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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.