Monday, May 30, 2011

Duck Comics: "Crown of the Mayas"

Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (1927)

Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt is not a great book because of its satire of hypocritical bourgeois values and mindless civic boosterism. If you think that it is, you're WRONG! You FAIL the course! No, that stuff's all perfectly effectively done and sometimes funny, but what what really puts it a step above is the portrait of the title character himself. George F. Babbitt is entirely inculcated in this culture, but he has occasional moments of, if not quite self-awareness, then the sense that there's something wrong with his life and the world around him. In his relationship with his best friend, Paul Reisling, you can see a certain humanity shining through, even if the whole thing is couched in inanities, and his inchoate sort of rebellion is inspiring even in its incoherence. What I'm saying is, he's one of the great characters of American literature.

Elmer Gantry…not so much. He has no depths. He is a thoroughly despicable character from start to finish; casually using, discarding, and destroying anyone who gets in his way on the path to evangelical wealth and power. To the extent that I enjoyed the book, it was mostly because I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: it seemed inevitable that, at some point, something was gonna happen to put Gantry's worldview in jeopardy or to force some sort of re-evaluation of something--but no dice. There are very occasional, tiny intimations that something along these lines could take place, but they never go anywhere at all. It seems like something's definitely going to happen when he falls in with Sharon Falconer, a charismatic, somewhat insane revivalist preacher. But then, after recording their exploits for a while, Lewis basically hits the reset button on the whole thing, and you wonder: what was the point of all that? The only conflict in the novel consists in the character encountering occasional setbacks in his road to glory. There's no internal conflict. Calling Gantry a "character" at all seems to be pushing it a bit. One sort of gets the impression that Lewis was afraid that if he went for nuance, readers might somehow miss the unmissable message, and said message was so important to him that he could take no chance of that happening.

For what it's worth, Lewis clearly isn't a big fan of religion in general, but it's really just religious hypocrisy he's after (though this hypocrisy, for him, is pretty much omni-present); there are a few sincerely religious figures in the novel presented sympathetically, and the occasional professional-atheist types who show up aren't too likable either.

Lewis definitely makes his point, I'll give him that, albeit with sledgehammer subtlety, and as a full-scale assault on organized religion, the novel was no doubt more shocking in its time than it is today. But while I'm broadly sympathetic to the message, it isn't exactly a complicated message, and I'm not sure how much value there is in having Lewis shout it in your ear over and over for five-hundred-odd pages.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hey, I'm back.

More nonsense soon, most likely.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Duck Comics: "To the Moon by Noon"

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Progression of the Argument

01. I did better than D work.

02. I need higher than a D to graduate.

03. I emailed you with EXCUSES on two out of the eleven times I was absent.

04. Tell me the dates I was absent.

05. I was NOT absent on all of those days!

06. Those absences shouldn't count against me.

07. For some of those days, I wasn't absent; I was just very, very late!

08. If I could've earned a C- by regularly attending class, then that's the grade I should GET!

09. My first paper was only a page and a half long because, as a business major, I'm only used to writing one-page memos; therefore, that F was unfair.

10. I can't control when I have car troubles!

11. I REALLY need to graduate!

12. To be honest, I was only half paying attention, because my other classes were more important.

13. Maybe if I'd KNOWN getting to class twenty minutes late would count against me, it wouldn't have HAPPENED over and over and over!

The long, tedious saga continues...

Practice makes perfect!

Elmer's eloquence increased like an Autumn pumpkin. He went into the woods to practice. Once a small boy came up behind him, standing on a stump in a clearing, and upon being greeted with "I denounce the abominations of your lascivious and voluptuous, uh, abominations," he fled yelping, and never again was the same care-free youth.
--Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry

Sunday, May 08, 2011


I found an old notebook from my eleventh grade English class, in which I had inscribed the following deathless illustration:

Not quite as inexplicable as it may first seem; given that the figures appear to be on a raft, and given that we read Huckleberry Finn in eleventh grade, I'm guessing it's supposed to be the king and the duke practicing their interpretations of Shakespeare. The Sun is angry because (even predating SMB3) I've always found angry Suns funny. But what "no frarking" could possibly mean, I am at a total loss. If this is a reference to something in the book that I've forgotten, feel free to enlighten me.

Bonus: in this same notebook, I also drew this gentleman:

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

State of the Bible Tract Address

The good news (get it? "good news?") is that I've come into possession of a fair few Bible tracts over the years. The bad news is, none of them have been Chick Tracts--either people give them to me; or I find them lying around, left by people trying to make converts--and I suppose this means I'm responsible for the people who went unsaved for lack of a tract because I took it to make fun of like the obnoxious librul élitist that I am.

But c'mon, people--you expect anyone to Accept Jesus™ based on some lame, off-brand tract? Actually, it's not the "off-brand" so much as it is the "lame." Batty and frequently incredibly offensive as they are, Chick tracts are rarely unmemorable, whereas the sort of thing you see more often is just gonna put you to sleep. Example:

Jeez--welcome to Snoozeville. And to add insult to injury, the church stamped its information over the name and address section, so you couldn't even send it back if it did cause you to get saved. Bah.

This one's a little better, for some definition of "better." They attempt to draw you in by promising something vaguely sexy…

…and then you open it, and GOOD GOD:

Just imagine for a moment how screamingly offended this tract's producers would be at the free availability (to children, no less!) of an image that gruesome that wasn't Christian-themed. Kind of a dick move, really. Here's the back, so you can finish the fun "Love Test:"

I'm struck by how completely contentless these things generally are--they're all about form rather than substance. Absolutely no indication here of what getting saved actually entails, behavior-wise, beyond saying the magic words.

Note also that URL: "" The focus on FEAR seems rather inimical to real belief, but it's impossible to gauge just how far the website takes this, because it's currently dead, and all that's left is that portal site featuring a woman with a backpack in a college-y environment who (this occurs to me every time I'm faced with this image, so I want to take this opportunity to tell the world) looks a lot like adult actress Ashlynn Brooke.

There IS a, at which you can buy creepily bellicose Christian t-shirts from people trying to sound like they're really into death metal, but in a Christian way (here's one about how Jesus is probably going to murder you); I don't think this tract has anything to do with that, however. much for "fear," I guess. I'm definitely down with that.

Here's a seasonal tract with a cheery Jack O'Lantern on the cover!

Inside and on the back, there is this:

Kudos, at any rate, for a consistent theme, but, while all these tracts do this to some extent, this one really serves as a textbook example of begging the question in its original, logical-fallacy sense. They may be substantially similar, but there's surely a difference between "hey, the Bible sez you should accept Jesus" and "inasmuch as the Bible is true, you must agree that you're wrong to believe X."

Finally, a particularly maladroit effort to reach out to The Kids:

The Kids like celebrities, right? And Devil Music? So these really hideous caricatures of dead musicians should be just what the doctor ordered! But…who's the guy in the lower left? You can more or less tell who the others are meant to be, but who's that one? Ronald Reagan? What the hell is he doing here? Our former Clown-in-Chief is in no way someone The Kids care about.

No, it's John Wayne. But the point stands, and in fact is even stronger, since Wayne probably has even less contemporary relevance. Why this bizarre odd man out? You couldn't come up with more than six dead rock stars? Well, more likely they couldn't come up with more than six that would be sufficiently easily-identifiable from half-assed caricatures. Sorry, Echo and the Bunnymen's Pete de Freitas!

Also note that, in their eagerness to quote from "American Pie," they accidentally (I assume!) imply that music can, in fact, save your mortal soul. Also, note this: "Jesus said, 'Whoever looks upon a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery already with her in his heart.' Have you ever looked with lust?" First, note that The Kids are pretty much endless fountains of nothing but lust, and telling them that they should knock it off is the most laughably futile warning in the history of everything. Second, note that the way this tract is trying to appeal to The Kids is by evincing knowledge of rock musicians of whom they are allegedly fans, and rock music, too, is to a very substantial degree an all-out celebration of lust--I mean, they include Jim Morrison, fercrissake, who was pretty much nothing but a personification of libidinal energies. What I'm trying to say is, this is a quite amazingly confused piece of work. As ever, reaching out to The Kids seems likely to be more alienating to them than regular, non-The-Kids-directed material would be. Also, the publishers have an incredibly hideous website.

I guess all I'm trying to say is: step it up, tract makers. You're never gonna unseat ChickCo like this.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Oh teacher are my lessons done I cannot do another one they laughed and laughed and said well child are your lessons done?

So here's what happened: the student write me an email on Friday, saying that for his previous final paper idea--which was exploring some aspect of religious belief that has an impact on society--he just goshdarn was having trouble finding enough to say to fill up a whoppin' eight pages, so instead, how 'bout he writes his paper about this debate he saw somewhere about the relative merits of teachers' unions?

"What does this have to do with the assignment?" I responded, the assignment having been to make an argument in some way related--however tangentially--to some aspect of something we'd read over the course of the semester. "You said we could be creative!" he countered, having apparently interpreted "creative" as "having nothing to do with anything."

(Actually, I'm pretty sure that a clever student could have used the readings to come up with a justification for writing on this topic, in which case I would have applauded his ingenuity--but this was not that student.)

"Okay," sez I, not wanting to argue, "I don't want to argue. But know ye this:"--these may not have been my exact words--"I already know what this paper will look like, and it will look like this: you will recapitulate the arguments made in this debate. You will do this at great, page-chewing length. There will be no discernible original argument on your part. All that will happen is that you come down on one side or the other, or possibly in some lukewarm middle ground. You could surprise me and do something different"--[note: there was no way he was going to surprise me and do something different]--"but given the number of papers I've endured that do this exact thing--the thing that I am assiduously trying to steer students away from this semester--I would be surprised. And if this is the case, there is no way you will get a grade that is better than mediocre. And given your situation"--ie, he plagiarized the hell out of his last paper, and the only reason I didn't fail him for the entire class then and there is lack of moral fiber on my part, most likely--"you can't afford a mediocre grade. But with this as a proviso, I won't tell you you can't at least make a go at it." Send. Then, feeling kind of bad at having authorized him to do something he would fail at, even having warned him he would fail at it, I send another email giving him some advice for ways he could approach his original, less doomed-to-fail (although in his case…) paper idea. But I heard nothing back from him, so I had no idea what he was thinking.

Anyway, I got his paper today, and indeed it was about teachers' unions. And indeed it did exactly what I said it would do--so egregiously that it was almost like a parody of papers that do that, actually. He ate up space by quoting, at great length, participants in this debate, along with the occasional helpful "X makes a good point when he says…" type commentary. I mean good god, what was this young man possibly thinking? I mean yeah, okay, "not much." But even so: I tell you precisely what not to do and you--to all appearances--go out of your way to do exactly that? What exactly did you imagine would be the result of this? Is this like the time in ninth grade when we had to create leaf collections for biology class and my friend misread the list of "things not to do" as "things to do" and thereby failed quite spectacularly? Or what?

Oh, and also, he totally plagiarized the shit out of it--"introducing" the participants with large chunks of unattributed text grabbed straight from the debate's website. I'm capable of believing that this particular student was clueless enough to not even realize that he wasn't supposed to do this--hey, you'd be surprised, and given that he provided numerous quotes from this same website, it's even more inconceivable that he somehow thought I wouldn't notice (though, again...)--but that hardly matters. Fercrissake, this is College Writing II--how in god's name did someone like this ever get through College Writing I? Well, I guess I can't blame whoever passed him too much; I'm certainly also guilty of passing the odd student whom I definitely shouldn't have (this whole system is incredibly dysfunctional). But good lord. I suppose I'm actually grateful; the plagiarism means I can just say "you fail" without having to do any tedious number-crunching to show him exactly why he fails. But goddammit, I would be eight hundred percent happier if students would just refrain from being massively lazy and apathetic and dishonest. I mean, I'm not saying that I'm some sorta transcendently awesome teacher and that therefore I should never take any of the blame for student screw-ups--but sometimes things like this happen that shouldn't happen and wouldn't if there were even a nominal amount of giving-a-fuck on the part of the student. It is difficult not to wonder, on occasion, why I even bother.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Just another dead soldier

Hey, listen, it's hard to feel upset about bin Laden's demise. He was a nasty piece of work, obviously. Still, here's a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that a friend posted on facebook:

I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

[UPDATE: I am not one hundred percent certain about the attribution of this, but if you can't trust a random person on facebook who got it from some other random person, whom can you trust?]

I can get behind that. And I cannot help but think that a populace that applauds governmental violence in one instance is more likely to applaud it in others. It might be one thing if the killing was actually likely to make any discernible difference in anything aside from helping Obama's reëlection campaign. But it's pretty much entirely symbolic. I certainly can't get pumped up over it.

Here's a picture of people celebrating the news (from here):

That makes me a little queasy, I have to say. I don't know that I necessarily want to live in a country in which this sort of reaction to this sort of news is widespread. I realize that probably rules out...well, every country in the world, but still.

That said, I'm only human, and the mean-spirited side of me can't help but find this pretty funny (via alicublog):

I'm lukewarm at best about Obama, but the capacity of an image like that to make wingnut heads explode is kinda priceless.