Why I Am Still Thankful To Be An American

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Dear Readers,

When I was eight years old, I was a very different person than I am now.  I had faith and patriotism in droves, and a comparatively small amount of body hair.  Those situations have reversed for me now, and I find that I am most often ambivalent to my nation and its government (and skeptical in the extreme on the existence of anything “divine”), and I spend at least two hours a week scraping unwanted hair off of various unmentionable parts of my anatomy.

But when I was eight, I starred in a children’s play at my church (Lake Pointe Baptist Church, then in Rowlett, Texas).  The title of that play was “Thankful To Be An American”.  It was terrible.  The very worst in Evangelical appropriation of nationalism towards the furtherance of its narrow and bigoted ideological agenda, wrapped in innocent sounding songs sung by fresh faced children who didn’t know any better.

Stay with me, this isn’t an anti-Christian rant, I promise!

I recently found some home movies of that performance, and my own solo, the title song, “I am Thankful to be an American”.  It made me remember the way I felt then, at that age.  And this Fourth of July, I am thinking where that all went.  Am I still thankful to be an American?

I had a lot of difficulty answering that question.  Afterall, I had the SCOTUS on my mind, and their abusive furtherance of the “Corporations are Persons” agenda with the recent Hobby Lobby debacle.  And just this year I was let go from the rural Texas school district I substitute taught for because they found a dating site ad I had put up in which my same-sex orientation was apparent. Plus, I recently friended my teenage niece on Instagram, which is enough to make me feel quite strongly that maybe the founding fathers weren’t so wise with that whole “freedom of speech” thing (I kid).

My point is, there are a lot of things I don’t like that America does nowadays.  And I think there are some major challenges we face, in terms of being on the “right side of history”.  I think we are coming very close to becoming out and out villains on the world stage, and I think we have an over-bloated sense of entitlement and divine favor that is neither deserved nor earned.

So on this morning, on the annual remembrance of our nation’s birth, I still face the question, am I thankful to be an American?

I started off trying to think of good things about America.  I’m definitely a fan of a lot we do.  I think we have worked hard to provide a good standard of living, such that even the catastrophically poor are better off here than almost anywhere else in the world.  I think we are making great strides in the realm of social justice, the recent victories for LGBT rights being of personal impact to me particularly.  And I think, though it may come too late anyway, we’re at least now beginning to turn the tide on issues like climate change and sustainability.

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I’ll save you, from here, the large pros and cons list I made, and skip ahead to the part where I figured it out.  To do that, I need to post a video.  It is a video (I hope!) all of you have seen before.  It is the performance of Whitney Houston at the 1991 Superbowl in Florida.  Go on, give it a watch.

This performance makes me cry every time I watch it.  It makes me feel happy, and proud, and fierce all at the same time.  And it wasn’t till I watched it today that I understood why I am proud to be an American.

I am proud to be an American because we have created a country in which the very best of Whitney Houston was not diminished or silenced by any other objection to who she was.  Here was a woman of non-dominate ethnic descent, who came from poverty, who became a drug addict, and in no way conformed to the prevailing moral standards of her time, but whose voice we celebrated, whose talents we gave the stage they deserved.

It’s a funny thing, thinking that my reason to be proud is actually the source of much of my own frustration.  It is, in fact, the source of frustration for opponents on both sides of the aisle, and of almost every rant on every 24-hour news network in the country.  The frustrating question is why doesn’t who someone is impact the way we relate to the things they do?

Shouldn’t it matter that Steve Jobs developed the iPhone on LSD?

Shouldn’t it matter that RuPaul uses transphobic language?

Shouldn’t it matter that Donald Trump is a Birther with a bad toupee?

Shouldn’t it matter that Orson Scott Card has said homosexual children should be put in concentration camps?

And I think the answer is: maybe.  But the wonderful thing about America, the infuriating, complicated, marvelous thing that came into being when those oft-misquoted founding fathers sat down and signed this grand experiment into being some 238 years ago today, was the possibility that the good things you did were not canceled out by the bad, or by the perceived content of your character, or by how far away from the prevailing notion of normal you might be, whether by gender, or race, or religious creed.

In America, we can do great things.  And more than that, as a nation, we want those around us to surprise us, to subvert our expectations or blow us away.  Just watch American Idol, or America’s Got Talent.  You see it there.  Those shows are shameless emotional manipulation, true.  But what they are drawing on is our collective and fervent hope that the greatness inside each of us will be recognized, through the perilous fight against the complications that surround us, over the ramparts of prejudices held against us, and that the rockets of our troubled circumstances will only reveal in their red glow what we are most proud of in our hearts.

That star-spangled banner that is really the passion, and talent, and hope in our hearts, that we hail at the twilight, still stands when the dawn’s early light comes.  There is no darkness in her life so deep that Whitney Houston’s voice does not shine through it.  And that is America.  That is what we made.  We made a place where hope doesn’t die, where greatness can come from anyone, and where we search for those moments in our own lives and in the lives of those around us, and when we find them we defend them.

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I am proud to be an American.  Yep, it’s a mess.  And we don’t clean up our mess as fast as I want us to mostly.  And lots of times we make the wrong call, or we get caught up in our own system, or we let the really important things slip through the cracks.  But for all of that mess, it’s a mess made because we did the right thing 238 years ago today.  We chose hope, and we chose freedom, and we gave them a home in our hearts.  And those things are alive and working even now, urging us to continue to grow and change and fight and live.

As the woman belts, that star-spangled banner does still wave, over the land of the free and the home of the brave, and because it does, greatness and goodness live on, unvanquished by any other condition of life or birth.  So long as that is true, I echo my own words from more than twenty years in my past: I am thankful to be an American.

I’m also slightly aghast that I’m about to include video evidence of this performance on my public blog.

Ah well, allons y!

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In Defense of Princesses

Dear Reader,

I have been meaning to write this post for some time, as it sits at the heart of much of my current work (which I am very happy to announce was drafted and entered into Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Aware contest), and I’m happy to have the time to sit down and get it out.  This post may seem to wander, but at its core are some of the most important reasons I chose to write my dear Sebastian Smith in just the way I did.

I want to talk about Princesses.

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Not new modern post-Brave and Frozen Princesses, those great forward thinking young women who give girls such empowering role models to emulate.

I’m also not talking about the Cult of Me that arose for awhile there, not exclusively among teenage girls, but certainly with them as the mascots, wherein every person is reduced to a vapid selfie set to the soundtrack of an engorged sense of self-entitlement.

No, I’m talking about classic Princesses here.  Sit in the tower, kidnapped by the Dragon, scream and faint at the site of the evil Wizard, helpless and hopeless Princesses.

To give this Princess a face, lets say Princess Peach, in the classes NES game Super Mario Bros.  She is the quintessential Princess I want to discuss here.  She is largely free of agency, objectified, and completely powerless.  She doesn’t even have a string of pathetic and failed escape attempts to show for her perennial reptilian incarceration.  She basically stands where one male places here, until another male tells her to move somewhere else.

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She’s the one I want to defend.  Hit the jump to find out why.

Let me start off by saying a couple of things I am NOT saying here.  Because the argument I am about to make could potentially put me in some very bad company if I don’t take a moment to get my ducks in a row.  If you’re just interested in what I AM saying, skip down to the next picture.

I am not saying that Princess Peach is a sufficient role model for girls.  I am not saying that the way Princess Peach behaves is healthy or sufficient as a role model for anyone in fact.  I’m also not saying that Princess Peach is tapping into something innately female, or that her genitals make her better suited to silent objectification.  I am not saying that Princess Peach is showing us what a good woman should be.  I am not even saying that Princess Peach is the best example for this article.  But she’s easy to find pictures of and lots of people recognize her.

The amazing Alexia Jean Grey Peach Cosplay

The amazing Alexia Jean Grey Peach Cosplay

Here is what I am saying:  I think Princess Peach, and more broadly, classic princesses overall, are actually a lot more effective than we give them credit for, and model some pretty potent methods of conflict resolution that get highly undervalued by the current standards of female representation in media.

Lets start out with what methods of persuasion Princess Peach teaches.  I mean, she’s an almost entirely silent character for much of the classic Mario Bros stories, and is almost always merely a prize to be won, especially in the early days, with no internal motivations or aspirations beyond not being eaten alive.  (At least, I’m really hoping Bowser was planning on EATING her…)

Ah, but wait.  Is she really just a prize to be won?  There is an excellent argument to be made that Bowser, though he takes her body, is never able to break her self-possession.  She is never going to MARRY Bowser.  She maintains a resilient stoicism, confident in her inevitable rescue.  Time and again, through countless tragedies, Peach maintains her sense of identity, and it is she who is in constant conflict with the villain, as opposed to Mario, whose only engagement is a brief climatic battle in which he hardly even bothers to trade one liners with the monster, much less endure his torturous advances.

Which brings me to my second point:  Who is Mario without Peach?  He’s an overweight plumber with a drug habit.  With Peach?  Mario becomes one of the classic heroes of our time, whose journey through a strange and perilous world to confront an unspeakable evil and save an innocent life from harm has made him a beloved and some might even say inspiring character for generations of children.  It isn’t Mario’s nature to be amazing.  He becomes amazing by seeking to be the sort of man Peach believes that he is.

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I’m over analyzing the story on an 8 bit video game from the 80s for a reason.  I’m looking to bring up a trend I have noticed, most pointedly in Pixar’s Brave (my objections can be read here), but more broadly in the way women are portrayed in media in general.  This trend is that women aren’t being portrayed like women anymore.

Whoa!  Bring it back.  Allow me to explain.  What I mean by that is that many times women in currently modern media for various reasons of political, demographic, and maybe even moral origins, are not being portrayed conforming to their historical stereotypes.  I think this is an EXCELLENT thing.  I think too long girls have been imprisoned in a pink palace, made to settle for the roles of homemakers, sexual objects, or chaste pillars of moral virtue.  I think there was a huge need in media to reflect to women, especially girls, a robust and broad set of role models, to send them the powerful message that they are every bit the equals of their male peers.

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But here is the problem I see:  Now NO ONE is allowed to be portrayed conforming to what are thought of as traditionally female roles.  The men in media aren’t picking up the slack.  They’re the same as always: hit it, spit on it, have sex with it, or outwit it.  These are traditionally male models of problem solving.  Now though, what we get, is a world in which everyone solves problems that way, and we talk about whether a piece of media empowers women by showing they can do those things as well (or more often times better) than their male counterparts.

This is a big problem, because actually, turns out, what are traditionally considered “female” models of conflict resolution are actually really important parts of the human psyche, and more than that, there are lots of people, male AND female, who are naturally inclined to go about tackling problems using those methods.

Those methods include conversation, negotiation, peaceful or non-violent resolution, compromise, and consensus building, to name a few.  The Princess doesn’t slay the Dragon, but she knows how to support the Dragon slayer, or how to learn to co-exist with the Dragon.  She is a good friend, and has a strong will.  She is someone who shows us how to maintain the integrity of our being without having to kill or otherwise eradicate whatever force may threaten us.

In short, Princesses are actually enormously effective people, and if nobody gets to be the Princess, my fear has become that those skills will atrophy, and worse than that, it will mean that people are not being valued truly equally no matter who they are.  All it means is that women are now simply allowed to become men.

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Again, said more rigorously, what I mean is that we aren’t learning to value the members of our society that fit the box we FORCED women into historically, we are merely letting all the members of our society strive to fit into the box we FORCE men into.

It isn’t equality so much as equal opportunity.  The opportunity is to smash, and crush, and rough and tough, and fast talk your way to the top.

But what about girls and boys who don’t play that way?

What I am really trying to do here is disentangle a female person or women in general, from the expectations and functions they were made to fulfill historically, and point to those FUNCTIONS and say, “Hey, those have value too.”

Let me say it this third way, just in case you still think I’m talking about girls here.  I think the world in which young girls grew up with the female trinity of Nurse, Teacher, and Secretary as their only three educated career options was horrendous.  But I sure do respect the hell out of Nurses, Teachers, and Secretaries.  There isn’t anything wrong with doing those jobs.  They aren’t demeaning in any way.  They are VITAL to our society.  And I think anyone, male or female, is courageous for taking them on.

I’m saying the same thing about a Princess’ ways of solving problems.  There isn’t anything wrong with being the light in the tower the calls out the courage in someone else.  In fact, those people are like air in deep space when you find them in real life.  The people that matter most to us as human beings are often the ones who believe in us, who call to us to slay the dragons in our paths.  Being someone who does that for another person isn’t weak at all.

Let me bring this around to Sebastian now.

It is this thinking which really informs the protagonist of my current novel series, The Marvelous Adventures of Sebastian Smith.  To me, it was important not only to write a novel which starred an openly gay protagonist, whose sexuality was neither central to nor ignored by the story, but also a protagonist who solved problems in a way that is just a little bit different than might be expected.  I wanted to write a story where the Princess gets the credit she deserves, where those methods of resolving conflict which we think of now as weak and girly, were shown to be powerful and effective.  At the same time, I didn’t want to make an argument that girls are somehow better or more suited to those methods either.

So I made Sebastian think like a girl.  That is to say, I made Sebastian, quite naturally, think in the ways our society has falsely labeled feminine.

Does he pick up a sword from time to time?  Yes.

Does he fight his own bad guys and rescue himself from time to time?  Eventually.

But the first thing Sebastian does is to show the young man he has fallen in love why he is in love with him, at a time when that young man is in his deepest despair.

I set out to write a hero whose greatest capacity is not just to believe in himself (which is a CRITICAL lesson for all of us to learn) but who has the very unusual power to believe in others.  And that belief changes the people around him.  The changes he brings are in the end what make the biggest difference to his adventures.

My hero is a Princess, and I’m not ashamed to say it.

My hope is that in striving to separate traditionally female ways of acting from being thought of as intrinsically feminine, I will help my readers to look at themselves as individuals, who may have a whole complicated mess of gender stereotypes floating around inside of them.  And that maybe, if they realize they might have a little bit of classic Princess in their heart, they’d feel proud and empowered, and not weak and broken, no matter what genitals they have between their legs.

I hope my point is clear here.  Girls need diverse role models, and I think they need to be shown they can be ANYTHING.  I just think boy AND girls should also be told that being “girly” is OK too. That feels like equality to me.

David M. Daniel is an author and freelance writer who current work The Marvelous Adventures of Sebastian Smith: To The Dragon’s Lair can be found among the entries to Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award.  He is currently seeking representation by interested agents and publishers with a passion to bring groundbreaking young adult and middle grade fiction to the bookshelves.  

Bill Nye vs Ken Ham Post Debate Wrap Up: The Holy Ghost of Carl Sagan Moves Among Them

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Last night was the controversial debate between international science superstar Bill Nye the Science Guy and international man of ridicule Ken Ham.  You might have noticed I live blogged the debate as it was happening.  That was quite an interesting experience, and I wasn’t sure at the time what I would have to say that I didn’t say more concisely in a timestamped one liner.

So I sat with it.

I feel before I go on that I should reveal that I am not really on either side here.  I firmly agree with Mr. Nye that science should be taught in science classrooms, and that it is a failure, not only of our education but our competitive spirit to allow religion of any brand to bully its way into the minds of kids dressed as anything other than what it is.

However, like Mr. Ham, I don’t have any strong objection to the idea existing that an Intelligent Designer might have had a hand in setting this whole circus we call reality in motion.  I think such ideas are better discussed in philosophy classes or humanities, or even metaphysics.  That’s about as close as I can come to Mr. Ham, and as kind as I’m likely to be to him in the remainder of this wrap-up.

The more I sat with the debate, the more what really stood out to me was the compassion with which Bill Nye treated the whole affair.  He was cordial but firm, and he used his time at the podium rarely to attack the ideas of creationism and more to point out the wonder and complexity of the world revealed by science.  His simple question, throughout the entire night, was “can your ideas reveal the same wonder, and lead us to discover new wonders, with any reliability?”

I think we all knew that neither side in this debate was going to win, partially because reconciliation between the two is all but impossible because they do not rely upon the same measure of truth.  Mr. Nye relies upon testable data and watching whether ideas are useful in predicting undiscovered natural phenomena.  He is comfortable with uncertainty (a fact he displayed over and over again during the question and answer phase where his answer was as often as not “I have no idea!  Isn’t that exciting?  You’ve just asked a great question!  Maybe a kid from your state might one day find out the answer??”)

Contrasting that is Mr. Ham, whose premise is that all the answers ultimately are the same, which is “God did it”, and that uncertainty is detrimental to the fabric of society.  The fundamental and irreconcilable difference between the two positions is that one treats questions as indications you are making progress, and the other classifies questions into those which are permitted and those which are dangerous.

However, I continue to come back to Mr. Nye’s compassion.  I was stunned when during his closing statement, as he quoted his mentor Carl Sagan casually and without credit, saying, “We are a way for the universe to know itself” that I had tears in my eyes.  It was then that I began to suspect why Mr. Nye had arrived on that stage, and why he spent his time mostly offering new information, rather than directly attacking his opponent.

Bill Nye didn’t come for the creationists.  He came for their children.

Let me state that in a way that sounds less creepy.  What Mr Nye’s stated reason for engaging in the debate was to bring a spotlight to the critical importance of science education to the future of America.  He repeatedly stated that in order to stay at the forefront of innovation and industry, our young people would have to embrace and be inspired by science.

And then he spent almost every moment on that stage holding out the hand of opportunity to his opponents, saying, “Come with me!  We’ll figure it out together!”

I was raised in a pretty Christian home.  I wouldn’t say it was “crazy” but I know that as a young Christian I would probably have been made to watch this debate at some point, by my parents, by my church, or through a Christian media outlet.  Because Mr. Nye was so kind and so neutral, these Christian outlets will feel comfortable showing their kids the debate.  Whereas had he been brutal the debate might have just gone into an archive.  But now, what I predict will happen is that an entire generation of kids raised in homes that treat intellectualism like a corrosive acid to the mind who might not otherwise be permitted to be exposed to the complex and marvelous world of science Mr. Nye holds up will get that taste, and in turn, be able to ask the hard questions that lead to discovery.

Bill Nye swallowed his pride as a scientist to do exactly what a science educator is supposed to do: he inspired minds.  He didn’t express vitriol, he didn’t treat his opponent with disrespect, he didn’t come armed for bear with a bullet for every argument presented by Ken Ham.

He came with the wonder of science, and the questions that make that wonder possible, and held out a hand to everyone in that room, and everyone watching.

Contrast this to what Mr. Ham used his time to do.  From the beginning Mr Ham’s agenda was clear.  Rather than answering the question of the sufficiency of creationist worldviews to predict and meaningfully contribute to scientific advancement, he used his time to prove two things: Creationists are being persecuted unjustly, and evolution is a religion not a science.  He used his time as a platform, not for scientific inquiry, but for politician style stumping.

It wasn’t surprising at all.  It wasn’t a shock that he couldn’t answer the questions the moderator, the audience, and Nye himself asked of him.  But I think it is useful to point out some repetitive flaws in Mr. Ham’s reasoning.  I do this so that one day, if someone is looking for cogent critiques of the debate, they have a record not just that Mr. Ham was wrong, but the way in which his REASONING went wrong.

I do this because I am not a scientist but I love science.  I am a writer, and a rhetorician, and this is the best contribution I can make to this debate.  My own mentor, a brilliant woman (and incidentally a Christian), Trish Roberts-Miller, spends most of her time researching and interacting with some of the most heinous arguments and reasoning on the planet.  She publishes book on Pro-Slavery rhetoric and Nazis.  And do you know what she taught me?  The answer to bad rhetoric is not to silence it.  The answer is more rhetoric.  Bad speech should be responded to with good speech.

This is my attempt at good speech in response to Ken Ham.

Read my critique after the jump

Continue reading

Is Merida From Pixar’s Brave The Worst Role Model For Girls Ever?

 

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Dear Reader,

The answer to the question in the title of my blog post is: No, but she is pretty bad.  Lemme set up the question first though.

I was thinking about the Disney Princess catalog recently due to an article someone posted on my wall about how Drag Queens make better role models for young girls than Princesses.

Drag Professors at RuPaul's Drag U!

Drag Professors at RuPaul’s Drag U!

It’s a sentiment I definitely have some agreement with.  I think Drag Queens are amazing, I’m looking into the possibility of becoming one myself, and RuPaul is basically my Oprah.  However, this put me in mind of the state of literature for young girls overall, and the article raised the specter of some troubling thoughts I’ve had recently regarding role models for young girls.

Specifically, what I have noticed, is that in much of the newest media, a female heroine is not highly thought of (by the sorts of people who make pronouncements about what female heroines are good and bad for girls to view) unless she is, for lack of a better word, butch.  The girls these days have to be as tough as boys, as outdoorsy as boys, as athletic as boys, as crude as boys.  It’s like all the female heroines suddenly have to be Hyenas (if you don’t get that reference, go google Hyena clitoris.  I’ll wait.)

Case in point...

Case in point…

It was something that I started thinking about, honestly though, after I saw the Pixar film Brave in theaters.  I dug up a rant I posted to my writing group about the film, and I’m polishing it up and posting it here.  It is a little late to the party, but I’d like to express the opinion nevertheless.  To see the thoughts, hit the jump! Continue reading

Time Enough To Be Fantastic: A Letter to 20 and 40 from 30

A brief note to readers:

This is my first post in some time.  It is a personal post, and I don’t expect many of you to finish it.  But it is my own choice.  My own decision of how to spend the last moments of my twenties, and the first of my thirties.  I post it here not so much for you, but for me.  Because for me, saying it out loud makes it so much more real.  Thank you for all your support.  But first!  Pics of my twenties for those of you who want something…visual.

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Dear Self,

I wanted to take this time for us, you and I.  There is just enough time, I think, for one more deed, one more musing, one final communication from our twenties.  This post is written in that last moment, the twilight between the decade that was and the decade that is dawning.  I chose to write it because I have been thinking recently, about us, the old me and the new me, and the me that is.  And I think it is quite natural, when all is said and done, to face the question of “What have I done with my time?” or “Has my life been worth something?”

That’s a complex question for us, I don’t have to tell you.  And I know that we’ve been caught up recently in what we like to say is “planning for the future”.  But of course, we both know what we’re really doing when we are “planning for the future”; we’re judging our past.  We’re looking to avoid repeating mistakes already made, or to improve on previous successes.  It isn’t even unreasonable to want to be better tomorrow than you were yesterday.  But there’s something nasty lurking underneath those plans isn’t there?

So, I’ve decided, me, that the very last act we take in our twenties, and the very first in our thirties will be one of love.  Love of self.  Because the truth is, we deserve to be loved.  And that is such an important change from where we were back at nineteen wasn’t it? Continue reading