Category Archives: Education

Robert Hessen (1936-2024), RIP

I have learned that my friend and colleague, Robert Hessen, died on April 15, 2024, at the age of 87. The Bronx-born economic and business historian earned his B.A. from Queens College, his M.A. from Harvard, and his Ph.D. from Columbia.

In the early 1960s, he was drawn to Ayn Rand’s work and became a contributor to both The Objectivist Newsletter and The Objectivist. Some of those essays were republished as part of Rand’s book, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Upon Rand’s death in March 1982, Bob told the New York Times that Rand’s “moral defense” of capitalism “had an electrifying effect on people who had never heard capitalism defended in other than technological terms.” Rand “made it clear that a free society is also a productive society, but what matters is individual freedom.” For this reason, Bob maintained that “Rand has had and will have an enduring influence on people in numerous fields.”

Author of Steel Titan: The Life of Charles M. Schwab and In Defense of the Corporation, Bob spent years at the Hoover Institution and at Stanford University and in the 1980s, he was a featured commentator on Free to Choose, Milton Friedman’s PBS series.

I had my first personal exchanges with Bob when he joined the Board of Advisors of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (JARS), commencing with the second of our 23 volumes, in the Fall of 2000. I never had the pleasure of meeting him in-person, but our correspondence and phone conversations over the years were always warm and informative. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was a gentle soul. He was intensely supportive of the critical, interdisciplinary work we were publishing in JARS. Our last phone call, in the spring of 2023, was memorable not only for its length but for the extent to which he encouraged me in all my future endeavors, as JARS was winding down after 2+ decades of publication.

The Hoover Institution posted additional information in a memorial notice:

“Bob is survived by his wife of almost 29 years, Karin Bricker, who was with him at his passing. Bob’s first marriage, to the late Beatrice Minkus Hessen, lasted 26 years until her death in 1989 and produced two devoted children, Laurie and John, who survive him. Bob was a loving stepfather to Devi Bricker and the late David Bricker, and the beloved grandfather of five. He was a profoundly kind, decent and thoughtful man, a lover of books, music and movies, a wonderful husband, father, grandfather and friend. He passed at Stanford Hospital following a period of illness. The family is planning a memorial celebration for later this year.”

For me, Bob will always be remembered as a source of inspiration, and I will miss him very much. My deepest condolences to his family and friends during this difficult time.

Additional comments and condolences can be found on my Facebook page.

Also see a lovely tribute to Bob by Reena Kapoor.

Brooklyn Tech – Class of 1984 Prom Memories

This weekend is the Brooklyn Tech High School Homecoming. Back on June 6, 1984, I was privileged to provide a mixtape for Prom Night at Les Mouches, a dance club in Manhattan, for the Brooklyn Tech High School Class of 1984. (Yeah, I had connections with Ski! 😉 ) I was just starting out with my mobile DJ’ing … and it was fun!

In honor of the 40th anniversary of that event, I digitized a 13+ minute segment from one of those mixtapes, which packed the dance floor. It’s on my YouTube channel. Check out the memories …

Practical Politics for Left-Libertarians

As of this date, despite the presence of various third-party candidates in the 2024 election cycle, it is virtually inevitable that either Donald Trump or Joe Biden is going to serve another term in the White House. But there are other political visions that are awaiting an audience.

As an advocate of dialectics—the art of context-keeping—I have long stressed that even the loftiest of political goals must begin with the conditions that exist. Or, as I like to paraphrase good ol’ Don Rumsfeld: We plan our way toward a better future based on the conditions that we have, not on the conditions we wished we had. There is no magic button that we can push to suddenly transform our society into one that nourishes human freedom and personal flourishing. This can be daunting for those of us who advocate radical social change—that is, change that emerges from a deeper understanding of the systemic and historical roots of a society’s problems as the means to resolving them.  

There are many different strains of libertarian thinking that have lent themselves to this radical project. Today, my very dear friend Ryan Neugebauer has published on Medium what he calls “A Dialectical Left-Libertarian Political Platform.” While there are many different dialectical left-libertarian approaches to contemporary problems, here, Ryan attempts to bring together a wide variety of practical, real-world strategies that would “unshackle society.”

I’m sure that readers coming from diametrically opposed political perspectives will be both attracted to—and abhorred by—various proposals that Ryan puts forth in this paper. There is no doubt, however, that Ryan’s political program is panoramic in its approach. He provides a check list of ways to free-up markets, by shrinking the intellectual property regime, tackling restrictive zoning laws, and addressing land value taxation. He discusses public options in healthcare, universal basic income or negative income taxes, education, gun control, drug prohibitionism, police accountability, restorative justice, immigration, energy policy, foreign policy, diplomacy, and global trade. Along the way, he also discusses “bottom-up” libertarian municipalism and cooperatives, while embracing a laissez-faire policy on contentious social issues.

However you receive any proposal put forth by Ryan, he is clearly committed to focusing on the “overall socioeconomic and political systems that we currently have” as the foundation for all that might be—while using eclectic strategies at our disposal in an effort “to increase freedom, equality, justice, and flourishing” within that context. On that basis alone, he’s passed the dialectical test resoundingly. Check out his essay here.

Sifting through the Noise

We all face the problem of “epistemic flooding,” in which we are overwhelmed with information through online algorithms that appeal to our biases. Whether from the right or the left, it is incumbent on us to be diligent in our approach to information and how it’s presented. Being critically engaged with that information requires more than just recognizing any logical fallacies that might be at work. It requires stepping outside our “preferred” outlets and challenging not only views that we oppose but also our own grasp of the issues.

A fine piece appearing on Medium today, written by my dear friend Ryan Neugebauer, addresses this problem. “Sifting through the Noise: Thinking and Engaging in the Age of Mass Media and the Internet” focuses on how the mass media cultivates an atmosphere in which “people have fallen down the rabbit hole of online conspiracy theories,” placing many of us in an “emotionally charged echo chamber” of confirmation bias, which “closes us out of information/perspectives contrary to whatever we may hold dear …”

Ryan asks: “[H]ow do we strike a balance that sifts through the noise, helps us to think better and be better informed, keeps us out of reinforcing echo chambers, and preserves our sanity and decency when engaging in the process?” The essay provides various strategies for achieving this.

One strategy in particular strikes me as crucial. In critical engagement with those whose ideas we oppose, we should not strawman their arguments. It is best to “steelman” our opponent’s perspective and critique their arguments in their “strongest form possible.” Charitable readings are helpful in more ways than one:

Even using the term “opponent” can come across as too antagonizing or adversarial. It’s better to think of each other as conversation partners in disagreement or in a quest to figure things out. Let’s not approach the situation like we are in an arena getting ready to destroy the other, but rather in an open-ended conversation trying to figure out the best position. That invites friendly, civil dialogue rather than each person being put on the defensive and getting increasingly agitated or angry. Additionally, each person is looked at as someone who has something to offer the conversation rather than someone who is simply wrong and in need of correcting. This also lowers the temperature in the room and makes each person feel valued.

I can’t think of a more humane way to approach our interlocutors in an era of immense divisiveness. The whole essay is a worthwhile read—including the resources it reveals. Check it out here.

New C4SS Article on Dialectics

Today, Center for a Stateless Society published my newest essay: “It Really Does Depend on the Context: Ben Burgis and the Analytical Marxist Critique of Dialectics.” As I write:

The title of this essay recalls the Congressional hearing that took place on December 5, 2023, in which Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard University, seemed to dodge difficult questions by uttering the phrase “it depends on the context.” The phrase immediately became meme-able, even the butt of an opening “Saturday Night Live” skit. New York Times journalist A. O. Scott (2024) wrote that more than any other word, be it “plagiarism” or “genocide,” “Gay’s fate was sealed by a single word. … The word was ‘context’.” Scott’s larger point, of course, was that throughout the heated controversy, there was, in fact, a “rigorous avoidance of context” — the context of election-year politics, unending global conflicts, the crises in higher education, and so forth.

My purpose in this essay is not to relitigate that Congressional hearing. Rather, it is to focus on the method for which keeping context is primary. That method — dialectics — addresses societal problems by exploring their many overlapping and shifting contexts in a dynamic world.

Check out the “full context” here!

For discussion, see here, here, and here.

Farewell, Aristos

Having served on the Board of Trustees of the Aristos Foundation for many years, I would like to report that Aristos: An Online Review of the Arts has finished its long publication history. Founded by Louis Torres in 1982 as a print publication, it ran from 1982 to 1997. Michelle Marder Kamhi became a coeditor in 1992, and Aristos began its online presence in 2003, running through 2021.

By year’s end, the Foundation will dissolve; no further issues of the journal will be forthcoming. A Farewell Statement appears on the journal’s home page. That statement reminds us of the illustrious history of Aristos, which was praised by the eminent cultural historian Jacques Barzun (1907–2012), among others. It should be remembered that the coeditors were also coauthors of the much-discussed book, What Art is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (Open Court, 2000), which inspired a provocative Aesthetics Symposium published by The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies in 2001.

I am delighted that the journal’s contents have been preserved through Archive-It. It is a wonderful legacy that readers will be able to access in perpetuity.

I wish my dear friends Lou and Michelle well as they move forward. Readers can continue to follow their work at their respective websites: https://aristos-redux.com/ and https://www.mmkamhi.com/ .

The Aristos Farewell statement can be found here: https://aristos.org/

JFK 60

This essay also appears on Medium.

Sixty years ago, this week, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Since that time, there has been a never-ending debate over who was responsible for JFK’s death: Lee Harvey Oswald? The CIA? The Mafia? Cuban Exiles? All of them? None of them?

I have no intention of even attempting to resolve these controversial questions. I write neither to praise the promise of “Camelot” nor to condemn Kennedy’s “fascist New Frontier”, as Ayn Rand famously characterized it.

My focus here is a bit more personal. It’s about what it was like to be a 3-year-old kid, living in Brooklyn, New York, watching these events unfold on a vintage black-and-white television screen. And how that experience—and the experience of seeing the events of the 1960s—sparked my interest in history and politics.

My earliest childhood TV memories are of Saturday morning cartoons, as well as primetime gems like “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons“. But, for me, watching televised real-life events was even more exhilarating. I was enthralled when John Glenn orbited the earth three times on my mother’s birthday, February 20, 1962, only three days after I turned 2. Seven years later, I was ecstatic to see the first human beings step on the surface of the moon. That fascination with heroic acts of exploration and the promise of human possibility have remained with me throughout my life.

There were also quite a few unsettling news reports that I absorbed in those early years. I saw black children being blasted with high-pressure firehoses, clubbed by police, and attacked by snarling dogs because they dared to protest against the disgraceful segregationist policies in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963. I may have been too young to understand exactly what was going on. But I saw my mother do the sign of the cross, saying a prayer for those kids, as our family witnessed this heart-wrenching display on television.

On Friday, November 22, 1963, we watched another unfolding event of brutality that was, quite frankly, unbelievable. Though I was less than three months away from turning 4 years old, that day and the days that followed remain seared into my consciousness.

Early on that Friday morning, we received a phone call that my Yaya had fallen. My mother picked me up in her arms and held me as she walked a few blocks away to assist my aunts and uncles as they tended to my bruised grandmother. By early afternoon, things had settled down. The TV was on, and everybody was watching “As the World Turns”. A few moments into the broadcast, Walter Cronkite made his first announcements that shots had been fired at the motorcade in Dallas and that the 46-year-old President had been “seriously wounded.” Everybody in the room gasped. Within an hour or so, Cronkite confirmed that JFK was dead.

That news flash—and the horrifying reactions of my family members—rattled me. In the days that followed, my entire family was glued to nonstop television coverage. Perhaps even more unsettling was what we witnessed on November 24, 1963, as the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was gunned down on live television by Jack Ruby. The screams of family members were so intense that the whole apartment seemed to shake.

The traumatic effects of all this cannot be underestimated. Like many who bore witness to this tragedy, my family was deeply affected, even while offering us youngsters all the comfort and support we required. After all, for kids of my generation, this was our first experience not only with death but with televised violence. We saw world leaders taking part in a mournful funeral procession, played out on a global stage. Images of JFK’s own kids—including little John John saluting his father’s coffin—were replayed over and over again.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one aunt of mine, who was quite vocal in her hatred of the Kennedys, expressed annoyance with the networks for having “robbed” kids of those Saturday morning cartoons. Nevertheless, our family was part of that 90% of the American public that embraced what author Joseph Campbell once called “a deeply significant rite of passage” over those four historic days of television coverage.

I didn’t experience a fully personal loss until the sudden death of my 55-year old father in 1972, when I was 12 years old. Still, the 1960s gave me an ever-expanding education on death and destruction. In February 1968, Walter Cronkite reported on “the bloody experience of Vietnam” that was doomed “to end in a stalemate.” Battle deaths mounted; in the end, the U.S. experienced over 58,000 fatalities, and the Vietnamese, on both sides of the conflict, suffered as many as 3 million civilian and military deaths. On March 16, Robert F. Kennedy began his presidential campaign. By March 31, Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. Days later, on Thursday, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., 39 years of age, was assassinated and the suspect was a white man.

In the wake of King’s murder, the country experienced widespread riots and civil unrest. Somehow, New York City averted major violence. Mayor John Lindsay traveled to Harlem, in an outreach to black residents, while schools fostered healing. When I walked into my second-grade class, one of my friends, a black girl named Wanda, came over to me and said: “One of your kind of people killed one of my kind of people.” She looked so sad. All I could say to her was: “He was a bad person. Not everyone is like him.” And I reached out and touched her hand. It was a teachable moment as staff distributed educational pamphlets exploring King’s legacy.

Virtually two months later, in the wee hours of Wednesday, June 5, 1968, we were awakened in the middle of the night by my Aunt Georgia, who called to tell us to turn on the TV: Robert F. Kennedy had just been shot in the aftermath of the California primary. Our black-and-white TV flickered on. I could see that RFK’s head was being held above a pool of blood. As another act of violence was beamed into our home, we watched into the wee hours. The next day, RFK died at the age of 42. It was Brooklyn Day and the schools were closed.

I have often looked back on the 1960s as the worst decade in my 63 years. Before the age of 9, I had to process assassinations, war, riots, and deep polarization. And yet, I look around the world today and find myself wondering if we are headed into a period that might surpass that era in terms of sheer brutality.

Having seen so much footage of that fateful November day in 1963—including the graphic Zapruder film—it felt eerie when, years later, I finally visited Dealey Plaza for the first time and toured the Sixth Floor Museum. I relived the experiences of a three-year old in a way that brought the events to life even more vividly. (The photos here were taken by me in Dealey Plaza.)

The JFK Assassination remains a singular emblematic event. I have no doubt that this event, and the other turbulent events of the 1960s, were partially responsible for nourishing my deep interest in trying to understand the social, cultural, and political forces that shaped them. But the decade also offered kernels of promise, the possibilities for change, an enchantment with the stars. It all coalesced to fuel my passionate vision for a nobler world in which hatred, violence, and war were relegated to the dustbin of history.

But Have You Read the Book?

I don’t read fiction. Okay, let me soften the shock. I used to read a lot of fiction throughout my pre-college and undergraduate years, and most of that was connected to literature courses. Those readings ran the gamut from William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allan Poe to John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and, of course, Ayn Rand. From ancient and Renaissance classics to modern novels and plays, even works in world and comparative literature, I’ve read quite a bit.

But as nonfiction reading for research, writing, and pleasure became a way of life, I saw that I was gravitating more and more to the consumption of fiction by way of the cinematic arts—as offered in film and television. For me, having read literally thousands of nonfiction books over a lifetime, I don’t find eye relief by reading even more in the realm of fiction.

Don’t get me wrong. I love stories. It’s just that I’ve grown to enjoy storytelling by way of cinema and all that cinema has to offer—from its unforgettable images and performances to its glorious scores. I love how cinema brings fiction—and even history (accurate or not)—to life.

That made my recent reading of a new nonfiction book—Kristen Lopez’s Turner Classic Movies guide, But Have You Read the Book: 52 Literary Gems That Inspired Our Favorite Films (Running Press, 2023)—all the more interesting. Lopez’s book doesn’t offer in-depth comparative analyses of the various works it covers but it does offer fascinating discussions of films that have been faithful to, departed from, or fully upended the books upon which they are based.

The books and film adaptations that Lopez discusses are arranged chronologically and include these 52 standouts: Frankenstein (1931), The Thin Man (1934), Wuthering Heights (1939), Rebecca (1940), To Have and Have Not (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Psycho (1960), Dr. No (1962), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Haunting (1963), In Cold Blood (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1967), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), True Grit (1969), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Last Picture Show (1971), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), The Godfather (1972), Jaws (1975), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), The Shining (1980), Blade Runner (1982), The Color Purple (1985), The Princess Bride (1987), Goodfellas (1990), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), The Joy Luck Club (1993), Jurassic Park (1993), The Remains of the Day (1993), Clueless (1995), Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), The Virgin Suicides (1999), Cruel Intentions (1999), Fight Club (1999), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Children of Men (2006), No Country for Old Men (2007), Coraline (2009), The Social Network (2010), The Hunger Games (2012), The Great Gatsby (2013), Call Me By Your Name (2017), Crazy Rich Asians (2018), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Little Women (2019), Dune (2021), and Passing (2021).

I’ve seen about 80% of those films but have read only about a dozen of the books discussed in this work. Spoilers abound throughout, but what’s really nice is how Lopez delves into the context of the various movie adaptations, which often helps us to understand why there are such differences between the literary and cinematic arts. There’s a lot of Hollywood history here, including an exploration of how the Hays Code impacted earlier adaptations. Many interesting sidebars offer information on other adaptations of the various works under consideration. Even the book’s illustrations (by Jyotirmayee Patra) are lovely additions to the text.

There are tons of omissions—but that’s to be expected in a guide of this sort. I was, however, particularly pleased with how Lopez challenges us to rethink our presupposition that the book is always better than the film. Indeed, certain films offer streamlined improvements upon their source materials. For example, Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws, included a whole subplot involving an affair between Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss in the film) and Brody’s wife, Ellen (played by Lorraine Gary) that would have needlessly cluttered the Spielberg masterpiece.

As an author myself, I genuinely appreciated Lopez’s shining final sentences, in which she expressed gratitude to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for providing “a place of quiet and respite in the final months of writing this. Thank you for allowing me to indulge my inner Jack Torrance in your beautiful hotel.” All work and no play, y’know [YouTube link].

A nice guide for film buffs and fiction fans alike. Check it out!

Discussion on Facebook.

Harrison Ford Species!

Harrison Ford may have no Oscars to his credit, but he has quite a menagerie of namesakes! A species of ant (Pheidole harrisonfordi) and a species of spider (Calponia harrisonfordi) are named for him.

Moviegoers will remember, however, that as Indiana Jones, Ford famously declared: “I Hate Snakes“. Now, he’s got a species of snake named for him too: “Tachymenoides harrisonfordi“! Read on!

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