March 27, 2017

I Chose Liberty: Autobiographies of Contemporary Libertarians

I feel like I've been living under a rock.

Some years ago, I contributed an essay, "How I Became a Libertarian" to the Mises Institute; it's now archived at LewRockwell.com. I had forgotten that it was Walter Block, my esteemed libertarian colleague (and a past contributor to The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies), who was compiling short autobiographies for a collection that would feature the stories of how so many individuals came to embrace the promise of liberty. Block's collection of these profoundly personal entries was published in 2010, but I just picked up the hardcover from the site of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The book is also available as a pdf or epub file and can be accessed here.

I Chose Liberty_Block.jpg

The autobiographies are organized alphabetically and I must say that the book itself is astonishing in its breadth. I am so elated to recognize so many of the names of folks who are not only fellow travelers on the freedom road, but dear, dear friends. Some of them, sadly, are no longer with us.

I highly recommend this work; I know seven years may seem a little late, but I just wanted to say "Thank You" to Walter, once again, for having provided us with a testament to memory, which might serve as an authentic guide, as Walter puts it, to "the younger generation," illustrating the deeply personal paths and processes by which so many have come to embrace the cause of freedom.

March 25, 2017

Anoop Verma and the Nature of Objectivism

In a surprising development, blogger Anoop Verma, who has provided a free-wheeling forum on Facebook and on his blog (formerly "For the New Intellectual"), has closed down the forum, and has renamed his blog, "The Verma Report," in a farewell to "organized Objectivism." Needless to say, there must be well over a hundred comments among Facebook participants, some of whom have not been very civil in their reactions to Anoop. (Ed: I am happy to report that even though Anoop has changed the name of his own blog to signal a change in his own intellectual pursuits, he has agreed to keep the Facebook forum open with a set of rules for participation. Below are a collection of posts that I have made in the last few days on that forum.)

Yesterday, I personally thanked Anoop in a Facebook post:

Anoop, each of us finds our own way, and if there is anything of value that you should cherish in the works of Ayn Rand, it is that you must trust the judgment of your own mind and critically evaluate the facts before you. I want to thank you for having brought attention to my work on this forum, even if it brought both positive and negative commentary. But that's what this is all about... and I will watch for your new adventures in ideas with gratitude for your past efforts. The best of luck to you, or as Rand would say, "Good premises."

But what has transpired over the last day or so is an outpouring of rancor that seems to illustrate exactly why Anoop has decided to leave the Objectivist "movement" behind. So today, I've added one additional comment that will, no doubt, elicit more rancor. Here is what I said:

I am reminded of the comment that Milton Friedman attributed to Richard Nixon, who said "We are all Keynesians now." In a sense, if you want to look at this historically, and I'm not clairvoyant, but looking at this through the lens of what happened to other schools of thought in the past: later generations tend to view a whole group of folks (young "acolytes") who have emerged from the work of any particular individual (be it Marx, Freud, etc.) as part of a larger "ism", In this case, the "ism" isn't Objectivism, but "Randianism". I think that in a hundred years or so, folks looking back on this ongoing debate are not going to be as picky as the current generation. They may very well look back on this era and say that a bunch of "Randians" argued over the meaning of what Rand called "Objectivism", and split into various sub-movements, all of them variants on Rand's overall philosophy.
Rand herself knew that this would be the case; she once remarked that no philosopher could possibly develop all of the implications of her philosophy in her own lifetime, and that over time, those who follow her would attempt to fill in those areas that she had not addressed.
One would hope that the "fill-ins" would not be simply consistent with Objectivism, but with something even more important: reality.
But Rand was also sympathetic with Karl Marx (and said so), for it was Marx, who, upon hearing some of the outrageous things coming out of the mouths of folks calling themselves "Marxists," responded: "But I am not a Marxist."
I tend to agree with those who argue that "Objectivism" should be defined according to the broad generalities of what Rand argued "standing on one foot": Objective Reality in metaphysics, Reason in epistemology, Self-Interest in ethics, and Capitalism in politics.. Her work fleshes out what she means by each of these terms, and that, in a broad sense, is what constitutes the integrated system of Objectivism. If you don't accept any of these broad fundamentals, but accept some of them, then perhaps you might call yourself a "neo-Objectivist," or simply a Randian or neo-Randian.
Those coming after Rand might wish to identify the closed system as Objectivism, and the open system as Randianism, but in all probability, as I suggested above, future generations will simply look at all this and say: "The Randian philosophical movement, like most others, split into various factions, each arguing that its faction was more in keeping with the 'true' letter and/or spirit of Rand's 'Objectivism,' each arguing over the meaning of an 'open' or 'closed' system of thought, but ultimately, they were all generally in favor of the following beliefs: that reality is what it is independent of what individuals think or feel; that reason is the means of grasping that reality; that rational self-interest is the essence of morality (with 'man's life' as the standard by which to evaluate the difference between the 'good' and the 'evil'), and that the only social system consonant with these beliefs and capable of allowing individuals to flourish in accordance with these beliefs, is laissez-faire capitalism, unencumbered by any government intervention, except the rule of objective law in protection of individual rights."
Now there are a lot of gaps up there which are going to be filled in by many individuals over the next hundred or so years. In that sense, at least among most of those who have been blessed by the access that Anoop granted them in this forum, are Randians (or at least neo-Randians) now. I do not accept the "Objectivist" label myself for the simple reason that I have always had a problem with those who would extend the "closed" nature of the system to aspects of Rand's writings with which I do not agree. Must one agree that a woman can't be President (because of Rand's very specific understanding of what constituted "masculinity" and "femininity")? Tell that to Margaret Thatcher. Or that Beethoven presented us with a malevolent sense of life or that Shakespeare did the same, or that homosexuality is "disgusting" or that "From Russia with Love" was worse than "Dr. No" (I myself think that "Goldfinger" was the best Bond flick ever), or that ... and so on and so on. If you're going to argue for a closed system, you may find yourself bracketing out many of Rand's views on matters of aesthetics and sexuality. Does that make you any less of an Objectivist? (Peikoff himself admitted to liking horror films as a boy; but he himself said that though Rand would have reacted in horror over that, it didn't make him any less of an Objectivist.)
Finally, I'd like to clear up one potshot taken at my own work on Rand: I have NEVER claimed that Rand was a disciple of N. O. Lossky, the professor whom she recollected as having taught a class on ancient philosophy that she attended in the first year of her three-year degree program at the University of Petrograd. In fact, if you completely eliminate Lossky from the entire picture of Rand's education at the University of Petrograd, my argument still holds: that in every course, she would have been bombarded with what I call a dialectical mode of analysis, the view that every thing, event, and social problem should be understood contextually, placing it within a larger system of interconnected things, events, or problems, understood across time. The "art of context-keeping" is the shorthand understanding of the conception of dialectical method that I champion, and it was a key factor in Lossky's work, and in virtually all of the studies that Rand undertook in all of her courses and in the textbooks of all of the professsors that she would have encountered at the University of Petrograd.
Some folks have said that what I characterize as "dialectics" is merely learning how to think, the product of a good education. Well, Rand herself would have been the first to say that modern education has undermined our ability to think in an integrated fashion; her essay on "The Comprachicos" is an indictment of just how deeply modern education and pedagogical methods undermine our ability to think logically and contextually (and each requires the other; they are reciprocally interrelated). Rand was fortunate to get a good education, and part of that education was training on how to think contextually (i.e., dialectically).
So much for my fervid imagination.
In any event, once again, I want to thank Anoop for having provided all of us with this forum; I wish him well in his new intellectual adventures.

And that's all folks!

Ed. Fat Chance; my "that's all folks" was premature. I replied to a critic who claimed that there is just Objectivism, not Randism. I've discussed some of these issues at length in my recent post on "Upper-Case Objectivism: Why?." Here is my response (posted around 7:30 p.m. on Facebook):

There is such a thing as Randism (or being a Randian) since I call myself one. As do others. It just means someone who has been influenced by Rand. Just as there is such a thing as being a Marxist, a Freudian, a Kantian, and so forth. At least I have the honesty to say that I am not an Objectivist. The early Objectivists used to quote the old Spanish proverb: "Take what you want, God said, and pay for it." I've taken what I want from Rand, from Mises, from Aristotle, and so forth, and I have paid for it by taking full responsibility for my own integrations of various positions; I don't misrepresent my position as official Objectivism. And even my discussion of various "dialectical" themes in Rand's approach to analyzing social problems has explicitly stated that Rand herself would not have characterized these as "dialectical" themes, even though I believe that my view of dialectics as the art of context-keeping is consistent with Objectivism.
I give more credit to Rand every day of my life by living it and loving it. In her exalted view of human life, productive work, and individual happiness, she has provided us with a gift. I will cherish it until the day I die.

The person who took issue with the label Randian, reiterated their objection to the label, and I replied:

Jae, I think you're overthinking this. I wouldn't use the word "Randism"; I would use the label "Randian" to describe anyone who may not identify as an Objectivist but recognizes that they are influenced, perhaps strongly, by Ayn Rand. The same would go for anyone who took on the label "Marxian" or "Kantian": they are not Marx, they are not Kant, but they would be folks who strongly identify with the principles laid down by Marx and Kant, respectively. It's not a big deal, philosophically; it's an honest label. It would be dishonest if I called myself an "Objectivist" given that I have disagreements with some of the positions taken by Rand on a number of subjects, and I would not have the hubris to ascribe to Rand positions that I have taken, and to make them "part" of the Objectivist philosophy that she founded and developed.

Jae expressed agreement, and I responded:

You know we always end up agreeing more than we disagree, once we've had the chance to chat. That's one of the things I'll miss when this forum shuts down. The chance to actually have a conversation; yeah, sometimes it gets a little heated, but sometimes, folks find a way to at least agree or agree to disagree. "Good premises," as I said in my first reaction to Anoop's announcement. And to all a good night.

As if this weren't enough, in reply to all of this, my friend Nick Manley wondered: "I've been wondering if you even used that term [Randian] to describe yourself, Chris Matthew Sciabarra." :)

To which I replied:

In all truth, I am just as much of a neo-Misesian and a neo-Aristotelian as I am a neo-Randian, which is why I've taken to really calling myself a "dialectical libertarian." There don't seem to be many fights over ownership of that label. LOL

To which Nick replied: "Anyone who would ask me to end my now over a decade long close friendship with dialectical free market libertarian and Ayn Rand scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra as a conditon of assocating with me gets a big fuck off. I love ya! Chris Matthew Sciabarra."

Well, I love you too, Nick. : )

On 26 March 2017, I was further questioned on my understanding of the distinction between "Randism" and "Objectivism"; I replied:

Jae, you keep asking me what "Randism" is, as if it is a set-in-stone distinct philosophical perspective, and I have answered that question several times over. I'm not an advocate of an alternative "system of thought" called "Randism." There is no "Randist" philosophy per se; all I have said is that a "Randian," like a "Marxian" or a "Kantian" is somebody who has been influenced in some significant way by Rand's, Marx's, or Kant's thought, respectively. "Randians" may differ as much from each other as any other group; some accept Rand's views on metaphysics and epistemology, but depart from Objectivism by embracing an anarchist perspective in politics. Some accept Rand's views on the morality of capitalism, but don't accept any of her views on aesthetics and sexuality. It's a broad "umbrella" term that simply means "influenced by Rand in some way, but not all ways." I don't see why this is such a problematic term. It's simply honest: it's telling folks that "I am not an Objectivist, and don't accept everything Rand said about every subject, but I have been significantly influenced by her writings and have gone my own way." It's honest.
An "Objectivist" is somebody who accepts the entire structure and system of Objectivism as laid down by Rand and by all those whose work she sanctioned in her lifetime--but I remind folks that she herself said that no philosopher could possibly complete a system of philosophy in their own lifetimes and she expected that further applications and innovations in Objectivism might take place, implying that the burden of proof was on those who assert that their applications and innovations were consistent with the broad principles she laid down as foundational to the system.
But alas, each person is free to accept those applications or innovations, and that's why it is inevitable that Objectivism, like every other "ism" in the history of philosophy is likely to splinter in many different directions (which is what led me to say, in the spirit of "We are all Keynesians now"... "We are all Randians now.")
The evolution of Marx's work and Marxist thought is a case in point. Marx laid down a system of thought that whatever its problems had certain fundamentals. Over time, different "schools" of Marxism emerged, each claiming to be more consistent with the spirit and/or letter of Marx's original foundations. And so we have such variations as "analytic Marxism," "Existentialist Marxism," "Marxist-Leninism," "poststructuralist Marxism," "Humanist Marxism," and so on. And then there were those who argued that our "best" understanding of Marx was as the Aristotelian Marx, or the Hegelian Marx, or the Dialectical Marx, or the Materialist Marx, and so on.
In a hundred or so years, scholars may look back on the evolution of "Objectivism" and say virtually the same thing; they may very well conclude that Rand laid down this system of Objectivism, which became the basis for a vast splintering of various "schools of thought": the Peikovian school of Randian thought, the Kelleyite school of Randian thought, heck, the Dialectical school of Randian thought, and so forth, with each arguing that it had grasped the fundamental spirit of Rand's Objectivism and was therefore the "better" representative of Objectivism. These kinds of intellectual battles are not unusual; in fact, they are almost universal, quite typical of what happens in the evolution of all schools of thought over time. That's why these current debates are often filled with such rancor: because there are those who struggle to own the mantle of Objectivism and who seek to "purge" those whom they believe have departed significantly from the foundations as laid down by Ayn Rand.
I'm just being honest about where I stand: I'm telling you I am not an Objectivist, however you wish to define it (though I pretty much accept the "standing on one foot" version, but certainly do not accept the more detailed fleshing out in all areas of Rand's pronouncements on topics as diverse as a woman President, the notions of masculinity and femininity, the nature of sexuality, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Woodstock!). I am heavily influenced by Rand, and have given credit where credit is due, but I have gone my own way and I neither presume that Rand would have accepted my intellectual adventures nor do I accept the blessings of those who claim that I am the Devil Incarnate.
And if you want to know what I call "my own way", it is "Dialectical Libertarianism" as laid out in a trilogy of books ("Marx, Hayek, and Utopia," "Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical", and "Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism"). But I'm not going to hijack this thread with a discourse on what that means.
I think I've said all I want to say on this subject; we'll just have to agree to disagree . I respect your viewpoint, but I think it's time to move on.

Jae Alexander responded that I could embrace "Galt and the Space Age" or "Rousseau and the Stone Age" and live with the consequences. I replied:

Jae Alexander, truly I am as far from the hippy Stone Age as you can possibly imagine, and have been in love with the Space Age since childhood, long before I ever encountered a single essay by Ayn Rand. The good news is that you've always provoked good conversations with me, and for the most part, I think they have been a respectful exchange of ideas. So you're out of luck: I won't 'unfriend' you. I too have a lot of productive pursuits in front of me (social media is not my "job", thank goodness!) But we probably are a lot closer in terms of our ideas about objective reality than you might think. Be well.
More importantly, I want to thank Anoop, again, for reconsidering his decision to continue this forum. The fact that he has had the willingness to show us, quite openly, his own developing intellectual pursuits is a testament to his courage and honesty.

Jae responded that I had implied disagreement with Rand over her disgust for Woodstock, which prompted the comment about my alleged embrace of Rousseau and the Stone Age. I clarified my comments (on 27 March 2017):

I'm not one to celebrate Woodstock the event, Jae. And I wasn't precise in the point I was trying to make. I was really reacting to the wholesale dismissal of the kind of music that was played by some of the artists who appeared at the event. Some of the music from that era has made it onto "My Favorite Songs" list from artists like Santana; Jefferson Airplane; Blood, Sweat, and Tears; Jimi Hendrix; and Janis Joplin; all of whom appeared in concert over that weekend. But that music on my list sits alongside music from such genres as jazz, blues, classical, film scores, Broadway, country, folk, and so forth. I have known people in my life who felt guilty about liking certain kinds of music once they had declared themselves "Objectivists" because it seemed to imply that something was "wrong" with their sense of life and psycho-epistemology. I would like to think we are beyond the days when issues like that seemed to haunt the early Objectivist movement. No issue there; I'm eclectic in my musical tastes, but I'm not one to wallow in the mud, and I do "get" what Rand was trying to say in her contrast of the Woodstock event and the lunar landing, over which I, personally, was, uh, "over the moon" (and I was 9 years old at the time).

In a reply to substantive comments made by Chris Cathcart, I responded at length (on 27 March 2017) about my own theses on Rand in such works as Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. Here is what I said:

Chris, we have not been in contact for many years, but you pretty much nailed most of it. A few clarifications, however:
1. I never argue much about Lossky (or any of the other professors Rand knew or the courses she attended at the University of Petrograd) as having influenced her substantively: I make it a point of saying that what she most likely took from her education was this emphasis on the art of context-keeping so deeply embedded in the pedagogy and culture of Silver Age Russia. It was a mode of analysis that was certainly not exclusively Russian, and, as I (and you) point out, it goes all the way back to Aristotle, whom I credit (as did Hegel, ironically, and in precisely these terms), as "the fountainhead" of what I characterize as dialectical thinking. (In the end, I argue, it makes Rand even more of an Aristotelian than she may have recognized.)
But it cannot be denied that a "dialectical sensibility" was embedded in the intellectual air of Silver Age Russia (in which, btw, Nietzsche also had a major impact--and it was in Russia that Rand first discovered Nietzsche. Even her favorite poet, Russian Symbolist Aleksandr Blok, was deeply influenced by Nietzsche.)
Still, we can't be ahistorical here: It would have been almost impossible for Rand to have embraced or defended explicitly any notion of "dialectics", given her own historical context, since that concept was virtually synonymous with "dialectical materialism," part of the official Soviet ideology she so rightfully repudiated. (As a digression, I think there is a case to be made for a much more Aristotelian Marx, as can be found in the scholarship of Scott Meikle and Carol Gould; see the former's book, Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx, and the latter's book, Marx's Social Ontology.) So it is understandable why Rand never fought the battle to reclaim "dialectics" in the name of reason and reality; she was so busy reclaiming (or redefining) "selfishness" as a virtue and "capitalism" as an unknown ideal--and that alone is only part of what she accomplished.
But I am very clear that Rand repudiated most of the substance of the distinctively Russian, mystical, collectivist, and Marxist content of her early years. My book also acknowledges the impact made on Rand by the Old Right of Isabel Paterson and others among the "America Firsters" who opposed FDR's New Deal and U.S. entrance into World War II; and the impact made on Rand by the economics of the Austrian school, in her interactions with Henry Hazlitt and Ludwig von Mises.
2) For the record: in my research for ARTRR, I leased virtually every course that Peikoff taught, and I found his lectures to be remarkable in their breadth and depth, from his history of philosophy lectures to his lectures on the art of communication to his remarkable post-Randian work in "Understanding Objectivism." Whatever my disagreements with the ways in which the Estate or the Institute have handled the posthumous publication of Rand's unpublished work or their archival access policies, I consider Peikoff's corpus indispensable to the study of Objectivism. And whether you agree or disagree, I would say the same about Nathaniel Branden's work (especally the voluminous essays and lectures he gave during his years of association with Rand, but also his many books on self-esteem that followed, clearly influenced by the intellectual debt to Rand that he never ceased to acknowledge.)

On 29 March 2017, in reply to a post by Robert Tracinski (who cites his own provocative essay on the "open" versus "closed" system debate within Objectivism), I wrote:

BTW, Peikoff's playing on the phrase "open system" as akin to an "open mind" being an "empty mind": Rand herself ridiculed the same idea (having an "open mind") and said that what we should embrace is not an "open" mind or a "closed" mind, but an "active mind". So I wonder what folks on either side of the divide would say about Objectivism as an "active system." Just a thought.

Tracinski replied: "Dang. That's a definitive rejoinder," to which I replied: "I genuinely enjoyed your article and I was being a big whimsical." To which Tracinski replied: "I was being serious. That's the best answer I've heard to the 'open' versus 'closed' debate. Taking Ayn Rand's statements on an 'open mind' and concluding that the proper alternative is 'active.' That's so good, I might even steal it." To which I replied: "You're welcome to it!"

I'm glad that Anoop has kept his forum open. He complimented my coining of the phrase "active Objectivism": "Really this is such a 'Eureka moment.' I wonder why didn't anyone think of 'Active Objectivism' as of now. Even you didn't. The idea of 'Active Objectivism' sounds to me much better than the idea of 'Closed' or 'Open' Objectivism. Active Objectivism is a much much more clear concept. It represents what we would like Objectivism to be." To which I replied:

Well, the emphasis here is on both "active" and "system". Let's remember what Rand said about the distinction between "open" and "active":
What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an “open mind,” but an active mind—a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically. An active mind does not grant equal status to truth and falsehood; it does not remain floating forever in a stagnant vacuum of neutrality and uncertainty; by assuming the responsibility of judgment, it reaches firm convictions and holds to them. Since it is able to prove its convictions, an active mind achieves an unassailable certainty in confrontations with assailants—a certainty untainted by spots of blind faith, approximation, evasion and fear.
But let us also remember that Objectivism is a system, and like all systems it is an integrated one; we can and should distinguish between what is essential to that system and what was distinctive to Ayn Rand the person (e.g., her particular judgments on specific works of art, music, composers, or her particular views on topics that not even Peikoff endorses anymore: e.g., her view that homosexuality is "disgusting")--and therefore nonessential to the system of philosophy she originated. But as I've indicated several times in this thread: any newly integrated ideas that we find consistent with Rand's original philosophy (as represented, she said, by her own works, and all those works and lectures given during her lifetime by others, some under the auspices of NBI or published in The Objectivist Newsletter and The Objectivist periodicals, including the contributions of the Brandens up to 1968, but not including their post-1968 work) are broadly "Randian" if and only if you want to assign to "Objectivism" what Rand wrote and approved until her death in 1982.
I suppose "active Objectivism" could cover the post-Randian period, but folks will be debating what is consistent or inconsistent with Rand's original philosophy for eons to come. Welcome to the history of intellectual thought! :)

March 18, 2017

Song of the Day #1440

Song of the Day: Johnny B. Goode features the words and music of Chuck Berry, who died today at the age of 90. A genuine rock and roll pioneer, Berry brought a wonderful R&B sensibility to his music.  This 1958 song [YouTube link] is one of his best, ranked in the Top Ten of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was also a comedic-musical highlight of the 1985 film "Back to the Future" [YouTube link] with Michael J. Fox. RIP, Chuck!

March 06, 2017

Robert Osborne, RIP

I was sad to learn today about the death of Robert Osborne, aged 84, who was selected as the host of the nightly broadcasts of Turner Classic Movies, when it opened up shop in 1994. He had been absent from this year's TCM annual "31 Days of Oscar" salute (which coincides with my own "Film Music February"), and viewers knew that he had not been well.

TCM has set up an Osborne Tribute page, which provides valuable information about the Peabody Award-winner's life and work. He was a warm and classy presence on a network dedicated to showing a broad range of cinema classics, uncut and typically, in their original theatrical format, from the silents to the contemporary era. His knowledge of film was astounding. I very much valued his presence on "The Essentials" (and his foreword to the book version, celebrating "52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter.") But more importantly, I valued his wonderful way of introducing a film, with poignancy, with wit, and always with respect for the craft of the cinema. There's a really wonderful TCM tribute that was aired on Osborne's 20th anniversary with the network; "Ben-Hur" was one of his favorites, but seeing the multiple takes of him trying to pronounce "La Cienega Boulevard" are a hoot!

I had written to him with regard to the two vastly different film versions (one flat-screen, the other becoming the first "CinemaScope" film release) of the 1953 Biblical epic, "The Robe," which is, ironically, being broadcast tonight, the first night of a month-long tribute to TCM's Star of the Month, Richard Burton. But I'd received no reply; I knew he was ill, and doubted I'd hear back from him.

He was a massive presence to lovers of the cinema as a beloved host, and he will be missed by loyal viewers of TCM. RIP, Robert.

Ed: TCM has announced that it will devote 48 hours of its broadcast schedule (the weekend of March 18-19, 2017) to tributing Robert Osborne.

February 26, 2017

Song of the Day #1439

Song of the Day: That's Dancing! ("Invitation to Dance") features the words and music of Brian Fairweather, Dave Ellingson, Martin Page, and Kim Carnes, who sings the song over the closing credits to this wonderful choreographical retrospective, following in the footsteps of the MGM film-clip franchise "That's Entertainment," which recaptures the glory days of Hollywood musicals. The 1985 film focuses on the art of dance; it takes us from the silent era thru Busby Berkeley, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly, from "42nd Street" (1933) and "West Side Story" (1961) to Travolta's "Saturday Night Fever" strut (1977) and the ensemble dance steps created by Michael Jackson and Michael Peters for "Beat It" (1983) [YouTube link], marking a definitive moment in the evolution of the music video. Given the reemergence of the classic Hollywood musical, in "La La Land," a 2016 film that could conceivably become the all-time Oscar champ tonight, with 14 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, it's fitting not to forget the significance of choreographer Mandy Moore, a favorite from television's "So You Think You Can Dance," for her contribution to the success of this film. Hence, it's all the more appropriate to highlight a selection from this 1985 cinematic celebration of dancers and choreographers throughout film history. Whoever takes home the Oscars, one thing is clear: Tonight, there should be lots of Oscar winners dancing in the aisles with their golden statuettes in hand. So, we conclude our annual Film Music February tribute with today's song [YouTube link] and with a reminder to watch the Oscar broadcast this evening! Till next year . . .

February 25, 2017

Song of the Day #1438

Song of the Day: Hacksaw Ridge ("One at a Time") [YouTube link], composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams, encapsulates an extraordinary motif in this shattering 2016 film, which tells the story of Desmond Doss, who served as a conscientious objector during World War II, receiving the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of an estimated 75 infantrymen in the Battle of Okinawa, one man at a time. Andrew Garfield, who played Spiderman in two films, plays real-life superhero Doss, who refused to even hold a gun or to kill another human being in military engagement, but vowed to save human life as a medic on the battlefield. It is a role for which Garfield has earned a well-deserved 2016 Best Actor Oscar nomination. I have seen many films concerning "war and peace" in my life, and this Mel Gibson-directed Oscar-nominated Best Picture, which depicts all of the unspeakable horrors and miraculous heroism of battle, easily makes my Top Ten-ish list in that cinematic genre. [Ed: See also Lawrence Read's FEE essay, "Hacksaw Ridge Deserves an Oscar for Redefining Heroism."]

February 24, 2017

Song of the Day #1437

Song of the Day: Cinq Jours en Juin (Five Days in June: "Love Makes the Changes") [YouTube link] features the lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and the music of Michel Legrand, who was born on this date in 1932. Legrand also directed this 1989 film, and in case you were wondering, the song is delivered with soul and grace by the only Ray Charles, accompanied by the greatest jazz harmonica player to have ever graced this earth, Toots Thielemans, both men no longer with us. The soundtrack is pure Legrand, but boasts a few pieces by some lightweight composers, folks like Frederic Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach. In any event, Happy 85th Birthday to one of my all-time favorite musical innovators, a brilliant and legendary composer who also happens to be a remarkable jazz musician.

February 23, 2017

Song of the Day #1436

As I stated on Facebook:

Today, as our Film Music February series moves toward its final weekend, I tribute Manton Moreland---one of the greatest and most talented African American comic actors, a trailblazer who broke through the walls of the cinema with his remarkable timing and often improvised use of the double entendre. It's exhibited in today's featured music from Kay's soundtrack to this 1941 film.

Song of the Day: King of the Zombies ("Main Title") [YouTube link, full movie, check the first minute), composed by Edward J. Kay, is from one of those classic comedy/horror hybrids. The 1941 film opens with music over ominous drumming. Remember that drumming, because it is key to one of the most memorable lines in the movie (at 1:00:52). With "voodoo" drums playing in the distance, Bill Summers, played by John Archer, asks his valet, Jefferson Jackson, played by the utterly hilarious Manton Moreland: "What does that sound like to you?" Moreland replies: "I don't know, but it ain't Gene Krupa."

February 22, 2017

Song of the Day #1435

Song of the Day: The Women ("Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone"), words and music by Sam H. Stept, Sidney Clare, and Bee Palmer, was actually written in 1930, but it first made its way into film in this 1939 version of the Clare Booth Luce play, where its first line was sung by Norma Shearer (playing the character Mary Haines) to her lady friends at 00:19:08 into the movie [MovieZoot link]. The film sported an all-star cast, which included among others, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine. It can also be heard in the 1949 film "House of Strangers," the 1951 film "Lullaby of Broadway" [check out the YouTube discussion], and the 1955 animated short "One Froggy Evening." The song became a jazz standard, and has been recorded by so many wonderful artists through the years, including Billie Holiday, Rat Packers Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin, as well as Ella Fitzgerald with the Count Basie Orchestra [YouTube links].

February 21, 2017

Upper-Case "Objectivism". Why?

Today, on his "Verma Report" blog (formerly "For the New Intellectual"), Anoop Verma asks: "Why Objectivism Must Have 'O' Capitalized?"

He says that Chris Matthew Sciabarra "always writes 'Objectivism' with capital 'O.' In the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, which he edits, all the authors are required to capitalize the 'O' in Objectivism." In personal correspondence, I had mentioned to Anoop that one of the reasons Rand capitalized her system, "Objectivism," was to distinguish it between classical (lower-case 'o') objectivism and traditional subjectivism. If Rand had not capitalized Objectivism, she would have been lumped together with all the other classical objectivists in history, and that would have been incorrect, from a categorical perspective. She was quite explicitly opposed to classical objectivism, which didn’t allow for agent-relative perception. All things are perceived objectively by a mind that allows us to view reality in a certain form, dictated by the organs of our perception. For Rand, the organs of our perception did not distort reality, as the classical objectivists would have maintained; they were the only means of grasping reality in a certain form. We do not acquire knowledge by some ineffable means to grasp the object (classical objectivism); and we do not distort the objects of reality by use of our organs of perception (automatic) or by defining and categorizing them arbitrarily, as the subjectivists would claim. We acquire knowledge of the objects of reality in a certain form as dictated by the nature of our own means of perceiving and identifying those objects; this is an objective reality as understood by a knowing subject.

But I've also looked at "Objectivism" in a more "hermeneutical" fashion, ever since the publication of my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical was first published back in 1995 (it went into a second edition in 2013). I'll quote the relevant passages (I've eliminated the citations and references, which can be found in the published source):

In my view, there are distinctions between the "orthodox" interpreters of Rand's thought and those who can be termed "neo-Objectivists." The orthodox thinkers see Rand's philosophy as closed and complete. The neo-Objectivists accept certain basic principles, while expanding, modifying, or revising other aspects of Rand's thought. The "neo-Objectivist" label is not employed critically; for history, I believe, will describe all these thinkers simply as "Objectivists." Nevertheless, Rand did not sanction all of the developments proceeding from her influence. In the case of Nathaniel Branden, for instance, although Rand enthusiastically approved his theoretical work while he was her associate, she repudiated his subsequent efforts.
A later dispute between Leonard Peikoff and David Kelley centered on the question of what precisely constitutes the philosophy of Objectivism. Adopting an orthodox, "closed-system" approach, Peikoff has stated: "'Objectivism' is the name of Ayn Rand's philosophy as presented in the material she herself wrote or endorsed." Peikoff excludes from "official Objectivist doctrine" both his own work after Rand's death and Rand's unedited, unpublished lectures and journals, since she "had no opportunity to see or approve" of the material. Peikoff follows Rand's own pronouncements. At the time of the Branden schism, Rand maintained (in 1968) that she was a theoretician of Objectivism, which she characterized as "a philosophical system originated by me and publicly associated with my name." She claimed that it was her "right and responsibility" to defend the system's integrity, and she renounced any "organized movement" in her name.
Twelve years after this "statement of policy," when a magazine called The Objectivist Forum was established, Rand approved the journal as "a forum for students of Objectivism to discuss their ideas, each speaking only for himself." Rand stated that the magazine was neither the "official voice" of her philosophy nor her "representative" or "spokesman." Rand explained further that those who agree with certain tenets of Objectivism but disagree with others should give proper acknowledgment "and then indulge in any flights of fancy [they] wish, on [their] own." Anyone using the name of "Objectivism" for his own "philosophical hodgepodge . . . is guilty of the fraudulent presumption of trying to put thoughts into my brain (or of trying to pass his thinking off as mine---an attempt which fails, for obvious reasons). I chose the name 'Objectivism' at a time when my philosophy was beginning to be known and some people were starting to call themselves 'Randists.' I am much too conceited to allow such a use of my name." Upholding the consistency of her system as one of its virtues, Rand opposed the practice of those philosophers who "regard philosophy as a verb, not a noun (they are not studying or creating philosophy, they are ‘doing’ it)."
Thus Peikoff's interpretation of Objectivism as a "closed system" clearly mirrors Rand’s own view. By contrast, David Kelley views Objectivism as an "open system":
A philosophy defines a school of thought, a category of thinkers who subscribe to the same principles. In an open philosophy, members of the school may differ among themselves over many issues within the framework of the basic principles they accept.
The evolution of academic Marxist thought illustrates Kelley's point clearly. In defining the essence of contemporary Marxism, it is impossible to disconnect the statements of Karl Marx from the multiple interpretations constructed over the past century. These interpretations are as much a logical development of Marx's methods and theories as they are a reflection of the particular historical, social, and personal contexts of his interpreters. The interpretations also reflect different periods in Marx's own development. Some scholars stress the earlier, more "humanistic" Marx, whereas others argue for an economistic interpretation based on his mature works. Most scholars would agree, however, that one cannot detach Marx's unpublished writings from the corpus of his thought. Indeed, the great bulk of Marx's work was issued posthumously. For example, Marx's Grundrisse, composed of seven unedited workbooks, was first published in the twentieth century. It provides a cornucopia of material from which one can reconstruct his method of inquiry as a distinct "moment" (or aspect) of his dialectical approach. The Grundrisse is an essential complement to and reflection on Marx's published exposition in Capital.
In addition, a Marxist scholar cannot neglect the plethora of interpretive twists resulting from the combination of Marx's theories with compatible approaches in psychology, anthropology, and sociology. What has emerged is a scholarly industry that must take account of structuralist, phenomenological, critical, and analytical approaches, to name but a few. Finally, we have been presented with different philosophical interpretations of the "real" Karl Marx: the Aristotelian Marx, the Kantian Marx, the Hegelian Marx, and the Leninist Marx. None of these developments alter the essential body of theory that Marx proposed in his lifetime. One can empathize with the innovative theorist who, jealously guarding his discoveries, aims to protect the "purity" of the doctrine. Ironically, Rand suggests a spiritual affinity with Marx on this issue. She remembers that upon hearing the "outrageous statements" made by some of his "Marxist" followers, Marx exclaimed: "But I am not a Marxist."
Nevertheless, although one can debate whether a particular philosophy is "closed" or "open," scholarship must consider the many theoretical developments emerging over time directly or indirectly from the innovator’s authentic formulations. Much of current intellectual history focuses not on the ideas of the innovator, but rather, on the evolution of the ideas and on the context in which the ideas emerged and developed. As W. W. Bartley argues, the affirmation of a theory involves many logical implications that are not immediately apparent to the original theorist. In Bartley's words, "The informative content of any idea includes an infinity of unforeseeable nontrivial statements." The creation of mathematics for instance, "generates problems that are wholly independent of the intentions of its creators."
In this book, I have adopted a similarly hermeneutical approach. The principles of this scholarly technique were sketched by Paul Ricoeur in his classic essay, "The Model of the Text." Ricoeur maintains that a text 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. Hence, the text must be understood not only in terms of the author's context but also in the context of the multiple interpretations that emerge during its subsequent history.
I do not mean to suggest that Rand's ideas lack objective validity, that is, validity independent of the interpretations of others. Ultimately, one must judge the validity of any idea by its correspondence to reality and/or its explanatory power. But to evaluate the truthfulness of a philosophic formulation is not the only legitimate task of scholarship. Indeed, my primary purpose in this study as an intellectual historian and political theorist is not to demonstrate either the validity or the falsity of Rand's ideas. Rather, it is to shed light on her philosophy by examining the context in which it was both formulated and developed. In this book I attempt to grasp Rand's Objectivism as a text developing over time. As a concept, "Objectivism" is open-ended; it contains its history and its future. It must be understood in terms of both its historical origins and its post-Randian evolution. The existential conditions from which it emerged and to which it speaks are in large part what give it its very significance. So, too, its meaning continues to unfold through a clash of interpretations offered by followers and critics alike. By clarifying these conditions and factors, I hope to provide an enriched appreciation of Rand's contributions.
Such an assertion might imply that I claim to have grasped the implications of Objectivism even more thoroughly than did Rand herself. Although I would never presume to such intellectual hubris, it is true, nonetheless, that Rand could not have explored the full implications of her philosophy in her lifetime. Such a task is reserved necessarily for succeeding generations of scholars.

I know this is not the way Objectivists would approach the study of Rand's contributions; but then again, I've never claimed to be an Objectivist (at least not without significant qualification); I've been influenced by too many theorists, from Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard to Aristotle and Ayn Rand, to be pinned down to any one school. I've embraced the term "dialectical libertarianism", and have taken my lumps in doing so. But, for now, there are few people out there claiming to be "dialectical libertarians," so I don't think I'm in any danger of needing to jealously guard the intellectual niche I've carved out for myself. But one thing I'd never do is claim that my own philosophical hodgepodge is anything but my own. As I once wrote, citing an old Spanish proverb that Nathaniel Branden was fond of quoting:

I’m adhering to the old Spanish proverb that says: "Take what you want, and pay for it." I’m taking what I want from Rand’s legacy, and paying for it---by assuming responsibility for my own interpretations and applications. Call me a Randian or a post-Randian or a neo-Objectivist or an advocate of Objectivism 2.0, or even the founder of Sciabarra-ism. But don’t call me an Objectivist. I agree with Rand’s core principles. But I have never argued that my own innovations (on subjects like dialectics or homosexuality) are part of "Objectivism" as Rand . . . defines it. Yes, I do believe that my own viewpoint is fully consistent with Objectivism. And on the subject of dialectics, for example, I’ve even argued that Rand herself was a dialectician as I’ve defined it. But I would never argue that Rand embraced "dialectics" as such, explicitly and by that name. Ultimately, I believe that I’m carrying on Rand’s legacy in many substantive ways and the burden is on me to prove it.

I think I've done that job in my "Dialectics and Liberty" trilogy (which consists of Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism and in many subsequent essays over the last two decades. But in the end, I'll let future generations of scholars have at it, to debate whether I got it right or wrong. However, I ain't dead yet. And there's lots more to come.

Song of the Day #1434

Song of the Day: The Help ("Swingin' on a Rainbow"), words and music by Peter De Angelis and Robert Marcucci, was recorded originally by Frankie Avalon as the title track of his 1959 album. Anything with Frankie Avalon's name attached to it brings to mind films with beaches, blankets, and bingo. But this swingin' song was among the "source music" used in this critically acclaimed 2011 period film set in the Civil Rights era of the early 1960s. Source music can play a crucial role in the cinema, providing an aural authenticity to films with an historical setting. Check out the teen idol's swingin' song on YouTube.

February 20, 2017

Song of the Day #1433

Song of the Day: I Want to Live! ("Main Title" / "Poker Game") [YouTube link to the entire soundtrack album; these tracks encompass the first 6:50] was composed by the ever-jazzy and wonderfully prolific Johnny Mandel. It provides a superb backdrop for this Robert Wise-directed 1958 tale based on the harrowing true story of Barbara Graham, who went to the gas chamber for murder. Susan Hayward gave an Oscar-winning performance as Best Actress, playing the "brazen bad girl . . . implicated in murder and sentenced to death row." Two scores for the film were actually released---"Johnny Mandel's Great Jazz Score" and "The Jazz Combo from 'I Want to Live!'"---the former received a Grammy nomination for Best Soundtrack Album (losing out to Andre Previn for "Gigi"). The film's soundtracks feature such jazz luminaries as Gerry Mulligan, Frank Rosolino, Jack Sheldon (the trumpeter who delivered Mandel's haunting 1965 "Sandpiper" score with such passion), Art Farmer, and Shelly Manne (who was also featured on Previn's "Gigi").

February 19, 2017

Song of the Day #1432

Song of the Day: Hell to Eternity ("Main Title") [YouTube link], music by Leith Stevens (who provided that great score for the splendid 1953 George Pal production of "War of the Worlds"), is an appropriate theme to highlight on this day of remembrance, a day we forget at our peril, when the United States government opened internment camps during World War II for Japanese Americans. The 1960 film stars Jeffrey Hunter, along with David Janssen (who played Dr. Richard Kimble in the trailblazing TV series, "The Fugitive"). It is a biopic about Marine hero Guy Gabaldon Pfc. (played by Hunter), who went on to fight in the Pacific theater of the war, using his considerable Japanese language skills in the Battle of Saipan, where he persuaded the Japanese commander to order the surrender of about 1000 troops and 500 civilians.

February 18, 2017

Song of the Day #1431

Song of the Day: Son of Frankenstein ("Main Title"), composed by Frank Skinner, is from the third film in the Universal Studios Series of Frankenstein films. The first two, "Frankenstein" (1931) and "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), directed by James Whale, were followed by this 1939 film, the last in which Boris Karloff played the role of the Monster---and the first to feature the character Ygor, played by Bela Lugosi (famous, of course, for his "Dracula" role in both the 1927 Broadway adaptation and 1931 film versions of the Bram Stoker novel). Skinner had a wide range of scores to his credit, from "Saboteur" to the Douglas Sirk classics, "All that Heaven Allows" and "Imitation of Life," but he is especially noted for contributing to the definitive soundtracks for several Universal Monster Movies, including "The Wolf Man," "The Invisible Man Returns," and that ultimate horror-comedic hybrid, "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein."

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