The Comedic Legacies of Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis (RIP): A Study in Contrasts

Two titans of comedy passed away this weekend, yet the deaths of Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis have seemed like cultural footnotes amidst some of the most anxious, angry few days in recent U.S. history. Gregory and Lewis are stars of a bygone era, maybe two full generations behind contemporary cultural relevance. In many ways, however, the mid-20th century world where both men got their start feels closer than ever.

Both Gregory and Lewis once wielded considerable power in the entertainment industry and in their other chosen spheres of influence—the civil rights movement and charitable giving, respectively. In nearly every other respect, the two could not have been more different.

Gregory broke into mainstream success with a new wave of black comics like Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, and like Pryor, he did so by telling truths about racism that white Americans laughed about but were mostly unwilling to change. You can hear an early example in the routine above, from his 1962 album Dick Gregory Talks Turkey.

Gregory got his big break in 1961 when he seized the moment in a tryout at Hugh Hefner’s Chicago Playboy Club. As he later told CBS Sunday Morning, “I pushed that white boy out of the way and ran up there…. Two hours later, they called Hefner. And Hefner came by and they went out of their mind.” That same year, he made his first national TV appearance. See it at 15:16 in the documentary Walk in My Shoes just below, which also features Malcolm X and Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) founder James Farmer.

In the playlist  below, you can hear three full Gregory comedy recordings, Living Black & White (1961), East & West (1961), and an interview album, Dick Gregory on Comedy. Throughout his career, Gregory was a staunch, uncompromising civil rights activist who was beaten and arrested in the sixties at marches and protests. He was at the 1963 March on Washington, faced down the Klan to integrate restaurants, and fasted to protest the Vietnam War. In a review of his provocatively-titled autobiography, The New York Times described him as “a man who deeply wants a world without malice and hate and is doing something about it.”

He also did something about it in comedy. When Jack Paar’s producer called him to appear on the show, Gregory hung up on him. Then Paar himself called, and Gregory told him he wouldn’t come on unless he could sit on the couch, a privilege afforded white comics and denied their black counterparts. Paar agreed. “It was sitting on the couch,” he said, “that made my salary grow in three weeks from $250 working seven days a week to $5,000 a night.” For the next several decades, he leveraged his wealth and fame for humanitarian and civil rights causes, and even a run for mayor of Chicago in 1967 and a popular write-in presidential campaign in the 1968 election. He died at 84 a venerated elder statesman of the movement.

Jerry Lewis’s legacy is much more complicated, and serves in many ways as a “cautionary tale,” as Nick Gillespie puts it, for the hubris of celebrity. Lewis broke through in the 50s as the animated, rubbery comic foil to Dean Martin’s suave straight man in the hugely famous comedy duo of Martin & Lewis. See them above do a standup routine in 1952 on their Colgate Comedy Hour, with an introduction (and intervention) from Bob Hope. The act was a phenomenon. “Coming from literally nowhere,” writes Shawn Levy at The Guardian, “the pair rode a skyrocketing 10-year career that made them staples of American showbiz for the rest of their lives…. They met when they were just two guys scuffling for a break in Times Square, and they helped forge a new brand of popular entertainment suited to the postwar mood.”

In the same year as broadcast further up, Lewis made his first appearance, with Martin and Jackie Gleason, on the Muscular Dystrophy Associations of America (MDAA) telethon. Just above, see them do a bit while the familiar banks of operators stand by behind them. Lewis began hosting his own MDAA telethon in 1966 and did so until 2010, raising billions for the organization, which remembers him as a “Comic genius. Cultural icon. Humanitarian.” Many disability activists feel otherwise, including many former “Jerry’s Kids,” his “pet name,” writes Gillespie, for the poster children he recruited to represent the MD community on the telethon and related advocacy materials. “The telethon was widely parodied,” and Lewis’s efforts have been seen by many activists and protestors as self-serving, perpetuating a patronizing attitude of pity for MD sufferers rather than acceptance and social equality.

As a movie star, Lewis often played an all-American doofus whose physical antics and stammering, boyish persona endeared him to audiences (see above, for example, from 1952’s Sailor Beware). He also traded in grossly offensive stereotypes, participating in an ugly Hollywood tradition that emerged from anti-Chinese bigotry of the 19th century and anti-Japanese World War II propaganda. (Lewis was unflatteringly remembered in The Japan Times as the “king of low-brow comedy… forever squealing, grimacing and flailing his way” through various roles.) He introduced Asian caricatures into his act in the Martin & Lewis days (see below) and reprised the shtick in his critically-loathed 1980 film Hardly Working, in which, writes Paul Macovaz at Senses of Cinema, he “realizes an offensive, profoundly racist yellow-face sashimi chef.”

“I imagine that most viewers will be troubled by it,” Macovaz comments, “wrenched viscerally from their enjoyment of the Lewisian idiot and pressed squirming into the overdetermined conceptual narrative zone of American Orientalism.” Those viewers who know another of Lewis’s later-career disasters will recognize another awkward character in Hardly Working, the sad-faced clown of 1972's disastrous The Day the Clown Died, a film so ill-advised and badly executed that Lewis never allowed it to be released. (Just below, see a short documentary on the abortive effort.)  In the movie, as comedy writer Bruce Handy noted in a 1992 Spy magazine article, the comedian plays “an unhappy German circus clown… sent to a concentration camp and forced to become a sort of genocidal Pied Piper, entertaining Jewish children as he leads them to the gas chambers.” Meant to be his first “serious,” dramatic role, the largely unseen film now stands as an archetypal exemplar of the phrase “tone deaf”—a nightmare of artistic failure that Mel Brooks might have dreamed up as a sick joke.

As Gillespie points out, Lewis’s last years saw him threatening to punch and spank Lindsay Lohan and telling refugees to “stay where the hell they are.” Long past the time most people wanted to hear them, he persisted in making "racist and misogynistic jokes" and gave “the most painfully awkward interview of 2016” to the Hollywood Reporter. He became well-known for verbally abusing his audiences. The running joke that Lewis was beloved by the French, which “only made him less respectable in his home country,” may have been run into the ground. But in the latter half of his career, it sums up how much American comedians—even those like Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and Eddie Murphy, who were clearly influenced by his manic humor—were often unwilling to make too much of the debt. Nonetheless, looking back at his early career, and at films like Flubber and The Nutty Professor, it's hard to deny his contributions to 20th century comedy.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Final Show of Metallica’s North American Tour Now Streaming Free Online

A quick fyi: Metallica wrapped up their North American tour on Friday night in Edmonton--their first North American tour in eight years. The show was live-streamed on YouTube, and it's now fully viewable online, thanks to MetallicaTV. Enjoy all 2 hours and 41 minutes of it. You can see a setlist for the show here.

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Artistic Maps of Pakistan & India Show the Embroidery Techniques of Their Different Regions

Journalist Saima Mir posted to Twitter this "map of Pakistan showing the embroidery techniques of its regions." And, sure enough, it led to someone surfacing a corresponding map of Pakistan's neighbor, India. The underlying message of the maps? It's to show, as @AlmostLived noted, "how diverse elements come together to make beautiful things." The map above was originally produced by Generation, a Pakistani fashion company. We're not clear on the origin of the India map, unfortunately.

via Boing Boing

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Neil deGrasse Tyson: “Because of Pink Floyd, I’ve Spent Decades Undoing the Idea That There’s a Dark Side of the Moon”

In 1973, Pink Floyd released their influential concept album, The Dark Side of the Moon, which garnered both critical and commercial success. The album sold some 45 million copies, and remained on Billboard's Top LPs & Tapes chart for 741 weeks (from 1973 to 1988). All of which was great for Pink Floyd. But not so much for science and education.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson explains above. "That Pink Floyd had an album with that title meant I spent decades having to undo [that fact] as an educator." That's because "there is no dark side of the moon." "There's a far side and there's a near." "But all sides of the moon receive sunlight across the month."

To delve deeper into this, it's worth reading this short article (Mythbusters: Is There Really a Dark Side of the Moon?) from Yale Scientific Magazine. There, they elaborate:

No matter where we are on Earth, we see and always have seen only one face of the moon. Since the moon rotates on its axis in the same amount of time that it takes the body to orbit our planet, the same half face of the moon is consistently exposed to viewers on Earth. This timing is caused by a phenomenon called tidal locking, which occurs when a larger astronomical body (Earth) exerts a strong gravitational pull on a smaller body (the moon), forcing one side of the smaller body to always face the larger one....

[T]he fact that we earthlings cannot see the far side of the moon does not mean that this face is never exposed to sunlight. In fact, the far side of the moon is no more and no less dark than the hemisphere we do see.

Get the rest here.

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How TV Addles Kids’ Brains: A Short Film Directed by Godfrey Reggio (Maker of Koyaanisqatsi) & Scored by Philip Glass

On October 4, 1982, "more than 5,000 people filled the Radio City Music Hall to experience a remarkable event. That event was the world premiere of Koyaanisqatsi." So says the poster for the wide release of that film, an experimental documentary without spoken words on the natural and manmade environment that neither looked nor sounded — nor felt — like anything many of its viewers had ever experienced in a movie theater before.

Unable to muster any of their standard reactions, they had no choice but to sit and observe as, in slow motion and fast motion and every speed in between, waterfalls thundered, chasms yawned, skyscrapers soared, commuters scurried, and rockets launched before their eyes — all to the music of Philip Glass. You might say that Koyaanisqatsi (see trailer below), as well as its formally similar sequels Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, puts its viewers in an altered state of mind.

The trilogy's director, a former monk-in-training named Godfrey Reggio, might say the same thing about television, whose flickering blueish presence emerges from time to time in his work, but he wouldn't mean it in a good way. In 1995, between Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, he made a short called Evidence which, in the words of koyaanisqatsi.org, "looks into the eyes of children watching television - in this case Walt Disney’s Dumbo. Though engaged in a daily routine, they appear drugged, retarded, like the patients of a mental hospital."

Accompanying and in a sense commenting on their glazed, often slack-jawed expressions, we once again, as in Reggio's transfixing feature documentaries, have a Glass-composed score. Unlike moviegoers in a theater, "television viewers become prey to the television’s own light impulses, they go into an altered state — a transfixed condition where the eyes, the mind, the breathing of the subject is clearly under the control of an outside force. In a poetic sense and without exaggerating one might say that the television technology is eating the subjects who sit before its gaze."

In the more than two decades since, this kind of criticism of television has given way to a more general criticism of electronic media, most of whose currently popular forms didn't exist in 1995; Reggio and Glass' most recent collaboration, 2013's Visitors, deals with "humanity's trancelike relationship with technology." You and your children may have escaped the "tractor beam that holds its subjects in total control" as Evidence depicts it, but in the 21st century the number of tractor beams has greatly multiplied. And so the question remains worth asking: which ones have you under their control?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear the Beach Boys’ Angelic Vocal Harmonies in Four Isolated Tracks from Pet Sounds: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B” & “Good Vibrations”

I didn’t get the Beach Boys for a while. They had provided the soundtrack to an alien world, one I knew mostly from chewing gum commercials. They were “uncool—cornball,” writes Ben Ratliff, “unenlightened” purveyors of “beach privilege.” The “narrators of Beach Boys songs used their time as they liked: amusement parks, surfing, drag racing, dating, sitting in their rooms.” They had no cares, no real burdens, just shallow summer loves and heartaches. They came off as some of the blandest, safest-sounding people on earth.

Then, in a puzzling turn in the nineties, indie artists like Neutral Milk Hotel, Jim O’Rourke, and The Sea and Cake began experimenting with the complex arrangements, odd instrumentation, and sunny melodies of 60s pop artists like The Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach.

This is music that can seduce us into thinking it is simplistic, childish, uninspired vanilla. Its use as background muzak in supermarkets and shopping malls confirms the impression. But critical listening explodes it. (Dig the phrasing in the otherwise silly, Bacharach/Hal David-composed “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.”)

Yes, it took a retro-hip return to '60s lounge music, bossa nova, and surf pop for many people to reconsider the Beach Boys as serious artists. And while the trend became a little cloying, once I put on the headphones and gave the radical Pet Sounds a few dozen spins, as so many songwriters I admired had gushed about doing, I got it. Of course. Yes. The arrangements, and those harmonies…. It isn’t only the technical wizardry, though there’s that. It’s how thoroughly weird those classically-inspired arrangements are. Perhaps a better way to put it would be, totally counterintuitive.

What nearly any other pop arranger would naturally do with a harmony or rhythm part—just to get the house in order and showcase more important “lead” parts—Brian Wilson almost never does. As the minimalist composer John Adams put it, “more than any other songwriter of that era, Brian Wilson understood the value of harmonic surprise.” At least in Pet Sounds and the long-unfinished “labyrinth of melody” SMiLE, each part of the song sustains its own individual interest without breaking away from the miniature symphonic whole.

Even within the harmonies, there is a strange tension, an off-kilter wobbling as in a machine whose gears are all just a bit off-center. Instruments and voices go in and out of key, tempos slow and quicken. The vocal harmonies are angelic, but troubled, uncertain, maudlin, and underlined with unexpected intensity given the innocuousness of their lyrics. In the isolated vocal tracks here for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B,” and “Good Vibrations,” you may catch it, or not. It isn’t foreboding, exactly, but a kind of uneasy recognition that the pleasures these songs celebrate will soon pass away. An Arcadian theme in the California pastoral.

The tension is there in Wilson’s idol Phil Spector’s compositons as well, but the contrast is remarkably greater in Pet Sounds, of longing, nostalgia, and youth at its peak. The utopia they imagine may only appeal to a specific subset of boomer Americans, but their intricate, melodically complex, yet harmoniously appealing soundworld belongs to everyone. As Zack Schonfeld observed in a sadly prophetic review of Wilson’s Pet Sounds performance in Brooklyn last summer, “it is hard to imagine modern indie or indie-pop—or pop in general—without Pet Sounds.” (That includes, of course The Beatles, who answered with Sgt. Peppers.) “A world without Pet Sounds is a frightening dystopia,” he writes, “like imagining a world without beaches or one in which Donald Trump is president.” Maybe as you sit back and listen to the otherworldly beauty of these naked harmonies, think of all those lovely beaches we still have left.

via Twisted Sifter

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Paintings of Jim Carrey: “Painting Frees Me, from the Past and Future, from Regret and Worry”

In his top-grossing comedies, actor Jim Carrey displayed an antic quality that seemed to rule over his personal life as well. While other stars used interviews as opportunities to normalise themselves to the civilians in the audience, clown prince Carrey was relentless, an uncontrollable fire hose of funny faces and voices that felt not unlike demons.

All that output was exhausting, and caused many to wonder if the man was capable of calming down long enough to receive any meaningful input.

His performances in films such as the Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind suggested that perhaps he was…

As did the revelation that he spent a lot of his childhood in his bedroom drawing - the flip side to his crazy living room performances, staged, in part, to keep an emotionally troubled family from sinking any lower. He also drew in school, aggravating teachers with unauthorised portraits.

As Carrey recalled in a 2011 interview:

After I became famous, my sixth-grade teacher sent me sketches she had confiscated. She kept them because she thought they were cute. She also knew how to harness the energy. If I was quiet, she would give me 15 minutes at the end of class to perform. Today, I’d be on Ritalin, and Ace Ventura would have never been made.

These days, the funny man seems to have turned his back on performing in favor of a more contemplative visual arts practice. His most recent acting credit is over a year old. As David Bushell’s documentary short, I Needed Color, above reveals, the quantity of Carrey’s output is still impressive, but there’s a qualitative difference where the artist is concerned.

His face and body are calm, and the crazed imperative to entertain seems to have left him. Watching him go about his work, one is reminded of cartoonist and educator Lynda Barry’s observations about the neurological connection between the ability to go down the rabbit hole of art and a child’s mental health:

I think it’s what keeps us sane. I think about how, if I’m sitting here with a kid who’s four years old and I have all these markers and I say, do you want to draw, and that kid’s too freaked out to draw, we’d be worried about that kid a little bit, wouldn’t you? We’d be worried about them emotionally. OK, on this side I have a 40-year-old, same situation, she’s too scared to draw, but we’re not worried about her. Why? Because there is a tacit understanding that something is going on when kids are playing or [drawing] that has something to do with their mental health. All of us know that if a kid is not allowed to play till he’s 21, he’s going to be a nut. He’s going to be a psychopath, actually. The brain studies they’ve done of kids in deep play show that their brains are identical to an adult’s brain that is in creative concentration. We know that play is essential for mental health. I would argue that so is drawing.

Art saves lives, right?

Carrey’s earlier success affords him the luxury of time and money to immerse himself in his new vocation without limiting himself to any one style or medium. Giant paintings, tiny sculptures, works that involve black light, squeegees, or shredded canvas stitched back together with wire are all cricket.

Given his movie star status, nasty reviews are to be expected, but approval is no longer what Carrey is seeking:

When I paint and sculpt it stops the world for me, as if all time has been suspended. My spirit is completely engaged, my heart is engaged, and I feel completely free. I think I just like creating. All of it is a portal into present, into absolute, quiet, gentle, stillness. This involvement, this presence, is freedom from concern. That’s harmony with the universe.

Those who can’t make it to Signature Galleries in Las Vegas this September 23 for a $10,000 per couple opening of Carrey’s paintings can take a gander at his work for free here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Noam Chomsky Explains the Best Way for Ordinary People to Make Change in the World, Even When It Seems Daunting

The threat of widespread violence and unrest descends upon the country, thanks again to a collection of actors viciously opposed to civil rights, and in many cases, to the very existence of people who are different from them. They have been given aid and comfort by very powerful enablers. Veteran activists swing into action. Young people on college campuses turn out by the hundreds week after week. But for many ordinary people with jobs, kids, mortgages, etc. the cost of participating in constant protests and civil actions may seem too great to bear. Yet, given many awful examples in recent history, the cost of inaction may be also.

What can be done? Not all of us are Rosa Parks or Howard Zinn or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Thich Nat Hanh or Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta, after all. Few of us are revolutionaries and few may wish to be. Not everyone is brave enough or talented enough or knowledgeable enough or committed enough or, whatever.

The problem with this kind of thinking is a problem with so much thinking about politics. We look to leaders—men and women we think of as superior beings—to do everything for us. This can mean delegating all the work of democracy to sometimes very flawed individuals. It can also mean we fundamentally misunderstand how democratic movements work.

In the video above, Noam Chomsky addresses the question of what ordinary people can do in the face of seemingly insurmountable injustice. (The clip comes from the 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent.) “The way things change,” he says, “is because lots of people are working all the time, and they’re working in their communities or their workplace or wherever they happen to be, and they’re building up the basis for popular movements.”

In the history books, there’s a couple of leaders, you know, George Washington or Martin Luther King, or whatever, and I don’t want to say that those people are unimportant. Martin Luther King was certainly important, but he was not the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King can appear in the history books ‘cause lots of people whose names you will never know, and whose names are all forgotten and who may have been killed and so on were working down in the South.

King himself often said as much. For example, in the Preface of his Stride Toward Freedom he wrote—referring to the 50,000 mostly ordinary, anonymous people who made the Montgomery Bus Boycott happen—“While the nature of this account causes me to make frequent use of the pronoun 'I,' in every important part of the story it should be ‘we.' This is not a drama with only one actor.”

As for public intellectuals like himself engaged in political struggle, Chomsky says, “people like me can appear, and we can appear to be prominent… only because somebody else is doing the work.” He defines his own work as “helping people develop courses of intellectual self-defense” against propaganda and misinformation. For King, the issue came down to love in action. Responding in a 1963 interview above to a critical question about his methods, he counters the suggestion that nonviolence means sitting on the sidelines.

I think of love as something strong and that organizes itself into powerful, direct action…. We are not engaged in a struggle that means we sit down and do nothing. There’s a great deal of difference between nonresistance to evil and nonviolent resistance. Nonresistance leaves you in a state of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency, whereas nonviolent resistance means that you do resist in a very strong and determined manner.

Both Chomsky, King, and every other voice for justice and human rights would agree that the people need to act instead of relying on movement leaders. Whatever actions one can take—whether it’s engaging in informed debate with family, friends, or coworkers, writing letters, making donations to activists and organizations, documenting injustice, or taking to the streets in protest or acts of civil disobedience—makes a difference. These are the small individual actions that, when practiced diligently and coordinated together in the thousands, make every powerful social movement possible.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Last Surviving Witness of the Lincoln Assassination Appears on the TV Game Show “I’ve Got a Secret” (1956)

Let's rewind the videotape to 1956, to Samuel James Seymour's appearance on the CBS television show, "I've Got a Secret." At 96 years of age, Seymour was the last surviving person present at Ford's Theater the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth (April 14, 1865).

Only five years old at the time, Mr. Seymour traveled with his father to Washington D.C. on a business trip, where they attended a performance of Our American Cousin. The youngster caught a quick glimpse of the president, the play began, and the rest is, well, history.

A quick footnote: Samuel Seymour died two months after his TV appearance. His longevity had something to do, I imagine, with declining those Winstons over the years.

Find courses on the Civil War in our list of Free History Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,250 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Note: This post originally appeared on our site in August, 2011.

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Legendary Animator Chuck Jones Creates an Oscar-Winning Animation About the Virtues of Universal Health Care (1949)

While our country looks like it might be coming apart at the seams, it’s good to revisit, every once in a while, moments when it did work. And that’s not so that we can feel nostalgic about a lost time, but so that we can remind ourselves how, given the right conditions, things could work well once again.

One example from history (and recently rediscovered by a number of blogs during the AHCA debacle in Congress) is this government propaganda film from 1949—the Harry S. Truman era—that promotes the idea of cradle-to-grave health care, and all for three cents a week. This money went to school nurses, nutritionists, family doctors, and neighborhood health departments.

Directed by Chuck Jones, better known for animating Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and the Road Runner, "So Much for So Little" follows our main character from infancy—where doctors help immunize babies against whooping cough, diphtheria, rheumatic fever, and smallpox—through school to dating, marriage, becoming parents, and settling into a nice, healthy retirement. Along the way, the government has made sure that health care is nothing to worry about.

The film won an Academy Award in 1950 for Documentary Short Subject—not best sci-fi, despite how radical this all sounds.

So what happened? John Maher at the blog Dot and Line puts it this way:

Partisanship and capitalism and racist zoning policies shattered its idealistic dream that Americans might actually pay communally for their health as well as that of their neighbors and fellow citizens.

Three cents per American per week wouldn’t cut it now in terms of universal health coverage. But according to Maher, quoting a 2009 Kingsepp study on the original Affordable Care Act, taxpayers would have to pay $3.61 a week.

So folks, don’t get despondent, get idealistic. The Greatest Generation came back from WWII with a grand idealism. Maybe this current generation just needs to fight and defeat Nazis all over again…

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.





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    Open Culture editor Dan Colman scours the web for the best educational media. He finds the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & movies you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.


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