George Carlin’s When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops?

Carlin considers the softening of language and political correctness bullshit. He illustrates how language is softened by examining the progress of the concept of shell shock. During World War I, shell shock was the term used to describe the condition that occurs when a soldier’s nervous system reaches a breaking point.  During the Second World War, the term “shell shock” expanded to four syllables and was called “battle fatigue” and, during the Korean War, the term expanded to eight syllables and was called “operational exhaustion.” Finally, during the Vietnam War the term became eight syllables with a hyphen and was called “posttraumatic stress disorder.” Given that, in America, realism is the same thing as pessimism and pessimism is less popular than optimism, Carlin argues that this kind of softening of language is effective because it makes reality “less vivid” and therefore bullshit.

Another thing that Carlin considers bullshit is political correctness. In particular, he argues that political correctness is “America’s newest form of intolerance and it’s especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance.” Carlin sheds light on liberal tendencies to rename groups of victims with less offensive names, as if the new name somehow solves initial malfunction. For example, over the last few decades, the term “cripple” fell out of favor and has since been replaced by the term “physically challenged” or “differently abled.” Carlin mocks this transition by pointing out that liberals tend to focus on the external, changing offensive words, rather than the internal, the underlying bigotry and insensitivity.

I view many of Carlin’s observations as examples of hidden idealism. He doesn’t want language to soften with time because he wants the truth to hit people smack in the face. For example, he wants to call a person in a wheelchair who was hit by a drunk or texting driver a “cripple” rather than “differently abled.” He argues that rather than being offended by the word, society should be offended by what the word represents. I see this as the purest form of idealism. In other words, rather than calling a person in a wheelchair “differently abled” and going along our merry way, we as the society should call him a “cripple” and be outraged by this stupidity of the situation that caused him to be a cripple. Maybe then we will be outraged enough to change the situation so that the same thing doesn’t happen in the future.

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Regina Barreca’s They used to call me Snow White… But I drifted

I really enjoyed Regina Barreca’s analysis of approaches to literature in They used to call me Snow White… But I drifted. In the piece, Barreca points out that many women writers are considered secondhand because their subject matter has limited appeal. The same can probably be said about writers who write about the experiences of particular races. As a result, their work is put into categories of African-American, Chicano writing, etc. If we assume that these categories are not simply created by publishers to sell more books then we have to address why these categories exist. These categories remind me of the various types of genre fiction: western, mystery, romance, science fiction, horror writing etc. There are writers who work within these genres but their work is not necessarily considered genre. For example, Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Blood Meridian, can be easily classified as a Western but the work is so good that it transcends the genre and is actually a work of literary fiction. Similarly, Flannery O’Connor’s short story, Everything that rises must converge, can easily be classified as women’s writing because the author is a woman but it’s so good that it transcends the category and is actually work of literary fiction. Finally, Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man can also easily be considered African-American writing but again the work is so good it transcends the category and becomes a work of literary fiction. Therefore, I would argue that it’s not that women or ethnic writers are considered second hand but rather that some of these writers are just not as good (the way that some genre writing is not as good). And the ones that are become literary fiction.

Garrison Keillor’s Marooned

While Garrison Keillor’s Marooned is not ha-ha funny story, it is funny because it’s a serious story that uses humor to enlighten the reader’s experience. The stories focus on the narrator’s brother-in-law, Dave Grebe, an unremarkable and narcissistic stationery store clerk who tries on religions like socks. In the beginning, he renounces materialism, becomes a Tuan, the kind of Buddhist, and wanders around airport terminals holding up signs “your life is a lie.” His ego doesn’t allow him to keep his philosophy to himself (as someone with a real philosophy would) and he switches to a different religion called capitalism. Here he becomes one with Milo from Catch-22. Dave takes over the stationery store, makes it a huge success and then writes a book that turned “Tuanism inside out and restated it in capitalist terms, and made low cash flow seems like a denial of God’s love.” Naturally, the book sells millions. The narrator, a person entrenched in the American capitalist system as an advertiser, becomes its victim. Capitalism and the American dream are about boom and busts, not people who want a steady job and a good retirement. As a result, the brother-in-law is a success even though he’s a hack while the narrator is a failure even though he’s a hard worker who means well. Thankfully, things get turned around by end of the story.

Hunter S Thompson fears and loathes the government

Hunter S Thompson fears and loathes the government, the establishment, our material culture, and all of our society’s contradictions. Yet he goes to Las Vegas to try to find the American dream which is the encapsulation of all of these things that he fears and loathes. Because he fears and loathes these aspects of society, he arms and protects himself with drugs. The drugs make it easier to deal with the pain because they anesthetize his experience. Of course, there are certain side effects. I tend to view all serious drug and alcohol use as a kind of escapism from reality. But since reality is so dark and unforgiving, it makes me wonder who is really crazy? The regular people that just shuffle through their 8 to 6 jobs they hate just so they could buy things they don’t need or the other people that just escape. In case anybody’s interested, I’m not really either. I see both drugs/booze/antidepressants and unfulfilling jobs for money as indulgences. I’d rather do something I like for less money so that I could like myself.

Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Thompson’s writing style is a stream of consciousness in which the consciousness is heavily medicated. As a result, the reader is presented with an unreliable first-person narrator who is often hallucinating, mocking, or outright lying. What is particularly effective about his style is that the narrator comes off as a friend, someone on an extended diatribe. As a result, the novel is very easy to read but not necessarily easy to comprehend. For example, “The decision to flee came suddenly. Or maybe not. Maybe I’d planned it all along –subconsciously waiting for the right moment. The bill was a factor, I think. Because I had no money to pay it. And no more of these devilish credit-card/reimbursement deals.” The language is precise and unforgiving, self-assured but also contradictory. But above all, it’s playful.

Thompson seems to view the 60s with a kind of nostalgia. The nostalgia is not the kind expressed by contemporary Super Bowl ads appealing to the baby boomer generation but rather one that is representative of the kind of longing for a complex time. In chapter 8, he talks about history but history is difficult to analyze and study if you are the person who experienced it. In other words, the first-hand experience of really living through the 60s is as he said, “hard to know.” His words also hint at a kind of pride for his generation, one that stood up and came to a head “in a long fine flash for reasons that nobody really understands.”

The American dream is based on extremes. I watched a program with Barbara Walters about billionaires, what they did, and what they have. The program said that in 1985 America had 15 billionaires. Today in 2011 America has over 400. What this tells me is that our culture is fascinated with exceptionalism: people with the most money, people with the most intelligence, people who overcome the most extreme obstacles, etc. As a country, we like flashy objects. We are impressed with impressive things but we are not impressed with an overall standard of high quality. As a result, our culture is captivated by rags to riches stories, like a homeless man competing on American Idol or a single father founding a highly successful company (Paul Mitchell hair products) on his last $300. On the other hand, what we are much less interested in is in more boring stories: increasing the number of people who graduate from college, increasing the number of people who are given appropriate healthcare and charged appropriate prices, etc. I am not even talking about the political or economic forces that are involved in these decisions. The thing that concerns me is that these aspects of modern life and everyday existence don’t make a splash and therefore they are not interesting and they don’t make the news. We don’t care about a middle-class person who makes $40,000 buying a used Dodge neon for $3000 and owing it free and clear. Instead we expect people who make $40,000 to drive and make payments on brand-new $30,000 cars. We’re not ashamed of debt but are instead impressed with products and credit lines. This includes everyone from the Wall Street bankers and the MTV cribs celebrities to the zero down/adjustable mortgage first home buyers. In today’s political climate, it is easy to point the finger at the greed on Wall Street that we are all greedy every time we want something for nothing, every time we think we deserve something just because and don’t care whether we can really afford it. Our society has a skewed perception of what’s important. But nothing can change until the definition of the American dream changes and that seems highly unlikely. Because if the definition of American dream weren’t based on risk against great odds, what would be the point of this country? Why would anyone come here?

Heller’s Catch 22: American Business

Catch-22 satirizes American business through Milo Minderbinder. In chapter 24, Milo points out that, in business, truth is often in inconsequential detail. He starts a business called M & M Enterprises in which the M & M stood for Milo and Minderbinder, and the & was inserted “to nullify any impression that the syndicate was a one-man operation.” This name sheds light on two very important details, that truth is inconsequential when it comes to the pursuit of profit and that egomania rules all. Milo could have disguised the fact that the enterprise is a one-man operation by using any number of fake names. For example, the name could have just as easily been M&K or M&T.  But his ego and pride don’t allow him to part with any of the credit, even if that means giving credit to an imaginary person that he made up.

Yossarian views Milo the way that American society tends to view Wall Street. He thinks that Milo is “a jerk” but also knows that “Milo was a genius.” Society is fascinated by Wall Street single-minded pursuit of profit and their lack of allegiance to anyone, even to their own country.  Accordingly, Milo displays a similar lack of allegiance when Major Danby points out that “we are at war with Germany, and those are German planes.” Milo replies, “They are no such thing! Those planes belong to the syndicate, and everybody has a share.” Besides showing a lack of allegiance, this response also points out the way that Milo and corporate society tend to argue out of both sides of their mouth. On one hand, they make public statements about a kill or be killed style of unregulated capitalism and, on the other hand, they try their hardest to construct as pure all the communistic society as possible, one that revolves entirely around what’s good for the small number of people at the top of the corporate ladder who rule the corporation.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’s Colonel Sherburn: More than Just a Satire of a Southern Gentleman

           In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain uses Huck’s keen observations of the world around him to address and attack a variety of societal problems, the most problematic of which is the general state of man within a so-called civilized society. The town of Bricksville, Arkansas and the incident that involves two of its citizens, Boggs and Sherburn, is just one of many examples within the novel that illustrate the power of Huck’s observations and Twain’s response to the poor state of humanity. While the portrayal of Colonel Sherburn is easy to dismiss as just another satire of a Southern gentleman, Sherburn and his speech also serve another purpose, namely to deliver Twain’s visceral attack on the cowardice of man.

The reader is introduced to Bricksville, Arkansas through Huck’s description of the town’s stores and houses. Despite its name, the stores and houses in Bricksville are not made of brick but wood that are “most all old shackly dried-up frame” (Twain 127). The unpainted houses are surrounded by gardens in which the townspeople “raise…jimpson weeds, and sunflowers, and ash-piles, and old curled up boots and shoes, and pieces of bottles, and rags, and played out tin-ware” (Twain 127). These images illustrate the townspeople’s apathy toward their homes and surroundings and leave the reader with the impression that the problem with these individuals is their laziness. Thus, the unpainted homes and yards full of garbage are representative of not only a general state of disrepair of the town of Bricksville but also of the general disrepair of the quality of humanity that lives there.

As Huck travels further into town, he takes note of the hogs and old men loafing around doing nothing, the latter chewing tobacco. The hogs and men are presented with images of mud further reinforcing the portrayal of a backwards society. For example, “you’d see a muddy sow and a litter of pigs come lazing along the street… And she’d stretch out, and shut her eyes… and looked as happy as if she was on salary” (Twain 129). The hogs and their ways are a metaphor for the lazy citizens of Bricksville who do not do an honest day’s work. While at first this metaphor may appear unfair, Huck’s disgust with the town makes more sense when he reveals the sadistic nature of its lazy inhabitants. “There couldn’t anything wake them up all over, and make them happy all over, like a dogfight – unless it might be putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him, or tying a tin pan to this tail and see him run himself to death” (Twain 129). Given the natural antagonism between pigs and dogs, the sentence reinforces the idea that the hogs are a metaphor for the population of Bricksville. However, the sentence also serves to explain Huck’s disdain toward the townspeople who seem to only come out of their slothful state when there is an opportunity for bloodlust directed at someone weaker.

The following paragraph, in which Huck describes the poor state of the houses on the riverfront, fully conceptualizes the town as a whole. The water eats away at the structures until they cave in but remain standing, “such a town as that has to be always moving back, and back, and back, because the river’s always gnawing at it” (Twain 129). Through Huck, Twain shows the reader that there is no hope that anything about the town will ever change except that the conditions of both the town and its inhabitants will continue to get worse and worse. The Boggs-Sherburn scene that comes soon after this argument illustrates this point.

The townspeople get excited at the sight of man Boggs, the town drunk and something of a court Jester, who comes “in from the country” joking that he is on a war path and the price of coffins is about to rise (Twain 130). Boggs makes preposterous threats against Sherburn that no one takes seriously, including Huck. Nevertheless, Sherburn, “the best dressed man in that town” and something of a respectable town elder, is not amused (Twain 130). He makes an unassuming threat of his own. This time the townspeople get concerned and even find Boggs’ daughter to try to calm him down. Unfortunately Boggs doesn’t listen and Sherburn does what he promises.

Despite the tragedy, the townspeople don’t mourn for long. Once Boggs dies and his daughter is pulled away from him, the good people comfort each other by “squirming and scrounging and pushing and shoving to get window and have a look” (Twain 132). They fight for a chance to get a glimpse of the dead body. The injustice that first gets them riled up is not the murder but rather that some people who already looked at the body are not being fair and giving others the opportunity to look, “other folks has their rights as well as you” (Twain 132). Huck slides out of the crowd and observes the rest of the town’s reaction. Besides fighting over who gets to see dead Boggs and for how long, the people of Bricksville also start to reenact the incident for others who missed seeing it happen live. Here Twain reports Huck’s observation with almost stoic realism, “the people that had seen the thing said he’d done it perfect; said it was just exactly the way it all happened” (132).  

The townspeople’s progression of reactions to Boggs death is as follows: brief period of mourning, voyeurism and vulture like squabbling over a piece the dead, reenactment of the incident in a celebratory spectacle, and finally a call for a lynching. Given this progression of events, the call for a lynching barely passes for righteous indignation. Instead it appears as just another form of sadistic entertainment, something similar to their other favorite pastime of tormenting dogs.

In order to conduct the lynching, the townspeople gather themselves in an uncontrollable mob, “yelling and raging like Injuns” and scaring the women and children to death (Twain 133). Here Twain relies on stereotypical images of Native Americans to portray the townspeople as a mob at the height of incivility. As a side note, this portrayal is surprisingly insensitive given Twain’s otherwise deep compassion for the struggles of the underdogs in American society.

As if in deliberate contrast to the incivility of the mob, Sherburn is portrayed as poised and calm. He stands still on the roof of his front porch holding a double barrel gun and gives a speech that is “slow and scornful” (Twain 133). While at first reading, the character of Sherburn appears to be another one of Twain’s attacks on the concept of a Southern gentleman, this interpretation of the scene is perhaps too simplistic. Instead I view Sherburn and his speech as Twain’s attack on the good people of Bricksville and a response to Huck’s disgust with their behavior. In other words, Twain uses Huck’s voice to build the reader’s contempt for the town and then uses Sherburn’s voice to provide the reader with his own visceral reaction to the townspeople’s appalling behavior.

Through Sherburn, Twain begins his verbal attack by emasculating the crowd and laughing at the idea that they could “lynch a man”(133-134). Sherburn identifies them as cowards since only cowards “tar and feather poor friendless cast-out women,” some of the weakest members of a society (Twain 134). He further proclaims that in this mob’s cowardly hands a real man is safe, “as long as it’s daytime” and he is facing them straight on (Twain 134). By emphasizing these aspects of the townspeople’s behavior, Twain portrays Sherburn as something other than a coward. While it is difficult to commend Sherburn’s attack on Boggs, it is nevertheless an illustration of a different and less cowardly approach. It is as if Twain is saying that despite the brutality of Sherburn’s own actions against Boggs, he is not a coward or a hypocrite because his attack did not come from the shadows, as a surprise, or from the back.

On the surface Sherburn embodies what appears to be a satire of a Southern gentleman. He is a self-important, well-dressed Colonel who commits murder that is supposedly justifiable. However, Sherburn is more dimensional than a Southern satire because, in his own speech, he lampoons the very idea of a Southerner, “Why don’t your juries hang murderers? Because they’re afraid the man’s friends will shoot them in the back, in the dark – and it’s just what they would do” (Twain 134). Here Twain again calls the average man, the average Southerner, a coward because he forgoes going at it alone and gets his strength instead from darkness and numbers.

Twain’s attack on society does not stop there. Given his title, Sherburn is likely aware of the horrors of war and addresses them by drawing comparisons between the actions of the mob and the actions of the Army. “The pitifulest thing out as a mob; that’s what an army is – a mob” (134). It is as if Twain is saying that the horrors of war are possible because the Army is made up of average cowards whose power stems from numbers. At the end of his speech, Sherburn commands the crowd to disperse and it immediately does. Their dispersal is Twain’s confirmation that Sherburn is right.

Unlike people of Bricksville, Huck does not seem to be a coward. He takes what Sherburn says to heart and, given that he is only a teenager, Twain portrays him to be much more of a real man then the rest of the townspeople put together. Huck watches the scene unfold and, after Sherburn finishes his speech, watches the crowd disperse and break apart, “tearing off every which way” (Twain 134). He observes Buck Harkness, the man Sherburn accuses of being the leader and only half a man, run right along with his fellow cowards, “looking tolerably cheap” (Twain 134). These observations are indicative of the fact that Huck sticks around long enough to make them. Therefore, though he eventually takes off like the rest of them, Huck fights the idea of being part of the mob. Huck insists that he could’ve stayed, “if I’d a wanted to, but I didn’t want to” (Twain 134). This insistence is Twain’s way of portraying Huck as someone who is not only not a coward but also as someone who is sensitive to being accused of being one.

In conclusion, the character of Sherburn is much more complex than he appears on the surface and his purpose in the novel extends past satire. He embodies both civilization and barbarism and serves as a reaction to Huck’s contempt for the people of Bricksville. As a result, Twain uses Sherburn’s speech as a way to identify and address the cowardice that he sees in the average man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Work Cited

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003. Print.