January 21, 2018

Folks Interview: Postscript

I have been utterly overwhelmed by the public and private response to the Robert Lerose-conducted interview of me that appeared in Folks magazine here, which has already had over 160 shares from the Folks page alone (and climbing rapidly).

I've also had scores of questions that have been asked of me about the 60+ surgical procedures I've had through the years. Without putting my entire medical history online, let me just give a more detailed picture of the effects of Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome (SMAS), and the intestinal by-pass surgery that was required in order to save my life. The "blind-loop" or so called "dumping" syndrome that can sometimes result from such a procedure has caused side effects that nobody could have quite predicted. Obviously, I do not regret having had the surgery; I would not be here today to talk about any of this, if I had not had the initial operation at age 14.

But to give a very brief summary of what this has led to, I'll provide a checklist:

o Chronic dehydration from the condition led to the chronic formation of kidney stones, which has required countless lithotripsies over the years to break up the stones. (In my very first lithotripsy, back in 1995, a stone fragment got lodged in the ureter and after a week of being in utter agony, despite a morphine drip, a stent was placed within to dilate the ureter---under general anesthesia---and was later removed under local anesthesia. NOTHING on earth compares to the pain of a lodged kidney stone or the medieval removal of a stent. Passing such a stone is like giving birth to the planet Jupiter through a pin hole. Hmmm... I see some of you folks crossing your legs. So, end of story!)

o Chronic internal bleeding led to such severe anemia and iron deficiency, that I was required to undergo countless blood transfusions and IV iron supplementations, before I underwent more than two dozen ligation procedures to stop the bleeding. I am no longer anemic.

o Intestinal strain has led to many hernias requiring surgical repair.

o Bouts of everything from impactions to minor perforations to acute diverticulitis, all outgrowths of the condition, have required treatment.

I have used all of the tools of Western medicine and Eastern medicine (including biofeedback, meditation, herbal and nutritional supplements, acupuncture, "energy" meridians, you name it!) to combat these side effects. No stone has been left unturned. I exercise to the best of my ability and try to maintain a healthy diet (but all restrictions be damned, for pizza will always be a part of the special "Brooklyn" diet I practice!). I also surround myself with a positive support network.

Ultimately, however, as so many doctors have said, it is less about "what" I eat, than the fact that I eat, because this is a motility problem, and everything ingested is going to go through the same screwed up mechanics. Fortunately, there are ways of combating the side effects; unfortunately, the underlying cause of all those side effects, rooted in the initial SMAS condition and the by-pass created to save my life, is something for which there remains no cure.

Some folks, with other medical conditions, including both mental and physical health problems (we are integrated beings of mind and body, after all), have debated in various Facebook threads, who has it worse?---folks with gastro-vascular issues or neurological issues or cancer or countless number of other health problems.

Let me just be a little theoretical at this point. As I stated in one of the Facebook threads, this is not about "I've got it worse than you." Economics teaches us that there can be no interpersonal comparisons of utility or disutility---that is, in this context, there is no single scale upon which to measure one person's problems versus another. Or in more philosophical language: everything is agent-relative. Everything is embedded in our personal contexts. Most folks on this planet have some "cross to bear," to use an old metaphor. That's the nature of life, which is why Ayn Rand once claimed that life is the standard of moral values. But this is not a matter of merely taking those actions that further one's survival; it is about surviving and flourishing as human beings---with all that goes into the very definition of being human.

What matters is that you do not lay down and crucify yourself on any cross you might bear. What matters is how you rise to the occasion to combat it---how well you deal with it, using all the medical and personal resources at your disposal, including the nourishing of social networks of support.

If the interview at Folks does anything to bring attention to the SMAS condition that nearly killed me, that's great. But the message was more universal than that: it is that we all have to develop survival skills that emphasize our personal worth and that nurture a healthy sense of self-esteem. For me, the works of the late novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand and the late psychologist Nathaniel Branden, articulated in a more detailed fashion that which I understood on a "gut" level, if one can pardon the pun.

I no longer have a terminal disease; I'm still kickin', and I'm a warrior. I allow myself the grace of owning my condition, but not allowing it to define who and what I am. I own my emotions, and allow myself to be happy, to be sad, to laugh, to cry, but mostly to revel in the fact that where there is life, there is hope. Celebrate the fact that you are alive, and focus on all those things that help you not merely to survive, but to flourish. Celebrate your individual creativity and productivity. Celebrate your connections to all things that are living on this wonderful planet.

Once again, I want to thank each and every person, probably more than a hundred "folks", who have responded with such support, admiration, and affection. It's not about sympathy. It's all about embracing and nourishing life-affirming values---values that both sustain life and are reflections of a life worth living.

A big Brooklyn hug to all!

January 20, 2018

Folks Interview: "How the Queen of Selfishness Taught Me to Accept My Disability"

Freelance writer Robert Lerose recently interviewed me for Folks, an online magazine "dedicated to telling the stories of remarkable people who refuse to be defined by their health issues." The interview is featured in this week's edition and can be read here---though for some reason, it also appears here. (Disclaimer: I am not responsible for the title of the essay or the accompanying links provided at either site.)

The piece focuses on my lifelong medical adventures with the congenital gastro-vascular disorder, Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome (SMAS); an intestinal by-pass (known as a duodenojejunostomy), performed by the gifted surgeon, Dr. Bochetto, saved my life at the age of 14.

I was diagnosed with this extremely rare condition when I was literally near death. It was my family physician, Dr. Karounos, who did a GI Series in his office (they did that back then!), and who suggested after years of misdiagnosis, that I might have SMAS. It was the great Japanese doctor, Hiromi Shinya, who nailed the diagnosis with an upper tract endoscopic procedure known as an esaphagogastroduodenoscopy. As the pioneer of gastrointestinal endoscopic and colonoscopic techniques, Dr. Shinya developed and taught its most fundamental principles to a whole generation of doctors who, to this day, stand on his "Atlas"-like shoulders.

There have been severe complications caused by this condition and the body's manner of coping with the surgical changes that were necessary to my survival. Today, on the eve of my 58th birthday, with 60+ surgical procedures since that 1974 surgery, I am alive and kickin', thanks to the efforts of so many wonderful physicians and the love and support of family and friends.

Interestingly, in all my years on this planet, I have never heard this condition mentioned anywhere. It was only recently that I saw its potentially devastating effects dramatized in Episode 2 of the first season of "The Good Doctor," starring Freddie Highmore as Dr. Shaun Murphy, a brilliant surgical resident at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital, who just so happens to have autism and savant syndrome. In the episode, Murphy is able to visualize in his mind certain troubling symptoms present in one of his young patients. It sends him running to the child’s house, banging on the door in the middle of the night to the consternation of the child’s parents. He refuses to leave unless he can see the child to make sure she is okay. As it turns out, he saves the child’s life because he correctly diagnoses her as having a terminal condition in which the small intestine is twisted around the Superior Mesenteric Artery.

This was the first time in my entire life that I ever saw anyone in any medium—be it film, television, radio, or literature—even mention or suggest the condition known as Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome. The disorder is that rare. It is my hope that the mere mention of SMAS on national television might bring more attention to its causes, treatment, and perhaps, someday, to its complete eradication from the human condition.

My deepest appreciation to Robert Lerose for making "folks" aware of this medical problem---and of the possibility that individuals can survive and flourish despite the limitations that they may face from health issues. Again, check out the interview at Folks.

I'd also like to express my gratitude to my friend Don Hauptman, who thought my story was worth telling, and who put Robert Lerose in touch with me. (Only once before this interview, back in 2005, had I discussed the impact of Ayn Rand on my capacity to deal with---and transcend some of the limitations of---a lifelong disability. See here.)

Postscript: Various folks shared my Facebook post of this interview, and there have been so many wonderful comments from so many caring people. Some of the comments have been hilarious. My friend Steve Horwitz, for example, picked up on one of the phrases in my interview and said: "I am amused that Chris Matthew Sciabarra chose this turn of phrase to describe his inner life: 'I am constitutionally incapable of keeping anything in.'" As I remarked in my reply to Steve, I chose that phrase quite consciously. I guess my inner life or my way of dealing with things emotionally is a reflection, in part, of, uh, the nature of my physical disability.

But one comment that I found interesting came from a discussion with regard to an individual who, like Dr. Shaun Murphy in "The Good Doctor" (mentioned above) is on the autism spectrum. Some folks think there is just no comparison between a person suffering a neurological disorder versus a person like myself, who has had 60+ surgeries for a congenital gastro-vascular condition. I responded:

I've learned one thing about the nature of disability, and perhaps it is a lesson that comes from economics: one cannot make interpersonal comparisons of utility or disutility. If you have a disability, the nature of that disability is almost irrelevant, from the perspective of "Mine is worse than yours." If it is your disability, it is something you must come to terms with, and it is as much a 'burden' for a person who has a gastro-vascular disorder as it is for a person who has a neurological one.
I would like to think that my interview has a more universal message: that it is possible to accept oneself as a bundle of possibilities, regardless of the limitations that one faces, and to make the most of them.

I emphasized that point of "interpersonal comparisons of utility" in another comment in the same Facebook thread, where I declared that there was no room for shame in thinking that one's problems seem to be minute in comparison to the problems faced by others:

We all can be Stoic in the face of life's difficulties, but no amount of pretending can cover the real pain each of us feels carrying the burdens of health and other problems that are unique to each of us in our own lives. To use an old metaphor, we all seem to have some cross that we are carrying---the trick is not to allow yourself to be crucified on it. But as long as it is your cross that you're carrying, it is still your cross---and each person knows how heavy the burdens can be. Economists are correct: No room for interpersonal comparisons of utility or disutility; let us just be happy that we can have friends and build a community around the idea that there is something heroic about celebrating that which is good, creative, and productive inside each of us. That's one of the gifts I got from Rand's work.
As I said in another thread, I'm, uh, constitutionally incapable of keeping anything in, including the words that come flowing out of my own mouth! Best to get it off your chest, your gut, your mind, whatever! It's positively unhealthy to hold back, especially with those who can be empathetic and supportive.

The Facebook post has been shared by quite a few people, and the Folks story has over 150 shares already. My friend David Boaz remarked: "I am amused to discover that my good friend Chris Sciabarra first encountered the work of Ayn Rand in his days at John Dewey High School. This is an interesting interview about how Rand and Nathaniel Branden helped him deal with a congenital illness that has plagued him throughout his very productive life." I replied:

I chuckled at your opening remark. :)
Regarding having discovered Rand at John Dewey High School (and we all know how much Rand loved Dewey as a pragmatist philosopher), I do have to say that the school was truly the embodiment of individualism in education---we were able to construct our major around five 6-week cycle semesters, which were specialized courses in virtually every discipline, with vigorous independent study. Back then, it was truly one of the gems of the NYC public school system!

January 15, 2018

US Foreign Intervention and the Problem of "S&!#Hole" Diplomacy

President Trump has gotten a lot of flack for advocating a more "European"-based immigration policy, cutting back on the influx of immigration from "shithole" places like Haiti and Africa. He mentioned Norway as one place whose immigrants would be welcome to U.S. shores. Of course, considering that so many folks on U.S. terrorist watchlists travel to the U.S. with European visas, including all those Muslims that Trump loves, it would not be too long before he'd call for a ban on European immigration too.

But I wanted to share a link to a fine essay by Ryan McMaken on the "Mises Wire," entitled: "Now's a Great Time to Stop Meddling in Haiti." If folks want a history lesson on how some of the places the President disparages become "shitholes," this is a good primer essay.

January 14, 2018

RIFI: The New Great Connections

The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute (RIFI), on which I serve as one of the members of the Board of Advisors, has launched its dynamic new website. As the Founder and President of the Great Connections Seminars, Marsha Familaro Enright tells us:

When we think of free societies, we often think of industry, free markets, and minimal government. But real freedom starts within, with self-understanding, self-responsibility, self-direction, determination, and a nimble ability to adapt to life’s challenges. Autonomous people do not easily tolerate being ruled.
Yet, the modern classroom, from grade school to graduate school, relies heavily on a top-down structure of a single arbiter of knowledge, often in the position of lecturer and discussion leader as well as knowledge and moral authority. This structure embodies collectivist ideals of social control and strongly helps to foist their ideas and values onto students, such as: social justice, moral relativism, and limiting free speech. By controlling the ideas and the way they are taught to young people, the collectivists have come to control the ideas in the culture.
This educational structure needs to be examined, questioned---and overthrown. . . . where do individuals learn how to live autonomously and use that information in their lives? The free future requires an educational---a psychological---technology that suits the needs and reflects the aims of the free human being.
The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute (RIFI) has developed and implemented such a psychological technology in our Great Connections programs.

Take a tour of this new exciting "Great Connections" website, starting here.

January 13, 2018

Song of the Day #1526

Song of the Day: They All Laughed, music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, was first heard in the 1937 film "Shall We Dance," where Ginger Rogers introduced it before joining her legendary dance partner Fred Astaire in a classic routine [YouTube links]. This standard from the Great American Songbook has been recorded by many wonderful jazz artists from Ella to Sassy [YouTube links]. In last night's PBS broadcast of "Tony Bennett: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song," a wealth of talent performed to honor Tony as the newest recipient of the award. As the first "interpretive singer" to be so honored, Tony opened up his own set with this standard. His rendition last night swung hard, but YouTube has a few versions at more moderate swing tempos, from "The Essential George Gershwin," a 1999 live version with Tony's long-time pianist Ralph Sharon, and in a peppy duet with Lady Gaga from their album, "Cheek to Cheek" [YouTube links].

January 12, 2018

Russian Radical 2.0: A Walk Down Memory Lane

Anoop Verma took me for a walk down memory lane with his newest blog entry, "On Ridpath's 'The Academic Deconstruction of Ayn Rand'." He also posted the link to Facebook, which has, of course, led to a spirited exchange. I added this comment about the publication history of my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical:

While you [Anoop] know I always appreciate you bringing attention to my work (and even its critics; after all, I put excerpts from all reviews, positive and negative, of all my work, right on my website), this is, of course, ancient history. Check out the Ridpath material (including my replies) indexed here. [Here are the direct links to an excerpt from the Ridpath review and these two comments by me.]
I do recall an interview that Ridpath gave some time after that essay appeared and he made a comment that ARI-affiliated scholars were working for years on Rand, and out of nowhere, this Sciabarra fellow came along and published this atrocious volume that has gotten all this attention. It's like I was a party-crasher. But believe me, the last thing any scholar would do, certainly back in 1995, would be to pick Ayn Rand as a subject for scholarly inquiry, and make her the focus of a 500-page book. Not exactly a way of endearing oneself to the predominantly left-wing academy or those conservative professors who opposed the lefties, and Ayn Rand as well.
As it happened, the book was rejected by many publishers before it found its home at Pennsylvania State University Press. Most university presses that reviewed the manuscript showed an appreciation of its scholarly quality, but rejected it because the subject (Rand) was "not worthy of scholarly attention." And they were quite honest about this. And virtually all trade presses showed an appreciation of any book on Rand that could potentially spike commercial sales, except they rejected the book because it was too scholarly.
So it was to the credit of Penn State Press, and its then director, Sandy Thatcher, that the book was published---going through seven printings before being republished in a second expanded edition in 2013. My relationship with PSUP also expanded, as they published the volume I coedited with Mimi Gladstein, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, as well as the third installment of my "Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy": Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. In 2013, they also became the publishers of a journal that I was a founding coeditor of back in 1999: The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. So the work continues...

January 08, 2018

Golden Globes and Golden Memories

I watched the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards last night, and enjoyed the festivities; as most folks know, we are fast approaching that time of the year when I begin my annual tribute to film music (dubbed "Film Music February", which, this year, will run from February 1 till March 4, the date of the 90th Annual Academy Awards). In any event, I posted this comment on the site of the Miklos Rozsa Society today; we were asked: "Can You Remember the Moment You Discovered Rozsa and His Music," and I replied:

I don't remember the first date exactly, but my mother had the collectible soundtrack with accompanying book [to "Ben-Hur"], having seen the film around Christmas 1959 in New York City at the Loew's State Theatre (where the film debuted in November of that year). I was born in February 1960, so I was most likely serenaded by Rozsa while still awaiting my entrance into this world. Later on, maybe when I was around 5 years old, I had manifested a real love for music, listening to everything from Chubby Checker and Joey Dee to Ahmad Jahmal, Joe Pass, and the soundtrack to "Ben-Hur." Indeed, by the time I saw the film in its re-release at the Palace Theatre in NYC in 1969, I knew virtually every note of the soundtrack, and had fallen in love with it. It only predisposed me to utterly fall in love with the film, which remains my all-time favorite till this day.
I tell the story of my first encounter with that epic film, my all-time favorite, here and explain why it's my all-time favorite, here.

I look forward to this year's Film Music February, as my entries are already locked and loaded, awaiting release on Notablog. It should be fun.

I also hope to publish my long-awaited comparative review of the 2016 version of "Ben-Hur" with its predecessors sometime later in the spring--when the snow has disappeared from the streets of Brooklyn, and Easter is in the air!

Postscript [9 January 2018]: My pal, Michael Shapiro, says that Rozsa's film score to "El Cid kicks Ben-Hur's butt, musically speaking," and I replied:

Well, it's hard to argue with Rozsa versus Rozsa; I love the score to "El Cid" too much to say anything negative about it. I suspect it's just a personal thing... how I connected with "Ben-Hur" as a child (maybe even before being born!), and how it made such a huge impression on me before even seeing the film. (I think I can say, however, that "Ben-Hur" is the superior film; but there's no doubt that "El Cid" is beautiful to look at---Sophia Loren alone is beautiful to look at!---and a heroic tale.)

Michael raised the "deus ex machina problem" of the film, and I responded:

I deal with that "deus ex machina" problem in my essay on the subject. At least I think I do. I think that Wyler loads the 1959 film with remarkable symbolism every step of the way, which can be viewed in strictly secular terms, especially in the manner in which he uses water, blood, stone, light, and darkness. The Biblical "miracle" in the film is depicted by the cleansing of leprosy. But that can be viewed as a metaphor for the real "miracle" that takes place in Judah Ben-Hur's soul, his tale one that mirrors the "Tale of the Christ," which bookends the film.
It's truly an amazing and intimate epic that uses the Biblical subtext to show the transformation of an individual, as he goes from a prince among his people to an unjustly condemned man who eventually vanquishes his enemy in an empty victory, which embitters him and consumes him with hatred and vengeance. By film's end, the events he witnesses remove "the sword" from his hand and spirit, as he finds a road to individual redemption.
I find the film very uplifting on so many levels. A really excellent book on the subject, edited by Barbara Ryan and Milette Shamir is Bigger than Ben-Hur: The Book, Its Adaptations, & Their Audiences. I don't agree with every essay, but I think it clearly shows that, as my own essay suggests, even "atheists" can appreciate this very earthly tale of struggle and triumph.

I added:

Wyler once said that it took a Jew to make a really good film about Christ. Considering his resume, he also said he took on the film because he wanted to have the experience of making a "Cecil B. DeMille" film. The irony is that in many ways, he retains the spectacle of a DeMille film, but ushers in the first "intimate epic" of its time, which would change the nature of epics thereafter (witness "Spartacus", for example, released in 1960).
A little bit of trivia: Wyler was an uncredited assistant on the 1925 silent version of "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ."

Still...

There could have been no Wyler, no "Spartacus", and so forth, without a DeMille. (For that matter, DeMille had a soft spot in his heart for a young woman named Ayn Rand; and Rand and her husband-to-be, Frank O'Connor, were extras in, of all DeMille films, the silent version of "The King of Kings.")
DeMille often said that the key to success in his Biblical costume dramas was to have just the right mixture of scripture... and sex---and you'll find that on display in everything from "Sign of the Cross" to "Samson and Delilah," and the two versions (silent and sound) of "The Ten Commandments."

January 05, 2018

Song of the Day #1525

Song of the Day: Finesse has quite a few contributors to its words and music, including Philip Lawrence, Christopher Brody Brown, James Fauntleroy, and Bruno Mars, who recorded this song for his superb third solo album, "24K Magic" (and I've got a few more fav tracks I'll be featuring soon). He kills it in concert (he certainly did at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Live at the Apollo in Harlem [DailyMotion link; can be viewed about 7 minutes in]). The song, like the album on which it is featured, is an exercise in throwback; this one harks back to the New Jack Swing sound of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Check out the album version and a new remix [YouTube links] just released yesterday, featuring rapper Cardi B, in a video tribute to "In Living Color." Jennifer Lopez, one of the original "Fly Girls," responded to the homage with a clip from the famed Wayans-produced TV show.

January 04, 2018

Rothbard, Rand, and "How I Became a Libertarian"

A discussion on Facebook on the relationship between Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand prompted me to post a few observations:

Just as an aside, it must be noted that in The Passion of Ayn Rand, Barbara Branden writes: "Though disagreeing with Ayn Rand's key concept of limited government, Murray Rothbard has stated that he 'is in agreement basically with all her philosophy,' and that it was she who convinced him of the theory of natural rights which his books uphold" (page 413). I should also note that while the Circle Bastiat (which consisted initially of Rothbard, Robert Hessen, Leonard Liggio, George Reisman, and Ralph Raico) had their infamous interactions with Rand, Rothbard is on record as having defended Rand and Atlas Shrugged in print, in the publication Commonweal, back in 1957, where he stated: "The difference between Miss Rand’s concept and the usual Christian morality is that there is compassion for a man’s fight against suffering, or against unjustly imposed suffering, rather than pity for suffering per se.” (Quite a different view than that presented in "Mozart was a Red" or "The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult".)

Whatever his faults, and whatever his twists and turns, from the New Left in the 1960s to the paleo-libertarian days of his later years, I think it should be noted that Rothbard was among the most prolific writers of his time, and his works on Austrian economics and history (from the colonial period to the Progressive era to the emergence of the "Welfare-Warfare" state) present some of the most significant, insightful, and integrated radical analyses of the emergence of statism in the United States. I devote a considerable part of my book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, discussing the positive and negative aspects of his system of thought, which is certainly worth serious study.

[Now,] it is entirely possible, from the stories I've heard, that he certainly did everything he could to avoid citing Rand as any kind of influence on his ethics, as there was a lot of bad blood between the two figures (but as that 1957 quote from Commonweal suggests, this was something that happened after the break between them).
But in looking at his whole body of work, though I am highly critical of him in Part Two of Total Freedom, I don't think it can be denied that he was remarkable at integrating the insights of Mises (especially Mises's view of the boom-bust cycle: see his monumental Man, Economy, and State and Power and Market) and those of the New Left (especially Gabriel Kolko, James Weinstein, and others--see especially his books on the colonial era, Conceived in Liberty, and his analyses of The Progressive Era, and America's Great Depression, not to mention his work as coeditor, with Ronald Radosh of A New History of Leviathan), in coming up with a very radical, libertarian perspective on the emergence of statism in the United States. He also presented a more thoroughly developed understanding of a libertarian "class analysis" (which has influenced a whole generation of thinkers, including Walter Grinder and John Hagel, who, themselves, made important contributions to this perspective.)
I think one can learn from his approach, even if one rejects key aspects of it (as I do---and make no mistake about it, I am extremely critical of what I view as the "utopian" and "nondialectical" aspects of Rothbard's approach).
I should add a little "truth in advertising" because Rothbard certainly made a personal impact on my own intellectual odyssey on "How I Became a Libertarian."

January 01, 2018

Song of the Day #1524

Song of the Day: My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year) features the music of Paul Horner and the lyrics of Peggy Lee, who recorded this song for a Christmas album. There are few songs that express as many good wishes for the new year as this one. Check out the recordings by Peggy Lee and a cover by Regina Spektor [YouTube links]. A Happy and Healthy New Year to All!

December 25, 2017

Song of the Day #1523

Song of the Day: The Christmas Blues, words and music by David Holt and Sammy Cahn, is, yes, a bluesy song for this Christmas, recorded most famously by Dean Martin [YouTube link] and heard on the "L.A. Confidential" soundtrack. It was later recorded by Jo Stafford [YouTube link]. Don't let the blues get you down [link to "A Charlie Brown Christmas" Medley by jazz pianist David Benoit; hat tip to Alexandra York]! A very Merry Christmas with peace on earth and goodwill to one and all!

December 24, 2017

Song of the Day #1522

Song of the Day: Snow, words and music by Irving Berlin, was originally written for the Broadway musical, "Call Me Madam," with the title "Free," but it was eventually dropped, and resurrected with some new lyrics for the 1954 film, "White Christmas." In the film, it is sung by Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen [YouTube link]. My gut instincts tell me that New York City is going to have a lot of that white stuff this winter. But nothing warms the heart more than a little dusting on Christmas Eve, the silence of the night brightened with twinkling Christmas decorations. Right now, it looks like New York City is going to have a mixture of a Wet and slightly White Christmas this year; but that doesn't mean we can't track Santa on NORAD in his global travels!

December 14, 2017

Russian Radical 2.0: The Dialectical Rand

My essay, "Reply to Critics of Russian Radical 2.0: The Dialectical Rand," which appears in the December 2017 issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, has apparently caused a bit of a stir on Facebook, as folks discuss one part of my essay---though it appears few have actually read the essay in full.

Anoop Verma has already posted a piece on his Verma Report: Ayn Rand: The Philosopher Who Came In From the Soviet Union, a clever play on Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

I am reluctant to say much about the essay until people have actually read it, though in truth, I think the essay speaks for itself. I did, however, clarify one issue that has dogged my use of the word "dialectics" for over twenty years now. Some folks may think my use of the word is idiosyncratic, but as I explain in the first four chapters of my book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, though the word has come to be associated with various untenable philosophical doctrines, it originates among the ancients, and its theoretical father is Aristotle. On Facebook, I posted this reply to one commentator:

I absolutely do not identify dialectics as the Hegelian "triad" of thesis-antithesis-synthesis (though this is more a formulation of Fichte, rather than Hegel); I identify it as the art of context-keeping. It is this art that led even Peikoff to exclaim that Hegel was "right" methodologically when he said "The True is the Whole"--but very wrong in terms of his philosophical premises. The original theoretician of "dialectics" was Aristotle, whom even Hegel called "The Fountainhead" (and he used those specific words) of dialectical inquiry: that is, Hegel saw Aristotle as the father of a mode of analysis that sought to understand any problem from multiple vantage points, on different levels of generality, and across time, so as to get a more enriched perspective of the fuller context of the problem, and how it is often an expression of a larger system of interconnected problems.
It would really be great if folks would actually read my book, and the new JARS article before hoisting onto me theories that I explicitly reject. (I address the issue of false alternatives in the book and in the newest essay as well.)
I agree completely about defining one's terms, . . . and I've devoted a trilogy of books (Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism) to explaining exactly what I mean by dialectics. In the concluding book of the trilogy, in fact, I reconstruct the entire history of the concept in the first three chapters, and then devote a full chapter to defining dialectics, and unpacking that definition in such a way that it cannot possibly be confused with any of the ways in which it has been distorted. And boy has it been distorted..

Stay tuned; there may be a few additional exchanges I'll post here.

Postscript (15 December 2017): In a tangential Facebook discussion on Marxism, I had the opportunity to pay tribute to a brilliant friend and colleague, the late Don Lavoie:

Just a note on Don Lavoie: He was a wonderful friend and a magnificent colleague; he was among the most supportive people in terms of his encouragement of my own intellectual adventure. And it's no coincidence that we both did our dissertations at NYU with Marxists and Austrians on our dissertation committees. He was certainly among the most well-read libertarians on Marxism (as is Pete Boettke), and in fact, when I was the President of the NYU chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society, we sponsored a debate between Don and Bertell Ollman. It was terrific---as Don was a kind of Hayekian anarchist and Bertell remains one of the finest Marxist scholars of his generation.

I also spoke of a Marxism discussion list that I cofounded:

I have fond memories of interacting with Doug Henwood, Jim Farmelant, and others on the Marxism discussion list that I cofounded, and that is still operating ("Marxism-Thaxis", as in "THeory" and "prAXIS"---yes, I proposed that crazy mashup for the list name). . . . [C]halk it up to my years as a mobile college DJ, always looking for a way to create "mashups" of different styles of music that kept the crowd dancing... [Additionally], I can tell you one thing: While I took more than my share of lumps on marxism-thaxis over discussions on everything from the calculation debate to dialectics and Ayn Rand, I honestly do not believe I was ever treated with the level of vicious disrespect that I have experienced over the last 20+ years in certain "Objectivist" circles. The Thaxis folks may have thought me eccentric and crazy, but most participants treated me with respect. Maybe some of it had to do with the fact that Bertell Ollman was providing provocative blurbs for my books, but I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that even though I had my disagreements with Marxism, I had devoted much time to studying and understanding the Marxist tradition, rather than engaging in sweeping, uninformed denunciations.

Postscript (18 December 2017): Anoop Verma's blog post on my essay has elicited a provocative response from Irfan Khawja, which can be viewed here. Irfan says:

It's an understatement to say that Sciabarra's thesis was harshly criticized by orthodox Objectivists associated with ARI; Sciabarra himself was marked out for personal attack, and attempts were made to destroy his reputation and career. I taught for several years (1997-98, and 1999-2005) at The College of New Jersey with the late Allan Gotthelf, a well-known Objectivist philosopher associated with ARI. Allan told me explicitly that the point of his polemics against Sciabarra's book was to discredit Sciabarra as a scholar, to wreck his reputation, to wreck his career, and to make sure that no reputable scholar were ever to take him seriously. He set out, deliberately and explicitly, to make Sciabarra's views appear absurd, and to make Sciabarra himself to appear a laughing-stock. People around Allan regularly referred to Sciabarra with derision, and encouraged others to do so. They trashed JARS as an enterprise, and encouraged others to do so. One had to be there to bear witness to the intensity of the animosity felt, not just for Sciabarra's ideas, but for Sciabarra himself. I was there. It was an unpleasantly memorable experience.
The irony is that though Chris and I are friends, I've never been convinced that Ayn Rand was a dialectical thinker. Chris's work had an oddly mirror-image effect on me. Instead of concluding that Rand was a dialectical thinker, I spent some time with Aristotle's Topics, and came to the conclusion that the problem with Rand was that she wasn't a dialectical thinker. (Indeed, the problem with a lot of contemporary philosophy is that dialectics has fallen through the cracks.) Or to the extent that Rand was a dialectical thinker, the dialectical tendencies in her work were at odds with what she took herself, self-consciously, to be doing.
In any case, though it'd be pretentious to call myself a "dialectical thinker," I'm now more strongly influenced by dialectics than I once was. I owe that to Chris. So while I don't literally accept the truth of his thesis, I've ended up being positively influenced by it all the same. Despite the efforts made to shut him up and discredit him, his work found an audience, and made a lasting impression. That's quite a vindication, and a well-deserved one.
Not only did Gotthelf try to undermine Chris's reputation and career, he did his best to de-legitimize JARS as an enterprise. He (Gotthelf) had a position on the editorial board of The Philosopher's Index (a major indexing service) and did his best to get JARS excluded from their indexing service, so as to minimize its exposure to the profession. My ex-wife Carrie-Ann Biondi was (and I think is) an indexer TPI, and she told me that she had no idea that Gotthelf had engaged in such efforts. So the efforts were made, but they were made covertly.
But if you knew where Gotthelf stood--and he hardly made it a secret--none of this came as a surprise. The whole episode has been covered up and rationalized by appealing to Gotthelf's undeniably distinguished career as an Aristotle scholar. What has gone unremarked is the fact that Gotthelf self-consciously used his credentials to get away with malfeasances that he knew he could get away with precisely because he had those credentials.
The pattern is part of the Objectivist obsession with Great Men and Their Achievements: a Great Achiever is permitted to do what and as he likes without having to live up to the pedestrian ethical standards that apply to non-achievers, the lowly proletariat of the Objectivist ethical universe. Never mind the fact that no one has yet managed to define precisely what counts as "productive work" on the Objectivist account. "Intuitively," everybody "knows" what counts and what doesn't. Definitions are only the guardians of rationality until you put them to sleep.

And on 19 December 2017, Irfan continued:

I don't think we need to go very far in hunting down Gotthelf's motivation. The motivation was transparent: Gotthelf had very fixed ideas about what Rand was saying, and what scholarship on Rand should say and look like. Sciabarra's work fit neither of his pre-conceptions, and neither did JARS.
But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, both "Russian Radical" and JARS had started gaining currency in the scholarly community. This happened at a time when ARI had decided, after a long hiatus, to re-invest in the scholarly enterprise. Simultaneously, David Kelley's organization, long regarded as a bastion of openness and scholarly seriousness, began to take a populist turn, and then, to fade from view. Gotthelf was well-acquainted with all of these facts. From his perspective, if Sciabarra/JARS could be swept from the field, ARI would have a monopoly on Rand scholarship. And a monopoly is what they had wanted all along--as any reader of "Fact and Value" could figure out. The important thing was to give this monopoly a moral/intellectual blessing so that they could tell themselves and the world that they had earned it.
I don't think Allan was precisely "jealous" of Chris; he had so little respect for Chris that jealousy couldn't have arisen. But he resented the attention that Chris and JARS had gotten, attention that he regarded as undeserved, and that ought to have been directed toward ARI and Anthem.

Roderick Long added a comment with regard to Gotthelf's scholarship and behavior:

Certainly Gotthelf did some good scholarly work -- his work on Aristotle's biology, for example, is first rate. Being capable of good scholarship and being capable of unprofessional behaviour are, sadly, quite compatible.

But readers should go to Anoop Verma's blog to see Anoop's comments as well; it is a very interesting conversation to say the least.

December 13, 2017

Song of the Day #1521

Song of the Day: Night Fever is a song written and recorded by the Brothers Gibb (or as they are more famously referred to as "The Bee Gees"). It made its first appearance on the mega-soundtrack to the 1977 hit movie, "Saturday Night Fever," a film that was released forty years ago this week. I did a 30th anniversary salute to the soundtrack, so there weren't many other tunes to choose from---but there is no better one to feature than the one that seems to have inspired the very title of the pathbreaking film, which brought international fame to John Travolta who, as Tony Manero, hustled his way onto the dance floor of Brooklyn's 2001 Odyssey disco (which later became a gay dance club named Spectrum and today is a Chinese restaurant). Check out the classic original recording by the Bee Gees and then the scene in which it is heard in the film [YouTube links].

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