No, Shakespeare didn’t “say” that

How often have you seen this passage quoted as “Shakespeare says …”?

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Not having read the play for several decades, I was surprised to find that the context of that passage, which I could have repeated more or less accurately from memory, entirely subverts its text. Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all” but so concerned about displaying his Stoic virtue as to neglect the practical details, is debating with the less attractive but much sharper Cassius whether their army should come down from the high ground and engage Antony and Octavian at Philippi, or instead hold position and force the enemy to come at them. Cassius advises Fabian tactics, but Brutus insists on rolling the dice, much to the delight of Antony when he gets the word.  As a result, the anti-Caesarean side gets wiped out. (This is largely Shakespeare’s invention, without much warrant from Plutarch’s account.)

In context, then, Brutus’s soaring oratory is entirely ironic; the scene warns against rash risk-taking rather than encouraging it.

Footnote Like many Boomers, I had to read Julius Caesar in the 10th grade; not really one of the Bard’s better efforts, but full of quotable passages and reasonably easy to follow. (As You Like It, by contrast, if read rather than watched, makes absolutely no sense to a sixteen-year-old; I was fortunate enough to see a performance a year or so later, but I suspect that some of my classmates never discovered that Shakespeare wrote great musicals.)

Brutus’s speech would have been a perfect scene to use as an example of dramatic irony. But I doubt my teacher had any idea what the passage was about, and the lit-crit we read as “secondary sources” disdained anything as straightforward as explaining what the play was supposed to mean or how the poet used dramatic techniques to express that meaning.

If I ran the zoo, students would first watch a good performance of whichever play they were going to read, and then act it out for themselves. That might actually give some of them a taste for drama. But it wouldn’t help them score well on standardized tests, so who cares?


Into Thin Air

Much has been made about the surge in the use of electronic cigarettes but what might be overlooked are the health effects that low-end electronic cigarettes have on its customers compared to that of the higher grade. With no quality assurance for any electronic smoking device, those who can only use the “economical” types of e cigarettes may be opening themselves up to additional health detriments though poor e cigarette construction.

The low end of the e cig market is filled with disposable products that costs anywhere from five to ten dollars, unsurprisingly these products are sold in lower income neighborhoods. Scientists at the University of California Riverside tested a “lower end” e cigarette model as well as a mid-range brand known as “Mistic”, both bought from a San Diego drug store. During the tests the liquid (or “juice) that is inside the e cig is heated and put inside a centrifuge and spun. The end product of the cheap brand, known as “Smoking Everywhere Platinum”, was a pellet that contained mostly tin, with trace amounts of some nickel and copper. Cheaper e cigarette devices may be prone to releasing metals during use due to the tin soldering coming off of the casing, a result of the cheap construction of the cartridge. The Mistic brand e cig had trace amounts of copper and no amounts of tin found due to no solders being used in the product, something common with higher end e cigs. Regulated manufacturing is inherently more expensive, but the switch to a standard set of rules for e cigarette production could lead to reduced instances of metal inhalation for those who cannot afford higher end e cigs.

The people being exposed to harmful e cigarettes are the same who are exposed to the lower end of actual cigarettes: poor minorities. Though the hold that cigarettes have on low income populations remains in a death grip e cigarette use is on the rise and much like cigarettes that are made on the cheap, e cigarettes made for as little money as possible carry inherently worse risks than those made with the consumer in mind. Lack of regulation in the electronic cigarette market allows bargain brands to pump out cheaply constructed disposable e cigs that open up lower income users to health problems from metal inhalation and nicotine poisoning, a greater push for regulation needs to come in order for lower income users to be as safe as their higher end e cigarette smoking counterparts.

Point of view

This pictureshoe3has always irritated me.  It’s obviously not a footprint, but a torn-off piece of boot sole sitting upside down on some beach.  If you ask me, it’s a pathetic part of the conspiracy to make us think humans actually landed on the moon.  Why it keeps being reproduced, here for example, mystifies me.  Continue Reading…

The 4×6 Green Card

Following Harold’s excellent example, I have put everything you need to know to be an environmentally responsible citizen on a 4×6 card.  (I wish environmental policy could be similarly condensed, but it’s complicated; “Carbon charge!” goes a long way, though.) 4x6

Walk, bike, e-communicate, and public transit when you can. Drive a high-mpg car, and keep it as long as possible.

Live close to work and shopping

Eat less meat.

Garden appropriately for your climate.  Less turf. 

Drink tap water, not bottled. Showers, not baths.

Insulate, weatherstrip, switch to CFL and (better) LED light bulbs. Then, focus on (i) in winter, energy that goes out through the walls of your house: lower the thermostat and put on a sweater, don’t obsess about lights and appliances because they just offset your heating system;  (ii) in summer, what comes in and has to be taken out by air conditioning: shades, awnings, whole-house fan; raise the thermostat and wear shorts; turn off lights and minimize cooking and appliance use.

Reuse, repair, retain; have less stuff and less house (share walls, consider an apartment), but have a recent refrigerator, and a dishwasher that you load full before running.

Vote and agitate. For a carbon charge, walkable/bikeable/transit land use, high gasoline taxes and low fares; against free parking.

Days of glory: the case against

Happy Bastille Day. As a liberal and an American, I can think of no better way of celebrating it than by defending American individualism against French (small-r) republicanism, the pursuit of happiness against compulsory fraternity, and personal lives in all their diversity against the longing that citizens all hold the same purpose in common (and it doesn’t matter what it is).

Writing against David Brooks’ latest lament for the “spiritual recession” entailed by creeping loss of faith in the gospel [sic, several times] of democracy promotion, independent-minded paleoconservative Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote a great piece a couple of weeks ago defending the sufficiency of private life and the unsung sacrifices involved in living it well (h/t: Daniel Larison). I can’t help but quote a good third of it:

Brooks’ linking of American ebbs of American idealism with tides of American materialism is not only wrong but perverse, as if Americans were somehow worse off for buying cars in the 1920s than they were dying of gas attacks in Europe a decade earlier. And if noble causes were a cure-all for the materialism of the elite, then the Truman Committee would not have been booking companies for war-profiteering as the Greatest Generation made its name.

Times of peace are not absent of ennobling effects of sacrifice and duty. But the common sacrifices that fathers and mothers make for children, that entrepreneurs make for the future, that researchers make for the legacy of science, are somehow beneath our notice.

An analogy might suffice. Stern fathers often make the mistake of believing that their children will not defend the home or the values of the family if martial discipline is not instilled. But turning the homestead into a garrison then drives the children to go AWOL. Instead, all the father has to do is make his home a place of love and, yes, comfort. Having done that, his sons will defend it from any real threat with fire in their eyes.

Ideologues prefer the idea of an ideological nation, a crusader state. Crusader states inspire great battle poetry. But a democratic republic like America needs no purpose, no mission civilisatrice. It needs no poetry. America just needs to be our home — that will require sacrifice enough.

Dougherty rightly aims his attack against national greatness conservatism, which is by a long way the most prevalent and dangerous form of American fraternatism. (Shorter NGC: “Americans, admit it: your lives only have meaning when your country is killing a fair number of foreigners or loudly proclaiming an eagerness to do so.”) But though it now persists only in the minds of Robert Kuttner and about twelve other people, there once was common on the Left an equally cloying and also pernicious habit of averring that when people live their own lives and make their own choices they’re effectively surrendering to selfishness. America, on this neo-Deweyan view, is worth the trouble only when “private interest” yields to “public purpose”—i.e. having things run by the state, as a matter of principle and, to simplify only slightly, in as many areas as possible.

Of course no sane and decent person believes that people should lead callous, narrow “private” lives in which we ignore our duties to others and our obligation to contribute to the public goods that all of us count on. (Lots of people do believe that. But they’re not sane and decent.) And on the unusual occasions when ordinary people do turn their attention to politics, I hope they will keep those duties and obligations strongly in mind. But the rest of the time, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Americans’ leading our diverse, untranslatable, personal lives, lives of strife and sacrifice and ineffable, idiosyncratic goals. As we live such lives, the condition and the feelings of our family and friends will, inevitably, strike us more directly than those of other fellow citizens.

And even if there were something wrong with our leading such lives, we will in any case live them anyway: a human being is not by nature a self-forgetting animal. A constant, tub-thumping commitment to national greatness, solidarity, fraternity, la patrie, or public purpose will not make a person altruistic. But it may—very commonly does—distort his or her good judgment, and deaden good moral sense.

So: let’s go, children of their actual parents. An ordinary day of summer camp has arrived—and no shame in that.

Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You…Obama Edition

Nancy LaTourneau has penned an open letter to President Obama. She begins with an observation about how most politicians talk to voters:

What I heard most from politicians who were running for office was what they could do for me. That message made me feel like a victim rather than a participant. And so I’d always tune it out and move on.

This reaction would shock the many politicians who believe that they must always present themselves as a cross between a streetwalker and the guy behind the counter at McDonald’s. There is an alternative stance to take towards the public, and Nancy found it in Barack Obama’s 2012 Democratic Convention speech:

We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.

Nancy reacted positively to Obama’s faith in the people of this country and his call for them to be of service rather than simply be service recipients of the political class. Her whole letter is worth a read.

The Passing of John Leach, Who Helped Make Spy Movies Cool

1280px-Modern_Concert_cimbalomJohn Leach has passed away. He was a multi-talented composer and musician with many artistic achievements to his credit. He also made a small but important contribution to the ambience of the spate of espionage films that emerged from Britain in the 1960s and eventually became a world wide phenomenon.

The theme music of many of these movies featured sonorous notes — at times evocatively asynchronous — that came from a cimbalom, a hammer dulcimer from Hungary that Leach mastered. The musical touchstone is the theme to The Ipcress File (Michael Caine’s superb first outing as Harry Palmer). The music was written by the legendary John Barry with Leach adding his own magic, and the resulting style was widely copied in later films using either a cimbalon or other instruments that could generate a similar effect (e.g., the plucked strings of a piano or a properly tuned electric bass guitar).

When I hear those intoxicating notes, I see in my mind a hundred ultra-cool, glumly professional spooks in overcoats, walking down dark streets and battling it out with their opposite numbers in The East. Music really can help define and enrich a film genre. Well done Mr. Leach. R.I.P.

Voting: A Personal, Religious and Social Responsibility

Rabbi Mark Strauss-Cohn of Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina speaking as part of the Moral Mondays effort. We have a responsibility to vote, and to oppose efforts that hinder others’ efforts to do so.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Naked City

Film_380w_NakedCity_originalDisruptive innovations in technology have been one of the defining aspects of the short history of cinematic art. The introduction of sound in the 1920s, followed by color in the 1930s, followed much more recently by computer-generated imagery — all of which had profound creative implications — are the ones with which most movie fans are familiar. A lesser known but still important set of innovations occurred in the 1940s: faster film, improved microphones and lighter-weight cameras and equipment. Combine these enhanced technologies with a large number of cinematographers gaining experience in shooting under every conceivable condition during World War II, and you had the basis for a raft of films shot in realistic style on location. This week’s film recommendation is a high-quality example of the form, which explicitly packaged itself as such: Jules Dassin’s 1948 docu-drama The Naked City.

As the famous voice-over narration tell us as the film opens with a stunning airplane shot of Manhattan, The Naked City is not just a story of a murder investigation but of New York City and the people in it. The narration was provided by producer Mark Hellinger, a Runyonesque Big Apple journalist whose own colorful life could have been the basis for a fine biopic itself if he hadn’t sadly dropped dead shortly after the movie was finished. With New York and New Yorkers being the main characters, the film tells the story of the murder of a beautiful striver/gold digger and the efforts of the police to solve it. In addition to being distinctly its own film, The Naked City also fits into the then-emerging subgenre of crime investigation procedurals (Call Northside 777 and He Walked by Night were also released in 1948).

The City that Never Sleeps, as seen through the Oscar-winning camerawork of William H. Daniels, has rarely been captured so vividly in film. Dozens of small performances, most of them I assume turned in by average NYCers rather than professional actors, add flavor throughout: The lady at the root beer stand, the guy hawking newspapers on a streetcorner, the funeral home director, the cop on the beat, the woman having her hair done and many others get their moment. Many of these little slices of life bear no relation to the murder mystery, but are instead intended to bring alive post-war Gotham life.

The murder mystery itself is actually a bit slow and convoluted, but it’s watchable because Barry Fitzgerald once again plays a twinkly-eyed charmer with a brogue. As Detective Lieutenant Muldoon, he has wonderful father-son style byplay with his eager-beaver protege and investigative leg man Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor). The two of them help the film along during its slow spots, which most viewers will forget anyway because of the thrilling conclusion in which the police chase the killer on the Williamsburg bridge.

One critical note on The Naked City. It is often referred to as a film noir, but I don’t think the noir elements are really here. Jimmy Halloran’s incredibly happy and loving suburban family is revealed underneath to be…an incredibly happy and loving suburban family. The cops are all honest and clearly differentiated from the very bad gang of criminals. Urban dwellers are generally portrayed without cynicism and the look of the film owes more to Italian Neorealism than noir. If you want a police docu-drama that is also a noir, see my recommendation of He Walked by Night.

the_naked_city_scena1Final suggestion: The Naked City is so visually striking that if you seek it out, you owe it to yourself to watch the restored print available from the Criterion Collection.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.