Friday, August 27, 2010

Rabelais Himself Couldn't Have Written A Better Character...

Kanye West represents the best kind of self-aware excess and self-conscious American Braggadocio. He's an epicurean genius, and this is the best snapshot-profile of him that I've read.

promo for the new album:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Changing the Currency

I don’t like the way certain segments of our population have deified the so-called ‘founding fathers’ of this country. This is not a new complaint, I know, but expressing this sentiment is new to me.

The founding fathers were men. They had some good ideas, and they had some bad ones. They had honorable and decent characteristics, and they had some that were a little on the shady side. So it goes. Their writings should not be sacred. Our constitution should not be sacred. Nothing is sacred.

It’s not bad that nothing is sacred. It’s the truth; saying ‘nothing is sacred’ isn’t going to do some bugaboo to the good ideas that are our self declared national rights. Actually, as George Carlin so artfully verbalized in his last HBO special, even our rights are illusory.

We have no rights, and nothing is sacred. Or rather, we have no intrinsic rights, and nothing is intrinsically sacred. The rights we have are the ones that we win for ourselves on a day to day basis, and we make things sacred by declaring them to be so.

While I will win rights for myself, and encourage others to win rights for themselves, I think there are too many sacred things in our culture. Sacred things are unquestionable things. Sacred things are not supposed to be changed. Sacred things are deemed to be sacred by something other than reason, and things that are deemed outside of reason are dangerous because they are not susceptible to the influence of reason. The doctrine that ‘we find these truths to be self evident’ is a faith assumption. That God has given us these inherent rights. This is not true, because there is no evidence to support the existence of a God, and there is no evidence to support the assumption that God has given us anything. Rights are things that are won. They are coaxed. They must be vigilantly guarded. The assumption that there is something divine underpinning our rights leads to complacency and an assumption that ‘in the end, the truth will out’.

That may be true, but the truth that outs will be the truth, not necessarily what your nationalist faith assigns the truth to be.

I want reason and skepticism to underpin our national values. I don’t like the sacred aura that hovers over the constitution, and I don’t like the sacred aura that hovers around the founding fathers. Thankfully it’s becoming increasingly acceptable to openly question religion in the United States. I wonder how far along we’ve come in our willingness to allow our secular dogmas to be questioned?

This proposal may be whimsical, but I have a suggestion for undermining the nationalist religion of ‘the founding fathers’. It may be perceived that I am merely substituting one religion—American Jingoism—for another—my own secular humanism—but I don’t think so. There may have been a time where our national religion was necessary to preserve unity and to move the country forward. I don’t think this is the case anymore. Reason leads me to believe that if we are to survive (and thrive) as a people, we’ll have to embrace reason—and humanism—more fully than we have in the past. The national religion of the past isn’t spawning patriotism and progress anymore. These days, it spawns nativist reactionaries and fat, spoiled, over-privileged protest movements. We can take from the past—we don’t have to build from scratch—but we need a new story arch.

So, onto my small, whimsical suggestion:

I think we should change the faces that we put on money. The people we honor on our currency should be representatives of where we hope to go as a people, rather than representatives of where we have been. Romanticizing our leaders by building monuments for them, and by memorializing them on money only feeds our national atavism. As we move forward, I think we should look towards the arts & sciences for guidance.

Here are my recommendations. I’d love to see yours.

On the 1 dollar bill: Carl Sagan
On the 5 dollar bill: Louis Armstrong
On the 10 dollar bill: Dr. Seuss
On the 20 dollar bill: Kurt Vonnegut
On the 50 dollar bill: Bob Dylan
On the 100 dollar bill: Woody Allen

what do you think?

cross posted at Daily Kos.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Adventures In Daddyblogging, part 5: Teaching Your Kids How To Think, Not What To Think

Many families are ruptured when children come to different ideological conclusions than their parents. Dad and Mom are Maoists, and Jr. is a card carrying member of the John Birch Society. The parents are anti-choice, the kids are anti-life*. The kids are out scrubbing oil off of starfishes while mom and dad are having a Styrofoam bonfire in the backyard. These kinds of software discrepancies can lead to loads of in-fighting, and often end up in mutual alienation.

To me, being a parent is the most important job I could (and do) have, and there’s nothing I spend more time thinking about. The happiness and resilience of my children is of the utmost concern to me. This being the case, I want to make sure I’m offering them the best tools to achieve this happiness and resilience that I can. Often times, the discovery of the best tools come at the end of a significant amount of reflection.

I’ve observed and participated in the kinds of ideological differences that can upset families. The fallout from the expression of these differences can often take a long time to clean up. Sometimes the mess is never cleaned up, and all parties involved carry around an open internal wound for the rest of their lives. The solution to this problem--seems to me--is that parents should be more concerned with the hardware that they’re installing in their children, rather than the software. It’s more important that we offer our children lessons in how to think, rather than simply telling them what to think.

Children will pick up our most personal values by watching us interact with the world, not necessarily from our words. While it may be good to remind ourselves and our children of the values we aspire towards just to keep ourselves on track, our actions will do most of the leg work for us in that area.

What seems to be of the utmost importance--in this age when we are constantly bombarded with information and opinion—is skepticism. Skepticism is hardware thinking. It’s a framework within which we can do all of our other reasoning. Most children are taught to believe things upon Authority, or Revelation. When we’re children, there are certain Authorities we are told never to question, and the Truthiness of revelation often seems to hold sway over the actual facts. Richard Dawkins included a moving letter to his ten year old daughter on this subject in his book 'A Devil's Chaplain'.Skepticism is simple, yet profound. I introduced the idea to my children through a book by Dan Barker called 'Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptics',which very simply instructs children to seek evidence. When someone approaches you with a bit of information, requesting that you believe it, the skeptical answer is ‘Maybe yes, Maybe no. Let’s look at the evidence.’ I’m teaching my children that their personal integrity is important, and thus it’s good to be careful about the things we claim to know for certain. There are people out there who claim many things to be true without sufficient evidence. These people should lose their credibility with us if they continually make unsupportable claims about the nature of things. It’s important to keep an open mind to new evidence, but it’s also important not to follow too many rabbits down too many different rabbit holes.

I will try to teach my children to be compassionate, to experience wonder, and to work hard. I will seek to encourage and validate them while I’m here, and will try to teach them to encourage and validate themselves as well, in preparation for the day when I’m here no longer. I’ll share my opinions with them, but won’t insist that they absorb them. After all, I arrived at most of my opinions by investigation. How could I expect my children to accept my beliefs without a thorough investigation of their own? Everyone must go through their own personal Rumspringa, but it doesn’t have to end in alienation. If we’re not married to our beliefs, then no one gets hurt too bad when one of those beliefs is challenged, or even proven false.

I can see why parents don’t want to allow their children to challenge certain institutions. ‘Because God said so’ is an easy response to a ‘why’ question, but it won’t sate a curious intellect for long. There has to be a reason why something is the case, and even a child not raised to think critically will get around to exploring the logic behind even the most banal of commandments. Usually, if the commandments don’t seem applicable anymore, the kids will abandon them. That is evolution. I want my kids to succeed. I don’t want them to be needlessly burdened by superstitions that still linger in my mind, or the logical or dogmatic errors I am bound to make. I want my kids to ask questions, and to be content with knowing that some of their questions are not going to have answers. I want them to understand that ‘I don’t know’ is a perfect answer in lieu of good evidence.

Mostly, I just want the kids to be happy and resilient. With the tool of skepticism in their mental toolboxes, and with their Mom and myself cheerleading for them, I think this is an attainable goal. To be a skeptic is to have an open mind. It’s to ask questions, and to be glad when we discover errors in our own thinking. A skeptical mind need not go down with the ship of unfounded belief. It’s free to inquire, and free to get off and explore at any port it chooses. I like knowing that my kids will have this kind of freedom of intellectual movement, and I like knowing that their explorations are bound to keep me growing too.

Teaching your kids skepticism is a win-win.

my little freethinkers:

*I am using Penn Jillette’s terminology for these positions. It's much more fun, because it doesn't make either side happy.
**”Preach the gospel at all times, and use words when necessary”-Augustine.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Adventures In Daddyblogging, part 4: Anecdote 1

I took the kids to the art museum today. While we were in the Egypt exhibit, I said, 'look guys, there's a mummy!' and Jack said, 'but where's the Daddy?' and then he did jazz hands. I'm pretty sure he's the reincarnation of Jimmy Durante.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Adventures In Daddyblogging, part 3: Why Animals Are Cute

I've got a new baby boy on the way that we're going to call Langston. Langston's impending birth being the case, I've been thinking a lot about what makes a good parent, what makes a bad parent, and what exactly a parent is. Jerry Coyne has a nice little piece over at Why Evolution Is True that fits well into this general mulling over.


"Although Steve Gould was an implacable enemy of sociobiology, he sometimes indulged in evolutionary psychologizing. In one of his more famous essays, “A biological homage to Mickey Mouse” (free online), Gould noted that over the fifty years since his creation, the image of Mickey had evolved from a rather etiolated rodential form into a squat creature with a big head, big eyes, and short limbs, which were made to seem even shorter but putting them in clothes. Here’s a figure from Gould’s essay (do read it: it’s blessedly free of the cant and pomposity that plagued his later efforts):

Gould even plotted some of these morphological changes (relative head, eye, and cranial vault size), and showed that Mickey was undergoing gradual change (let me point out that this was not punctuated!) towards the appearance of a juvenile mouse: bigger head, bigger eyes, and larger cranial vault, and that this juvenilization was driven by viewers ‘ preference for a cuter, more anthropomorphic mouse. Mickey was undergoing neoteny: the evolutionary process whereby juvenile features in an ancestor are retained into adulthood in a descendant. (We humans are supposedly neotenic, resembling a juvenile chimp or gorilla far more than we resemble their adults.)

Gould also showed that the baby animals we love so much (he shows figures of a rabbit, bird and dog) have relatively bigger and rounder heads, and bigger eyes, than do adults—as, of course, do human babies. He speculates, following Konrad Lorenz, that we have an innate tendency to lavish attention and affection on mammals with these juvenile features, and that this aesthetic preference is adaptive: those of our ancestors who fixated on the big heads and eyes of babies would leave more offspring than those who weren’t as turned on by the sight of their infants. Importantly, Gould showed that if this preference were evolved, it could have done so in two ways: a) a hard-wired preference for juvenile morphological traits: we are born with this aesthetic sense, or b) through an evolved but flexible “learning module”: we have genes that tell us to favor whatever features appear in our offspring. The latter explanation is a form of imprinting: presumably if your and everyone else’s baby were suddenly born with small heads and eyes, and long legs and noses, we’d instantly find those features cute."

As David Sloan Wilson noted in the introduction to his awesome book Evolution For Everyone, it's not obvious for everyone to understand how widely evolutionary principles apply to our lives. Most of get the connection between dinosaurs and evolution, and human ancestry and evolution, but we're often very willing to overlook the clarity an evolutionary lens can cast on psychological, sociological, and yes, even parenting issues.

And anything that shits,throws up, and cries as much as babies do should thank merciful Zeus that parents like myself have been programmed to appreciate--in spite of all the soiled diapers, expensive baby clothes, and lost sleep--how damned cute the little buggers are, and how the littlest grin and giggle can be enough to brush layers of cynicism off of the most embittered shoulders.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Adventures In Daddyblogging, part 1: Divine Parenthood

Well, as is usually the case, I've failed to stay away from the blogosphere for an entire month. Kind of.

We just went to the doctor yesterday and found out that we'll be adding a third male child to our brood. The Troxell virus is spreading! We're pretty sure we're going to call him Langston, after Langston Hughes. His middle name will likely be Raymond, after my mother-in-law's dad. Langston Raymond Troxell.

I'm not totally going to violate my no-writing new blog posts policy. Beginning today, I'm going to start posting some of the things I've written about children and parenting and stuff like that. I'll be doing this as kind of a refresher for me, just to see where I've been as a parent, and hopefully get a glimpse of where I'm going. To me, being a decent parent is my number one priority. I think number one priorities deserve special consideration.

I thought maybe I should go ahead and get my most controversial statements about parenting out of the way right from the start. So here is an essay I wrote last December called 'Divine Parenthood'

This morning, I woke up thinking about baby Jesus in the manger. Very cute, very hopeful. What a nice story. Babies are wonderful. As a father of two beautiful young boys, I am well aware of the anxiety and anticipation that comes with signing up for parenthood.

The disturbing thing about the baby Jesus story that for some reason I hadn't connected until this morning, is that Jesus the man ends up being crucified (according to Christianity) for the sins of mankind, at his father's behest. That's not a happy ending for baby Jesus.

Aside from the absolutely illogical and primitive concept of the scapegoat, Jesus's story, if told from a biblical perspective, is one of terrible parenting.

I ask you, fellow parents: Would you subject your child to such a brutal symbolic act? I suppose it's not surprising that we're talking about the same parent that asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, allowed Job's family to be murdered, and requested that all parents mutilate their children's genitals to be in 'the club', instead of giving out secret decoder rings, which are much cooler and way less painful.

Since I have become a parent, the erosion of my faith has quickened. Who would ask their children to believe there is a devil out there, always angling to get them? Who would tell their children that they are born in a sin so black that some man 2,000 years ago had to be murdered on their behalf? Who would tell parents of children with chronic illnesses or serious birth defects that 'This is your cross', and 'God only gives us pain that we can handle'. Who would deliver their children into the hands of charlatans and maniacs by teaching them to blindly believe the doctrines of a primitive faith, and to refuse to arm them with wonderful tool of skepticism?

In a Time Magazine debate with Francis Collins, Richard Dawkins said, "If there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed." I have not heard a truer sounding statement about God or a possible God in my life. On reviewing the actions of the God of the Christian bible, it's nearly impossible not to come to the conclusion that he doesn't stand up to that criteria.

My Christmas wish this year is that my children remain healthy and happy, and that every parent out there channels whatever resources they have inside them to be the best Parent possible.

Jehovah certainly hasn't set the bar very high, but that's no reason for us to give up on ourselves. In the absence of obvious role models, it's upon us as individuals to step up.