History in a Picture: Preston Road, Texas

Living in the fastest growing city in the United States has meant a sprawl of construction and the expansion of high-traffic roads.  I took the picture below on the way home from work; in it you can see the layers of Preston Road in Frisco, one of the oldest roads in Texas and once the pathway of the Shawnee Trail, used by settlers and later for cattle drives north of Austin. 


From the Diaries of Evelyn Waugh:
5 May 1963  How to invent names for fictitious characters without fear of prosecution?  This morning's Times has births to Clague, Fimbel, Futty and Prescott-Pickup.
I'm on vacation this week; hence the want of posts.

O for a Muse of Celebrity Impressions

H/T: Sully

I Sense a Market

After finishing yesterday evening's bedtime stories, I told my son to close his eyes and go to sleep while I picked up Paul Ricoeur's philosophical work The Rule of Metaphor and read aloud but quietly, hoping the dense tome would hasten his passage to dream land.

After hearing two sentences, he rolled over and muttered, "Let me know when there's a picture."

More on Indoctrination and the Fair Education Act

Elena Maria Vidal offers a minor caveat to my advice to parents about indoctrination in the education system:
As a student I learned to sift arguments and draw my own conclusions based upon evidence. However, I do want to say that a lot depends upon the child and his temperament. Some children, in spite of their parents' best efforts, are more easily daunted by what is going on around them in the classroom. They are more easily swayed by peer pressure. It does not mean they have weak characters. It is just that different personality types have different approaches to learning and different ways dealing with the world. I have seen children from the same family react in totally unique ways to the same methods of education. Some children find it harder not to be absorbed into the system and for them nonconformity is more of a challenge. Therein lies the struggle which many parents already have for the souls of their children.
Fair enough.  Teaching children to recognize indoctrination and to think critically about the propagated doctrines will prove much for difficult when children are more disposed to conformity, either from habit or from temperament.  It nevertheless should remain a primary goal of education, and I think Elena Maria Vidal would agree.

Regarding the Fair Education Act, from which I had segued into this discussion of indoctrination, I confess to being baffled by Elena's take on the bill.  She writes:
What the Fair Education Act is really about is exposing children to squalid information about the private lives of adults. It is information that they do not need to have in order to appreciate the life work of outstanding historical characters especially since it is material mostly based upon rumor and hearsay. When the classroom becomes filled with too much unnecessary and confusing knowledge then a genuine opening of the mind is hindered rather than fostered.
I fail to see any evidence for this reading, at least in the bill itself, and I'm having a hard time imagining teachers using this legislation as an excuse to discuss squalid details of private lives or textbooks beginning to include juicy tidbits, anecdotes, and speculation about gay, lesbian, and transgendered Americans.  Maybe I'll change my mind after a few years of having a child in the public education system.  In the meantime, I'm inclined to agree with Frank M's take in the comments at Vox Nova: "What it attempts to do is de-legitimize the marginalization of social “undesirables” in school textbooks ... the legislation does not make any requirement about discussing homosexual behavior or expression; it only relates to the existence of homosexual persons and their contributions to the state’s development." 

Mr. Zero Knew

Can't say I recommend Dan Savage's advice that fooling around can sometimes save a marriage, but he's correct that marriages should survive infidelity and that couples who are not prepared to commit to complete fidelity shouldn't make that kind of commitment.  As he says, his views on divorce are actually conservative: he's very much against it, especially when children are involved.

Also in his interview with Stephen Colbert (warning: explicit language), Savage underscores why same-sex marriage is making more and more sense to the general population: the meaning of marriage has become relative to individual couples. Some couples decide to commit to monogamy; others have what are called open marriages.  Some couples vow to stay true for life; others treat marriage as a test drive.  Some couples try to have children; others take steps to have a childless marriage.  Aside from the basic legal definition of marriage, the institution means whatever each couple wants it to mean.  It's defined by the commitment they decide to make.  Given this, there's no logical reason to exclude same-sex couples from participating in the institution.

Heterosexuals changed the meaning of marriage some time ago. What we're seeing now isn't some new agenda, but the practical consequences of this hardly new social transition of meaning.  Returning society to a previous meaning of marriage will require another transition of meaning, but to which of the many "traditional" meanings of marriage will the reformers of marriage wish to take us?  That's the question. 

Debating Themes and Lessons in Harry Potter

I've really dug reading Alyssa Rosenberg's blog on culture, but I had a knee-jerk negative response to this post of hers in which she draws some political lessons from the Potter novels.  I tend to dislike the search for lessons in works of fiction, not because they aren’t ever there, but rather because too often in my experience the debate about the merits of a work of fiction gets reduced to a debate about the lessons it allegedly provides.  A fictional work is good if it affirms my worldview, bad if it doesn't.  Rosenberg wasn't making this kind of reductive reading, and neither are all others drawing lessons from Harry Potter, but I remain somewhat hesitant to join in the fun, if only because of the bad taste these discussions have left me with previously.  Not that my hesitation always hinders me.

I prefer to speak of the themes of fiction rather than the lessons, even if the author has clearly intended to impart lessons to the reader.  Rosenberg has a point in a follow-up post about politics in pop culture, but Amanda Marcotte does as well:
I will say I have one small criticism of Alyssa's post. She relies heavily on Rowling's real life activism and views when it comes to extrapolating the themes in "Harry Potter".  I'm uncomfortable doing that.  Often writers use political ideas they don't agree with as themes because they work with the story.  Joss Whedon is an atheist and a liberal, but "Buffy" and "Firefly" have religious and libertarian ideologies as themes, because within the work, those ideas are more evocative.  I still like both works a lot, and again, I maintain that ideological tests of art are just a bad idea.
Fiction is about flesh and blood actions, and so it incarnates the moral, the social, and the political because human actions have these dimensions.  Many authors undoubtedly have something to say about these actions and their thematic aspects, but that doesn't give us logical passage from the world created by the author to the author's personal views about the real world.  A fictional character may give expression to a lesson the author intends to convey, but it is not always the case that fictional characters speak for authors, even authors who wish to teach a lesson.  Harry Potter isn't J.K. Rowling.  Nor are all her heroes combined.  They're their own people.  Otherwise, they're not characters. They're elaborate mouthpieces.

Or maybe they're metaphors of the antichrist. I can't discount that possibility.

Oh wait. Yes, I can.

Indoctrination and the Fair Education Act

So California’s governor Jerry Brown signed a bill mandating that students in the state learn that gay, lesbian, and transgendered people exist and have made noteworthy contributions to the country. I gather that the antagonisms toward the bill have ranged from opposition to it being the California legislature mandating the content of the curricular materials to hostility toward the subject matter itself. Kevin Ryan describes the bill as public school indoctrination, convinced that the bill’s language of “reflecting adversely” will mean that “instructional materials must positively promote ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans’ as role models and that children as young as 6 will be taught to admire homosexuality, same-sex ‘marriages,’ bisexuality, and transsexuality.” I didn’t catch any of that from reading the text of the bill, but I guess we’ll see how it plays out in textbook publishing and instruction in the classroom. My money’s on not happening.

I’m going to conveniently put aside my fringe opinions about education policy and focus instead on Ryan’s concerns about indoctrination. Let’s say for argument’s sake that public education really does involve indoctrination. If that’s the case, what’s to be done? Change public education policy, sure, but that’s a daunting, long, arduous road. And there’s little guarantee that traversing this path will bring change one can believe in. What options does a concerned parent have in the meantime?

Now I say the following as someone who believes in a handful of doctrines: If you’re a parent fearful of indoctrination at your school system, teach your child/children to see through indoctrination. Teach the boys and girls to think—critically and with a healthy dose of suspicion. Most kids already have the interrogative foundation for critical thought: they ask “Why?” and “How come?” to every statement some supposedly learned person makes. My son is fond of asking “How do you know?” whenever I tell him something—anything! He’s a budding epistemologist going into Kindergarten.

Seriously, this youthful inquiry is something to nurture and develop into a mature critical inquisitiveness and passion for knowledge. I sometimes fail at this, telling my son to shut up instead (in nicer words) because, quite frankly, his constant questioning is as annoying as Bieber fever. So he needs to learn discretion. We’ll work on that. He’ll need that too. His teachers will probably teach him things with which I’ll disagree. Okay, we reside in Texas; his teachers will definitely teach him stuff I think unfit for a sound mind or even for the recycling bin.

Whatever the content of my children’s education (of course, I want it to be good), my primary educational goal will be that my children learn in time how to think—how to understand and not just repeat. I intend to work with them as they learn the ways of the world and what unfortunately passes for the ways of the world. When my children hear a lesson that contradicts what I’ve taught them (or plan to teach them), I don’t want them to raise their hands and just repeat what I’ve told them or sit quietly thinking my Dad would disagree with this. I want them to learn how to weigh evidence and assess the soundness of arguments. I want accurate thinkers, not repeaters. Heck, I’d prefer them to be mediocre thinkers to outstanding repeaters.

Thinkers are better equipped to deconstruct indoctrination. Mine included. (VN)

A Pause to Listen: Xenogears

From the album Myth by composer Yasunori Mitsuda. First up, Dark Daybreak. Two more tracks after the jump. Xenogears was a very strange video game, one I enjoyed but never finished. Apparently the game almost didn't make it to the USA due to its heavy philosophical and religious undertones. The narrative borrowed explicitly from Freud and Nietzsche, but it proved too convoluted, and I'd forget half the important details between play times. The music was great, though.

On Secularism

Amanda Marcotte notices a tension between two meanings of "secularism:"
Anyway, the tension over "secularism" I've noticed is that for some (like myself), it means a society that has as much religious freedom as possible and for others, it means a more aggressive approach to pushing religion out of the public square. Most of the time, there's no tension. We all object to "under God" in the Pledge, state promotion of religion, and allowing religious groups to replace good educational standards with religious ideology. We think that having Congress open with prayers is unconstitutional, even if you diversify who's praying, because it still favors belief over non-belief. But the tension between the two views comes out when it comes to questions of individual expression of faith. Folks like me think that secularism means that the government should err on the side of liberty when it comes to individual expression of faith, in no small part because we are intensely skeptical that government restrictions on such expressions will be fairly applied, which makes it de facto establishment of religion.
Unlike Marcotte, I'm a religious believer, but I'm also more-or-less a secularist in the way she defines herself.  I've no problem with everyone sharing the fruits of their religious thought and practice in the public square, as long as those offering the fruit refrain from using the instruments of political power to do so.  Let the ideas born of religion be freely expressed, judged and applied (or not) on their merits and not be instituted because the proponents of these ideas wield political power.

A Stroll down Memorable Video Games Lane

To break momentarily from the heady, subversive stuff I’ve produced of late, I present a list of the best video games I’ve played and some brief words about each. Before I begin, I should state upfront that my playing experience has been limited to a fraction of available gaming systems, the last of which being the Playstation 2. And I’ve played only a troll’s handful of games on each of these consoles. Here goes.

10. The Legend of Zelda (NES) – Yes, I got through first and second quests without dying. A great adventure of trial and error, unexpected discovery, and the pain-in-the-rear knights you couldn’t attack from the front. I also enjoyed A Link to the Past on the SNES and Link’s Awakening on the Game Boy.

9. Crystalis (NES) – Had top-notch graphics for the early system, but its advanced storyline was its crowning achievement. Fun character powers like warping and transformation. Memorable tunes I wish I could hear orchestrated.

8. Dragon Warrior III (NES) – A prequel to the original. Epic!

7. Dragon Quest VIII (PS2) – Gets my vote for the most beautiful graphics and world-design. Neat story, but it takes some time to develop and get interesting.

6. Final Fantasy VI (SNES) – Featured 14 playable characters, each of whom puts to shame most RPG characterizations. Arguably has the best music of any game I’ve played. Classic Nobuo Uematsu. Kefka makes a killer villain.

5. Final Fantasy XII (PS2) – The series’ game mechanics get a makeover. Impressive story and a terrific translation of the dialogue, performed excellently by talented voice actors. Balthier ranks as my favorite video game character.

4. Chrono Trigger (SNES) – Fun story about time-travel, knights, magicians, robots, and the end of the world. The game-play rocks.

3. Final Fantasy VII (PS) – What can I say that hasn’t already been said? The dynamic between Cloud and Sepheroth is nothing short of literary.

2. Final Fantasy Tactics (PS) – Yasumi Matsuno’s genius strategy RPG. It’s like playing through the political intrigue of A Game of Thrones.

1. Vagrant Story (PS) – Gaming and storytelling perfection. Yasumi Matsuno’s dungeon crawler features morally ambiguous characters and an unconventional narrative. I don’t expect I’ll ever play a better video game.

So, what are your favorites?


Why Harry Potter Is Making Our Kids Miserable

I wasn’t aware the Potter boy had a misery-inducing spell in his repertoire, but Paul Waldman of The American Prospect points an accusing muggle finger in the general direction of the Boy Who Lived, blaming him and other heroes of children’s literature for making life seem like a big let-down. After all, Harry’s got the spell books, and he saves the world! I’ve got a number 2 pencil and am struggling to make ends meet. “But is it possible that all of us, weaned on these stories, end up inevitably disappointed with mundane life as it actually exists?” Waldman asks.

Er, no.

I grew up reading stories of extraordinary figures in possession of powers I could never really emulate. Dream wildly I did, but the result was neither misery nor disappointment with the real world of chores, studying, filling toilets and cleaning them. Rather, I came in time to see something magical about the mundane and meaningful about the day-to-day routine. What most assured me that my choice to marry the woman I loved was correct was my recognition that I enjoyed her company just as much when we were engaged in the humdrum business of adult life as when we were out on the town or partying merrily late into the night.

As for Harry Potter, he’s distinguished in the story not by his magical abilities, which are above average, but by his extraordinary love. Yes, he has magical powers, but that’s not at the end of the day what saves his world. If children take the story of Harry Potter to heart, they’ll be better equipped for a happy life, for they will endeavor to live a virtuous life marked by the lightning scars of love and self-giving. (VN)

Words Should Be Taken Seriously

But perhaps not this seriously:

Saying “Heaveno” to everyone around the office today sure raised eyebrows.

Romney, Perry, and Healthcare Reform

Credit where it's due: unlike most Republicans, Mitt Romney made healthcare reform a priority and helped produce a program that, while not without its flaws, seems to be working.  Less than two percent of Massachusetts residents are without insurance coverage.  More business are offering insurance to employees.  Costs seem to be manageable.

I dearly wish more Republicans were focused on healthcare reform, but it wasn't and isn't among their priorities.  Rick Perry has talked of Texas dropping out of Medicaid and opting instead for a State plan, but to my knowledge he hasn't spearheaded a comprehensive plan to cover the Lone Star State's many uninsured and under-insured residents.  The Texas Health Care Policy Council's finding and recommendations don't compete with a plan of action that has the support of the governor, the legislature, and the citizens guiding it to fruition.  I hear tell that over half of the births in Texas are financed by Medicaid.  What happens to these pregnancies if Medicaid ceases to be an option? 

If Perry can realize a plan, then fine; make it happen, but make healthcare reform a priority and not an afterthought.  Look, I welcome experimentation with different ideas to find the best means of forming a economically feasible and socially just healthcare system, but let's not forget that this is a life and death issue that demands the attention of our public servants.  Half-measures won't cut it.   

Who Watches the Watchmen?

In my previous post, I laid out some simple criteria for interpreting the authoritativeness of ecclesiastical pronouncements. Now it’s time for little ol’ subversive me to tip over the nicely organized bookshelf on which these authoritative texts are housed.

One of the roles of the Magisterium within the Catholic Church is to provide the authoritative and definitive interpretation of the deposit of faith, but in so doing, the magisterial body produces texts. These texts tend to be less polysemic and less ambiguous than the writings of Sacred Scripture, but they’re still texts, written in language, calling for interpretation—for the productive articulation of their meaning. Interpretation does more than disclose meaning; it produces it. Interpretation results in a new text—thought, spoken, or written—and therefore new meaning.

When disagreement about an author’s intended meaning arises, an ecclesiastical authority may clarify what he had meant in the previous text, and by this clarification, he produces a new text. Yet even this new, perhaps clearer text still calls for the productive interpretation of its meaning by others. And these others may or may not have magisterial authority. In either case, there is no Magisterium of the Magisterium, to borrow an expression from a friend. And even if there were, this second authoritative body would still produce texts. Who would magisterially interpret them?

If there’s a lesson here, it’s not that magisterial authorities serve no useful function, for even if their pronouncements and clarifications do not bring an end to the hermeneutic circle, their words have intelligible and communicative meaning. Disagreement about meaning may ensue when the authority speaks, but this disagreement only makes sense given a certain degree of agreement about what the authority has said. No, the lesson, I wager, is that magisterial authorities function to give rise to thought and to new interpretations. Interpretation doesn’t end with authoritative declarations; it continues, albeit with guidance and direction.

In other words, within the Catholic Church (assuming its account), truth comes not only through authoritative teaching and interpretation, but also through the interpretations of those authoritative texts by others within the Church. Even with magisterial authorities, the Church remains in ongoing, creative dialogue concerning the truth—what it means, to what it refers, and how it should be lived. (VN)

The Limits of Magisterial Authority

There's a lot of confusion and ignorance and false statements about the extent to which Roman Catholic bishops have teaching authority, so it's difficult for many people, including Catholics, to understand when a bishop is speaking authoritatively and when he's giving his opinion in an authoritative fashion. The bishops speak on everything from the dignity of human life to the political meaning of “pro-life,” from the right to health care to the nuts and bolts of the Affordable Care Act, from stewardship of the environment to the EPA’s proposed standards for hazardous emissions. Add to this array of issues the different kinds of teaching authority exercised in the church, debates over fallibility and infallibility, credibility problems, and different bishops saying contrary things, and you’ve got a recipe for widespread uncertainty.

When interpreting a statement, letter or other text from a bishop or the bishops, we need to keep in mind three different acts the bishop or bishops may be performing: 1) the teaching on matters of faith and morals, 2) the interpretation of the situation on the ground to which this teaching may be applied, and 3) the application of the teaching on faith and morals to the concrete situation. The bishops have the authority (assuming they have teaching authority) to speak on the principles of faith and morals, but they do not possess some special authority or ability to accurately assess the concrete realities to which those principles would be applied. As a result, they really don't have a strong authoritative ground to stand on when speaking of the application of those principles.

For example, in a statement about immigration, the bishops could speak authoritatively about the justice due to immigrants, but they could, in the same statement, be wrong about the actual status of immigration at a particular location, wrong in their interpretation of civil legislation concerning immigration policy, or wrong about the particulars of that policy. Therefore, they could erroneously apply the principles on which they are able to speak with teaching authority.

I trust I make myself obscure. (VN)