The CIA Assesses the Power of French Post-Modern Philosophers: Read a Newly Declassified CIA Report from 1985

We might assume that philosophy is an ivory tower discipline that has little effect on the unlovely operations of government, driven as they are by the concerns of middle class wallets, upper class stock portfolios, and the ever-present problem of poverty. But we would be wrong. In times when presidents, cabinet members, or senators have been thoughtful and well-read, the ideas of thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, Leo Strauss, Jurgen Habermas, and John Rawls—a favorite of the previous president—have exercised considerable sway. Few philosophers have been as historically influential as the German thinker Carl Schmitt, though in a thoroughly destructive way. Then there’s John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Aristotle… even Socrates, who made himself a thorn in the side of the powerful.

But when it comes to the mostly French school of thinkers we associate with postmodernism—Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, the Jacques Lacan and Derrida, and many others—such influence is far less direct. The work of these writers has been often dismissed as frivolous and inconsequential, speaking a language no one understands to out of touch coastal elites on the left edge of the spectrum. Perhaps this is so in the United States, where power is often theorized but rarely radically critiqued in mainstream publications. But it has not been so in France. At least not according to the CIA, who closely monitored the effects of French philosophy on the country's domestic and foreign policy during their long-running culture war against Communism and “anti-Americanism,” and who, in 1985, compiled a research paper to document their investigations. (See a sample page above.)


Recently made available to the public in a "sanitized copy" through a Freedom of Information Act request, the document, titled “France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals,” shows itself surprisingly approving of the political direction post-structuralist thinkers had taken. Villanova University professor of philosophy and author of Radical History and the Politics of Art Gabriel Rockhill summarizes the tenor of the agency’s assessment in the L.A. Review of Books’ Philosophical Salon:

…the undercover cultural warriors applaud what they see as a double movement that has contributed to the intelligentsia shifting its critical focus away from the US and toward the USSR. On the left, there was a gradual intellectual disaffection with Stalinism and Marxism, a progressive withdrawal of radical intellectuals from public debate, and a theoretical move away from socialism and the socialist party. Further to the right, the ideological opportunists referred to as the New Philosophers and the New Right intellectuals launched a high-profile media smear campaign against Marxism.

The “spirit of anti-Marxism and anti-Sovietism,” write the agents in their report, “will make it difficult for anyone to mobilize significant intellectual opposition to US policies.” The influence of “New Left intellectuals” over French culture and government was such, they surmised, that “President [Francois] Mitterrand’s notable coolness toward Moscow derives, at least in part, from this pervasive attitude.”

These observations stand in contrast to the previous generation of “left-leaning intellectuals of the immediate postwar period,” writes Rockhill, who “had been openly critical of US imperialism” and actively worked against the machinations of American operatives. Jean-Paul Sartre even played a role in “blowing the cover of the CIA station officer in Paris and dozens of undercover operatives,” and as a result was “closely monitored by the Agency and considered a very serious problem.” By the mid-eighties, the Agency stated, triumphantly, “there are no more Sartres, no more Gides.” The “last clique of Communist savants,” they write, “came under fire from their former proteges, but none had any stomach for fighting a rearguard defense of Marxism.” As such, the late Cold War period saw a “broader retreat from ideology among intellectuals of all political colors.”

A certain weariness had taken hold, brought about by the indefensible totalitarian abuses of the “cult of Stalinism” and the seeming inescapability of the Washington Consensus and the multinational corporatism engendered by it. By the time of Communism’s collapse, U.S. philosophers waxed apocalyptic, even as they celebrated the triumph of what Francis Fukuyama called “liberal democracy” over socialism. Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man made its startling thesis plain in the title. There would be no more revolutions. Harvard thinker Samuel Huntington declared it the era of “endism,” amidst a rash of hyperbolic arguments about “the end of art," the “end of nature," and so on. And, in France, in the years just prior to the fall of the Berlin wall, the previously vigorous philosophical left, the CIA believed, had “succumbed to a kind of listlessness.”

While the agency credited the diffidence of post-structuralist philosophers with swaying popular opinion away from socialism and “hardening public attitudes toward Marxism and the Soviet Union,” it also wrote that “their influence appears to be waning, and they are unlikely to have much direct impact on political affairs any time soon.” Is this true? If we take seriously critics of so-called “Identity Politics,” the answer is a resounding No. As those who closely identify postmodern philosophy with several recent waves of leftist thought and activism might argue, the CIA was shortsighted in its conclusions. Perhaps, bound to a Manichean view fostered by decades of Cold War maneuvering, they could not conceive of a politics that opposed both American and Soviet empire at once.

And yet, the retreat from ideology was hardly a retreat from politics. We might say, over thirty years since this curious research essay circulated among intelligence gatherers, that concepts like Foucault’s biopower or Derrida’s skeptical interrogations of identity have more currency and relevance than ever, even if we don’t always understand, or read, their work. But while the agency may not have foreseen the pervasive impact of postmodern thought, they never dismissed it as obscurantist or inconsequential sophistry. Their newly-released report, writes Rockhill, “should be a cogent reminder that if some presume that intellectuals are powerless, and that our political orientations do not matter, the organization that has been one of the most potent power brokers in contemporary world politics does not agree.”

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

How Finland Created One of the Best Educational Systems in the World (by Doing the Opposite of U.S.)

Every conversation about education in the U.S. takes place in a minefield. Unless you’re a billionaire who bought the job of Secretary of Education, you’d better be prepared to answer questions about racial and economic equity, disability issues, protections for LGBTQ students, teacher pay and unions, religious charter schools, and many other pressing concerns. These issues are not mutually exclusive, nor are they distinct from questions of curriculum, testing, or achievement. The terrain is littered with possible explosive conflicts between educators, parents, administrators, legislators, activists, and profiteers.

The needs of the most deeply invested stakeholders, as they say, the students themselves, seem to get far too little consideration. What if we in the U.S., all of us, actually wanted to improve the educational experiences and academic outcomes for our children---all of them? Where might we look for a model? Many people have looked to Finland, at least since 2010, when the documentary Waiting for Superman contrasted struggling U.S. public schools with highly successful Finnish equivalents.


The film, a positive spin on the charter school movement, received significant backlash for its cherry-picked examples and blaming of teachers’ unions for America’s failing schools. By contrast, Finland’s schools have been described by William Doyle, an American Fulbright Scholar who studies them, as “the ‘ultimate charter school network'" (a phrase, we'll see, that means little in the Finnish context.) There, Doyle writes at The Hechinger Report, “teachers are not strait-jacketed by bureaucrats, scripts or excessive regulations, but have the freedom to innovate and experiment as teams of trusted professionals.”

Last year, Michael Moore featured many of Finland’s innovative educational experiments in his humorous, hopeful travelogue Where to Invade Next. In the clip above, you can hear from the country’s Minister of Education, Krista Kiuru, who explains to him why Finnish children do not have homework; hear also from a group of high school students, high school principal Pasi Majassari, first grade teacher Anna Hart and many others. Shorter school hours—the “shortest school days and shortest school years in the entire Western world”---leave plenty of time for leisure and recreation. Kids bake, hike, build things, make art, conduct experiments, sing, and generally enjoy themselves.

“There are no mandated standardized tests,” writes LynNell Hancock at Smithsonian, “apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school... there are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions.” Yet Finnish students have, in the past several years, consistently ranked in the top ten among millions of students worldwide in science, reading, and math. “If there was one thing I kept hearing over and over again from the Finns,” says Moore above, “it’s that America should get rid of standardized tests,” should stop teaching to those tests, stop designing entire curricula around multiple-choice tests. Hancock describes the results of the Finnish system, and its costs:

Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.

Moore's camera registers the shock on Finnish educators’ faces when they hear that many U.S. schools eliminated music, art, poetry and other pursuits in order to focus almost exclusively on testing. Though lighthearted in tone, the segment really drives home the depressing degree to which so many U.S. students receive an impoverished education—one barely worthy of the name—unless they luck into a voucher for a high-end charter school or have the independent means for an expensive private one. In Finland, says the Minister of Education, “all the schools are equal. You never ask where the best school is.”

It’s also illegal in Finland to profit from schooling. Wealthy parents have to ensure that neighborhood schools can give their kids the best education possible, because they are the only option. Many people in the U.S. object to comparisons like Moore’s by noting that societies like Finland are “homogenous” next to what may seem to them like maddening cultural diversity in the U.S. However, Finland has incorporated (not without difficulty) large immigrant and refugee populations---even as its schools continue to improve. The government has responded in part to rising immigration with educational solutions such as this one, a "national initiative to reinforce Finnish higher education institutions (HEIs) as significant stakeholders in migrants' integration."

The subtantive differences between the two countries’ educational systems may have less to do with demography and more to do with economics and the training and social status of teachers.

In Finland, writes Doyle, no teacher “is allowed to lead a primary school class without a master’s degree in education, with specialization in research and classroom practice.” Teaching “is the most admired job in Finland next to medical doctors.” And as Dana Goldstein points out at The Nation—a fact Waiting for Superman failed to mention---Finnish teachers are “gasp!—unionized and granted tenure.” Perhaps an even more significant difference the documentary glossed over: in Finland, “families benefit from a cradle-to-grave social welfare system that includes universal daycare, preschool and healthcare, all of which are proven to help children achieve better results at school.”

Hundreds of studies in recent years substantiate this claim. It would seem intuitive that stresses associated with hunger and poverty would have a pernicious effect on learning, especially when poorer schools are so egregiously under-resourced. And the data says as much, to varying degrees. And yet, we are now in the U.S. slashing breakfast and lunch programs that feed hungry children and deciding whether to uninsure millions of families as millions more still lack basic health coverage. Most every American parent knows that quality daycares and preschools can cost as much per year as a decent university education in this country.

It seems to many of us that the atrocious state of the U.S. educational system can only be attributed to an act of will on the part our political elite, who see schools as competition for fundamentalist belief systems, opportunities to punish their opponents out of spite, or as rich fields for private profit. But it needn’t be so. It took 40 years for the Finns to create their current system. In the 1960s, their schools ranked on the very low end---along with those in the U.S. By most accounts, they've since shown there can be systems that, while surely imperfect in their own way, work for all kids, embedded within larger systems that prize their teachers and families.

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

Kurt Vonnegut Ponders Why “Poor Americans Are Taught to Hate Themselves” in a Timely Passage from Slaughterhouse-Five

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Commons

Amidst what is now an ordinary day’s chaos and turmoil in the news, you may have noticed some outrage circulating over comments made by erstwhile brain surgeon, former presidential candidate, and current Secretary of HUD Ben Carson. Poverty, he said, is a “state of mind.” The idea fits squarely in the wheelhouse of Carson’s brand of magical thinking, as well as into what has always been a self-help tradition in the U.S. since Poor Richard's Almanac.

Consider, for example, the immense popularity of a book written during the Great Depression, Napoleon Hill’s 1937 Think and Grow Rich, which has increased every year since its publication. By 2015, the book had sold around 100 million copies worldwide. Hill’s prolific self-help cottage industry occupies a prominent place in a distinctly American genre, and an economy unto itself. Books, videos, seminars, and megachurches promise the faithful that they need only to change themselves to change their economic outcomes, in order not only thrive but to “grow rich.”

The notion has had purchase among wealthy opponents of a welfare state, who find it a convenient way to blame the poor for circumstances outside their control. But it also, as robust sales indicate, has wide appeal among the not-so-wealthy. Why? One reason---the presciently, acerbically insightful observer of American culture, Kurt Vonnegut might argue---has to do with the fact that Americans think of poverty as a personal failing rather than a social condition, and conversely conflate wealth with intelligence and capability.


Vonnegut articulates these observations in his 1969 classic Slaughterhouse-Five, through a character named Howard W. Campbell, Jr., an American playwright who becomes a Nazi propagandist (and who stands trial in Israel in an earlier novel, Mother Night). Ostensibly quoting from a monograph of Campbell's, Vonnegut writes, “America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves.” Campbell's monograph continues:

To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

The Kin Hubbard quoted here may now be largely forgotten, but in the first three decades of the 20th century, he was a humorist as widely admired as Mark Twain or Will Rogers. Hubbard drew a popular comic strip based on a character called Abe Martin, and his humor was once described as a "comical mixture of hoss sense and no sense at all."  The quote above comes from one of Martin's many pithy political ruminations, which include lines like "It's all right t' aspire to office, but when a feller begins t' perspire fer one it's time t' watch out."

The Hubbard-quoting Campbell, writes Vonnegut with wry humor, was “said by some to have had the highest I.Q., of all the war criminals who were made to face a death by hanging." He also pitches his appeals to the common man, and ties together the “think and grow rich” phenomenon and the tendency of so many of the country’s less-well-off to support candidates and policies that routinely endanger access to public services, quality education, and healthcare.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.

Campbell appears elsewhere in the novel in an attempt to recruit American POWs into "a German military unit called ‘The Free American Corps,” of which he is “the inventor and commander.” Near the top of the post, see the character in the 1972 Slaughterhouse-Five film defend his alliance with the Nazis and explain his bizarre uniform in terms one commentator sees as distinctly resonant with today’s far-right rhetoric. For all his outlandish presentation, he is a complicated figure---something of an amalgam of the far right’s showmen and hucksters and its cynical intellectuals, who often understand very well how the stark divisions of race and class are maintained in the U.S., and exploit that knowledge for political gain.

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

The MC5 Performs at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, Right Before All Hell Breaks Loose

With some rare exceptions (Sid and NancyI’m Not There, maybe Walk the Line and Cadillac Records), biopics usually stumble badly when they try to recreate the personalities and atmospheres of famous musicians. For this reason I am grateful that no studio has yet attempted a narrative of one of my favorite bands, the not-quite-famous MC5. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe there's no script in development somewhere. If there’s one band whose story—and music—deserves a wider audience, it’s this one. Sadly, guitarist Wayne Kramer has suppressed a very well-reviewed documentary that might do them as much justice as any film can.

Formed in Lincoln Park Michigan in 1964, the “Motor City 5” became synonymous with Detroit’s leftist political scene. They were also some of the most uncompromising garage rockers to emerge from the era, along with proto-punks The Stooges, with whom they often performed.


By the time of the infamous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago---well-known for the brutal attacks of police against thousands of aggrieved protesters---the MC5 had become heavily influenced by Fred Hampton and Huey Newton. Under their manager John Sinclair, they became prominent representatives of the “White Panthers,” an anti-racist analogue of the Black Panthers formed on a suggestion of Newton’s.

In September of 1968, Sinclair would be indicted for taking part in the bombing a CIA office in Ann Arbor. But exactly one month prior, he presided over the MC5’s appearance at the riotous Chicago Democratic National Convention. The band was booked as part of Abbie Hoffman’s attempt to stage a “Festival of Life,” bringing 100,000 young people to the city “for five days of peace, love, and music,” writes the site Chicago ’68, to “redirect youth culture and music toward political ends.” Fittingly, perhaps, the MC5 was the only band that showed up after Hoffman and his Yippies failed to secure the permits. They played for less than an hour to a crowd of a few thousand. Kramer remembered the day in a 2008 interview:

There was no stage, there was no flatbed truck, there was no sound system, there were no porta-toilets, there was no electricity. We had to run an electrical cord from the hot dog stand to power our gear. We played on the ground in the middle of Lincoln Park in Chicago with the crowd all around us sitting on the ground, in the back standing. I’m going to guess there were maybe 3,000 young people there. And it was very tense. The Chicago police had been very aggressive and very intimidating all day, and even though it was a rock concert and we were the only band to play, it didn’t feel like a rock concert. There was a dark cloud over the day because we knew the likelihood of people being hurt was great.

The only film we seem to have of the event is silent surveillance footage at the top of the post. Further down, see clips of the rioting that ensued, with the band’s hit “Kick Out the Jams” played over it. And just below, see a video of them playing the song over a backdrop of riot footage. They released their debut album, Kick Out the Jams , the following year. It was an uneven collection of performances, but “when they got it right,” says Michael Hann, “they simply got it completely right.” It was certainly their philosophy to go all in. As Kramer described it, “You have to come early, and you have to stay late. The song doesn’t say, ‘Slide out the jams.” It doesn’t say, ‘Stroll out the jams.” It says, ‘Kick out the jams!’”

What I find fascinating about the emergence of the MC5 at this time in history is how great of a contrast they presented to the weary blues of the Rolling Stones, who became grimly linked in ’69 at Altamont with the cynical end of flower power. Despite their association with the violent spectacle of the DNC riots---another sign of the hippie apocalypse---the MC5 became the soundtrack for people power, and in a way bridged the R&B, garage rock, psychedelia, punk, and metal of the gritty 1970s to come. But addiction, political repression, and censorship killed the band a few years later. Lead singer Rob Tyner died in 1991, and guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, who married Patti Smith, passed away in 1994.

Kramer has carried on, and still tours (and gives lectures). When he revisited the DNC in 2008 for an unofficial performance and anti-war protest, he reflected on the politics of the day. “It will be helpful not to have to battle as hard as we have with the Bush administration,” he told The Huffington Post, “but Barack Obama cannot save us. It’s really a matter of people themselves taking action in their own neighborhoods, at their own jobs, in their own homes, with their own friends, their own co-workers, to move us into the future, a more just world.” The people power the MC5 represented lives on even into this grim era, and the band itself will always live in legend, if not—for good or ill—in cinema.

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

John F. Kennedy Explains Why Artists & Poets Are Indispensable to American Democracy (October 26th, 1963)

The Greek word poesis did not confine itself to the literary arts. Most broadly speaking, the word meant “to make”---as in, to create anything, godlike, out of the stuff of ideas. But the English word “poetry” has always retained this grander sense, one very present for poets steeped in the classics, like Percy Shelley, who famously called poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” in his essay “A Defence of Poetry.” Shelley argued, “If no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.”

It can feel at times, watching certain of our leaders speak, that language may be dying for “nobler purposes.” But certain poets would seek to convince us otherwise. As Walt Whitman wrote of his countrymen in an introduction to Leaves of Grass, “presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall.”


Whitman lived in a time that valued rhetorical skill in its leaders. So too did another of the country’s revered national poets, Robert Frost, who accepted the request of John F. Kennedy to serve as the first inaugural poet in 1961 with “his signature elegance of wit,” comments Maria Popova. Frost, 86 years old at the time, read his poem "The Gift Outright" from memory and offered Kennedy some full-throated advice on joining "poetry and power."

Kennedy, an “arts patron in chief,” as the L.A. Times’ Mark Swed describes him, was so moved that two years later, after the poet’s death, he delivered an eloquent eulogy for Frost at Amherst College that picked up the poet’s theme, and acknowledged the power of poetry as equal to, and perhaps surpassing, that of politics. “Our national strength matters,” he began, “but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much.” That animating spirit for Kennedy was not religion, civil or supernatural, but art. Frost’s poetry, he said, “brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society.”

His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation… it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The tragedy of hubris and celebration of diversity, however, we can see not only in Frost, but in Shelley, Whitman, and perhaps every other great poet whose “personal vision… becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” Kennedy’s short speech, with great clarity and concision, makes the case for using the country’s resources to “reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.” But just as importantly, he argues against any kind of state imposition on an artist’s vision: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

You can hear Kennedy deliver the speech in the audio above, read a full transcript in English here and in 12 other languages here. In the audience at Amherst sat poet and critic Archibald MacLeish, who, in his “Ars Poetica,” had suggested that poetry should not be stripped of its sounds and images and turned into a didactic tool. Kennedy agrees. “In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology.” Yet poetry is not a luxury, but a necessity if a body politic is to flourish. "The nation which disdains the mission of art,” Kennedy warned, “invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having ‘nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.’”

Kennedy's is a point of view, perhaps, that might get under a lot of people's skin. It's worth considering, as a less optimistic critic argued at the time, whether an overabundance of didactic political statements in art may be as culturally damaging as the absence of art in politics. Or whether art like Frost's is ever "disinterested," in Kennedy's phrasing, or apolitical, or can operate independently as a check to power. Frost himself may express ambivalence in his embrace of "human tragedy." But in his doubt he fulfills the poet's role, entering into the kind of critical dialectic Kennedy claims for poetry and democracy.

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

Artist is Creating a Parthenon Made of 100,000 Banned Books: A Monument to Democracy & Intellectual Freedom

With the rise of Far Right candidates in Europe and in America, along with creeping dictatorship in Turkey and authoritarianism in the Philippines, the idea of democracy and freedom of speech feels under threat more than ever. While we don’t talk about political solutions here on Open Culture, we do believe in the power of art to illuminate.

Argentine artist Marta Minujín is creating a large-scale artwork called The Parthenon of Books that will be constructed on Friedrichsplatz in Kassel, Germany, and will be constructed from as many as 100,000 banned books from all over the world.

The location has been chosen for its historical importance. In 1933, the Nazis burned two-thousand books there during the so-called “Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist” (Campaign against the Un-German Spirit), destroying books by Communists, Jews, and pacifists, along with any others deemed un-German.


Minujín chose the Parthenon—one of the great structures of Ancient Greece—for its continuing symbolism of the enduring power of democracy throughout the ages.

When it comes to materials, she using a list of 100,000 books that have been, or still are, banned in countries across the world, going all the way back to the year 1500. You can browse that list here, but for less eye-strain, try this shorter list of 170 or so titles. New titles can be suggested for the project here.

Some of the books that have been banned over the years include Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (banned in Argentina), Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (banned in China), and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (banned in Canada).

Minujín constructed a similar Parthenon in 1983 after the fall of her country’s dictatorship. The original El Partenón de libros featured the books that the former government had banned, and, at the end of the installation, Minujín let the public take what they wanted home. (She will be allowing the same thing to happen this time.)

Her people, as she says in the video above, didn’t know what democracy was after years of military rule. We might be on the opposite side of the spectrum: we won’t know what democracy is until we lose it.

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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.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Says This Short Film on Science in America Contains Perhaps the Most Important Words He’s Ever Spoken

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has won a reputation as a genial, yet pedantic nerd, a scientific gadfly whose point of view may nearly always be technically correct, but whose mode of delivery sometimes misses the point, like someone who explains a joke. His earnestness is endearing; it’s what makes him so relatable as a science educator. He’s wholeheartedly devoted to his subject, like his boyhood hero Carl Sagan, whose shoes Tyson did his best to fill in a remake of the classic Cosmos series. Tyson's countrymen and women, however, have made his job a lot harder than they did in Sagan's day, when ordinary Americans were hungry for scientific information.

The change has been decades in the making. Like Sagan, Tyson’s voice fills with awe as he contemplates the mysteries of nature and wonders of science, and with alarm as he comments on widespread American ignorance and hostility to critical inquiry and the scientific method. These attitudes have led us to a crisis point. Elected and appointed officials at the highest levels of government deny the facts of climate change and are actively gutting all efforts to combat it. The House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology mocks climate science on social media even as NASA announces that the evidence is “unequivocal.”


How did this happen? Are we rapidly returning, as Sagan warned before his death, to an age of “superstition and darkness”? Tyson has recently addressed these questions with earnestness and urgency in a short video called “Science in America,” which you can watch above, “containing,” he wrote on Facebook, “what may be the most important words I have ever spoken.” He opens with a statement that echoes Sagan’s dire predictions: “It seems to me that people have lost the ability to judge what is true and what is not.” The problem is not simply an academic one, but a pressingly political one: “When you have people,” says Tyson, “who don’t know much about science, standing in denial of it, and rising to power, that is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy.”

One must ask if the issue solely comes down to education. We are frequently reminded of how much denial is motivated and willful when, for example, a government official begins a completely unsupported claim with, “I’m not a scientist, but….” We know that fossil fuel companies like Exxon have known the facts about climate change for forty years, and have hidden or misrepresented them. But the problem is even more widespread. Evolutionary biology, vaccines, GMOs… the amount of misinformation and “alternative fact” in the public sphere has drowned out the voices of scientists. “That’s not the country I remember growing up in,” Tyson laments.

There are plenty of good philosophical reasons for skepticism, such as those raised by David Hume or by critical theorists and historians who point out the ways in which scientific research has been distorted and misused for some very dark, inhumane purposes. Yet critiques of methodology, philosophy, and ethics only strengthen the scientific enterprise, which---as Tyson passionately explains---thrives on vigorous and informed debate. We cannot afford to confuse thoughtful deliberation and honest reflection with specious reasoning and willful ignorance.

I imagine we’ll have a good laugh at creative redeployments of some classic Tyson harangues. (“This is science! It’s not something to toy with!”) And a good laugh sometimes feels like all we can do to relieve the tension. The real danger is that many people will dismiss his message as “politicizing” science rather than defending the very basis of its existence. We must agree on the basis of scientific truth, as discoverable through reason and evidence, Tyson warns, before we can even get to the political questions over climate change, vaccines, etc. Whether Americans can still do that has become an unsettlingly open question.

via Big Think

Related Content:

Carl Sagan Predicts the Decline of America: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “Without Noticing, Back into Superstition & Darkness” (1995)

An Animated Neil deGrasse Tyson Gives an Eloquent Defense of Science in 272 Words, the Same Length as The Gettysburg Address

Neil deGrasse Tyson Remembers His First Meeting with Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan Issues a Chilling Warning to America in His Final Interview (1996)

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

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