The Best Canned Chili

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In the wintertime, I eat a lot of chili.  I put it on pasta.  I spoon it over baked potatoes.  I eat it out of a bowl, speckled with Fritos and cheddar cheese.  I buy all-meat chili, which is what chili is supposed to be, a thick spicy beef stew.  The idea for this project formed as I was staring at cans of chili among the huge selection at the grocery store.  Unable to make a fully informed choice, I just bought all of them.  From there, I went to three different grocery stores and bought every brand of canned no-beans chili I could find.  The final tally was ten different varieties of canned chili.  I ate a can of chili for lunch for ten straight days with my journal right there on the table so I could keep tasting notes.  The following ranks these chilis in reverse order starting with the worst and ending with the best.

10. The worst:  Hardy Jacks (Wal-Mart, $1/can)

Bland and slimy.  I almost think that’s all you need to know.  This one was far-and-away the worst of the group.  Orange in color, bland in flavor, with a slimy consistency.  This one passes for chili only by the most liberal definition of the term.

9. Pace Chili, No Bean ($2.40/can)

P13609kk51The first thing I though about when I took a bite was Chef Boyardee canned pasta.  The sauce in this was more like pasta sauce than chili, exceedingly bland with only the faintest glimmer of chili flavor.  It had almost no heat.  It had meat crumbles (as opposed to chunks) and was orange in color.  Let’s call this kid’s chili.  Adults, if you want chili, I doubt this will satisfy.  It just lacks the soul of chili.

8. Campbell’s Chunky Chili, Hold the Beans ($2.40/can)

P136093222I expected better from Campbell’s.  On first inspection, it was a good-looking can of chili and came out of the can with visible onions and peppers and tomatoes.  It was bright-orange in color with low to medium heat and the meat was, you guessed it, soft and spongy chunks.  The flavor, though, was one-dimensional, mostly cumin I think, and I burped up that one-dimensional flavor the rest of the day.  Not pleasant.

7. Hormel Chunky Chili, No beans ($2.30/can)

Out of the can, it had visible onions and was orange in color.  The meat chunks were chewy and at the base was a flavor of tomatoey sweetness, which doesn’t work with chili and made the can stand out from the rest.  Little heat, and comparable to the Pace chili for its bland lack of chili soul.  Will not satisfy your chili needs.

6. Kroger Chili, No Beans ($1.30/can)

P1360926This one had huge chunks of spongy meat and a good medium heat, orange/brown in color.  What doomed this one was its finish.  It was good and spicy and flavorful on the front end, but the finish was burnt and bitter.

 

5. Armor Chili, No beans ($2.40/can)

P1360944The first thing one notices about this chili is that it came out of the can in one piece, like cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.  A good middle of the pack choice.  You could do worse.  Meat was crumbles instead of chunks.  Medium/low heat with a solid chili flavor.  The one thing I noted about this brand was that because of its consistency and meat crumbles, it would do very well as a chili for chilidogs.

4. Hormel Chili, No Beans ($2.30/can)

P1360945Mild with good meat chunks.  Orange in color with a good thick consistency.  The flavor was enjoyable with a nice cumin/chili powder balance with just the right hint of onions, but after eating it the one word I came back to was mild.  It has almost no heat, and chili should have heat.  Definitely a kid’s chili.

3. Hormel Cook-Off Series, Texas Brand ($2.30/can)

It has Hormel’s good spice balance with more heat than the regular Hormel.   The consistency of the meat is just what you want, not spongy, not chewy, but just right.  Orange in color with just the faintest burnt/bitter flavor on the back end that reminded me of the Kroger brand.

 

2. Castleberry’s (Castleberry’s Austex, Bryan) No Beans ($2.40/can)

P1360948P1360938These are the same chili just sold under different labels, but they come from the same canner with the same ingredients.  It has visible tomatoes, onions, and peppers, with good meat chunks of the right consistency.  It reminded me of chili I might make at home.  Good balanced flavor, good Earthy color, and satisfying.  I enjoyed this one very much.  It wasn’t too heavy because the vegetables balanced the weight of the meat and thick stew.  Deciding between this one and the overall winner was difficult.  I recommend this one.

1. WINNER: Wolf Brand Chili, No Beans ($2.10/can)

P1360931This is chili!  Heavy, thick, meaty, will-carry-you-through-the-day chili.  Rich was the word that came to mind.  Imagine the richest chocolate cake you ever had in chili form.  Excellent flavor, good solid medium heat, brownish in color, if you have a chili craving, this will kill it.  It is an interesting contrast between this one and the #2, the Castleberry offering.  The Castleberry was lighter, and therefore the chili that one could eat any time.  The Wolf is heavy, and if you’re not in the mood for a rich and heavy meal, well, you’ve been warned.  If you want a canned chili that is closest to what genuine chili is supposed to be, a rich heavy spicy beefy stew, this is the clear choice.

Book Review: A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian

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Faith

indexFor Peter Boghossian, “faith is pretending to know things you don’t know.” Boghossian, in his Manual for Creating Atheists, defines faith as an epistemology, a means by which one can come to know, a theory of knowing. Boghossian then evaluates the effectiveness of faith as a means to come to know. He does this because believers routinely make knowledge claims based on their faith. He finds that faith-based claims cannot be supported with evidence, which mean faith fails as an epistemology, as a means to know the world. He goes on to argue for an evidence-based epistemology as the only choice if one is concerned about finding truth.

To show that faith is a failure, Boghossian cites some common phrases that employ the word faith and juxtaposes them with phrases revised to substitute his definition.

• “It is important to me that we raise our kids up in the faith.”
• “It is important to me that we raise our kids to pretend to know things they don’t know.”
• “Faith gives me comfort.”
• “Pretending to know things I don’t know gives me comfort.”

For Boghossian, faith is a slippery word. It doesn’t refer to anything, yet people pretend it is real. People make claims based on faith. They act based on faith. They plan and live their lives on faith. Further, this is seen by many people as a positive, a virtue. Yet, the limits to faith are clear. Evidence renders faith unnecessary. When one has enough evidence to support a belief, that belief is no longer based no faith. Yet, this pretending to know things you don’t know is somehow still held by our culture as some kind of virtue, as if pretending to know things you don’t know is somehow good.

Faith is Boghossian’s target. He recommends that the outcomes of faith, church and god and religion, be avoided, and instead focus completely on the foundation of faith that people use to support their beliefs. If you can compromise the foundation, the entire structure is likely to come falling down.  Faith has to be questioned wherever it arises. Questions should be centered on  a claim based on faith.

Boghossian argues that we have to stop revering the word, but to start calling it for what it is. Pretending. He wants to send those who make claims based on faith (no evidence) from the adult table to the kiddie table. They can return only when they can bring evidence to the discourse.

For an example of this, think about all of the Christian railing against gay marriage that we’ve endured now for years.  Unable to come up with any real reasons why gay marriage is bad for our society, real evidence to support that position, the Christians trot out a verse from Leviticus as evidence that god just don’t truck with gay people.  That is a faith claim, based on zero evidence, and should therefore be dismissed.  Those who make claims based on faith (claims without evidence) should be sent to the kiddie table until they can talk about reality with the adults.

Street Epistemology

Having shown the failure of faith as a means to know, Boghossian’s wants to create an army of “street epistemologists” to go about demolishing faith, one person at a time, wherever the opportunity arises. His reproduces conversations from restaurants, from his office, from grocery store check-out lines.

He provides tools for doing this, mostly centered on a Socratic pedagogical style. Boghossian asks questions and tries to keep his interlocutor talking. He wants to avoid any sort of confrontational style that might put him or her on the defensive. One question leads to another question. Ultimately, the goal is to expose a claim as true or false, making the person who asserted the claim do all the work. This works, but it takes practice, and Boghossian provides examples of both his successes and his failures.

One begins with a faith claim. I hear lots of faith claims when I’m in public, like the one at the convenience store where the clerk always tells me to “have a blessed day.” The claim is in asserting that there is a God with the power to bless me (as opposed to curse me?). A good, non-threatening question should follow, something to strike up a conversation. I might say something like, “It is a nice thing to say, but I’ve always been little unclear about what it means. I’d like to understand it better. When you say blessed, what does that mean to you?”

Getting Active

Ultimately, Boghossian wants to see a world in which people use reason and evidence to make claims, a world in which decisions are made based on evidence, and to see faith relegated to an irrelevant sideshow. He writes:

It’s important we believe things that are true. It’s important there’s some lawful correspondence between what we believe and the actual state of affairs. Only when our beliefs accurately correspond to reality are we able to mold external conditions that enable us to flourish. If we lose respect for truth, we’ll no longer seek it.

For Boghossian, faith is a destructive virus that must be contained, and in the final chapter he outlines rhetorical strategies for dealing with faith. He calls for people to get vocal, to speak up for reason, to attack the structures of society that support faith-based claims and propagate faith-based epistemologies.

Pedagogical Attitude

For me, Boghossian’s reliance on a distinctly pedagogical attitude stood out. He wants to teach people how to think better, how to base their ideas on evidence. His prose has a confident swagger, which helps to convey the boldness of street epistemology, of always being on the lookout for an interlocutor, a chance to ask some questions. It is especially useful if one wants to learn some rhetorical strategies based on a Socratic style of questioning. I admire a good Socratic dialogue, yet I am not good at leading one, so learning about Boghossian’s successes and failures was instructive about the best ways to practice asking questions instead of making assertions in a conversation.  If one tells a believer that his or her beliefs are stupid, one runs the risk of turning them off.  Yet, if one asks questions as someone who wants to understand, if one gets them talking, one’s chances of success are improved.

Highly Recommended

It has been a while since I read a book about atheism that took its place on my atheist bookshelf, meaning books that I think all freethinkers should know.  This is one of them because it provides practical strategies for killing faith and standing up for reason and reality.

On Richard Dawkins and Atheism+

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Back in 2011, Rebecca Watson published a video in which she talked about a lot of things, and in a couple of sentences buried in the middle of the video, she told the story about the guy who asked her for coffee late at night in an elevator, admonishing “Guys, don’t do that,” and then she moved on to another topic.

Looking back, I can no longer understand why that little story should have caught so much attention, much less struck the collective nerve it did.  But it helped that Richard Dawkins commented about it.   Without that comment, elevatorgate, as it came to be called, would not have happened.  When Dawkins weighed in, that prompted Watson to issue a blog post in which she pledged to boycott Richard Dawkins, the rich old white man.  At that point, among the feminist community, Dawkins became public enemy #1.

In Why Atheists are Finally Turning on Richard Dawkins, Kimberly Winston talks to atheists Greta Christina, Adam Lee, Amy Roth, Ophelia Benson, all of whom agree that Richard Dawkins has become a liability to the atheist movement.  Notable here is that all four of these experts are card-carrying members of what used to be called atheism+ (I’m not sure if it still called that, but it will work for my purposes here), which was not mentioned in the article.  Instead, all four are presented as somehow speaking for the larger atheist community, when in fact they are speaking for the atheism+ community, which is a small and particularly surly slice of the atheist pie.

All four have a strikingly similar message:  Richard Dawkins has become a liability.  He may have done some good things in the past, but now, according to Phil Zuckerman, quoted in the article, “. . . Dawkins seems to embody everything that people dislike about atheists: He is smug, condescending and emits an unpleasant disdainfulness. He doesn’t ever seem to acknowledge the good aspects of religion, only the bad. In that sense, I think he doesn’t help atheism in the PR department.”

Rhetorically, the message being broadcast seems clear:  Richard Dawkins is old.  That means he’s out of touch, insensitive, and he’s outlived his usefulness.  He’s also, according to Amanda Marcotte, a racist when he is critical of Islam and its followers.  When he posted on Twitter, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge,” which is a fact, and a cut to the scientific stagnation among the world’s Muslims, Dawkins is called an “Islamaphobe” and a racist.  It seems odd to have to state what is clear:  Islam is not a race.  It is a religion.

The rhetoric, that Dawkins is an old, out-of-touch prejudiced white man, is the same since Rebecca Watson first unleashed it in 2011.  The leaders of the atheism+ community have done a good job of staying on message, and if you trace this all back to Dawkins’ first comment, the “Dear Muslima” comment that ignited elevatorgate, the persistant message has begun to take its toll.

Every comment Dawkins’ makes is scrutinized, and last week when he tweeted about rape, of course he was pummeled, despite the fact that what he said was logical and rather benign.  Any comment from a rich old white man about issues of sexism or gender is just asking for trouble.  In other words, Dawkins tweeting about rape was an open invitation for his atheism+ critics, so either he is welcoming this kind of negative attention, or he is oblivious to it.  I’m not sure which it is, but I will say the rich old and white (read: sexist and racist) rhetoric is sticking.  This much seems clear:  No white man, especially an old white man, should say one word about rape, ever, unless it is to say how horrible it is and just leave it at that.  Any further exposition is inviting disaster.  No dialogue is to be had there.

What we can be certain about, though, despite these attacks on his character, Dawkins has done more for atheism and freethought and science education than any of his atheism+ critics combined.  And long after all of us are dead, Dawkins will continue to live on through his writing, continue to have a powerful impact on people who are looking to embrace freethought.  No one will read Greta Christina in fifty years time.  Most of her work is smut, and smut has a short shelf life. Her work just isn’t that important.  No one will know that Amy Roth, Ophelia Benson, Rebecca Watson, etc., ever existed.  Their contribution to atheism is negligible, and in my view, a net negative given their propensity to alienate and shun those who don’t go in for atheism+.  I certainly don’t go in for it, for one simple reason:  The people of atheism+ are not people I would want to associate with.  They attack their own. They have nothing to teach me.

But Dawkins, on the other hand, I’d love to have a beer with the man and pick his brain.  He is, without question, one of my heroes, and for good reason.  They can keep trying, stay on message, continue to use the rhetoric of ageism and sexism and racism, but they cannot do a thing to harm Richard Dawkins.

Why Are Evangelical Movies So Awful?

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Recently, a couple of my former students took the time to send me an email urging me to seeGod's_Not_Dead the newest Christian movie God’s Not Dead, the plot of which has a cross-wearing college frosh, played by Shane Harper, going up against his Kevin Sorbo-played atheist philosophy professor. So, right off the bat we seem to be dealing with some well established stereotypes rather than organic characters, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt and watched the movie’s trailer.  My fears were confirmed.  Sorbo opens the first day of class with the declaration “There is no God!” and he commands his students to take out a sheet of paper and write “God is Dead.”  Predictably, somehow this timid little freshman summons the gumption to refuse to do it, telling the professor that he can’t because he is a Christian.  The professor then tasks Harper with an alternative assignment: If God isn’t dead, prove it.

So the rest of the movie, I’m told, is the story of this freshman standing up for God (who can’t stand up for himself, apparently) while he builds his case that God is real (to have to build the case at all is sort of self-defeating, isn’t it?), all the while facing off against this angry, angry professor, a story that is standard fare among Christians and which taps into a powerful Christian meme, the persecution complex.

As described by Craig A. James in his splendid The Religion Virus, the Persecution Meme keeps Christians on the defensive, in a continual frenzy.  That is despite the fact that in America everyone is free to practice religion, and Christians are the majority religion and have astounding power and voice in our culture, yet it is never enough.  They continually claim they are persecuted because they can’t erect monuments on courthouse steps.  Gay people are a threat to their marriages.  Schools can’t sanction prayer, which means they are persecuted.  They can strike out to any group they don’t like with impunity, but if one fights back, he or she is persecuting them.

Further, this particular story, the meek freshman versus the evil atheist professor, is well-established Christian lore.  This Jack Chick tract pretty much summarizes the movie, and every now and then someone on facebook will post this urban myth, debunked on Snopes.com.  So, again, we are dealing with a repackaging of some well-established Christian lore in God’s Not Dead.

I have a couple of stories to tell about this, stories that are dear to me and important to how I became a freethinker and scuttled my fundamentalist Christian upbringing. If I had to put my finger on one moment in my teenage years that started me on my path to freethought, one watershed that changed everything, it was one Wednesday night prayer service back in 1993.  The teenagers bible study class that I attended, full of high school juniors and seniors, was missing its regular teacher that night and so the church’s full-time minister substituted.  His talk that night changed my life, but not in the way he intended.  He lectured for an hour about the evils of the secular university.  According to this preacher, Ole Miss, the state university right up the road, was full of atheists and gays, full of those atheist professor boogeymen who would delight in converting us to atheism, introducing us to the delights of buggery, and sending us straight to Hell.  Guard yourselves, he said.  If you must go to college, and if it can’t be a private Christian college, then do what you must to get your credential and have a career, but otherwise do not listen to them and their atheist propaganda. Be afraid of these people.  Be very afraid. Remember, “You are in the world, but you are not of the world,” he said, a line that every single one of my Christian readers has heard before.

Something about this preacher’s talk resonated with me and left me with one question: “If Christianity is true, what is this man so afraid of?”

I hated high school.  Hated it.  I spent all four years of high school yearning to get out and go to college, where I believed there would be no more popular kids, no more band nerds, no more bullying and so forth.  Becoming a successful college student was my central aspiration at the time, and here was this preacher telling me that college was evil.  I wasn’t buying it.  And, of course, all of the preacher’s dire predictions turned out to be nonsense. Never once did a professor even use the word atheist.  Never once did a professor try to turn me gay, or discuss religion in any sense whatsoever. To the contrary, my college professors, the bulk of them anyway, were consummate professionals who knew a hell of a lot more than I did, and I found inspiration in knowing them, being around people who took their jobs seriously, who were committed to their disciplines and pursued truth.  No question, college changed my life, taught me to value truth and truth-telling, to conduct myself in my career with professionalism and dedication, but atheism, and homosexuality, didn’t enter into it.

Anyone who has actually attended a college class or two will recognize that the Sorbo angry-atheist professor is a grotesque caricature.  What really strikes me about it, though, is that this caricatured professor behaves just like a preacher.  After all, professors, committed to finding truth, are just as likely to say something like, “I don’t know” as to spill out the facts. I remember I asked a sociology professor a question she couldn’t answer.  Her reply, “I don’t know, but I will find out,” and at the next class meeting, she had looked up the answer.  Professional.  Compassionate.  Dedicated.  That’s what I found in college.

No, it is preachers, not professors, who stand up and make truth-claims about something they couldn’t possibly know.  No, it is preachers, not professors, who are likely to shout down anyone who questions them.  So, and this is interesting to me, Christians project the image of their very own preachers to create their boogeyman professors.  The irony here, of course, is that it was this fearful preacher, not a professor, who set me on my path to becoming a freethinker.  Talk about unintended consequences.

The second story supports my previous  point, that it is preachers, not professors, who layer on the bullshit without scruple.  This one happened in 2001, early in my teaching career.  I was teaching a night class, a writing class to mostly non-traditional students, and after class I walked the halls on the way to my car when I passed a classroom and overheard the teacher say something like this:  “I can prove God exists.  It is easy.”

My ears perked up.  It was a philosophy class, and if this teacher had proof that God exists, well, I had to hear that, so I lingered just outside his door and listened for his proof.  What he gave the students was a version of the cosmological argument, that everything  has a cause, so there has to be a first cause, and that first cause is God. I’d been exposed to those proofs in Philosophy 101 at Ole Miss, so I as well-aware that there is no airtight philosophical proof for the existence of God, that all of them have serious objections.  In this case, if everything has a cause, what caused God? Infinite regress, it is called.

This unscrupulous professor never mentioned that.  Instead, he dismissed class that night on the erroneous claim that somehow philosophy proved god existed.  This professor, then, broke the most cherished covenant a professor has with his students:  No matter what, a teacher always teaches the truth.  He never,  never fills his students heads with lies.  Preachers, you see, have no such covenant with their congregates.

Indignant, I approached this professor after he dismissed the class and I called him on his bullshit.  He was a weasel of a man who, when I offered my hand as a colleague, refused to shake it, a marker of a weasel if there ever was one.  I asked him about his proof, and he became dodgy and condescending and suggested I take a philosophy course so I could understand the cosmological argument.  I told him I’d taken several philosophy classes at Ole Miss, understood the cosmological argument very well, and what he just did to his students was about as unethical as it gets.

This “professor” was a part-time teacher who had another full-time job.  Guess what that job was?  He was preacher with some bullshit bible degree, which, in Mississippi at least, somehow qualifies one to teach college-level philosophy, badly.

I can’t stress enough that this preacher’s behavior is as bad as it gets, the highest order of unethical.  I also can’t stress enough that he was a preacher by trade, not a teacher, not a professor, but a lying ends-justify-the-means charlatan.  Though Christians, I think, have a biblical admonition to tell the truth, I’ve never met a preacher who was in any way acquainted with the concept of truth-telling.  I’ve never once had a preacher say to me, “I don’t know, but I will find out,” or, God forbid, “I could be wrong.”  They will bullshit you until your eyes turn brown.

And that brings me back to my original question: Why are Christian movies so awful? Answer: because they are built on a truckload of reality-denying bullshit.  The best art, you see, says something about life, about reality, but Christians are afraid of reality and that fear is reflected in their movies.  If they can’t deny it, they will just lie about it.  The facade must always be maintained, no matter what.  The ends always justify the means.  The effect is movies with characters that are caricatures, that preach to the choir and tap into the persistent persecution meme, though it is almost always the Christians who are doing the persecuting.  Christian movies, like my unscrupulous colleague, are not concerned with representing the real world, but the bubble world that keeps Christians mentally isolated from that real world.  All these movies do is tell Christians what they want to hear.  They preach to the choir.  The rest of us are left out of the equation all together, scratching our heads.

One thing this movie made abundantly clear, though, is that I am the enemy.  I am  a freethinking, yes atheist, professor of truth.  Christians are afraid of me.  I do not lie to my students, and if I don’t know, I say so.  And my mantra, from day one, is just this:  I stand to be corrected.  My students get nothing from me but my best attempt at professionalism and my genuine desire to help them learn and succeed, in this life, not some bogus other one.  I want them to get a first-class education, a first-class course from me, and to go out into this world and burn it down with their successes.  Admittedly, their souls are not my concern.  I’m worried about their brains, that organ that helps them think for themselves, and a brain is something I can prove exists, which is far more than I can say about the soul, or God for that matter.

As long as Christians fear reality, like my former preacher, and as long as that reality-fear and Machiavellian ends-justify-the-means mentality permeates Christian teachings, as it did my charlatan colleague, Christian movies will remain awful insular pap unworthy of the price of a movie ticket.  Judging from the pretty-good box office take of God’s Not Dead, though, pap is what Christians want, and as long as they pay for it, Hollywood will continue to milk that Christian cash cow by producing plenty more of the awful movies they love.

UPDATE: Deandre Poole Offered New Contract

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pooleDeandre Poole was reinstated, offered a new contract.  He will teach his classes online until he no longer feels threatened.   Kudos to the faculty and the university’s administration for doing right by Poole, and for supporting academic freedom.  I wrote about Poole here and here.

Inside Higher Ed has the full story.

In a nutshell:  Poole is an instructor at Florida Atlantic University who asked his students to do a textbook assignment that had them to write the word Jesus on a piece of paper and then stand on the paper.  Knowing that most students would balk at that request, Poole would then launch into a talk about the power of language.  Offended by the assignment, a Mormon student stayed after class and threatened Dr. Poole.  Dr. Poole reported the threat to the campus police. The student, Ryan Rotela, went to the news media with the story that he was punished because he refused to do the activity in class.  That story blew up in the conservative blogosphere.  Poole, then, received death threats.  Fearing for his safety,  he was placed on leave and finished teaching his cultural studies course online.  He became known as the “stomp on Jesus” liberal bully college professor.  By the time Poole could tell his side of the story, the damage had already been done.  Turns out, per Poole’s account, Rotela told him he wanted to hit Poole in the face; he had been suspended from class for threatening his teacher, not for refusing to do the symbolism activity.

Man of Stool Steel Reconsidered

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On the drive to the theater to see Man of Steel, my six-year-old, who has watched all of the 1990s series The Justice League, all of the wonderful Superman: The Animated Series, and of course Donner’s beloved 1978 Superman: The Movie, was excited to see the latest iteration of Superman on the big screen. On the way, we listened to John Williams beautiful score. Suffice it to say, we were pumped to see Man of Steel.

Then, about half-way through the interminable fight scene between Superman and General Zod, she tugged at my shirt and whispered in my ear, “Daddy, I’m bored. Can we go now?”

Let that seep into your conscious mind. Ruminate that for a second or two.  A six-year-old Superman fan, who expected a Superman movie to be fun, found herself bored out of her mind. Her daddy was right there with her. Say what you will about Man of Steel, I can think of no worse indictment of this picture than that it was boring.

Clearly, this Superman movie was not made for children, nor this adult for that matter. I’ve been thinking about who, exactly, this movie targeted. Who is going to sit there and find this overlong mess of plot holes interesting, and I come up with a few options.

  1. People who don’t know much about Superman. Let’s call this person your average film goer who wants to chow on popcorn and see action and explosions. Certainly, Man of Steel satisfied that desire for destruction.
  2. Fanboys who would love any iteration of Superman that divorced it from Donner’s 1978 film. Put a squirrel in a Superman costume, and they’d still love it.  To these people, the Donner movies are full of camp, except, they aren’t. The 1960s Batman television series is the epitome of camp, of not taking the source texts seriously. The 1990s Shumacher Batman films are guilty of the same heresy. (I’d also argue that Nolan’s Batman movies treat the texts with disdain, but that’s another post). Donner’s films do, indeed, hold Superman lore in reverence, and it is seen in every frame of the movie. Campy, those films aren’t. Which segues into the next group who liked the picture . . .
  3. Stupid fanboys. Fanboys who don’t know what camp is, are semi-literate, and have absolutely no inkling about film history and tradition. These seem to be the majority of fanboys who love Man of Steel, and my guess is most of them are 15 years old and have trouble impressing the opposite sex.  They proliferate in the comments section of any and all negative reviews of the movie (56% on the tomatometer, so there were scads of negative reviews).
  4. Gamers.  Assuming they could pull away from their flat-screens and Mountain Dew, these are people who are so absorbed in their consoles that death has become just another way to collect points, or whatever the fuck they do as they virtually kill things. Death is an abstraction for them; not a big deal.  My guess is, this camp needs Superman to murder.  Else, why play the game?  Somebody has to die.  Speaking of this group, have you ever had the thrill of a gamer having you watch him/her kill things with his/her controller?  Have you ever had the pleasure of having a conversation about a game with a gamer?  Me neither.  The thrill or pleasure, that is.  The fight scene between Supes and Zod was just like that, like watching someone else play the game.
  5. This is the only group I can take seriously:  Those who see Supes as a malleable character who can be changed, toyed with, tweaked.  For them, Supes is a complex character who can handle various interpretations by various authors/artists.

especially-not-supermanI can handle different interpretations of Superman.  In fact, I wanted something different from Man of Steel.  What I cannot accept, though, is Superman as murderer.  Though, I have been told, Superman has murdered in the comics, it has happened so rarely, and is so out-of-character for Superman, it is very much the exception proving the rule.  I just cannot, will not, accept murderer Superman.  That’s where my ability to tolerate interpretation of the character ends.

When asked why he chose to make Superman into a murderer, Zach Snyder, director of Man of Steel, answered that he did it to explain Superman’s aversion to murder.  That is an interesting and chilling take on morality.  Here I am, believing murder is wrong, and I didn’t have to murder anyone to figure that out.  Snyder believes Superman needed a moral goosing.

In the DC arc Flashpoint, a truly great story arc by the way, we get a pretty radical alternate take on Superman.  Instead of finding the Kents, infant Kal-El is intercepted by the U.S. government and kept deep underground in a vault so as to keep him away from sunlight.  Batman (if I’m not mistaken here) learns of Superman’s imprisonment and frees him.  Here we have a scrawny Superman who has been poked and prodded by government scientists for his entire life, and if ever a character had good reason to hate humanity, this version of Supes did.  Batman, though, wasn’t worried about that.  He knew with the absolute certainty that only Batman can have that even this tortured Supes was Supes.  He had Superman’s heart.

The Superman in Man of Steel does not have Superman’s heart.

Lastly, the fanboys who love this movie have exceedingly low expectations when it comes to movies, and that is a shame.  They deserve better.  At the very least, given that this movie had a 250-million-dollar budget, it should have been tight, relatively free of glaring plot holes, relatively clear in its storytelling.  This movie is a mess.  Just a jangled mess.  Not only does it not stand up as a good Superman movie, it doesn’t stand up as a good action movie in general.  Why do fanboys overlook this?  I’m mystified.  That, more than any other reason, is why the critics hated this movie.  It is a mess, a clinic on bad filmmaking, shoddy editing, and lazy storytelling.

I wanted to like this movie.  I wanted to love it.  I wanted my daughter to have a superb Superman experience just like I did when I was a kid and my dad took me to see Superman 2.  But, truthfully, I hated this movie, felt cheated, felt beaten-down by CGI, and sadly, I wished I’d spared my daughter a boring, jaded, cynical take on a revered character.  So, at the end of the movie, when the two pasty gamer fanboys sitting on my row sort of sheepishly clapped, I had to express my disappointment, so I did something I’ve never done at a movie before:  I stood up and booed as loud as I could, so that everyone in that theater heard me.  I think Man of Steel is just that bad.

People Don’t Understand College

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The conservative smear machine is at it again. We college teachers are out to . . . gasp . . . teach students our disciplines.

Not long ago I wrote about Deandre Poole, a professor at Florida Atlantic University who was slimed by the conservative blogosphere for asking his students to do a textbook assignment that had them to write the word Jesus on a piece of paper and then stand on the paper.  Knowing that most students would balk at that request, Poole would then launch into a talk about the power of language.  Offended by the assignment, a Mormon student stayed after class and physically threatened Dr. Poole.  Dr. Poole reported the threat to the campus police.  The student’s threat, though, was never reported in the conservative blogs because it does not fit the standard liberal-professors narrative.  Poole, then, received death threats, and fearing for his safety, was placed on leave and finished teaching his cultural studies course online.  As of today, still no word if Dr. Poole is going to be given another contract.

lbrunton2They are at it again.  In Tennessee, Columbia State Community College psychology instructor Linda Brunton, if you believe what the right-wing bloggers are writing, “Forced” her students to wear gay pride buttons.  If you google Linda Brunton you will see headline after headline about how she “forced” or “demanded” students to wear the pride pin.

How did she force them to do that?  I’m trying to imagine.  Did she tie all of them to their desks and superglue the pin to their foreheads?  Did she hold the class at gunpoint?  Exactly, how did this teacher force her students to do this?

They were asked to wear the pin, to notice how people reacted to it, and to write a brief paper exploring those reactions.  Sounds like a pretty good, pretty apt, assignment for a psychology course, doesn’t it?

Do conservatives just not attend college?  That would explain a lot, but I know for a fact that some do, and some of them even graduate.  Those who don’t, though, seem to have no idea about what actually happens in college.  College professors can’t “force” any student to do anything.  We can’t force them to attend class.  We can’t force them to do their work.  We can’t force them to listen to us.  Students attend college because they choose to do so.  They attend class because they choose to do so.  If they don’t like the class, they can drop it.  If they don’t want to do an assignment, they don’t have to.  College students are adults, you see, and they make their own decisions.  If they choose to be students, college professors will teach them something.

But what about this bully liberal gay pride professor and her demands that students wear the gay pride pin?  Well, turns out it was an extra credit assignment.  Students could do it, or not, as per their choice.   But you won’t see that in the right-wing write-ups about this because it doesn’t fit the master narrative.

The tragedy here is that Linda Brunton will receive threats on her life, threats on her job, from the conservative hate-machine.  All because these simpletons have zero idea about what actually happens in a college classroom.  Understanding.  Learning.

Man of Snooze: Man of Steel Review

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This is the first movie review I’ve written for my web page, and it is the result of co-review project with Melissa McFarland, who reviews movies on her blog. You can read her review here.  The project was simple: we would review Man of Steel and compare reviews.

ManofSteelFinalPosterMore than any other superhero, Superman is a character whose story is ensconced in the American imagination. Almost everyone knows he is an alien who as an infant was shot to Earth because his home planet was about to implode. Everyone knows that kryptonite is his Achilles’ heel, but apart from that his powers are almost limitless.

Given such firmly established cultural knowledge, I wonder why the creators of The Man of Steel, namely director Zach Snyder and writer/producer Christopher Nolan, chose to commit so much of the movie’s narration to Superman’s origins. It is not that I reject that sort of exposition out of hand. It is that, in this unbalanced overlong mess of a movie, the only character that comes close to sparking my interest is Russel Crowe’s Jor-El, Superman’s father, a character which, for most of the movie, is a computer-generated ghost. Maybe cutting the origin story by two-thirds would have gone a long way to making Man of Steel a better picture, and it may have just freed up space to develop its central character.

Though Snyder gets directing credits, Nolan’s sterile fingerprints are all over Man of Steel, most especially in that the title character is a flat and uninteresting. Nolan’s Batman films work the same way. They are not Batman movies. In Batman Begins, I’m most interested in Commissioner Gordon. In The Dark Knight, the Joker steals the show, and in The Dark Knight Rises, I’m not interested in any character at all. The Man of Steel , as crazy as it sounds, is Jor-El’s movie. Superman? He’s barely there. This film doesn’t seem to be about him. At the end, when he kisses Lois Lane, I wondered, when did those two get together?

Speaking of Lois Lane . . . it is to me remarkable that Margot Kidder from Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman is still the definitive silver screen Lois. Lois is the all-important humanizing character in Superman lore. Getting her right is essential, the key to a good Superman story on the big screen. Superman, who is more God than human, is a difficult character to humanize. Donner understood this, so the scenes between Reeve and Kidder are the best of the movie. Amy Adams, who plays Lois Lane, is always fun to watch, but she just has nothing to work with in Man of Steel. Neglecting Lois Lane is the biggest missed opportunity in this Superman movie.

Man of Steel is packed with action, and I know for a fact the fanboys wanted nothing more than to see Superman punch something. I get that. Snyder made that happen, and happen again, and then again, and at some point in the fight sequence between Superman and Zod, a scene in which at least half of Metropolis is wiped off the map, I hit the Indiglo button on my watch. At some point, the action, happening between two flat characters, began to bore me.

For a character who, we learn, is out to protect humanity, to give them hope, Superman P1330948seems unconcerned about the millions of lives lost in his and Zod’s rampage through Metropolis. He can’t muster the wherewithal to save his Earth-father, letting him get swept away in a tornado when he could have saved him in a millisecond. And of course, at the end, when he snaps Zod’s neck, I realized here we have a radical Nolanized take on Superman. Idealized Superman? Boy Scout Superman? Truth, Justice, and the American Way Superman? Man of Steel pumped that guy full of Kryptonite and dropped him into the drink. Now we have dark, maroon Superman, and he murders. To me, that is just not Superman. When Zod’s neck snapped, I knew I’d hated this movie.

Man of Steel is devoid of fun, devoid of anything close to humor. It is heavy and brooding, which might have worked had I cared about the characters, but as is, Man of Steel just beat me senseless with CGI, with detail so fine that every shard of glass is on display, yet my senses were deprived of fun, of story, of characters to care about. Man of Steel is the quintessential spectacle-over-substance movie, worthy of such company as The Transformers films, but certainly not worthy of a character as widely revered as Superman.