Category Archives: Language

Twenty Years, Two Home Towns

IMG_4088.pngScreenshot 2019-06-13 at 17.15.04CDT.png

This Friday marks a significant anniversary for my parents and I, one which has so thoroughly impacted our lives since that I feel compelled to commemorate it. Twenty years ago, on 14 June 1999, my mother and I arrived in Kansas City, her hometown, and my new city. My father had driven down a few days before to start setting things up, and we met him that afternoon at the home of one of my aunts in Kansas City, Kansas. It has taken me nearly as many years to be able to call Kansas City a second home, alongside Chicago, yet there it is.

In the last six months as this anniversary approached, I have returned to thinking about those first months in the last year of the last century when my parents decided to sell our little GI bill house in suburban Wheaton, Illinois, and buy a 34 acre farm on the western edge of Kansas City, Kansas, in what up until its annexation about 15 years earlier by the aforementioned city, was the farming village of Piper. Why did we do it? The answer is hardly simple, having far too many facets and elements to be answered quickly. The short of it is this, firstly my mother’s employer offered to pay to move us to either Kansas City or Saint Louis (at the time I said I’d rather Saint Louis), the closest Catholic elementary school to our house in Wheaton had a long waiting list for first grade, and my father had, from what I’ve heard, always wanted a farm.

So, in June we packed up the house. Ever the history buff I imagined us following in the footsteps of the pioneers and voyageurs of the three centuries before us, with names like Boone, Crockett, Joliette, and Marquette who likewise left the cities east of the Mississippi and travelled west to find new opportunities, to explore lands they didn’t know. As we crossed the Mississippi in the shadow of the Gateway Arch on the eve of Flag Day, I distinctly remember thinking about them. We weren’t travelling in a covered wagon, though perhaps in its 1990s equivalent, a 1997 Honda Civic, yet still the parallels seemed evident to my six-year-old imagination.

The adventure of the move was there for the first few months at least, and it probably lasted about a year. Still, as the years wore on, I still felt my heart drawn not to this new house that we built in a hay field, nor to the city that was sprawling further and further west. I was lucky to remember much of my life before we moved, my memory going back with consistency to at least the spring after my third birthday. I remembered and dreamed about the people, places, and things that we left behind for years, and for many years yearned for the day when I would finally move back home.

In the last few months after going with a group of friends up to the American Historical Association conference in Chicago, I began to think more and more about whether or not I’d be further along in my career had we stayed there two decades ago, had I gone through the schools up there, had I come from a more globally recognized city. My general conclusion is that I may have ended up in a different field, perhaps more in something having to do with Natural History or perhaps the History of Science. While the practicalities of my desire to return to my first home town have adapted with the flowing current of the times, I can still say with certainty that if given the option, I would still gladly move back.

Perhaps the greatest irony of this anniversary is that in the last year I’ve began to fully accept Kansas City as my second home town and began to really enjoy living here. This truly is a beautiful city, with so much opportunity. It’s taken me 19 years to be able to call this city home, yet now once again I’m on the move, heading east to Binghamton, New York to wrap up my studies with a doctorate in History. After all, like my grandfather and namesake John Kane, who I dearly miss, as soon as I move from one place to another, I start to miss the place that I just left. It’s only fitting then that now, at the moment when Kansas City really feels like home, I’m heading off to some other town. Figures.

Equality under the Law

Words and phrases are powerful tools, and the emotions that we attach to particular words only begin to stick once certain actions are taken based upon the intent of those words. In the United States the debate over the issue of abortion has long been controlled by the social conservatives on the right. Predominately made up of Conservative Protestants and Catholics, this odd faction have united in their opposition to predominately two main issues: the rights of women to control their futures outside of the will of powerful men, and the rights of people to express their love beyond the traditional Judeo-Christian bounds of love between one man and one woman.

This odd couple has been successful in framing the abortion debate as one between those righteous who support the right of all who are conceived to be born, and thus declaring themselves to be Pro-Life. By declaring themselves, the anti-abortion factions, to be Pro-Life, they have categorically deemed their counterparts, those who support women’s abortion rights, to be little more than misguided homicidal individuals. To correct these tendencies towards abortion, the Pro-Life camp has advised women to let their pregnancy go through, and to protect the innocent life that comes out of the mother’s womb. The first of many ironies and issues with this is that the people in positions of power most likely to offer that advice are either men, or women who follow the advice of those men regardless of what might be best for themselves.

A number of years ago, while writing for Examiner.com’s Kansas City Catholic column, I published an opinion piece calling out the anti-abortion movement as not necessarily pro-life, but more simply pro-birth. After writing that article calling out the hypocrisy of people who are so adamant to protect the fetus, but are content with capital punishment, and who refuse to support “socialist” policies like universal healthcare, and matching the minimum wage to the living wage, among others, I actually received a fair number of threats from readers. Today, knowing and recognizing the infractions being committed against women’s rights by state legislatures from coast to coast, including my own state of Missouri, I cannot sit by silently and watch.

In this country we allow the most despicable of speech because if we limited one type of speech then all free speech would equally be threatened. In this country the same social conservatives who oppose abortion have argued that we cannot have even the most basic control on gun sales because it would threaten all rights to own guns. The bills being passed in the state legislatures, that will certainly be used to challenge the legality of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling are not just wrong, they are excessively so. They directly target a particular group of citizens based upon their biological sex and make it harder, if not nigh impossible to have a viable livelihood in a number of states. Like the recent set of voter ID laws that target minority voters, limiting their basic right of participation in government, these anti-abortion laws offend the very concept of equality under the law upon which the sociopolitical life of our country is built.

Earlier this week, when the Governor of Alabama signed that state’s bill into law, she expressly noted the religious undertones that have fueled the anti-abortion movement. As long as we have freedom of religion in this country, we cannot have any direct influence from any one religion upon our government at any level. If a law such as this anti-abortion law, which is openly influenced by the religious beliefs of the aforementioned Conservative Protestants and Catholics, becomes official, then the rights of all other people of faith in this country are infringed upon.

If we are going to allow one faith to be practiced freely, all other faiths must have the same protections. Yet it is counter to the very core of Christianity, a faith in a God of Charitable Love, to use our religion to restrict the rights of others. The malice that fuels these bills is a threat not only to women, but to everyone else in this country who doesn’t fit into the narrow vision of goodness that the anti-abortion crowd yearns for.

Total Control: TV, Streaming, and my Health

IMG_4245.png

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.

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?