable senses we have. From its role in detecting hazards to the transmission of pheromones and its role in human attraction to its crucial role in the functioning of our immune system, olfaction is the most underappreciated and least understood of the ways in which the human organism apprehends the world. As Jarvis explains: “While what we see must pass through various parts of the brain before it reaches our centers for memory or emotion, smell has a nearly direct pathway. ‘They’re built together,’ [neurobiologist Sandeep Robert] Datta said of the brain and the chemical world that it perceives. ‘They’re meant to function as a unit.’”

The sense of smell is the only sensory modality in which the actual airborne molecules of the perceived object enter our bodies, attaching to receptor cells that are themselves neurons.  Our olfactory nerves consist of neurons with one end in direct contact with the external world and the other in direct contact with the brain. It may be the most primal, but it is also the most intimate of our sensory modalities, performing an act of neural intercourse every time we take a whiff.

Science is coming to understand the importance of the olfactory sense in more ways than one. Just as some of the recent research has shown an impaired sense of smell in COVID and post-COVID-infected patients, it is often bound up with neural diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as autoimmune disorders, from MS to rheumatoid arthritis to lupus. It is also experienced to a much higher degree by those suffering from depression. Interestingly, it has been found that “children with autism have different automatic sniff reactions than those who are neurotypical, and they use more parts of their brains to process odors. They can also follow social cues better if they can smell a mother’s odor, even if she isn’t present.”

For me, olfaction has never been a “forgotten sense.” It is something of which I am deeply aware. I cannot imagine a world without a sense of smell. It is such a crucial part of my sensory apparatus that I have never taken it for granted.

It also has a way of transporting me to places buried deep in my memory. That acrid smell of burning plastic, metal, and human flesh that inhabited southern Brooklyn in the days after 9/11 is something I will never forget. But it is not just tragic memories that the sense of smell conjures up. Walking through my neighborhood, picking up the scent of fresh baked bread or a pizza emerging from a hot oven can get my salivary glands going immediately. I cannot forget the scent of a brand-new car or of an infant child—a parent, a friend, a partner. Just the scent of a certain perfume or cologne conjures up immense feelings of a particular person, time, and place that are not triggered in the same way as, say, looking at a photo of that same person, time, and place. One whiff of Aqua Velva conjures up whole memories of my Dad, who passed away in 1972 in ways that a photo or a video image cannot. One whiff of Chanel No. 5 conjures up a flood of memories of my Mom, who passed away in 1995, in ways that a photo or a video image cannot.

A greater understanding of the “forgotten sense” is one of the more welcome scientific by-products to have come out of a tragic pandemic. Let us hope that research continues to unlock not only the mysteries of COVID, but the continuing mysteries of how our organisms function—and why it is so important to recognize when something so crucial to being human is just not functioning the way it should.

Eric Fleischmann on Social Change and Thinking Dialectically…

I first encountered Eric Fleischmann back in 2018 when I came upon one of Eric’s papers on Academia.edu. So intrigued was I by this article—and its reference to my book Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (2000, Penn State Press)—that I dropped Eric a note. Since then, we have become the best of friends and watching Eric’s intellectual and personal growth has been a remarkable adventure. I mean, back then, Eric was a junior in high school. Today, Eric is a sophomore at Bates College (in Lewiston, Maine), double-majoring in anthropology and philosophy.

As a left-libertarian anarchist and a contributor to the Center for a Stateless Society, Eric is currently involved in two forthcoming book projects, as a co-organizer of—and contributor to—Defiant Insistence: David Graeber, Anarchist, Anthropologist, Fellow Worker (1961-2020) and TOTAL ABOLITION: Police, Prisons, Borders, Empire

Today, I had the great pleasure of listening to a wonderful interview with Eric given by host Joel Williamson as the second episode of The Enrages. Folks can listen to the interview, which covers topics all over the ideological map—from abolitionism and social change to intellectual history and dialectical method. I especially appreciate Eric’s shout-out to me as friend and “mentor” and also for telling the world exactly how to pronounce my last name (around 31 minutes or so in!).

Check out the interview here. Proud of you, Eric! Keep up the great work!

Oh, and one other thing: I will be featuring one of Eric’s scintillating punk-rock performances on my “Song of the Day” series in the near future. Don’t let that calm and relaxed conversationalist fool you; Eric’s a Total Tiger on the Stage!

Song of the Day #1845

Song of the Day: Dear Heart (“Main Theme”), music by Henry Mancini, lyrics by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, is from the 1964 film of the same name, starring Glenn Ford and Geraldine Page.  This Oscar-nominated song is ever-so-appropriate for Valentine’s Day. But I also dedicate it to my sweetheart friend, Mimi Reisel Gladstein, who celebrates her birthday today, and who has been calling me her “dear heart” practically from the beginning of our friendship in the 1990s. A happy and a healthy birthday, dearest Mimi! And a Happy Valentine’s Day to all who love. Check out the original recording and renditions by Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Jack Jones, Al Martino, and Bobby Vinton [YouTube links].

Chick Corea, RIP

Sad news of the deaths of Hal Holbrook, Christopher Plummer, and Mary Wilson came over the past week or two. But tonight’s news was truly devastating for this long-time fan of one of the greatest musicians in the history of jazz: Chick Corea, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 79.

I am without words. There are so many of his compositions that have graced “My Favorite Songs” throughout the years that I would not know where to begin in celebrating his legacy. Winner of 23 Grammy Awards, a master improviser and innovator, whether in acoustic or electric settings, playing standards or original fusion compositions, which defied categorization (encompassing jazz, rock, and classical influences), Chick was among the most important pianists of his generation.

I saw him in concert, a joyful tribute to his terrific 1978 album, “The Mad Hatter” (along with Herbie Hancock, Joe Farrell, Gary Burton, Eddie Gomez, Steve Gadd, Gayle Moran, and an orchestra). Check out that album, starting here [on YouTube].

RIP, Chick.

Rand 116 … Still Challenging Traditions

Today is the 116th anniversary of the birth of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. Interestingly, on Sunday, the New York Times Book Review published an Alan Wolfe-penned essay on Benjamin M. Friedman’s book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Amazingly, Wolfe took aim at Friedman’s attempts to connect free markets to religion and the Protestant work ethic (something for which Max Weber is most famous).

This is from Wolfe’s review:


For one thing, this book is mistitled; its overwhelming concentration is on only one religion, the Protestant one. You will not find a discussion here of the two great papal encyclicals, “Rerum Novarum” and “Quadragesimo Anno,” that form the basis of Catholic social teaching. By confining himself mostly to the Protestant countries of England, Scotland and Holland, Friedman, for all his range, narrows his focus too much.

What is more, economics and theology may have intertwined in the past, but they rarely do now. If anything, someone could write a contemporary work, surely shorter than this one, on atheism and the resurgence of free-market economics. The 19th-century economic thinkers Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, both influenced more by Darwin than Calvin, were quite hostile to religion. The 20th century’s most widely read advocate for laissez-faire, Ayn Rand, was a militant nonbeliever. Milton Friedman, who needs no identification, was Jewish by birth but nonobservant. The story so brilliantly told by the author, it would seem, has reached its end.

A provocative observation that places Rand’s take on free markets (and the work of others in the classical liberal and contemporary libertarian movement) outside the religious context to which it has often been wedded by conservative thinkers especially.

Song of the Day #1833

Song of the Day: The American President (“I Have Dreamed”), words and music by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, was originally featured in the 1951 Broadway production of “The King and I,” but was never heard in the 1956 film version, except as a background theme prior to “We Kiss in a Shadow.” A lovely instrumental rendition arranged by Marc Shaiman is used in this 1995 romantic comedy-drama, which transcends party lines. Check out the version featured in the film [YouTube link] and then check out the original Broadway version (with Doretta Morrow and Larry Douglas), and versions by Sammy Davis, Jr. and Doris Day, whose rendition was Richard Rodgers’s favorite [YouTube links]. Given today’s date, I Have Dreamed of an early spring… despite the fact that Mother Nature just dumped a foot-and-a-half on NYC alone. Competing Groundhogs give us contrasting forecasts: Punxsutawney Phil says more winter’s ahead; Staten Island Chuck predicts an early spring. Go Chuck!


My Seventeenth Annual Film Music February Will Continue …

A couple of months ago, I wrote up all the entries to what will be my seventeenth annual tribute to film scores, or what I like to call “Film Music February.”

It’s been a crazy year, but even throughout all the craziness, if you cannot find a moment of respite in the magic of the movies or the magic that the music brings to every movie you watch, well… you might as well throw in the towel! So, watch this space starting tomorrow and running through the last day of February. The Oscars may have been postponed till April, but my tribute to films and their scores stays put!

I’m sure you’re all just chomping (or champing) at the bit waiting to see and listen to what I have to say (yeah, sure…), but this is something I enjoy doing. And if some other folks enjoy it, all the better.