30 September 2008

Clothes Make the Monster: Armor and the Grendelkin's Status as Monsters

Here's a preview of my paper at SEMA in St. Louis.

Two years ago in Yorkshire, Aishah Azmi, a teaching assistant at a C of E school, was suspended because she refused to remove her niqab in the presence of males—the result of a not uncommon interpretation of the Koran that demands modesty from women. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair called the full-face veil “a mark of separation” that “makes people from outside the community feel uncomfortable”; Ms. Azmi countered that the niqab is an important part of her culture and “Muslim women who wear the veil are not aliens.” Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe took the argument further linking Ms. Azmi’s niqab to the inadvertent support for “the mullahs of repression.”

Now, whatever our individuals thoughts on this particular issue, it is an exemplum of the way cultural tensions erupt in specific, concrete ways—in this case over a single piece of cloth placed somewhere on the body Western society deems disagreeable. These tensions often play out behind the guise of cultural markers—diet, speech, taboos, dress. Each is easily exaggerated into stereotypes: the Irish eat potatoes; barbarians don’t have a symbolic language (or don’t speak Greek); higher caste Hindus used to avoid contact with Dalits (the Untouchables); Native Americans wear feathered headdresses and buckskins.

These cultural markers were at work in medieval texts and characters, too. In his seminal The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, John Block Friedman extended their application to the monsters of the Middle Ages. What we have found since then is that a monster is largely a creation of cultural markers important to its creator and cultural context.

Nevertheless, our interpretation of the Grendelkin has continued to be as problematic as it was in 1936 when Tolkien redirected our thinking on them. One of the basic problems with the current conversation on Grendel and his mother is that we keep trying to apply an ontological definition to them when a functional one is more instructive and viable. I think we should be less concerned with what they are—human exiles, demons, or trolls—and much more concerned with what they do and don’t do in the poem. This paper, which is a small part of a research project, represents my attempt to tease out more information and further direct our thinking about the Grendelkin by examining how the poet created their monstrous identity through the cultural markers—specifically that of clothing and armor.

This approach relies on a notion to my knowledge first put forth by Jeffrey Cohen and stated most clearly in Theses 3 and 4 of the initial chapter of Monster Theory. It is this: monsters draw their power to terrify both from their position outside the scope of human knowledge and their threat to social order. Without both of these, you get Sesame Street’s Snuffleupagus on the one hand and Adolph Hitler on the other. Thinking about the monster as both a physical pastiche and a constellation of cultural transgressions is also a way of framing a discussion of the Grendelkin. Their physical monstrous attributes have been much-discussed but they still give only a vague image—one that could just as easily be Tolkien’s cave troll or Sigourney Weaver’s alien nemesis from the film series!

Instead, I think the cultural side of their transgression ledger is a rich vein of inquiry. Returning to my constellation metaphor, we can see the Grendelkin through their cultural transgressions. They violate accepted foodways multiple times. They don’t use symbolic language, whereas fine speaking is a prized ability in Old English literature. They violate cultural conventions about the use of weapons in battle. But what is most interesting to me right now—the star, to perhaps belabor my metaphor, I want to study in this constellation—is their attitude toward clothing—specifically, armor—and how that sets them apart from the human warriors of the poem.

Most of us are aware, on some level, that material goods like armor were crucial to the function of a warrior society like the one depicted in Beowulf. It has a significant function in the principles of exchange demanded by the lord-thane bond. Some armor receives attention to is lineage. Old English grammar even gives armor a limited sense of agency: the mail-coat will often act as the subject by preserving the warrior, who is placed in the object position.

What is pertinent to this examination, however, is the symbolic value armor has in this cultural context. George Clark wrote about this in 1965, and he is worth quoting at length here: “the multitudinous references and allusions to arms and armor pervading Beowulf constitute an imaginative whole, a symbol for the heroic life.” And later: “Arms and armor in Beowulf are…instances of man’s creative power…; they are status symbols, tokens of order and degree in human society; they are heirlooms…; [they] are both gifts and treasures, and as such they betoken both sides of the heroic contract.” Clark’s point here is that armor is tied to the idea of a warrior, but I would extend the significance to each warrior’s status among his fellows. What I’d like to quickly sketch out here is the obverse of the Grendelkin. If the pair is a constellation of transgressions, then Beowulf and the other humans should be a constellation of motifs that serve to support the values of their culture. Thus, I am extending Clark’s notion, and I am reading armor as a way of seeing warriors and as a way of judging them among their peers.

In some ways, material goods are all we’ve got to help us conjure up an image of Beowulf. We have no idea what he looked like—Ray Winstone? Christopher Lambert? Gerard Butler?—but we do get a significant amount of detail about what his helmet and armor when compared to Beowulf’s physical features. There are lots of examples of this scattered throughout the poem (in fact, Beowulf’s burial is focused much more on the armor on the funeral pyre that his body), but the examples on which I’d like to focus are the meetings with the Danish coast guard and Wulfgar.

Between Beowulf’s introduction in line 194 and the revelation of his name in line 343 we get detail that builds on three main ideas: he is Hygelac’s thane (194), he is the strongest of all men (196-97), and his fifteen chosen companions are the bravest warriors he could find among the Geats (206-07). We could rightly expect, then, that the things we find out immediately afterwards would have something to do with these facts. So it is significant that most of what we end up learning about the warriors has to do with their armor and other war-gear. In the 150 lines separating Beowulf’s introduction and his naming—those crucial lines in which the poet paints the initial picture of Beowulf and his brave band for his audience—we get at least ten separate references to armor—four of those being descriptions more detailed than we ever get for Beowulf or his men. The evidence for the Geatish troop being such brave thanes seems to be their terrific war-gear.

But it’s not just the audience who “sees” the nature of Beowulf and his thanes through their armor. When they first land in Denmark, the first thing the coast-guard sees in the glint of the shield bosses (231-32). Then he rides down to the shore and challenges the Geats with “What sort of men are you, wearing armor, protected by mail-shirts?” (237-38). It seems that all the coast-guard can see are Geatish armor and weapons.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by his question. Immediately following, the poet focuses our own vision on the glint and clink of their armor as they advance along the stone path to Heorot. When they do arrive, Wulfgar greets the troop with further focus on their armor. “From where,” he asks them, “have you borne these gold-plated shields, gray mail-shirts, and visored helmets?” (333-39). When we would expect our mind’s eye to be focused most closely on the hero and his men, the poet and characters fix them instead on armor. The Danish men whom Beowulf and his troop first meet “see” the warriors through their armor. It seems a symbolic attitude toward armor and other war-gear is being developed here, that the mail-coats and helmets function as a metonymic representation of powerful warriors.

This metonymic relationship between great armor and a warrior’s status is supported by the Danish coast-guard and Wulfgar. We just saw how much attention the coast-guard pays to Geatish armor, but what is more compelling is that almost immediately after he comments on it, he praises Beowulf: “Never,” he says, “have I seen a greater warrior than this one among you, a warrior in armor” (247-51). The watchman is probably justified in his concern about the intentions of these men because they are well-armored warriors, which makes them potentially dangerous. But he also judges Beowulf’s prowess at least in part based on his armor: for the coast-guard, it seems, Beowulf is the greatest warrior he’s ever seen and certainly not merely a “hall-thane” because he has impressive armor and weapons. As if to dispel any doubt that this is a valid criterion by which to judge a man, the Dane adds “may his visage, his matchless appearance never belie him” (247-51).

The relationship between armor and a warrior’s prowess and nobility is shared by Wulfgar. As does the coast-guard, he notes the impressive armor and weapons the Geats carry. Then he makes a judgment on their character based on that observation alone: “Never have I seen so many foreign men braver in appearance. I think that you in boldness, high courage—certainly not exile—have sought Hrothgar” (336-39). The implications of the Geats’ gleaming armor are clear: battle-gear is symbolic of a warrior’s heroism.

That this is so should not be surprising. As the poem makes clear, the normal avenue for gaining armor, treasure, or swords is either to inherit them or earn them in battle. It stands to reason, then, that if a thane had good, skillfully-made armor, he either come from a good line of warriors or had been successful in battle on his own. Either way, he has access to and membership in the warrior society. Armor, then, is part of signifying the status of a warrior, but it is also crucial to one’s status among fellow warriors—as the coast-guard and Wulfgar show.

But if armor signifies one’s status as a warrior, then what are we to make of those who don’t wear it? What does armor use signify to the Grendelkin. Turns out, not much. Admittedly, we’re hampered in our study of what they wore into battle since, as Michael Lapidge notes, the poet was careful not to give us too precise a description of our antagonists. We do know that they were not ignorant of armor because it litters their hall. This, then, suggests they had no use for it—that it had no significance at all for them. It also indicates that Grendel’s frætewum is not armor.

There’s been a certain amount of confusion over how to translate this word. We’ve gotten translations as various as “trappings,” “ornaments,” “armor,” “finery,” “scaly harness,” and the confusion seems to have led Heaney to just omit it. Klaeber connects frætewum to a warrior who used only his own equipment, but he doesn’t explain what equipment that might be. Dobbie thinks the poet meant to depict him “as being ‘equipped for battle,’ whatever that may have involved in Grendel’s case.” Those very vague suggestions by two giants in the field highlight the paucity of detail we have when it comes to the Grendelkin’s clothing—especially when compared to the attention to armor within human cultural contexts. So while we may never learn what the poet meant by frætewum, I think we can safely say he did not mean armor.

The term’s equation with armor is unlikely since the poet emphasized a level playing field for the fight between Grendel and Beowulf. In lines 677-87, Beowulf remarks that he’d refrain from using weapons because his foe didn’t use them. Immediately before his boast, however, much had been made about Beowulf removing his armor and helmet. It seems obvious that our hero is going to great lengths to battle Grendel on equal terms and that he is relying on the judgment of God to determine the outcome. Because of Beowulf’s faith in God’s judgment of the battle, Morton Bloomfield—and more recently Roberta Frank—see it as an early example of judicium Dei, a trial by combat that, as Bloomfield notes, was “employed under some fixed conditions to determine the will of God.” At the heart of the judicium Dei were those “fixed conditions”: equality in weapons and armor supposedly prevented human influences from obscuring the judgment of God. So a pitched battle would undercut the purpose of the entire exercise. If this interpretation is correct—and the attention to parity between participants and God’s involvement in the duel suggests it is—then the frætewum that Grendel wore could not have been armor or Beowulf wouldn’t have had to shed his.

To my mind, it’s clear that his choice of clothing identified Grendel (and by extension his mother) as an outsider. It may work as a sub-text, but it’s a powerful marker of difference once identified. I might even venture to say it’s one of the main reasons we know they aren’t members of any recognized warrior class—because they don’t adhere to accepted customs. For humans, armor signifies their status as warriors and, along with other cultural markers, helps to create that constellation of heroism that we call the warrior society. The opposite is true with the Grendelkin. They don’t wear any armor—even though they had easy access to it in their hall. So for them, is signifies their status as Other and, along with those other cultural markers, helps to create that constellation of monstrosity.

The poet did not, then, fashion his monster out of whole cloth (if you’ll pardon the pun) but instead from the cultural materials at hand. And in the process of creating the Grendelkin, our poet has given us a glimpse of his own cultures attitudes (and perhaps anxieties) about clothing.
What that leaves us with is perhaps more questions than answers. What does it mean that this particular trait helped create a monster? What—if anything—more can that choice tell us about Anglo-Saxon culture and its attitudes toward…dare I say…fashion? And finally, are the Grendelkin teachers, markers of the wrong route? Or are they (as monsters so often are) symbolic of external cultural groups that were seen as threatening?

25 September 2008

I Love this Comic

I don't know why, but I find this comic hilarious--even after a decade. It was a student panel at the University of Texas' Daily Texan.

24 September 2008

Reason # 134 That I am a Giant Dork

Above is one of the best and funniest examples of circular reasoning that I have ever come across. It works really well in the classroom, too, because you can block it out and show how a counterargument forces Peter to come back around and use the premise for his claim as his support, too.

20 September 2008

Tim Tebow's "Jump Pass" is Like the Wishbone in the 60s

I just watched Tim Tebow score a touchdown against Tennessee, and he did it with a variation of the "jump pass" from last year. The pass looks for all the world like a weak basketball move, and I think when Tebow "invented" it, it was a totally improvised back-yard football move.

Tebow's 1st Jump Pass

The cool thing about this is that Urban Myer was smart enough to see its effectiveness and construct an actual play around it. Tebow, who's such a threat to run already, heads up toward the line of scrimmage and pulls the defensive secondary up into run support. It's the greatest play-action fake in the history of football, if you think about it. There aren't any reasons not to think he's going to try to punch it in the end zone.

And then what does he do? He continues him momentum forward, pulls the ball out, and makes a jump shot into the end zone. The secondary doesn't have a chance to react. Tebow doesn't stop and plant his feet. He doesn't pull out the ball out and strike that ubiquitous upper-body pose for throwing the football.

It's, as I said, a perfect fake that is really hard to defend against. Your secondary has to trust in the D-line and backers not to just charge into run support. Only a good, disciplined, stay-at-home defense is going to diffuse that play. There aren't too many of those defenses around these days, so expect to see more and more QBs trying this out. And since there aren't too many QBs around with the athletecism of Tebow, also look for some painfully inept versions of this coming to a TV screen near you.

19 September 2008

Grendel Gets Dissed and his Mama Gets a Bad/Worse Rap

The Daily Telegraph has a list of the 50 greatest villains in literature. Grendel's Mama is number 42 (just behind O'Brien from Nineteen Eighty-Four) but Grendel is nowhere to be found. I find that rather odd. Grendel harries Heorot for 12 years, kills numerous thanes, and eats them and drinks their blood. Ellen (what I call his mom since OE ellen means "power" or "might" and since Sigourney Weaver's character in the Alien series is named Ellen Ripley...and she identifies herself as "the monster's mother") kills one guy in vengeance for her son's death and defends her own home against Beowulf, almost killing him. How in the hell is she 1) a villain and 2) a greater villain than is Grendel? It seems to me that the compilers of this list are letting her gender unfairly tint their view of her. The fact that she is female is the only other difference between her and Grendel, so that must be what makes her more "monstrous." I'd expect to hear that from a Klaeber or Chambers because they were writing so long ago, but I didn't expect to see it in the 20 Sept. 2008 posting for a British newspaper.

Also, I am not happy with the capsule for Ellen:
There's nothing in the poem to suggest that Grendel's old mum looked anything like Angelina Jolie. Hellbent on revenge, this inhuman hag drags Beowulf down to her lair at the bottom of a pond. Despite having been written at least a millennium ago, Beowulf has proved enduringly influential, inspiring the 1983 film Jaws 3-D.
Now those of us in the know see the glaring error: Beowulf dove at least half way to the bottom of the mere and was dragged by Ellen the rest of the way, whereas the nicors dragged him unwillingly to the bottom of the sea in his swimming contest with Breca. Ellen wasn't taking him somewhere he didn't already want to go. (Also, points are deducted for referencing the movie for a third of the blurb. Pitiful.)

16 September 2008

Bloom, The Beatles, and Bill O'Reilly

How's this for cognitive dissonance? I'm reading the first half of Bloom's Closing of the American Mind because I'm dead set on including something from it in my composition class this term.

For those of you who know me, this is odd enough already. But the really weird thing is that I realized that last night and this morning, I've been reading it whiles listening to The Beatles' Let it Be and the Grateful Dead's Skeletons From the Closet. If Bloom could see me now!

The other strange thing? Some of what he's saying is starting to make sense. I think part of the reason people react so negatively to Bloom's book is that he's essentially calling us all stupid and relying very heavily on essentialist notions. The other reason, though, is that I think people like Bill O'Reilly are (mis)using his notions to further their own agendas. For instance, Papa Bear:

But, Bloom does make some valid points--especially the indictment of so-called "openess." Now I think it was an interesting piece of legerdemain to twist open-mindedness into the new close-mindedness, but that's another day, perhaps. My point is that Bloom's criticism of cultural relativism has a valid foundation, but I think he takes it too far.

Of course, I think my culture is the best (he asserts that I wouldn't because I've been inculcated in cultural relativism since gradeschool, but he obviously isn't thinking of small-town Texas gradeschools). My definition of "my culture" is likely much more narrow and local (ooooooo, more PoMo for Bloom), but I think it's the best...for me. That qualifier is incredibly important in this definition since I'm not claiming any knowledge over other cultures outside of my experience. But again (since this is coming off more critical than I wanted it to), I think he's hitting on an important point--even if his wording and further arguments fail to convince. There is (or should be) an agreed-upon common bond for the United States. Now, if I'm reading him right--and I'd like to think that I am--he's asserting that the commonality of US citizens is going or gone. I disagree. It's there. It's very, very different than the commonality that Bloom imagines, but it is there. It came to the surface in the days after 9/11 (which is why politicians strike that note so often in their speeches, I think) and most anniversaries of the date.

I have no larger, magisterial closing for this post. Just a random, fragmented thought about Bloom's book. Maybe after I teach it and discuss it with my class further, I'll have some new insights to share.

15 September 2008

Thoughts from the Latest Bill Moyers Journal

He was talking about "shock-jock" radio hosts. Not Howard Stern. No, no. Michael Savage, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Neil Bortz (they ignored pretty much everything on Air America, but that's another day and liberal pinko-commie talk show hosts rarely call for violence). But the one that caught my attention was this quote by Michael Reagan, the son of Ronald Reagan, talking about 9/11 conspiracists:

We ought to find the people who are doing this, take them out and shoot them. Really. You take them out, they are traitors to this country, and shoot them. You have a problem with that? Deal with it. You shoot them. You call them traitors, that's what they are, and you shoot them dead. I'll pay for the bullets.

I cannot even imagine what Nancy Reagan thought about those words. Place that beside this Dwight D. Eisenhower quote, and you can see how different the former suit salesman is from any standard of sane, critical thinking:
Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels--men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.
Added bonus: Bill Moyers has sooooooo been reading this blog. Watch this segment of his most recent show, and compare to my posts over the last 2 weeks.

14 September 2008

Rove Done Pissed me Off

Take cheap shots at Obama and the rest of the Dems. That's what he does (OK, sometimes), and I'm not asking him to stop--though I think he's a royal prick and leads a vacuous, empty existence. But when you start taking shots at Politifact and FactCheck, he's pissed me off in the worst way.

Suck it, Rove.

The Difference Between a Good Coach and a Mediocre One

Jim Tressel (aka "The Vest"), the head coach of The Ohio State Buckeyes, held out his star player yesterday in their epic battle against Pete Carroll and the USC Trojans. This game was--we should understand--likely worth a lot of money for OSU since it could have propelled them into a national championship game which pays out approximately $17,000,000. It was a brave thing that Tressel did, I think. It doesn't reflect anything about Tressel's coaching abilities, but it does say something about him as a human being, as a caretaker for his players, and a person who understands the place of sport in life. He's taken some heat for the decision, and I can't say whether it was the right one or not because I don't know the nature of Wells' injury, but I can say Tressel showed he cares about his players more than the record.

And that is what separates him from some perpetually-also-ran like Mike Bellotti at the University of Oregon. Last year, his star player hurt his knee, but Belotti let him play with an ACL tear against the Arizona Wildcats. No offense, but OSU vs. USC and UO vs. UA is apples and oranges. Oregon was highly ranked playing an inferior opponent, whereas OSU was highly ranked playing a team that was picked to beat them (and beat them USC did...badly). Whose decision was tougher?

And there is a moral equivalency because team doctors had cleared both players. Wells was cleared before Tressel said "no," and Dixon was cleared, I guess. The doctors assured Bellotti that Dixon couldn't do any more damage to the knee, but still.

Also, Belotti doesn't have the cojones to stand up to Nike and tell them to stop testing out ugly-ass uniforms on his players. I'm pretty sure the new Nike gear has some dangerous chemicals in it and will, perhaps, create at least one super-hero or -villian from the roster of this team.

13 September 2008

Portland, ME Reporter Asks McCain Some Haaaaaaard Questions.

A couple of notes about this interview:

  • McCain probably wishes that he'd taken that Larry King interview instead of some bulldog from Portland, ME looking to make a name for himself. It's pretty sad when some local reporter asks harder-hitting questions than anyone from CNN, ABC, NBC, or CBS (not counting FOX or MSNBC as "real").
  • McCain misspeaks a lot, but it's not as funny as Bushisms like "we won't get fooled again."
  • I do not understand how knowing more about energy than anyone else in America (his words, not mine, and I know that's a silly assertion for him to make, but still) means that she has significant national security/defense experience. To be sure, energy independence is now recognized as a part of national defense, but it's not a qualification--or else the CEOs of ExxonMobil, Shell, and ConocoPhillips would be considered national defense experts.
  • McCain asserts that Obama has never gone against his party, but I submit that being against the Iraq War when most other Dems were for it is going against your party. I'm sure he got pressure to vote for it so the Dems would look patriotic.

Interesting Arturian Exhibit in Rennes

"King Arthur, A Legend in the Making" is a new exhibition at the Champs Libres in Rennes, France. It's nice to see some love for the French in the Arthurian tradition since they're the ones who kept it alive for a long, long time.

I'd love to live there or at least visit.

10 September 2008

Songs Forever Tied to Scenes from Movies

In this ever-growing list, I am excluding songs specifically written for movies (sorry, Kenny Loggins and Irving Berlin)
  • Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again," the final scene of Kubrick's Dr Strangelove in which numerous and sundry nuclear bombs explode and destroy the Earth
  • Steeler's Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You," the (in)famous ear scene from Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs
  • Genesis' "Sussudio," the 3-way scene in American Psycho
  • Strauss' "Thus Spoke Zarathustra," from the evolution scene of Kubrick's 2001
  • Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," from Wayne's World
  • Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," from the chaos/napalm scenes in Good Morning Vietnam
  • The Squeeze's "Tempted," from the Winona Ryder driving scene in Reality Bites
  • Katrina and the Waves' "Walkin' on Sunshine," from the mix-tape scene in High Fidelity
  • Elliot Smith's "Miss Misery," from the end credits scene of Good Will Hunting

08 September 2008

Palin Says Small Towns Grow Good People. Serial Killers Beg to Differ

In her acceptance speech for the Republican VP nomination, Sarah Palin agreed that "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity," continuing that she knew "just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman." So let's put that supposed truism to the test. I've divided up American cities into 3 categories Big City (500,000+) Mid-Sized (20,000-500,000), and Small Town (<20,000). American Serial Killers page on Wikipedia. I'm not done, but the preliminary results show that no matter where you were raised, you have a relatively equal chance of being a serial killer. Moral of the story: if you're manky in the head, small towns ain't gonna save you.
*Special prize if you can guess which city below is my father's hometown!

Big City:
  • Benjamin Atkins (Detroit, MI): killed 11
  • David Carpenter (San Francisco, CA): raped and killed 5 women
  • John Wayne Gacy (Chicago, IL): raped and murdered 33 young men
  • Gary Ridgway (Salt Lake City, UT): killed 48
  • Richard Angelo (Long Island, NY): 25 killed
  • Robert Diaz (Phoenix, AZ): 12 killed
  • Richard Cottingham (Bronx, NY): killed 5
  • Harvey Glatman (Bronx, NY): killed 3
  • Andrew Cunanan (San Diego, CA): killed 5
  • Scott Erskine (San Diego, CA): killed 3
  • Lawrence Bittaker (Philadelphia, PA): raped, tortured, and killed 5 women
  • Albert Fish (Washington DC): killed 3-5+
  • David Berkowitz (Brooklyn, NY): killed 6
  • Howard Allen (Indianapolis, IN): killed 3
  • Ronald Gray (Miami, FL): raped and killed 4 women

Mid-Sized City:
  • Robert Berdella (Cuyahoga Falls, OH): raped, tortured, and killed 6 men
  • Henry Lee Lucas (Blacksburg, VA): killed 11-300
  • Alton Coleman (Waukegan, IL): killed 8
  • Joseph Duncan III (Tacoma, WA): killed 7
  • Albert DeSalvo (Chelsea, MA): the Boston Strangler, killed 13
  • Dean Corll (Fort Wayne, IN): killed at least 27 boys
  • Angelo Buono, Jr. (Rochester, NY): one of the Hillside Stranglers, killed 10
  • Kenneth Bianchi (Rochester, NY): one of the Hillside Stranglers, killed 10
  • Ed Gein (La Crosse, WI): 2+ killings, used body part to create whimsical home decor items
  • Ted Bundy (Burlington, VT): killed 26-57 people
  • Westley Allan Dodd (Richmond, WA): killed 3
  • Richard Biegenwald (Trenton, NJ): killed 9
  • Kristen Gilbert (Fall River, MA): killed 4
  • William Heirens (Evanston, IL): killed 3
  • Richard Evonitz (Columbia, SC): killed 3
  • Jon Joubert (Lawrence, MA): killed 3
  • Charles Cullen (West Orange, NJ): killed 35-45
  • Wayne Adam Ford (Petaluma, CA): killed 4
  • Carroll Cole (Sioux City, IA): 16
  • Kendall Francois (Poughkeepsie, NY): killed 8-10
  • Joseph Paul Franklin (Mobile, AL): killed 7-20
  • Gary Evans (Troy, NY): killed 13
  • Hadden Clark (Troy, NY): killed 2-3
Small Town:

  • Kenneth McDuff (Rosebud, TX): 14+ killed
  • Ronald Dominique (Thibidoux, LA): 23 men killed
  • Charles Ray Hatcher (Mound City, MO):
  • Carlton Gary (Columbus, GA): killed 7
  • Gary Heidnik (Eastlake, OH): killed 2
  • H.H. Holmes (Gilmanton, NH): killed 9-27
  • Jerry Brudos (Webster, SD): killed 4, necrophilia
  • Arthur Bishop (Hinckley, UT): killed 5
  • Christine Falling (Perry, FL): killed 3
  • Janie Lou Gibbs (Cordele, GA): killed 5
  • Robert Hansen (Esterville, IA): killed 15
  • Nannie Doss (Blue Mountain, AL): killed 11
  • Robert Charles Browne (Coushatta, LA): killed 48
  • Jeffrey Dahmer (West Allis, WI): raped and killed 17 men, possible necrophilia
  • Thor Christiansen (Slovang, CA): killed 4
  • Dallen Bounds (Ashland, OR): killed 4
  • Joe Ball (Elmendorf, TX): killed 5-20
  • Faye Copeland (Harrison, AK): killed 5
  • Robert Garrow (Dannemora, NY): killed 8
  • Donald Gaskins (Manning, SC): killed 9-100?

07 September 2008

Palin and Clinton, or A Celebration of Binaries

I was just reading Adreinne Rich's "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision" and came across this gem of a sentence: "But even in reading these women I was looking in them for the same things I had found in the poetry of men, because I wanted women poets to be the equals of men, and to be equal was still confused with sounding the same."

Of course it got me to thinking about Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, and the view of women in/and politics. My wife and I were talking about this and she said the thought there were 2 routes to a top executive position in the US: you can either be tougher (read: "manly") than anyone else, or you can be so feminine that no opponents put the smack down on you--or they wait until too late to do so. This second approach is in some ways the more suave, nuanced, elegant (read: "feminine") route; it recognizes (implicitly or explicitly) the idea of femininity and motherhood in the US and exploits that. Clinton and Palin are distinct examples of this (...maybe. I bet women who were heavily involved or invested in Clinton's campaign would disagree with some of the generalizations I'm going to make, but they're not average Americans, at least in this sense).

Clinton was treated like a man for most of the campaign; there was some talk of her gender, but when it did come up, it had usually been raised by a conservative pundit to take a swipe and one of their favorite targets.

There are two things this picture tells me: 1) Photoshop was invented by the Devil, and 2) Clinton scares the hell out of some men and has been slapping the shit out of their notions of manhood. Throughout the campaign, "toughness" was either explicitly conflated with "manly" or it was implied when the word was used. My wife is tough, and I don't mean that in a gendered way. Ma Joad was tough in any gendered way. It's pretty obvious that Clinton is tough, but there wasn't enough "femininity" presented to appease some Americans. Her daughter began to introduce her, and she started talking about her mom more, but only at the end. At the end of the day, I think a lot of Americans (even some whom I love very dearly) don't like her because she's too "manly." She does the things that are still sometimes considered the arena of men.

So, then, you may wonder why the conservative folk love their Palin. By the rationale I just presented, one would expect conservatives to reject Palin for overreaching. Of course not, and to see that as a pat conservative response would be to miscast many, many conservatives. It's not that they want to keep women in the home and keep them tied down by the apron strings. Instead, it's all about how women venture into male-dominated arenas. Clinton fought her way in. She got perhaps a better education than did her husband (and definitely a better one than Palin, no offense U of Idaho...and Hawaii Pacific U...and North Idaho College...and Matanuska-Sustina College), she jumped right into a man's world and really made her own way. Then she got elected on her own merits (and, probably, last name) to the Senate. Then she declared her presidential campaign. Palin, on the other hand, was invited to the party. To my mind, that's a big difference in the minds of many conservative voters.

Palin started, of all places, in the PTA. (Psssst, that means she's a great mom, and every mom should feel empowered to be a VP nominee or at least mayor. If gender's not such a big deal, why doesn't every kid raised by single-parents get to be President? Why don't all war-heroes get automatic seats in the legislative branch?) She followed the "acceptable" avenues to power for women whereas Clinton seems to have travelled the other one...the one most men use. Mostly, it comes down to the pant-suits. Clinton didn't look or act like many conservatives thought a woman should--no matter what her politics or ideas. Palin is disarming, helping the Republicans accept her with that spoonful of sugar of skirts and hockey-mom-hood. She acts like a mom and a woman first and a politician second. Clinton acted like a politician first and a woman second.

So there's your gendered binaries for women in positions of power in the US. It works along the same lines as the binaries appended to male candidates. President Bush, Sr. was unfairly called a "wimp," Dukakis looked like an effite fool in that tank, and it's probably only a matter of time before the charges of elitism and intellectualism on Obama morph into the same sort of thing. That's one side: the not-tough-enough side (which is usually code for "not-manly"). The other side is McCain war-hero, T.R. rugged individualism toughness. Reagan touched on it with the big talk during the Cold War, and Bush, Jr. often projects it with brush-clearing and sabre-rattling. The sides are rarely gendered because there was no need for them to be. It was (and mostly still is) a boy's club, so there was no reason to explicitly equate the "wimps" with feminine traits and tough guys with masculine ones. Now that women have entered the upper echelons of government in a big way, things will start being more and more gender-oriented.

The real question, I guess, remains: which of the two women--Palin or Clinton--are confusing being equal with men to sounding and acting like men (or as men want them to)? That one I do not have an answer to.

UPDATE: I am a genius, I tells ya. The LA Times started talking about this very thing on 09.11.08.

UPDATE2: I really am a genius. The SNL opening from 09.13.08:

06 September 2008

Great Christianity Joke

From Ship of Fools:

Jesus came upon a crowd that had surrounded a young woman believed to be an adulteress. They were preparing to stone her to death.

To calm the situation, Jesus said: "Whoever is without sin among you, let them cast the first stone."

Suddenly, an old woman at the back of the crowd picked up a rock and lobbed it at the young woman, scoring a direct hit. The unfortunate young lady collapsed dead on the spot.

Jesus looked over towards the old woman and said: "You know, Mom, sometimes you really piss me off."

05 September 2008

I Think it Looks Worse than it is

Oof. The Republicans used actors instead of soldiers in their stirring video.

To be fair, though, there's surely a law against using federal employees in a political campaign video. Isn't there?

03 September 2008

And This is Why I'm a Misanthrope

After watching the Republican National Convention, I'm not longer worried about him. I agree with Jon Stewart: "SHIT on him!" Whether or not McCain is directly responsible for the nasty, nasty tone of the RNC doesn't matter. He's sold out in a big way, and he's begun to bring in the same bastards who smeared him in 2000. That's total bullshit. I hope he can live with himself after selling his soul to get elected--but since he married Cruella DeVille (admit it, you know she'd feel more comfortable with a martini and long cigarette in her hands than a mic)

and spent time in the Hanoi Hilton (which every speaker at the RNC is contractually bound to relate in stirring terms), I guess he can live with pretty much anything.

But, again, I say fuck that guy. I feel betrayed by him because of this convention. It was ugly Rove smear politics as usual, and I hope (but doubt) the Democrats are ready for what's coming at Obama and Biden.

I think what is at the root of my anger is the insubstantial theater that both of the conventions really are and the total lack of care about the truth and facts. I read Politicfact (and really, really missed Spinsanity) for the whole DNC and was disappointed at the falsehoods and half-truths spewed by most speakers--including Obama. But what bothered me most about the DNC was really the rah-rah Obama-will-give-every-kid-a-pony, there-will-be-more-rainbows, and unicorns-will-again-roam-the-Earth promises I heard. It was stupid, blind optimism (and that's not just because I'm reading Candide right now).

But that's nothing compared to the mean-spirited, misinform-people-who-won't-question-what-you-say, cast-everyone-else-as-"the angry Left", bullshit politics of Rove & Co. I thought things would be different with McCain. I thought that even if I disagreed with him I could still respect him in the morning, but that's not the case. Thompson's speech was mean, Guliani's speech was meaner (expected from that ill-tempered little garden gnome), Romney's was only snarky, but Palin's was the worst I'd seen so far. Not only didn't she tell me why I should vote for her, but she didn't tell me anything I didn't already know (McCain was a POW...see, told you...contractually obligated) or couldn't hear from Rush Limbaugh (Obama is a terrible, liberal, tax-raising, inexperienced, politician.) OK, that's not totally fair. I did learn that she loves her union-member husband, thinks the PTA is some sort of job qualification, has some screwy ideas on naming conventions for children, didn't need advisors or polls to know the voters when she ran for city council in a town of 9800 people (significantly smaller than Vidor, TX if that tells you anything), and successfully sold a jet on eBay as governor of Alaska. Congra-tu-fucking-lations.

I expected what I got from the DNC (cheerleading, "healing," and some feeble swipes at Republicans), and I knew I'd be disappointed and annoyed by their convention. But I expected more from the RNC--at least a modicum of civility. I can't decide if the Republicans are getting vicious because the campaign is inept and panicked, or if they planned to run this kind of campaign all along.

I told my wife that if McCain won based on a campaign like the convention (as opposed to beating Obama on issues or on some sort of unforeseen mistake or revelation on the Democratic ticket) I'd really consider looking for a job outside the country. I was serious when I said it, and I would do it if it weren't for the family farm. I want to go back there so badly, that it may single-handedly keep me in this country. (I won't leave if Obama wins, of course, but I also won't expect much.) Either way, I'm close to washing my hands of the whole bloody mess again.


In an earlier (Sept. 1) posting, I mistakenly referred to the Center for Reproductive Rights as "CCR." I just want to clarify that while the CRR may not have a problem with a "Fortunate Son" being born, they think that a "Proud Mary" should have a choice as to whether or not to have him. They see the election of McCain-Palin as a "Bad Moon Rising" but hope that particular "Someday Never Comes." So "Run Through the Jungle" to tell everyone of my error unless they've already "Heard it Through the Grapevine."

Apologies to CRR, CCR, and fans of humor everywhere.

02 September 2008

I'm Starting to Worry About McCain

I've made no secret that I used to like McCain. In fact, early during the primary season some of my friends on Myspace began to question me about why I had Obama, Paul, and McCain as friends. Well, I hadn't made up my mind yet. I mean, I might have voted for him in 2000 if he'd run against Gore in the general election (really).

But this isn't the McCain that I saw back then; this is the McCain that I saw in primary whose campaign spiraled out of control and who didn't seem to have a handle on anything that was going on. He pulled it together then based in part on the idiocy of Guliani, the weirdness of Paul, and the...Romney-ness...of Romney. He won't have that luxury against Obama who's slooooooowly regaining some momentum.

It's starting to leak out that maybe the McCain campaign didn't vet their VP very thoroughly (how long, by the way, until "V-PILF" becomes an accepted term if McCain-Palin win the election?). I don't understand how this can happen. It's not like McCain is in the same situation Bush was in when he trotted out the vastly unqualified Hariet Myers for the SCOTUS position. Bush really had as many chances as he wanted to get someone in there; it's not like after 3 someone else gets to choose. McCain got one choice. One. And he chose Palin. There are some reasons for his choice, but haven't heard a lot of compelling ones from the McCain camp yet. They've had a long weekend to introduce her to America, and all most of us know is that she has a pregnant, unwed daughter; that she is Pro-Life and favors abstinence-only sex-ed (and we know this because her daughter--with whom I would never want to trade places and for whom I genuinely feel sympathy for her peculiar situation--is pregnant); that she was governor of Alaska for 1.5 years, was mayor of Wasilla, AK, and was involved in the PTA; that she's being investigated for alleged ethic violations; and that she's kinda purty.

There's more to know. There's much more positive to know. Where is it? Even the McCain spokespeople haven't given the media anything with which to work, and we know from the 2000 election with Al Gore that if you don't give the media something, they will make something: as James Carville once said, "if you want reporters to write about hamburger, you give them hamburger. You don't give them French fries and ice cream."

It just worries me that the McCain camp is letting news cycle after news cycle of negative stories about Palin go without providing anything positive about her. Combine that with the lack of vetting (or poor, poor decision--whichever, it doesn't matter), and it seems that maybe McCain's the only one who really cares whether he wins or not. Obviously these dickheads don't.

UPDATE: It seems McCain-Palin is getting a bit of a bump (maybe not the best word choice there) out of this pregnancy thing with the evangelical crowd, which is good for them but could not have been planned by the campaign. But there's also this: it's been alleged that Palin and her husband once belonged to the Alaskan Independence Party, which seeks a vote for the secession of Alaska from the US. That, if true, would be more important than her pregnant daughter and the seemingly-silly Troopergate. It would call into question her patriotism, which ain't good (as Obama can attest to).

Oh, Levi Johnston, you're making my schadenfreude act up again.

I don't usually rely on The Superficial (and what's worse, that post was based on the NY Post) for my political news, but this is just too damn good to pass up. Bristol Palin's self-acclaimed "fuckin' redneck" baby daddy has been discovered.

It's about what the DailyKos and MoveOn.org were hoping for. Me, I'm filled with glee to be able to see Tucker Bounds again get de-stroyed by CNN reporters.

(Just a note about that video, Bounds missed his chance. He noted that their VP has as much experience than the Dems' Pres. candidate, and he should have kept hitting that note. Instead he talked about the Commander-in-Chief aspect of her job and took the conversation in an unwanted (for Republicans) direction.)

I don't much give a damn what this means for the election, and I've blogged earlier that I don't think it should have much, if any, effect on it. But damn it's fun to watch people get owned by reporters on real issues since it happens less frequently these days.

01 September 2008


Earlier, I asserted that Wolf Blitzer was associated with Beverly Hills Cop. Further research has shown this to be false.

It has now been learned that "The Beard" is actually a form of kuato that has been removed from the abdomen of Michael MacDonald. (Artist rendering shown above.) This was apparently done shortly before MacDonald began "Takin' it to the Streets" because, in the words of Patrick Simmons, "the Doobie Brothers don't take no damn freaks."

This development fills in some blanks that the Faltermeyer Theory could not address. The most important of the questions was why would "The Beard" be so attached to his face-mane when Faltermeyer was a bare-faced German? Now we know that "The Beard" is not only part of a keyboard-playing soft-rocker who's been rocking facial hair since before I was born, he also spent his formative years just inches below MacDonald's chest hair. "The Beard" knows nothing else. To expect him to deny the facial hair and keyboard heritage with which he was suckled is inhumane.

What has no Place in the Campaign

This is the ridiculous shit that Bennett, Palin, McCain, and Obama are rejecting and upset about. Idiocy, pure idiocy. Make sure and look at the poll at the bottom of the page.

Knocked Up: A Live Blog While Watching CNN

Oooooooooo, breaking news that Sarah Palin's daughter is a baby mama. (Maybe FOXNews can finally use that phrase in the correct context.)

Now, of course all these reporters are asking Obama to say something about the situation; he chose the high road (and for once, I agree with Bill Bennett who said whatever the reason--politics or personal ethics--it was a good move) and denounced talking about families during the campaign.

Democrats aren't usually ones to hit families (think of Billy Carter, Roger Clinton, and even McCain's imaginary Black child in the 2000 primary), so that call is probably more rhetoric than substance. Obama should have, however, used the response to put the ball firmly in the Republican court. Responding that Dems aren't really the ones who have the problem with this issue and suggesting that those questions are more appropriate for McCain, Bush, Rick Warren, James Dobson, etc. They are the ones who usually have an issue with this sort of thing. They are the ones who would be scandalized if it happened to someone they knew. Dems don't tend to be judgmental about this sort of thing--and indeed, Obama admitted his mother had him when she was 18 and he was conceived out of wedlock. It would have driven the point home--without being a "dick move"--on the differences between Democrats and Republicans on this issue.

But either Obama and the Dems didn't want to, were afraid to (the likeliest case), or didn't think of (which I seriously doubt since I thought of it in 5 minutes) hitting this note. I just don't see why there was such delicacy in this area. Sure an "I-told-you-so" is inappropriate, but it wouldn't hurt to put the conservative base to it and see what they say in response.

UPDATE: And now I am disagreeing with Bill Bennett again. Short honeymoon, I guess. Bennett is upset that the Center for Reproductive Rights has already made a statement regarding Bristol Palin and her baby. Of course, it's attacking abstinence-only education for sexual education. Bennett did not like this and ranted that it's exactly what Obama just asked people not to do. I disagree for 2 reasons.

  1. Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council said, "Fortunately, Bristol is following her mother and father's example of choosing life in the midst of a difficult situation. We are committed to praying for Bristol and her husband-to-be and the entire Palin family as they walk through a very private matter in the eyes of the public." He said this today. He's attempting to downplay Bristol's mistake (premarital sex, getting knocked up) and playing up her choices that do fall in line with his organization's policies (pro-life). If Perkins can do it, why can't the CCR? I just don't understand why when something happens to a conservative it's private and is never discussed in terms of national policy (Rush Limbaugh and drug addiction, Bill Bennett and gambling, Larry Craig and homosexuality, etc.). Outlawing abortion, which McCain and Palin both support, seems to take away that personal, individual choice. It ceases to allow a difficult situation like this to be a "private matter" and involves the government in what would otherwise be a medical and moral issue that should not extend beyond the bounds of the family.
  2. Obama was talking about the election and the campaign, not about issues. Sure the Dems shouldn't use this for cheap political points, but advocacy groups aren't running for office and don't have any reason to follow those rules--especially when it hits right at the heart of the issue they center their work on. Talking about it makes total sense to me. The CRR is all about sex-ed and is against what Palin's mom stands for, so there's no reason not to point to Bristol as a shining example of the policy failures they see right now. Bennett's argument that we should stay away from family issues is either disengenuous or deeply flawed because people and the events and issues in their lives make up the damn policy. Bennett seems to have forgotten that the government exists to serve and protect the people, and the people do not exist to advance some sort of governmental moral imperative.