The Wisdom of Seneca

SenecaSomething I hate is how people expect philosophers to live up to their philosophies. Usually, people’s disappointment comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of the philosophy. That’s certainly the case with Arthur Schopenhauer, who many people think should have killed himself. But it’s also true in modern politics where conservatives complain that well known liberals are rich, as though being a liberal is the same as being a Franciscan with a vow of poverty. But perhaps the most wronged philosopher is Seneca the Younger. Yes, he was a Stoic philosopher, but did anyone really expect him to live like that? In short: yes. But that’s wrong.

So Seneca came up a little short in the “living by his principles” measure. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he was an interesting philosopher who was damned quotable. And it is on this second point that I want to spend some time. Because I found this great little webpage, Latin Quotes by Seneca. And some of it is really great—even things I disagree with.

Aequat omnes cinis

This means, “Ashes level all.” But it is perhaps better to say, “Death insures equality.” Well, that’s not true! It’s something people say to justify inequality and injustice. But you might as well say that “birth insures equality” or “breathing insures equality.” It’s all a bunch of rubbish. And in modern America, we have a special twist. If you are poor, death comes sooner. The only way that “ashes level all” is if history does not exist. This statement is only really true is in a trivial way: when life is over, it is over. Does that make being poor the same as being rich. No. So shut up about it!

Aut regem, aut fatuum nasci oportet

This one is some seriously messed up Latin syntax, but it more or less means, “A king or a fool you ought to be born.” If I had a coat of arms, that is what I would put on it. Of course, I would add, “Aut non sum.” That means, “I am not.” I am neither powerful nor am I a fool. That is my cross to bear. To me, what this means is that if you aren’t born lucky, it is best that you be stupid so you don’t spend your whole life wondering about the injustice of the world. Which reminds me: why do people believe in a loving god?

Divitae bonum non sunt

This one means, “Material wealth is not the supreme good.” Here we kind of get into that area where people had a problem with Seneca. Because the man did like his luxuries—everything money could buy, and that included people. But I agree with the idea. Unfortunately, I live in a society that might give lip service to this idea but it wholly rejects it. The saying that would would be displayed on the coat of arms of America is, “Bonum est cupiditas.” That’s “Greed is good.”

Errare humanum est, Perseverare diabolicum

This is the best one, “To err is human, to persevere is diabolical.” This too is a saying that goes against American values. Here we believe that winners never quit and quitters never win. But that’s so much rubbish, it is hard to know where to start. There are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes quitting is exactly the right thing to do. When I was eight years old, I wanted to be a great baseball pitcher. I rightly gave up on that dream almost immediately. Since then, my decisions have been far less laudable. But here in the US, it is considered noble to pretend that you aren’t wrong and just continue doing the same thing wrong. Who knows? You might luck out! But it’s really doubtful.

Homines, dum docent, discunt

This is something I always stressed to my students, “Men learn while they teach.” Education is something that pays the teacher far more than the student. People who try to hide their knowledge only end up hurting themselves. I remember in math classes, I would help people and it seemed terrible because it only made the difference between those I helped and myself greater. But as long as they gain in an absolute sense, it is for the good. Stingy people are repaid in kind.

Otium sine litteris mors est et hominis vivi sepultura

Ah, this one sums me up, “Leisure without literature is death, and being buried alive.” Although I would take it further. Wherever I go, I bring a book. The idea of having to spend five minutes without having something interesting to read is just too terrifying.

That’s all for Seneca now. Food for thought. But as with Seneca’s life, not to necessarily be taken all that seriously.

Immigration Reform Won’t Help Reps

Jonathan ChaitMore and more, I find myself feeling like Louise on Bob’s Burgers, “Am I going crazy?!” You may remember back in the lead up to the Iraq War, the McClatchy newspapers were providing excellent coverage of the case for war. And they were finding that most of what the Bush administration was saying was rubbish. But all the big papers—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post—were publishing what would eventually be shown to be nothing more than White House propaganda. At the time, this made the editors for McClatchy very nervous and eventually, they too fell in line and reported what everyone else was.

I felt that way today after reading Jonathan Chait’s article, Boehner Decides Helping Hillary Win Is Better Than Passing Immigration Reform. We got a whole bunch of this kind of stuff after Obama won re-election in 2012. And even Chait started the article, “At the start of 2013, I really thought immigration reform was going to happen.” Yes he did! Like so many liberal writers, he though and still thinks that Republicans must pass some kind of immigration reform or Latinos will never vote for them.

Scared RepublicansThere is a fundamental problem with this idea that people have about how the Republicans must pass immigration reform to mend their relationship with the Latino community. First, Latinos care about a lot more than immigration. As a group, they are poorer and so they would vote for the Democrats regardless. Second, it is clear that if the Republicans did pass immigration reform, they would do it kicking and screaming. I don’t feel like looking it up, but the failed House bill contained a path to citizenship that was almost two decades long! Now Republicans are even against a bill that would normalize the status of undocumented people with no path to citizenship at all.

The biggest problem, however, is that the Republican Party clearly hates immigrants. They clearly hate Latinos most of all. Even if they did do immigration reform, it would be the only thing they were willing to do. It would be like a husband who beats up his wife. The next day, he brings her flowers and says, “Now that’s over. I never want to hear about it again!” In fact, that’s kind of how the Republicans are to the African American community, “We ended slavery: what more do you want?!”

Chait does note that a bad economy could still get a Republican elected, “Some Republicans have taken seriously the need to reposition the Party so that it can win a presidential election without the benefit of a recession or some other extraordinary circumstance.” The problem is that this is pretty much the case no matter what. If there is an economic downturn in 2016, the Republicans will win the White House. And if there isn’t, they won’t. It really is as simple as that.

The only valid point that Chait makes is that by leaving immigration reform on the table, it remains an issue that freaks like Ted Cruz can use to cudgel more reasonable candidates during the Republican primary. That’s true. But I’m not at all convinced that Ted Cruz is unelectable. People said that Ronald Reagan was unelectable. A lot of liberals were happy when the Republicans nominated him. They thought it would be Barry Goldwater all over again. It wasn’t.

Going forward, the Republican Party will have to do something to appeal to a more diverse country. But that time has not yet come. Mitt “Self Deportation” Romney still got almost half the votes in 2012. The Republican Party will court Latinos exactly when you would think they would: when there is absolutely no choice but to do so. And at that point, they are going to have to do a hell of a lot more than dangle a pathway to citizenship that would make Rube Goldberg proud and requires more years than most working class people have left.

So yes: the Republican Party is vile and stupid. But doing one thing is not going to change that fact. I really don’t see why people like Jonathan Chait keep claiming that it will.

See Also

It’s the Poor, Stupid
Why Should Republicans Support Immigration Reform?

Ann Coulter Confuses Her Sex Life With Soccer

Ann CoulterUnlike most liberals, I “get” Ann Coulter. She is fairly smart, actually has a good sense of humor, and knows what she is: a provocateur. She’s also vile and politically pretty much a fascist. She’s nationalistic, anti-diversity, and she fetishizes “strength” and “power.” But like me, last week she decided to go after America’s recent interest in soccer. Of course, although we were equally snarky, I at least made sense, You Don’t Care about World Football. My article was complaining about how Americans get all excited whenever “their team” (how ever that might be defined) is doing well. Americans are now more interested in soccer because our national team is reasonably good at it. But soccer like all professional sports is popular simply because it is popular. People watch it because other people watch it. Sheep, that’s what we are.

Last week, Coulter wrote, America’s Favorite National Pastime: Hating Soccer. Much of it is quite funny, but she actually shows a great ignorance not just of soccer but of games that True Americans™ care about. Let’s look at her description of Soccer:

Everyone just runs up and down the field and, every once in a while, a ball accidentally goes in.

That doesn’t really sound like soccer to me. I think she’s describing her sex life.

Anyway, she goes out of her way to label soccer as French, “They [African Americans] remain distinctly unimpressed by the fact that the French like it.” The truth is that soccer is not a particularly loved game in France. It is not more popular there than it is in Germany, Ireland, or the United Kingdom. This line actually is disappointing. Meaningless complaints about the French are so 2003. She really should get up with the times. That’s just lazy.

She also complains that what sets humans apart from other animals is that we have opposable thumbs. Well, actually, there are a lot of animals with opposable thumbs. (She also mentions that humans have souls unlike the “lesser beasts,” but she would hardly know, would she?) But her point is that soccer is stupid because you can’t use your hands. She wrote, “Here’s a great idea: Let’s create a game where you’re not allowed to use them!”

There’s a major problem with this idea. All sports have limitations. Baseball would be a lot easier to play if the bat were thicker, for example. But more important, the game she seems to think screams “America!” is football. But in that game, offensive linemen are not allowed to use their hands. Here’s a great idea: let’s create a game where the guys who protect the quarterback aren’t allowed to use their hands! Brilliant!

The truth is that Ann Coulter doesn’t know any more about the traditional American games than she knows about soccer. She just knows that soccer used to be unpopular in America and now it is getting more popular. Of course American football was not popular at all back in Coulter’s good ol’ days before the income tax. And it is just a variation on a real man’s game: rugby. It was altered for the pussy Americans who can’t stand a tap on the shoulder without six inches of high tech padding.

Oh, did I just write, “six inches”?! That’s another thing that upsets Coulter: the metric system. She spends three brainless paragraphs complaining about the metric system. No one is requiring Coulter to use the metric system. If she wants to measure her cadaverous body in inches, no one will complain. Or care! My guess: she’s a perfect 22-22-22. But it is interesting that she is embracing measurement units from an imperial system that we fought a war 238 years ago to escape.

The truth is that Ann Coulter is the ultimate conservative. She’s totally in favor of how ever things are. Football is great because it has been popular in the United States for her whole life. She doesn’t care about it enough to actually know anything about it. Similarly, she’s a “Christian,” but one doesn’t get the impression she takes that any more seriously than she does football. William Buckley famously said, “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!'” But in his case, you get the impression that he knew something about what he was yelling about. With Coulter is just the robotic belief that whatever Americans have done must be great, whatever they are starting to do is terrible, and powerful fascistic leaders are sexy.

Well, if Ann Coulter is really lucky, one of Chris Christie’s balls might accidentally go in.

Film Pioneer Alice Guy

Alice GuyI am often reminded of something that D W Griffith said about his innovative film making. It was more or less that he didn’t see himself as innovating. He was just trying to tell stories. I think that’s generally true of artists. Very few people see themselves as pushing an art form in new directions. They are just trying to communicate in their own way. Of course, Griffith gets rather more credit than he deserves for his work. Today, we talk about someone who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her work. (Yes: of course it’s a “her.” It had to be, right?)

On this day in 1873, the great film pioneer Alice Guy (later Guy-Blache and often just Blache after marrying Herbert Blache) was born. She started very early in the business—in 1894. She is generally considered the first female filmmaker, which is probably true given that she was one of the first filmmakers full stop. She was pretty much the first person to make narrative films. Like most things in the early history of film, it is hard to say anything for certain. For one thing, what exactly qualifies as a narrative film? And there were so many people making so many films in so many different places that it is impossible to say anything for certain. But Guy was hugely important in moving films in that direction.

Early films were, by and large, just slices of life: a train pulling into a station or girls having a pillow fight. The closest you got to having an actual story was Lumiere’s 1895 film, L’Arroseur Arrose, a film in which a kid restricts a water hose causing the gardener to spray himself in the face. But it is hardly a narrative. It is more or less the same as the pillow fight.

She made at least 700 films during her 26 year career. This includes 22 feature length films. Most of them are lost. The Internet Movie Database lists only 430 films and according to Wikipedia, only 350 are still known to exist. And it is still hard to find much of her work outside of film archives.

In 1907, she married English director Herbert Blache. At that point, she had to resign from the Gaumont Film Company. This was very common in the “advanced” countries: married women couldn’t work outside the home. So Guy and Blache emigrated to the United States where they started their own film business, The Solax Company. It was very successful for a decade or so. But the company eventually died off because of the break up of Guy and Blache’s marriage and also the move of film production to Hollywood.

Guy made her last film in 1920, Vampire—which, like most of her films, I know nothing about. And there is a reason for that. There was a systematic, if not conspiratorial effort to write her out of film history. Human beings are amazing at justifying their own self-satisfying narratives. Leon Gaumont’s success owed an enormous debt to Guy for her work from its beginning in 1894 through 1906. But when he published the history of his company, he started it in 1907.

After 1920, Guy made a living lecturing and writing what would come to be known as novelizations. Mostly, she was forgotten for a very long time. However, in 1953, the French government awarded her the Legion d’Honneur. Otherwise, she was pretty much ignored during her long life. (She died in 1968, just short of her 95th birthday.)

It is really hard to find films made by her. In addition to there just being few, most of the ones that are available are not confirmed to have been made by her. It is a shame. You might want to check out The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ, a half hour long blockbuster that by the standards of the time is amazing. But here, from 1905, is an actual sound film, Five O’Clock Tea. Think of it as one of the first music videos. It features Armand Dranem, the French music hall singer and comedian.

Happy birthday Alice Guy!