Abortion Is NOT Murder: Judith Thomson’s Violinist

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Thumbnail for A Defense of Abortion, arguing that abortion is not murder.

Note: this is a transcript for my video, “Abortion Is NOT Murder: Judith Thomson’s Violinist”

Years ago, when I rejected Christianity and became an atheist, something interesting happened. Although I was comfortable without God in my life, it took me quite a while to change my position on abortion- which, at least anecdotally, seems to be the experience for lots of ex-believers. I sought out debates on the topic, I read works of philosophy to get away from the political noise, and concluded that- if progressives are to win this argument, they MUST begin with personhood. In other words, they need to establish, first and foremost, that a fetus is NOT a person, and that it does NOT have the same inviolable right to life like most persons do. I knew, of course, that personhood was just ONE point of contention in the philosophical literature, but, to me, it felt like it was the biggest point- the most important point- the only point.

Recently, however, I’ve begun to suspect that this insistence on the personhood argument might be little more than a vestige of my former Christianity. After all, I’d read a number of brilliant pro-abortion arguments that conceded personhood, but still went on to make their case. I would simply tune these arguments out, and there was really no good reason why- until, of course, I looked back into my own religious past, and saw what I was in fact doing. I seemed, in short, to have accepted the Christian idea of ensoulment- that every human, or potential human, has a right to that which God has given, now sublimated into an apparently secular argument that I felt was necessary to make.

But what if personhood is NOT necessary? What if- as the philosophical literature suggests- we can CONCEDE personhood to the anti-abortionists, and STILL come away with a compelling argument for abortion? Further, IF we successfully argue from the position of bodily autonomy, we do MORE than make good on a political claim. We can also put to rest yet another hooded remnant of religious thinking, and bring the focus back on human beings making ethical choices in the only moral system we’ve ever really had.

Prior to going any further, I want to briefly discuss thought experiments, and why philosophers use them.

On first glance, a thought experiment might seem strange and even downright exotic, but that’s actually the point. By eliminating emotional triggers – such as the word “fetus” – a philosopher can get you to respond strictly to the logical content of an argument, as opposed to whatever baggage you might be tempted by. Of course, some thought experiments ARE badly constructed, and do not capture the relevant parts of reality in the way they think they do, but THIS is what’s up for debate: and not merely the fact that a thought experiment has been invoked.

Alex Sheremet in front of Not Your Liberal logo, arguing why abortion is not murder.

Perhaps the most famous thought experiment related to abortion is Judith Thomson’s Violinist, which is part of … Continue reading →

NOT YOUR LIBERAL: A New YouTube Channel From Alex Sheremet

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Ever since I published my essay on Ben Shapiro, I’ve had countless requests to start a political show or something similar. I’ve finally taken this advice, and am testing the waters with a YouTube channel, under the branding Not Your Liberal.

The channel will cover politics, the arts, science, and philosophy, with videos and debates ranging from a few minutes to well over an hour, depending on the topic and format. I’ll debunk talking points, as well as meatier and more substantive arguments, teach you how to correctly read a poem or evaluate a painting, introduce you to ideas you’ve not heard before, and- of course- frame and unfold arguments in unpredictable ways, as you’ve no doubt seen if you’ve followed my debates within and about the articles on this blog.

I just posted the first video- “Debunking Ben Shapiro’s Free Will,” covering a topic I am interested in but didn’t get a chance to talk about just yet. A reader, in fact, notified me of Shapiro’s article on the subject, and I decided to take her e-mail as a suggestion.

Please subscribe to the channel, and if you like the first video, click ‘Like’. I have an upcoming, much longer video debating the state of politics and culture, as well as videos on abortion, multiculturalism, film, animation, poetry, and race and IQ. I will tackle the Intellectual Dark Web in the near future, which is a pretty common request I get in e-mails.

I’ve also started a Patreon page so that I could, maybe, transition to writing and making videos full time. Even just $1 per month helps- the important thing, to me, is the number of loyal, interested, and responsive patrons that I have, and not necessarily what they’re able to contribute. Once I hit a certain number of supporters, I can start covering bigger and bolder ground.

Expect more content by September.… Continue reading →

“Heaven Adores You” (2014) Is Bad For Elliott Smith

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Elliott Smith plays Miss Misery on Conan O'Brian, in Heaven Adores You.

In perhaps the most revealing moment in Nickolas Rossi’s Heaven Adores You, there is footage of Elliott Smith’s uncomfortable performance at the Academy Awards in 1998, just when he was at the height of popularity. It’s a ridiculous scene- Smith is forced into a silly, maudlin version of what is in fact one of his better songs, and is refused a request to play seated, as he’d so often done before. Instead, the stage moves as if to partition itself for him, as he sings in a white suit- inaudibly, at first- for an audience which had never before heard his name. The Oscars, after all, and all else like it are antithetical to anything of lasting value, and although Smith’s two minutes of music were the only thing of note in a ceremony dedicated to one of the worst films ever made, it is an open question as to what will be more remembered: the irony of Smith’s appearance, or the fact that Titanic snagged eleven awards, beating out Smith’s “Miss Misery” in the process.

And yet, despite everything one might say about this performance, it is only incidental to Rossi’s film. In fact, there would be no way to direct a biopic on Elliott Smith’s life without at least touching on the commercial high point of Smith’s career. To praise its inclusion, then, as a deft and meaningful narrative choice would be to miss the point. Put another way, there is no pathos Heaven Adores You must at all work for- it was simply handed to Rossi, purely by happenstance, just as Smith’s music was handed to Rossi, making the film’s worst missteps all the more fantastic, and predictable. How? It’s simple, really- for if one assumes that merely having access to great things guarantees their articulation, one is already doomed to fail. No doubt that Rossi and everyone the film showcases- friends, critics, relatives, former bandmates, and others- respect Smith’s work and implicitly understand its value. More pertinent, however, is the fact that no one- not even once- says anything remotely insightful about it, with Rossi thus crafting a trite hagiography of the misunderstood, suicidal artist, as talking-heads praise Smith’s music in the most bland terms.

Perhaps Rossi’s biggest narrative faux pas comes just a few minutes into the film. After a solid introduction, where footage shows Elliott Smith claiming he is “the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” it is quickly ruined by a sinister baseline which is made to end Smith’s words, thus leading the viewer by the nose into a banal narrative that will control much of the film. And, sure enough, this soon gives way to images of Smith’s Figure 8 mural in Los Angeles, covered in flowers, messages, and commemorative graffiti, as those who knew him at the time of his 2003 death recall their shock at hearing the news. But why spend one’s narrative capital so early, and eliminate all ambiguity in the … Continue reading →

Talking Woody Allen: A Conversation With Joel Bocko

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For those who missed it, I was- in 2015- interviewed by critic and filmmaker Joel Bocko for his website, Lost in the Movies. The topic was my book, Woody Allen: Reel to Real, and everything that might spring from it. We ended up covering cinema and the arts more broadly, over the course of 15,000 words, with special focus on some of Woody Allen’s more misunderstood or less-known works. Joel recently tweeted it out, thus reminding me of our conversation. I am posting it here again.

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Talkin’ WA … a conversation on art, criticism & Woody Allen w/ Alex Sheremet, author of Woody Allen: Reel to Real

A year ago, writer and critic Alex Sheremet contacted me about his newest project. After editing the Take 2 guide to Woody Allen’s work, which included some of my reviews (as did its predecessor, the Take 2 guide on Steven Spielberg), Alex had immediately followed up with another e-book for the same publisher, Woody Allen: Reel to Real. In this work, the author guides the reader through every single one of Allen’s films, his work as an actor, and also the critical engagement with his work as represented – or misrepresented – by six critics: Roger Ebert, Dan Schneider, James Berardinelli, Pauline Kael, Ray Carney, and Jonathan Rosenbaum (whose subsequent exchange with Alex concludes this section). Alex wanted to discuss the book with me, and I agreed, but the book is long (627 pages according to Amazon), I had some major projects and so the conversation kept getting postponed. He was very patient, and when I was finally able to tackle the work I discovered it was worth the wait: despite its length, I read the entire text in a few days, glued to the screen by the author’s passion and rigor. (My review of Reel to Real has just been posted on Amazon, where you can purchase a Kindle version.)

Throughout the book, Alex keeps his eye on both the particular – the specific Allen film in question – and the general – not just Allen’s entire body of work, but the operation of art and criticism as a whole. I found myself both frustrated and fascinated by Alex’s assertions of objectivity, his frequently casual dismissals of celebrated works by other artists, and his implicit (and, by the end of the book, explicit) privileging of intellectual over intuitive appreciation. I agreed with a great many of his conclusions, possibly the majority, yet often questioned his overarching philosophy. As such, I couldn’t wait to talk with him. The following conversation was conducted via email, and actually represents only half of our correspondence. The other half centered around meta-issues of criticism and art, featured much longer individual responses from each of us, and will be presented in an upcoming update of Alex’s book (in its “DigiDialogue” capacity, the e-book is continually revised as new readers engage with the text and its author over … Continue reading →

Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN Is Not What You Think It Is

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Mariel Hemingway sits next to Woody Allen in Woody Allen's Manhattan.

Although Woody Allen’s Manhattan is one of cinema’s best and most-loved films, it also among the most misunderstood. This is probably because there is such a disconnect between the film’s stunning and romantic imagery, and the way the characters actually behave on-screen. Often, it’s been called a “love letter” to New York, or what’s worse, a “love poem,” but it’s really an excoriation of Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) and the projection of his ideals, which are incongruently set against all that’s beautiful and lush. It is quite an effective device, for it makes the film seem to be about one thing, yet completely undermines the genre tropes that other superficially similar works are so dependent on, even as the black and white cinematography of the great Gordon Willis seems to ‘pretend’ otherwise. Not wasting any time, Woody makes this apparent from the very first shot, in which Isaac is busy at his book. Yes, it’s a ‘romantic’ trope, in the sense that Isaac is a man in love with his city, and trying to write, but is marred by the fact that he simply cannot express one well-articulated thought. At end, he settles on this line: “‘He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat.’ I love this. ‘New York was his town and it always would be.’” This is not exactly good writing, and flies in the face of a later scene where he up and quits his job so he could stop writing crap television, and work on something “serious” and worthwhile instead. Clearly it is not, and despite being one of the most-quoted parts of the film, there is an irony, a futility, here, that most viewers do not catch. The stunning visuals of fireworks are celebratory, but of what? Probably of Isaac’s feelings and ideals, which are repeatedly shown to have little to do with reality, not only of the outside world, but of his internal life, as well, which is as false and self-congratulatory as anything he critiques. This gives Manhattan a special place in cinema, even as, thirty-five years later, it continues to outshine films that, while inspired by Woody’s, are restricted by the genre conventions he absolutely defies.

After the great opening, the forty-something Isaac is shown, at a jazz club with Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), his seventeen year-old girlfriend, his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy), and Yale’s wife Emily. Isaac reveals that his ex-wife, Jill (Meryl Streep), now living with a woman, is writing a book about their marriage, and pretentiously smokes a cigarette — a nice little touch, given what’s already known about his talent. He fusses about Tracy, as if ‘exasperated’ with her age, but is really showing the fact off, and basks within. On a walk around the city, Yale reveals to Isaac that he’s having an affair, and Isaac is critical, even going as far as making fun of the mistress’s qualities, despite … Continue reading →