How Bond’s “Skyfall” Apes Nolan’s “Batman”

November 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Has Christopher Nolan killed action movies? The typical response would be: Of course not! The Batman triology and Inception are some of the most innovative, exciting, even thoughtful pieces of a genre gone stale! He’s blended action with ideas! Thrills with moral dilemma! Heroes with psychological depth!

And yet I wonder. Not only has Nolan’s strengths been way overestimated, but it feels like his personal style has mutated into a generic benchmark for what might be called “serious action” movies. The fun, free-wheeling summer blockbuster still lives on (think AvengersSpiderman, etc.) but Nolan’s success at the box-office and with critics has led Hollywood to lick their chops at the thought of achieving the movie industry’s holy trifecta: ticket receipts, cult followings, and critical success. Nolan flicks are becoming the model for directors who want to do car cashes and explosions and shoot-’em-ups and all that–but as art!

Pardon me if I sound cynical, but my taste of this new genre has me crinkling my nose. Janelle and I saw Skyfall last night, and the movie could have not have been more indebted to Nolan if he had footed the production bill himself. Think fast: what movie(s) involve a troubled orphan with psychological scars; a climatic battle at a childhood manor; a creepy, disfigured, erratic villain; a hero triumphing over age and injury; the bad guys dressed up in police uniforms; and moralistic speeches about public safety and the need for shadowy figures to maintain the mirage we call civilization? Skyfall follows the formula to a T, but second helpings are never as good as the first time around. While we forgave Nolan’s suffocating moral seriousness and labyrnthic plot lines because the feel was fresh, and Heath Ledger was so mesmerizing we would have watched him read the dictionary, Skyfall was largely boring.

It might be Ledger’s performance that’s the biggest obstacle for this wave of action movies. Ledger was so brilliant that good directors are wasting good actors trying to recreate the Joker in their own film (we see this same problem with Moriarty in the BBC Shylock). Javier Bardem, in No Country for Old Men, was a force of nature, a menacing figure of brute fate wrecking havoc across the desert like a hurricane. His stature and stare has all the makings for a good Bond villain. In Skyfall? He comes dressed up in a ghastly blonde wig, prone to bizarre analogies and giggles, and is driven to senseless violence by a Freudian attachment to M. In a “Do you want to know how I got these scars” moment, he pulls out his fake teeth to reveal the burned and blackened gums he received for eating an emergency cyanide pill that was supposed to kill him. The moment is supposed to be revolting, but the audience has already lost its lunch long ago staring at the hideous yellow caterpillars stapled above his eye sockets.

Bardem’s character, Silva, not only tries to resurrect the Joker’s evil pranks, but he comes fully loaded with that same inexplicable omnipotence that lets him hatch a plan with unlimited resources anywhere at any moment. Once again, we have to endure a frantic character screaming the line “He wanted to be caught!” and reenact another litany of contingencies that the villain has impossibly foreseen and meticulously planned for. Bond’s chasing me through an underground sewer? No problem, I’ll push a button, blow a hole in perfect spot in the ceiling right as a train barrels through and blocks him from me. Piece. of. cake. Granted, action villains have always had access to seemingly unlimited resources, but Nolan’s Joker took that standard trope to the extreme by giving him total control anywhere at anytime, dressing up his gang in police uniforms whenever he liked and rigging riverboats with explosives like was stocking party snacks. Silva’s control of every situation is equally unlimited (he and his lackeys also march into Parliaments’s chambers wearing none other than–you guessed it!–police uniforms) and equally frustrating.

Nolan’s other flaw has been pretending that “character development” can be reduced to “troubled childhood” or “fear of weakness,” which bestows an aura of depth while exonerating the character from exhibiting any real, you know, change or emotion or that kind of thing. In Skyfall, Bond is a deep character (we are bludgeoned to remember) because he is an orphan or he stares into mirrors sometimes or he struggles doing pull-ups…or something. My point is not that Bond needs to be more developed–some characters don’t need any “development” at all, their stolid predictability is what makes them so memorable in the first place. But placing the facade of complexity over an action-hero we don’t need to care about is one of many ways of being condescending to your audience.

Maybe what’s frustrating is that Skyfall shows glimmers of excitement and style that, less constrained by Nolan’s presence, might have developed into an impressive movie of its own making. I like Daniel Craig, and Sam Mendes is a fine director overall. He has an eye for catching the mood with a brief but poignant shot; he makes full use of his sets. The best scene of the movie involves a Chinese skyscraper draped in darkness with the soft glow of advertisements lighting up the outer walls. It also leads to the best fight scene of the movie–not the crumbling train or motorcycle chase you see in the trailers, but a silhouetted Bond facing his equally shadowed nemesis, their fist-fight painted against the tranquil night sky behind them. Here, less is clearly more; the powerful yet frantic movements of an action-move standard come alive. For a moment, the movie has a scene as cool as its character. For a moment.

[For an account of my the movie’s sexism–which is worse than usual–see this post]

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Thoughts on the Election

November 7, 2012 4 comments

Election Days fascinate me: politicians, pundits, and voters spend months imagining, predicting, and trying to shape one single day. Then that day finally comes, the results pour in with a whirl, and that one instant determines the lines and rules for the next round of political boxing for the next two years. The results of this year’s elections are especially interesting. Most of these observations I’m absorbing from other commentators, even if I don’t cite them directly.

  • Polls are meaningful. He was excoriated, but Nate Silver was almost exactly right in his projections. Even in such a tight election, the numbers were a reliable predictor of how things were going to shape out. I think pundits like to believe that they have some special insight from their gut that trumps statistics (otherwise, they would have to face the uncomfortable question: what good are they?). While I didn’t find this terribly surprising, I expected more variety than we got–that’s what my gut was telling me, anyways.
  • The GOP base doomed Romney. Jacob Weisburg made this argument, and I think he’s mainly right, though not exactly for the reasons Weisburg gives. Though the overall field was weak, Romney was a strong GOP candidate. Few nominees come from either party with the credentials and experience he has. But he had to spend so much time convincing his own party that he was a credible candidate (distancing himself from “Obamney Care,” picking Paul Ryan) that he couldn’t emphasize his greatest strength: he’s a moderate Republican with bipartisan experience  who’s an excellent manager. But “bipartisan experience” isn’t a strength when the party wants to repeal Democratic bills like Dodd-Frank or Obamacare wholesale. “No-compromise” politics right now appears to favor the Democrats.
  • That GOP base will change. If for nothing else than from necessity. But I think many in the GOP are legitimately concerned that they are not casting their representative net wide enough. You pick your battles in politics, and I think the GOP knows that their economic message still resonates with a lot of Americans. But it’s those other issues–immigration, health care, women’s rights–that makes it difficult for that message to stick. The Most Americans said the economy was their number one priority, but my hunch is that if the other issues don’t line up to, then even a top priority can be trumped. Which leads to…
  • The beginning of the end of the today’s cultural wars. OK, that’s putting it a little strong, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that behind the presidential and congressional races, this was a huge election day for social issues. Maine and Maryland (and probably Washington) became the first states to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. Minnesota refused to ban it. Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana (though I’d consider marijuana laws more of a criminal justice issue). These all passed by healthy margins. Now other marijuana measures failed, and same-sex marriage bans still exist in the majority of states. But challenges are coming more frequently, and opposition groups seem spent. The days of the Moral Majority and the Republican Party walking hand in hand to the polling booth and then into the White House or the Capitol building are likely over. What form the cultural wars will take next has yet to be seen. My money is on how we make end-of-life decisions. But to contradict everything I just said, the other thing we witnessed was…
  • The rebirth of the cultural wars. In case you were wondering, yes, it’s true: abortion and rape are very, very sensitive subjects. Richard Murdock and Todd Akin now have a lot of free time to reflect on that.
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Teaching Institute: The Arsenal

November 5, 2012 Leave a comment

After my last institute post describing my amateur wanderings into the thickets of biblical commentaries, I thought it might be worth actually detailing what books I use in my class prep. So I offer this as some suggestions for anyone, particuarly other Mormons (see the last few paragraphs), interested in trying to dabble in some biblical scholarship.

To reiterate from last time, I initially turned to a friend of mine whose getting his PhD studying the Hebrew Bible. While he wasn’t a New Testament guy per se, he had some good suggestions: the commentary series he suggested were the Hermenia and the Anchor Bible. Both sounded stellar, but the Hermenia was much thicker and more detailed than I could handle, and I couldn’t find the Anchor Bible series for the gospels. For a general introduction, he suggested Bart Ehrman’s (famous for “Misquoting Jesus,” pop-Bible Studies book) Introduction to the New Testament. I soon found that while I could probably use a broad introduction, the pressures for planning for each class didn’t make time for it.

So I scouted around some more on my own. One series I found especially useful is Tom Wright’s (i.e., N.T. Wright) New Testament for Everyone (see a rave review from a Mormon blogger here). They are on the far left of the picture. These short little books provide a very basic but insightful analysis of each of the books of the NT that is appropriate for, well, everyone. The anecdotes and object-lessons he uses are so conversational that his commentary wouldn’t feel out of place in a sermon, and I’ve found his perspective very enlightening and perfect for an institute audience: it helps make sense of the New Testament without losing sight of its religious importance for a believing reader. Wright’s translation is simple and straight-forward to (kind of how the original authors wrote it!). Highly recommend for, well, everyone.

The second series I’d recommend is the New Cambridge Bible Commentary, the blue and gold books in the middle. Written for “a wide range of intellectually curious individuals,” each volume has the rare virtue of being relatively short. Most commentaries can be oppressively huge and with a stack of 1000+ volumes available for each gospel (not to mention many other biblical books), it’s enough to make one throw in the towel before the game begins. The NCBC manages its information by not focusing on the minutia of language so much, which is often a point of emphasis for most commentaries. It looks at a book’s historical context, its literary unity and style, and also does a great job at situating the gospels within other pseudo-graphic and extra-biblical sources. It’s new, and only has John, Matthew, a few other books so far, but I’ve found it provides good non-theological commentary.

Some of the other commentaries I’ve arrived at thanks to a biblical commentary reference guide I found randomly at the library, which gave something like a “Top 5” best commentaries for each biblical book and a short blurb for all the others. No guide is perfect, but it did help give me a sense of which books might be worth my time. The John and Luke commentaries, by Baker and Hendrickson respectively, are older and more pastorally-inclined, but I find them as handy, middle-of-the-road commentaries. I wanted to get Raymond Brown’s commentary on John, which is supposed to be a classic, but it was checked out. I’m trying out the New International Commentary on the New Testament work on Matthew, by R. T. France, and it’s been helpful for studying the Sermon on the Mount, though I’m not overly “wowed” by it so far. The other books on the shelf (Brown’s short introduction to Johannine writings; Craig Blomberg on the parables) are books that sounded good but I probably won’t be able to crack into them much.

The last two are two bibles I’ve looked at: the NRSV Oxford edition, which is a standard for academic classes, and N.T. Wright’s (yep, him again) Kingdom New Testament. The NRSV is useful because it gives a short introduction to each book that addresses authorship, textual scholarship, and a brief overview. Plus, its language is more clear than the KJV while still retaining traditional phrasing or words where appropriate (it’s also remarkably cheap for a quality-bound book). The Kingdom New Testament is a different animal–a tad bizarre, but exciting. Wright really emphasizes the direct, plain prose that is the hallmark of the Greek. There is also no annotations or footnotes, which helps keep your reading steady. While I appreciate the “de-mystifying” of the prose, he relies on the exclamation point a lot, and it becomes distracting (was every Beatitude shouted?). I need to expand my range of translations, but the commentaries help with some of that.

Also, some resources not pictured here: my LDS scriptures, naturally, though I find that because I’m typing my notes in Evernote on my laptop, I almost always rely on the church’s online scriptures rather than cracking open my quad (whose bind is doing some cracking on its own; I’m kind of hoping an updated version is down the pipeline before I buy a new set). Sometimes I don’t even see the text in my copy of the scriptures until I open them for class.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention perhaps the most useful source for KJV-reading Mormons: Footnotes to the New Testament for Latter-Day Saints, edited by Kevin Barney. This is a tremendous labor of love; I can’t imagine how much time it must have taken. Barney glosses difficult KJV wording and phrases and draws on his knowledge of biblical languages to point out bad translations in the KJV or where readers should be aware of linguistic ambiguity. There are also a few theological and Restoration-scripture glosses here and there. What’s particularly useful about it, besides being in PDF (and free!) is that the base text is the same we study in class, so I keep remember what wording my students will be looking at. The footnotes are pretty dense, so it’s not handy for trying to do an initial reading of the material, but great for a second or third time through.

Some other books that I can’t really speak to but other Mormon readers might be interested in: Julie Smith’s Search, Ponder, and Pray, which is a devotional commentary on the gospels. My brother took some of Smith’s institute classes at U of Texas and raves about her. I looked at a sample on my Kindle, and while the book seems promising, the book has been so poorly formatted as an eBook (not Smith’s fault, I’m sure) that it wasn’t very accessible, on the Kindle or on my computer. It’s too bad it can’t be rereleased after it’s been better formatted; the price is certainly tempting. Another book that I haven’t gotten but would like to soon is James Faulconer’s Life of Holiness: Notes and Reflections on Romans 1, 5-8. 500 pages for just 5 chapters? I can’t wait. Maybe for Christmas. Faulconer’s Faith, Philosophy, Scripture is a great collection of essays on Mormon theology, and he’s a thoughtful interpreter of scripture.

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Loving our Neighbor’s Enemies

October 25, 2012 1 comment

With any close relationship, be a friend, family member, spouse, chances are that you’ll deeply hurt them at some point. Whether by negligence, anger, or spite, your words are almost irrecoverably bound to cause serious damage, probably sooner than later. All marriages, friendships, and parenting run this risk, and both sides generally understand this from the beginning (sorry, kids). But what we often forget is that not only can you, but other people can hurt them as well, that words, looks, or cruel silences you have absolutely no control over will likely wound your closest companions while you look helplessly on.

This pain I have found to be much more difficult to deal with than the pain I cause on my own. At least when I am the perpetrator, I can also be the penitent, the shamed sinner that can roll up his sleaves and begin the work of reconciliation. Though the pain I cause is real and fresh, it lies only between us.

But when the pain comes from beyond, when I am no longer the initiator but the gawking bystander, suddenly a friend’s anguish becomes more searing. Now I am cut off from any ability to mend the wrongs, to bind the wounds. “I’m sorry” is meaningless, and my apologies are hollow. My name is no longer tied to that pain, and it leaves me incapable of trying to relieve it.

What do you do when you can’t rebuild the bridges someone else has burned? The answer is quite instictual: you get mad. Really, very mad. Furious that someone else could cause such pain to someone you love, that they would cause such pain, and without even clearing it with you before hand. What’s worse is when that pain comes not in deliberate attacks but unintentionally, as the cruel thoughtless word or the indifferent neglect. At least with a head-to-head collision, the battle lines have been drawn and there’s no moving forward until both sides get out of the way. Yet sideswipes can cause just as much damage but without the hope of reconciliation, as the careless driver tears off silently and unknowingly.

This pain caused by others, inflicted on those you love most, can release the worst in all of us. Caught between helpless passivity and the need to retaliate, we let rage take over, believing that if we can’t make amends ourselves, at least we can churn up some anger on our friend’s behalf. For these situations, we often unleash those the worst vials of spite that we keep bottled up and hidden away inside us. There is a certain ironic freedom that comes with raging against our friends’s abusers that tends to release the deepest anger we hold. Outside of the economy of pain, we bear neither the burden of forgiving nor of seeking forgiveness. We delude ourselves into thinking that outside of these burdens, we can finally let our rage run wild. In fact, our delusion can become so complete that we believe that the greater our anger against the abuser, the greater our love for our friend. Surely I care for them, we say, look at how upset I am! Even as we indulge this spite, we justify it to ourselves: all for the noble cause of a loved one.

This delusion is so often embraced because it is so convenient. Anger, after all, is a far easier emotion to manage than empathy. Nothing comes more naturally than rage; becoming angry at someone is almost as simple as bidding them good morning. I find that with barely any effort at all, I can become angry at six people before breakfast, no problem. It’s the fast-food of emotions: instantaneous and guiltfully fulfilling, if often regretted a few hours later.

Empathy is an entirely different matter. It is not an animal seething and lunging, begging to be set loose, like anger. Nor is it immediate and gratifying, a delicious morsel ready to indulged. It’s not like food at all; in fact, quite the opposite. Empathy is starvation. It is excavating our soul in order to cup the tears pouring out of someone else. Empathy is the hollow space we create within us, tossing out our own feelings so that our friend can set down some of their suffering for a while, even if only to catch their breath. In that cavity, there’s simply no room left for the anger which we believe justifies us, which we vainly believes demonstrates our love, which rails against another in mock-defense of a friend. There’s simply no room. It all has got to go.

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Teaching Institute: Finding my Bearings in a Sea of Scholarship

October 18, 2012 1 comment

Over a month ago, I was called to be our stake’s institute teacher. For the uninitiated, that means I teach a church class once a week to young adults, usually on a book of scripture. I was very excited for the calling; I have spent the last three years teaching a youth Sunday School class to 12-year old boys, and while I loved hanging out with the kids, it will be nice to teach students who are polite enough to at least hide the fact that they are deadly bored instead of making it painfully obvious every ten minutes.

I’m teaching the New Testament this year, which has been a blessing and a curse. I love the New Testament, especially the four gospels. It’s the heart of Christian living, and each work is brilliantly written in its own way. But it’s a curse, too, because it has a history, a foreign language, and a solid 2000 year-gulf that we have to traverse each class period. New Critical methods that insist we stick with the “text” and not try to delve too much into historical context or authorial intent can be a helpful way to bracket a lot of questions I simply don’t know how to answer, but at some point the teacher feels responsible for providing more information, background, and insight than can be gleaned for personal study. While I would never pretend to be a New Testament scholar, I feel it is important that my students at least know that it exists, or that I at least am aware of that scholarship and verify that my teachings and insights are built on the sandy foundation of mistranslations or textual inaccuracies.

And this is where I’ve been startled to realize how helpless I am as a lay-instructor of an LDS New Testament class. While Mormons read the scriptures a lot–daily, we are instructed–we are essentially reading in a demilitarized zone, cut off from modern translations, scholarship, or commentaries. We are one of the last Christian churches to still use the King James Version of the Bible, and our sparse linguistic footnotes and densely-printed double-columns can make the difficult language nearly impenetrable. On top of that, we have very little sense of where our scriptures even come from, or the context in which they were written: who wrote each book, exactly? What year were they written? If the authors weren’t eyewitnesses, where were they getting their information?

Not only do these questions never get raised, but there is never any sense for how a lay Mormon might go about to answer them. I generally consider myself to be a curious Mormon who wants to learn more about the Bible and is willing to accept that many of my traditional notions about it might be wrong. At the recommendation of a good friend and biblical scholar, I purchased the New Oxford Annotated Bible (based on the NRSV translation). Yet when I sought a couple of commentaries or biblical introductions in the Notre Dame library, I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of material looming over me, mocking my ignorance and taunting me to dare chip away at it. It didn’t take long to realize that the solution was more complicated than simply grabbing a commentary and start reading: each commentary has its own particular emphasis, with its own theological leanings, and its own level of academic rigor. Some were pastoral, designed to be references for writing sermons. Other were academic tomes aimed at parsing individual words or phrases. Some had social or political concerns in mind. None, I was sure, was at all interested in how the Sermon on the Mount compared with 3 Nephi 12-14.

I had come face-to-face with a serious problem with church instruction that relied strictly on lay members: where is a curious Mormon to turn for some direction on how to study the bible? The church handbook, I was surprised to find, insisted on only reading the KJV in English, was openly wary about non-correlated commentaries, and counseled that studying by the Spirit was sufficient. Fair enough, but what about all the scriptures insisting we seek knowledge by study as well as faith, and to seek out the best books? It quickly became apparent that for a Mormon instructor, even an institute teacher, there were no directions or suggestions for biblical study beyond the LDS Standard Works. There is of course the manuals for each standard works, but each are nearing 40 years old, and for a church that insists on continuing revelation, it is more than slightly ironic that the views of apostles and presidents from the 1970s continue to hold disproportionate sway over scriptural and doctrinal interpretation. Of course, no one wants devotional classes to become a history lesson. But for a church whose founder, though he claimed to receive direction revelation, studied biblical languages and translations voraciously, we could be more open to incorporating knowledge with faith.

The problem is not merely that we don’t know enough about the Bible, but that we don’t even know where to go to learn more. Most churches expect their pastors to have at least more than amateur knowledge of the texts they are teaching. Where does the Mormon church-goer turn to? Who do they trust? If we venture beyond the bounds of correlated material, how does one find their bearings in a sea of biblical scholarship that is probably more vast than any academic topic out there? With lay teachers and lay leaders, we are less comfortable than most trusting “experts” with scriptural interpretation or analysis, and yet it is obvious to almost everyone that a little expert advice would go a long way to making sense of these works.

I have a lot more to say on this topic, but I’ll stop for now. This institute thing has been an experiment, as I’ve tried to figure out the best way to not only learn the most I can but teach the most effectively possible. I’ll try and post periodically on this to help me reflect on the process.

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Taxes and the Circle of Life: We are, have been, or will be the “47%”

September 18, 2012 1 comment

Many have probably heard about the hidden video released yesterday of Romney essentially writing off 47% of Americans as free-loaders and shoe-in voters for Obama. Here’s the transcript:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.

A few thoughts on all of this:

1) Overall, “gaffes” are almost always overhyped because it validates the media’s superficial coverage: rather than doing actual investigation on the candidates or their positions, they serve as “exposers” of quips and ill-spoken quotes and then get to analyze how that will affect the “race.” Candidates have become strait-jacketed because they never know what thing they say will go viral, so political discourse becomes bland and hyperbolic at the same time.

2) Romney was speaking to at a fund-raising event, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he ratcheted up the rhetoric.

3) Plus, the only people who should be surprised by this statement are that tiny minority who has never spoken to a Republican ever. I’ve heard this statistic all the time from Republicans, with the same level of disdain for “those people” over there who take and take but never contribute to society. It’s a Republican founding myth: “In the beginning there were workers and moochers, and behold, the moochers did cry for all our stuff, and the government doth give it to them.”

4) There are few statistics out there that are so ubiquitously used and yet so deeply misunderstood to. Who are those “47%?” Many writers and pundits have already broken down the stats, but here’s the sum up:

 

Source: Tax Policy Center

As this graph suggests, that 47% is no homogenous bunch. We have students (the young) and retirees (the old) with a good helping of working folks who pay payroll taxes but don’t earn enough–or have too many kids–to exceed their deduction/credit limit. A better way to understand this group as those that are on the margins of the life-cycle: when you’re young and old (or starting a family with entry level work) you tend to not pay income taxes. Here’s a better way to visualize it:

 

Source: The Hamilton Project

In short, it’s about the life-cycle, not freeloading. If you don’t pay income taxes, you will, or you did, or thank you for having lots of children so that they can contribute to Social Security.

5) What’s bizarre is that many in this group–working class families but especially the elderly–are probably more solidly in Romney’s pocket than most groups of Obama voters.

6) What’s even more bizarre is that helping people not pay income taxes is a great example of conservative welfare principles. Reihan Salam at the National Review has a great post on this (and may I just say, there are few conservative pundits out there I respect as much as Salam. I wish he had a bigger soap box). In short, conservative welfare principles is about helping people out without undermining incentives to work. A great way to do that is incorporate subsidies into the income tax code: high deduction rates and children tax credits are only available if you work. Rather than dropping money in your lap no questions asked (generally a bad idea), you reward working by indirectly helping you earn more than your actual wages. That is why many conservatives, like Salam, push for wage subsidies too. And why many tax cuts passed by Republicans have helped pushed more people into that 47% (see Ezra Klein on this). So helping people not pay income tax is a great way to provide financial aid to young, poor families without undermining the work ethic. Romney should be championing these things. But he’s not.

7) So the next time somebody goes off about how many Americans are dependent on the government, and that 47% don’t pay taxes, just remember when they say “47%” they really mean “students, the elderly, or poor, large families.” Or, in other words, Satan’s minions.

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Nature

September 10, 2012 6 comments

Nature

Found this near my bed. Mold Guy says our room, because we are partially underground in a basement apartment, “has very moist conditions.” Thanks, Mold Guy!

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