Category Archives: Sexuality

The Essential Women of Liberty

For people looking for a fine introduction to the thought of a select group of women who have contributed to the cause of liberty, let me recommend The Essential Women of Liberty, coedited by Donald Boudreaux and Aeon J. Skoble, published by the Fraser Institute, with a foreword by Virginia Postrel. My dear friend Aeon informs me that the book is also available in hardcover and softcover editions.

The volume includes essays on Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau, Rose Director Friedman, Mary Paley Marshall, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand (a nice essay by Carrie-Ann Biondi), Anna Schwartz, Jane Jacobs, Elinor Ostrom, and Deirdre McCloskey.

I am truly delighted by the remarkably diverse selection of thinkers featured in this anthology. Indeed, any volume that runs the gamut from Wollstonecraft and Rand to Jacobs and Ostrom is worth the price of admission.

Deirdre McCloskey is the only woman featured in this collection whom I’ve ever had the privilege of getting to know personally, having worked closely with her as a contributor to The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, which I coedited with Roger Bissell and Ed Younkins. (Indeed, a Facebook symposium dedicated to that anthology generated a colloquy on her delightful contribution, which appeared in the May 2020 issue of Poroi.)

The book is available as a PDF (for free) and in a Kindle edition (for a mere 99 cents!). Check out a nice YouTube video highlighting the collection …

“Roe, On the Edge”

It’s all over the news this morning. As David Leonhardt tells us in the New York Times:

The Supreme Court has decided to overturn Roe v. Wade and allow states to outlaw abortion, according to a written draft of the justices’ decision obtained by Politico.

Other publications have not confirmed the authenticity of the draft, and Supreme Court justices sometimes change their minds during the writing of opinions. But many legal observers are treating the draft as authentic and assuming that abortion policy in the U.S. is about to be transformed.

Among the reasons: The tone and style of the draft match those of earlier court decisions. The outcome also matches an outcome that seemed plausible based on the justices’ questions during arguments in December. After Politico published its story last night, the Supreme Court declined to comment.

If the court overturns Roe, many conservative states would likely outlaw nearly all abortions. One estimate suggests that the number of abortions in the U.S. would decline by about 14 percent, The Times’s Claire Cain Miller and Margot Sanger-Katz explain.

I note this here not to get into a debate on the reasoning of Roe v. Wade or to even debate the issue of when life begins. I note this here for one reason and one reason only: If this Court overturns Roe v. Wade, and throws it all back to the states, with many of the most neanderthal states looking to outlaw it completely, it will have annihilated the reproductive rights of women who have fought for a generation to secure them.

If folks thought the “culture war” has been raging out of control, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. A fight must be waged against those who have the audacity to think they can dictate what any woman can or should do with her own body and her own life.

LGBTQ + Education

Folks have long known my stance on LGBTQ+ issues, but I wanted to give a H/T to Ari Armstrong, who provides some worthwhile “Notes on the ‘Groomer’ Panic and Transgender issues“. Ari is spot on in his central concern that “various conservatives seem to be intentionally drumming up a moral panic about the alleged ‘grooming’ of school children who are exposed to conversations and readings that <gasp!> discuss gay and transgender people.”

Thanks too, Ari, for citing my 2003 monograph, Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation (now on sale at the Center for a Stateless Society).

Memories of Dad

As ballroom dancers, Mom and Dad met on the dance floor. Nobody could cut a rug doing a swift Peabody or a Lindy-Hop better! Dad always said if he had to die, he wanted to go out dancing.

And that is exactly what he was doing when he died on this date, fifty years ago.

On March 4, 1972, my father, Salvatore Charles Sciabarra (“Sal” to his family and friends), died of a massive coronary at the age of 55. He would have turned 56 on June 11, 1972. At the time, I was 12 years old, suffering from serious life-threatening medical problems, and the news of his passing shattered me. It was my first experience with death as a fact of life. It was so very hard. But the cherished memories I have of him are still very much alive.

Mom was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1919; Dad was born in Manhattan in 1916. As young children, they both moved to Brooklyn, New York and met as teenagers because of their mutual love of dancing. In 1935, she was 16 and he was 19. They had attended a wedding together and Mom missed curfew and didn’t want to go home to the wrath of her father, my Papouli, the first pastor of the Three Hierarchs Church. They decided to elope. Times were very different back then; intermarriage between faiths and ethnicities was frowned upon. Mom was an American-born Greek Orthodox woman whose parents had emigrated from Olympia, Greece. Dad was an American-born Roman Catholic man whose parents had emigrated from Porto Empedocle, not far from Sciacca (hence the last name), in the province of Agrigento, Sicily. Or as I put it, tongue-in-cheek: My maternal grandparents came from the home of the gods and goddesses and my paternal grandparents came from the home of the godfathers; clearly, this Brooklyn-born boy came from tough stock!

My parents were not gods, goddesses, or ‘godparents’. But they were very human renegades for their time. And, in many ways, they raised three renegade children, each of whom danced to their own music. My brother Carl—exposed to my father’s mandolin, guitar, and drum-playing, would go on to become a virtuoso jazz guitarist. My sister Elizabeth—exposed to my mother’s love of education (Mom was the first in her family to graduate from high school, James Madison High School in Brooklyn)—would go on to become a lifelong educator. And both my parents encouraged me to follow my own dreams; I would not have become what I am today without them.

Mom and Dad separated when I was 5 years old. Though my sister and I lived with my Mom, my Dad remained a very strong presence in my life. In fact, in the wake of that separation, his presence in my life only grew. There were difficult times for sure, but these were far outweighed by fun times. Trips to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, its hills like huge mountains to me, its zoo full of wonder, nourished my love of nature. Coney Island, Manhattan Beach, car rides, music, and movies delighted me.

One of those movies was “The Love Bug,” whose action centered around Herbie, a Volkswagen Beetle. Dad had proposed taking my sister and me to see the film, which was playing at the Cinema Theatre on East Kings Highway (previously known as the Jewel Theatre). Mom was flustered by both the title and the theater. “You’re taking them to see a film called ‘The Love Bug’ at the Cinema!”—knowing all too well that the theater was an infamous headquarters for first-run racy porn flicks. Dad explained that it was a Disney film.

Like Mom, who worked in the garment industry for most of her life, Dad too was a factory worker. Initially, he was an eye-setter in a doll factory. We still have some of those dolls, with their life-like eyes, which my Dad brought home for my sister Elizabeth. Eventually, he would become a cargo worker for Trans World Airlines at JFK International Airport. I still have plenty of TWA memorabilia, including TWA soaps and TWA Flying Magic Boards, given to kids of all ages on flights (see the collage below). Today, you’re lucky if you can get complementary snacks! I hadn’t flown on a plane in my Dad’s lifetime, but I got to see planes up close at the airport as a kid. It fueled my awe of the heavens and sparked my lifelong fascination with the human journey into air and space.

Despite losing my Dad in 1972, I continued to be nourished by a very loving and supportive family throughout my entire life. And it was to these family members that I dedicated each of my books. I told Mom that I would dedicate my first book, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, to her. Alas, she died in April 1995, before that book was published. I told my Uncle Sam—my Dad’s first cousin, who married my mother’s sister (my Aunt Georgia) and who was like a second father to me—that I would dedicate my second book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, to him. But he died in 1994. It got so that I was very concerned about who would have been “sentenced” to death-by-dedication, for my third book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. So I opted for strength in numbers, a group dedication—to my brother, sister, sister-in-law, friend Matthew, and dog Blondie, and all, except for Blondie, are still kicking till this day!

I never had a chance to honor my father. I was his “Chrissy Bear”; he was my Daddy. This post acknowledges his joyous impact on my life.

That’s me with Mom and Dad in September 1969, along with that TWA memorabilia …








DWR (5): On Cancel Culture, Comedy, and Compassion

The other day, in the New York Daily News, one of my favorite comic strips, “Pearls Before Swine”, by Stephan Pastis, featured this commentary on our age:

“The Judgment Age”… or maybe, the “Snap-Judgment Age”… either way, Pastis is just touching upon a very touchy subject.

In my ongoing Facebook engagement with my very dear friend Ryan Neugebauer, the discussion turned to these touchy subjects—to issues of social justice, cancel culture, the limits of comedy, and the effects of the 2020 riots in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

As Notablog readers know, I’ve addressed many of these issues before in my own Notablog posts. See, for example, my discussion of the Floyd murder—and it’s aftermath (“America: On Wounded Knee”), my examination of the attack on statues and monuments (“On Statues, Sledgehammers, and Scalpels”), and my exploration of the commonality between Rand’s view of racism and Critical Race Theory (“Ravitch, Rand, and CRT: The Ominous Parallels?”).

A professional psychotherapist, Ryan comes from a dialectical left-libertarian perspective. In a very personal, wide-ranging Facebook post, Ryan grappled with many of the issues mentioned above. That post is not public, but is worthy of a larger audience, in my view, for the thoughtful compassion it exhibits and advocates. Here’s what Ryan had to say:

***

This should be prefaced by the fact that all of my positions are constantly evolving, so what I am going to write is not the final word on anything (nor should it be). I welcome all helpful, critical feedback.

Where to start? It’s difficult because there’s so much in all of this and so many people feel very strongly about where they stand on these issues. So, I think it might be helpful to start elementary by discussing a foundation for handling any issue, social justice or not.

My foundation is a “Dialectical Left-Libertarian” one. The dialectical part is based in Chris Matthew Sciabarra‘s “dialectical libertarianism”, where he conceptualizes dialectics as “the art of context keeping”. In a 2005 article of his for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), he states: “If one’s aim is to resolve a specific social problem, one must look to the larger context within which that problem is manifested, and without which it would not exist.” Kevin Carson, in further describing Sciabarra’s approach, states that: “Individual parts receive their character from the whole of which they are a part, and from their function within that whole.”

Despite my differences with him—I’m not as much of a free-market propertarian and not big on the “nonaggression” principle—I love Gary Chartier‘s description of the “Left-Libertarian” here. Wikipedia describes it as “a political philosophy and type of libertarianism that stresses both individual freedom and social equality.” That Wikipedia article mentions Anthony Gregory and says that: “Gregory describes left-libertarianism as maintaining interest in personal freedom, having sympathy for egalitarianism and opposing social hierarchy, preferring a liberal lifestyle, opposing big business and having a New Left opposition to imperialism and war.” Ultimately, the Left-Libertarian framework has a concern with social authoritarianism, whether from government or culture or both, and a concern with economic injustice and dependence on wage labor relations. The core concern is with individual freedom & flourishing.

Now that I have sketched out that foundation, I would like to talk about an important communication concern. Whenever you are discussing issues with someone who disagrees or who holds a very different framework than you do, you have to “know your audience”. You have to get in touch with their concerns and learn how to frame your responses in a way that speaks to those concerns. You don’t want to be dismissive and you don’t want to get them wrong. Otherwise, you will probably do a lot of talking past each other or find yourself in tense and hostile space. Therefore, if you are a Leftist talking to a typical American Conservative, you have to address their concerns with societal stability, government overreach, and family values. If you are a Conservative talking with a typical present-day Leftist, you have to address their concerns with social equality, economic justice, and environmental protection. If you are instead interested in beating these people over the head with how right you are and how trivial their concerns are, you will have ended any hope for reaching them.

Let’s get started on “social justice” (I have to make headway at some point!). The John Lewis Institute for Social Justice describes it as follows:

“Social justice is a communal effort dedicated to creating and sustaining a fair and equal society in which each person and all groups are valued and affirmed. It encompasses efforts to end systemic violence and racism and all systems that devalue the dignity and humanity of any person. It recognizes that the legacy of past injustices remains all around us, so therefore promotes efforts to empower individual and communal action in support of restorative justice and the full implementation of human and civil rights”.

I feel like that’s a difficult thing to oppose for most people. You may see differences on the specifics, but at least the spirit of it is hard to oppose for most. Personally, I am absolutely committed to this conception of social justice.

In contrast, there are people called “social justice warriors” (SJWs) or “woke” individuals, more often used in a pejorative sense these days (though some own one or both of these terms in a positive sense). A Wikipedia entry on the matter describes social justice warrior as “a pejorative term and internet meme used for an individual who promotes socially progressive, left-wing and liberal views, including feminism, civil rights, gay and transgender rights, identity politics, political correctness and multiculturalism”. That’s a mouthful and not very helpful. On that description alone, I would count for a significant chunk of it (I take issue with the varying ways “identity politics” and “political correctness” get used though). In regard to “woke”, one article states: “The dictionary defines it as ‘originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’.” That article goes on to say: “It has become a common term of derision among some who oppose the movements it is associated with, or believe the issues are exaggerated. It is sometimes used to mock or infantilise supporters of those movements”. This gets at the key point of all of this: application.

Two people could both advocate strongly for social justice but take very different approaches to it. When people are derided as “SJWs” or “woke”, it is sometimes used to indicate the degree of aggressiveness or rigidity surrounding their advocacy for social justice. And to be fair, there is no shortage of examples of people who advocate for social justice in the lousiest of ways. You have people (taken from my own personal interactions) who say ridiculous things like “science is white male supremacy” or “the only legitimate pronouns are they/them” or “all Trump supporters are fascists”, etc. They often make very extreme or harsh claims that don’t stand up to the slightest of scrutiny. When they get pushback, they often get even more aggressive and dogmatic. Much like very dogmatic religious individuals. I will say without hesitation that I don’t defend these approaches and find them counterproductive to social justice efforts. Putting aside their inaccuracies or foolishness, they push people away from seriously important causes. Therefore, a Dialectical Left-Libertarian approach would want to find ways to communicate effectively with others and ensure that any actions are not harming the push towards greater freedom and flourishing for all.

And here we get to “cancel culture”. First, we must point out that “cancel culture” to the degree that it exists, happens on both the right-wing and left-wing. McCarthyism was institutional cancel culture from the Right in a very extreme way that present-day cancel culture accusations can’t put a candle to, especially with the “wild west” of the World Wide Web at our fingertips. Just watch the movie “Trumbo” (2015) to see how bad it got in one area: cinema. That said, it is more often discussed in association with the Progressive Left these days, so we will focus on its widespread association today. Dictionary.com describes it as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming”. It has more broadly been associated with shouting down speakers, physically shutting down events, getting speakers cancelled from universities, and preventing certain media or materials from being consumed. This topic overlaps with the topic of “comedy” mentioned above.

From a Dialectical Left-Libertarian perspective, one should be concerned with how the things associated with “cancel culture” aid or curtail the project of increasing freedom & flourishing for all. Some actions are perfectly legitimate, such as boycotting when harmful actions are done. That signals that we want the boycotted to do better and potentially to do restitution before we are to support them in any sense again (if at all). However, shutting down speakers and banning books I am much less comfortable with. This more often than not leads to negative pushback and people seeking out or defending the shutdown or banned entities more. In my opinion, this happened with the awful Milo Yiannopoulos. The aggressive demonstrations against him drew more attention than his talks could on their own. It was the highlighting of his comments on adult sexual relationships with 13-year-olds that led to everyone distancing from him and him losing his limelight. You rarely hear from him today (please let’s keep it that way!). Nonetheless, most people I have spoken with across the political spectrum have been uncomfortable with a lot of these previously mentioned “cancel culture” tactics. They may support the underlying causes and some specific implementations of the various tactics, but they don’t like the normalization of the tactics against everything perceived as wrong or offensive. Maybe there are times when stopping someone’s speech is necessary, especially without question when it treads into dangerous territory of inciting violence. However, it’s hardly clear that it should be something we are comfortable with normalizing.

When it comes to comedy, I can’t help but think about this George Carlin interview [YouTube link]. He talks about the importance of comedy targeting people in power and those that abuse others. He appears to have a concern with those who target the marginalized in society, even if he wouldn’t want to ban any comic’s ability to make such jokes. However, there is an ethical question regarding when comedy can “go too far”. On this question, I mentioned in a recent Facebook livestream that I laughed very hard at Lisa Lampanelli’s comedy routines [YouTube link]. They were very offensive without question. And her packed, very diverse audiences were always laughing very hard.

However, in the chat section of the livestream, I responded to a dear friend by saying: “On the one hand, few of us can deny that we find her comedy hilarious. People of all backgrounds in her very diverse audiences were on the floor. On the other hand, there does seem to be a limit of ‘going too far’, but that’s going to vary with each person and their values. So, what’s the way forward? A messy, difficult one that probably has no absolute standards.”

So, in short, I don’t know what the reasonable limits of comedy are. I imagine the answer isn’t “everything is permitted” or “nothing offensive can be permitted”. If that’s the case, and we can’t fall back on simple standards of condoning everything or condemning anything offensive, then we have to make the tough calls, risk being inconsistent or wrong, or, in dialectical fashion, look at the context and see that something may not be right under one context rather than another. But I won’t claim to know where to come down on everything. I just know that I reject the rigid extremes here. Check out one approach to this subject by George Carlin [YouTube link; especially 9:42 to 11:50). I have issues with it, but I still like hearing his perspective as a comedian who was sensitive to these issues. Just like me, he doesn’t get the final word.

You might ask: What should we do about all of this? Well, that’s easier said than done. And I am not going to claim to have all the answers here. However, I think we have an obligation to stand up for those who are oppressed and should not remain silent just because it is easier or more comfortable. I think we should organize and seek to increase inclusivity and justice in our culture and governance institutions. We should have more than deconstruction and disruption. We need a positive way forward. We need an opening of society. No such opening will come without significant changes to our society, including, importantly, to the economy. Supporting gay marriage and transgender inclusivity in schools isn’t going to help the homeless gay or transgender individual. Those things matter but they are not the only things that matter. At the end of the day, unless we start having more open and honest conversations about these matters, rather than avoiding discussing them (common with the right-wing) or shutting down anyone who doesn’t measure up to peak SJW performance (common with the Progressive Left), we will not make the progress we want on these various important issues.

What about the 2020 demonstrations and riots following the killing of George Floyd by police? First, let us point out that the killing of George Floyd took place in May, just two months after the COVID pandemic took off in the United States. So much of society shut down, many had died or were dying with COVID, people were out-of-work with little to do, finances were rough, tensions were high, we were in a heavily divided election year, and had a president who played on the discord for his own gain. Whew! That’s a lot! This was far from the first wrongful killing of an African American man by US police. But it was the first one that gained major attention post-pandemic. Once it happened, the long history of anger and frustration surrounding this ongoing problem with police erupted into mass protests and riots across the country. My knee-jerk reaction was to come out in full support of anything fighting against this despicable institution. However, I dialogued with a lot of people who disagreed, including African Americans themselves. Several pointed out the harm it caused to so many minority neighborhoods. It’s one thing to protest, demonstrate, and disrupt powerful institutions (like Wall Street and the police). It’s another to burn down and destroy small businesses, the local pharmacy, and homes.

Some may say this is the price of activism and standing up for what is right. I’m not so sure that’s the case. I wouldn’t disagree that it is the price of a very immoral and bankrupt system. But it’s true that once people take to the streets en masse, you often get people who take advantage of the disruption to cause reckless damage with little concern for the lives and well-being of others. Most protesters and most people were not in support of such destruction. An important point is that we should be more angry with the cause of the discord than the discord itself. In contrast, the reactionary who is fine with things being as they are gets more upset with the discord. The reactionary would just love for everyone to go home or protest in ineffective ways that don’t stress the system and incentivize it to change for the better. I certainly don’t want to come across as defending that. However, I think we need to do better than raising our fists and getting excited over watching the local pharmacy burning to the ground. I reject the idea that we must defend every action that happened during the summer of 2020. I also reject the idea that that was the most effective way to address these matters. Regardless, I also know that such social upheavel is difficult to manage or plan ahead for, so we should put more of our resources and thinking towards making our society better so that we don’t warrant such upheaval in the first place. My Dialectical Left-Libertarian approach applied to the 2020 George Floyd protests/riots would want to ensure that any actions were in line with increasing freedom & flourishing for all, especially those most marginalized. If a given tactic or action leads to the destruction of the very lives and neighborhoods that we seek to strengthen and empower, then something is very wrong.

My last point applies to all these topics. There is a real problem with forgiveness, compassion, and flexible thinking in many social justice circles. Though I have hit on the dogmatism and rigidity already before, it is necessary to bring it up again because it is linked with an increased difficulty with forgiveness and compassion. Many people in these circles become so charged, rigid, and intense, that they start to treat others who fall short of their views with callousness, indifference, and aggression. You could be largely in line with them on most things—but fall short anywhere (how dare you, imperfect human!) and get prepared to be cancelled, attacked, smeared, and thrown away without a moment’s thought! We need to distance ourselves from some people or get them out of our lives—especially when they are actively hostile and don’t care. It’s not our responsibility to engage and try to “reform” everyone. But people like the ones being addressed here go to such extremes. They tend to lack compassion for others and look for things to condemn them for with no forgiveness on the horizon. That’s a toxic phenomenon that has no potential for building a just world. If we can’t forgive and show compassion, we fall into permanent war with nearly everyone. Permanent war is not preferable or sustainable, and it doesn’t have seeds for building a free and flourishing society for all. So, if we are to advocate for social justice, we are going to need to get in touch with compassion and forgiveness. If we don’t, we won’t get social justice. Instead, we will get social isolation and decline.

Like I have said many times at this point, this is not my final word or the final word on any of these matters. However, I wanted to cover these various contentious issues and find a way to apply my Dialectical Left-Libertarian approach to them. Let’s continue the project of “context-keeping” for freedom & flourishing together by continuing to dialogue and finding out better ways to approach very difficult issues and topics.

And don’t forget! You (which includes me) most likely didn’t always hold the views you do now. You most likely didn’t always advocate for social justice for all. You most likely suffered (and maybe continue to suffer) from serious ideological blindspots. Before you beat people down with the social justice stick, think instead about the compassion and support you would have liked to have had during a previous stage of your life. Then attempt to give that to the person in need. If they reject it and get hostile, move along. At least you tried rather than writing them off. And who knows, maybe a social justice seed was still planted and will sprout down the road.

***

In the Facebook thread that followed, I stated:

I am so very impressed with the careful way in which you laid out your case, and even more impressed with the ways in which you have applied the whole notion of context-keeping, so essential to dialectical thinking, to the process of exposition. If people cannot articulate their views in ways that even attempt to “reach across the divide”, they will forever be speaking in an echo chamber. And if they surround themselves with nobody but people who think likewise, they will find themselves caught up in the righteousness of their ideas without any concern for how those ideas are to be implemented in a pluralistic society. In other words, people need to exhibit the very charitable and compassionate ideals they claim to extol in the communicative process. If folks can’t even do that, then they are likely never to achieve those charitable, compassionate, or just ideals. To “know your audience”, as you put it, is essential, therefore, not only to the ability to communicate, but also essential to effectively making your point.

I also think that it is important to note, as you do so clearly, how we all need to have active minds that are open to our own self-acknowledgement of an evolution in our thinking—intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally.

I cannot take issue with anything you’ve said above. A job so very well done. It does not solve every problem—nor is it intended to—and if it leads to “pushback”, so be it. And if that “pushback” only goes to prove the points you have made (something that I’ve seen in threads on my own Timeline), so be it. It is just refreshing to see honesty, self-awareness, and compassion shedding light on topics that too often generate heat. …

Since this is a very touchy subject, there are many people who are literally afraid to discuss this issue; hence, they engage in the self-censorship of silence. And that, perhaps, is the greatest casualty of the phenomena that you so bravely address.

Since I’ve devoted so much space to Ryan’s post, I’ll let him have the last word here:

That’s a very fair point. To speak positively about social justice in most right-wing spaces gets you hit with nasty comments, accusations, and demands that you answer for every extreme taken by someone in the name of social justice. To speak critically about social justice in most left-wing spaces gets you cancelled, accused of being a fascist or racist, told you are simply speaking from a place of privilege, or some other dismissive or harsh response. Very unfortunate. Maybe we can work towards undoing that with more of these type discussions. ❤  

DWR (3): Rhetoric Right and Left

Back on November 23, 2021, I posted a dialogue I had with my friend Ryan Neugebauer (the third in my ongoing DWR Series) prompted by a Les Leopold article asking if F. A. Hayek was really a Bernie Sanders socialist in disguise. This week, we’ve had some additional discussion, prompted by a Matt McManus article, “To Beat the Right, We Have to Understand Their Arguments.” McManus focuses on the work of Albert O. Hirschmann, who has examined The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. As McManus puts it, Hirschmann argues that

conservatives use three rhetorical “theses” to make their case: the perversity thesis, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis.

The perversity thesis holds that when the Left tries to produce some beneficial change, “the exact contrary” occurs; their aspirations backfire, done in by the law of unintended consequences. In his Considerations on France, Joseph de Maistre went so far as to argue that God would punish the French revolutionaries and bring about the “exaltation of Christianity and monarchy.”

The second argument Hirschman analyzes is more sobering. It is the futility thesis, or the claim that “any alleged [progressive] change is, was, or will be largely surface, façade, cosmetic, hence illusory, as the deep structures of society remain wholly untouched.”

As Corey Robin has observed, the futility thesis is the most effective against the Left because it bears more than a passing similarity to the structural analysis that radicals favor. If the ambition is to fundamentally reshape the institutions and power dynamics of society, and the best progressives can do is make superficial alterations, conservatives will be on hand to declare: “I told you so.” The result is a sense of powerlessness and, well, futility, on the part of the Left.

The last reactionary trope is the jeopardy thesis. While the perversity and futility theses are “remarkably simple and bald,” the jeopardy thesis takes a more elliptical approach to combating left politics by asserting that a “proposed change, though perhaps desirable in itself, involves unacceptable costs or consequences of one sort or another.” In other words, our desire to have it all jeopardizes what we’ve already achieved.


In the discussion that followed, I remarked:

I’ve read Hirschmann over the years, and he’s very good on these issues.

In truth, however, these arguments—especially those that highlight the important role of unintended consequences and the boomerang effects that happen such that policies enacted achieve the opposite of their alleged intentions—have been and should be used effectively against any “top-down” state planning, be it that of the “right” or the “left”. They are applicable not only to the genesis of “state capitalism” and “state socialism” but even to the rise of the regulatory state, the national security state, and the permanent war economy, each of which taken in isolation, and all of which, taken organically, have produced a host of consequences, both intended (typically, by the ruling elites) and unintended (by those same folks), that have fundamentally undermined the radical, progressive agenda.

Ostensibly, regulation was supposed to rein in the “excesses” of markets, but it typically enriched the very industries being regulated (that’s the history of the Progressive era and everything that has happened since). This is how regulatory capture by corporatist “planners” has panned out. Even the building of a national security state and a permanent war economy were justified to keep the citizenry both “free” and “secure”—and have achieved neither freedom nor security. This was, indeed, “the triumph of conservatism”—as Gabriel Kolko and scores of historians have argued.

Rhetorically speaking and historically speaking, one can turn the tables on the “conservative tropes” by pointing out that “top-down” planning of any political hue typically leads to the entrenchment of the most reactionary elements in global political economy.

The very last sentence in the article hits on a crucially important issue: “This should give the Left confidence that, even if the arc of history doesn’t inevitably bend our way, our ideas will convince more people in the long run. And that’s because they are the right ideas.”

To me, this strikes the most significant chord in the symphony that constitutes progressive social change. It means that the triumph of genuinely progressive social ideals can only happen because more and more people have been convinced of their efficacy—at which point, fundamental change, through a cultural shift from the “bottom up”, rather than the “top down,” will indeed bend “the arc of history.”

Ryan responded:

I think there are weak forms of the theses/arguments that are legitimate. For example, Bastiat’s “the seen and unseen” is an example of how statists often don’t factor in unintended consequences or the ways in which their policies can have negative consequences. So it’s important to not naively think you can just tinker from the top-down and everything works out as intended like so many seem to assume.
 
Furthermore, as you point out with Kolko, there’s the issue with regulatory capture and regulations being used to benefit major corporations. Therefore, any actions will likely be filtered and constrained by the crony system.
 
That said, given that we have the system that we have where business and the state grow closer together and mutually benefit from each other, people like the author and Hirschmann believe we should still try to take actions to reign in the problems that come out of the very imperfect system that we have. This is what the strong versions of the theses/arguments seek to undermine. They want hands off and no regulation, at least in their preferred areas. As you note, the right-wing has their own favored regulations. But we don’t have a non-crony free market system and we can’t just sit around waiting for things to potentially correct themselves.
 
The response “just take away all of the benefits/regulations” that Classical Liberals and Right-Libertarians love is just lazy. It’s like “cool, but that’s not on the table”. I like what you said your Marxist dissertation supervisor Bertell Ollman once said (I’m paraphrasing): “Libertarians act like someone who wants to order Chinese food at a steak restaurant. It’s not on the menu!” Heck, I’m not even convinced we can have literally zero regulations anyways, even if it’s not a nation state implementing them. The Montreal Protocol comes to mind as a clear example of the need for swift action that didn’t just depend on markets eventually shifting things.
 
Ultimately, I think the article’s arguing against the theses was more about opposing the strong versions (which you and I would too) than the weak versions (which you and I would see as necessary).

I replied:

I know Ryan is traveling, so he couldn’t look up the exact quotation from Bertell Ollman, my mentor and long-time colleague and dear friend, but the exact quote is even more stinging. I’ll take it from Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism:

In a 1981 debate with libertarian theorist Don Lavoie, [Ollman] opined: “Libertarians are a little bit like people who go into a Chinese restaurant and order pizza.” The issue here is: What’s on the menu, given objective conditions and constraints? There may be lots to choose from, wildly different meals that one can order in a Chinese restaurant, “but pizza isn’t one of them.”

(As an aside, it is my hope to finally digitize that debate between Lavoie and Ollman and to put it on my YouTube channel before too long. We’ll see how it holds up to the transfer, but it’s full of many such gems.)

We may not like and have not chosen to live in the societies into which we have been born and within which we all live. But given that these are the conditions that exist, there is not a single person alive who can function outside that context. We are a part of the societies we seek to change. Even as we try to influence a society, we are embedded in it and its institutional constraints will, by necessity, shape the choices we make.

I have argued time and again that fundamentalist “libertarians” have dropped the ball on so many issues that I’ve lost count. The libertarian response to the pandemic could be extended to any number of other huge “externalities”, be it climate change, a tsunami, an earthquake, or any other natural or human-made disaster. We try everything we can to check the powers of states from using ’emergencies’ so as to augment their power and to simultaneously enrich the eiltes to which they are beholden. But given that these are the conditions that exist, every one of us is put at a comparative disadvantage if we choose to completely ‘opt out’ of the political give-and-take. The “strong” versions of the conservative ‘trope’ arguments are self-defeating and utopian; they apply, literally to ‘no-where’ (that’s what ‘utopian’ means). We all live some-where, in the world, as it exists, and if we don’t act to counter the forces that oppress us, thinking that ‘hands off’ is going to take care of itself, we’re conceding all political action to those who are most adept at using it—which is why, as Hayek said—the worst always get on top. If fundamentalist “libertarians” opt out of all politics because they think it “sanctions” actions that are immoral by definition, they will forever marginalize themselves to the point of total and complete irrelevance.

This is not just a battle against high taxes and regulations (whether they are endorsed by the tankie left or the nationalist right). It is a battle against laws that are never neutral; and sometimes, advocating a ‘rollback’ on one regulation, as Kevin Carson has argued, will not lead to a net decrease in state and ruling class power, but actually a net increase. That’s why one cannot opt out of the political battles; sometimes, you might eke out a change that alters the balance of power on an issue-by-issue basis that will benefit the most oppressed classes among us, even if it does not change the system fundamentally.

We have a very profound cultural problem. If we don’t do the hard work that is necessary to change the larger culture—a necessary precursor to fundamental social change—the battle is lost.

Finally, on the issue of political labels. I’ve had a lot of issues with words like “socialism” and “capitalism”, which mean so many things to so many people that it’s almost impossible to have a civil discussion about them anymore. I fear that the term “libertarian” is nearing the point of uselessness for the same reasons. Its first use as a word was in the debate over “free will”; but its first use as a political term was by left-wing European anarchists in the nineteenth century. I can live with that, proudly.

I retain the term “libertarian” to describe my politics and approach to social theory only because I always, and without fail, place the adjective “dialectical” before it; it modifies it sufficiently to keep me out of the fundamentalist camp. And it’s mysterious enough to some folks with thick skulls who are still asking me: “Now, what does ‘dialectical’ mean again?”

I’ve spent the bulk of my professional life fighting for the right to conjoin the words “dialectical” and “libertarianism”, and perhaps I’ve got so much intellectual energy invested in it that I won’t give it up, on principle. I won’t surrender either the terms “dialectical” or “libertarian” to those who are not sufficiently one or the other. The terms require each other because together they are integral to the larger project of human flourishing and human freedom.

Though Ryan and I come at this from different places, he agrees

that we are definitely on the same page and think similarly. As for the label “libertarian”, like Chris, I can’t use it in isolation. I say “Dialectical Left-Libertarian” on my profile to speak to accepting Chris’s wonderful approach and the more leftist variants like you get with Kevin Carson, David Graeber, Kropotkin, Proudhon, etc. It can also be seen as some synthesis of left-wing and libertarian thinking more broadly, not just anarchistic ones.

Sheldon Richman once wrote an article on how you can’t escape regulation but rather it comes down to how it is coming about. So he opposed government/community regulation but supported the kind of regulation that comes about through the market process. Sheldon never really shed his right-libertarian thinking even in his most supposedly Left-Libertarian days. Nonetheless, I liked the point on regulation of some sort always existing. What we are usually talking about is in the legislative and community senses, which Sheldon and most typical libertarians oppose or are very uncomfortable with.
 
Personally, I’ve become more comfortable with regulation of that sort and see it as necessary. I don’t think we can have a peaceful and healthy society without at least some of it. That said, there will always be an ongoing battle with reigning in its excesses and making sure it is done when it needs to be.
 
The typical libertarian hears that description and wants to solve it by eliminating the ability to regulate in the first place. Ha! Then there’s nothing to capture! Ha! And as tempting as that picture is (I ate it up for a short period many years ago), I ultimately think it is wrong. Yes, I’d like to see different governance than the state. But it’s not going away any time soon and may never go away. So, we have to do our best with the context we are in. Furthermore, even if it did go away, there would still be some form of community or federation style regulation. It is just how we operate. Then the question becomes “how” and in what way?
 
Unlike the typical libertarian, I want to deal with the difficult situation, not by eliminating any ability to regulate in a legislative or community sense, but rather seek to produce a situation where we don’t need to regulate as much and have a healthier mechanism/arrangement than the state to achieve it.
 
One more comment on tHe FrEe MaRkEt before I go skiing. We can clearly have freer and freed markets that open up competition and make things cheaper. Those still can exist in an environment with at least some regulation. So, I prefer “freer” and “freed” as descriptors over “free” which sounds so absolutist and “perfect”. That said, markets are not magical things. Just like governments are not magical things. Both are mechanisms or tools that operate with humans and all of their problems. Neither mechanism is equal to morality. It produces what the sum of the humans involved happen to push towards. A market where people overwhelmingly support sexual relations with children will likely give those people exactly what they want. Same for a government. Which speaks to the necessity of culture in the equation as you both wisely noted. That said, I don’t think any of us wants sex with children permitted, so then we have to ask how that is to be achieved. This is where I strongly oppose fundamentalist free-market thought that says “let the market decide”. The market is not a moral agent. It’s not a thinking decider. It’s a process engaged in by human thinking agents with all of their faults/imperfections and incentives. Therefore, it cannot be counted on to simply bust out what is moral. So what do you do then other than fight for some sort of government or community regulation with consequences for violating it?
 
This is not an easy conversation for someone like myself, who came from the free-market libertarian tradition, and in the fundamentalist Ancap sense. But it’s important to have.

In my JARS review of the Yaron Brook-Don Watkins book, Free Market Revolution, I too argued in favor of “freed markets”—markets liberated from their statist and authoritarian political and cultural structures of oppression, and from the history of state violence that has been the foundation for “capitalism: the known reality,” so unlike the Weberian “unknown ideal” projected by Ayn Rand.

All in all, this was a good conversation, which I wanted to preserve on Notablog, for those who don’t have access to Facebook.

Another Side to Eric Fleischmann: Soy! Live!

My friend Eric Fleischmann has published widely at the site of Center for a Stateless Society, including, recently, some very fine, original essays on the thought of individualist anarchist Laurence Labadie. I have previously written about his work on Notablog, here and here (where he critiqued my monograph, “Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation“). In addition to his developing scholarship, he’s a regular rabble-rousing activist anywhere he goes!

Not many people know of yet another side to Eric. His “secret” was safe with me—until now. Check him out tonight with the band Soy, which will run a live show, taped on January 2, 2022. He is a roaring lion on stage! It’s at 7 pm (ET) tonight! Don’t miss it!

Song of the Day #1902

Song of the Day: Paradise by the Dashboard Light, words and music by Jim Steinman, is a piece of musical theater that became a staple of classic rock radio when it was released in 1978 as the third single off the album, “Bat Out of Hell“, the 1977 debut album of singer and actor, Meat Loaf (Marvin Lee Aday). The Platinum 8+ minute track, featuring both Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley on vocals, was produced by Todd Rundgren, who plays guitar on the track. When the song came out—even as it was played endlessly in its full album glory—I had a certain sentimentality for it. Any song that features the rather ‘suggestive’ play-by-play of Hall of Fame Yankees shortstop and hilarious sports announcer, Phil Rizzuto, gets Major League Points in my book. Yesterday, Meat Loaf passed away at the age of 74. Check out one of his biggest hits [YouTube link].

Coronavirus (36): Denialism = Death

Back on March 14, 2020, I began a series on the Coronavirus, which continued through 35 installments (the most recent of which was posted on November 10, 2021).

This is not technically an installment of that series, but it addresses another kind of infection, which persists to this day among a certain brand of “libertarians”—who exhibited symptoms of it way back in the 1980s, when the HIV/AIDS crisis took hold in the United States. After seeing so many libertarians dismiss the COVID-19 “pandemic” (scare quotes intended) as non-lethal at best or an outright hoax at worst, I—a witness to hundreds of people in my hard-hit Brooklyn neighborhood being rushed to hospitals or off to funeral homes—was sickened, but not surprised by the denialism on display. On May 5, 2020, in the twenty-first installment of my Coronavirus series, “Lockdowns, Libertarians, and Liberation“, I wrote:

[T]here was something about the early response [of libertarians] to the coronavirus as a “hoax” or an “exaggeration” that was eerily familiar to me. Back in the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS was killing off a generation of gay men in the West (while ravaging a largely heterosexual population in Africa), some libertarians (including those influenced by Ayn Rand), ever fearful of those who proposed a growing governmental role in both medical research and in locking down bathhouses that were transmission belts for promiscuous, unsafe sex, grabbed onto the work of the molecular biologist Peter Duesberg, who played a major role in what became known as the AIDS denialism controversy. Duesberg was among those dissenting scientists who argued that there was no connection between HIV and AIDS, and that gay men were dying en masse because of recreational and pharmaceutical drug use, and then, later, by the use of AZT, an early antiviral treatment to combat those with symptoms of the disease.


If the scientific community had accepted Duesberg’s theories, hundreds of thousands of people would be dead today. The blood supply would never have been secured, since HIV screening of blood donors would never have become public policy, and countless thousands of people receiving blood transfusions would have been infected by HIV and would have subsequently died from opportunistic infections. …


So, while many libertarians have been at the forefront of rolling back the state’s interference in people’s personal lives, advocating the elimination of discriminatory anti-sodomy and marriage laws, there were some libertarians who, early on, in the AIDS epidemic, grabbed onto Duesberg’s theories as scientific proof that the whole HIV/AIDS thing was a pretext for the expansion of the state-science nexus.

While I do not dispute the dangers wrought by nearly a century of incestuous ties between government, science, and the medical, pharmaceutical, and health insurance industries, I do not believe that all the by-products of “state science” are “dangerous” to our health, as Edmond S. Bradley claimed back in 2006. Bradley, a doctor of music arts and composition, goes so far as to echo the Duesberg theory, which was dealt a serious blow by research developments in the late 1980s that bore fruit for effective treatments for HIV/AIDS by the mid-1990s.

Thinking that this 2006 Mises Institute article was an “outlier,” I was recently involved in a Facebook discussion where I was attacked by yet another “libertarian” for having proposed that there was something wrong with the Duesberg denialists. And then, on the site of the Property and Freedom Society, on January 5, 2022—only yesterday—a 2009 video of Duesberg was posted [YouTube link]. This resurrection of denialism is, of course, part of an overall pushback with regard to all things COVID. But it is not COVID that concerns me here.

The first cases of the “gay cancer” were reported in June 1981, but it was not until 1985, that HIV was first identified as “the causative agent of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and its complete genome was immediately available.” With nearly 48,000 people dead in the U.S. from AIDS by 1987, the formation of the group ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was a turning point for bottom-up civil disobedience against the administrative bungling, political in-fighting and bureaucratic red-tape that made it virtually impossible for any drugs under development to be used in the fight against HIV/AIDS. AZT, the first drug approved for use in this fight, certainly had some of the horrific side effects that Duesberg highlighted, but back then, it was being administered in much higher doses, given the lack of alternative treatments.

The big breakthrough came with the discovery of HIV protease-inihibitors in the late 1980s. Protease inhibitors played a crucially important role in the creation of
highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). Proteases are

basically proteins that are used to break down other certain chemical structures of protein in your body—a process that can help with digestion or healing wounds. However, proteases are also necessary for certain conditions—including HIV—to thrive.  ‌Protease inhibitors, which figure among the key drugs used to treat HIV, work by binding to proteolytic enzymes (proteases). That blocks their ability to function. 

Protease inhibitors don’t cure HIV. But by blocking proteases, they can stop HIV from reproducing itself. As such, they lower the body’s viral load—a term that refers to the amount of HIV in the body—and slow the progression of HIV. 

It took about ten years for the first protease inhibitor to reach the market. Take a look at this table below—which will no doubt be dismissed by Duesberg denialists as CDC “fictions”:

The Duesberg denialists cannot explain what happened between 1993-1995 and 1996-2000. They cannot explain why the death rate from AIDS fell by nearly 50% in 1997 alone. I want an answer from these denialists as to why this happened. Did all those dirty, drug-addicted, gay men simply “straighten” up their act, and stop taking those recreational drugs that Duesberg saw as the cause of AIDS? Quite frankly, given that there were a reported 100,000 overdose deaths in 2021 alone—augmented by two years of a COVID crisis that has led to a significant rise in both mental health and substance abuse problems across the population regardless of sexual orientation or sexual practices—I’m wondering why, given Duesberg’s assumptions, we have not seen a corresponding rise in AIDS cases.

The Duesberg denialists have absolutely no explanation whatsoever for the remarkable turn of events from 1993-1995 to 1996-2000. It was with the introduction of “cocktail” drug therapies, which combined three or more antiretroviral drugs—chief among them those protease inhibitors that were able to prevent HIV from multiplying inside the body—that significantly reduced patients’ viral loads to undetectable levels, and that have curtailed the scourge of opportunistic infections that were killing people by the hundreds of thousands in the 1980s and early 1990s. Today, there are an estimated 1.2 million people living with AIDS in the United States—not dying from it.

This is personal. And I’ll even grant that it’s anecdoctal evidence. But in the 1980s, I was busy DJ’ing and dancing, though pharmaceuticals and unsafe sex were not part of the party. I knew scores of gay men, many of whom were very dear friends who died from AIDS. Only a handful of these friends could be characterized as recreational drug users.

One of my dearest friends in the world nearly died of AIDS in 1996, and if it were not for those miracle antiretroviral treatments, he would have been six feet under. Today, he is living and flourishing, without any detectable viral load, thanks to the medical breakthroughs from which he was able to benefit. Had he been diagnosed only two years before, I am convinced he would never have survived.

The Denialists have no answers. All they have is their stultifying ideological pseudoscience.

So I will declare this without an ounce of regret. To echo ACT-UP’s refrain that “Silence = Death“, I say “Denialism = Death.” And if you are among the denialists, then you have blood on your hands.

__
A H/T to my friend Ryan Neugebauer for some of the links in the above Notablog entry.

Postscript: Folks can check out the public discussion of this post on my Facebook Profile. For the benefit of readers, I reproduce several of my comments from that discussion here.

One commentator posted a link to this older 1996 piece, which was self-refuting, because it did not take into account the miraculous turnaround in AIDS-related deaths that occurred from 1997 to the present day. Then, the commentator posted a link to this dissenting voice to the scientific consensus, which focuses on the use of “poppers” (amyl nitrite) as a causal factor in HIV/AIDS. I wrote in reply:

It appears that Gary Stein (in the comments section of that link) had an effective response. I’ll reproduce it below for the benefit of readers. As the author himself notes, poppers are widely available over-the-counter and can be ordered online. Unless it can be demonstrated that there was a humongous decline in the use of amyl nitrite in 1996 leading to a 50% drop in AIDS deaths in 1997, I don’t see how any of this holds.

There are no drugs on the market that don’t come with potentially horrific side effects. Turn on TV or radio at any hour of the day or night, and all you will see are 50 disclaimers for every advertised drug imaginable: “This drug could cause anything from suicide to homicide, liver failure, heart failure, kidney failure” … and so forth. I have not said in my post that every drug is safe for every person in every context. I’ve simply asked a question: How can any of the Denialists explain the steep drop in AIDS deaths that occurred in the wake of the use of protease inhibitors? If there is no connection between HIV and AIDS as Duesberg claimed, then protease inhibitors should never have worked.

AIDS is not a pretty disease; even with the treatments available, it remains a brutal disease. The best thing is not to get it in the first place. But unlike the 1980s and the early 1990s, those who are HIV-infected today do not face an almost certain death sentence. I think the evidence is overwhelming that the drug cocktails have kept people alive. Here is how Gary Stein responded to the above author in the link you provided [I’ve edited the full reply for Notablog readers, but it is complete here]:

“There is no such evidence that poppers are in anyway associated with the development of AIDS. The study that the denialists like to claim as there own proof on this subject does not show any relationship between AIDS and Popper use. It does show a relationship to Popper use and KS [Karposi’s Sarcoma] but only if you read the report as carefully edited by the denialist so that they can make the claims they do about the reports results.

“Also relevant is the fact that immune problems haven’t been reported with the medical use of amyl nitrites or nitrates in nearly 150 years of use. There was also a huge exposure to people, tens of thousands of whom worked in industrial settings from the 1900’s to 1970’s, especially those working in the manufacture of nitroglycerin explosives and no immunity based problems were ever reported for those groups either. … [H]eavy drug-users were 1.56 times as likely to develop AIDS because they were 1.43 times as likely to be HIV-infected than light drug users. Further, it is of critical importance that HIV-positive individuals were equally likely to develop AIDS irrespective of their drug use pattern (51.4% AIDS among heavy-users versus 47.4% among non-users or light-users), which is hardly a robust affirmation of a drug-dose dependent hypothesis; this and the failure of even 1 of the 39 seronegative heavy drug users to get AIDS is inconsistent with Duesberg’s prediction that the incidence of AIDS should be drug-dose dependent and unrelated to serostatus.”

As my friend Ryan has pointed out, this link provides the most balanced discussion of the relationship of popper-use and HIV.

The same commentator then raised this article, which questions the HIV-AIDS relationship. I pointed out that the article had been formally retracted. I added:

Protease inhibitors target HIV specifically. They are not simply “antiviral” or “antibacterial”; they are commonly used as part of a cocktail of drugs that include antivirals. To cite a very clear explanation of how protease inhibitors work: “The main purpose of HIV is to copy itself as many times as it can. However, HIV lacks the machinery it needs to reproduce itself. Instead, it injects its genetic material into immune cells in the body called CD4 cells. It then uses these cells as a kind of HIV virus factory.”

“Protease is an enzyme in the body that’s important for HIV replication. Protease inhibitor drugs block the action of protease enzymes. This prevents protease enzymes from doing their part in allowing HIV to multiply, interrupting the HIV life cycle as a result. This can stop the virus from multiplying.”

Protease inhibitors are targeting HIV specifically, not the opportunistic infections. That was the game-changer. Not a cure. There are still major issues and drug side effects that require continued work in research and development. But stopping HIV replication in its tracks and reducing viral load to undetectable levels has been a key component to fighting AIDS. Since I do believe that there is a connection between HIV and AIDS, in contrast to the Duesberg Denialists, yes, I think that this is what drove death rates down dramatically.

The Duesberg Denialists have yet to explain what it was in 1996-97 that led to that dramatic drop—a drop that has continued till this day.

Another commentator remarked that Anthony Fauci was hated by gay activists, and I replied:

Ironically, Larry Kramer called Anthony Fauci a murderer and an incompetent idiot precisely because he saw him as part of an establishment that did not act to save the lives of people who were dying from AIDS. In 1988, he wrote:

“Your refusal to hear the screams of AIDS activists early in the crisis resulted in the deaths of thousands of Queers. Your present inaction is causing today’s increase in HIV infection outside of the Queer community.”

Their relationship changed dramatically overtime, however. See here.

There is a very fine documentary on the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the ACT UP response. It’s called “How to Survive a Plague“—and most of it highlights the kind of bottom-up pressure necessary to get “the FDA to approve drugs which could slow or even halt the AIDS virus, and demanded that drug trials (which would usually take 7–10 years) be shortened so potentially life-saving treatments could be made available. The film also documents the underground market for HIV drugs: many people relied on drugs imported from other countries, which were believed to potentially slow down the HIV virus despite not being FDA-approved.”

The film also highlights the strength of voluntary mutual aid among a community of marginalized people who were being told by the evangelical right that AIDS was God’s punishment for their sins and a government that indeed was a major obstacle to the development of life-saving treatments. But again, even these activists, staging “die-ins”, recognized that they had to deal with the conditions that existed, and in many instances, this meant dealing directly with Big Pharma companies to jump-start drug trials that the FDA was dragging its feet on.

Moreover, activists were attacking the government because of its inaction or obstacles to action. Reagan didn’t even mention AIDS until 1985. Some of this was, no doubt, politically motivated, since AIDS was seen as a “homosexual” disease—not something easily focused on by the administration’s evangelical supporters.

There is a bit of a debate about this, and it’s not inconsequential. But it has been said that Duesberg’s theories informed the policies of South African president Thabo Mbeki’s response to AIDS—which led to the deaths of 300,000 people in South Africa. See here and here.

Turning to the political and ideological issues underlying the problem of denialism, I made a number of comments that I bring together here:

In my experience with the libertarian movement for 40+ years, I’ve seen the pattern of deny or downplay over-and-over again when it concerns virtually any large-scale problems. The knee-jerk reaction seems to be to either deny that the problem exists or downplay its seriousness. And if anyone contradicts them, they dismiss the “evidence” (in scare quotes) with ridicule or an endless parade of “alternative facts” that don’t add up.The sad, but implicit premise behind this knee-jerk response is that they seem to be conceding that to merely address such problems, if they do, in fact, exist, one must also embrace full-scale “big government” solutions. That does not automatically follow, however. If the work of Elinor Ostrom has taught us anything, it’s that in the case of say, the ‘tragedy of the commons’, it is possible for communities, cooperatives, trusts, etc. to prevent resource depletion without widescale government intervention. But this still does not address the issue of how to handle large-scale catastrophes, be they pandemics, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc. Even Ayn Rand had more to say about the “ethics of emergencies” than most fundamentalist libertarians.

The problem here is that ideologues of any stripe often deal with the world as they wish it could be rather than the way it actually is. This is, dare I say it, a very undialectical way of handling real-world problems.

The only route to genuinely radical social change is to deal with the conditions that exist. We begin with the cultural and structural institutions that exist and respond with the tools at our disposal. If you’re a lover of liberty, you do your best to raise the flag of vigilance. You can scream, you can holler. But if you’re unwilling to even acknowledge that a problem exists because you think that the mere acknowledgment of the problem is a threat to your ideology—then it’s time to rethink the premises and implications of your ideology.

It is true that governments never met a crisis they didn’t like. This is the basis for everything from War Collectivism to erecting a Corporate State in response to a Great Depression. But there are certain “externalities” that have not been dealt with sufficiently in libertarian circles. I opened this post by freely admitting that the whole state science-medical-Big Pharma nexus is noxious. But this is what exists; we can hack at it by attacking oppressive licensure laws, IP regulations, health insurance oligopolies, and so forth.

But as someone whose policies disgusted me (D. Rumsfeld) once said: You go to war with the army you have, not with army you wish you had. If a “war” comes—a major public health emergency, a tsunami, a massive earthquake… what do you do? Not enough work has been done in libertarian circles on the response to catastrophes. I’ll note just two here (this and this), but they are woefully inadequate (even if they make legitimate points).

When people are so wedded to a limited perspective, it’s not necessarily the case that they are being intellectually dishonest. They just can’t entertain certain facts that don’t coalesce with their worldview. There may be very deep psychological reasons for this (and it must vary from person to person), but I suspect that the worldview somehow informs their sense of self, and if something threatens the worldview, it becomes a threat to that self. That skewed way of looking at the world, sadly, can become lethal—not only to those who hold onto it for dear life, but to everyone around them trying to survive a catastrophe and the catastrophe after that.

So when you engage such people in a critical discussion, they just keep throwing one ‘alternative fact’ after another at the wall, hoping one of them will ‘stick.’ And no matter what you say to people with those skewed perspectives, they’ll keep serving up another ‘fact’. And then, they hang out with people whose function is to serve as an echo chamber of the views they espouse, no matter how discredited those views are. And this is not just a problem within libertarianism; it’s a problem for any person involved in movements, left or right, or even religions, which provide “canned” answers to every issue they encounter.

The tragedy is that people who get caught up in this dynamic can’t allow themselves to think outside the square they’re imprisoned within. And yet, for people so imprisoned, being part of a group that is inside that same square with you also provides a sense of ‘community’… especially when you and those you associate with are the only ones with access to The Truth. It’s no wonder that folks like that more often than not find it difficult to have civil discussions with people outside their square. “Can’t you see The Truth!” they scream! And they’ll beat you over the head with their Truth no matter what you say to challenge them.

Of course, I didn’t pull any punches in this Notablog entry, which is why I said that folks who continue to engage in denialism (on the HIV-AIDS connection) have “blood on their hands”… quite literally, since governments, like that of South Africa, adopted the Duesberg thesis, and it’s estimated that 300,000+ people died without access to any of the effective treatments then available. Hence, the title: Denialism = Death.

I have no idea how to penetrate folks who are caught up in these kinds of mind-sets. Let it be known that I don’t have access to The Truth, myself, but I’m consciously wedded to—and practice—the very dialectical method I preach, which, in its origins, is founded on engagement, requiring one to keep shifting perspectives, vantage points, levels of generality, so as to get a better picture of the wider context. The method has, over the years, become a check against the entrenchment of self-imprisoning ideology in my own consciousness. It opens you up to intellectual and psychological evolution in a healthy way, which challenges you to “check your premises” (as Rand would say)—over and over again. Yes, I know, ironic coming from a woman whose acolytes created a cult of Truth Tellers. But the best of Rand is, as I’ve argued, highly dialectical. If only some of her followers had understood what they actually read. I suspect that ‘deprogramming’ oneself will vary from one person to the next, but clearly, engaging with the wider world is one step in the right direction.

I often joke about my half-Greek, half-Sicilian ancestry: the Greek side is ever-reasonable, seeking empathetic and compassionate engagement; the Sicilian side is more akin to the “Blood Bat” scene [YouTube link] from “The Untouchables.” I guess we all need some “Base-ball” to shake things up every so often.

For those of us who have had it “Up To Here” (using Sicilian hand gestures) with some people, the baseball bat is very useful! But the libertarian in me holds me back from using it against the folks I disagree with. Find a hard service and make sure to wear goggles so that no flecks blind you as you bang out your frustrations. This, accompanied by Sicilian curse-words tinged with a heavy Brooklyn accent, can be helpful, in a primal way. 🙂

Finally, in response to somebody who asked me what I thought of the “death” of New York City, I responded:

I don’t believe NYC is dead. Not by a long shot. This city has survived 9/11, Superstorm Sandy, and will survive all that has surrounded the COVID crisis. I’m a native New Yorker, have lived here all my life, and I remain a proud current resident of Brooklyn, New York. Don’t ever count this city out. But you know me well enough to know that I’d never feel any differently about this place—still the greatest city in the world.

Joel Schlosberg cites my thoughts about NYC in his essay, “A New Year One for Gotham.”

Postscript II: (18 January 2022): In light of the above, check out “COVID, AIDS, and Trying to Save Ourselves,” a poignant article by Jennifer Boulanger.