Review Of “Donald Trump’s THE WALL” (2016)

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Donald Trump's The Wall splashed across Pink Floyd album cover.Having now watched the anonymous pseudo-documentary Donald Trump’s THE WALL a few times since its 2016 release, I am even more convinced of the future of multidisciplinary art and the slow asphyxiation of the written word. This is not because one is better than the other- there will be no greater art than writing for centuries to come- but because of how easily these art forms tap into sensory experience, and how naturally they cohere into small, digestible narratives brandishing just one or two core ideas. No, they are not ‘serious’ in the way that- say- John Banville’s trite, overmodified prose is serious, but what of that? One of the worst elements of contemporary art is how self-aware it tends to be, yet how little it feeds off of this awareness: how little, for example, it wants to work with its own constraints and re-define the ‘how’ of how good stories are told. I mean, just compare the tired cultural commentary of The West Wingdown to quoting Leviticus against the religious– to a three-minute video from Vic Berger which similarly attacks religious hucksters, but does so with humor and fresh narrative tricks. Or consider this interpretation of Ted Cruz, which- while polemical- does more than critique a politician: it offers up a startling image of American zealotry, and even manages to invert familiar tropes. The real question, however, is if such pieces can sustain themselves for any appreciable length, which Donald Trump’s THE WALL tests across an hour-plus of historical footage set to Pink Floyd’s album of the same name- a clue as to why it’s been removed so many times from video platforms, even as the film itself is a boon to an otherwise forgettable record.

The first few minutes are a summary of Donald Trump’s public persona- his business ventures, media appearances, and personal wealth- cleverly synchronized with Pink Floyd’s “In The Flesh?”, as the album morphs into Trump’s own biography. Not all of this is explicitly political: a lot of time is spent building Trump by other means, such as photographs from youth, newspaper clippings of his rise and fall, and Trump’s implied dependence on his father’s wealth (set to “Daddy, what did you leave behind for me?”) with politics serving as just one extension of a damaged character. Now, the film does get more declamatory as it goes on, with extended footage of migrants and of war played against Trump’s infamous reading of Al Wilson’s “The Snake”, which is itself inverted as Trump becomes the subject of his own recitation. Yet the film remembers to give characters their own little arcs, as well, with shots of the ridiculous post-Trump Ivana (set to “Vera”: “what has become of you?”), and even offers some emotional reprieve by making Trump a pitiful figure (“Nobody Home”) rather than a merely evil one. It is no coincidence that- although released before the 2016 election- Donald Trump’s THE WALL is still able to … Continue reading →

Coleman Hughes Cannot Be Trusted

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

A photo of Coleman Hughes speaking

There has never been a Golden Age of Internet punditry- just a bit of blight around an anemic middle, and all the responses rushing in to fill the void. Now, I don’t know how most critics have navigated these last few years, but I’ve had a tough time disconnecting from both the punditry as well as the responses. Perhaps it’s because I am a bit younger than my favorite writers, and must come to terms with the fact that ‘my’ (but not their) culture is pretty much bitcoin, Twitch, anime, and whatever fresh regurgitation wants to get mopped up. Or perhaps it’s because I recognize that the best way to deal with wasted human capital is not to discard it, but to re-purpose it, and hope that people notice. It was only a matter of time, then, before I came across the name Coleman Hughes- a recent graduate of Columbia University, and the token child of the Intellectual Dark Web. And why not? A left-wing critic of Affirmative Action, Coleman believes in personal responsibility, bottom-up changes in cultural mores, and the rejection of extremism, divisiveness, and ‘easy’ conversations: ideas which, by analyzing his thought process, will beget important lessons about the state of American discourse. The purpose of this article is to understand those lessons, if only in the hope that young readers with Coleman’s ambitions do not make Coleman’s more ambitious mistakes.

To frame his POV more fairly, I will first offer a digest of Coleman Hughes’s breakout piece- Quillette’s “The High Price of Stale Grievances”- followed by a line-by-line analysis of some actual macro-proposals. Not to be accused of ignoring his philosophical and perhaps more substantive work, I will (briefly) set Coleman’s ideas against his preferred vision of humanism and end with a practical test of his stated commitments: Coleman’s interview with Dave Rubin, where he was given ample opportunity to confront false claims, divisive rhetoric, and bad faith actors on both sides of the political aisle. This is to ensure that I’m not only dealing with ideas, but also with the evidence presented for these ideas, the conviction behind them, and the most probable trajectory for Coleman’s worldview to play out. And although I am well aware of the risks in ad hominem attacks, I will also argue how poorly understood- from a dialectical point of view- ad hominem is, and propose a framework for both tapping and responding to this tactic. As the lesson’s practicum, we shall take informal bets on some possible directions of Coleman Hughes’s career, keeping a ledger of how many stereotypes he dutifully embraces for every taboo he gleefully rejects.

Coleman opens with a rather emblematic example of his own grievances: that it was permissible for Rihanna to fire non-blacks from a concert (she wanted an “all-black aesthetic”), whereas firing black artists for similar reasons would be met with outrage. He then examines a common justification for this- slavery- and dismisses it, wondering how … Continue reading →

Abortion Is NOT Murder: Judith Thomson’s Violinist

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby featherThumbnail 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 →

NAS: TIME IS ILLMATIC (2014) Is Bad For Hip-Hop

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby featherNas and others in photo from Time Is Illmatic.Nas? Twenty years later? It is, perhaps, an odd way for me to begin an essay these days. Later than what, you might ask? Yet there isn’t much- alack!- one could really add here, although I can certainly try. To be sure: those that know, know, and those that don’t will have a hard time understanding any of this. Does this conveniently seal my argument from critique? Maybe, but with the added stipulation that this argument is NOT what you think it is, and less (or more, depending on your perspective) than what so many in the rap world wish it might be. It is strange, then, to watch a film that deals with the artifacts of my childhood, in part because it reminds me that while I have grown, and thus re-created myself, the culture to which they still belong has not. If anything, hip-hop has become, if not more self-obsessed, then at least more arrogant and complacent about its place the musical hierarchy. There are many reasons for this, but suffice to say that it is the culture’s deep-seated territoriality which has made it so unwilling to address its own structural failures. This is a shame, really, since rap has always emphasized the need to push boundaries, even though it has also shut its most cherished precepts into a kind of echo chamber where so much that ought to be debated and up for grabs is treated as a foregone conclusion. One can find evidence of this pretty much anywhere, from lectures, to online message boards, to failed rappers opining on one another, but perhaps the most symbolic instance of this stagnation is One9’s documentary Nas: Time Is Illmatic, which tackles hip-hop’s most revered album in a way that neither explains the music it ostensibly admires, nor presents any thoughts on moving forward, save for the same platitudes fans have been swallowing for over two decades, now.

Before I can properly analyze the film, however, I need to do something that- ironically- is almost heretical in the rap world, and pick apart the album, itself. And before I can do that, I must explain my premises in depth, lest I am accused of bad faith and questionable motives. But while I understand hip-hop’s resistance to perceived ‘outsiders’, it is also true that listening to Nas’s Illmatic, as a child, was one of the four or five most important turning points in my life, ranking among Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Countee Cullen’s poem “Heritage”, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, Vladimir Nabokov’s Strong Opinions, and, later, the discovery of Dan Schneider’s essays on Cosmoetica, as these pivots laid the intellectual groundwork for so much of what I do today. Yet even as I have rejected some of my earlier influences, I can’t deny that their core fundamentals have stuck, and that rap music especially, and Illmatic, specifically, … Continue reading →

WAR ON WORDS: Why Race Is NOT A Social Construct

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Over the last few decades, a strange idea has taken root that I am in fact quite sympathetic to, at least in spirit. Now, the view of race as a social construct is not necessarily wrong, depending on what one means by ‘race’, and especially by ‘social construct’. Yet as I’ve proposed elsewhere, scientists are often poor communicators, and the reality of what they’re arguing can be muddied by everything from word choice to an inability to meaningfully parse definitions. Usually, the science, itself, is not at fault. It is really the packaging of science to an even less sophisticated audience that’s at issue, particularly when it deals with a highly politicized topic whose buzzwords are valued over nuance and hard data. No, race is not a social construct, but what does this mean, exactly? Moreover, what does it mean politically? Finally, what should it mean for liberals who are uncomfortable with what is, at bottom, a simple misunderstanding of their own principles?

Prior to deconstructing all this, let us look at the key claims, and – perhaps even more importantly – how these claims get articulated. The position of the American Anthropological Association is clear- race’s primary importance is social rather than biological. The issue, however, is that one can construe any number of sentences, within, as either attesting to or rejecting the existence of race as a taxonomic category. This is unfortunate, and many political activists have latched on to the statement as ‘proof’ that race is biologically meaningless. Others, like this study from 2012, note that the sentence “No races exist now or ever did” found only 17% agreement among scientists 40 years ago, with 53% agreeing today. Yet even 53% is still a far cry from ideological certainty on the Left about what is, in essence, a semantic question whose answer might very well change based on the conceptual categories the word calls to mind.

In ‘pop’ science, writers often lay out some of the most common objections to race, which, while on one level quite valid, are also quite incomplete. There is much to comb through (most of it not worth the time), but I’ve distilled them into six basic arguments laid out in ascending order of correctness. If anyone gets tripped up by my handling of earlier points, read all of my responses to them, first, to get a better sense of the science:

1. There is no race gene, which means the genetic underpinnings of race are quite tenuous

The first part of this statement is obvious, and undeniable. There is no ‘race’ gene because race is not any one thing. Rather, it is a genetic complex which encompasses everything from skin color, to disease propensity/resistance, to facial proportions, to the distribution of sweat glands, hair color, and more. No, you cannot simply use one marker for determining race and ancestry, but the more genetic markers are used, the greater the likelihood (in fact, it is a near-certainty) of … Continue reading →