Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Economics of Recess

Yesterday I had a long discussion with several people about the nature of capitalist economics. Frankly, I just don't get it. I mean, I get some of it at its basics in theory, but the way we do things now is an unruly system that's far too complicated and risk-based for its own good, I think. Maybe I just have a hard time seeing it in macrocosm.

The whole discussion reminded me of an episode of Recess which I think boils down American economics pretty well. To me, it's a cautionary tale; investment sounds like a good thing but can bite you back, greedy corporations eventually bring down the entire system, money's only worth anything as long as we think it is, and the American myth of upward mobility can be dangerous.

I suggested to someone last night that when "speculation" and price gouging lead to excesses, there should be a limit. I cannot believe that inflation is just a natural occurrence. "Supply and demand" sounds reasonable, but in practice leads to extremes that hurt everyone. So I suggested something like making a rule that the price of something cannot exceed so many times the cost to produce that thing. To me this seems reasonable. Does this mean someone has to be in charge of these rules? Yes. But why is that necessarily a bad thing? Isn't that what government is for?

Here's the episode I'm talking about. Watch it, and decide how well it reflects real situations, albeit in a cartoon microcosm. And note the contract at the end; if I'm wrong in the above paragraph, then isn't this wrong too? And feel free to leave me comments about how I don't understand what I'm talking about. Because I don't.

Friday, June 25, 2010

More Anguished English

The name of this post is from yet another book on language. The focus here is a continuation of Losing Our Language, and the words that current high schoolers can't be bothered to write correctly. They write the way they text, and it shows badly. I've read a number of student scribblings and notes passed between them this past week, and here are some more frightening spellings and usages I've found. First, the words as I found them.

1. veternarian
2. ferrit
3. weisel
4. pear
5. cesar
6. consentrate
7. scarry
8. neithin
9. w.e.
10. fone
11. dieing
12. iight
13. gud
14. medeum
15. wat
16. thot
17. probly
18. wead
19. letten

And now the translations, with commentary...
1. veterinarian -- this one's not too bad. It's just normal kid phonetic misspelling. I don't quite expect it on the high school level, but a dropped vowel isn't too bad.
2. ferret -- more bad phonics. If you really loved ferrets, you could spell the word. Likewise, if you are hateful enough to call someone a "faggot", at least don't spell it "fagit" or some other poor phonetic variation; then you're not just a jerk, you're a stupid one.
3. weasel -- a weasel is a slender rodent. A Weisel is a renowned author and Auschwitz survivor.
4. you might be thinking "what's wrong with this? That's a word!" Would you believe the word she meant was "pier"?
5. Caesar -- what's most depressing about this is it was a note written right next to text in the book that had the name printed correctly.
6. concentrate -- kids get really confused when two different letters make the same sound. It was probably a bad idea the English ever adopted the letter "c".
7. scary -- scary is when a thing frightens you; scarry is when that thing is covered in flesh wounds, or is a children's book author who chronicles life in Busy Town.
8. anything -- I kid you not, I had to look at this again for five minutes before realizing what it meant. I kept trying to sound it out: "nay-thin? nee-i-thin?" You only save one letter by typing N-E-thing, and you risk confusing the entire English-speaking populace. I'm really shuddering in fear now for all the foreign students learning English among peers like these!
9. whatever -- in a similar category as above. In some circumstances, abbreviating might be acceptable, but generally I see it slashed. In the note wherein I found this usage, the word "whatever" was used 3 times, and each was spelled or notated differently. It appeared as "w.e.", "w/e", and "whatever"(!) alternately. If you are going to misuse something, at least be consistent! And the fact you COULD and DID spell out "whatever" means you very well SHOULD have, lazy!
10. phone -- I could spell this word in second grade. Please.
11. dying -- basic suffix rules are lost on this student
12. alright -- Now, I understand if you're using it in an informal slangy way, you may say "a'ight". But that's how you write it in such cases: with an apostrophe. I could even understand it without the apostrophe, though it would give me pause. But two "i"s tells me that this person may not even understand the connection between the words. I saw this usage on at least two seperate occasions.
13. good -- dear, it does no gud, nor is it kyoot, to intentionally spel this waye. gud gohllee. I can't even think of an instance where a rhyme for "good" is spelt with just a plain "u".
14. medium -- Last I checked, Patricia Arquette was not starring in Medeum. And to pluralize that spelling would be a Greek tragedy.
15. what -- there are no words.
16. thought -- Even Tweety Bird wouldn't spell it t-h-o-t.
17. probably -- this is understandable, given current spoken usage. I prefer it to "prolly" anyway.
18. weed -- Okay, it was amusing. I found this note in a book that was torn up, so I put it back together just for kicks. It was about how some guy was smoking weed, and the three or four times the word was used it was spelled W-E-A-D. Like an Elmer Fudd poster for literacy. See kids? Drugs kill the part of your brain that make you spell competently. Drugs are bad, mmmkay?
19. letting -- One step away from "Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin"

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Monsieur Verdoux

I have just recently finished my first viewing of Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux. I had no idea what to expect going into this film. I knew Chaplin as "the little tramp". I knew his great silent work like The Gold Rush and City Lights. I knew him for The Great Dictator, one of my five or so favorite films of 1940. But I frankly thought little of this film whenever I heard of it. Oh, that's just one of those movies he made when he started making talkies that didn't do very well I used to think. And then I saw it.

If you consider yourself a fan of Chaplin's work and have not seen Monsieur Verdoux then you have done yourself a disservice. I thought I'd get some relatively bland story about a Frenchman. What I got was "a comedy of murder". It's certainly one of Chaplin's darkest screen comedies; it's a very black sort of humor. While there was a touch of this in Great Dictator, that was mostly about undermining a great enemy: making him buffoonish. But here we are expected to side with the murderer. And laugh both with him and at him.

The basic plot concerns Monsieur Verdoux, a Frenchman who, when laid off from his job in the post-war depression of the 1930s, takes to marrying and murdering rich women for their assets. He is called a Bluebeard, a reference to the fairy tale of the husband who is a closet serial killer (also of French origin). This is dark material, and indeed was suggested by Orson Welles, but Chaplin makes it funny. To make a character like this funny he must be likable, and Chaplin is the perfect man for it. His amiable manner allows the audience to be always on his side, to be sympathetic to him, as well as allowing him to cozy up to a multitude of partners. We know that the things he does are despicable, but the deft way in which he does them are endearing. There are moments of Chaplin's visual wit such as the speedy way Verdoux counts money. A gag like that would fit in nicely in one of Chaplin's silent comedies. And yet, he handles dialogue in this picture with amazing dexterity. There is a real wit to the wordplay and banter, surprising in a way when we consider this is only his second talking picture.

What I was also struck by in this film was the pace. The two hours flies by. Two hour comedy is a dangerous animal, and one that very often falls flat. Anyone who's seen a recent Apatow film can attest to the bloated feeling a long running time can have. Similarly, such films suffer from an over-reliance on improvisation. This movie in contrast was tightly scripted. It breezes by as we go from one wife to the next, one situation to the next, events building on each other in an almost Hitchcockian way. Much as I love The Great Dictator, there is no denying it drags in its latter half, and gets very talky and didactic at the end. Chaplin does again make social commentary in Verdoux, but it is kept more succinct and in the character's own perspective. There's less of an obvious sense of breaking the fourth wall. The film makes for good social satire.

There are a number of memorable sequences in the movie. One of Verdoux's wives is a hilarious loudmouth, and the scene where Verdoux takes her out in a boat "fishing" in order to drown her is a hoot. It's a much stronger marriage of words and visuals than his previous film. Also, watch for a pre-I Love Lucy William Frawley. The film opens unusually with the family of one of the women who has been conned by Verdoux. They go to the police with no evidence of the man at all, but insist "I'd know him if I saw him!" While humorous in itself, this leads to another wonderful comedic moment later in the film.

I mentioned above that Orson Welles suggested the film. He had been developing the idea as a drama, based on a true story of a French serial killer who was beheaded in the 1920s. It might have been a good property for him, and actually seems similar in tone and material to Welles' The Stranger from several years prior. Welles ended up giving the idea to Chaplin (with the agreement he get an onscreen credit), and Chaplin took that idea and gave it an even more interesting life by making it funny. At times I find myself rooting for the serial killer as he kills people. This is a deceptively difficult tone to walk well, but it's always played for the joke of the situation. Verdoux is SO likable that it doesn't feel so sinister.

Monsieur Verdoux was not well-received upon its initial release. Many seemed to question Chaplin's politics and motives. Some felt it was slow, though I consider this inappropriate criticism. Whatever the film is, it is NOT slow. It is almost perfectly paced. It slows a bit at the very end, but this is certainly not intolerable. Perhaps this lack of glowing reception is what left me dubious of seeing it. I'll be honest, going into this movie felt like homework; something to do just to get it done. But 20 minutes later, I was hooked. This is not a movie with huge guffaws, but it is strong all around. Chaplin himself considered it one of his finest works, and I must agree. If you like your comedy dark, or seek another side of Chaplin, Monsieur Verdoux is an underrated classic of the post-war '40s, and one that I highly recommend.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Parable of the Talents: A New Interpretation

If you're a Christian, or probably even if you aren't one but live in Western society, you've heard about the parable of the talents. That's the story about the master who goes off for a bit and leaves three guys in charge of his stuff. He gives each a different number of talents. When he comes back, two guys say "Look, I used your talents and made you more talents!", but one guy goes "Yeah, uh, I was afraid of you, so I buried your talent in the ground so I wouldn't lose it. It's over there," and the master gets all mad at him. Now, you are probably aware that our english word "talent" meaning "ability" comes from this parable. And if you were told it in Sunday School you probably also have heard that the moral of the story is that God gives everyone special abilities at birth essentially and you're supposed to use them for God. Right? Well, I'm going to suggest that that reading is incorrect.

It is amazing to me that the evangelicals and Christians who most believe that the Bible is the Word of God, every word inspired, continue to believe whatever interpretation they are taught, even if it conflicts with the actual text — the text that God supposedly dictated. Part of the difficulty in reading the story is that when we hear the word "talent" we now immediately think of ability. We have TV shows like America's Got Talent which focus on people with skills. But in the story, talents are an ancient measure of money. Now, the clergy all know this, but they want you to think that it's not about that, it's really about skills. They're part right; it's not about money, but it's not about the sort of ability they think it is. In their reading, "talent" is essentially a code word for "ability"; God gives you abilities and then you use them or don't. This reading is born out of Matthew 25:15: "And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey." So the modern Christian jumps on this and says, "You see? It's about ability!" ...But let's break that down for a minute. If the talent was ability, why would ability be seperately mentioned? In the story, the guys already had abilities! The talents were on top of those and based on those. This implies to me that the notion of God-given talent at birth is not quite right, at least when gleaned from this passage.

I should note that I'm using the parable as given in Matthew's gospel. A seemingly identical parable appears in Luke 19, only there they are given minas instead of talents. Imagine if that had caught on. "Stay tuned for America's Got Mina!" You may debate with your friends whether they are the same parable, or similar ideas with different functions.

For my entire life I've been taught that the story was about natural abilities. There's something frankly very stressful and paranoia-inducing about that. You're told all your life that God gave you gifts and by cracky you'd better use them! So then you worry about what your talents are, and then how do you use them. Is this a Godly enough use? People like to think of it in terms of writing or singing ability, or other obvious things. "If you're good at making cakes, then make cakes for a sick friend in the name of Jesus!" Not that there's anything wrong with that. Good deeds are part of Christian living. But the example I always use is what if you're the world's greatest boxer? How do you justify that? "God made me a boxer, so I'm gonna be all I can be and knock an endless string of guys unconscious for sport and the bloodlust of an onlooking crowd... for Jesus!" Or you're a great assassin. How does that work out? Lest you think that ridiculous, David even before Goliath was known as a "mighty man of war". So is waging bloody war a good thing if it's something you are skilled at? Yes, you can serve on police forces or in a military capacity, which can be good, but I think you'd have a hard time saying you were honoring God with your skill as a sniper. And let's not forget the many athletes or musicians who attribute their latest award to God, because that's how they've been raised, even though I doubt God tells the angels to quiet down so he can listen to Destiny's Child sing about their bootylicious bodies. That's a holy sound, right there, right?

If then the parable is not about these things, then what might it actually be talking about? Well, recently I've come to believe that the "talents" are spiritual gifts. So yes, they are given by God, by they are not the same as being able to speak well or anything like that. Primarily I'm thinking of the spiritual gifts Paul mentions in Romans 12. For support of this hypothesis, I draw your attention to verse 6: "Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us." According to the grace given us. This is just after Paul has said how each of us individually has his own function in the body. So is this not another way of saying that the gifts are given based on ability? Or at least, based upon our variations? Just as the master in the story gave talents to each of the men based on their different abilities and levels of skill, the Spirit gives gifts to the church body based on the sort of person each one is.

Further support for this idea comes from the structure of the story itself. I think we can all agree that the laborers represent us, the people and that the master represents Jesus. Look then at the way the story begins in verse 14:
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them."
There are a few important things going on here. First, the man (Jesus) is going away for awhile. Second, the servants are "his own." This is a very important detail upon which the entire parable hinges. The modern Christian world wants you to believe that this story is about the abilities that all humans have, and that when they come to God they can be shown how to use them. But that's not what the Scripture says. It says these men were already Christ's own servants. So this story is 1)about Christians and 2)about the Church age. It is not about the abilities of all humanity through all the ages. The master is going away for a time, just as Christ left the earth to prepare a place, with the promise he would return. And at the end of the story, the master DOES return, pronouncing judgment. In the gospel, this ending leads into a discussion about Christ's final judgment on the earth; in fact the entire chapter and the one before it are about the imminent return of Christ. This story then is about the work Christians do in the world before He does return. It's about the church age.

Elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus says that when He leaves He will send the Spirit. The Spirit will comfort, and the Spirit will give power to do His work. Now compare that with the parable; when the master leaves, he gives the servants talents to do his work. Does this not then support my understanding of "talents" being gifts of the Spirit in the same manner Paul described? I believe that rather than being given at birth and being "natural" abilities (which usually are not innate at all, but learned based on some other inclination), they are spiritual things given at salvation, based on those internal inclinations that make you who you are.

I also find it remarkable that these same people who want me to believe that God gave me certain things before I even knew him with the express intent that I should use them are often the same people who teach that God completely changes people. They teach that sometimes when you get saved (or even after) God will completely change who you are to make you able to do what he wants you to do. Now, color me crazy, but doesn't this seem contradictory? If God wanted me to do job X, wouldn't that skill set be included in my "talent toolbox" at birth? Sure, God CAN do anything He wants, but I do not believe he changes who people are in that way. Paul was a zealot before he was saved, then he was a zealot after. The method was different, but it was the same essence. Similarly Peter had a big mouth before he met Jesus (that got him into trouble), and then Peter had a big mouth that proclaimed the risen Christ. Even the very fact that they were fishermen, and Jesus made them "fishers of men" speaks to it being a sameness. Jesus doesn't come to the shores of Galilee and say, "Hey, you four! You're fishermen? Right, you're lawyers now. Come with me." What sense would that make? But this is a digression. Suffice it to say that many Christians are blissfully unaware they have faith in a fundamental contradiction.

At the end of the parable, the servant who was unfaithful and squandered his gift is cursed. Verse 30 says of this sort that they will be cast "into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." This is fancy Bible talk for damnation. So the man who said he was a Christian, who thought he was a Christian, didn't live like one. He didn't walk with the Spirit, even in so much as getting some use out of his gift. You basically wouldn't even know he had it. So God sent him to hell. This reading I'm sure makes many uncomfortable who believe that one can never "lose his salvation." And yet the passages precedent and elsewhere speak of those who will not go with Christ because they were not ready. Jesus warns in these passages about being watchful. Indeed, this story is directly preceded by the statement "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming." The Bible I think is clear that some will fall away, and no longer be counted with the faithful, if ever they truly were. You know those parts about the two men going up the hill, the one taken and the other left behind? The ones that many believe refer to the rapture of the church? Well, Jesus spoke these things to his disciples, not to large mixed crowds. The guys left behind are not necessarily the rotten nonbelievers; they are the unfaithful who cause Christ's name to be blasphemed among the Gentiles. Now, maybe the majority don't like thinking that the story implies would-be Christians are ultimately doomed. Maybe that's why they focus the story on all humanity and all ability rather than what the text says. ...Though I shudder to think how they explain that ending with the generally understood reading. I didn't use my singing voice to sing Christian songs and now I'm damned for eternity? See how scary and bizarre that reading is??

Ultimately, I hope I've illuminated for you an oft misunderstood text. If "talent" doesn't mean talent, then what does it mean? Things of the Spirit. Paul mentions some: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leadership, mercy. If you're truly a servant of Christ, then seek out the knowledge of what gifts the Spirit has given you. They aren't your basic abilities or the things that make you who you are, but they do work with those, use them and enhance them. God knows who you are and he knows what you can do. He's given you "talents" to empower you, knowing what parts about you make that gift just right for you, so you can serve your function in the body of Christ. To him who is faithful, much will be added! The things of God are far richer and deeper than you may have been led to believe. Find your spiritual function, and may the Master be pleased upon His return!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Great American Myth? Part 2: Superman

My apologies that this is so late in coming. I started a series on "The Great American Myth" months ago, and promised this entry. I began it in March, but haven't finished it until now. This series is a search for what might be the great "story" of American culture, and an exploration of several candidates. You may wish to read the first entry, which is more of an introduction, before this, though it is not necessary.

We may think of comic books and "graphic novels" as a mainstay of our entertainment world, but this was not always the case. While graphic storytelling has a history stretching back to prehistory (...if that makes sense), the familiar superhero comic book is a product of the 20th century and, I would argue, uniquely American. Though the form has taken off in Japan, pioneered by men like Tezuka Osamu, this art owed much of its genesis to American artwork (compare Astro Boy's design with Mickey Mouse, for example). And if it is indeed an American art form, the superhero comic book owes its existence to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and their creation of Superman.

The superhuman powers, the flashy villains, the colored tights that we associate with the genre date back to the 1930s and Superman. Other cultures have certainly had their heroic figures. Greek mythology features great men and demigods and their cosmic struggles. Yet the modern superhero is an American creation; a character with an elaborate backstory, a secret everyman identity, and the power to do the jobs our civil servants cannot. Superheroes never take the place of police or federal agents; they always work in tandem with them. Why? Because Superman did. Even the more subversive comic book characters generally only bend the rules that Superman established.

All right, you may be saying. Comic book heroes may be American, and Superman may have been instrumental in that origin, but what makes his story the great American myth? Is Kal-El of Krypton really any more relevant than Batman or Spider-Man? Stan Lee and the people at Marvel do deserve high praise for the work done in the genre. Spider-Man excelled at portraying a young hero protagonist in a real life city. And while Batman has steadily trounced Superman in popularity over the past twenty years, in essence he is a different type of character. Strictly speaking, Batman is not a superhero. Many argue this point, and will lump him in with other costumed heroes; but were it not for the Justice League of America Batman could be considered entirely separate from the superhero world. He is a superhero only by association. In reality, Batman is a costumed vigilante detective; this is especially evident in the early comics. While his brooding darkness and tragic backstory may resonate with readers and viewers, it is Superman's story that ultimately expresses American ideology.

Most Americans are familiar with Superman's origin from comics, books, films, TV or radio. Krypton was a dying alien world. It's destruction was foreseen by a scientist named Jor-El who, to protect his infant son Kal-El, sent him in a ship to the far away planet Earth. The boy's ship crashed in Smallville on Earth, where he was found by Jonathan and Martha Kent. The more familiar version has them adopt the boy and name him Clark. [The very first Superman origin comic depicted the Kents leaving Clark in an orphanage. That story soon changed, I think to give him more of a growing-up backstory, and to facilitate the Superboy comic series.] Clark grows up, moves to the big city of Metropolis and becomes a reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper, where he meets Lois Lane, the girl of his dreams. But Clark is no ordinary man. When trouble calls, his Kryptonian physiology and the radiation of Earth's yellow sun (along with gravity and half a dozen other conflicting factors) give him super-human powers; he puts on tights and a cape with a big red and yellow S on the front (all sown from the blankets found in the ship with him from Krypton) and becomes SUPERMAN! Though he hides this identity behind the guise of Clark Kent, and nobody knows they are one and the same, Superman fights for truth, justice and the American way!

When you look at it in its simplest terms, Superman is an immigrant who came to America for a better future. Isn't this the fable of Ellis Island that we've all come to know? He's just a boy who grows up to make something of himself. He not only becomes a great, productive American, he literally becomes superhuman and wins the adulation of the nation and the world. Is this not the American Dream restated? Do we not want to believe that anyone can be anything here? His origins further substantiate this myth by placing his childhood in Smallville. Not only is Clark Kent an immigrant, he is also the son of rustic country folk. He's a country boy who makes it big in the city. That notion of upward mobility cannot be overlooked.

But, you may say, Superman is an alien. This is true. It is Kal-El's uniqueness that empowers him to be the superhero for the nation. What once was Kryptonian became folded into the fabric of America, part of its crime-fighting and national propaganda. In this way, we might view Superman as emblematic of the "Great American Melting Pot" philosophy; the great parts of our foreign heritage is added to America without taking away from it. While he is Kryptonian, Superman still sees himself as American. He has a sense of loyalty to its people. He has familial love for the Kents. He stands for good American values. It is no coincidence that every episode of the old series stated he fought for "truth, justice and the American way." And what is the American way? What makes it better than any other way? The comic doesn't ask these questions because we aren't supposed to. The American way of life is perceived as a noble goal to do good; to right wrongs by strength if necessary, but never use that power for evil. It's a nice idea. Now, any student of recent American history knows that's also reasonably false. But the idea of that America is strong, and Superman is a poster boy for maintaining that illusion. It's curious that Superman seems to fight ONLY for America. Very rarely is he used on a global scale. Many comic authors have had fun in recent years positing scenarios wherein Kal-El doesn't land in America but in Soviet Russia (Red Son) or in England (True Brit). Such stories reinforce the notion that Superman isn't JUST a product of solar radiation and an alien genome; America is as responsible for making and maintaining the Superman as he is for maintaining her. And while I do not want to make to great a point of it, he does appear completely human, and as a white man. Life for this character would have been very different were he to be black. Maybe it's best that he share low origins, but be easily accepted into wealthy white society. The book's origins are in the 1930s, after all, and I don't wish to be racist about it. I simply point that out. In fact, some have argued that Superman represents something Jewish, noting that his creators were Jewish, and even his name Kal-El shares similarities with Hebrew words. Whatever that may mean, it is clear that Superman is an "other", one from outside the homogenous America who was able to join it.

I feel I would also be remiss if I didn't explore for a moment Clark Kent's job. Superman is not the only caped hero to be employed by a newspaper (Peter Parker is as well), but he was the first. But unlike Parker, who got the job at the Daily Bugle because of Spider-Man, Clark worked at the Daily Planet before becoming Superman, or at least before really bearing that mantle. They were separate notions. Now, we could delve into the holy apocrypha of the Superboy books, which feature Clark growing up and into his powers, which goes even further in the television adaptation known as Smallville. But even were we to believe Superman preceded Kent the reporter, they were never intentionally mingled. It is not Clark who does all the reportage on Superman, it is Lois. The Daily Planet was a way for Clark Kent to have a job; to be productive in society as a man, and not jut a thing. He has a boss; this being who could theoretically rule the planet submits himself to outside authority. Why? Because he just wants to be a man. And why a newspaper? Perhaps because part of what America prides herself in is freedom of the press. Clark Kent works for an American institution that is about the free exchange of ideas. How different we might feel as readers to see Superman disguised as Clark Kent, the banker!

Another fundamental aspect of what Superman is can be defined by his reality as Clark. They are the same, yet they are different. Clark Kent is a disguise, and yet more than a disguise. In some ways, it is a life that he has lived since he was a child. But he's also the man who can fly. So he lets the cape and the suit, the "big blue blur" as he's sometimes called, be the hero. He lets the world know about Superman. But the man who is Clark hides that identity behind a pair of glasses. In this way, there's a nobility represented about the good things done in secret. He's not only a hero because of what he does; he's a hero because he doesn't glory in it. Much has been made of the glasses disguise. How could Lois never know it's the same guy, but with spectacles on? The simple genius of the glasses, is that they are a barrier to the truth, but no so great a barrier that they hide all signs of it. They remind us that anyone we know, even those we least suspect, can be heroic in some way. Superman inspires us to be more than we think we are.

Quentin Tarantino puts some interesting observations about Superman and Kent in the mouth of Bill in his Kill Bill movie. I present that dialogue for you here. There's a teeny bit of profanity in this clip, if that bothers you, but nothing R-rated.
So Bill argues that Superman sees humanity as weak, and that Clark is a mirror of that. I agree with most of his observation, but not necessarily with his assessment. I think he puts on that costume because he wants to share that existence, and not solely as a necessary evil or a commentary on society. But yes, it may be a mirror for humanity, and that leads us to the final point about Superman; he is an alien Messiah.

There are many who read a Christological undercurrent into the story of Superman. Even the Superboy stories mirror those nonsensical Gnostic gospels where a young Jesus raises the dead. Bill is right, Superman does make himself like us. But maybe that's the point; he becomes like us to show us the way; he chooses to lay aside his "godly" attributes and walk among us. Yes, he does seemingly miraculous things, but doesn't seek great credit for it. In Jesus' early ministry he often expressly told people to keep their healings secret. This idea of a Superman who parallels Christ is perhaps most striking in Richard Donner's Superman film. In the movie, Jor-El has passages of seemingly biblical dialogue: "They can be a great people, Kal-El. They only lack the light to show the way. For that reason, I have sent them you, my only son." Other religious metaphors can be seen in that Kal-El is sent away in a ship, like Moses in the rushes. America, though never truly a "Christian nation", prides itself on many seemingly Christian ideals, and to equate our great hero with our great Savior seems to be an acceptable allegory to many. It plays into our notions of a country founded in religion. Yet in its own way, this red and blue Christ supplants the other in the popular mind. While not uniquely American, this devaluing of Christian faith is also not un-American. Many of our Founders were Deists, believing in a Creator who made things, but is no longer bothered in the day-to-day inner workings of them. Jefferson famously edited a Bible which presented the gospels stricken of supernatural elements. The "magical" Jesus was left to be Clark Kent; a man with something to say. There are indeed also those who read Superman as an anti-Christ, though this view is not as prevalent. In America today, as we endlessly debate such trivialities as whether to avow this nation "under God" or not, the thought arises that maybe it doesn't matter from what Krypton we sprang. Krypton has exploded. Superman, unlike Jesus, has no father and home to return to when he ascends into the sky. Those heavens have been destroyed, and there is only the here and now. America in her own way lives for a universe of freedom, even from our pasts. Superman lost his. We threw out Britain. We continue to lose those things which we were in efforts to be something else, to make ourselves better. To be stronger, faster, and without spending six million dollars. Superman is an expression of that ideal. America's blind faith in itself may in fact be its religion.

In Clark Kent, and his true super self, we have a figure who is so unlike us, and yet so obviously and acceptably one of us. And though his storyline became muddled again and again over the course of sixty years, and though his list of powers is seemingly unending, making him almost too powerful, he still gets up in the morning, puts on his suit and goes to work each day as an example to all of us. Superman is a living expression of the American dream, who speaks only truth, who fights for justice, and who models for us the American way of life daily, challenging us to look behind the glasses for the superman in all of us.

to be continued in "The Great American Myth?" part 3:
Star Wars

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Losing Our Language

During this time of year, I volunteer my time at the local Catholic high school where I prepare the used textbook sale for the coming year. I take in students' books, go through them to be sure they are still sellable and sort them all for the day of the sale. This process has allowed me to peek into the minds and writings of this generation of youth. Most scribble some sort of notes in their books. There are those who write their own names over and over, those who love so-and-so, those who write notes in Korean that I can barely read (there's a sizable Korean exchange population), and the obscene notes.

But there are also real academic notes taken, most often in English texts. Usually this is to put confusing Shakespeare talk into plain modern English. Reading these notes has left me disturbed at the state of literacy in this country. Never mind how much they can't read, which cannot be gauged this way, but the way they write, and even worse the way they spell, is atrocious for students who are high school seniors. Has the system failed them, have they failed at it, or is it both? To illustrate, I will now list a number of misspelled words that I found in textbook notes. I assure you, these are all real. I wish they weren't. Can you guess what they meant?


Among these, the most painful I think is "flosify"; would you have guessed she meant "philosophy"? Or fallacy ("faillecy")? While I had resigned myself long ago to the fact that young people use "like" every other word as an expletive, I never thought I would see it spelt l-y-k.

In looking at this, I began to think that perhaps the way we've been teaching English literature has been all wrong. Generally, it is taught chronologically, beginning with Shakespeare or earlier Middle English, through the King James Bible and stodgy American writings of the 18th Century. Even the language of 60 years ago is vastly different to the young today. I propose that language is difficult for this generation to wrap its head around, and they need consistency. Can we expect them to use standardized spelling when they are reading works which feature non-standard spelling and usage? For my part, I think maybe these readings should be taught in REVERSE order. In that way, students could be eased into the more variant language, and hopefully have a stronger foundation. Can we really expect the attention deficient youth who don't use full sentences or words in general to read Chaucer and not be confused? I'm not sure if there is a solution, but I wonder if that might help make a difference.

The title of this post I took from a fascinating book of the same name which analyzes how the reading selections given children in grade school are far more simplistic than they were years ago. If you have any interest in the subject, I highly recommend seeking it out.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Play that Funky Music, White Girl

Last night's Glee mostly focused on funk music, and cleverly as a way to get people "out of a funk." This is not a review of the episode, but an observation of one element.

Early in the episode, Mr. Shuster gives the club the assignment to look for a funk number for regionals. Mercedes, the black girl on the team, says "I got this," but then Quinn, the blonde, white, former cheerleader says that she wants to try a funk solo. Mercedes laughs at this suggestion, thinking it a joke. She furthers it by essentially expressing that white people can't do funk; it's a ridiculous idea. Those are not the exact words, but absolutely the exact sentiment. Then, in what I consider a brave call-it-like-it-is move on the part of the show, Quinn calls Mercedes' comments racist. I was SO glad to hear that, because it's true! That point wasn't dwelt on in the episode, it was said and they moved on. But I think just to SAY that these days is fabulous. Doesn't Mercedes know that's racist? Doesn't she know that Wild Cherry said to "play that funky music, white boy?"

Unfortunately for me, this very good point was undercut later in the episode. Quinn performs her funk number, and everyone is into it; we get a sort of stunned reaction shot from Mercedes. Later, Mercedes, Puck and Finn (both of whom are white, by the way) perform their own funk number... and it's Marky Mark. Mr Shuster correctly points out that it wasn't really funk, even if it's by the Funky Bunch; it was rap. Once again, Mercedes is a little embarrassed. So she goes to talk with Quinn. Here's where it gets interesting. Before she even sits down, Quinn profusely apologizes to Mercedes, saying that she didn't realize how hard she had it. It's never said why, but you know she means because she's black. Basically, she equates being teenage and pregnant with being black, and instead of making about how they are the same, it's all about "How do you stand it every day, Mercedes?" And I'm thinking to myself... where did this come from? Why is Quinn saying these things when it's Mercedes who made the racist comments? In the end, Mercedes recognizes that Quinn got into the spirit of funk, and makes her an honarary sistah. I'm not making that up. She says "we sisters gotta stick together" or something like that (and this in context means black women, and not women in general), and then they fist bump, which Quinn isn't good at (because she's white). What I took from this scene is that Mercedes still views funk as "a black thing", and rather than recognize the equality of everyone, she ushers Quinn under the black umbrella. White girl got soul, but I guess it's despite the fact she's white.

While I was glad they reconciled, and Mercedes sort of softened, I thought the scene undercut the very relevant message about black racism. For a series that last week called out good kids for using the word "faggot", I find this episode a little hypocritical in that regard. Still, I was glad to hear it said on TV, which is all too infrequent. There was a Boston Public episode about it, and my favorite episode of Star Trek: Enterprise was all about it, "North Star". Am I reading this wrong? Take a look for yourself. The first scene is at the 10-minute mark, and the racism issue comes up around minute 11. The second scene is at 29:47.