Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Fuck, I miss my wife. I have to sleep here one night a week and I miss her every time I do it.


State of the Union

Tonight, in his State of the Union plea, the President is planning to say that "America is addicted to oil". In response, America is planning to yell, "Don't judge me, man! I can quit any time that I want! I just don't want to!" before storming off and kicking a hole in the drywall.


Damn the Pusher Man

The 2007 budget for higher education is about to be released. How does it look?

“I’m not sure what the [president’s] budget will look like, but from what we’re hearing, it’ll be anywhere from not good to really bad,” said one Senate Republican aide.

Federal funding for higher ed has shrunk over the last few decades actually. This is one reason why tuitions have increased; actually, one of the main reasons. Ironically, as our federal budgets have shrunk, the demands that profs be accountable to the taxpayers have increased. In some states, the amount of federal funding in the operating budget is as low as 10%. Which theoretically means that I have to answer to the taxpayers' demands about 10% of the time?

Why don't we just cut the cord entirely? The America of the future will likely spend nothing on higher education anyway, and by refusing federal funds, we can curtail these dumb-ass attempts to let government bureaucrats micromanage our classrooms. Of course, it will mean that less and less poor kids will be able to go to college, but perhaps we can avoid that contingency by tightening our belts quite a bit. Hey, I know- let's found sports-free colleges, and stop that particular financial drain before it starts. Or, what about doing away with all of the "Spring Flings" and free concerts, and other Megamall free giveaway crap? Anyway, I think it's worth a shot.


Monday, January 30, 2006

If you can't beat the enemy, become the enemy

Well, this is probably all around the Internet now, but here's a depressing story about the US military's latest information-gathering tactic in Iraq- kidnapping the wives and children of suspected insurgents and holding them hostage until the suspects turn themselves in. What's next then? Do we start beheading their wives on video and sending the tapes to al-Jazeera? If we're doing away with the Geneva Conventions, let's not half-ass it, eh?

One good note to all of this- the moral highground, long vacant, is now available for rent or sublease.


Panties Away!

I feel like I should be playing taps...


TA Bastard

So, the course that I TA for has been going well, I suppose. But, to be honest, as I get better at teaching, I seem to care less about the students. Of course, I still care a lot about the %60 or so that are just good kids trying to do well at understanding a topic that they have very little background or interest in. Those tend to be the ones that I teach for anyway. And, I've never really worried about the wonk 10% that are all-but-guaranteed to get an A. For the most part, you can just let them be and try to encourage them on occasion and they'll do fine.

But, as for the lousy students, I just don't care anymore. It seems like, when you do that, you end up playing this stupid game with them. You assign some reading, then they don't do it and then you worry that they're going to fail and don't know what to do, and so you try to think of tricks to get them to learn the stuff some other way, which is just lame. I've decided that what you should do is just fail them. I mean, I can't think of any job in which a boss would say: "Joe, you haven't been doing your work, and so... I've thought of some ways to encourage you to do it." Remember: These are College students.

I may only have about five or six lousy students in each recitation, but that's enough to ruin my teaching if I focus on them. It's like watching someone die in excruciatingly slow-motion. You know that they're going to fail at the end of the course, and you don't want to see that, but some of them are just bound and determined to do the least that they can, and that's often just not enough. Moreover, I feel corrupt when I give them "extra help" or, let's just be honest, inflated grades. I kept fairly free of that last time. But, I still did the other version of it, which goes something like: "Oh, nobody did the reading? Okay, well let me go over what it was saying..." Fuck that. I feel dirty when I do that.

The sad thing is, no matter how low I set the bar last semester, that 30% still found ways to disappoint me. Eventually, I realized that the problem is not that they're 'unmotivated', 'problem students', 'behavioral problems', 'anti-intellectual, 'learning disabled', or 'unchallenged', although it may be a bit of all of those things. The problem is that they're really fucking lazy. Just like their parents. And so what? This is college. Some children get left behind here.


Sunday, January 29, 2006

More on the Director

Justin Gorman's work can be also found on his webpage here.


Roping Pidgeons with Cowboy Ken

Another video by Justin Gorman that I've added to the template to see what people think of it. This one is shorter than the other one.


Our Country, 'Tis of She

Cindy Sheehan is our nation's Medea, a pained and wrathful reminder of the horrors or war, and of the wrenching conflict between family loyalty and state authority. Few of us can understand her loss, and so the weird Bloganderthal attacks on her seem especially cruel and petty. There's a certain transgressive glee in their personal attacks on a grieving mother that's repulsive, if anything on a blog can repulse anymore.

That said, I do cringe a little when she does things like leading the campaign for "matiotism". Taking the cue from a fan, Sheehan wants to replace the "masculine" noun stem of patriotism with a "feminine" one, and create the word "Matriotism". This would seem to mean "love of the motherland", and I'm thinking the logic is akin to that old saw: "If women ran the Pentagon, there would be no wars, and missles would be shaped differently". Sheehan: "Matriots would fight their own battles, but take a dim view of having to do so, and would seldom resort to violence to solve conflict!" Well, that's good! But, by making the word less masculine, you change the thing itself? Sounds pretty retwatulous to me.


Wolf Lays Down With the Sheep

Naomi Wolf often comes across as a real-life version of Maude Lebowski. Flighty, strangely arch and humorless, and entirely too self-important, she seems destined to deplete any intellectual capitol she might have left over from The Beauty Myth. Of course, that book had serious flaws itself, specifically the claim that 150,000 American women die each year of anorexia, when the actual number is more like 50: a difference of 3,000% But, at least there, you had some idea that she had really been to Yale.

Since then, though, Wolf has written a series of increasingly silly books seemingly dedicated to proving that the Rhodes Scholarship people made a big mistake. Promiscuities dealt with female adolescent sexuality. Misconceptions was about pregnancy, specifically Wolf's own pregnancy, and how it's still really hard for a rich woman to have a baby, for God's sake. The Treehouse was about her father and advice he gave her. The books have come, more and more, in fact, to relate to nothing so much as the experiences of Naomi Wolf, and the publicizing of her weird upper-class banalities. As such, she's generally taken most seriously by herself and... well, just herself really.

Aside from the books, she has advised Al Gore to dress like "an alpha male" to win the election, unfortunately not telling him to turn it off after having lost the election. Then she slandered Harold Bloom for having put his hand on her knee while she was at Yale, realizing that she wasn't interested, apologizing and then leaving. If one wonders how this event could have been as traumatic and crippling as she claims it was, she reminds the reader that Bloom was, like, really, really fat.

Now, she's been slammed by Germaine Greer on the radio and responded that this and her divorce don't bother her because she's met Jesus during hypnosis. Yep, just sat right down and had a chat with the big fellow. Wolf claims: “I don’t mean that in a kind of culty way. I’m here on the planet to make change and to help people in the best way that I can. I know what I have to do and if, in the course of doing that, some people get upset, or make fun of me, or attack me, that is not really important in the larger scheme of things.” One can almost hear Dana Carvey asking "Well, isn't that special?"

“I wasn’t myself in this visual experience,” she continues. “I was a 13-year-old boy sitting next to him [Jesus] and feeling feelings I’d never felt in my lifetime, of a 13-year-old boy being with an older male who he really loves and admires and loves to be in the presence of. It was probably the most profound experience of my life. I haven’t talked about it publicly.”

Spokespeople for Jesus have denied that the meeting ever took place.

She confesses she still feels awkward speaking about it. “It’s very embarrassing. We’re intellectuals, we’re on the left, we’re not supposed to talk like that,” she says later .

(One might be tempted to ask 'What do you mean we, paleface?') She goes on to claim that she is going to be very careful not to get co-opted by the churches. “I don’t want to be co-opted as the poster child for any religion or any agenda,” she adds quite self-importantly. No doubt, the Moral Majority is dying to claim some bat-shit crazy yuppie as their 'poster child' anyway, right?

So, is she perhaps taking herself too seriously here? “ Let’s put it this way. When there’s a subject I’m supposed to share with my readers, and this is why I believe in divine providence, I will start getting knocks on the door from the universe. People will start crossing my path saying, ‘I’m really struggling with anorexia, I’m struggling with motherhood, I’m struggling with my sexuality.’ In the next few weeks if I hear the call that this is something I should bring forward, then I’ll bring it forward more. But I’ve just taken a huge step, so give me credit. Let me get over that.”

Sort of like the Lone Ranger of narcissistic feminism. Don't worry- if you need Naomi Wolf, Universe, she'll be there. Whenever a child is alone with Jesus, or has an eating disorder, or is struggling with their own sexuality, Naomi Wolf will be there. Whenever a mother is crying, or a baby is wondering what Naomi Wolf's father said to her as a child, she'll be there! Now, in this vision, she saw herself as the boy and not as Jesus, right? I mean, exactly how arrogant do you have to be to see your own books as having been engendered by divine providence?

I'm willing to bet that she will, indeed, get a book out of this. One that captures the hearts, and markets, of born-again Christians. But, then she will alienate them with her next book, entitled "Dammit, pay attention to me!" in which she comes out as a lesbian. After that, there is always the Alien Abduction memoir, if those are ever trendy again, the "Hey, I've Just Discovered that there are Poor People!" journalistic investigation, and finally, when all else has failed: "Witches!: How I Discovered that the Left is Trying to Destroy Your Children." After that, she'll be yet another reformed leftist turned hard right-winger. David Horowitz, eat your heart out.


Friday, January 27, 2006


Hey! Did you hear that Ann Coulter made a joke about poisoning Justice Stevens?


I know- why don't we all try to raise ourselves above the din of the shouting, stupid voices? Why don't we let the babies have their toys and games and rise above it all...

It is still possible.


And, incidentally Happy Birthday Mozart!


Our Regular Deprogramming

I was going to add a link to a video created by Justin Gorman of Tacoma Washington, and then thought it might be interesting to add it to the template. So, that video is by Justin and is well worth watching. Enjoy.


Thursday, January 26, 2006

Bible Class

Public schools are considering offering a course in "Bible literacy". The class would study the Bible as a literary text and trace its massive influence on Western art, literature and culture.

As someone who teaches about Western art, literature and culture to College kids, do I think this is a good idea? Undoubtedly, it is. Perhaps the bulk of the artistic, cultural and philosophical output of Christendom for nearly two millenia only makes sense in light of the Bible. So, yes, I think it's a very good idea. Also, in case it's not clear already, I believe strongly in close readings of primary texts.


Boys Will be Boors

Okay, now of course I realize that "Hey, did you hear about that crazy lawsuit?" is about as boring and banal a topic for conversation as "Hey, what about that crazy weather we've been having lately?" And yet...

A 17-year old has sued his school board, claiming that it is biased against boys. Apparently, one big problem is that "girls are rewarded for abiding by the rules, while boys' more rebellious ways are punished." Ahem!

''The system is designed to the disadvantage of males," Anglin said. ''From the elementary level, they establish a philosophy that if you sit down, follow orders, and listen to what they say, you'll do well and get good grades. Men naturally rebel against this."

Right. This is why you don't see a lot of males in the military, for instance.

According to the boy, and his lawyer father, boys should be given class credit for after-school sports and should not have to do community service, because boys are "naturally" lazy. Apparently, nobody gives orders in team sports either.

Do you see the problem here? It's not that boys are rambunctious. They are, and they always have been, and somehow education has always found a way to get them to "simmer down". The problem is that we've come to the conclusion that the needs of the individual, no matter how unreasonable or fleeting, or just plain stupid, always outweigh the needs of other people. Moreover, we live in a society in which boys are, somehow, convinced that they are "naturally" lazier, stupider and more boorish. This is held up as what an adult male becomes: either Ray Romano or Fifty Cent. And this idea that males (at least straight ones) cannot be cultivated, intelligent or... well, adults is what's truly the sexist slander against them.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006


In today's NYTimes:
Next fall, a stunning $55 million high school will open on the edge of Fairmount Park here. For now, it is called the School of the Future, a state-of-the-art building with features like a Web design laboratory and a green roof that incorporates a storm-water management system. But it may turn out to be the school of the future in another sense, too: It is a public school being used to raise a lot of private money.

A glossy brochure offers dozens of opportunities for donors to get their name or corporate logo emblazoned on the walls : $1 million for the performing arts pavilion, $750,00 for the gyms or the main administrative suite (including the principal's office), $500,000 for the food court/ cybercafe, $50,000 for the science laboratories, $25,000 for each of the classrooms, and so on. Microsoft, a partner in designing the school, has already committed $100,000 for the Microsoft Visitors Center.

For a cool $5 million, a donor gets the grand prize — naming the school.

"My approach is Leave No Dollar Behind," said Paul Vallas, chief executive of the Philadelphia schools...

"There are tremendous needs in this system," Mr. Vallas said, "where 85 percent of the kids are below poverty level. I'm not uncomfortable with corporations giving us money and getting their names on things. As long as it's not inappropriate, I don't see any downside."

Quoth the Simpsons:

Mrs Krabappel: "We'll finally be able to buy a real periodic table instead of those promotional ones from Oscar Meyer! Now, on with the Science lesson: who can tell me the atomic weight of Bolonium?"

Martin: Ooh ooh ooh! Delicious?

Mrs Krabappel: Correct. I would also have accepted "snacktacular."


Quote for Today

"Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word. I don't know whether it's a new thing, but it's certainly a current thing, in that it doesn't seem to matter what facts are. It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the president because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?"
-Stephen Colbert


Stepford Harper

Here's the take from Salon on the Conservative win in Canada and why it's no big deal:

1) The Liberal Party was mired in a tawdry corruption scandal. It involved the laundering and skimming of taxpayers' money through various fraudulent initiatives supposedly meant to make French-speaking Quebec feel fonder of English-speaking Canada (as if that is likely to happen any time soon).

2) The American motto may be "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," but up here it's "Peace, order and good government. " Catch those last two words. They're the kicker for a reason. Canadians decided to punish a government for not being good. And they did.

3) The vote was split among four parties, with the Conservatives getting only 36 percent of the total vote.

They left out one important thing: Stephen Harper is a painfully boring politician to watch. He's like an automaton whose central gear is winding down. Stepford Harper. Watch him talk on television and try not to think of Mr. Rogers. I'm sorry to say this, but a good politician has to be, on some level, affable, or at the very least, not creepy. Reagan was so successful on one hand because Carter screwed up so terribly, but also because people reacted to something about him. For people like my father, he was a big deal. Nobody thinks that Stephen Harper is a big deal at all. Just sort of a stand-in Prime Minister.


Bush Congratulates Stephen Harper on His Recent Victory

Well, I think that's nice of him to do.


There go the Clowns

UCLA pests decide not to pay pupils to pester profs. Pshaw!


Monday, January 23, 2006

Film Notes: The Brown Bunny (2003)

Have you noticed how many film reviews these days talk about other reviews of the movie? Blame the Internet, but I'm not going to do it. So, as far as you know, nobody has ever heard of this movie before.

It's a shame too, because the film is sad, beautiful and haunting in a way that few modern films are. Essentially a road picture, in which the fundamental loneliness of the American road is captured in a way I've never quite seen before, The Brown Bunny portrays a man so wrecked by romantic tragedy that he can connect with no one else. Vincent Gallo plays Bud Clay, whose name is likely intended to evoke the sort of earth that flowers have difficulty taking root in, as every female character in the film is named after a flower. Bud is a motorcycle rider who has to drive cross-country while trying to piece together the pieces of a shattered relationship with an ex named Daisy.

Everything about the character speaks of loneliness. The scene in which he tries to pick up a girl in a convenience store with a whimpered "Please" is so vulnerable that it's just devastating. How often do we see anyone be vulnerable in movies anymore? Is that, perhaps, another reason people are going to see Brokeback Mountain? Do we miss connecting with other humans through the medium of film? What is most startling about Gallo's performance is how sustained it is. In fact, what's amazing about the film is that it often looks like a home movie, and yet how totally controlled it is! Not only is every scene timed out precisely, but every piece of the film reveals just enough for Gallo's purposes. It's the most accomplished amateurish film imaginable.

The home movie effect is intended to evoke distant and faded memories. Old film stock (here 16 millimeter?) is perfect for showing the way memories fade and become more stark. When we get to the final revelation of the film it seems almost submerged underneath a haze of sorrow and confusion. How did Gallo do this?

The film is a revelation, even though it's a minimalist and off-putting one. The on-camera oral sex scene is the centerpiece of the film, although the scene that follows it is the more brilliant one. The blow-job scene itself will be most remembered, no doubt. But, forget for a moment that Chloe Sevingy gives head on camera, and notice how the scene brings out the weakness of male sexuality: she drains him physically and emotionally, and leaves him devastated. Is the scene misogynist? Only if we accept that nobody can ever make another film in which a male dates the wrong girl, or that such a thing never happens.

Besides, the following scene places the misogyny squarely on Bud's lonely shoulders and leaves him to wander the roads like the ancient mariner with male sexuality as the albatross around his neck. This film should be taken as a classic. Will it be? Time will tell.


Bad Afternoon

The afternoon was terrible though! I kept trying to study in the department lounge while the Master's students chatted away. One of them was non-irritating, but as for the rest... for some reason, we let in these really fratty kids this year and they do little more than bitch about having to read books for class. Now, understand that this is, again, a graduate department. So, hanging around the grad department and bitching about having to read is about as annoying as joining a baseball team and complaining that you hate to run. Of course, that's a bad analogy. Sports is really important, after all. Not like reading.

But, I'm not making this up- these kids were painfully fratty. How fratty were they? Well, let me say that their real problem, as they expressed it, was that they think doing the reading is "fucking gay". Note also that it soon became clear that they were bitching about having to read a 37 page article. In a graduate seminar. Which they are taking because they hope to be teachers one day.

See, there are two kinds of people who want to teach High School- the occasional sensitive soul who loves learning and education and all of those "fucking gay" things, and the more frequent "dudes" who like to hang out with High School kids because they're still at that same developmental level themselves.

Before long there were six or seven weirdly hostile fratty dudes hanging out in the lounge where I am still trying to read my faggy book. They all talk at about 11 because they're fratty, and everyone talks loudly in this part of the country. Fratty dudes really only have about five topics of conversation:
1) Those fucking minorities are way too sensitive,
2) Would you or wouldn't you ever "fuck a fat chick"?
3) Books, theatre, paintings, learning and human reason itself- all "gay".
4) Did you see that game last night? Okay, what about the other one? Did you see that one?
5) "I'd do her."
They pretty much spiralled through all five and back again a few dozen times. Finally, I gave up and left to go somewhere more academic than the graduate department lounge.

Here's the thing I don't get- the complaint is always that people who are into those "gay" things like culture and art are "elitists". Talk about a book you read, and you get called "pretentious", or a "snob". These ones actually bitched about those annoying classmates of theirs who do the readings before the seminar. But, here you have people that literally take offense whenever they encounter anyone who has any interests aside from the five topics above (add one more- "Have you played that new X-Box game Mass Murderer?") and that's somehow more "everyman".

So, I'm at a loss. Is it the university that is piss poor? Or state universities in general? Or is everywhere in the country considered the frat house now?


Good Morning

It was a good morning! The Professor that I'm TA for this semester gave an excellent lecture. She was telling fascinating stories, and showing art, and hitting all of the key dates and events. But, best of all, she wasn't talking down to the students. I've had very good luck in this area, but I still dread the thought of getting a Professor who is scatterbrained, or boring, or ill-tempered to TA for. My Prof is great because the class will be challenging for the students, but not impossible.

So, I'm looking forward to doing the recitations. Don't get me wrong- I'm not expecting great strides from the class of 2009- we had the usual four or five walk outs at the three-minutes-until-the-end-of-class point today. But, it's not so upsetting to me this time. I'm not sure if that's a sign that I'm accepting the state of things, or giving up, or both.


Quote for Today

"Here's what surprises me about the American intelligentsia. I can imagine that an intellectual may decide to support the foreign policy of his president if he thinks he's right. When Chirac decided to bomb Serbian positions in Sarajevo, I said bravo, Chirac. Bravo. But I said bravo to this and to this only. I did not feel obliged, having taken tea with him, so to speak, to take everything else on the menu, as well. The thing about American intellectuals that so surprises me is the way they always take the entire menu. They endorse the foreign policy so they feel obliged to endorse the attacks against the private life of Bill Clinton, the defense of the death penalty, the sale of firearms, and so on."
-Bernard-Henri Lévy, today in Salon


Sunday, January 22, 2006

Canadian Elections

Okay, since I am an honorary Canadian, I should probably guess who's going to win the election tomorrow. My prediction is that the Conservatives will win and that it won't mean very much. Most people can't stomach the idea of voting for the Liberals again, and the NDP are too far left. But, they don't really like anything about the Conservatives, aside from the fact that they aren't the Liberals. Does this make sense?

Look, it's like this... Canada has been going steady with the Liberals for some time now, and the Liberals have cheated on them with a ski instructor (well, or embezzeled a fortune through the sponsorship scandal), and so Canada wants to make the Liberals jealous by going out with Stephen Harper for a while. So, Stephen Harper is getting ready for his big date (and, no doubt, learning how to mimic human emotional responses) and the Conservatives are so proud of him. But, he has no real chance. Canadians want to teach the Liberals a lesson. Big deal. They don't want to be Americans.


Saturday, January 21, 2006

Unholy Laughter

Everyone seems to have a sense of humor these days, while I sit in my coldwater flat, eating black bread and leek soup, and scowling.

Andrew Sullivan has been talking all week about our Post-PC culture which can laugh at anything. Some of his readers have noted that this is a sign of despair more than anything. Everything is screwed- let's have a good popper!

But, maybe it's also easier to laugh when you believe that your actions have no real consequences...

Lakshmi Chundry notes of recent Marine memoirs:
The slacker memoirs are often funny and sometimes insightful. For the most part, these are decent guys who loathe the bloodlust and common military incompetence that destroy so many lives. Their perspective, however, is blinkered by their need to stay in "character," i.e., the smart-ass who refuses to take anything seriously, including the casualties of war. Even Hartley, who is more clued-in than his compatriots, can only express his unhappiness at the lopsided body count--"a near 1:3 ratio of dead evildoers to innocent and ridiculously poor Iraqis"--with flippancy: "It's like we should have bumper stickers that read, 'I [HEART] DEAD CIVILIANS.'"
This "whatever, dude" detachment...

Gaby Wood on Female Chauvanist Pigs:
While male chauvinist pigs have long been derided, the coinage of Levy's title has risen to the top, claiming that her love of 'all things bimbo' is the gloriously liberated end-result of second-generation feminism. The Female Chauvinist Pig, Levy argues, is 'post-feminist. She is funny. She gets it.' She asks: 'Why worry about disgusting or degrading when you could be giving - or getting - a lap dance yourself? Why try to beat them when you can join them?'

Right. But, wait, I don't get it...


2+2= whatever, dude!

In a related story, only 20% of four-year University graduates can do a calculation, and only 31% can read two editorials and know what they are saying. So as "students have become more demanding consumers of their education" they've not become better students? Impossible!



This is probably getting old...

But, here's an article from IHE:
"To disclose or not to disclose. That’s the question some institutions have faced in recent years regarding students’ evaluations of professors.

A proposal at Northwestern University to make all evaluations available may go before the Faculty Senate soon, and it is attracting both praise and criticism. The debate comes amid the growing popularity of professorial reviews on Web sites that have no ties to universities — and, critics charge, no quality control...

As students have become more demanding consumers of their education, various methods of assessing professors without meeting them have been born — some by students, and others by colleges..."

It is understandable though. If these bastards are going to abuse the students by making them do work, having classes that aren't deliriously fun, etc. then they deserve to be held up to public ridicule. It's called "accountability", and from now on, it only applies to authority figures. The lowest must be held up as the highest, don'tcha know?


Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Boy Looked at Johnny

I'm trying to avoid that easy blog schtick of making fun of stupid things that people say.

But, this is just crying out for a South Park parody. Why are the respective rulers of North Korea and Iran both raving lunatics? According to Dr. Dean Ornish, it was due to American imperialism... of a sort. We called them names.

Dr. Dean Ornish:
"When the U.S. claims the right to invade any country unilaterally and then defines a country like Iran or North Korea as "evil," then it is a rational response for these countries to develop nuclear weapons as the only military deterrent to invasion. We create what we most fear."

Yep, simple as that. Remember dear, sweet Iran? Used to be "the Canada of the Middle East". And then we called them "evil". Same with North Korea. Why did we have to say that? Why, oh why? They just wanted to live in peace, and then we had to go and call them "evil". And, of course, Uganda is going to kick our ass for not inviting them to our "sweet 16" party. But, couldn't we solve all of this with a nice Hallmark card?

"You're not really evil...
In fact...
I think you're sort of cute!"


This Just In

Blogger gives entirely too much credit to bloggers.

Other Bloggers agree enthusiastically.

"Hey, he's right! We are saving democracy!"

High-fives all around.


Book Notes: English Reformations

Everyone will want to skip this post which consists of my notes on the book "English Reformations: Religion Politics and Society under the Tudors" by Christopher Haigh, and is here simply because it will be easy for me to find it here when I need my notes. I am trying to learn English history this term, which has alyways been, for me, a blur of Richards and Henrys.

The Church in 15th c. England was an all-embracing institution and its clergy were everywhere. The King's interest in national security and order made the matters of the clergy part of his concern, but their exemption from secular punishment limited his power over them. There were always problems, but not ones that demanded a reformation. The Church was what each community made it. The three legal reformations, in 1530-8, 1547-53, and 1559, and the Protestant Reformation changed an entire world.
This book studies various reformations in 16th c. England and why they often changed little. In England, Luther's ideas came in with King Henry, and in a piecemeal way. Between the absolute Catholics and absolute Protestants were the pragmatists. The Political Reformations gave England Protestant laws, but the Evangelical Reformation made it truly Protestant. This is not a whiggish, teleological version of "progress". Instead, we will study administrative records to see what the Church was really doing at this time. Again, the English Protestant Reformations began in the inner workings of the Tudor government.
1530- "A Work for Householders" by: Richard Whitford. Traditional rules on how to live. Christianity was to be taught at home every day. The break with Rome would bring the decline of Catholicism, but not yet. Most wills left something to religion. Parish life was vigorous. Members made many bequests to their Church. There was extensive church building everywhere. Fraternities and guilds were still quite popular in the 1520s. The ordinary religion of English parishes was in a healthy state in 1530, the eve of the Reformation.
However, people could be quite dissatisfied with their clergy. Reports suggest that they were only dissatisfied however when the clergy neglected its liturgical and pastoral responsibilities. Often, clergy members were little trained and their examiners hardly tested new candidates for ordination. Parish clergy were often caught between the dem ands of their people and their Bishop. (Like TAs!) Most did not abuse tithes or their people. Tithe conflict was not endemic; it was occasional. Arguments also arose over mortuaries, or the 'dead corpse present'. Most people did cooperate with ecclesiastical courts. It was also hard for heretics because support was so widespread. Most Tudor heretics were descendants of John Wycliffe's Lollard movement. There were few heretics though.
1521: Luther's books confiscated in Cambridge and London. Some accepted Luther's idea of justification by faith. 1525: Cambridge reading group condemns images. 1526: Prelates burn Luther's works. Other heretical books included "Wicked Manon" by William Tyndale, and John Frith's "Disputation of Purgatory". The Lutheran call was still a lonely cry in a hostile wilderness.
There was also an increasing interest in bringing church law under common law. Henry VII's state supported the Church however. For a time anyway. But, common lawyers did not.
June 1530: Henry charges the entire clergy of England with praemunire (The offense under English law of appealing to or obeying a foreign court or authority, thus challenging the supremacy of the Crown) for dealing with Cardinal Wolsey. Henry had the hots for Anne Boleyn at this time and wanted to check the Church. But, Katherine could appeal to Pope Clement. What was Wolsey supposed to do? He took the charge of praemunire. Charges against other church members were brought up in the House of Commons. Henry asked Cambridge for an opinion on his marriage. Their Convocation said the marriage was condemned.
Henry got very little by his praemunire gesture. The King had his case for divorce made public in the House of Lords. He wanted to cut off the aneates payments to the Pope for new bulls, but this was resisted in parliament. But, he would simply not back down on the 'Submission of the Clergy', which was finally delivered. But, he was not yet willing to take his realm into schism. But, the Pope disagreed with the new marriage and Henry declared the Treason Act.
Henry liked his new authority as supreme head of the realm, but was getting sick of Anne. There was a plot to get Henry together with one Jane Seymour. Anne was charged with adultery and beheaded. He accepted the Ten Wittenberg Articles, which brought some reform. 1536 'Pilgrimage of Grace'- 40,000 subjects take arms against Cromwell and the heretics. September 1538: Cromwell's second set of royal Injunctions.
8-11: Read elsewhere.
1553: Edward VI dies, and Catholic Mary is swept to power by popular support. The mass came back. Parishes restored Catholicism on their own- not by official decree.
About 80 members of the House of Commons opposed the repeal of Edward's Protestant legislation. Sir Thomas Wyatt led a brief rebellion against Mary's plan to marry Philip of Spain. But, Papal jurisdiction was easily reestablished in 1554. Mary had serious problems trying to re-endow the clergy and force them to leave their wives. She had little problem restoring the heretic laws, and 280 were burned.
Historians have seen Mary's reign as an aberration. But, the Marian reconstruction of Catholicism was a success. But, she died too early, in 1558. Elizabeth Tudor became the Protestant Queen. Her reception was lukewarm. She had to establish supremacy over the bishops. There were long tussels between officials and wardens over rood-lofts in churches. Parishes held onto mass equiptment as long as they could. Protestantism made little progress.
Rood: the cross or crucifix, particularly one placed in churches over the entrance to the chancel.
This Reformation didn't fail; it just succeeded very slowly. The Catholic parish priests had to die out. 'Under Henry and Edward, changes had been more piecemeal and more acceptable; in 1559 there was a wholesale political Reformation and the senior Catholic clergy rejected it.' Opposing Catholics went into exile, stayed and kept quiet, formed alternative churches, etc. 1569: Revolt of the northern earls- they tear up Protestant books, gathered supporters, mounted a rebellion, but it didn't spread and they fled to Scottland. Many become resucants and stop attending church. An underground church grew, as did executions of Catholic priests. By the end of Elizabeth's reign, Catholicism was the faith of a small sect.
In the first half of Elizabeth's reign the shortage of Protestant preachers was acute. Protestants took control of the universities. They held public evangelical exercises. The Church of England was becoming missionary. Common themes in Protestant teaching: sinfulness, faith through preaching, justification by Christ, assurance of salvation, glorification in Heaven, and a goodly life as the fruit of faith. England was becoming a Protestant nation. Finally, in the 1580s, we can speak of a Protestant Reformation in England.
The Sixteenth c. was an age of religion; hardly anyone deliberatedly ignored the authority of God or the ceremonies of his priesthood. Religion mattered. Before the Reformations, there were modes of Christian living to accomodate all levels of intensity. All reformers wanted to make unthinking Christians more thoughtful. The Protestant form was an excluside model of religious life. 'The new model Christians were to know they were saved and were to show it in their lives.' Only the Word could lead to God; all else was a distraction. The religious reform was much less successful than the political reform had been. The churchgoers were now de-Catholicized, but not yet Protestantized. Catholic life became private meanwhile. After the Reformation, then, there were four kinds of Christians: godly Protestants, recusant papists, parish anglicans, and 'Old Catholics'. So the Tudor Reformations had not replaced a Catholic England with a Protestant England. Much had been destroyed. There had been much drama and excitement. But, for the average parish layperson, not much had changed.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Butterflies and Wheels, which takes up the cause of "fighting fashionable nonsense" from all corners, and is therefore somewhat underapreciated (but I love it) had this witty line as a link to an article:

'If America isn’t watching these films, why are they winning the awards?' asks loony.

It made me chuckle.


Anatomy of Two Really Bad Days

1) Wake up and notice that left front tire on my car looks low.

2) Fill it at gas station and take it to Oakville Tire and Auto to get it checked out.

3) Kid at Oakville Tire and Auto tells me that there was just a "pinhole" in the tire and that he has fixed it. Drive off to university.

4) Twenty minutes later, en route, tire blows out while on the Skyway section of the QEW. For the uninitiated, this is a two mile long bridge over Lake Ontario, with no shoulders whatsoever. So, I have little choice but to drive the two miles to escape having to stop on a windy, icy, bridge.

5) When I have stopped at the other end, my tire is shredded, basically tassles hanging off a wheel. I walk to call a tow truck.

6) Tow truck never shows. I stop another tow truck driver getting his lunch at Tim Horton's, and ask for a tow. This is over an hour after calling the first tow truck. Screw them.

7) Get towed ($50) , and get tire replaced ($290). Drive home.

1) Wake up to discover that tire had also damaged interior fender, and pump for air suspension. The back end of the car is on the ground. Try briefly to drive. It's like a lowrider. But, not remotely cool in anyone's eyes.

2) Have car towed to Ford dealership for repairs ($50). Find out that I need a new pump ($700) and possibly a new interior fender (?).

3) In all of this, completely miss the first 3 classes that I am to teach. Have administration leave signs on doors. It's the first class, so the recitation is very brief anyway. But, I still, against all reason, feel like a heel.

4) Get beautiful wife to ride with me down to Buffalo to get some textbooks, so I can read all day tomorrow and feel less like a heel.

5) Chase cat around house and try to relax. (Priceless)


Neo-Non-Nazi or Not?

Okay, so this story may make your head spin.

Part 1:
From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
"Last March, Jacques Pluss was fired from his job as an adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University soon after it came to light that he was a prominent member of the National Socialist Movement of the United States."

So, first it comes out that the adjunct professor is also a neo-Nazi radio show host, and so he gets fired. A number of people claim that his academic freedoms have been violated, but I'm pretty much thinking the same thing I did when Ward Churchill got canned- what exactly did they expect? Say you're a professor at Opus T. Penguin University, and you write an article for a magazine entitled either: A) "Why I hate the Jews" or B) "Why the Victims of 911 Are Comparable to Nazi War Criminals". And at the end of the article it says: "Jack Mehoff is a Professor at Opus T. Penguin University, and he hates the Jews, and thinks the victims of 911 got what they had coming to them." How exactly do you expect the University to respond? You expect a raise? Obviously, they're going to fire you! C'est la vie!

Part Deux:
Anyway, the story gets weirder, because get this, the Neo-Nazi prof was only pretending to be a neo-nazi to do research. According to his own article, "Now it Can be Told" he became a prominent neo-nazi "for the purpose of gathering research to write a book on a political subject in which I could personally partake and which was “fringe” in the most essential aspect of the word." I don't know if that's weirder or more boring actually. He also says:

"Throughout the course of my academic career, I came to hold in deep respect the scholarship of the French Deconstructionists, particularly Jacques Derrida and Michele Foucault (especially Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge and his History of Madness). At the same time, my work – in teaching and in academic writing – has been heavily influenced by the notion of Geistesgeschichte, as articulated by one of the premier medievalists, Ernst Kantorowicz. All of those scholars stress, each in their own way, the need for the historian to “become” her or his subject in order to develop a relationship with it."

As Margaret Soltan has noted, the case really has taken a turn towards the boring. Is Pluss telling the truth now? Or lying then? Or should we care? Well, I believe him on Foucault. There is something all-too "Foucaultian" about coming up with half-baked ideas and then trying desperately to get attention for them while pretending not to care about that attention. But, to quote an undergrad: "Yeah dude,whatever!"


Class clowns

Apparently, the problem of radical professors attempting to indoctrinate their students is so bad at UCLA that a "conservative" group has to pay students to record in their class notes that their professors are trying to indoctrinate them. Do you hear that sound? It's me groaning under the intense strain of trying to take these people seriously.

So, let 'em record the classes. Who cares? After all, these are "public lectures" anyway, and good luck finding an undergrad who will show up and take notes for every single class. And then let 'em freak out like the crybabies they are. "Wah! I had a professor who had the nerve to discuss feminism in her Women's Studies course! Wah! Wah! Wah!" What-the-hell-ever.

But, for the record, what social institutions do these wingnut Internet "conservatives" actually want to preserve anymore? Obviously not the free press or the universities. Those are both "overrun by radicals". Not the artistic culture. "Overrun by radicals". They apparently see ethics as malleable in the case of torture, and don't have any real sympathy for civil liberties. No doubt, those are the tools of radicals. So what's left? The Church? Or, will they want the Church to be "held accountable" whenever Priests disagree with them? Personally, I'd like to preserve our artistic institutions, sciences, universities, churches, military, higher culture and civil liberties. Which would, seemingly, make me a "cultural conservative". But, apparently, not a Republican. That's interesting.


Monday, January 16, 2006

More Notes From the Undergrad

When I said that the "Me Customer- You My Employee" attitude is prevalent among 10% of the students that was more of a guess than an actual figure. I haven't yet asked my students how many of them see us as part of a service industry because I'm sort of scared to find out. Here's another post from Inside Higher Education, with my added empasis...

Kevin, an undergraduate, writes:
"I see the rate my professor website, although I have not yet entered any comments (though I might soon) as a useful resource when I choose classes.

"Note in other service industries the prevalence of employee service rating cards, turned into the hotel, restaurant or other service. They give the customer a chance to tell the company how they were assisted. I think rate my professors could serve the same purpose. There will be people, who, like the service cards, will write nonsense or inaccuracies or undeserved praise. A smart administration will take these things into account.

"In market economies (which higher educational institutions seem to believe and to a certain extent behave as though they are not part of), people are compensated not on the basis of how hard they work or claim to work, but on how well they provide value to customers (ie how much the students are educated)."

Notice that the student in this scenario plays no actual role in learning. Education is simply provided to them.


A Note from the Service Sector

Inside Higher Education has a brief article today on "Rate Your Students", a site that I've criticized before for, among other reasons, being massively undignified and sinking to the level of... well, the Internet. Students are usually teenagers and can, sadly, be expected to act like teenagers. But, instructors should not.

However, there is one response to the article that sums up exactly the attitude I encounter among perhaps 10% of my students. I'd like to quote it entirely because it just perfectly encapsulates the beliefs of so many students, parents, and administrators.

"Students are customers — and therefore, it is in their interest to rate professors (those who provide a service). In what other industry do you see merchants rating their customers? Probably not many. Because it doesn’t matter if your customers are bad ones — as long as they pay. And students do. They pay dearly on tuition that pays professors’ salaries. So professors should suck it up and do their job. If you want better students, increase your admissions standards or move to a better school. But DON’T admit a student and then complain they are a bad customer."

Now, imagine being in a position of authority and encountering this attitude on a regular basis... How exactly do you teach this student? How do you grade someone who believes that they made enough effort already in paying tuition? That it doesn't matter if they are a good student so long as they've paid? Or who believes that the teacher has no legitimate authority and is a part of the service sector? Should we, in fact, do like he says, and give up and leave? Because I'm kind of thinking that we should.


Parsing Dalyrimple

Hiromi brings up an interesting point about the Dalyrimple article:

"It seems to me that people have never been really good at self-reflection, and always very good at self-justification."

Quite true, and this is where I differ with Dalyrimple. I'm not sure what the sociological underpinnings of murder really are. He talks about "bohemianism", but that makes him sound like someone's Grandfather.

He does have some interesting observations though. My wife and I live in a "steel town" in southern Ontario. If you ask our neighbors what they do for a living, they will tell you:
"Well, I work night shift, and my husband works day shift." It's a very blue collar town.

Claire and I live in the "good" part of town, as opposed to the "bad" part of town on the other side of Main Street. The bad part isn't terrible, but there is good reason to call it the bad part because all of the murders happen in that part of town as well as of all of the drug raids. Here, we have mostly retired people.

The Dalyrimple article rings a bell with me because I spent a lot of time walking through town, and so I've seen most of the bad and good parts. What's fascinating is that the bad neighborhoods have nearly identical houses, built in the same post WWII era, identical churches, schools and so forth. But, the upkeep is much worse. So, you'll see a yard with a layer of leaves from the Fall, covered by a layer of garbage. On the porch is two milk crates for chairs, and often there are people sitting on them drinking at like 2 pm. Then, every other house on the street will look the same.

Our neighborhood looks totally different, and I think it's due to the social pressure over here. Our neighbors wouldn't let us get away with leaving trash on the yard. They wouldn't be too harsh about it, but they would knock on the door and ask us to clean up. They're more involved with each other here. At times, this annoys me. But, when my wife cut her hand and I was in Buffalo, it was nice to have so many neighbors around to take her to the Health Centre.
I've also noticed how ugly public housing is. Not just because it's shoddy, but it's like they find the ugliest architectural designs they can to punish the people who live there. Have you ever noticed that grafitti tends to be most prevalent on the ugliest buildings? The gorgeous styles from the 1860s-1920s tend to be completely untagged, even in the worst neighborhoods.

Where I disagree with Dalyrimple is in his ultimate analysis of this. Maybe Britain is different though. He says:
"They had received no guidance from religion, naturally enough, since God is dead for them, and never has been very much alive."

He's obviously spent little times in American slums, where God is omnipresent. Our town is very, very Catholic, and this tends to be the case in the best and worst neighborhoods. But, in North America, in general, I think the lower classes tend to be much more strongly religious than the upper classes.

" As for social convention, it has not so much been destroyed as turned inside out. The poor who once prided themselves on such things as respectability, cleanliness, honesty, orderliness and thrift, often in the most difficult circumstances, now pride themselves on their bohemianism."

I do think that most children I encounter are never taught these things, but that tends to be true amongst all the classes. And, it's not because their parents are "bohemians", so much as that their parents are just absent. And that also tends to be a problem everywhere.

"Disorder and chaos are a metonym for freedom and authenticity. But they are bohemians without being artistic, and the result is a squalor scarcely credible in times of supposed prosperity. "

Please! I think he is right about the squalor, but there's a sense of exhaustion behind it. The filthiest neighborhoods I see are ones where people are home all of the time, but won't pick up their trash. But, I think there's an anger and exhaustion at the root of that, and not people trying to ape the beatniks or whatever he's going on about here.

So, that's a bit more on the subject.


Sunday, January 15, 2006

Back Into the Pot

William E. Cooper has left the presidency of the University of Richmond among mounting criticism over his conduct, specifically over a comment he made in October.

"The remark that set off the furor came in a 'state of the university' address in which he talked about the need to recruit talented students. “The entering quality of our student body needs to be much higher if we are going to transform bright minds into great achievers instead of transforming mush into mush,” Cooper said."

So, instead of debating whether or not that is indeed the situation at Richmond (quite likely. It was thought to be when I was an undergrad at W&M down the street), a group of alumni started a campaign to get Cooper fired, which worked. The horrible simple-mindedness of the campaign, which would seem to prove Cooper's point, could be easily mistaken for righteous willfulness, if it wasn't aimed at piling on and taking him down, those highest of aspirations for this generation. Better to drag the other lobsters back into the pot than try to climb out yourself.

"Much of the criticism extended beyond “mush” alone to broader questions about Richmond’s mission. Cooper pushed for tougher admissions standards, higher tuition, a more national student body, and a shift to an athletic conference where sports scholarships are not awarded. These ideas appealed to some faculty members and alumni, and Cooper was able to point to progress both in fund raising and in academics. Last year, for the first time in 50 years, a Richmond student was named a Rhodes Scholar. But Cooper’s ambitions upset many others..."

The widespread resistance against being held to any sort of standard is just incredible, isn't it?


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Dalyrimple on Murder

The always fascinating Theodore Dalyrimple on the recurrent themes in the murder cases that he studies.

The homes in which the murders took place... have, from the photographic evidence, a terrible similarity. There is the same narrow hallway, with the same detritus strewn in it. There is almost always a pile of trainers (training for what, I wonder?) on the floor, and one can almost smell the athlete's foot from the picture.

Into the living-room through the door on the right: the same gas fire, but above all, and always, the prominence of the video machine, which is to the British home at the lower end of the social scale what the icon was in the Russian muzhiks izba: the focus of the household's spiritual life, if spiritual is quite the word I seek.

Strewn on the floor, there are always several videotapes, probably just watched: these are the homes in which the television or video is never switched off so long as there is someone awake in the house. There are also many more videos on shelves in every room throughout the house, for images of a pseudo-reality mean more to the inhabitants than most of life as they actually live it.
There are usually a few cans (never bottles) of beer on the carpet, which itself is highly patterned. Objects - dirty washing, the containers of takeaway meals, newspapers - are strewn all over the place and piled in corners. The disorder is not the result of a violent struggle, but of the way the inhabitants have lived for years, even - or especially - if they are unemployed and have nothing much else to attend to but their domestic tasks.

I am overwhelmed by a sense of the unfitness for life of all the participants in these sordid dramas: their main problem was that they had not the faintest idea how to live and yet - this is the hallmark of modernity - they were plentifully supplied with ego.

Interesting, troubling stuff, and more interesting coming from a prison social worker than it might be from an armchair pundit.


Connect the Dots

From AP Education:
"At some schools, online courses- originally intended for nontraditional students living far from campus- have proved surprisingly popular with on-campus students."

From The Saskatoon University Sheaf:
"So, technology has managed to reduce the time it takes to get things done, and has offered us, as students, the convenience to do things on our own time, but it has and will continue to disrupt the ways we are taught to communicate. We are constantly learning to be indirect, passive, and detached: qualities that no one would consider desirable."


Thursday, January 12, 2006

Cenatus Corpus

From the "Your Honor, my client would like to break for lunch" file:

"MSNBC reports that real-life German cannibal Armin Meiwes is taking legal action in order to stop the release of director Martin Weisz’s film BUTTERFLY: A GRIMM LOVE STORY, which is based on the proliferation of Internet websites devoted to cannibal fetishism."

"Facing life imprisonment for the self-confessed (and self-filmed) killing and cannibalizing of a German man, Meiwes, who denies that his actions were murder 'since his victim volunteered to be eaten,' is concerned that the release of BUTTERFLY may affect the outcome of his trial."

"Meiwes goes on to say that the BUTTERFLY, which opens in Germany March 9, makes him 'feel used,' and that he wants to prevent it from depicting a 'false and stigmatized' view of cannibalism. "

Does he have a leg to stand on? Well, in the fridge, yes.


Caught in the Frey

Okay, so people are losing it over James Frey's fictionalized memoir, and so future editions will have a content note at the beginning. I know it's a strange question to ask, but are memoirs actually required to be factually sound in the first place? I understand why people expect them to be, and actually, I don't think it's entirely ridiculous that they should get a refund for the book. And, again, I certainly don't think it's "disturbing", but isn't there a point to be made that memoirs do involve memory which is, in itself, a form of fiction? When historians use them we take them with a very large grain of salt. So, maybe there is merit to the argument that Frey and JT Leroy were novelists working in a certain genre...

I guess we do have less stringent style requirements for memoirs. Have you ever read Police Chief Moose's memoir? The writing is just dreadful. Even the individual paragraphs don't hold up as being actual paragraphs (they make several seperate and unrelated points). And, actually, most autobiographies are poorly-written. Memoirs a bit less so. But, I think we read them for the "insider's perspective". An author takes events from their life and turns them into literature, while a memoirist turns them into accounts. We simply do not expect the same level of writing. So, I can see a mediocre author with an hard sell book slapping the words "a memoir" onto it for an easier sell. I'm guessing that was Frey's story.


Spies like nosotros

A husband and wife who work at Florida International University have been indicted of being spies for Cuba. She is a social worker and he is an assistant professor there, and apparently, they have more free time than the rest of us. Admittedly, it's about as easy to get accused of being a "pro-Castro spy" as to get a tan in Miami. But, I'm going to give the Department of Justice the benefit of the doubt on this one. Something about it sounds bad for the couple. But, there's something sadly quixotic about spying for Castro at this point. Sort of like gathering military information and sneaking it to Grandpa in the nursing home. Isn't that what Cuba is at this point? One big nursing home ruled by the mandates of senile dementia?


Patti Smith

Here's a nice piece on Patti Smith's newest collection of poetry. People who remember Smith only for her punk records have probably never listened to them- she clearly wanted to be a successor to the great visionary poets, such as Blake and Rimbaud, even then. One clue as to why she is a quite good poet, while other rockers have not been, is this line from her interview:
"I've been slowly reading more contemporary poetry—someone like James Wright, or Sylvia Plath, who is probably my biggest influence among contemporary poets. I learned a lot from her rhythms, repetition, and her strong sense of poetic structure."

My heart is like a balloon when I hear someone list Sylvia Plath and James Wright as examples of contemporary poetry. Smith writes good poems because, first and foremost, she is an enthusiast. We need more.


Notes on Fear and Trembling

One of the most astounding things about Fear and trembling is that it was actually one of six works that Kierkegaard published in 1843: that year saw Either/Or (February), Two Edifying Discourses (May), Fear and Trembling, Three Edifying Discourses and Repitition (October), and Four Edifying Discourses (December). The white heat of the philosopher's production at this time would be shaming enough without the brilliance of much of what he actually wrote. In retrospect, Kierkegaard can be a bit uneven at times, but his best work is easily among the best in 19th century philosophy, or even of philosophy itself. At his peak, Kierkegaard inspires comparisons to Plato and Nietzsche; he's just that good.

The work itself is one of the great statements of modernity; a searching for faith in the face of reason; the existentialists who borrowed from Kierkegaard would find faith lacking and abandon it, but there is perhaps a greater wisdom in Kierkegaard's stance- he searches for faith and finds himself lacking.

The work is a joy to read because we get to see a great mind at work with a paradoxical problem- why does God require Abraham to kill his only son? The typical banalities about it being a test don't answer the question satisfactorily. Kierkegaard wants to know why this is a holy act, even while going against the ethical, which is universal. Why does Abraham do something that requires a "teleological suspension of the ethical", and what does this mean?

The story of Abraham is difficult. Kant felt that Abraham had been tricked by the Devil: that no just God could ever require his loyal servant to slaughter their own child. There's something cruel, and pagan, pre-rational even, about the act. Do we become pure by slaughtering something pure? Is this simply a borrowing from earlier nature worship?

Kierkegaard sees three levels of behavior: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The Knight of Infinite Resignation acts ethically, but within a framework. The ethical is the universal. For instance, lying is universally wrong. However, the absolute is beyond the universal, so an individual who acts in accordance with the absolute, or God, is above the universal. Paradoxically, the individual is above the universal within Christianity.

The ethical act simply requires will, but the religious act is absurd, and requires the sort of leap of faith that Kierkegaard is associated with. Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical? Yes, Abraham committed such a suspension for a higher goal (or telos). Is there such a thing as an absolute duty towards God? Yes, and by fulfilling that duty, the Knight of Faith stands above the universal in an absolute relation to the absolute. This is why it requires the suspension of the ethical. Was Abraham ethically defensible in keeping quiet about his purpose before Sarah? Before Isaac? He is speaking no untruth by doing so because, by virtue of the absurd, God could ask otherwise. Also, there is nobody who could possibly believe or accept his duty, which is inward and individual by nature.

Finally, the paradox of Abraham, which we can only ever understand as a paradox, is as follows: Either the individual as individual stands absolutely in relation to the absolute/ or Abraham is lost. Kierkegaard believes that Abraham's actions are unimpeachable because they stand beyond rationality or ethics, and in doing so, he makes a powerful argument that we should aspire to Abraham's faith, but not necessarily his actions.


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Hey Suburbia!

Apparently, artists aren't much better at portraying suburbia than they are at portraying the white underclass. According to Nicholas Hune-Brown:

"Despite its relative youth, suburbia is already a thoroughly mythologized landscape with its own set of clichés and conventions. The word brings to mind a number of images and associations, many of them negative. The suburb is a land of white-picket fences and well-trimmed lawns, of teenage angst and mindless materialism."

Of course, the worst thing one can really say about the suburbs is that they tend to be boring. Lurking behind the manicured lawns... are well-swept front stoops. Kept hidden away behind the shiny doors... are middle-aged couples watching television. Their deepest hidden perversion is... on occasion they enjoy oral sex. What's weird here, again, is how many artists treat the suburbs as strange and exotic when 50% of the country lives there. A few notes:

1) Hune-Brown is remiss is not mentioning Steven Spielberg's portrayals of suburbia which were likely more influential in shaping how a generation saw the suburbs than any film he mentions.

2) He does mention the really hellish part of suburbia- you have to sit in traffic to go anywhere. Sprawl is not exactly an interesting topic for art, but it's central to understanding the suburbs.

3) But, he does not mention the very-noticeable resentments of suburbanites about things like sprawl and parking fees. There's an (admittedly quite passive) angry and downright anti-social streak to middle-aged suburbanites that seems to escape most writers. I was amazed when visiting my mother how many of her neighbors (and honestly her too) were mad as hell and not going to take it... for too much longer. About what? Well, lines at the mall, traffic jams, constant fees and bills... all the negative aspects of civic engagement. That was genuinely interesting.


Movie Notes: Audrey Rose (1977)

Quite dreadful supernatural dreck. Notable for its willingness to portray Hindu ideas about reincarnation, perhaps a sign that it was made in the 1970s. Certainly this is a Hare Krishna version of Hinduism, which seems very much of the era. Also, almost everything in the movie was shot on soundstages, making it look like a television program from the 70s.

The Story: Marsha Mason has a daughter named Ivy, but Anthony Hopkins keeps creeping around, claiming that Ivy is really his daughter Audrey Rose, who died in a car accident five years previously and who was unsuccessfully reincarnated. What exactly is unsuccessful reincarnation? I don't really know, but it makes her act a lot like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. This is actually fairly creepy stuff for a bit, if a slur on Hinduism, but then the movie takes a silly turn as Ivy's parents and Mr. Creepy go to court for custody based on the fellow's claim that she is a reincarnation of his daughter. Sure, the court allowed this case to be heard. Why not? The seventies were a strange time! During the trial, the girl is put under hypnosis and dies. The end. Or is it? Well, of course not. They were obviously expecting to reincarnate her in Audrey Rose 2.


Et tu Frey?

Is this a boom age for liars? In addition to JT Leroy and the various plagairists and falsifiers we've endured over the past few years, we also get James Frey, whose memoir A Million Little Pieces has been featured in Oprah's Book Club, and also largely discredited by The Smoking Gun. The book generally follows the same redemption story arc once favored by Christian writers from Augustine on. (1) Initial innocence, (2) graphic fall into sin, followed by a (3) conversion experience and (4) redemption. Sin has come a long way, admittedly, since Augustine stole an apple. Also, the Priest has been replaced by the Therapist, and Spiritual Redemption by Good Mental Health. But, now as then, the most enjoyable parts of the reading are those that involve the graphic fall into sin. In Frey's case, the sin was supposedly years as an Addict, Alcoholic and Criminal, all of which are apparently quite profittable professions these days. But, what if the Alcoholic-criminal-drug addict's experiences actually boiled down to a night in the drunk tank as a frat boy? Apparently, quite an uproar. Color me underwhelmed. The overpriviledged-diva-pretending-to-be-more-fucked-up-and-damaged-than-she-really-is was a regular party feature at my University. It gets old.


More on JT Leroy, Class Hatred, and Great Art

To continue my thoughts on JT Leroy:

I said:
"The "Aren't Southerners Creepy?" sort of porn really is class-conscious in the ugliest way."

Again, not much has changed from de Sade's time in that isolated, upper-class, urban elites still get a certain frission from sexual fantasies about the abuse and degradation of an otherwise invisible lower class.

But, what is different is that the sort of upper-class ridicule of "white trash" (really just class resentment) is readily accessible by those "rednecks" it ridicules. I mean, you read about how willing Madonna and all these literati are to believe that West Virginians really are pimping their children out to child-molesting truckers and it just smacks of class hatred. You see them constantly ridiculing the fashions and tastes of poor whites and it just makes you cringe if you're from that background.

Of course, Southerners don't do themselves any favors by voting en masse for bullshit homophobic laws. Nor do they help themselves by buying into the minstrel acts of yankee carpetbaggers like Larry the Cable Guy who differ from downtown hipsters only by flattering Southerners a bit more while ridiculing them. "Sure, you are simple people, and racist queer-bashers, but gosh you're morally superior." But, notice how willing Southerners are to pay back respect to people like George Bush or Git-R-Dun that pay them respect? Ever wonder why Democrats can't break the South?

I don't think that NYC/LA needs to bend over backwards to flatter the white lower-class. But, Jesus, they don't have to be so ready to insult them at every turn. Great art is fundamentally sympathetic. Even Shylock is a deeply sympathetic character. Maybe this isn't a time of great sympathy- but, artists should, at the very least, be interested in other people. For some reason, that interest seems to have been lost.


The Heart is Also Quite Gullible Apparently

Okay, so Ayelet Waldman was also conned by the JT Leroy literary scam. Actually, she's one of a sort of inner circle of influential writers who were conned into believing that a 40 year old mother from Brooklyn was actually a teenaged transgendered prostitute from West Virginia. Since her name seems to be on the call-list for articles about The Heart is Totally Full of Shit we can understand why she would want to write an article on the really interesting part of the story- why so many people fell for such a transparent hoax for about a decade.

But, her Salon article on the scam is, well, really wierd actually. She's, supposedly, telling us how she was scammed: in fact, the article is called "I Was Conned by JT Leroy". However, she starts the article with: "There's nothing I find quite as annoying as the phrase 'I told you so.' But, well, I told you so. Five years ago, after I read Armistead Maupin's 'The Night Listener," a novel based on his experience with a literary hoaxster, I started insisting that the real JT Leroy was most likely a 50-year-old Midwestern woman. Turns out I was off by a decade or so."

So, wait- she didn't get conned by JT Leroy, but the rest of us did? Wasn't the whole point of writing this article that she did, actually, not tell anyone so, but told a lot of people much the opposite? Am I missing something here?

Apparently, "Leroy" was interested in her husband, who is famous, as she tells us a number of times in the article, but flattered "his" way into her heart, a little transgendered waif who just wanted to be loved. Sort of Dickensian- Little Nelly. I think her point is that she fell for it, even though she knew she was falling for it, because he stroked her considerable ego. There's something hysterically narcissistic about this line in particular: "I can't, of course, speak for Madonna or Winona Ryder, but I was snookered by something JT inspired me to feel about myself." Which is basically telling us that "I was friends with someone who was friends with Madonna and Winona Ryder!!!"

In the end, she believes it was all no big deal; who cares, right? "It probably did little harm, except to the egos of those of us who were fooled, and it probably did some good, if the books themselves found an audience among the very people JT was pretending to be." She's probably right. A few points though:

1) The books themselves are kitsch. They were popular because they supposedly showed us a side of life that few knew really existed. Well, having grown up in the part of the world they portray, around actual truck stops, I can attest that they portray a side of the world that really doesn't exist. But, that is transparently bullshit. I figured they were written by a NYC teenager. I was close.

2) They do reveal a Brooklynite's fantasies about the corrupt underbelly of the Southern Other, and how ready and willing NY and LA media elites were to believe in those fantasies. "Under the sham of flag-waving and bible-thumping, these people are dirt-poor perverts!!" Thanks. We've heard that song before.

3) So, there is something fascinating about the fact that urban-dwellers would rather hear a transparent lie about the South than actually hear about the South. It's interesting how the lower classes still fuel the sexual fantasies of the upper classes- not much has changed since de Sade.

4) Also, there is something fascinating about the fact that people with connections, power, and publicity get to lie to the rest of us and then pull out the "Ha-ha! There is no truth!" card. One of my favorite letters here comments: "The fact that it is fictional doesn't necessarily undermine the message of the work, but it does reveal something disturbing about our seemingly collective desire for verisimilitude in the genre of memoir, already remarked upon eloquently by other commentators here and in the piece in New York Magazine." But, is that really disturbing? Wouldn't people want to believe that a memoir is not entirely fictional? As an accomplished memoirist has noted in the comments, the JT Leroy books were, in fact, sold as novels, although allegedly inspired by the novelist's life. And I'd say that was their main selling point- this boy supposedly knew of what he wrote.

5) Lastly, there are some sad aspects to the story that Winona Ryder and Madonna can feel free to ignore:
a) There are real live transgendered teenagers, abused teenagers and people with AIDS who may have a legitimate desire for verisimilitude in a novel about someone in their situation,
b) The "Aren't Southerners Creepy?" sort of porn really is class-conscious in the ugliest way,
c) It is sort of sad to think that those geniunely great writers who are struggling in places like West Virginia won't have a chance against well-connected liars who tell the urban aristocracy of the image what they want to hear. Actually, with publishing becoming a gamour-&-glitz star-factory, it's downright depressing.

Note: Corrections made to original post.


Monday, January 09, 2006

Film Notes: Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Following his masterpiece, Persona, Ingmar Bergman released this updated fairy tale; but, in modernity, the Dark Forest is the soul in the absense of God. Here, Bergman deals once again with the issues of madness and the permeability of the self that he dealt with in that earlier film. In a sense, Hour of the Wolf remakes Persona to much different effect.

As in that film, Hour of the Wolf deals with an artist who isolates himself to escape his own demons, but who is persued by those demons and actually sacrifices his wife to the same creatures.

Here though, the wife Alma is all-too-ready to psychically merge with the husband. She tells him: “I hope that we will get so old that we think each other’s thoughts and we get little, dried-up, identical wrinkled faces.” Soon, the spectors haunting her husband's subconscious come calling for Alma too. Or, perhaps they really are the aristocrats who live in the island's castle. If the horrors are illusions, then the majority of the film is an illusion, but we never can tell.

Walter Benjamin once wrote that "There are two ways to miss the point of Kafka's works. One is to interpret them naturally. The other is the supernatural interpretation." Kafka's Castle Hill is an obvious reference point in the film, and the advice seems to hold here as well. Are the strange aristocrats really vampires? Or, are they hallucinations of the artist's increasingly unstable mind? Neither answer is totally satisfying- the first ignores the extremely personal nature of the story, and the second does not explain why they haunt Alma as well. However, taking the creatures as being the artist's hallucinations makes the story a highly sympathetic portrait of a woman in love with a mentally ill man. She says: "They're trying to separate us. They want you for themselves. As long as I'm with you, it's much harder for them. Johan, I won't run away no matter how hard they try!" Notice that, in one context this can be taken as a very moving section of dialogue, while in another it is a scene in a horror film.

Again following Persona, Bergman sees human relationships as impossible and uses vampire imagery as a metaphor for those relationships. Again the artist is destroyed by society, here quite literally. Again Bergman deals with issues of mental illness, finding them not only intimately connected to creativity, but perhaps to modern life as such. As in Through a Glass Darkly, the secondary character's infinite kindness is spent trying to save a loved one who is haunted by terrifying hallucinations- here again the mentally ill sees God as a spider. But, here there is the suggestion that others can catch mental illness, or even that we are all doomed to eventually succumb to it. Only a director with Bergman's history of institutionalization would dare to suggest such a thing, and even worse, he creates a world in which we cannot answer him.


Quote for Today

"Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a small city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationary store a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the persuit of books!"
-Walter Benjamin


Elmo be not proud

No doubt a particuarly brilliant prank at work here...

"A mother in Dallas is one of several parents complaining about a new interactive book for toddlers in which Sesame Street character Elmo asks 'who wants to die?' according to a Local 6 News report."

"It's a sick joke," mother Angela Bolls said. "If it's a joke then it's a bad one, you know? And it's not necessary. It's inappropriate."

Well, unless the child does want to die. In that case, the book delivers a lethal injection of potassium chloride while Big Bird sings Last Caress by the Misfits. Sort of like My First Suicide Machine.


Going Riding on the Threeway

From ArtNet:
"Austria began its six-month reign of the European Union presidency with the bang of an international scandal. As widely reported, two billboard artworks in "25peaces," part of 'euroPART,' a larger public art project curated by Walter Seidl and Ursula Maria Probst, were removed after public outcry."

From Der Spiegel's description of the billboards:
"A topless woman sprawls on a bed with her legs spread wearing blue panties decorated with the EU's symbol, a circle of yellow stars. A few streets away three individuals are hard at it: their unambiguous, naked poses show them indulging in a menage à trois. The participants wear masks of France's President Chirac, the British Queen and United States President George W. Bush."

I guess when you're bleary-eyed and nursing your morning coffee on the way to work, you're not quite in the mood to look at a good old cunt-lapping threesome. Maybe to participate... But, I'm guessing there are laws about such billboards anyway, or we'd be seeing hardcore porn on them by now. "Like anal? Well, you'll love Pepsi!"

So, anyway, the Austrians had a Sheissefitten and took the billboards down. Angry politicos claim that they are an insult to the Queen Mum, who after all, preferred the reverse cowgirl position. Now, the Austrians don't have to look at underpants on their way to the nude beach. So, that's good.

What's really shocking about the art though is how insipid it is. The artist Carlos Ares (who has done much better work before) says that his corny threesome pictures depict "the most recent changes in Europe and the resulting special constructions", but that's like saying those stickers of Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes peeing on things are "a stirring expression of existential dread in contemporary society". Of course, creating kitsch isn't a crime- if it was, Michael Bay would have gotten the chair by now. But, it's like modern artists are riding this wave of dumb; maybe taking their cues from Brittney Spears and 50 Cent- the cultural vanguard of stupid. Eventually, our "masterpieces" will be paintings of the Madonna in a thong peeing on a Ford logo. So, it's all too silly, but I'd support outlawing kitsch and sending Tori Spelling and Usher to pick up trash along the highway.

And, again, Queen Liz really did prefer reverse cowgirl.


Double Nickels on the Dime

Okay, this seems pretty funny to me.

In Northern Virginia, the housing market has been booming for some time. You have mobs of tech workers and government employees who want to live in McMansions out in the sticks and avoid the DC crowds (read "blacks"). So, as that has boomed, there has been a bull market for labor, legal and otherwise. Many of the workers who have moved to the area really are legal, and others probably aren't, but given the labor shortage, most people don't care.

But, of course, you also get the usual suspects who scream that they're stealing the shit-jobs from real Americans (read "whites"). One such group, calling themselves The Minutemen (no doubt after the influential California punk band) has taken it upon themselves to hang about and videotape day laborers as they wait by the side of the highway to get work. The irony of well-fed suburban fucks with a conspicuous amount of free time harassing struggling laborers and pitching it as "working-class" populism is lost on many. They stalk the "illegals" and send pictures of them to the IRS, who has much better things to worry about, or post them on the Internet. Instead of, you know, actually talking to the workers, they hang about across the street with camcorders and take pictures of them and assume that they're "illegals". So, at any rate, they're dipshits. Whatever.

But, here's what I find amusing- the pictures are posted on websites like: "We are aliens"or "We Hire Illegal Aliens", or "Help Save Herndon".

The workers themselves have responded by taking pictures of the Minutemen who are taking pictures of them, and creating a site entitled We are Racists.


Turning Canuck

Well, I'm back in the Frozen North, although honestly, we may have to start calling it the Soggy North if the weather continues how it's been this year. I'm still in the habit of taking off my shoes whenever I enter someone's house. I did it the whole time I was in Virginia. People kept asking me what the heck I was doing. "I can't help it! The Canadians have brainwashed me!"

It's strange to think that I've spent much more time in Canada than the US over the last two years. And yet, I still think of myself as American, and legally I still am. I wonder if that ever changes after you've grown up in country. Will I still be watching the news years from now and think to myself: "God, what were we thinking electing that guy?!" every time I see an American politician.

Also, I noticed all the cultural differences when I was in the states. Americans really are a lot fatter! And it's not that lifelong, genetic fat either; it's that sort of fat like they were skinny until after University, and then started putting on the weight. They look like they're wearing a heavy overcoat. They're like walking slabs of meat.

And you can understand why- there really are American portions at restaurants. The dinners that Claire and I get here in Hamilton could easily be put together for one American portion. Where my mother lives there are all these theme restaurants, like "T.J. Texas Skillets Fun-Time Restaurant", and they all serve these meals that are like "Two pounds of chicken chunks- deep batter fried and covered with golden cheese, placed on a bed of scrumptuous onion rings, soaked in gravy, and then served in a sterling silver bucket. Feeding bag optional." Mmmm....

Another thing that's strange is the obsessive collecting of crap. Half of my mother's town is strip malls, and they're all packed in the evenings. You don't see roaming packs of teenagers out on the street, like you do here; instead, you see them wandering through Best Buy. I actually enjoy a bit of shopping, unlike most academics- or, at least, I don't deny that I enjoy it like most academics do. Claire will attest that I'm not a shopaholic by any means! But, I can definitely understand the joys of having readily-available well-made consumer goods. However, Northern Virginia is just gross in its strong belief in shopping as a lifestyle. Here, in Hamilton, the average vehicle is a lowrider pickup truck, customized, with a sticker in the back window reading "Buck Wild!". In NoVa, the average vehicle is a Mercedes Benz SUV with vanity plates reading "Wel-Kept". It's a different culture.

What's worse is that stuff like this would go through my mind when I was in Northern Virginia and I would think to myself: "Oh no! I'm turning into a Canadian! They've won!" It's like there are all these characteristic things about American culture, and yet, if you notice them, it abstracts you and distances you from that culture. So, to remain American, I'll have to ignore it and start packing on the pounds. My God! What if I'm never fat enough to be an American, and never drunk and obsequious enough to be Canadian! I'll have to live at the Duty Free and rent myself out as some sort of freak. See the half Canadian-half American- The Camerican!