Three Passings, Three Losses

Sometimes people you come to know in passing leave a more-than-passing memory. Three such people have recently passed away in quick succession, and I wanted to mark their passings. 

Many readers of this blog may know, or know of, Chris Sciabarra, The Famous Dialectical Libertarian of Brooklyn, but far fewer have had the privilege, as I have, of meeting his late sister Elizabeth (1952-2022). To the best of my memory, I met her only twice; it may in fact only have been once, but she was the kind of person who would have left a double impression from a single encounter.

My first reaction on meeting her was that the two of them together seemed like characters in a Greco-Sicilian sit-com set in Brooklyn: where else would you get a gay dialectical-libertarian political theorist brother sharing a tiny Gravesend apartment with a straight, and straight-talking, public school principal, both sharing rhetorical barbs and Big Family love over pizza and gelato? But that was Chez Sciabarra for ya. My second reaction was an educator’s sense of kinship at meeting another member of my tribe: “Ski,” as they called her, was a teacher’s teacher who lived and breathed the educator’s vocation. As an educator myself, I could hear that in the way she spoke about teaching, about her students, and about her school. But it was so obvious that I suppose anyone else listening, educator or not, would hear the same thing.   

Elizabeth Sciabarra passed away on November 26th, at the age of 70, after a long illness. Here is Chris’s moving tribute to her. I cherish the time I spent in her company, but regret how little time that ended up being.

***

I just learned from Sciabarra’s blog of the passing of the libertarian economist, Walter Grinder (1938-2022). I spent a summer in Walter’s company when I was a Jaqueline Hume Fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies back in the summer of 1994; Walter and I met at the same coffee shop in Fairfax each morning to chat about whatever came to mind as the caffeine hit. I stayed in touch with him until roughly 2000, but for whatever reason–possibly my gradual departures and eventual apostasy from libertarianism–didn’t keep in touch thereafter. 

He was an enormously kind and generous person, a great wit and conversationalist, and a source both of great knowledge and of great humility–qualities that now seem conspicuous by their rarity in the libertarian movement. Whether accurately or not, I think of him as belonging to an earlier version of that movement, one more in touch with the humanistic impulses that animated its best aspirations.  Things weren’t the same at IHS after he left–or was ushered aside–and won’t be the same in the wider world now that he’s gone. I can’t say that I knew him well enough to do justice to his memory, but he’s also not the kind of person easily forgotten. He died on December 4th, at the age of 84. 

***

I was genuinely shocked to learn of the passing, on December 2, of the political scientist Jeffrey Friedman at the age of 62 (1959-2022). Friedman was the founder and editor of Critical Review, a quasi-libertarian “Journal of Politics and Society” that had a huge influence on me, starting in my undergraduate years when it first came out, through the time I spent in the 2010’s as co-editor (with Carrie-Ann Biondi) of Reason Papers, which functioned, in its own way, as one of Critical Review’s decidedly small-time (and lower budget) “rivals.”

The truth is, Reason Papers was never really competitive with Critical Review, and we knew it couldn’t be, but we looked up to Critical Review as a model of scholarly rigor and intellectual excitement–at least when it embodied those qualities, which was not always, but often enough. Jeff’s specialty was, or became, political epistemology, or what might be called the epistemics of power; he did some brilliant work on the etiology of the 2008 financial crisis, and was, toward the end of his life, the author of a highly-acclaimed book, Power without Knowledge: A Critique of Technocracy (2019). 

My first encounter with Jeff did not go well. I was in those days a dogmatic David Kelley-style Objectivist, a staunch defender of “the fundamentals of Rand’s system,” meaning, essentially, her epistemology and ethics. While I wasn’t nearly as staunch a libertarian as I was an Objectivist fundamentalist, I found Friedman’s criticisms of libertarianism tendentious and unfair, and decided to tell him so. We had a big, loud argument about consequentialism at some IHS shindig, followed by a yet louder (and much sillier) argument about whether or not David Kelley regarded Objectivism as a “closed” or “open” system. We left the argument, like minor characters in a David Lodge novel, devoutly hating each other, and stuck to that script for the next few decades. 

We reconciled maybe a decade ago, on discovering that both of us bore a serendipitous connection to the “white nationalist” (i.e., neo-Nazi) intellectual figure, Greg Johnson. Johnson had been Managing Editor of Critical Review, and of Reason Papers as well. Both Jeff and I had had the misfortune of dealing with him in the 1990s; he was a raging asshole even before his descent into the white nationalist miasma, but became more self-made ideological zombie than human being thereafter. The white nationalism and Nazi-philia came relatively late; the Greg we knew back in the day was simply a closeted and bigoted gay man, insufferably full of contempt for just about everyone on the planet, and acutely incapable of dealing with the reality of his own sexuality.

Greg’s unapologetic defense of ethnic cleansing provides a nice summary of what he was later to become. He started heading in this direction well before I discovered it; the discovery took awhile because, until 2009, Greg had been writing under a bunch of pseudonyms. It wasn’t until 2010 or so that he started writing in his own name–also about the time when Jeff and I decided to stop hating each other and start hating Greg instead. I don’t regret the decision. Though I can’t say that Jeff and I were best friends, we did exchange emails and phone calls on occasion, bathing luxuriously in mutually-enjoyable rancor for our fascist bete noire

You might think I’m joking, but I’m not. There was something genuinely surreal about our close encounters with Greg–hard to understand, I guess, until you come to discover the Julius Streicher in your own midst. I think Jeff and I both got a particularly perverse pleasure out of Greg’s psychopathic, classically obsessional anti-Semitism: Jeff was nominally Jewish (the son of a rabbi, no less), and I’d spent a decade living in a Jewish household; though neither of us were Jewish Jewish, both of us were, of necessity, the targets of Greg’s Jew-fixated lucubrations. Jeff had a Jewish past. I had a Jewish partner and family. We were, in short, both Jewish enough for any concentration camp Greg dreamed up for us.*

Jeff was the first to admit to being sort of charmed by that, and it wasn’t long before I broke down and admitted it, too. There’s something satisfying about having to process someone’s weirdly obsessional hatred for you, or at least for your kind, and while Aristotle may not have a category for a friendship based on so perverse a pleasure, Jeff and I sure did–ours.  I don’t mean to suggest that our friendship was based on shared rancor alone; I simply mean that it’s a huge relief to encounter someone who shares your hates, and is willing to get on the phone for an hour at a time to share them with you. 

To share an object of execration is to share a sense of justice. I never thought I’d say that I had a sense of justice in common with Jeffrey Friedman, but I’m now proud to say that I did. He left us far too early–a loss for wit, for scholarship, and above all, for justice. RIP.


*Prior to 2009, Johnson wrote under the pseudonym “T.C. Lynch,” among others. 

2 thoughts on “Three Passings, Three Losses

  1. I did not know Elizabeth Sciabarra or Walter Grinder, but I can share a memory of Jeffrey Friedman. The one and only time I ever met him was at a party at the apartment of David Ramsay Steele in Hyde Park, Chicago. It was one of the best parties of that kind I ever attended in Hyde Park, possibly because so few members of the U of C Econ department were there. I remember many episodes from it. It was a gathering after a talk on campus by David Friedman on a topic I cannot remember and probably just barely understood at the time. David Friedman in fact drove me to the party after his talk. This was a totally random event. He didn’t know me from Adam, but my friend and I needed a ride and he was good enough to offer one. I may not have been familiar with the topic of his talk, but I knew all about his views on anarcho-capitalism and wasn’t above starting an argument with him in the car about it. It didn’t go well, though I’d honestly have a hard time saying quite for whom. I was young but had already gone more than a few rounds with anarcho-capitalists.

    But this anecdote is supposed to be about Jeffrey Friedman, not David Friedman. The place was crowded. I encountered him as I wandered around the room. We seemed to be about the same age—and indeed I see now that we were less than a year apart—both in grad school. I thought we looked rather similar also. This was shortly before he founded Critical Review. And so we introduced ourselves and talked for a while. I don’t remember anything specific that we said. I remember only the feeling, but I remember it well. We hit it off, the way you sometimes do with a stranger. We communicated with zero difficulty. We held similar views about many things, and I’m not talking about free markets. I mean observations about grad school, culture, human nature. And so that encounter has stuck with me—but no doubt also because soon after that he began to become well-known. I subscribed to CR from its first issue and kept up the subscription for several years before dropping it. It was too political sciencey for me. But I learned important things from reading it and never lost the feeling of a personal connection with its editor.

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    • That’s a great story. Critical Review first started publishing in 1986, the year before I started college, so I’m guessing that your story dates to the mid-1980s. Your portrait of Jeff rings true. I was the stick-in-the-mud during our first encounter, but our later conversations were quite enjoyable. He was very easy to talk to (also very fond of talking).

      I encountered Critical Review when I first got to college. I was an intern at the National Association of Scholars, which got free copies of the journal. My boss was uninterested in them, so he gave them away to me, gratis. (I don’t think Jeff ever realized this.) Later, the journal appeared in the university library’s collection, which deeply impressed me. But because of that, I never ended up subscribing to it, and read it somewhat opportunistically, e.g., when I had access to the right sorts of library.

      The early issues of CR had a fair bit of philosophy in them, and a somewhat interdisciplinary flavor to them, as well. As late as 1997, CR published a review by Richard Kraut of one of Rasmussen & Den Uyl’s books on libertarianism. But Jeff had this view that libertarianism was at bottom an anti-empirical form of deontology, so he wanted to subject it (libertarianism) to a kind of empiricist shock treatment by prolonged exposure to left-leaning social science. For awhile, that gave the journal its social sciency (and anti- or “post”-libertarian) cast. In recent years (meaning the last 15 years or so), the journal has been focusing on issues at the intersection of politics and epistemology. I’ve noticed it out of the corner of my eye, but apart from Jeff’s work on the financial crisis, haven’t really kept up.

      I’m struck by how young he was, how much he’d accomplished, but how much he might have accomplished if he’d had another decade or two to do it. Nietzsche calls it an “offense to morality” that Raphael died at the age of 36. Jeffrey Friedman wasn’t Raphael, and 62 isn’t 36, but I feel something analogous.

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