Category Archives: Religion

Song of the Day #2104

Song of the Day: One Hundred and One Dalmations (“Cruella de Vil”), words and music by George Bruns and Mel Leven, is sung in the 1961 animated classic by Bill Lee [YouTube link]. Selena Gomez rocked the song in 2008 [YouTube link]. It paints a lyrical portrait of the iconic antagonist in the story, whose name is a mixture of “Cruel” and “Devil”, ranking 39th on AFI’s List of “100 Years … 100 Heroes and Villains“. Growing up, long before I saw the film that I came to love, my Mom—who was definitely not Cruella de Vil—must have read me this bedtime story at least 101 times, from the 1962 volume, “Walt Disney’s Story Land“. (The Disney story and franchise were based on Dodie Smith‘s 1956 novel, “The Hundred and One Dalmations“.) It was one of my all-time favorites as a child. On this date in 1919, my Mom was born. And I’ll forever cherish all the stories she told, all the love she gave, all the laughs we had, and all the memories that remain deep in my heart.

Photo collage: Clockwise from top left: Mom in the 1940s; Dad, Mom holding me, and my godfather, Uncle Nick, after my baptism on June 11, 1961; Dad, Mom, and me at my brother and sister-in-law’s wedding; Mom and me in the late 1970s; Mom in the 1980s; Mom, me, and my sister Elizabeth, June 1988, New York University, my Ph.D. commencement in Washington Square Park; Mom in the 1990s; Mom at the center, always.

An Ongoing Tragedy

Violence and warfare have been a part of the human condition for millennia. But in a world consumed by hateful tribalism and balkanization, we are robbed of the very foundation upon which any peace, freedom, and human flourishing must be built. My heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones and whose lives remain in jeopardy due to the ongoing tragedies in the Middle East.

The Charlton Heston Centenary

One hundred years ago, on October 4, 1923, actor Charlton Heston was born. This Wednesday, October 4, 2023, starting at 6 am (ET), Turner Classic Movies is celebrating that centenary with a full 24+ hours of Heston films, and will continue to highlight his filmography on Wednesday nights in October.

Here, my focus is not on Heston’s political journey, whether in his role as President of the Screen Actors Guild or in his commitment to Civil Rights (he was among those Hollywood stars who joined Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1963 March on Washington) or in his commitment to Gun Rights as NRA President (famously holding above his head a replica of a flintlock long rifle and declaring “From My Cold Dead Hands!”). I have long believed that while it’s always important to understand an artist’s creative work in the context of their life, it is both proper and necessary to evaluate the creation quite apart from the creator. As I have written:

It’s a hermeneutical truth, as Paul Ricoeur would have emphasized, that every creation is “detached from its author and develops consequences of its own. In so doing, it transcends its relevance to its initial situation and addresses an indefinite range of possible readers.” Every time any creation—be it a book, idea, or artwork—enters the world, it leaves the domain of the creator and begins to speak to countless individuals in myriad ways. And every time each of us, as “readers”, is exposed to that creation, our response to it remains deeply personal, profoundly entwined with our own emotions and life experiences. And that is as it should be.

In that spirit, here, my focus is on Heston’s creative output—his films—and what they have meant to me.

Heston has played a veritable Who’s Who of iconic figures, including El Cid, Michelangelo, John the Baptist, Sir Thomas More, Buffalo Bill, and Moses, as well as two appearances each as Andrew Jackson, Mark Antony, and Cardinal Richelieu. He appeared in a remarkable variety of film genres—Film noir: from “Dark City” to the Orson Welles classic, “Touch of Evil”; Adventure: from “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “The Naked Jungle” to “Secret of the Incas”, which served as the inspiration for “Raiders of the Lost Ark”; Westerns: from William Wyler’s “The Big Country” and Sam Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee” to “Will Penny”; Historical Epics, including Khartoum and 55 Days at Peking; Biblically-inspired Epics: “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur”; Sci-Fi: “The Omega Man,” “Soylent Green,” and the Rod Serling-penned “Planet of the Apes”; and Disaster films: “Skyjacked”, “Airport 1975”, and “Earthquake,” which I saw in theaters, in Sensuround! He also made his mark on television—from the 1949 anthology series, “Suspense”, to his tenure as Jason Colby on “Dynasty” and “The Colbys” in the 1980s … not to mention a stint as host of “Saturday Night Live” (after being parodied so well by Phil Hartman).

Heston was not a Method Actor. His style harked back to a more classical mode, lending itself to stoic, authoritative, and theatrical performances often perfectly suited to those “larger than life” characters for which he was noted. He had presence on the screen. Nevertheless, it has become quite fashionable to dismiss Heston as a “ham” and to label all his performances as “stiff”, “bellicose”, or “over the top”. Certainly, some of the films in which he’s appeared have themselves been marked by theatricality. “The Ten Commandments”, for example, features dialogue that is often archaic and scriptural, cast against a sprawling canvas. But once you’ve seen Chuck Heston part the Red Sea, can you really think of any other actors who could have lifted that staff and uttered those biblical lines with the same majesty? I’ve seen some fine actors portray Moses—Christian Bale, Burt Lancaster, Ben Kingsley—but, quite frankly, they all pale in comparison.

Whereas DeMille’s final film was his grandest, three years later, Heston would appear in the film that would bring him a Best Actor Oscar. Unlike the costume epics of yore, “Ben-Hur” (1959), directed by William Wyler, is often credited as the first contemporary “intimate epic”, insofar as it never sacrifices the development of its characters to the colossal backdrop against which their struggles play out. It’s my all-time favorite film, one that I’ve written about extensively over the years.

For Me, It’s Personal …

The first film I ever saw Heston in was “Planet of the Apes”, as an 8-year-old kid at the local “Highway Theater” in what is still my Brooklyn neighborhood—though the movie house is long gone. In later years, when I read critiques of Heston as having “overacted” in this film, I was puzzled. Given that the character he plays, an astronaut, Col. George Taylor, has crash-landed on a planet that is itself a “madhouse”—an upside down, inside out world populated by intelligent apes and non-speaking people, in an unfolding nightmare about the frightening paradoxes of human existence—well, I’m not quite sure how differently the role could have been played by any actor. In the closing moments of that film, when Taylor discovers a horrific sight on a deserted beach in the “Forbidden Zone”, he falls to his knees and pounds his fist into the sand, howling: “Damn you! Goddamn you all to hell!” I can’t help but ask: How exactly would a Method Actor have made this scene and those lines any more chilling than the way it was rendered by Heston?

All I know is that when I saw “Planet of the Apes” in 1968, the final frame was met not by applause or even whispers; the audience was stunned into complete silence. I was so shocked by that film that in 1974, I returned to the same theater to participate in a day-long marathon presentation of all five of the franchise films presented in order (“Planet of the Apes”, “Beneath the …”, “Escape from the …”, “Conquest of the …” and “Battle for the …”)—for the price of one. They don’t show ‘em like that anymore!

The second Heston film I saw on the big screen was entirely different from that sci-fi classic. I joined my family in a trek to Manhattan to the great Palace Theater, which, with its colossal 70 mm screen, preserved the Technicolor glory and full original 2.76:1 aspect ratio of a tenth anniversary re-release of the 11 Oscar Award-winning film, “Ben-Hur”.

It was the summer of 1969, in the aftermath of the death of Judy Garland—something I remember vividly since Garland’s portrait was hanging in the lobby of the theater. The presentation was like that of a Broadway play, complete with an Overture, an Intermission, and an Entr’ Acte, a prelude to the superbly filmed, climactic chariot race (in which Chuck did most of the stunt work) and a thunderous finale staged in the shadow of Christ’s crucifixion with its miraculous symbolism. For years before, I had listened to the timeless Miklos Rozsa film score, and when I finally saw the images that matched that magnificent soundtrack, I was as overwhelmed as any 9-year-old kid could be by the spectacle. But ultimately, even as a youngster, I was moved by the depth of the story, and especially the conflicts and inner struggles of its central character and his journey toward personal redemption—all brilliantly expressed in Heston’s nuanced performance.

The following year, in 1970, Heston and his co-star Tina Chen showed up at the Highway Theater, to kick off “The Hawaiians”—and I was there in person to see him. I was only 10 years old. When he walked in, he looked like a tall granite statue with a ton of freckles. But he brought levity to his remarks before the film, which I very much enjoyed.

Five years later, now a teenager, I traveled with my family during the Christmas season of 1975, to see for the first time, “The Ten Commandments”, which, in re-release, was playing at Manhattan’s famed Ziegfeld Theatre. And like “Ben-Hur”, viewing this film on the big screen was an overwhelming cinematic experience. The wondrous, eye-popping parting of the Red Sea alone was worth the price of admission.

So yes, for me, Charlton Heston’s filmography has great personal significance. By the time of his death in 2008, after years of struggling with Alzheimer’s, Heston had appeared in over 120 film and television productions. So many of these productions provided me with a sense of cinematic grandeur at such an early age. I was entertained, for sure. Some films thrilled me with their adventure and excitement, while others challenged me to think about the human condition, evoking in me a complex range of emotions. I know that this cinematic legacy is real because, as I’ve aged, I can still watch any number of Heston’s films for the umpteenth time and be affected ever more meaningfully, even as I retain the same feelings of awe I had as a child.

Indeed, because of the ways in which his work inspired my love of film, I celebrate the centenary of Charlton Heston’s birth.

(* Collage above created by … me!)

See the discussion on Facebook.

“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.

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!

Jackie Goldberg: “Fear is Not Our Friend, Love Is”!

As a follow-up to my Medium piece, “Welcome to the Culture Wars: Pride Month Edition!”, check out this impassioned plea for tolerance in our schools from Jackie Goldberg, current President of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education for the 5th District.

#Pride2023

This was also published on Medium.

Welcome to the Culture Wars: Pride Month Edition!

This article also appears on Medium and on C4SS.

The Woke Nightmare That Doesn’t End!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the Culture Wars: Pride Month Edition!

WTF is Happening?

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

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

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

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

Despite its general endorsement of conservative economic policies of lower taxes and fewer regulations, companies cannot bolster their bottom line by alienating more and more consumers through exclusion. Nor can they broaden the pool of cheap labor by opposing immigration. Still, even in today’s climate, by seeming to endorse a gospel of inclusion, many businesses are now alienating traditionalists. Just for noticing or marketing to marginalized groups, companies are being eviscerated by traditionalists as exemplars of “woke capitalism” and “woke corporatism”. This is not unusual. As I stated in a recent essay, “as privileged groups of people sense that they are beginning to lose a grip on their ‘traditions’, they fight like hell — [even] passing laws and regulations — to keep them in place. But the very dynamics of the market society they claim to value are such that traditions are among the practices that are often brought into question. That’s one of the reasons that Friedrich Hayek himself proclaimed he wasn’t a conservative.”

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

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

As I’ve argued before, the very word “woke” verges on becoming what Ayn Rand once called an “anti-concept” insofar as it entails some kind of “’package-deal’ of disparate, incongruous, contradictory elements taken out of any logical conceptual order or context”. Indeed, at this stage, it has become a mere pejorative, which in the hands of its ‘opponents’ is used as a bludgeon against any legitimate social justice cause. So, the moment I hear that word coming out of the mouths of its ‘critics’, I know exactly what they’re talking about. It’s an all-inclusive four-letter word to denigrate anyone who is interested in addressing the historic marginalization of people because of their race, religion, belief, sex, sexuality, or gender.

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Markets

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

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

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

The Proliferation of Identity Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DWR (11): Trans Hysteria

Recently, I had a public Facebook dialogue with my friend, Ryan Neugebauer, on the growing hysteria surrounding Trans issues, especially among people in Randian and right-libertarian circles who dismiss any discussion of “gender identity” as yet another example of left-wing “woke” politics. It is so prolific in Facebook discussions that even a single post on the issue will generate hundreds of vitriolic responses that go on for weeks. As Ryan put it:

These people have lost their minds! Unfortunately, so many of these people, who like shouting about “liberty”, are more about “liberty for me, but not for thee”. They have a “get off my lawn” attitude on everything. “Don’t tax and regulate ME!” “Don’t tell ME what pronouns to call you by!” “Don’t tell ME to wear a mask!” “Don’t tell ME to respect gay marriages!” Nothing healthy about it. It’s like the state of being 2 years old became a political ideology!

Indeed, in all my 37 posts during the COVID pandemic, I observed how politicized the discussion was. I never wrote a single post endorsing draconian measures to deal with the pandemic, and yet, for having acknowledged that I’d taken the Moderna vaccine and its various boosters, I was excoriated as a “Total COVID Warrior”. We can debate for eons the effectiveness of “lockdowns” or the use of masks or the pros and cons of the vaccines. But everything became so politicized that you couldn’t have a decent conversation that didn’t devolve into an exercise in confirmation biases.

Just as people continue to debate the science and politics of COVID, so too, the Trans issue has been highly politicized. Ryan observed that it’s gotten to the point where “any defense of the legitimacy and dignity of people who identify as Trans or Nonbinary gets one labelled as ‘woke’”—a word that has become one of the most blatant “anti-concepts” in modern discourse. It’s an expansive, elastic, all-inclusive pejorative used to bludgeon anyone who has even a semblance of concern for social justice.

In my reply to Ryan, I wrote:

The issue cannot even be addressed with any sense of balance or proportion—or any remote sense of concern for those whose lives are affected by the toxicity of the discussions. What astounds me more than anything is that so much hysteria is being raised over 0.05% of the [U.S. adult] population [and 1.4% of youths between the ages of 13 and 17] that identifies as such. I had hoped that people who are concerned with the fragility of individual rights would pause, for just a single moment, to consider what it’s like for such a small minority to be targeted by a plethora of rhetorical, political, and legislative bullying. And it’s now taking on a life of its own as political forces are being mobilized in favor of censorship in libraries, classrooms, parades, and in theme parks.

For the record, I have long renounced illiberal authoritarian tendencies on both the right and the left. But ultimately, when a society recoils at the prospect of even attempting to understand those who are “different”, the battle for human dignity and personal autonomy is already being lost.

One of the bedrocks of a cosmopolitan society is toleration. Toleration of difference. You don’t have to “accept” anything you don’t value. But your lack of acceptance doesn’t give you the right to weaponize legislation that undermines the very basis upon which any society, aspiring to protect and defend individual liberties, depends.

And this is what makes the hysteria surrounding this issue even more infuriating. We are talking about individual human lives. Each person facing gender identity issues has their own highly specific and unique context, which requires some form of care. The rising tide of hysteria around this issue is impacting the lives of so many individuals who are grappling, ever so delicately, with crippling self-doubt and their own fears—of being cast out, bullied, demeaned, and destroyed. As one study puts it, “Data indicate that 82% of transgender individuals have considered killing themselves and 40% have attempted suicide, with suicidality highest among transgender youth.”

Ryan agrees that Trans Hysteria is not clarifying; it’s obfuscating the fact that people are being put at risk. And under such conditions, it makes it ever more difficult for anybody struggling with gender identity, or for their loved ones, to seek a way through.

Worse, the fears that are being tapped into by those seeking to make America a place where “woke goes to die”, are now being spread in such a way that they’re also seeking to push back against difference, per se. Don’t say Trans. Don’t say Gay. Don’t say Black. Heck, Don’t Say Anything that even hints at extending a modicum of sensitivity toward—or tolerance of—those who have fought and died for their very right to exist.

The science and sociology of gender identity is a developing area of study, which is still assessing the various “nature vs. nurture” factors—those genetic, biological, developmental, and environmental causal forces at work in gender incongruence. That this area is not fully understood lends even more support to the battle for protecting those who are struggling with gender identity issues. Instead, we are faced with the hysterical assertions of authoritarian Florida Governor Ron DeSantis—who claims that “they are literally chopping off the private parts of young kids” as the medical community bows to “woke” activism. That is simply not happening. Reasonable concerns have been raised about some of the practices surrounding gender-affirming care. But “decades of data support the use and safety of puberty-pausing medications, which give transgender adolescents and their families time to weigh important medical decisions.” Such decisions are not made without teams of medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, endocrinologists, and other professionals working closely in concert, weighing the pros and cons of various treatment options. As one concerned mother of a Trans youth said to me, a hyper-focus on the uncertainties and risks of any kind of medical intervention muddies our understanding of the uncertainties and risks involved with not intervening at all. One would think that Randians and libertarians who have a genuine distrust of state planning of any sort would be just as “laissez-faire” in their attitudes toward government dictating the difficult choices faced by such individuals and their families under these circumstances.

Alas, state interference is not restricted to curbing gender-affirming care. It is shaping up into a grotesque all-out assault on a tiny minority of people. Even some self-identified “radical feminist” groups have aligned themselves with reactionary GOP politicians—who have typically shown no respect for any woman’s right to make basic choices about her own body—in an attempt to bar Trans athletes from competition in women’s sports. While I certainly don’t have all the answers to these challenging problems, the statistics don’t line-up with the hysteria. Because the answers are not clear, because our knowledge is limited, reliance on the state to chart a course through such politically charged cultural issues is no solution at all. It’s probably going to take a lot of trial-and-error policies proposed by alphabet-soup sports associations to figure out fairer, more equitable and more inclusive policies over time. Let’s keep the state out of it!

But the culture warriors don’t stop there. They view Trans women especially as villainous perverts. They spin nightmarish scenarios in which Trans women are exposing themselves en masse in women’s bathrooms and committing sexual assaults against “real” women and “real” young girls. Well, in NYC, we’ve had liberal bathroom policies in place for over a decade and the statistics don’t even hint at an uptick in “Trans” assaults. If anything, violence against transgender people has increased dramatically, as they are being targeted and assaulted—the “collateral damage” of a growingly toxic culture war.

As Ryan has pointed out again and again, too many Randians and culturally conservative right-libertarians have turned a blind eye toward state regulation of social mores. (It should be noted that among Randians, there are exceptions.) Indeed, in the case of the “Free State of Florida”, lower taxes and a rollback on regulation has led even the Cato Institute to proclaim it the second “freest” state in the U.S. (the more socially liberal New Hampshire ranks #1). But that just illustrates how low cultural and social freedoms are regarded in the grand scheme of things. Florida’s interventionists are using government power to forge a new, reactionary ‘politically correct’ curriculum that is hellbent on sanitizing any mention of the civil rights struggles of blacks, LGBTQ people, and others. They have also enacted into law, “Protections of Medical Conscience”, which grants healthcare providers and insurance companies the right to deny care to anyone on the basis of “religious, moral, or ethical belief”. That law, apparently, was designed to pushback against vaccine mandates, but since it allows for discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender identity, it can be used broadly to deny care to LGBTQ people. Any doctor or healthcare provider who morally objects to medical treatments for transgender people or even the use of antiretroviral drugs in the treatment of HIV/AIDS can deny care—and no medical board has the right to discipline anyone who denies such care. And this is precisely why Ryan has warned about the dangers inherent in healthcare nationalization, since “the politicization of Trans issues” could very well “destroy the ability of people to obtain transitioning care services and the like. Do you really want more of your life’s important decisions and necessities being up to partisan political meddling?”

Defenders of “capitalism” though they claim to be, the Florida Anti-Woke Crusaders are even attacking capitalist companies like Disney because it refuses to fall in line with their political agenda. Disney World has had “Gay Days” since the early 1990s! But now, even Drag Shows have become the target of Florida’s legislative initiatives because they too are apparently harmful to minors.

I’m tempted to conclude with a none-too-subtle variation on Martin Niemöller’s adage: First they came for the Drag Queens, and I did not speak out because I was not a Drag Queen. Then they came for Trans people, and I did not speak out because I was not Trans. Well, in truth, I’m neither Drag Queen nor Trans. But I am speaking out. I am a gay man of Greek and Sicilian descent, and it wasn’t too long ago in this country that even my rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were being marginalized. It is not unusual that as privileged groups of people sense that they are beginning to lose a grip on their “traditions”, they fight like hell—passing laws and regulations—to keep them in place. But the very dynamics of the market society they claim to value are such that traditions are among the practices that are often brought into question. That’s one of the reasons that Friedrich Hayek himself proclaimed he wasn’t a conservative.

Trans Hysteria must stop or the tragedies in its wake will continue down a nightmare path on which no “libertarian” should ever feel comfortable treading.

Postscript (2 July-11 December 2023). I’ve had various discussions in the wake of this post, touching upon everything from sex ed in schools to adolescent “surgeries”.

  1. In New York State, Sex Ed isn’t taught in the schools until middle and high school; nobody in kindergarten or thru grade 5 is learning about transitioning or anything of the sort. See here. Health topics are addressed; all the 9-12 grades (100%) are taught about the benefits of abstinence from sex and about STDs; about 65% address sexual orientation in grades 6-8, 90% in grades 9-12, and around the same stats cover gender identity. None of this is going on in kindergarten or anytime prior to grade 6.
  2. This Reuters Investigates report provides actual “numbers on the rise in children seeking gender care”. There has been a noticeable increase in the number of young people being diagnosed with gender dysphoria (ages 6-17) in the United States. In 2021, around 42,000 were diagnosed. That figure is 121,000+ in the years between 2017-2021. Of those given such a diagnosis over that 5-year period, only 4,780 were given puberty blockers (around 3%), while only 14,726 were given hormone therapy (around 12%). Mastectomies are extremely uncommon; only 776 were recorded (ages 13-17) from 2019-2021. This extremely difficult issue is typically managed with a focus on the person needing treatment, in league with the family and hordes of medical and mental health professionals. That team weighs the pros and cons of intervening versus not intervening, and what kind of intervention is merited, if any, be it mental health services, puberty blockers, hormone therapy, etc.
  3. What also must be emphasized is that this is not some kind of “Trans Epidemic“, as right-wing demagogues put it. One recent report “estimates that 1.4 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds and 1.3 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds were transgender, compared with about 0.5 percent of all adults.” That so much hatred, bigotry, anger, and fear has been generated over such a small and vulnerable population in this country is a disgrace.
  4. As for those who believe that children are so impressionable that they can easily be “groomed” into being L-G-B-T or Q+, all I can say is: Studies show that while there is “situation-dependent fluidity” in sexual responses over time, the overwhelming majority of people are “hard-wired” (perhaps thru a combination of genetics, biology, and environment) from a very young age in terms of their responses. No matter how “impressionable” children might be or how “experimental” adolescents might be, nobody is “forced” to be gay, anymore than they are “forced” to be straight. Or “forced” to be bi, trans, or otherwise. People just are. I often wonder just how fragile some people’s self-conception of their sexual identity is that they see every “alternative” response as a threat. I grew up watching TV shows and films that featured people of the opposite sex being intimate with one another. I saw heterosexual people on the street holding hands and kissing. All the impressions in the world around me didn’t “force” me to become straight or alter my gay trajectory. This is all BS, and it’s exhausting to have to keep responding to it.
  5. As for those who believe that there’s been some kind of “explosion” in “acquired” LGBT identity or that social pressure is leading to “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria“, I’d say that in the current environment, especially in communities that are targeting people for their sexual orientation or gender identity, people are far more likely to be bullied and marginalized precisely for their differences, rather than for having been subject to some kind of social “contagion“. All of this is out-and-out fearmongering (now on full display especially in the Republican Presidential Debates).
  6. And now, some states are moving toward “forced outing“, yet another sign of the erosion of civil liberties from this right-wing assault.
  7. With regard to those on the right who point to the European continent as having rolled back gender-affirming care, the facts are that no country has banned such care. The United Kingdom, France, Sweden and Norway have adopted a more nuanced approach than those who are opposed to the practices here in the United States. See this Politico report. (And on the issue of “detransitioning”, which affects a small minority of a small minority of people, see here.) The only model that the right-wingers in this country would embrace is that offered by Putin’s Russia. What a surprise!
  8. It is certainly true that there are people who have “detransitioned“—and both the right-wing and “progressive” left wing have made a lot of noise about this. Turning this issue into a political football, in which each side scores points on the backs of people struggling with gender identity, is among the biggest tragedies we face in the current climate. All the more reason why doctrinal rigidity needs to be repudiated in favor of a more measured approach.

Sciabarra Holiday Rituals Prevail!

I want to extend my best wishes to those who are celebrating Passover, Ramadan, and Western Easter this weekend—and next weekend, to those who will be celebrating Eastern Orthodox Easter! There have been some dramatic changes in my household, as many of you know … but one thing never changes. The Sciabarra Holiday Rituals Prevail. My sister would’ve smiled with joy seeing how I decorated the house for Easter. And it’s still fun! (It was very hard not to laugh while filming this!!! Check it out on Facebook.)

DWR (10): Free Will vs. Determinism: A Dialectical Path Forward?

One of the topics that makes my brain squirm is the issue of free will. I consider myself neither an expert nor even a truly qualified interlocutor on this topic. So much has been said from every perspective over the course of centuries on this issue, and in the light of developments in neuroscience, the debates have only become murkier and more tangled than ever. It has impacted our epistemological, cognitive, and, perhaps most importantly, psychological understanding of what it means to be human.

The problem of free will vs. determinism is often framed by several presuppositions: 1. There are “laws of nature” and these laws have an objective reality that are independent of us, even though we are ever engaged in trying to understand them. 2. We are part of the natural world and, hence, subject to those laws of nature. 3. Human beings are conscious beings.

It is the nature of that consciousness that is the central point of contention among those on either side of the debate. In terms of gross simplification, we can say that those who advocate libertarian free will believe that we are not determined by forces beyond our control and that we are agents of causal efficacy. Those who advocate strict determinism believe that human actions are as determined by the laws of nature as are any other entities in the universe and, given that we are determined by previous causes, we, ourselves, do not have causal efficacy. As I said, this is a gross simplification, and there are scores of positions between these two extremes. The one that I find most appealing is “compatibilism”, which sees mutual compatibility between free will and determinism. More on this below.

I need to preface this conversation with a Hayekian word of caution because many of these issues are ultimately entwined with the question of whether we will ever truly understand the functioning of human consciousness, of the human mind, let alone whether that functioning is “free” or “determined”. There are compelling reasons to remain agnostic, in the ultimate sense, on these questions. Borrowing from Hayek’s discussion in The Sensory Order, on the nature of the mind’s organic, dialectical “interconnectivity”, Gary T. Dempsey writes:

The implication of this interconnectivity is that a sensory experience cannot be analyzed without regard for the other contents of the mind that contains them; that is, to describe a sensory experience all the way through, one must describe its relations to other bits of information which in turn are related to further bits, and so on in an infinite regress. Logically, any attempt to describe a sensory experience would have to take into consideration the complete “sensory” order that arises from each person’s previous sensory experiences. Moreover, to demand that one sensory experience be removed means to change all the others in some subtle way, and to demand that one sensory experience be added means causing all the resulting connections to occur.

As a result of this interconnectivity, the “sensory order” cannot be broken down into component sensory events. No sensory experience is autonomous. Rather, all sensations are embedded in a complex of relations to other sensations or, as Umberto Eco might put it, a sensory event becomes different when it is connected to another. “The connection changes the perspective” so that “every detail of the world, every voice, every word written or spoken has more than its literal meaning, it tells a secret.” It “resonates” with what Jacques Derrida might call “traces” of something “other.” Consequently, where one part ends and another begins is undecidable. There is only sensory information in intersubjective relations with other sensory information; their essence lies in their relation to the others and their interpenetration of the same. Recognizing this, Hayek concludes that the “sensory order” is irreducible. Its elements cannot be broken down into linear, A causes B terminology and reassembled into an explanation of the whole.

This interconnectivity of mind is what led Hayek to reject the idea that a mind could ever fully understand the functions of itself. Indeed, for Hayek, “the whole idea of a mind explaining itself is a logical contradiction”, insofar we would have to explain the process by which the mind explains its own functioning and then the process by which we explain the process by which the mind explains its own functioning, ad inifinitum.

These observations, however, do not prevent us from defining a specific context or contexts within which the whole question of “free will” and “determinism” makes any sense at all.

A recent discussion of the issue by Marxist philosopher Ben Burgis, in his article, “Slavoj Zizek and the Case for Compatibilism” is a case in point. Personally, I have long found the case for compatibilism to be the most dialectically persuasive in transcending the free will/determinism dichotomy. Indeed, compatibilism finds its roots in the ancient Stoics, Aristotle (the father of dialectical inquiry) and Thomas Aquinas, who carried on the Aristotelian project into the age of the Scholastics.

As Burgis writes:

Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them. … There is no question that human beings can imagine and plan for the future, weigh competing desires, etc.—and that losing these capacities would greatly diminish us. External and internal pressures of various kinds can be present or absent while a person imagines, plans, and acts—and such pressures determine our sense of whether he is morally responsible for his behavior. However, these [phenomena] have nothing to do with free will. … If being the “deep cause” of your actions means that you’re their First Cause—like a miniature God, you cause things without anything causing you to cause them—then … [t]hat’s a level of control over your actions that it’s impossible to have in a deterministic universe. It might also not be possible in an indeterministic universe since it’s far from clear that it’s even a coherent idea.

My friend Ryan Neugebauer recently discussed the Burgis article on Facebook, prompting a thread that has now been going on for more than a month. (And, yes, this constitutes another installment in my DWR series.) What Ben makes clear in his contributions to that discussion is that compatibilists think deeply about those choices that make human beings causally and morally responsible for at least some of their actions, while distinguishing these from those actions that plausibly account for “determinist” concerns. Other participants to the discussion include my friend Roderick Tracy Long, who defends a libertarian incompatibilist account of free will [pdf]. (And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the many articles written by my friend Roger E. Bissell, defending a form of compatibilism that integrates “value-determinism” and “conditional free will”.)

Ryan’s concerns about the notion of libertarian free will echo my own. As he puts it:

If parts of your brain are messed with or missing, or if you have some sort of psychological disturbance, it seems that “free will” in the sense that most people typically mean (reasonable control over ourselves with deliberation abilities) goes away. … Our development does shape us in significant ways. We’re not “blank slates”. As one example, I don’t “choose” to enjoy or like Oreo cookies. I just do. Similarly, I don’t “choose” to have certain preferences or thinking patterns (think of the way people on the Autism spectrum might differ from those off the spectrum) that can radically shape the way I process and interact with the world.

But this doesn’t commit Ryan to strict determinism. For example, though he is ultimately agnostic on the proposition of a “Block Universe Theory”, he criticizes it as counterintuitive for its physics-driven belief that “everything has, in a sense, a manner of speaking, already happened. … [a]nd … that what we think of as free will is, in a sense, an illusion”. I especially like Ryan’s emphasis on “freedom of will” over “free will” for much the same reason that he prefers the notion of “freer” or “freed markets” over the ahistorical, abstract notion of a “free market”. Indeed, both freedom of will and freer markets exist on a continuum of sorts. This reflects Ryan’s contextualized sensibility and places him squarely in the compatibilist camp. He writes:

Let’s take a more mundane example. I went to the electronics store and had to decide between two TVs. I went back and forth on it and struggled to decide. I eventually just chose one over the other because maybe I liked the physical design more or something. I would say the same holds in that scenario. Given that we turned back the clock (which isn’t possible, so we can’t actually test it), it would make sense that I would make the same exact decision based on all factors affecting me in that moment (thought processes, including reasoning abilities, biological urges, external pressures, social upbringing, etc.). … We can move forward and be put in similar circumstances and act differently because we have different conditions (experiential knowledge, more information, different urges or preferences, thought patterns/brain states, etc.). But absent something changing, I don’t see why there would be a different result. That doesn’t take away freedom of will. It just means that there’s no reason I’d freely choose differently under the exact same conditions with nothing changing.

I think it’s fair to say that we have a constrained freedom of will that is on a spectrum but allows us to actually make decisions. … Freedom of will is not something that is absolute and instead has definite limits. I’d say it varies for all of us every day. Catch me at a time when I’m hungry, tired, sick, or irritable for some reason and that can lead me to acting in ways I wouldn’t otherwise. … Various mental issues and struggles all affect my ability to act in the way I would ideally prefer too. I wouldn’t have shouted at my mom when she was asking me a simple question if I felt good, but due to not feeling great I did. My ability to respond in the way I would have preferred was hampered by the effects of my discomfort. I don’t see how that doesn’t count as restricting freedom of will in a similar way as we’d accept that something like schizophrenia can. … That’s not an argument against there being ANY freedom of will, but rather not a perfect one. Just as I don’t think there can be a perfectly “free” market, I don’t think there can be a perfectly “free” will. Some proponents don’t seem to think that’s the case. I’ve argued about that for many years and always find someone who wants to push back on it.

Like Ryan, I too take issue with the very framing of the question and the labels that are used in the debate. I also agree that nobody has fully resolved this issue and it’s not likely to be resolved. Given our ever-evolving knowledge, shifting definitions, and the enormous complexity of the human mind, I think the dialectical-compatibilist ‘middle way’ through the strict free will/determinist duality is almost unavoidable, precisely because it doesn’t depend on us knowing, thru some “synoptic delusion”, the ultimate answers to all the deepest questions. As I wrote on Ryan’s thread:

Just as I am always emphasizing context in my adherence to dialectical methods, I’d say the same thing about freedom of the will. We are ALL embedded in a context, or MANY contexts, each of which shapes who we are and how we evolve and even how we respond to our own evolution over time. Our contexts include not only our in-born capacities, but also our familial, communal, cultural, and structural contexts, and how each of us responds to these is not a given.

Heck, we’re not even tabula rasa at birth, if you count for the fact that biologically and genetically, we’re affected to varying extents, in terms of our physical, cognitive, and emotional capacities. Some of us are born prodigies and can pick up a violin and play a concerto at age 2. Others struggle with in-born impairments to our physical and even mental health. Studies show that we’re even affected by what’s going on outside the womb: the sounds from outside our protected environment, the effects of the mother’s health, hormones, etc.

That doesn’t mean that we’re “programmed” like automatons, but it does mean that we all function on a uniquely individual spectrum of “freedom of the will”—which also holds out the hope that changing contexts can either nourish us to greater freedom, or further impair our ability to choose. If we didn’t have any such freedom, then we should abandon all hope that any education, pedagogical methods, clinical psychology/psychotherapy, medical attention, changes to our family and community environments, even cultural and social change, would make any difference at all.

On that basis, it seems to me that, yes, we do live on a continuum, and just as factors can shape our decisions, so too can our decisions shape factors.

Yes, we live in a world governed by the “laws of nature”. Yes, we are part of nature. Yes, we engage the world with our minds, while also attempting to understand the means by which our distinctive consciousness grasps that world. But since we are not omniscient, we need to define those contexts that give real, nay, transformative, substance to what is meant by “freedom of the will”. I find it interesting, therefore, that the social-psychological dimension that both Ryan and I touch upon resonates too with philosopher Stephen Cave, who writes:

The kind of free will that I do think exists is one that is actually entirely compatible with the laws of nature as we know them. This kind of free will doesn’t happen at the level of quantum events, or even of individual neurones. It happens at the level studied by psychology—the level of decisions, deliberations and imagination. … The free will debate is such a hardy perennial because these two levels of explanation appear to contradict each other: On the one hand, seeing humans as part of nature’s causal chain; on the other hand, seeing humans as autonomous, creative, deliberating beings. But we are slowly moving towards a better understanding of both levels, and this—more than any fanciful ideas of free-floating consciousness-transmitters—will help us eventually to become the best we can be.

As Cave suggests, we need to focus on both levels in their interconnections, such that no single aspect is grasped to the exclusion of the other. The need to understand the larger contexts that condition our focus and the means by which we are empowered to alter those conditions are two interrelated aspects of the same whole. Indeed, they are deeply connected to the whole project of human freedom and personal flourishing. Freedom—be it the freedom of the will or the freedom to act in the world—external to conditions is an illusion; flourishing without such freedom is an impossibility. But that’s a post for another day …