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.

Bertrand Russell’s Prison Letters Are Now Digitized & Put Online (1918 – 1961)

Boethius, Henry David Thoreau, Antonio Gramsci, Martin Luther King, Jr…. It’s possible, if one tried, to draw other comparisons between these disparate figures, but readers familiar with the work of all four will immediately recognize their most obvious literary commonality: all wrote some of their most impassioned and persuasive work while unjustly confined to a cell.

In the case of Bertrand Russell, however, perhaps one of the most famous figures in 20th century philosophy and intellectual life more generally, periods of incarceration in Brixton prison in 1918 and, forty-three years later, in 1961, play a minimal role in the larger drama of his writing life, despite the fact that he did a good deal of writing, including some significant philosophical work, behind bars.




Even scholars well-read in Russell’s work may have little knowledge of his prison writing, and for good reason: most of it has been inaccessible. “Now, for the first time,” writes Erica Balch at McMaster University’s Brighter World blog, “Russell’s prison letters—part of McMaster’s Bertrand Russell Archives—are being made available online through a new digitization project developed by the Bertrand Russell Research Centre. Complete with detailed annotations and fully searchable text, the project is providing scholars from around the world with access to these rarely seen materials.”

The contents of the letters reveal other reasons that Russell’s prison writing isn’t better known. He did plenty of impassioned and persuasive writing for the public outside of a prison cell—publishing fiery books, essays, and lectures against war and propaganda and in defense of free thought throughout his life. Behind bars, however, Russell’s writing turned almost solely professional and personal, in letters addressed primarily to “his then lover Lady Constance Malleson (known as ‘Colette’) and his former lover, aristocrat and socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell.”

The 105 letters “reveal the private thoughts of one of the 20th century’s most public figures and provide an interesting window on Russell’s inner life,” says Andrew Bone, Senior Research Associate at McMaster’s Bertrand Russell Research Centre.  Most of the letters “were written in secret,” Balch notes, “and smuggled out of Brixton by Russell’s friends, concealed between the uncut pages of books.” Russell was only allowed one letter per week; officially sanctioned correspondence is written on prison stationary and bears the Brixton governor’s initials.

A lifelong pacifist, Russell was first jailed for six months in 1918 for a speech opposing U.S. entry into World War I. “I found prison in many ways quite agreeable,” he later wrote in his autobiography. “I had no engagements, no difficult decisions to make, no fear of callers, no interruptions to my work. I read enormously; I wrote a book, ‘Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy’... and began the work for ‘Analysis of Mind,’” a project that never reached fruition. In 1961, at age 89, he was jailed for seven days for participating in a London anti-nuclear demonstration.

During his first stay as a prisoner of Brixton’s “first division,” Russell was “allowed to furnish his cell, wear civilian clothes, purchase catered food, and most importantly, be exempted from prison work while he pursued his profession as an author," as the Bertrand Russell Research Centre points out. It’s little wonder he looked forward to the experience as a “holiday from responsibility,” he wrote in a letter to his brother, Frank, four days after he began his sentence.

Russell may not have suffered—or acquired a heightened sense of political urgency—while behind bars (at one point he was heard laughing out loud and had to be reminded by the warden that “prison is a place of punishment”). But his prison letters offer significant insight into not only the deeply emotional relationships he had with Malleson and Morrell, but also his relationship with other members of the famous Bloomsbury group and “literary celebrities such as D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot,” writes Balch, “many of whom are referenced in the letters.”

The 104 letters from 1918, including Russell’s correspondence with his brother, his publisher, The Nation magazine and others, are all available in original scans with transcriptions and annotations at the McMaster University Bertrand Russell Research Centre site. The final letter, number 105, the sole piece of correspondence from Russell’s weeklong stay in Brixton in 1961, is addressed to his wife Edith.

My Darling,

The lawyer’s nice young man brought me cheering news of you and told me I could write to you, which I had not known. Every one here treats me kindly and the only thing I mind is being away from you. At all odd minutes I have the illusion that you are there, and forget that if I sneeze it won’t disturb you. I am enjoying Madame de Staël immensely, having at last got round to reading her. At odd moments I argue theology with the chaplain and medicine with the Doctor, and so the time passes easily. But separation from you is quite horrid, Dearest Love, it will be heavenly when we are together again. Take care of yourself, Beloved.

B.

As in most of the earlier letters, Russell avoids politics and keeps things personal. But as in nearly all of his writing, the prose is lively, evocative, and poignant, revealing much about the personality behind it. While these letters may never achieve the status of great literature, by virtue of their private nature and their minor role in Russell’s major canon, that does not mean they aren’t a joy to read, for students of Bertrand Russell and anyone else who appreciates the workings of a brilliant philosophical and ethical mind. Enter the Brixton Letter archive here.

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

An Animated Look at the Charade of the Global Elites: Claiming They Want to “Change the World,” They End Up Preserving the Unjust Status Quo

From Peter Kropotkin to Leo Tolstoy to Noam Chomsky, some of the most revered anarchist thinkers have exhausted page after page explaining why power over others is unjustified, no matter how it justifies itself. To those who say the wealthy and powerful benefit society with charitable works and occasionally humane policy, Tolstoy might reply with the following illustration, which opens Time editor Anand Giridharadas’ talk above, “Winner Take All,” as animated by the RSA:

I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible… except by getting off his back.

The author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Giridharadas doesn’t make the case for anarchism here, except perhaps by the slightest implication in his choice of epigraph. But he does call out the “winners of our age,” no matter how much they determine to make a difference with humanitarian aid, for being “unwilling to get off the man’s back.” Unwilling to pay taxes, close loopholes and tax shelters, pay higher wages, or stop lobbying to slash public services. Unwilling to reinvest in the communities that made them.




“What does it look like to imagine the kind of change,” Giridharadas asks, “that would involve the winners of our age stepping off that guy’s back? Or being made to step off that guy’s back?” Here, he leaves us with an ellipses and moves to critique the idea of the “win-win” as a means of making change, rather than just exchange.

The market economy has imported the criteria of exchange into politics and social action. Everything is transactional. But in order to address the gross inequities that result in people figuratively sitting on the backs of others, some must gain more power and others must have less. The parties do not meet in a state of ceteris paribus.

One might take issue with the very terms used in "win-win" thinking. Rather than winners, some would call powerful capitalists opportunists, profiteers, and worse. (The term “robber baron” was once in common circulation.) To claim that good works and good intentions obviate massive power imbalances is to presume that such imbalances are justifiable in the first place. Answering this theoretical question doesn’t, however, address the practical problem.

In the current system of corporate misrule, says Giridharadas, “when everything is couched as a win-win, what you are really saying… is that the best kinds of solutions don’t ask anyone to get off anyone’s back.” Unfettered capitalism has brought us the “privatization of public problems." That is to say, companies profit from the same issues they help create through pollution, predatory schemes, and undue political influence.

You don’t have to be an anarchist to see a serious problem with that. But if you see the problem, you should want to imagine how things could be otherwise.

via Aeon

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

Radical Tea Towels Offer a Graphic Crash Course in Progressive American History

Those of us who are deeply disappointed to learn we won’t be seeing Harriet Tubman’s face on a redesigned $20 bill any time soon can dry our eyes on a Tubman tea towel… or could if the revered abolitionist and activist wasn’t one of the family-owned Radical Tea Towel’s hottest selling items.

The popular design, based on one of Charles Ross’ murals in Cambridge, Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Memorial Garden is currently out of stock.

Fortunately, the company has immortalized plenty of other inspirational feminists, activists, civil rights leaders, authors, and thinkers on cotton rectangles, suitable for all your dish drying and gift giving needs.

Or wave them at a demonstration, on the creators’ suggestion.

The need for radical tea towels was hatched as one of the company’s Welsh co-founder’s was searching in vain for a practical birthday present that would reflect her 92-year-old father’s progressive values.

Five years later, bombarded with distressing post-election messages from the States, they decided to expand across the pond, to highlight the achievements of “amazing Americans who've fought the cause of freedom and equality over the years.”

The description of each towel's subject speaks to the passion for history, education  and justice the founders—a mother, father, and adult son—bring to the project. Here, for example, is their write up on Muhammad Ali, above:

He was born Cassius Clay and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, but the name the world knew him by was simply, 'The Greatest.’ Through his remarkable boxing career, Ali is widely regarded as one of the most significant and celebrated sports figures of the 20th century and was an inspiring, controversial and polarising figure both inside and outside the ring. 

Ali started boxing as a 12-year-old because he wanted to take revenge on the boy who stole his bike, and at 25, he lost his boxing licence for refusing to fight in Vietnam. (‘Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam when so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?’ He demanded.) It was perhaps the only time he surrendered: millions of dollars, the love of his nation, his career… but it was for what he believed in. And although his views on race were often confused, this was just example of his Civil Rights activism.

Ali became a lightning rod for dissent, setting an example of racial pride for African Americans and resistance to white domination during the Civil Rights Movement. And he took no punch lying down – neither inside the boxing ring nor in the fight for equality: after being refused service in a whites-only restaurant in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, he reportedly threw the Olympic gold medal he had just won in Rome into the Ohio River. So, here’s an empowering gift celebrating the man who never threw in the (tea) towel.

The Radical Tea Towel blog is such stuff as will bring a grateful tear to an AP US History teacher’s eye. The Forebears We Share: Learning from Radical History is a good place to start. Other topics include Abigail Adam’s American Revolution advocacy, the bridge designs of revolutionary philosopher Thomas Paine, and Bruce Springsteen’s love of protest songs.

(The Radical Tea Towel design team has yet to pay tribute to The Boss, but until they do, we can rest easy knowing author John Steinbeck’s towel embodies Springsteen’s sentiment. )

Lest our educational dishcloths lull us into thinking we know more about our country than we actually do, the company’s website has a radical history quiz, modeled on the US history and government naturalization test which would-be Americans must pass with a score of at least 60%. This one is, unsurprisingly, geared toward progressive history. Test your knowledge to earn a tea towel discount code.

Begin your Radical Tea Towel explorations here, and don't neglect to take in all the rad designs celebrating the upcoming centennial of women's suffrage.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, December 9 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Dennison’s Christmas Book (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hannah Arendt Explains Why Democracies Need to Safeguard the Free Press & Truth … to Defend Themselves Against Dictators and Their Lies

Image by Bernd Schwabe, via Wikimedia Commons

Two of the most trenchant and enduring critics of authoritarianism, Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, were also both German Jews who emigrated to the U.S. to escape the Nazis. The Marxist Adorno saw fascist tendencies everywhere in his new country. Decades before Noam Chomsky coined the concept, he argued that all mass media under advanced capitalism served one particular purpose: manufacturing consent.

Arendt landed on a different part of the political spectrum, drawing her philosophy from Aristotle and St. Augustine. Classical democratic ideals and an ethics of moral responsibility informed her belief in the central importance of shared reality in a functioning civil society—of a press that is free not only to publish what it wishes, but to take responsibility for telling the truth, without which democracy becomes impossible.




A press that disseminates half-truths and propaganda, Arendt argued, is not a feature of liberalism but a sign of authoritarian rule. “Totalitarian rulers organize… mass sentiment,” she told French writer Roger Errera in 1974, “and by organizing it articulate it, and by articulating it make the people somehow love it. They were told before, thou should not kill; and they didn’t kill. Now they are told, thou shalt kill; and although they think it’s very difficult to kill, they do it because it’s now part of the code of behavior.”

This breakdown of moral norms, Arendt argued, can occur “the moment we no longer have a free press.” The problem, however, is more complicated than mass media that spreads lies. Echoing ideas developed in her 1951 study The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt explained that “lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows.”

Bombarded with contradictory and often incredible claims, people become cynical and give up trying to understand anything. “And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.” The statement was anything but theoretical. It's an empirical observation from much recent 20th century history.

Arendt’s thought developed in relation to totalitarian regimes that actively censored, controlled, and micromanaged the press to achieve specific ends. She does not address the current situation in which we find ourselves—though Adorno certainly did: a press controlled not directly by the government but by an increasingly few, and increasingly monolithic and powerful, number of corporations, all with vested interests in policy direction that preserves and expands their influence.

The examples of undue influence multiply. One might consider the recently approved Gannett-Gatehouse merger, which brought together two of the biggest news publishers in the country and may “speed the demise of local news,” as Michael Posner writes at Forbes, thereby further opening the doors for rumor, speculation, and targeted disinformation. But in such a condition, we are not powerless as individuals, Arendt argued, even if the preconditions for a democratic society are undermined.

Though the facts may be confused or obscured, we retain the capacity for moral judgment, for assessing deeper truths about the character of those in power. “In acting and speaking,” she wrote in 1975’s The Human Condition, “men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities…. This disclosure of ‘who’ in contradistinction to ‘what’ somebody is—his qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings, which he may display or hide—is implicit in everything somebody says and does.”

Even if democratic institutions let the free press fail, Arendt argued, we each bear a personal responsibility under authoritarian rule to judge and to act—or to refuse—in an ethics predicated on what she called, after Socrates, the “silent dialogue between me and myself.”

Read Arendt's full passage on the free press and truth below:

The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.

via Michio Kakutani

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

A Schoolhouse Rock-Inspired Guide to Impeachment

How does a bill become a law? You can’t hear the question and not hum a few bars from Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill.” The groovy cartoon civics lesson was for millions the first they learned about the legislative process. Ask another question, however, like “how does impeachment work,” and you may hear more crickets than 70’s educational TV jingles.

Surely we took something from Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial besides cigars, stained blue dresses, and the spectacle of morally compromised politicians wagging their fingers at a morally compromised politician? Surely we’ve all read the Watergate transcripts, and can quote more from that history than Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” (muttered before he resigned instead of facing the charges)?




Maybe not. Despite the talk of closed-door hearings and conflicted jurors, many of us have not paid close attention to the particulars of the process, given that impeachment trials can make for such compellingly broad political theater. And we never got our Schoolhouse Rock impeachment episode. Until now.

Seeing as how the president faces public, televised impeachment hearings next week, there may be no more opportune time to get caught up on some details with Jonathan Coulton’s Schoolhouse Rock-inspired “The Good Fight.” Its animation style and catchy tune recalls the 70s educational series, but Coulton doesn’t address the kids at home as his primary audience.

“Your tiny hands may scratch and claw,” sings Coulton, “but nobody’s above the law.” You won’t win any prizes for guessing who this means—a person in need of a childlike explainer on basic government, it seems. More verbal jabs are thrown, and the alleged crimes enumerated, ending with treason (and a misplaced, anachronistic hammer and sickle by animators Head Gear Animation). The video finally gets into the impeachment process over a minute in, past the halfway mark.

Viewers might find the first half emotionally satisfying, with its characterization of impeached presidents as wayward children in need of correction by a swaggering Constitution and a sassy band of founders. It’s cute but leaves precious little time for learning how this accountability process is supposed to work. Coulton rushes through the explanation, and you may find yourself skipping back to hear it several times.

Never fear: Google—or the search engine of your choice—is here to ferry you to thousands of guides to the impeachment process. “The Good Fight” isn’t, after all, actually a Schoolhouse Rock ad, but a fun civic-minded reminder to everyone that the president is not above the law, and that Congress is entitled by the Constitution to hold the holder of that office, whomever they may be, accountable. An explainer by Vox appears below:

via BoingBoing

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

The Difference Between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England: A (Pre-Brexit) Video Explains

I once played in a New York pub band with an Englishman, a Northern Irishman, and a Scotsman. This is not the setup for a joke. (We weren't that bad!) But I had questions. Were they all from different countries or different parts of one country called Britain, or Great Britain, or the grander-sounding United Kingdom?

British history could be a contentious subject in such company, and no wonder given that the violence of the Empire began at home, or with the neighboring people who were absorbed—sometimes, partly, but not always—against their will into a larger entity. So, what to call that territory of the crown which once claimed one fourth of the world as its own property?




CGP Grey, maker of the YouTube explainer above, aims to clear things up in five minutes, offering his own spin on British imperial history along the way. The United Kingdom is a “country of countries that contains inside it four coequal and sovereign nations,” England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. “You can call them all British,” says Grey, but “it’s generally not recommended as the four countries generally don’t like each other.”

Like it or not, however, they are all British citizens of “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” Still confused? Well, Britain and the United Kingdom name the same country. But “Great Britain” is a geographical term that includes Scotland, England, and Wales, but not Northern Ireland. As a “geographical rather than a political term,” Great Britain sounds silly when used to describe nationality.

But it gets a bit more complicated. All of the countries located within Great Britain have neighboring islands that are not part of Great Britain, such as the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney Islands, and Isles of Anglesey and Wight. Ireland is a geographical term for the land mass encompassing two nations: Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain, or the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which—as you know—is decidedly not.

All of these countries and “countries of countries” are part of the European Union, says Grey, at which point it becomes clear that the video, posted in 2011, did not anticipate any such thing as Brexit. Nonetheless, this information holds true for the moment, though that ugly saga is sure to reach some resolution eventually, at which point, who knows what new maps, independence referenda, and border wars will arise, or resurrect, on the British Isles.

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

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