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Black People Can’t Swim

[ 120 ] November 26, 2012 |

In the summer of 1968, Charles Schulz—born today in 1922—decided not to take the path of least resistance.  In the first months of the Presidential race, the politics of Peanuts were as inscrutable as ever:


The political positions of the birds—one of whom Schulz would christen “Woodstock” two years later—are literally cryptic.  (Snoopy later embraced of identity politics via a nifty collapse of signifier into signified, but let’s not lit-crit these panels quite yet.)  For Schulz, the campaigns of Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace were less important than baseball:


This dead-pan surrealism here is Peanuts at its artistic best, but at a time when America was at war and a segregationist was a viable Presidential candidate, dead-pan surrealism wasn’t the order of the day.  So Schulz sent Charlie Brown to the beach:


This strip’s a fairly typical example of Charlie Brown’s half-hearted exasperation with an unfair world.  The next?


Not only does the world cease its relentless, playful torment of Charlie Brown, but the boy who tamps it down is black and can swim.  Because on 31 July 1968, Schulz introduced the world to Franklin.  May not seem like much, but it’s as explicitly political as Peanuts ever ventures.  Until, that is, 1 August 1968:


The father of Franklin, the black boy who swims, is over in Vietnam.  That second panel neatly illustrates how far Schulz strayed from his comfort zone.  Charlie Brown’s father “was in a war, but [he doesn’t] know which one.”  That’s the extent to which contemporary politics typically intruded the most popular daily comic in America.  But for some reason, Schulz felt the need to contradict conventional racist wisdom that summer.

The racists responded in the manner befitting Wallace-backers: “I don’t mind you having a black character, but please don’t show them in school together.”


It must’ve sucked to be a racist.  Unless, that is, you’re a fan of Dennis the Menace:


That’s from 13 May 1970, two years after Schulz quietly integrated public schools.  There’s much to admire in the matter-of-factness of Schulz’s racial politics.  Not only is there no meta- to it, there’s no mention of it—Franklin arrives, befriends Peppermint Patty, and plays football.

(Re-posted in honor of Schulz’s birthday. If you want to zoom on the images or save them, you’ll have to click over to that link because WordPress is doing something wonky with the images here.)


Impersonating someone can be a federal offense

[ 41 ] November 25, 2012 |

SEK is inside his apartment being forced (by proximity) to listen to children playing basketball on the court adjacent to his porch.

CHILD #1: Pass the ball!


CHILD #1: Pass the damn ball!



SEK: What the—

SEK exits his apartment and looks at his porch. On the ground is a shattered pot and another plant that will inevitably not survive re-potting at this time of year. There is also a basketball. SEK picks up the basketball and looks at the children on the court.

SEK: Which one of you is “RAY ALLEN”?

CHILD #1: What do you mean?

SEK: I mean, which one of you is “RAY ALLEN”?

CHILD #2: Not us.

SEK: Have a good night then.

CHILD #1: What about our ball? Can we have it back?

SEK: This isn’t your ball.

CHILD #1: It is.

SEK: So you’re “RAY ALLEN”?

CHILD #2: No one’s “RAY ALLEN”! Now give us back our ball!

SEK: This ball belongs to “RAY ALLEN.” If you’re not “RAY ALLEN,” this isn’t your ball.

SEK enters his apartment with “RAY ALLEN”‘s ball. Ten minutes pass. His doorbell rings. Standing at the door is an OLDER WOMAN with a firm grip on CHILD #2’s arm.

OLDER WOMAN: My son has something to say to you. (OLDER WOMAN elbows CHILD #2)

CHILD #2: I’m—



Who knows more about football than Rex Ryan? Who does? Who?

[ 60 ] November 23, 2012 |

My cat Sigmund:

Between swatting at Sanchez (0:27) and turning his head in disgust at the image of Tebow (0:56), I think he’s at least earned himself an interview.

Game of Thrones: Learning to use “The Pointy End”

[ 52 ] November 19, 2012 |

As I noted in my first post about this course, one of the signal elements of high fantasy as a genre is the presence of a coming-of-age narrative, and Game of Thrones is clearly no exception. “The Pointy End,” in fact, delivers three distinct moments in which a character is provided an opportunity to take a significant step in his or her maturation process. (It actually contains more than three, but only three of the characters take advantage of the opportunity provided and I want to focus on them.) We’ll begin with Arya Stark, who as the episode opens is literally practicing at life:

Game of thrones - the pointy end00008

The balanced long shot employed by director Daniel Minihan has the effect of bringing a sense of calm to this fencing lesson. Arya and her instructor, Syrio Forel, are playing at combat in a manner as elegant as this shot is composed. Note that Arya moves between the third arch from frame-left, while Syrio strikes at her from the third arch from frame-right. If this is fighting, it is unlike the brutal art being performed outside this very room at this very point in time:

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Game of Thrones: Table-setting and brain-burning in “You Win or You Die”

[ 52 ] November 16, 2012 |

My close-reading instincts typically compel me to focus on scenes more than structure, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. So let’s talk about structure from the point of view of someone who went to film school before the advent of DVDs and Netflix, by which I mean before we could finish one episode and jet right into the next. Traditional dramatic structure in serial narratives involves table-setting and brain-burning. In “You Win or You Die,” here’s how the table’s set:

Game of thrones - you win or you die00009

Jaime Lannister enters the tent of his father, Tywin, but he does so out of focus and in the midground. In the foreground, shot in shallow focus, is a big dead stag-looking beast, which creates a connection in our heads between whatever it is Jaime’s talking about and big dead beasts. (That stags are affiliated with House Baratheon isn’t immaterial either. Especially when you consider that when introduced to Tywin, he’s elbow deep in a dead stag, suggesting his role in Baratheon’s demise.) This is significant because it’s not just that beast is big and dead—as we’re fine with that when such heads are hung on walls—but that it’s in the process of being broken down:

Game of thrones - you win or you die00017

As everyone knows, if you want to make the majority of Americans uncomfortable, ask them where their meat comes from. Tell them that it wasn’t born shrink-wrapped on a styrofoam plate and that it had a sad face when it was dispatched. Point out that the meat department in their favorite grocery store is a literal wall of death befitting of a serial killer’s trophy closet. Or not. You don’t have to do that: seeing Tywin going to town on that beast has already made them uncomfortable enough. The writers and directors know this, which is why they shot this conversation, which could have occurred anywhere, in a room in which Tywin Lannister was butchering his kill. Moreover, it’s significant that Twyin is butchering the beast himself, because as is noted in the “Prologue,” being suckled at your mother’s teat is a sign of being low-born, so surely he has someone in his employ who could butcher this beast for him. The fact that he’s doing it himself is somewhat admirable, in that hunterly way, but it also suggests that he enjoys it, i.e. he enjoys doing something that the majority of Americans can’t even bear thinking about, which makes them dislike him.

Not that they didn’t already, mind you, because the show has long since marshaled our sympathies against the Lannisters, but this is the opening scene in the episode—the lens through which all the events that occur in it will be seen. And there’s a lot going on there. There’s not just the beast on the table, there’s the deliberate arrangement of dialogue and imagery, e.g.

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Gloriously awful student ideas

[ 83 ] November 15, 2012 |

SEK and his class are brainstorming ideas for their end-of-quarter rhetoric-in-practice project.

SEK: Given the fact that we studied Fellowship of the Ring and Game of Thrones, I could easily see something like the “Sean Bean Death Reel” being a viable final project.

STUDENT #1: What if we made a perfect copy of the One Ring out of metal?

SEK: Nope. You can’t turn in anything you bought from Skymall.

STUDENT #2: Can we do Reverse Game of Thrones?

SEK: A Throne of Games?

STUDENT #2: Like we get a regular guy to play Tyrion and hire little people to play everybody el—

SEK: No! No reversing Game of Thrones! That’s unacceptable on so many levels I don’t even know where to begin.

A brief (and oversimplified) cultural history of pornography and profanity on American television

[ 26 ] November 12, 2012 |

In 1993, the American Family Association convinced 57 ABC affiliates not to air the series premier of NYPD Blue because it contained the word “asshole.” A few years later, many conservative groups called for a boycott of the show when news that Dennis Franz’s ass would be shown in an episode. Which isn’t to say that the ’90s were a quaint time in which profanity and pornography only existed on the cultural margins, only that there existed a consensus among network television producers to behave as if they did. Television audiences in the ’90s weren’t shocked by the profane or pornographic content, only that it was appearing on networks during primetime—but they were shocked, as the producers of NYPD Blue intended them to be.

And it was a superficially quainter time: the ability to be shocked by hearing a character curse is completely lost on people whose knowledge of televisual culture can be characterized as post-September 11th. I know because I teach them. Here’s the thing: in order to shock people whose baseline includes all the colors of George Carlin’s rainbow something more extreme must be endeavored. Something like Deadwood. I brought up that sentence in class on Thursday and read it aloud:

Ellsworth: I’ll tell you what: I may have fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.

After discussing its literary quality for a moment, I asked them why their jaded faces had blanched when I read it. The answer, in the end, is because David Milch, who’d outraged audiences in the ’90s with “assholes” and asses on NYPD Blue had found a way to reinvest profanity with its ability to shock. How? When South Park reveled in “shit” in 2001, it became clear that repeating a word robs it of its offensive intent. So Milch went literal: the phrase “hammered shit” offends not because of the presence of the word “shit,” but because “shit” actually signifies shit, and the image of what happens when someone hammers actual shit is disturbing.

Then he introduced an implicit comparison: “human cocksucker.” Ellsworth is “beholden to no human cocksucker,” a qualification with disturbing implications: is he beholden to an inhuman cocksucker? What is an inhuman cocksucker? Why are we even talking about human versus inhuman cocksuckers? The answer to that last one is easy: because David Milch planted that thought in our heads. We didn’t want it there—we would rather have never had to think about it—but it can’t be unthought anymore than certain images can be unseen. Milch recuperated profanity for a generation whose ears would otherwise be dead to it.

A similar dynamic is at work in Game of Thrones, only this time it relates to the pornographic instead of the profane. Contemporary culture is steeped in pornography: if someone traveled back to 1996 with an episode of Jersey Shore they might be arrested for transporting it across state lines, but if they actually managed to air it? The amount of incidental nudity in a single episode of Jersey Shore would drop jaws and make eyes bleed. Remember what happened with Dennis Franz’s ass? One old white ass had conservatives screaming about Nero and his fiddle. How effective would an old white ass be today? Would it shock?

Absolutely not. It would seem neither more nor less appropriate than half the ads on mainstream news sites, much less what college-aged people actually read online. In order to reinvest nudity with its ability to discomfit, Game of Thrones treats sexual situations with the same attitude Milch brought to pornography. Imagine watching a scene in which Littlefinger was Littlefingering with your mother? Pornography may be ubiquitous in contemporary American culture, but it still has its place—and that place is typically a private one that bears little resemblance to you and your mother sitting on a couch. Point being:

You can’t divorce rhetorical effect from historical context. What worked in 1996 fails to offend in 2012. This is a blindingly obvious fact to most people of drinking age, but most of the people I teach aren’t of drinking age. I share this with you because most of the emails I’ve received since the “Littlefinger” post concerned how I deal with the pornography in the classroom when I’m not being flip about it. The answer, as should be clear, is that I contextualize it.

Game of Thrones: How circular is “A Golden Crown”?

[ 11 ] November 12, 2012 |

Very. I know you’re tired of hearing me talk about circles, but it’s not my fault: the series is making me do it. Consider the set design of the Eyrie:


Circles within circles—and significantly, the Moon Door, which had been in a wall in the novel, was shifted to the center of the circular audience chamber for the series:

Game of thrones - a golden crown00050

I mentioned in the previous post that I wouldn’t talk about “empty centers,” but this one is too significant not to. At the center of the seat of power in the Vale is, literally, nothing. A hole. (An execution hole.) An absence that, should someone step into it, well:

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I know who was in those Republican focus groups

[ 17 ] November 12, 2012 |

These people:

“We focus-grouped it to people and realized pretty quickly that viewers wanted debate,” hot-shot First Take producer Jamie Horowitz told Men’s Journal. “In particular, they wanted to see Skip [Bayless] debate.”

Given how legitimately great his younger brother is, I’m sure he’s nicknamed “Skip” because his parents wish they had.

Great moments in anonymous punditry

[ 82 ] November 8, 2012 |

By request, a roughly chronological account of the last few months of our favorite troll’s life:

Romney already hitting it out of the park. Stick a fork in Obama, he’s done.

PPP Polling (an outfit funded by Soros and used by DailyKos) has Obama up only five in Ohio even right after his convention! Right after a convention, in a Democrat-run poll, and +5 is the best BHO can do.

Looks like we’ll be up very late on election night. The race is tight.

STILL panicked over Ryan? You guys are absolutely desperate. It doesn’t matter what Bitme and TOTUS does tonight–it is all overshadowed by tomorrow’s dismal jobs report. No bounce for you.

Romney up by FIVE in new national poll taken from Sept. 4 to Sept. 7th! The bounce is over!

Romney more than exceeded expectations. The whole meme of Romney being wooden or being robotic were smashed tonight. Next week Romney vaults into a lead outside the margin of error. Obama should be panicked, this was a wonderful convention for Republicans.

A NEVER BEFORE SEEN Obama RACE SPEECH video is going to come on tonight, at the Daily Caller and Fox News, 9 PM E.T., contains an accent he never adopts in public, shout-outs to Rev. Wright, anti-white sentiment, portrays America as a zero-sum racist society, insults the poor! This is THE October surprise!

Enjoy the tied race while it lasts because after the convention word is that Romney and the Super PACs are going to bring down the hammer on BHO–and bring it down HARD.Romney now up two in Ohio after the latest poll, right after another one showed him tied there. It’s all slipping away for him, isn’t it?

Romney and his Super PACs have been holding back, but the floodgates will open the fuck up in the fall.

Keep ignoring Citizens United and the coming Super PAC flood (they’ve been holding back for the Fall. The Dems have actually outspent us so far when looking at campaign+party+Super PAC spending, but have far more cash on hand now), the two jobs reports left, and of course the election integrity laws that will stop the kind of shenanigans that happened in 2008. Also ignore that Romney is surging in Wisconsin, in Michigan, and even beginning to put Connecticut in play.

Change is coming to Washington.

Come November you’ll be screaming WE WUZ ROBBED! just like you did in 2000 and 2004.

Watching Obama giving his concession speech will be funny. Good thing I don’t live near the city, because urban riots will inevitably follow, especially with Democrats pre-emptively inflaming the blacks with tales of “Voter supression.”

ObamaCare repealed, a strict constructionist SCOTUS majority for the next five decades at least, across the board tax cuts, a strong national defense and Iran challenged, the keystone pipeline built and offshore drilling driving to new heights, entitlement reforms through means testing and privatization, the global warming scam ended once and for all, and taking a chainsaw to economic regulations.

And that’s just the first term.

By 2021 we will have repealed everything that’s left of the Great Society and the New Deal.

I’d be surprised if it can even look itself in the mirror now, much less show its face around here.

My first ever NSFW post. Enjoy!

[ 7 ] November 8, 2012 |

One of the issues with teaching Game of Thrones is that nudity is treated very casually—so casually that the very idea of watching it with your mother feels deeply wrong. But it must be accounted for, and one of my classes decided to name the regular appearance of casual nudity after scenes in which Peter Baelish conducts important business while people behind him are getting down to business. (About which more shortly.) Today we were discussing scenes in which wolves and lions were isolated, and I was pointing out that in the exchange between Bran and Maester Luwin, the director prefers to give each of them their own frame instead allowing them to share a single. So I’m letting the scene run as I speak :


When all of a sudden I look out at the class and everyone is staring at me. Not in that glass-eyed way that they normally do, but with an intensity that made me want to ask them about their corn. So I said:

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It’s like they replaced his dog-whistle with a bull-horn and gave the control booth over to deaf people who can’t tell the difference.

[ 48 ] November 6, 2012 |

Bill O’Reilly is on FOX arguing that the “white establishment” would’ve “roundly defeated Obama” and elected Romney 20 years ago, but that’s because back then we lived in a “traditional America.” He’s also arguing that women, blacks and Hispanics “want stuff, they want stuff, and who’s going to give them stuff? Not a traditional American.”

This has all the makings of a top-notch meltdown. Not to be missed. Two thumbs WAY up! You won’t find a finer racist rant this holiday season. It’s sexism for the whole family!

Now playing on FOX.

[SL] Elle has the quote.  O’Reilly has a long history of this kind of thing:

O’REILLY: All right. Because black birth rate is fairly stable, right?

MCMANUS: Proportionately, black birth rate and increases in their population will level out and be less significant in growth in that time period. I think Bill will be able to address the numbers better than I can, but…

O’REILLY: OK. And how about Asian? What’s the situation with that?

MCMANUS: Asian — we’re going to see a 213 percent increase, according to the Census Bureau projection, and so that will be a very rapid increase of the percentage of their population in the U.S. as well.

O’REILLY: All right. Now, Doctor, the Census Bureau really doesn’t tell us how this is going to affect the country. Do you have any theories on it?

WILLIAM FREY, PH.D., BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Well, I really think what’s happening is going to be this phasing out or fading out of the white baby boom population. It is a 50-year time period we’re talking about…

O’REILLY: Yes. We’ll all be dead. Thank God, right?

[SEK again] I generally distrust my transcription skills, being deaf and all, but Other Scott’s link indicates that not only did I basically get it right, but it’s actually worse than I made it out to be. And I was trying to hand him some rope to hang himself with.

[And again] Sarah Palin’s trying valiantly to hold back her tears. I’m not saying that means anything, I’m just saying I enjoy watching her try not to weep: “But four more years, of him doing this to our Constitution, this socialism, to what our Founders with their smarts made, it’s just, just, all this socialism …”

[And once more for good measure] Taste their tears. Their precious, precious tears

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