Bernie Sanders Time as an Educational Filmmaker: Watch His Documentary on Socialist Activist Eugene V. Debs (1979)

If you grew up in the United States of America, you'll remember the name Eugene V. Debs from history class. And if you grew up during a certain era in the United States of America, you might have learned about Debs from Bernie Sanders. Try to recall one of Debs' speeches; if you hear it in Sanders' distinctive Brooklyn accent, you have at some point or another seen Eugene V. Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary. A film-strip slideshow with an accompanying audio track, it came out in 1979 as a product of the American People’s Historical Society, Sanders' own production company.

That venture constitutes just one chapter of a storied life and career, which includes periods as a high-school track star, a folk singer, and the mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Now that Sanders, junior United States Senator from Vermont since 2007, has pulled ahead in the race for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential election, people want to know what he's all about — and he has long been given, certainly by the standards of U.S. politicians, to clear and frequent expression of what he's all about. He has made no secret, for example, of his admiration for Debs, a socialist political activist who five times ran for President of the United States. You can see it come through in Eugene V. Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary, which Jacobin magazine has reconstructed and made available on Youtube.

Hyperallergic's Nathan Smith writes that the documentary frames Debs "as a lost prophet before explaining how he ended up where he did ideologically. It opens with Debs’s final presidential campaign, conducted in 1920 from prison. If a million people voted for this man while he was behind bars, if more people went to hear him speak than President Taft, then how could history have forgotten him?" Sanders explains Debs' socialism "as a response to issues which still resonate today: the exploitation of working people, segregation and violent racism, voting rights, and the suppression of free speech and dissent during World War I." More so than see Sanders' admiration for Debs — Jacobin having had to use visuals other than the ones on the film strip at the time — you can hear it: as in all the shoestring productions of the American People’s Historical Society's shoestring productions, Sanders himself plays the roles of the historical characters involved.

In this case, that means we hear Sanders give Debs' speeches, and in certain moments we viewers of 2020 could easily mistake Debs' indictments of the distribution of wealth, goods, and the means of production in America as Sanders' own. A self-described socialist, Sanders has in his political career placed himself in Debs' tradition, and having made a documentary like this more than 40 years ago shores up that image. The Washington Post's Philip Bump points out that, before becoming a U.S. senator, Sanders did a couple more acting jobs in feature films, once as a man stingy with Halloween candy and once as a Dodgers-obsessed rabbi. As much as those roles might have suited his demeanor, it's safe to say he played Eugene V. Debs with more conviction.

via Hyperallergic

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Janis Joplin’s Last TV Performance & Interview: The Dick Cavett Show (1970)

The best celebrity interviewers have the ability to show us how the stars are not like us at all—not only because of the entourages, wardrobes, and bank accounts, but because of the talent for which we revere them —and also how they’re kind of just like us after all: sharing the same insecurities, fears, doubts, forgetfulness, confusion, etc. They are, that is to say, real human beings.

Like no other interviewer on network television before or since, Dick Cavett could draw all of this out of his guests: both their creativity and vulnerability. What seemed like silly chit chat was a disarming camouflage for incisive questions he let casually slip through the banter.

“Cavett’s prime-time show famously featured a who’s who of rock stars that both performed and sat for loose, freeform conversations,” writes Jambase, “which brought the ethos of the hippie generation to the homes of millions.” Amongst his many rock star guests, he developed a special bond with Janis Joplin who sat down with him on August 3, 1970 for her appearance on his show and what would turn out to be her final televised performance and interview.

Joplin belts out “My Baby” and “Half Moon,” which you can see in her full appearance above, with an introduction by Cavett. Then after both songs, she walks over the couch to hang out with the host, who greets with her warmly with, “Very nice to see you, my little songbird.” Cavett poked fun at his guests, but he didn't talk down or kiss up. Most everyone who sat down with him found his dry wit and candor refreshing.

Joplin, who admits she doesn’t like doing interviews, “seems totally at ease during this conversation,” Ultimate Classic Rock points out, “a wide-ranging but informal chat that touches on everything from her feelings regarding concert riots to whether or not she ever waterskis.” She is poised throughout and throws Cavett off-guard with her deadpan humor.

They play off each other in a charming exchange that doesn’t go nearly as deep as her final interview with the Village Voice’s Howard Smith four days before her death that October, but which captures Joplin’s thoughtful, easygoing personality beautifully. Cavett later credited Joplin for sending so many other major rock stars his way after her first appearance on his show in 1968.

“She had done other television she didn’t like very much,” he remembered in 2016 on PBS’s American Masters. "She told people, ‘it’s okay to do his show, he’s not a dreary figure.’” Neither, despite her tragic story, was Janis Joplin. “At once insecure yet full of conviction, opinionated yet concerned about offending, fierce yet tenderhearted,” writes Maria Popova at Brain Pickings; she was, as millions of Cavett’s viewers were delighted to discover, a “complex person brimming with the sort of inner contradictions that make us human.”

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

How France Invented a Popular, Profitable Internet of Its Own in the 80s: The Rise and Fall of Minitel

"When I get back from school I basically barricade myself in the apartment and never go out at night," says the narrator of Michel Houellebecq's Les Particules élémentaires. "Sometimes I go on the Minitel and check out the sex sites, that's about it." Here those reading the English translation of the novel (in this case Frank Wynne's, called Atomised) will tilt their heads: the "Minitel"? Though he writes more or less realistic novels, Houellebecq does come out with the occasional science-fictional flourish. But in France, the Minitel was a very real technological and cultural phenomenon. "What the TGV was to train travel, the Pompidou Centre to art, and the Ariane project to rocketry," writes BBC News' Hugh Schofield, "in the early 1980s the Minitel was to the world of telecommunications."

Combining a monitor, keyboard, and modem all in one beige plastic package, the Minitel terminal — known as the "Little French Box" — was once a common sight in French households. With it, writes Julien Mailland in the Atlantic, "one could read the news, engage in multi-player interactive gaming, grocery shop for same-day delivery, submit natural language requests like 'reserve theater tickets in Paris,' purchase said tickets using a credit card, remotely control thermostats and other home appliances, manage a bank account, chat, and date." All this at a time when, as Schofield puts it, "the rest of us were being put on hold by the bank manager or queueing for tickets at the station." And what's more, the French got their Minitel terminals for free.

Conceived in the "white heat of President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's technological great leap forward of the late 1970s," Minitel appeared as one of the signal efforts of a nationwide developmental project. "France was lagging behind on telecommunications," writes the Guardian's Angelique Chrisafis, "with the nation's homes underserved by telephones – particularly in rural areas." But soon after the rollout of the Minitel, usage exploded such that, "at the height of its glory in the mid-1990s, the French owned about 9m Minitel devices, with 25m users connecting to more than 23,000 services." Initially pitched to the public as a replacement for the paper telephone directory, the Minitel evolved to provide many of the services for which most of the world now relies on the modern internet.

Though developed and implemented by the French government, Minitel incorporated services by independent providers. "The most lucrative service turned out to be something no-one had envisaged — the so-called Minitel Rose," writes Schofield. "With names like 3615-Cum (actually it's from the Latin for 'with'), these were sexy chat-lines in which men" — Houellebecq-protagonist types and other — "paid to type out their fantasies to anonymous 'dates.'" Not long before Minitel's discontinuation in 2012, when more than 800,000 terminals were still active, "billboards featuring lip-pouting lovelies advertising the delights of 3615-something were ubiquitous across the country." 3615, as every onetime Minitel user knows, were the most common initial digits for Minitel services, each of which had to be hand-dialed on a telephone before the terminal could connect to it.

You can see this process in the Retro Man Cave video at the top of the post, which tells the story of the Minitel and shows how its terminals actually worked. (Retro-minded Francophones may also enjoy the 1985 TV documentary just above.) The host draws a comparison between Minitel and the much less successful Prestel, a similar service launched in the United Kingdom in 1979. It might also remind Canadians of a certain age of Telidon, which we've previously featured here on Open Culture. But no other other pre-internet videotex system made anywhere the impact of Minitel, which lives on in France as a cultural touchstone, if no longer as a fixture of everyday life. As Valérie Schafer, co-author of the book Minitel: France's Digital Childhood puts it to Chriasafis, "There's a nostalgia for an era when the French developed new ideas, took risks on ideas that didn't just look to the US or outside models; a time when we wanted to invent our own voice."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Size of Asteroids Compared to New York City

The smallest asteroid measures 4.1 meters in diameter; the largest 939 kilometers, or 580 miles. Created by 3D animator Alvaro Gracia Montoya, the data on asteroid sizes was all gleaned from Wikipedia...

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via Laughing Squid

The Peanuts Gang Performs Pink Floyd’s Classic Rock Opera in the Mashup “Charlie Brown vs. The Wall

YouTuber Garren Lazar has hit upon a brilliant idea—take clips from Charles M. Schulz’s universally beloved Peanuts cartoons and cut them together with universally beloved (more or less) popular anthems like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Freebird,” and “Stayin’ Alive.”

The huge emotions of these songs suit the oversized feelings of the comic’s characters, who were, all of them, variations of Schulz himself. As Jeff Kinney writes in his introduction to Chip Kidd’s book, Only What’s Necessary: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts, the strip and its many animated spin-offs constitute “perhaps the most richly layered autobiography of all time.”

It’s fitting then that one of Lazar’s earlier Peanuts mashups involved another such richly autobiographical work, Pink Floyd’s rock opera The Wall, an album full of personal and collective pain, deep fear, alienation, insecurity, and observations about just how oppressive childhood can be. Just like… well, just like Peanuts.

Schulz’s work has always transcended the expectations of his form, becoming what might even be called comic strip opera. His fifty years of drawing and writing Peanuts make it “the longest story ever told by one human being,” says cultural historian Robert Thompson.

The creator himself had great ambitions for his collections of “little incidents,” as he called the strips. He hated the name Peanuts, which was forced upon him by United Feature Syndicate in the 50s. Schulz preferred his original title Li’l Folks, which he said imbued the strip “with dignity and significance. ‘Peanuts’ made it sound too insignificant.”

This was essential human drama, writ small, and it amounted to a whole lot more than “peanuts.” Claire Catterall, curator of a Schulz exhibit in London, insists she’s “not being ironic” in calling the strip “Great Art.” Schulz “introduced children—and adults alike—to some of the biggest philosophical ideas.” His “influence on culture and society is nothing short of seismic.”

Peanuts’ richness emerges in grand themes that took shape over decades. Bruce Handy writes of the Peanuts’ characters’ "nihilism," calling Schulz’s world a “theater of cruelty.” (Their unhappiness only seems to lift during musical numbers.)  Jonathan Merritt describes the strip’s religious mission, Maria Popova writes of its brave Civil Rights stand and its cultural evolution, and Cameron Laux compiles a list of Peanuts philosophies, from Existentialism to the importance of friendship and self-reflection.

Nor does Schulz escape comparisons to writers of great literature—including several whose names may have popped up as references in the strip, likely in the word bubbles of the precociously erudite Schroeder or Linus. Kinney compares Peanuts to Shakespeare, Laux compares it to Sartre and Beckett, and Stuart Jeffries at The Guardian writes, “Certainly, Ibsen and Strindberg made a lot of sense to me as an adult because I was raised on Peanuts.”

If Schulz’s comic strip and cartoons can evoke these august literary names, then why not the names Roger Waters and David Gilmour? If anyone has ever felt like just another brick in the wall, it’s Charlie Brown. Marvel at Lazar’s editing skills in “Charlie Brown vs. The Wall.” The Peanuts gang, and Schulz, may have preferred jazz, but one can see in their existential angst and frequent bouts of despair the same kind of disillusionment Roger Waters hammers home in his masterpiece. Only, the former “Li’l Folks” and their creator had a much better sense of humor about it all.

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

Judith Butler on Nonviolence and Gender: Hear Conversation with The Partially Examined Life

A new Partially Examined Life interview with Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, discusses the ethics and psychology of nonviolence. This follows a three-part treatment on the podcast of her earlier work.

For a first-hand account of her new book, you can watch two 2016 lectures that she gave at UC Berkeley on early versions of the text:

Watch on YouTube. Watch the second lecture.

Butler has been a tremendously influential (and controversial) figure in ongoing intellectual debates about gender and sexuality. Her 1990 book Gender Trouble argues that gender is a "performance," i.e. a habitual group of behaviors that reflect and reinforce social gender norms. Practices such as dressing in drag satirize this performance, showing how even in "normal" situations, "acting feminine" is not a reflection of one's inner essence but is a matter of putting on a display of culturally expected mannerisms. The drag performer (on Butler's analysis) may convey an absurdity that deconstructs the expected accord of biological sex, sexual preference, and gender identity: "I'm dressing like a woman but am really a man; also, in my everyday life, I dress like a man but am really (in the way I actually feel about myself) am a woman." Most controversially, as a post-structuralist, Butler argues that it's not the case that there is an uncontroversial biological fact of sex that then culture connects gender behaviors to. Instead, all of our understanding of the so-called biological fact comes through the cultural lens of gender; we literally can't understand any such raw, biological fact apart from its cultural associations. In other words, it's not just gender that's a social construction, but biological sex itself.

This position has been attacked both from the position of naive, common-sense scientism (of course biological differences resulting in babies isn't just a matter of what concepts a particular society has happened to develop) and as a moral hazard and existential threat: In 2017 while at a conference in Brazil, far-right Christian groups protested her presence and even burned her in effigy.

It should also be noted that Butler's take on gender departs from current, intuitive explanations of the phenomena of transgenderism, i.e. that one might feel their "true gender" to be different from what society has assigned them. For Butler, there is no inner gender essence that may or may not be displayed authentically. Instead, the "inner" is a cultural construction, itself built out of our external performances and the dynamics of our psychic life, which she discusses within the psychoanalytic tradition.

This use of psychoanalysis to explain our cultural life persists in newly released book, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind. Though the theory of nonviolent political protest may seem a far-flung topic from gender studies, both involve the process of defining an identity. In the case of gender, one defines oneself as a particular gender or as being of a particular sexual orientation (as opposed to leaving these attributes ambiguous and fluid) by grasping onto a strict social division between the available sexual options and declaring that one of them is "not me." In Butler's discussion of nonviolence, she instead focuses on what counts as "self" in the usually excused exception to nonviolence, self-defense. She's criticizing a position where most of us claim to be nonviolent (and claim that our government is nonviolent) because we are not the aggressors: We will fight only when we are attacked or threatened.

It's not that Butler is categorically against using violence to defend oneself, one's loved ones, one's country, or anyone else who is in danger of being seriously harmed. She is, however, arguing for an ethic of nonviolence that clearly understands our interrelatedness with everyone else in the world, even and especially those that we might think outside our circle of concern. It's too easy for us to define "self" as "people like us," which then leaves out the rest of the populace (and the non-human population, and the environment more generally) from inclusion in our "self-defense" calculations of when violence might be justified. Butler analyzes the fear of immigrants, for instance, as a "phantasmatic transmutation" that projects the potential for violence that always exists within our immediate social relations (and even our own rage against ourselves) onto an invading Other. As in the case of gender, she wants us instead to understand the dynamics of these self-and-other attributions, to behave more rationally and humanely, and to channel our unavoidable rage constructively into forceful non-violence, or what Gandhi calls Satyagraha, "polite insistence on the truth." The goal of this type of political action is conversion, not coercion, and it's communication and respecting even a hated other as a grievable equal that provides a real contrast to violence. She wants us to recognize the potential for violence within each relationship, at each moment, and to choose otherwise.

The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast began a discussion of the general concept of social construction back with in Ocotober with episode 227, following this up with applications of this concept to race (discussing Kwame Anthony Appiah and Charles Mills with in episode 228 with guest Coleman Hughes), to the development of science (considering Bruno Latour on episode 230 with guest Professor Lynda Olman), and to gender (considering Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex for episode 232 with Professor Jennifer Hansen. Professor Hansen then continued with hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Wes Alwan, Seth Paskin, and Dylan Casey to discuss Butler's Gender Trouble. For further explanation of The Force of Nonviolence, see episode 236 at

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of the Partially Examined Life, Pretty Much Pop, and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. He is a writer and musician working out of Madison, Wisconsin. Read more Open Culture posts about The Partially Examined Life.

Image by Solomon Grundy.

The Opera Database: Find Scores, Libretti & Synopses for Thousands of Operas Free Online

It’s not especially hard to get inexpensive tickets to the opera if you live in, say, New York. But it’s not so easy if you live hundreds of miles from a major opera house. Opera’s rarity, however, does not make it a “more elevated” form than, say, musical theater, argues Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times. Musicals may have market share, and opera may barely sustain itself from a dwindling pool of private donors, but the comic operas of Mozart once played broadly to mass audiences, “and there is no bigger crowd pleaser than Leoncavallo’s impassioned ‘Pagliacci.’”

The major formal difference between musical theater and opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first. This explains why for centuries opera-goers have revered works written in languages they do not speak,” even in a time before supertitles. “As long as you basically know what is going on and what is more or less being said, you can be swept away by a great opera, not just by music, but by visceral drama.” In order for that to happen, you’ll need to see and hear much more than highlights and greatest hits. And a little bit of context goes a long way.

If you don’t live in a major city or can’t get to the opera often, you can watch full-length performances online at projects like The Opera Platform, which not only includes filmed popular operas like Verdi’s La Traviata, but also, as Colin Marshall noted in an earlier Open Culture post, “provides a host of supplementary materials, including documentary and historical materials that put the month’s featured opera in context.” If you’re ready to dig deeper, however, or are already a scholar of the form, or if you, yourself, happen to be an opera singer, then you will absolutely want to visit the Opera Database.

The archival resource describes its purpose as threefold:

  • To create a comprehensive database of operas.
  • To catalog arias and create PDFs from Public Domain sources, for the purpose of broadening the opera singer's audition repertoire and seeking out rarely heard pieces.
  • To create a repository for operatic information, including libretti, scores, and synopses.

The dropdown menus on the homepage’s search field alone give you a sense of how expansive the database is—with dozens of languages, from Arabic and Azerbaijani to Uzbek and Vietnamese, dozens of nationalities, and thousands of entries from over four centuries. Most of these works will be unknown even to lifelong opera lovers who have only listened to the European classics. And several famous modern composers, like John Adams of Nixon in China fame, have shown how relevant the form still is for contemporary concerns and costumes.

All that said, only a portion of the entries have links to synopses and libretti. Search major titles like Nixon in China or Puccini’s La boheme and you’ll find pdf scores and libretti translated into several languages. Search anything more obscure than these blockbusters and you’ll only turn up the most basic information on the composer, nationality, and year of composition. Nonetheless the Opera Database has something for everyone, from the opera-curious to the opera-adept, with a separate aria database that allows users to search voice types from bass to soprano in twelve languages.

Whether you’re looking to expand your knowledge beyond “kill the wabbit” parodies or expand your already advanced repertoire of material, you’ll find this online opera catalogue offers a wealth of information for better understanding an emotionally engaging, if endangered, cultural form.

via Nicola Freddo

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New Web Site, “The Opera Platform,” Lets You Watch La Traviata and Other First-Class Operas Free Online

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J.S. Bach’s Comic Opera, “The Coffee Cantata,” Sings the Praises of the Great Stimulating Drink (1735)

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

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