Animated Introductions to Edward Said’s Groundbreaking Book Orientalism

For a few years, many people---those who might these days be called a “self-satisfied liberal elite” (or something like that)---believed that the arguments in Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism were becoming generally accepted. Put broadly, Said argued that our conceptions of cultural and historical differences between “the West” and “the East” are produced by European intellectual and literary traditions that have exaggerated and distorted such differences, creating a narrative in which “the West” is civilized, disciplined,  industrious, and enlightened and “the East” is exotic, backward, sensualist, lazy, passive, dangerous, irrational....

The tradition of Orientalism---which stretches back into the middle ages---came to justify colonialism, land and resource theft, slavery, and imperial aggression in the name of civilization and salvation, Even where European Orientalist scholars and writers had a nuanced understanding of other cultures, such nuance was lost in the popularizing and instrumental use of their ideas.

Said’s theoretical intervention into Orientalist discourse showed us how the “clash of civilizations” trope that pervades hundreds of years of interactions between “the west and the rest” of the world itself has a history---as a rationalization for dominance and exploitation. The short animated Al Jazeera video above neatly summarizes Said’s major arguments in the book, and asks us to “unlearn the myth.”

Casting West and East as two distinct civilizations makes little common sense on its face. Christianity, one key supposed bedrock  of Western Civilization, is an Eastern religion. Aristotle, a foundation of Western thought, was preserved for many years by Islamic scholars, who were in frequent dialogue with Greek thinkers, who were themselves in frequent dialogue with North Africans…. the interrelationships and correspondences between continents and cultures are innumerable, the boundaries between the categories highly permeable. But with the rise of what we’re calling “populism” in the past decade or so, the nuances of intellectual history have been lost. Old false dichotomies, always haunting the margins, have once again moved firmly to the center.

In the realm of cable news punditry, corporate security conferences, and congressional committees not only do we rarely see actual scholars represented, but we almost never see scholars like Edward Said, a Palestinian intellectual who spoke and wrote critically as a person from the Middle East with expertise in Western literature and history. This fact is itself central to the construction of Orientalist discourse, as Said wrote in 1978:

The Orient and Islam have a kind of extrareal, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself.

We can accept nothing about “the East,” in other words, unless it is first filtered through the lenses of Euro-American administrative “experts," who often have extremist views, very little scholarly expertise, and whose ideas often still come directly from Orientalist novels and philosophies.

Said’s theories in Orientalism have received ample criticism from across the political spectrum. He’s been cast by the right as a kind of reverse racist against “Caucasians,” an anti-intellectual accusation that distorts his views and makes ad hominem attacks. Said traced Euro-American colonial history with a level of depth that demonstrated the remarkable continuity in the way major European colonial powers and the U.S.---their successor by the late 20th century---constructed ideologies of exceptionalism and superiority through very similar rhetoric.

For a slightly drier overview of Said’s Orientalism, watch the short video above from educational company Macat, a self-described “global leader in critical thinking.” Neither of these explainers can substitute for actually engaging with the arguments in Said's book. His history of Orientalist fables is itself an adventurous tale. As a literary product, “the Orient was almost a European invention,” he writes in his Introduction, yet as a region, it “is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.” There is no one without the other.

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

I’m Just a Pill: A Schoolhouse Rock Classic Gets Reimagined to Defend Reproductive Rights in 2017

Like many American children of the 70s and 80s, my understanding of how our government is supposed to function was shaped by Schoolhouse Rock.

Immigration, separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers and of course, the promise of the Constitution (“a list of principles for keepin’ people free”) were just a few of the topics the animated musical series covered with clarity and wit.

The new world order in which we’ve recently found ourselves suggests that 2017 would be a grand year to start rolling out more such videos.

The Lady Parts Justice League, a self-declared “cabal of comics and writers exposing creeps hellbent on destroying access to birth control and abortion” leads the charge with the above homage to Schoolhouse Rock's 1976 hit, “I’m Just a Bill,” recasting the original’s glum aspirant law as a feisty Plan B contraceptive pill. The red haired boy who kept the bill company on the steps of the Capital is now a teenage girl, confused as to how any legal, over-the-counter method for reducing the risk of unwanted pregnancy could have so many enemies.

As with the original series, the prime objective is to educate, and comic Lea DeLaria’s Pill happily obliges, explaining that while people may disagree as to when “life” begins, it’s a scientific fact that pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg lodges itself in the uterus. (DeLaria plays Big Boo on Orange is the New Black, by the way.) That process takes a while---72 hours to be exact. Plenty of time for the participants to scuttle off to the drugstore for emergency contraception, aka Plan B, the so called "morning-after" pill.

As per the drug’s website, if taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex, Plan B  can reduce the risk of pregnancy by up to 89%. Taken within 24 hours, it is about 95% effective.

And yes, teenagers can legally purchase it, though Teen Vogue has reported on numerous stores who’ve made it difficult, if not impossible, for shoppers to gain access to the pill.

(The Reproductive Justice Project encourages consumers to help them collect data on whether Plan B is correctly displayed on the shelves as available for sale to any woman of childbearing age.)

There’s a helpful football analogy for those who may be a bit slow in understanding that Plan B is indeed a bonafide contraceptive, and not the abortifacient some mistakenly make it out to be. It’s NSFW, but only just, as a team of cartoon penis-outlines push down the field toward the uterine wall in the end zone.

The other bills who once stood in line awaiting the president’s signature have been reimagined as sperm, while songwriter Holly Miranda pays tribute to Dave Frishberg’s lyrics with a pizzazz worthy of the original:

I’m just a pill

A helpful birth control pill

No matter what they say on Capital Hill

So now you know my truth

I’m all about prevention

If your condom breaks

I’m here for intervention

Join me take a stand today

I really hope and pray that you will

Drop some facts

Tell the world

I’m a pill.

Let's hope the resistance yields more catchy, educational animations!

And here, for comparison's sake, is the magnificent original:

Via BUST Magazine

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

David Foster Wallace on What’s Wrong with Postmodernism: A Video Essay

"We live in a nightmare that David Foster Wallace had in 1994," said a tweet that put me in stitches last summer, but I have a sense that we've only sunk deeper into that hyperverbal, media-obsessed, and deeply fearful novelist's bad dreams since then. "The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality," Philip Roth argued 55 years ago. "The actuality is continually outdoing our talents." Now, at the beginning of the 21st, that actuality outdoes not just what the comparatively traditional Roth could come up with, but even anything imaginable by Wallace's heirs in the form-breaking, extremity-oriented realm of "postmodernism."

But did Wallace consider himself postmodernist? Asked by Charlie Rose in a 1997 interview what "postmodernism means in literature," he at first replied only that it means "after modernism." But soon he got into the broader cultural critique for which he's now remembered: "Postmodernism has, to a large extent, run its course," despite having made the considerable innovation of presenting "the first text that was highly self-conscious, self-conscious of itself as text, self-conscious of the writer as persona, self-conscious about the effects that narrative had on readers and the fact that the readers probably knew that." Decades later, Wallace saw that "a lot of the schticks of post-modernism — irony, cynicism, irreverence — are now part of whatever it is that's enervating in the culture itself."

"The Problem with Irony," Will Schoder's video essay above, draws on Wallace's interview with Rose and much other televisual material besides. That focus may seem slightly quaint in the internet age, but Wallace, a self-confessed television addict who wrote a thousand-page novel about a videotape so entertaining that it kills, looked into the screen and saw a real and powerful threat. "Irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat," he wrote in the 1993 essay "E Unibus Pluram," blaming those qualities for "a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture."

Even as "a certain subgenre of pop-conscious postmodern fiction, written mostly by young Americans, has lately arisen and made a real attempt to transfigure a world of and for appearance, mass appeal, and television [ ... ] televisual culture has somehow evolved to a point where it seems invulnerable to any such transfiguring assault." But as that culture moved on from the likes of David Letterman (to Wallace's mind, "the ironic eighties' true Angel of Death") and Seinfeld to those of Jon Stewart and Community, Scholder argues, its attitudes de-ironized somewhat: "The best shows of our age aren't finding humor in the gaps that have developed between people. They find humor in the absurd and awkward attempts by people trying to bridge those gaps. They want to show us that humans can have real connections and sincerity for each other."

And yet humanity's passivity remains worrisome. "Today, the average weekly screen time for an American adult – brace yourself; this is not a typo – is 74 hours (and still going up)," writes Andrew Postman, son of media theorist and Amusing Ourselves to Death author Neil Postman, in a Guardian piece just last week. "We watch when we want, not when anyone tells us, and usually alone, and often while doing several other things. The soundbite has been replaced by virality, meme, hot take, tweet." Postman includes Wallace with his father in the group of observers who "warned of what was coming": a time when few can be shocked by, among other current phenomena, "the rise of a reality TV star, a man given to loud, inflammatory statements, many of which are spectacularly untrue but virtually all of which make for what used to be called 'good television.'" Stay tuned, if you must.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, 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.

How to Respond to the Challenges of Our Time?: Jazz Legends Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter Give 10 Pieces of Advice to Young Artists, and Everyone Else

Some moments in history strike us as dramatic ruptures. Certainties are superseded, thrown into chaos by a seismic event, and we find ourselves adrift and anxious. What are artists to do? Gripped by the same fears as everyone else, the same sense of urgency, writers, musicians, filmmakers, painters, etc. may find themselves unable to “breathe with unconditional breath / the unconditioned air,” as Wendell Berry once described the creative process.

We might remember the radical break with tradition when the shocking carnage of World War I sent poets and painters into frightening places they had previously left unexplored. Virginia Woolf summed up the situation in her essay The Leaning Tower: “suddenly like a chasm in a smooth road, the [Great] war came.” Shattered as they were, her generation overcame their paralysis. Modernists of the early 20th century were able to speak to their broken age in ways that continue to speak to ours.

But we should temper our belief that bad times make good art by noting that the most visionary creative minds are not simply reactive, responding to tragedy like reporters on a crime scene. As Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock--- two of the 20th century’s most consistently innovative musicians---suggest, artists at all times need a set of guiding principles. (See the two play "Memory of Enchantment" above in 2002.) There is always a lot of personal work to do. And in “turbulent and unpredictable times,” the two jazz greats advise, “the answer to peace is simple; it begins with you.”

A platitude, perhaps, but one they illustrated nearly a year ago in an open letter at Nest HQ with some profound, if challenging, prescriptions for our present cultural illnesses. Shorter and Hancock’s counsel is not a reaction to the rupture of the presidential election, but a response to the events that preceded it, “the horror at the Bataclan… the upheaval in Syria and the senseless bloodshed in San Bernardino.” Not passively waiting to find out where the past few years’ violence and unrest would lead, the two have made ethical, philosophical, and spiritual interventions, presenting their philosophy and ethics through jazz, Buddhism, science, art, and literature.

Below, you can read their ten pieces of advice “to the next generation of artists,” or at least excerpts thereof. They begin with a reassuring preface: “As an artist, creator and dreamer of this world, we ask you not to be discouraged by what you see but to use your own lives, and by extension your art, as vehicles for the construction of peace…. You matter, your actions matter, your art matters.” That said, they also want to assure readers that “these thoughts transcend professional boundaries and apply to all people, regardless of profession.”

First, awaken to your humanity

You cannot hide behind a profession or instrument; you have to be human. Focus your energy on becoming the best human you can be. Focus on developing empathy and compassion. Through the process you’ll tap into a wealth of inspiration rooted in the complexity and curiosity of what it means to simply exist on this planet.

Embrace and conquer the road less traveled

Don’t allow yourself to be hijacked by common rhetoric, or false beliefs and illusions about how life should be lived. It’s up to you to be the pioneers.

Welcome to the Unknown

Every relationship, obstacle, interaction, etc. is a rehearsal for the next adventure in life. Everything is connected. Everything builds. Nothing is ever wasted. This type of thinking requires courage. Be courageous and do not lose your sense of exhilaration and reverence for this wonderful world around you.

Understand the True Nature of Obstacles

We have this idea of failure, but it’s not real; it’s an illusion. There is no such thing as failure. What you perceive as failure is really a new opportunity, a new hand of cards, or a new canvas to create upon.

Don’t Be Afraid to Interact with Those Who Are Different from You

The world needs more one-on-one interaction among people of diverse origins with a greater emphasis on art, culture and education. Our differences are what we have in common…. We need to be connecting with one another, learning about one another, and experiencing life with one another. We can never have peace if we cannot understand the pain in each other’s hearts.

Strive to Create Agenda-Free Dialogue

Art in any form is a medium for dialogue, which is a powerful tool… we’re talking about reflecting and challenging the fears, which prevent us from discovering our unlimited access to the courage inherent in us all.

Be Wary of Ego

Creativity cannot flow when only the ego is served.

Work Towards a Business without Borders

The medical field has an organization called Doctors Without Borders. This lofty effort can serve as a model for transcending the limitations and strategies of old business formulas which are designed to perpetuate old systems in the guise of new ones.

Appreciate the Generation that Walked Before You

Your elders can help you. They are a source of wealth in the form of wisdom…. Don’t waste time repeating their mistakes.

Lastly, We Hope that You Live in a State of Constant Wonder

As we accumulate years, parts of our imagination tend to dull. Whether from sadness, prolonged struggle, or social conditioning, somewhere along the way people forget how to tap into the inherent magic that exists within our minds. Don’t let that part of your imagination fade away.

Whether you’re a jazz fan, musician, artist, writer, accountant, cashier, trucker, teacher, or whatever, I can’t think of a wiser set of guidelines with which to confront the suffocating epidemic of cynicism, delusional thinking, rampant bigotry, hatred, and self-absorption of our time. Read Shorter and Hancock’s full open letter at Nest HQ.

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

“Calling Bullshit”: See the Syllabus for a College Course Designed to Identify & Combat Bullshit

Two professors at the University of Washington, Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, have created a website meant to accompany a potential college seminar entitled "Calling Bullshit." Here's how Bergstrom and West explain the premise of their course. It's worth quoting them at length.

The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit — and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bullshit of the second order. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.

We're sick of it. It's time to do something, and as educators, one constructive thing we know how to do is to teach people. So, the aim of this course is to help students navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument.

What do we mean, exactly, by the term bullshit? As a first approximation, bullshit is language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.

While bullshit may reach its apogee in the political domain, this is not a course on political bullshit. Instead, we will focus on bullshit that comes clad in the trappings of scholarly discourse. Traditionally, such highbrow nonsense has come couched in big words and fancy rhetoric, but more and more we see it presented instead in the guise of big data and fancy algorithms — and these quantitative, statistical, and computational forms of bullshit are those that we will be addressing in the present course....

Our aim in this course is to teach you how to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences.

The "Calling Bullshit" course would sit nicely alongside the work of Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, the author of the fairly recent book, On Bullshit. (In fact, On Bullshit would be read during Week 1 of the "Calling Bullshit"course. See the syllabus here.) There's a lot of bullshit freely flowing through our world, and it may well take a cross-disciplinary team to help us cut through the crap.

To learn more about the envisioned Calling Bullshit course, visit Bergstrom and West's website, where they have an FAQ that explains what a study of bullshit might look like.

Note: You can download Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" as a free audiobook (or any other two free audiobooks) if you sign up for’s free trial program. Learn more about Audible’s free trial program here.

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If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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An Animated History of Planned Parenthood, Brought to You by Lena Dunham, JJ Abrams & More

Lena Dunham drafted a host of well known friends for The History Of 100 Years Of Women's Health Care At Planned Parenthood, the short film (above) she co-directed with animator Kirsten Lepore. Others taking part in the production include comedians Mindy Kaling and Amy Schumer, actors Meryl Streep, America Ferrera, Hari Nef, Jennifer Lawrence, and Constance Wu, and producer J.J. Abrams.

But the real stars of this show are the female trailblazers who fought (and continue to fight) for access to safe and affordable reproductive care for all women, regardless of age, race, or ability to pay.

In the words of founder Margaret Sanger, a controversial figure who seems to share quite a few traits with Dunham, from her deft leverage of her celebrity on behalf of her chosen cause to her capacity for alienating fans with some of her less savory views and statements:

No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.

Women like Rosie Jimenez, a single mother who died from complications of a back alley abortion following the passage of the Hyde Amendment, were victimized by laws regarding reproductive choice.

Others, like Estelle Griswold, executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, flouted the laws to bring about change.

More recently Faye Wattleton, Planned Parenthood’s first African American president and its current president, Cecile Richards, have worked to promote awareness of both the public's rights and any impending dangers to those rights.

(Vice President Mike Pence’s inadvertent fundraising efforts go unheralded, appropriately enough. The millions of women---and men---who made small donations to Planned Parenthood in his name are the true heroes here.)

For more of Dunham’s highly visible support of Planned Parenthood, read her 2015 interview with President Cecile Richards or check out the t-shirt she designed to benefit the California Planned Parenthood Education Fund.

via Kottke

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Neil Gaiman & Amanda Palmer’s Haunting, Animated Take on Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy”

The late Leonard Cohen’s 1992 anthem “Democracy” feels not just fresh, but painfully relevant these days.

Cohen, a Canadian who spent much of his adult life in the States, avowed that the song was neither sarcastic nor ironic, but rather hopeful, an “affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country.”

He started writing it in the late '80s, churning out dozens of verses as he pondered the impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square protests.

The press kit for the album on which the song originally appeared stated:

These are the final days, this is the darkness, this is the flood. What is the appropriate behavior in a catastrophe, in a flood? You know, while you're cleaning out your orange crate in the torrent and you pass somebody else hanging on to a spar of wood. What do you declare yourself? "left wing" "right wing" "pro-abortion" "against abortion"? All these things are luxuries which you can no longer afford. What is the proper behavior in a flood?

For musician Amanda Palmer and her husband, author Neil Gaiman, the answer to Cohen’s question is the stripped down, spoken word version of “Democracy,” above---a fundraiser for the free speech defense organization, PEN America.

The video’s stirring watercolors are courtesy of artist David Mack, an official Ambassador of Arts & Story for the US State Department who has illustrated several of Gaiman’s poems. Singer-songwriter Olga Nunes, another in Gaiman and Palmer's vast stable of talented co-conspirators, animated.

Gaiman fans will no doubt thrill to hear that unmistakable accent gamely tackling such lyrics as “the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen,” but for my money, the most memorable phrase is the description of this country as “the cradle of the best and of the worst.”


You can purchase the track here---the project was funded by 9,408 contributors to Palmer’s Patreon and all proceeds benefit PEN America.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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