Category Archives: Rand Studies

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.

JARS Holiday Shopping!

Now that the thrills and chills of Halloween are behind us, the holiday season is in full bloom (though I’ve been seeing holiday decorations in the stores since before Labor Day!). For those who have not gotten a copy of the 2023 issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, this is just a reminder that you’re missing out on a terrific grand finale to the journal’s 2+ decade run.

With contributions from Pavel Solovyev, Anastasiya Vasilievna Grigorovskaya, Robert F. Mulligan, David Tyson, Marsha Familaro Enright, Roger E. Bissell, Cory Massimino, Douglas B. Rasmussen & Douglas Den Uyl, David Beito, Raymond Raad, Aaron Weinacht, Luca Moratal Roméu, and Roderick T. Long, the issue includes essays on topics of historical, archival, epistemological, methodological, ethical, political, and literary importance.

You can still access the issue online or as a hard copy by following this link.

Happy Holiday Shopping!

Modernizing Aristotle’s Ethics

I want to take this opportunity to highlight a new book by Roger Bissell and Vinay Kolhatkar: Modernizing Aristotle’s Ethics: Toward a New Art and Science of Self-Actualization (Ethics Press, 2023). As I state in a promotional blurb: “This book is an accessible and well-written contribution to the neo-Aristotelian tradition, upholding the twin values of human freedom and personal flourishing. The authors present a provocative distillation of ideas drawn from a mighty array of interdisciplinary studies. Even those who disagree with any aspect of this work will find themselves challenged by the high quality of its arguments. A must read especially for fans of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand.”

Praise has come from others as well:

Modernizing Aristotle’s Ethics takes applied eudaimonism along roads less travelled, by way of Ayn Rand, David Norton, Chris Sciabarra, and Den Uyl and Rasmussen. With extended visits to Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychology, Nathaniel Branden’s clinical philosophy, some varieties of evolutionary psychology, and Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory. Bissell and Kolhatkar develop an accessible account of a humane, meaningful life that is significantly different both from Positive Psychology and from previous Randian treatments. Their model of four orders of humaneness is worthy of further examination.” – Robert L. Campbell

“Roger Bissell and Vinay Kolhatkar have a great appreciation for Aristotle, which comes across clearly even as they also seek to modernize those elements of Aristotle’s work where later developments in physical or social science call for it. The book is well-researched but easily accessible to the general reader. The result gives them a plausible way to construct a theory of how to live a meaningful and humane life.” – Aeon J. Skoble

“In this ambitious and well-argued book, Bissell and Kolhatkar provide a clear and coherent framework within which they have adapted and expanded upon ideas from Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Ayn Rand, and several contemporary neo-Aristotelian thinkers. The authors have accomplished this while also marvelously and systematically integrating insights from philosophy, biology, psychology, and other social sciences and humanities.”- Edward W Younkins

“Any person seeking advice about how to live his or her life has a huge number of books to choose from, but Modernizing Aristotle’s Ethics is one of a small number that can credibly claim to build upon Aristotle’s wisdom. Roger Bissell and Vinay Kolhatkar offer a distinctly Neo-Aristotelian view of what it means to live well in the 21st century.” – Winton Bates

My congratulations to both Vinay and Roger!

“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?

Monsters.

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 988lifeline.org.

RIP, E. Devers Branden (1933-2023)

I awoke this morning to the very sad news that Estelle Devers Branden passed away on July 26, 2023, after a long illness. Devers was a very dear friend of mine.

Born on October 2, 1933, Devers was a businesswoman who subsequently turned to the profession of psychotherapy. She married writer and psychologist Nathaniel Branden in 1978, and though they later divorced in 2002, they remained close friends. With Nathaniel, she coauthored The Romantic Love Question and Answer Book (1982, subsequently republished as What Loves Asks of Us). Her enormous impact on the lives of those who were touched by her perceptive insights and caring guidance—both in Nathaniel’s various intensives and in her therapeutic practices—will be remembered by anyone who had the privilege of getting to know her.

In the aftermath of Nathaniel’s death in December 2014, The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies published a grand symposium on his life and legacy. Devers provided us with a photo of Nathaniel for that December 2016 double issue. Of the sixteen featured essays in that symposium, several discussed Devers’s various contributions, including Deepak Sethi (“Personal Reflections on Nathaniel Branden”), Andrew Schwartz (“Adler, Branden, and the Third Wave Behavior Therapists”), Joel F. Wade (“Nathaniel Branden and Devers Branden and the Discipline of Happiness”), and my very close friend, the late Michael Southern, whose essay “My Years with Nathaniel Branden” explored, on a very personal level, the ways in which Devers’s innovative Jungian subpersonality techniques helped him through enormous mental health challenges. Nathaniel credited Devers for having enabled him to integrate these techniques into his eclectic arsenal of psychotherapeutic practices.

I first met Nathaniel in 1993; he had provided me with invaluable feedback on an early draft of my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. Nathaniel’s influence on me was immeasurable—not just as the author of countless essays during his years of association with Ayn Rand, not just for his pioneering work in the realm of the psychology of self-esteem, but also as a person who would become a dear friend over the years, a source of immeasurable love and support. So, it was only a matter of time for me to finally meet Devers. The two of them visited me in Brooklyn in the spring of 1998, and I took them for a whirlwind tour of the borough. From Nathan’s hot dogs in Coney Island to pizza at L&B Spumoni Gardens, from the mansions on Bedford Avenue to the waterfront at Manhattan Beach, we had a wonderful time. I still have vivid memories of the two of them dancing on the famed pedestrian bridge in Sheepshead Bay. Before they departed for the airport, I asked them both to inscribe my copy of their coauthored work, The Romantic Love Question and Answer Book (an image of which appears below).

The following year, my sister Elizabeth and I took an early spring trip to California. We had left New York City, which was enjoying temperatures in the 80s, to travel to Sunny California, where it was snowing in the San Fernando Valley. Snow aside, that trip would not have been complete without a visit to the Beverly Hills 90210 home of Nathaniel and Devers (image of me with them below). It was a spectacular experience. Our lengthy conversations spanned from the personal to the professional, the spiritual to the intellectual. We shared so many stories, we ate well, we laughed, and we held each other in a warm embrace before we left. Though that was the last time I saw Devers, we continued to talk on the phone for many years thereafter, a source of enormous joy for one another.

I last spoke to her in mid-April 2023, knowing how sick she was. She had told me that she had made her peace with death. But there was still so much life left within her. Knowing how enormous my grief was in the wake of my sister’s passing in November 2022, she comforted me. She knew how much my sister meant to me and how deeply my sister loved me. I cherished her gentleness with me.  We ended our phone call saying “I love you” to one another. At her request, I sent her copies of all my recent essays, and she sent me a recent photo of her with her beloved dog, Gigi (image below).

Devers was a kind, humane, caring soul. And a remarkable human being. I will miss her enormously.

I extend my deepest condolences to her family and friends.

Also see my Facebook post.

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!

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.