Archive for July, 2008


July 30, 2008 Leave a comment

As promised, today I bring you post wherein I prove that not only do I not like Superman but also that he is the lamest superhero ever created…until somebody comes out with “The Adventures of Captain Douchebag.”

Problem number 1 with Superman is that he’s deathless. This sucks all of the fun tension from any one of the Superman stories. Even when they killed him they couldn’t kill him. In the original television series we could watch a guy who was bullet proof beat up a bunch of guys for whom the latest technology was the Thompson Submachine gun (The old “Chicago Piano”), and I am supposed to be worried that he won’t survive? Before you object: yes I get it, he’s got powers making him superhuman. However, we have many superheroes with powers that can still give us a thrill because they do have a weakness, which brings me to

Problem 2: The deus ex machina also known as Kryptonite. Whenever the writers need to put some thrill into one of the Superman stories they bring out kryptonite. The rock exists as a remnant from his home planet and the radiation that it emits nullifies his powers causing him pain. It’s unclear to me if it will kill him, but that is why it’s a lame weakness. In the first movie Gene Hackman places a chain of Kryptonite around Superman’s neck and throws him in a pool where he almost drowns. Why not throw the chain around him and shoot him in the head? The slow agonizing death allows us to get the tired plot device where we regular folk can help out the godlike character.

Problem number three for him is that he is essentially incorruptable which I guess means that he is going to have to quit his job in the press. He can’t go over to the dark side and use his powers for selfish reasons. When I was 13, hell, even now that X-Ray vision would come i handy. There is no physical tension resulting from his invulnerability, and there is no psychological tension because he is too good thus alienating.

You can’t kill him, and you can always count on him to do the right thing. Which gives us our fourth problem, moral absolutism. He fights for truth, justice, and the American way. We can always rely on him for that, but what exactly are these concepts? Wikipedia says that he learned his values from his Midwestern Upbringing in the creatively named “Smallville.” What are those values? Going by the last elections I would have to say xenophobia and homophobia. I suppose from the exit polls in the primary season I could also add racism. Justice is great, but maybe Superman should whirl the earth around again and explain it to Plato, so I don’t have to read him.

In addition to that he is also pretty apathetic to his victims. If the guy can punch through a train locomotive then what happens to the criminal he just right crossed? The guy’s head should have spun off. In the early comics he beats up a wife abuser, which is fitting punishment except that the beating he tosses the guy would have killed him.

Awhile ago Spiderman fought Superman and after awhile they figured that Lex Luthor and the Green Goblin (I think) set them up. A lot of people were wondering why it was that Superman didn’t wipe the floor since he can fly and is un-killable. The thing about Spiderman is that he is smart, maybe not as smart as Batman, but definitely smarter than Superman. Superman is like Brett Favre: strong, good looking, literate; but I somehow doubt that he’s doing the Sudoku puzzle in the paper. If you give Superman a problem that isn’t physical he won’t be able to stop it. The complicated webs of Lex Luthor and Braniac generally center around a sort of fight in which we have no doubt of the victor. However that merely exposes the problems of the villains which is their vanity. Take a villain like Professor Moriarty and Superman would be powerless to stop him even though he is an aging Science professor.

Batman actually has to solve crimes, Sherlock Holmes actually has to pay attention to little details, all Superman has to do is punch a guy through a building.

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July 29, 2008 Leave a comment

I was discussing Batman with my friend Alice and she commented on a couple of drawbacks to the movie. The first is that it dragged in parts, which I agreed, and that it could have ended a bit earlier. Another one of her complaints was that she felt it was too “pro-America fuck yeah” in her words. What she meant was that the movie’s theme of fighting crime no matter what the cost, the wiretapping device, and the celebration of Batman as the only one who will step up to answer the call was a bit too right wing for her (I should note that she was a republican).

Rolling my eyes, I didn’t see it at all. I guess if you wanted to write an article on the subject it would probably hold up. People at least wouldn’t call you crazy because a rational person should be able to look at that claim and say something like, “ok I see why you think that.” This of course precludes the possibility that the rational person is not a comic book fan.

Take a character I despise, Superman (my reasons for disliking superman will be revealed in a future post) who flies around town beating up criminals. The crux of the Super hero comic is that the hero in question does not need a jury trial, a fair and equitable defense, or a warrant. Superman does all of his actions with complete disregard for the law. He may turn the suspect in question over to the police afterwards, but that’s after he has already punched them through a concrete wall. The same wall that he used his X-Ray vision to see through without consulting a judge to show probable cause.

To wire tap a cell phone the police must show several things: due cause proof that the person involved is a suspect in an investigation and that the police feel the suspect is guilty. Exhaustion, meaning that all other conventional forms of detection have failed to provide enough evidence to make a charge. Likelihood of success, the police can’t get a wire tap because it is possible that the suspect might say something they have to prove that it is more than just probable. Once the tap is placed they can only listen to phone calls for a brief period (in seconds) before they have to hang up if the call is deemed “non-pertinent.”

Superman, Batman, et al. do not have to worry about this. If superman wants to look inside Lex Luthor’s apartment he just does it. If Lex, concerned about his privacy, coats the inside of the walls, floor, and ceiling with lead then his new problem is Superman just busting in. The Crime fighter heroes, effectively force the criminal justice system to either stand by idly or acquit all of the villains because of civil rights violations. Of course that is if they leave the criminals alive.

If you think that Batman is a metaphor for justifying the right wing view of things, then you are making the same mistake that people did last year with the movie “300:” you are putting the cart before the horse. Batman has always been that way, ever since Bob Kane created him. The superhero comic has always been like this (except when fighting Nazis).

PS: I refrained from commenting on this last year with 300 for two reasons: it was based on historical fact, it’s not the movie’s nor Frank Miller’s fault that Iran is in Persia. The second was that they were fighting for freedom and reason against superstitions wherein some Supreme God dictated the rules which is completely counter to the conservative right wing. Read more…

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The dark night

July 28, 2008 Leave a comment

The philosopher Nietzsche, probably in the early stages of syphillitic mental break down, penned a book called Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude To A Philosophy of the Future. In it he rejected the morals of contemporary society and those that followed them he referred to as slaves. He recommended that man rise above conventional morality and place value in the things that they found intrinsically valuable not what others have deemed as possessing value. Nietzsche claimed that those who could do this would be Ubermenschen (inaccurately translated as “Overmen” or even worse “Supermen”). Whenever I teach Nietzsche I have students ask me whether Nietzsche had an example of this type of person, to which I must reply that not in his time but in the past he thought Goethe, Jesus, and Julius Caesar all fit the bill. Fictionally, I point out that Tyler Durden from the book/movie Fight Club also works as he is not only rejecting consumerist society but more importantly offering a substitute for it.

That’s really it, Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky? Maybe, but merely having the attitude that you are beyond morality isn’t enough. There needs to be value in your actions, in Nietzsche’s phrasing you need to be creating art. Well it’s too bad because I now have a perfect example of an Ubermensch in Christopher Nolan’s Joker. Nolan stripped the villain of anything close to the campy portrayal in any media previously. What we are left with is one of the most terrifying villains in film history.

Why? Because the Joker has no motive. Halfway through the movie I began to understand that this criminal wasn’t breaking the rules because his persona had already declared those rules null. In a brilliant scene with Lt. Gordon he tells us that he doesn’t have a plan, and if he did he wouldn’t know what to do with it. While that may appear to be a lie, as his scheme do require a bit of planning themselves, it isn’t. What the Joker means is that he doesn’t have a plan for the end game. You can’t protect the banks from him, or people from him, because he doesn’t care about any of that. The Joker wants to create art out of life, even if that means having to blow up a hospital. Essentially, Joker is the Dionysian force that Nietzsche values so highly.

The problem is that there are legions of people that admire Nietzsche’s philosophy, especially this Ubermenschen ideal, who may be asking themselves if I am recommending the Joker as an Ideal. I’m not, because he isn’t offering a value system. Watching the movie, it’s impossible to figure out what it is that the Joker puts value into. At one point in the movie he chides Gotham’s Criminal bosses telling them that, “the criminals in this town used to believe in something.” They merely believe in survival, the most base existence of all creatures. Hiding from a different expression of will known as Batman.

Since the Joker does not apparently have any value other than playing some sort of game with the entire population of Gotham, it is hard to say whether he is the Ubermensch. The case could be made that he is doing it to do it and thus is freed of any moral obligation. Is he immoral? By conventional standards yes, but he doesn’t care for such judgments by an inadequate culture. What I love about the students of mine who worship the philosophy of Nietzsche is that they really just don’t get it. They claim to; they are anarchists, socialists, the kind of people that hate the establishment because it’s the establishment never once realizing that they are the slave moralists that he despises. The Joker hates the establishment but it is because he wants to change the docile society that supports it. Perhaps this is the result of an unhinged Ubermensch.

To judge him otherwise I would have to go to Aristotle who claimed that the vicious man is the one for whom all rationality is left, this person would never do the right thing on purpose and in fact is incapable of doing it. Incapable because this personality type couldn’t recognize it. The Joker is quite vicious, and although I believe that he knows he is breaking the law, he doesn’t understand why that is so important.

As for the rest of the movie: I highly recommend it.

Last Day

July 23, 2008 Leave a comment

Today is sad for me, as it marks the final day of my life as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy. I’ve remarked many times in these writings about the ups and downs of this job. Everything from complaining about students, administration, to the various topics I’ve had to teach (fucking Spinoza). Despite those days when I was complaining I have loved doing it. It’s nice to be able to get paid to do something you would do for free. It was also nice being employed in a profession that I believed in; unlike every job I have had before where I just worked hard enough to not get fired.

I’ve had a lot of professions in my long years but never one where I was happy to be there. I suppose that I am bitter about having to quit because at ECC it will seem as though I was never there. I could get all Sartre-esque here and bemoan that in the long run it will definitely be true. More immediately though I would like my absence felt. I guess that is selfish of me. I suppose to bring a point to this post I should run down a couple of my most poignant memories of teaching.

Trocaire: Having a course observation in an overcrowded uncomfortable classroom (it was a computer lab with no desks) on the same day I tried to tackle the philosophy of Spinoza for the first time. Needless to say that Dutch asshole’s pantheistic approach to reality didn’t get me a favorable review.

ECC: A student once told me that she wished she had more professor’s like me and that she wished she knew more people like me. It was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. It was said after the last day of class my second semester teaching.

ECC: I smiled grimly one friday in my philosophy of Religion class (actually, that whole class Spring 07 was the best class I’ve had) when I discoverred that a majority of the students had decided to play “stump the professor” on fridays. The questions they were asking were on topic but there were so many that I knew something was going on. They couldn’t do it by the way.

Trocaire: They installed these really cool smart boards in all of the classrooms, you write on the podium and it shows up on the projector. I subsequently spent an entire summer changing my lectures into powerpoint format. The powerpoints had visual jokes in them that I thought would be funny. What I then learned as that the students at Trocaire don’t watch any movies or television shows. For example I put some of the philosophically named characters from Lost in the slides instead of the actual philosopher. They didn’t blink. I suppose I could have let them believe I have a color picture of David Hume even though he died before the camera was invented.

ECC: Getting the key to the faculty bathroom on the fourth floor. One student asked me if I had one so she could use it (the other bathrooms had been locked as it was 9pm which I guess made sense), but I told her no. This was the tenth week of class and her second time showing up.

I was at the bar a week ago and one of my ECC students was there with a group of friends. He said he was looking forward to taking my classes in the fall (he had signed up for both–which has been a common occurrance). I broke the news that I wasn’t teaching them anymore and he told me that if that were the case than he wasn’t taking them anymore. I should have bought him a beer.

If the mood strikes me I may write some more of these stories. I have no doubt that I will be teaching again, although next time the students will either be calling me “Professor” or “Doctor,” whichever strikes my fancy.

Wanting to Believe

July 23, 2008 Leave a comment

Friday the X-Files movie opens and my question is whether or not we need this movie. I plan on seeing it as I was a big fan of the show when it was on air (up until the first movie I might add), but the X-Files concept was a concept more fitted to the nineties than it is now.

The nineties were an interesting time. Politically the world was shifting the iron curtain had fallen and the great experiment of Communism had failed. Eastern Europe changed it’s borders many many times through genocide and counter-genocide. Domestically Al Gore’s internet allowed people to find people just like them and share ideas.

Content on the internet is mostly porn, and self-important assholes who think someone wants to read their opinions. In the nineties what the internet allowed was a sub-culture of individuals, who normally wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other share “information.” These people were the conspiracy theorists.

Imagine that you believe you have a secret that government doesn’t want you to share. Obviously you can’t just get it published because the Brandenburgers won’t allow it, printing a ‘zine won’t work because the Tri-Lateral Commission will just have you killed. Now you have a computer in your house hooked up to a phone line where you can spread your “truth” without incurring the wrath of the Freemason Hashshashins. This was when the conspiracy movement exploded. Granted people have had alternate theories of history in this country since William Randolph Hearst blew up the Maine starting the Spanish-American War.

Those people were largely regarded as eccentrics, weirdos, and just crazies. Now with the “information superhighway” everyone could read about how flouride in the water was a mind control weapon by either the CIA or the KGB. We could read hundreds and hundreds of dissections of President Bush’s famous “new world order” speech and why people in Michigan decided to form their own militia to fight the UN invasion.

As a show the X-Files exploited these ideas. The conspiracy movement was new to most people. Alien cover ups, shadow governments, secret wars, all of this was fresh. Now it’s not. Most internet readers don’t have the attention span to read through a really good conspiracy theory because there haven’t been any since the turn of the millennium*.

For my part, I was into the theories. I bought them with vigor, because like the poster on Mulder’s wall, I wanted to believe. The important word is “wanted.” I didn’t believe and I was trying to convince myself. I thought FEMA was this super-powerful organization that could take away our rights if the opportunity arose, what did it turn out to be? An organization so poorly run it couldn’t even requisition buses.

In a sense I became a philosopher: basing theories on reason. Reason dictates that most of these theories are based on outright lies or mistakes. Could one bullet have done all that damage? Yes, if you place the seating arrangement of everyone in Kennedy’s Limo in the RIGHT spot; something Oliver Stone failed to do in JFK. Did the Gestapo intercept a message between Churchill and Roosevelt warning the latter about Pearl Harbor? Use your head and search engine, the Gestapo was internal security they wouldn’t be monitoring foreign transmissions.

It’s still fun to look back on those days, which is why I am going to see the movie. This is nostalgia for the way that I was and not some childhood toy or movie series. They were fun days where I could feel smug about knowing the “truth” while everyone else prattled on about the “lies.” Which in the end, is the only real benefit of believing in conspiracy theories.

*I said “good conspiracy theory” not shitty “loose change” theory. It’s so full of holes that I won’t even capitalize it (it’s called a grammar insult).

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July 22, 2008 Leave a comment

Today marks the 83rd anniversary of John Scope’s loss in Dayton regarding his teaching of Evolution, instead of the biblical account of creation. If you want a rehash of the typical debate go to Fark and clink on the forum link. For my part, I would rather discuss whether or not the man was actually guilty. By guilty, I don’t mean to ask whether he did anything wrong but whether or not he actually <i>broke the law</i>.

This isn’t as easy an issue as it may seem. There are many facts that get ignored because of the outrageousness of the case in general. Did Scopes break the law? While let us first look at the law. The law was the Butler Bill introduced in 1925 by State Representative John Washington Butler it prohibited, <u>”any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”</u>

Again, this could easily degenerate into an argument over the validity of this law win the face of the first Amendment, but let’s ignore that for now and take on the issue at hand. What we need is a theory that “denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the bible…” The operative phrase here is “<i>as taught in the bible</i>” because there are some Evolutionary scientists that still believe in God and are religious. They would view evolution as the tool of the divine. Even those people would be in violation of the Butler bill.

This law is pretty specific, in fact it is so specific that if any person were teaching anything else than the Usherrist view (that the Earth was created on October 23rd, 4004 b.c.) they would be in violation of the law. So our bar is pretty set for a definition of breaking of the Butler Bill. Now we just have to see whether or suspect did it.

(Yes I’m going to try and outdo the famous Clarence Darrow)

Going right to the horse’s mouth, John Scopes was a football coach and science teacher, however he admitted that he only taught biology as a substitute and he couldn’t even be sure that he covered that subject. What this means is that Scopes very well could never have taught the subject because he was only a sub, he might have taught cell walls and plants on the days he was in. Nevertheless he volunteered.

Volunteered? you ask. Yes, the town leaders of Dayton, Tennessee answered an ad placed in the local newspapers by the ACLU looking for someone willing to challenge the law. Those town leaders knew what publicity the trial would bring to the town and thought that it would jump start the local economy. He could not recollect whether or not he taught it. No witnesses, no cross examination, nothing. I think we could find some reasonable doubt and get Scopes off, or at least a mistrial.

That however wasn’t Darrow’s point. When Judge Raulston refused to declare the law unconstitutional on the first day of the trial, Darrow needed a guilty verdict so they could appeal to a higher court. In 1927 the Tennessee Supreme Court strikes down the law as being unconstitutional despite Judge Raulston’s claim that the Butler Bill “gives no preference to any particular religion or mode of worship.” The Supreme Court also overturned Scopes’ conviction on technical grounds stating that the jury should have set the fine (100$) and not the judge. So he ends up being innocent anyway.

Amazing that we needed to have that trial along with all of the others in order to teach science in the science classes.

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army

July 21, 2008 1 comment

Part of the charm of the original Hellboy was in the complete absurdity of it. We were Meyers, viewing a world where those things that go bump in the night actually exist. By the end of the movie, not only were we sold on the idea but had accepted its intrinsic value. That sense of wonder was what made it so enjoyable.

Commercially, the movie failed in theaters. It was successful in both DVD sales and on whichever cable movie channel had it first. This led to a sequel. The sequel had a problem to begin with. The advantage of surprise was lost, viewers knew exactly what they were getting into and had a fair idea of what to expect. There should be big monsters, some reference to vague/obscure folklore, and the wisecracking gruff Hellboy beating up monsters as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

There’s a scene in the beginning of the movie where Jeffrey Tambor is walking down the hall with Abraham discussing the problems that they are having with Hellboy. As they walk past various rooms there are large monsters in the background fighting the various personnel of the Paranormal Research and Defense Agency (PRDA) and neither of them give the action much notice. This is a metaphor for the entire movie: we believe it so we don’t have much trouble accepting the various oddities that are going on. This is the same problem (among many others) that Men in Black 2 suffered: the aliens became normal so the movie had to artificially inject the wonder by reversing the roles of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith.

Hellboy 2 understands this is going to be a problem so they took the movie into a different direction. Instead of rehashing the plot of the first movie involving those eldritch gods of Lovecraft they decided to go into a more fairy tale type story involving the unstoppable Golden Army composed of “70 times 70 soldiers.”

The Golden Army, we are told in a magnificently done puppet show-esque sequence, was created by the Elves to defeat the humans in ages long past. It was controlled by the Elfin king through a golden crown that was divided into three pieces at the time of the truce between the elves and humans. What the plot of the movie would be becomes fairly obvious: Hellboy and company first need to figure out what is going on, then make an attempt to stop the golden crown from being reassembled or at least assemble it themselves so the unstoppable golden army cannot be used to make war on humanity.

That is plot 1. Plot 2 involves the strained love relations between Hellboy and Selma Blaire along with the love life of Abe and the Princess of the Elves who is trying to stop her brother from re-assembling the crown. The story also involves the strained relations between the PRDA and their Washington overseers, along with a “why don’t we fit in” theme about not hating people because they have horn stubs on their head and look different from us (even though he was bred to bring those gods into the world).

Fans of the first movie won’t love it—but they won’t hate it either. It’s too weighed down by the numerous conflicts. While some segments really work other segments don’t. Then there are those scenes that seem unnecessary: showing the Prince practice with his spear was nice to watch but why do it when you are going to show him in combat later?

I have a feeling there was more to this movie. Guillermo Del Toro’s movies tend to be of a darker variety, and while this movie revolves around a fairy tale it still seemed too light. We get a tasted of the darkness in the encounter with the eye-winged angel and to me it seemed that there should have been more of that in the movie. Maybe the director’s cut will shed some darkness on the picture.

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