Author Archives: seanthomaskane

About seanthomaskane

I am a student at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, MO. Tá Gaeilge, Béarla, Fraincis agus Laidin agam.

Total Control: TV, Streaming, and my Health

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Let me begin by saying, I love the variety of programming that’s available through online video databases like YouTube and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. I spend much of my free time watching old shows on YouTube, clips from films, original content by YouTubers, and news reports on the same platform. Equally, I love watching the series being rebroadcast by Netflix like The West Wing as well as their own programming, shows that either were originally produced by Netflix like The Crown, those that have been bought by Netflix like The Last Kingdom and others that are being distributed by Netflix like Versailles and Au Service de la France. When new series are released on Prime Video, I’ll spend a good deal of time on that app, watching some of my favourite programmes of the last few years, especially my big three on that platform The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Man in the High Castle, and The Grand Tour.

These services offer us something that before was only imaginable in our dreams: the ability to have near total control over the types of programmes that we watch, and when we watch them. When I lived in England, I loved using the BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, and All4 apps for my British television. And while the quality of the programming is on par with what I enjoyed a decade ago when my DVR was filled with shows from PBS, History International, and BBC America, the quantity has significantly risen beyond the scope of what my free time can handle.

While today we may have more choice in what we can watch, I wonder whether we are truly fortunate to have so much choice. I’ve probably spent hours scrolling through YouTube, Netflix, and Prime Video looking for new things to watch when my usual diet become stale, hours that I could have spent doing other things. Moreover, I’ve found that my happiest days of TV watching come not from a day spent enjoying the offerings on Netflix or YouTube but rather on the regular old TV networks that have set schedules. Traditionally, one of my favourite Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon and evening traditions has been to keep the TV on PBS the entire time and enjoy the same old programs, the US-based politics and talk shows, the British sitcoms, the occasional broadcast of the BBC World News, and the PBS NewsHour. Lately, having signed on to SlingTV to get access to their French package, I’ve extended that PBS trend to include channels like TV5 Monde and its arts and culture affiliate, TV5 Monde Style. When I lived in England, I did much the same thing, albeit with my TV largely tuned to BBC Four in the evenings for their hours-worth of history documentaries.

I find comfort in abdicating the authority to choose what I watch over to someone in a TV control centre, whether an hours walk away as was the case in London or halfway across the continent in New York or Los Angeles as often is the case here in the US. I wouldn’t mind if we went back to the old practice of the TV broadcasters closing down for the night at 22:00 or 23:00 each evening. It’d give us all time to be cognizant of each other, to talk amongst ourselves, to have proper interactions, something that we lose when our attention is trained constantly upon the screens in front of us.

In an episode in the third season of Versailles, Louis XIV is asked if he loves being king, “after all, you can have anything you desire.” Louis looks off into space, contemplating both the overwhelming power that comes with having absolute say and how he still wants more in his life. I often feel a similar feeling. Sure, I enjoy watching these shows; yes I love getting to know the characters and can even begin to feel as though I can relate to them, but after a while I know that I need to have a break, even if I don’t feel that I have the will to force myself away from that screen.

It can be hard to remember in the moment the ways that I can make myself feel happier, especially after watching a TV screen or a tablet for hours on end. I’ve always loved reading, and when I can break through the lights and noise of the screen, I’ll go back to my books, go back to reading. Yet like the false spirits that surrounded Elijah, in grand gestures that seemed overwhelming, the Truth that made him happiest came in the softest of whispers. With all these new media of entertainment it can be hard to remember those things that make us happiest, that fulfil our lives the best. Yet they’re still there, waiting for us to remember them.

In my case, I have been able to control my screen time and streaming habits, limiting myself on weekdays to only a few hours in the evening, dependent upon each day’s individual schedule. I know what makes me happy and living my life entirely through the abundance of shows available online is just one factor of happiness. I need my books, and the people and animals around me to keep me happy.

I try to live by the golden rule: treat others as you would want to be treated; when I look over at my dog, often laying near me either bored out of her mind or simply fast asleep as I watch TV, I try to think of ways that I can make the day more fun for her, more enjoyable for her. Likewise, I try to take time away from the videos, programmes, and films that I love to watch to sit back and daydream, to think out stories as I have for as long as I can remember. It’s from these stories, these dreams that I’ve come up with my own books, plays, and poems. If I spend all my free time watching YouTube, Netflix, or Amazon Prime, I won’t have enough time to dream, and that above all else would be a disservice to my mental health, and to my ability to work in a career that I love, to write, to tell stories, and to live my life surrounded by the people that I love.

St. Patrick’s Day

IMG_4100I usually look forward to St. Patrick’s Day, the feast day of my diaspora’s patron saint, and what over the generations has become the day each year when the wider Irish-American community parades in front of the country as a whole celebrating our heritage and continued deep ties to our ancestral homeland. Yet St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday that brings me mixed emotions. Every year when I march in the parade down Broadway in Midtown Kansas City with my division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, I feel a series of emotions rolling over me like a quick succession of tides. On the one hand there’s the exhilaration of seeing around 200,000 people lining the street to see the parade and the fantastic public exposure that our group gets from that crowd. Equally though I also feel a pang of helpless exasperation at the tired clichés and old stereotypes kept alive by the American public’s acceptance of the holiday as a day for excess, partying, drinking, and lots and lots of green.

My personal identity has always been a complicated matter to explain. For starters, I was born and spent the first few years of my childhood in the Chicago Suburbs, have lived in Kansas City for the last two decades, yet I’ve always seen my family, particularly my paternal family, as being Irish not only in name but also in character. Despite having lived in the United States since my great-grandfather stepped off the boat in Boston in February 1914, we’ve managed to keep up our ties to Ireland, existing in a sort of parallel society to the one back in our family’s hometown in Mayo, something that I honestly didn’t realize had been as potent as it was until I visited my great-grandparents’ hometown for the first time in July 2016.

To us, we’re just as ethnically Irish as anyone back in Ireland, even though our cousins who stayed behind may merely see us as Americans. That dual, hyphenated identity is a uniquely American concept, after all the United States is a settler-society, a country whose majority population does not have deep ethnic roots in this country but came from somewhere else. In the United States it’s possible to have multiple parts to your identity, to be both ethnically Irish and by nationality American, or for short to simply be Irish-American. Yet there are plenty of people on both sides of the Atlantic who disagree with me on that statement, who live by the melting pot ideal that says that every immigrant who comes to America has their native culture and identity melted down into the great soup, coming out of the melting pot as only an American and nothing else. This all-or-nothing mentality doesn’t help foster dialogue and discourse, nor does it benefit our society as a whole in detracting from diversity. It’s just as narrow-minded as the conservative American Catholics who say that you can’t be a Catholic and vote for the Democratic Party. There are strong pressures on this side, and I find myself asking the question, is there a point where we’ve been living in the United States for long enough that our Irishness really begins to fade away?

On the other side, I often feel a deep irritation and frank dismay every St. Patrick’s Day
when I come across the same old stereotypes and clichés about Irish people that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were expressions of deep-seated anti-Irish prejudices in Protestant societies throughout the English-speaking world. In a 2015 opinion piece for Time, Professor Mike Cronin reminded readers that in the nineteenth century, St. Patrick’s Day was a day for Irish-Americans “to display their civic pride and TheUsualIrishWayofDoingThingsthe strength of their identity,” particularly in the face of “nativist detractors who characterized them as drunken, violent, criminalized, and diseased.” The greatest irony of how our community slowly became an accepted part of mainstream American society is that our day to celebrate our heritage and the fact that we as a diaspora have prospered so well in the face of discrimination here in the United States has been adopted, commercialized, and appropriated into one of a number of days each year when it’s perfectly alright to adopt to excess that “drunken, violent, criminalized, and diseased” behavior that our ancestors were so vehemently accused of. Any notion among the wider public that St. Patrick’s Day is a day to celebrate and honor the accomplishments of the Irish diaspora in the United States, or the fact that we were able to largely overcome discrimination and, in general, as a community make it in America is lost in a sea of green.

In past semesters when discussing the underlying emotions and causes of racism with my students, a common theme often arises, an understanding that race is fundamentally tied to skin color and therefore that one cannot be racist toward white people. Now, for starters the whole American concept of race is flawed from the very beginning, as is any manner of racism from anywhere around the globe. But here after centuries of institutionalized racism we have so deeply codified that understanding of race as being attached to skin color that in order to fill out any official paperwork, whether it be for a driver’s license or the forms necessary to visit a doctor’s office, one always has to check one of those boxes identifying one’s race. Being of largely Irish descent, with the rest of my ancestors all coming from elsewhere in Northern Europe, I always mark the box that’s labelled “white”, yet I can’t help but feel a pang of frustration in doing so. After all, in order to maintain an understanding that people with darker colored skin are somehow “inferior,” we have to set a standard of superiority. In the United States that standard is being white.

By the simple definition of whiteness, namely having light skin that honestly is more a shade of very pale to slightly red pink rather than categorically white, we Irish-Americans are labelled as white people. But when they were arriving in the coffin ships in the 1840s or on the steamers in the 1910s our ancestors certainly weren’t seen as equals to the White Americans who traced their ancestry back to the English, Scottish, and Dutch Protestants who settled those original thirteen colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In part through the very stupidity of categorizing people by their skin color we, along with other European immigrant communities like the Italians, Jews, Poles, Greeks, Russians, and Germans were eventually accepted into the fold of whiteness in order to keep the charade of racial superiority going. Honestly though, the older Americans who insisted on these biologically-baseless racial hierarchies wouldn’t have accepted us into the upper-most level of the American racial hierarchy if we hadn’t forced our way in and proved our worth. In some parts of this country it took the election, and more probably the assassination of President Kennedy for our community to truly become fully accepted in wider American society.

St. Patrick’s Day is a day when we Irish-Americans ought to be proud of all our community has achieved in this country. When we march through our cities before the watching eyes of the rest of the country, we should do so with our heads held high, reminding America that the Irish-American immigrant story is a success story, a story of a community rising from the bottom up, as my friend Pat O’Neill’s book on Kansas City Irish history is entitled. Yet we should be more active in dispelling some of the current narratives and trends associated with St. Patrick’s Day in the wider community. Today in the United States it’s alright to say that you’re Irish for the day and to express that Irishness by living up to the drunken Irishman stereotype, whether you’re ethnically Irish or not. As one of my students said, “you can’t be racist towards white people.” The fact that we’ve been accepted into the dominant racial majority in this country makes it all the more acceptable for all Americans to play into the same racist clichés of generations past.

 

People of the Renaissance: Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536)

Of all the great writers of the sixteenth century Renaissance, Erasmus of Rotterdam was perhaps the most prolific. Born in the Burgundian Netherlands in 1466, Erasmus came to be known across Europe as one of the greatest minds of his time. Widely considered to be the father of Christian Humanism, Erasmus made close friendships and contacts with a variety of humanist intellectuals, clerics, and politicians in his day.

Now here in the United States, outside of academic circles Erasmus far less well known than he is in Europe. Here he is overshadowed by people like Martin Luther, Henry VIII, Leonardo, and Sir Thomas More. It was actually through Sir Thomas More that I came to know about Erasmus. More and Erasmus were widely considered to be best friends, and Erasmus stayed on a number of occasions for months at a time in the More house in London. For all of his intelligence and prowess as a speaker of Dutch, German, Latin, and Greek, Erasmus refused to learn English, and as such when More was out of the house at work, Erasmus would be left with More’s family who at first didn’t speak Latin. 

According a story told in John Guy’s book A Daughter’s Love, a link to which can be found in the description below, Erasmus was so annoyed waiting for Thomas More to come home from work that he wrote his book The Praise of Folly, in Latin the Moriae Encomium, whose title was a pun on the More family name. This book, written in a time of intense boredom became a best seller in its time and contributed to Erasmus’s fame across Europe.

Erasmus’s life corresponded to the invention and spread of the printing press across Europe from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in Strasbourg, in what is today France. Many of Erasmus’s books survive in their original sixteenth century printed editions, which can today be found in libraries and archives around the globe. Many are even available online as digitised PDFs that can be downloaded and read anywhere. Erasmus is especially famous for working with the Swiss printer Johann Froben, whose printshop in Basel produced some of the finest surviving early editions of Erasmus’s works.

One of Erasmus’s greatest accomplishments is his updated Latin translation of the New Testament, the second half of the Christian Bible. Being one of the greatest scholars of Ancient Greek in his day in Western Europe, Erasmus took some of the oldest and most genuine Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and brought them together into one solid Greek text, which Froben then printed side-by-side with Erasmus’s new Latin translation. Erasmus intended to help enrich the spiritual lives of Western Christians who, at the time of its publication in 1516, still used the Latin Vulgate Bible translated in the fifth century CE by St. Jerome. Yet his New Testament caused controversy in his day, and was one of the reasons that most of Erasmus’s works were banned by the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation that began in the late-sixteenth century.

For all his talents, Erasmus was not known for being the most sociable man. He hated dancing, was a hypochondriac, and his letters are filled with his grumblings about this thing or that. Nevertheless, Erasmus took time to respond to those friends for whom he held affection, such as Sir Thomas More and his children, or to the English scholar John Colet.

Erasmus died in July 1536 in Basel after falling ill from dysentery. He was buried in Basel Minster, and while his body faded away, his memory lived on in the many scholars across Europe and in the Americas who he influenced. Today in 2018, the University of Toronto Press has published 86 volumes of Erasmus’s collected works, including the thousands of known letters that he wrote to correspondents as grand as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and as humble as Margaret Roper, the talented English humanist and daughter of Erasmus’s best friend Sir Thomas More.

What was Renaissance Humanism?

Renaissance Humanism was a philosophical tradition that came out of the reemergence of ancient Greek and Latin philosophy initially in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Florence, that then spread out across Western Europe, impacting the philosophical, theological, and in some cases political outlook of intellectuals and scholars across Europe and in the overseas European colonies during the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century.

Humanism largely drew inspiration from the writings of Plato, a new turn in the long history of contention between Platonist and Aristotelian philosophy. Prior to the rise of Humanism, a number of Aristotelian philosophical traditions including Scholasticism were prevalent in Europe’s universities, based especially at the University of Paris. Humanism was as much a reaction to the complexities of Scholasticism as it was an attempt to renew the philosophical traditions of the pre-Christian Roman Empire.

Humanism in Italy largely drew on this pre-Christian Greek and Roman literary tradition, turning to ancient authors like Plato, Cicero, and Virgil for inspiration. Italian Humanism did not consider connecting and implementing Humanism in a religious setting to be quite as an imperative, instead seeing Humanism itself as a guide to good, virtuous living. Nevertheless, these same Humanist currents found their way into works of political realism like Machiavelli’s The Prince, which in a very humanist manner cites pre-Christian examples of good princes alongside their Christian counterparts.

In Northern Europe, Humanism took a different turn. There Humanism was most greatly impacted by the works of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, who created a variant of Humanism distinct from that discussed in Italy, that has become known as Christian Humanism. Christian Humanism intended to merge the lessons of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy with the morals and teachings of pre-Reformation Christianity, what today is Roman Catholicism, in an effort to promote a new understanding of what made for a good, virtuous, life.

Erasmus’s Christian Humanism was particularly well received in England, where early English humanists like John Colet and William Grocyn introduced it to the centres of English learning at Oxford and Cambridge. They in turn taught a young Thomas More to read and write Greek. Today More is widely considered to be the most prolific English humanist of the sixteenth century. Through the letters of both Erasmus and More, as well as many other Humanists, we can see how they saw their own world, and what they wanted to accomplish with their new philosophical tradition, which today we call Renaissance Humanism.

What was the Renaissance?

The Renaissance is one of those terms that is commonly known but its meaning is not necessarily as ubiquitous. The word Renaissance comes from renaissance, which itself comes from the verb renaître, meaning to be “reborn”. Thus, Renaissance refers to a cultural rebirth. There have been many renaissances throughout history, from the artistic, literary, and musical powerhouse of the Harlem Renaissance of the early twentieth century, and the Carolingian Renaissance that saw the revival of ancient learning in the court of Charlemagne in Aachen, modern Germany, to the renaissance that my adopted city, Kansas City, is experiencing today.

]The Renaissance that I’m talking about was the originator of the term, the period between the late fourteenth century to the late sixteenth century in Western Europe. It was a time when the pre-Christian knowledge and writings of ancient Greece and Rome, long considered lost began to be reintroduced into Western and Central European society. These works came both from the Eastern Mediterranean, with the influx of Greek scholars into Italy, especially to Florence, after the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire in 1453, and from old monastic libraries, long locked away and forgotten.

During the Renaissance, scholars rediscovered and began to study and write about such classical authors as Lucretius, who proposed the existence of the atom in his work On the Nature of Thingsin the first century BCE. The Renaissance also saw the adaptation of the works of the Ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, whose models have been used ever since.

While the Renaissance started in Italy and is most famous for the exploits of the Italian artists, writers, and musicians of the period, it spread northward across the Alps into the rest of Europe, changing the cultural landscape of France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the modern Netherlands and Belgium, Dernmark, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Czechia, Hungary, as well as England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Some of the greatest Renaissance artists whose work is still admired today include Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo, Bruni, Holbein, and Drürer. The Renaissance also saw the creation of a number of great works of literature, from Machiavelli’s The Prince, to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, and Rabelais’sGargantua and Pantagruel.

The period saw great progress in Europe in the sciences as well, with the first modern works of natural history such as Gesner’s Gart der Gesundheit and Vesalius’s On the Fabric of the Human Body, an astoundingly accurate book on human anatomy. At the same time Tycho Brahe and Nicolas Copernicus making great advances in astronomy, determining the place of Earth in the Solar System and, in the case of Copernicus, coming to the conclusion through a though experiment that the Solar System was heliocentric, thus that everything revolved about the Sun, rather than geocentric as had previously been thought.

The Renaissance also saw the beginning of the European explorations to the far ends of the planet, with men like Columbus becoming the first European since Leif Eriksson to set foot in the Americas, and Magellan the commander of a fleet that became the first to circumnavigate the globe. On a less sunny side, the Renaissance coincided with the beginning of the European colonial conquests of the Americas, Africa, and parts of south and southeast Asia.

This is the period in history that I’ve chosen to study, I find the social changes during the Renaissance to be particularly fascinating. Today we can learn a great deal from the Renaissance as we undergo a similar period of change, in some ways turning away from the ideals and values first put in place by these “new thinkers” and through this “rebirth” of classical Greek and Roman culture over five hundred years ago now.

What is History?

I’ve been studying history for quite some time now. In undergraduate I was initially a triple major in History, Philosophy, and Theology, and in my current graduate work I am close to earning my Master’s in History. As a result, the question has come up time and again, what is it that I’m actually doing? What is history, and what does it mean to study history?

When I started seriously in this field as an undergraduate, I came up with a straightforward answer to this question that was entirely based on time. History, I said, is the study of humanity between the invention of writing and exactly one hundred years before the present. It made sense to me to place a limit on history closer to the present, because I found it difficult to accept that people that I knew in my own lifetime could be studied in history just like someone who lived two thousand years ago.

This method worked fairly well for me, considering that I never seriously wanted to study anything more recent than about 1870, and generally stuck to Ancient Rome, Medieval England, the Renaissance, or Colonial America. Why worry about the twentieth century when it wasn’t what I studied?

Yet as I started my most recent master’s programme, I came to a new conclusion for what can be classified as history. You see, the tricky thing is that if we define the start of history as being the start of writing, then that must differ on a timeline depending on the culture. After all, while I generally only wanted to make a career out of studying people who lived at least four or five hundred years ago, by my own calculations history began for my paternal ancestors when the first written records of their lives appear in the 1790s.

But if I’m considering only those documents written by the people themselves then there’s another catch, because the Irish Censuses from the turn of the twentieth century show my Keane second great-grandparents as illiterate, making the scale of my family’s history written by members of my family rather short, if not non-existent per my century-based calculation as my great-grandfather was born just over 125 years ago at the time of recording.

So, how to compensate for this complication? As I thought about this, in between papers in the Fall of 2017 I came across a new definition of history, one that made more sense in the extremely complex tapestry that is humanity. Today, I see History as the study of the human past through the methods and tools used by the historian as developed since the turn of the nineteenth century.

These methods, based off of the similar philosophies thought up at the same time, and inspired by the new scientific method help make History a method of studying and understanding the human past that can be adapted to different cultures and societies around the globe. The biggest remnant from my old definition of History that survives in this one is that History relies entirely upon the written word. If a society does not have writing then the study of that society’s past should be left to experts in studying the human past through their material remains, i.e. archaeologists.

Thus, someone who died fifty years ago like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Bobby Kennedy are just as historical as someone who died millennia ago like Queen Nefertiti or Zhuge Liang.

But what do you think? How do you define history? And which historical period or figure do you like the most?

Latin in Modern English

English is a fascinating language in that it has had so many influences, and has adopted a great number of forms and styles from other languages in the 1500 years that it has existed. While English is a West Germanic language, and at its heart English has many Germanic features, it has also been so heavily influenced by the Romance languages, especially Latin and French, that some have called English a hybrid Germanic-Romance language.

Latin has been one of the strongest influencers of English, through both Latin’s role as the liturgical language of Western Christianity during the Middle Ages and today in the Catholic Church, as well as Latin’s role as the language of the Roman Empire, whose presence can still be felt across the Mediterranean and in Western Europe where it once ruled.

Today many Latin words have been adopted into English, from viaand campusto Latinate English words like canineand feminine. If we were to use purely Germanic-rooted words instead of canineand femininewe might say doglike and womanly, words that don’t have quite the same scientific or proper sound as their Latinate alternatives. For many Latinate words in English, we give them the same old -splural ending that is standard in this language. Yet even that comes originally from Latin, via French. Though with some words like campuseswe tend to tack on the English plural ending, despite the s already being there.

Then there is a whole class of irregular Latinate nouns that have come into English but, for whatever reason, kept their original Latin endings. Words like the originally Greek hippopotamus which, after being adapted by Latin, is as an English plural becomes hippopotami. I’ve noticed that many of these Latin words that kept their Latin forms in English tend in Latin to be either masculine or neuter, and very rarely feminine. It’s not often that you’ll hear someone refer to a group of orchestrasas orchestrae, but more common to hear a group of curriculums referred to as curricula, as is proper in more formal English and in Latin. So, if we stick with these rules then professional baseball is played not in stadiums but in stadia.

These forms have been around for quite some time, but in general they aren’t taught. I only realised they were there after studying Latin and Ancient Greek while writing a master’s thesis about Irish language curricula. For many people the plural has become the singular, so it’s often forgotten that the singular of criteriais criterionand that in very formal, and admittedly almost unused speech the plural of museumis musea. Even my spellcheck didn’t like that last one.

Whether we like it or not, there is a great deal of Latin in English today. We may not necessarily follow all of the Latin patterns and rules that have, over the centuries, been adopted into English, but they’re still there nevertheless. And personally, I like these, they add an extra bit of flavour to my writing.

Do you follow these rules, or do they seem outdated and out of place in English? Is English too complicated and irregular? And for those of you learning English, how do English plurals mirror or differ from those of your language.