Pakistani Immigrant Goes to a Led Zeppelin Concert, Gets Inspired to Become a Musician & Then Sells 30 Million Albums

Salman Ahmad, the gui­tarist who found­ed the acclaimed Sufi rock band Junoon, has sold over 30 mil­lion albums world­wide, per­formed at the Nobel Peace Prize cer­e­mo­ny, and con­tin­ued mak­ing music despite threats from The Tal­iban. He also teach­es cours­es on Mus­lim music and poet­ry at Queens Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York.

Above, in a video pro­duced by The Moth, the bound­ary-break­ing musi­cian recounts his inspi­ra­tional life sto­ry. Born in Lahore, Pak­istan, he moved to New York at the age of 11. Being the “only over­weight, brown, Mus­lim kid” in school, he lived in rel­a­tive isolation–that is until Dan Spitz (lat­er the gui­tarist of Anthrax) urged him “to get cool.” Cool came in the form of a tick­et to a Led Zep­pelin con­cert at Madi­son Square Gar­den, which kicked off, odd­ly enough, with “Kash­mir.”

I’ll let Ahmad tell the rest of his sto­ry. It’s also a sto­ry about how Amer­i­ca does good (for the world and itself) when it remains open in heart, mind, and law.

To get bet­ter acquaint­ed with Ahmad’s jour­ney, read his recent book, Rock & Roll Jihad: A Mus­lim Rock Star’s Rev­o­lu­tion.

To keep Amer­i­ca open, make a dona­tion to the ACLU.

Relat­ed Con­tent

Pak­istani Musi­cians Play a Delight­ful Ver­sion of Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Clas­sic, “Take Five”

81-Year-Old Man Walks into a Gui­tar Shop & Starts Play­ing a Sub­lime Solo: Ignore the Tal­ents of the Elder­ly at Your Own Per­il

Pak­istani Orches­tra Plays Enchant­i­ng Ren­di­tion of The Bea­t­les’ “Eleanor Rig­by”

Ian McKellen Reads a Passionate Speech by William Shakespeare, Written in Defense of Immigrants

The iden­ti­ty of William Shake­speare has been a lit­er­ary mys­tery for four hun­dred years, inspir­ing the­o­ry after the­o­ry, book after book. There has been, indeed, lit­tle bio­graph­i­cal evi­dence to work with, though pale­o­g­ra­ph­er and “lit­er­ary detec­tive” Heather Wolfe has very recent­ly filled in some crit­i­cal gaps. It was long thought that Shakespeare’s will, in which he bequeaths to his wife his “sec­ond best bed,” was the only doc­u­ment in his hand, aside from a few sig­na­tures here and there.

Since around the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er, schol­ars have come to agree that three pages of a man­u­script in an Eliz­a­bethan play called Sir Thomas More con­tain Shakespeare’s hand­writ­ing. The play, writes the British Library—who house the phys­i­cal pages and have dig­i­tal scans at their site—tells the sto­ry of “the Tudor lawyer and poly­math who was sen­tenced to death for refus­ing to recog­nise Hen­ry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church in Eng­land.”

Best known from A Man for All Sea­sons and for writ­ing the philo­soph­i­cal nov­el Utopia, More was a human­ist and a diplo­mat, and in this excerpt, he “deliv­ers a grip­ping speech” to a riot­ing mob, “who are bay­ing for so-called ‘strangers’ to be ban­ished.” In the video above, you can see Ian McK­ellen give a pas­sion­ate read­ing of More’s speech, in which he “relies on human empa­thy to make his point that if the riot­ers were sud­den­ly ban­ished to a for­eign land, they would become ‘wretched strangers’ too, and equal­ly vul­ner­a­ble to attack.”

The speech, McK­ellen says, “is sym­bol­ic and won­der­ful… so much at the heart of Shakespeare’s human­i­ty.” Read an excerpt below and more of the text at Quartz.

Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great tres­pass
As but to ban­ish you, whith­er would you go?
What coun­try, by the nature of your error,
Should give you har­bour? go you to France or Flan­ders,
To any Ger­man province, to Spain or Por­tu­gal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to Eng­land,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such bar­barous tem­per,
That, break­ing out in hideous vio­lence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detest­ed knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appro­pri­ate to your com­forts,
But char­tered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your moun­tain­ish inhu­man­i­ty.

This scene refers to an actu­al event in Eng­lish his­to­ry, writes Anne Quito at Quartz, when “fever­ish xeno­pho­bia swept through the pop­u­la­tion.” In a peri­od between 1330 and 1550, “64,000 for­eign­ers, from wealthy Lom­bard bankers to Flem­ish labor­ers, arrived on Eng­lish shores… in search of bet­ter lives.”

The ten­sion came to head on May 1, 1517, when “riots broke out in Lon­don and a mob armed with stones, bricks, bats, boots and boil­ing water attacked the immi­grants and loot­ed their homes. Thomas More, then the city’s deputy sher­iff, tried to rea­son with the crowd.”

The day became known as “Evil May Day” and cast a grim shad­ow sev­er­al decades lat­er when the play was believed to have been writ­ten, between 1596 and 1601. Shake­speare was not its only author, though the 147 lines of More’s speech are his. Sir Thomas More was imme­di­ate­ly banned and nev­er per­formed in Shakespeare’s life­time. The queen’s cen­sor Edmund Tilney “thought it might incite riots dur­ing a time when Eng­land was once again besieged by anoth­er immi­grant cri­sis.” McKellen’s read­ing has become a “clar­i­on call,” writes Quito for refugee advo­cates in the midst of Europe’s cur­rent cri­sis.

Amer­i­cans might take this to heart as well, as vic­tims of war and ter­ror in coun­tries all over the Mid­dle East may soon be banned from find­ing refuge in the U.S. See a short­er read­ing of an excerpt from the speech just above by Har­ri­et Wal­ters.

via Quartz

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sir Ian McK­ellen Puts on a Daz­zling One-Man Shake­speare Show

Sir Ian McK­ellen Releas­es New Apps to Make Shakespeare’s Plays More Enjoy­able & Acces­si­ble

A 68 Hour Playlist of Shakespeare’s Plays Being Per­formed by Great Actors: Giel­gud, McK­ellen & More

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.

Update: You can now view the lec­tures for the course here.

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.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Spot Bull­shit: A Primer by Prince­ton Philoso­pher Har­ry Frank­furt

Young T.S. Eliot Writes “The Tri­umph of Bullsh*t” and Gives the Eng­lish Lan­guage a New Exple­tive (1910)

1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

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Female Samurai Warriors Immortalized in 19th Century Japanese Photos

Most of my generation’s expo­sure to Japan­ese cul­ture came heav­i­ly medi­at­ed by ani­me and samu­rai films. One cul­tur­al arti­fact that stands out for me is TV minis­eries Shogun, an adap­ta­tion of James Clavell’s pop­u­lar nov­el, which gives us a view of Japan through the eyes of a British nov­el­ist and his British hero (played by Richard Cham­ber­lain in the film). Shogun depicts a feu­dal Japan­ese war­rior cul­ture cen­tered on exag­ger­at­ed dis­plays of mas­culin­i­ty, with women oper­at­ing in the mar­gins or behind the scenes.

Even the great Aki­ra Kurosawa’s visions of feu­dal Japan, like The Sev­en Samu­rai, are “not exact­ly inun­dat­ed with the stun­ning pow­er of female war­riors bran­dish­ing katanas,” writes Dan­ger­ous Minds, “it’s a bit of a  ソーセージ-fest.”

And yet, it turns out, “such women did exist.” Known as onna bugeisha, these fight­ers “find their ear­li­est pre­cur­sor in Empress Jingū, who in 200 A.D. led an inva­sion of Korea after her hus­band Emper­or Chūai, the four­teenth emper­or of Japan, per­ished in bat­tle.” Empress Jingū’s exam­ple endured. In 1881, she became the first woman on Japan­ese cur­ren­cy.

Pre­ced­ing the all-male samu­rai class depict­ed in Clavell and Kuro­sawa, the onna bugeisha “learned to use nag­i­na­ta, kaiken, and the art of tan­to Jut­so in bat­tle,” the Vin­tage News tells us. Rather than pay mer­ce­nar­ies to defend them, as the ter­ri­fied towns­folk do in Sev­en Samu­rai, these women trained in bat­tle to pro­tect “com­mu­ni­ties that lacked male fight­ers.”

The onna bugeisha’s eth­ic was as pur­port­ed­ly as uncom­pro­mis­ing as the samu­rai, and it shows in these fierce por­traits from the 1800s. Although many tales of promi­nent onna bugeisha come from the 12th-13th cen­turies, one famous fig­ure, Nakano Takeko lived in the 19th cen­tu­ry, writes Dan­ger­ous Minds, and died quite the war­rior’s death:

While she was lead­ing a charge against Impe­r­i­al Japan­ese Army troops she was shot in the chest. Know­ing her remain­ing time on earth to be short, Takeko asked her sis­ter, Yūko, to cut her head off and have it buried rather than per­mit the ene­my to seize it as a tro­phy. It was tak­en to Hōkai Tem­ple and buried under­neath a pine tree.

Anoth­er revered fight­er, Tomoe Gozen, appears in The Tale of the Heike (often called the “Japan­ese Ili­ad). She is described as “espe­cial­ly beau­ti­ful,” and also as “a remark­ably strong archer… as a swordswoman she was a war­rior worth a thou­sand, ready to con­front a demon or a god, mount­ed or on foot.”

In the pho­tos here—and many more at The Vin­tage News—we get a sense of what such a leg­endary badass may have looked like.


via Vin­tage News/Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hand-Col­ored 1860s Pho­tographs Reveal the Last Days of Samu­rai Japan

Leg­endary Japan­ese Author Yukio Mishi­ma Mus­es About the Samu­rai Code (Which Inspired His Hap­less 1970 Coup Attempt)

How Aki­ra Kurosawa’s Sev­en Samu­rai Per­fect­ed the Cin­e­mat­ic Action Scene: A New Video Essay

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

Meet Theda Bara, the First “Vamp” of Cinema, Who Revealed the Erotic Power of the Movies

Read­ers of a cer­tain gen­er­a­tion, asked to envi­sion a vam­pir­i­cal­ly allur­ing lady of cin­e­ma, may find their imag­i­na­tions going straight to Elvi­ra, Mis­tress of the Dark. But the tra­di­tion of the sil­ver-screen “vamp” goes much deep­er, reach­ing all the way back to the silent era. The term itself was first coined to refer to The­da Bara, not exact­ly a house­hold name now, but then in a league with Char­lie Chap­lin and Mary Pick­ford. She was one of the most pop­u­lar per­form­ers alive.

Bara revealed to a gen­er­a­tion of movie­go­ers the sheer erot­ic pow­er of cin­e­ma, an accom­plish­ment you can glimpse in the clip above of 1915’s A Fool There Was, the pic­ture that made her an icon. The minute she arrives on screen, writes The Guardian’s Kira Cochrane, “it becomes obvi­ous why she was so pop­u­lar — why she went on to have songs writ­ten about her, chil­dren named after her, a per­fume and even a sand­wich (minced ham, may­on­naise, sliced pimen­to and sweet pick­les on toast — served warm) cre­at­ed in her hon­our.” Her face, though it may not seem so notable at first, soon “comes into its own — so much so that when you learn that her char­ac­ter’s malev­o­lence has led one man to jail, anoth­er to beg­gary, and her most recent vic­tim to a very pub­lic sui­cide, you believe it.”

Frank Pow­ell, direc­tor of A Fool There Was, “took a chance on a 29 year-old The­da (she lied and said she was 25)” by ask­ing her to star, writes Messy Nessy’s Addi­son Nugent. “It’s the sto­ry of a devot­ed fam­i­ly man who, while on a ship to Eng­land, meets a beau­ti­ful stranger referred to only as ‘The Vam­pire Woman.’ This mys­te­ri­ous crea­ture cor­rupts his soul, destroys his fam­i­ly, drains him of all of his mon­ey and dig­ni­ty, and even­tu­al­ly caus­es his demise.”

And so the for­mer Theo­dosia Good­man — with some assis­tance from Fox Stu­dios’ PR team, who “plant­ed false sto­ries in the press and invent­ed a fan­ta­sy back­sto­ry for her” — swift­ly became a new kind of femme fatale for this new artis­tic and com­mer­cial medi­um. These dan­ger­ous young women, write the New York his­to­ry pod­cast­ers the Bow­ery Boys, “were the spir­i­tu­al chil­dren of the pri­or gen­er­a­tion of new­ly empow­ered women who fought against the con­straints of Vic­to­ri­an soci­ety. A few years lat­er, as anoth­er vein of female pow­er (the tem­per­ance move­ment) helped bring about Pro­hi­bi­tion, these young women would be called flap­pers, care­free and fueled on the pow­ers of jazz and ille­gal alco­hol.”

Dur­ing her dozen-year-long screen career, Bara made some forty films in total, most of them lost in the Fox vault fire of 1937, includ­ing the 1917 epic Cleopa­tra, a few frag­ments of which you can see in the video above. Her final appear­ance, in 1926’s Madame Mys­tery, both par­o­died the vamp image she could nev­er quite shake and saw her bid farewell to the world of silent cin­e­ma. “Before pic­tures grew up and start­ed to talk, we had to trans­late all our motion into pan­tomime,” said Bara her­self in a lat­er radio inter­view. “We had to express jeal­ousy, hate, love, or devo­tion all in pan­tomime, and at the same time keep pace as the direc­tor guid­ed us just as a metronome guides a pianist.”

The vamp, as Bara played and defined the fig­ure, expressed all those emo­tions with a fear­some vivid­ness, and she “became so syn­ony­mous with the term that she is now referred to as the orig­i­nal on-screen vamp,” writes Cochrane, “the woman who made per­for­mances such as that of Louise Brooks in Pan­do­ra’s Box, Bar­bara Stan­wyck in Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty and Lin­da Fiorenti­no in The Last Seduc­tion pos­si­ble.” Or as the orig­i­nal vamp summed up her own lega­cy, “To be good is to be for­got­ten. I’m going to be so bad I’ll always be remem­bered.”

A Fool There Was will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch After the Ball, the 1897 “Adult” Film by Pio­neer­ing Direc­tor Georges Méliès (Almost NSFW)

Broke­back Before Broke­back: The First Same-Sex Kiss in Cin­e­ma (1927)

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.

The Theater Dictionary: A Free Video Guide to Theatre Lingo

It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your show­stop­pers are? Or, more to the point, do you know why a musi­cal-com­e­dy writ­ing team seeks to ori­ent its show­stop­ping num­ber at “eleven o’clock”?

The The­ater Devel­op­ment Fund’s The­atre Dic­tio­nary is an ongo­ing attempt to define and doc­u­ment the­ater terms for both the rab­ble and any bud­ding prac­ti­tion­ers who’ve yet to mas­ter the lin­go.

Each term is accom­pa­nied by a loopy slap­dash skit. Not all of the per­form­ers exhib­it the pedi­gree Veron­i­ca J. Kuehn and Nick Kohn of Avenue Q bring to “Eleven O’Clock Num­ber,” above, but cast­ing admin­is­tra­tors and tick­et booth reps in star­ring roles lend a homey egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, such as when stu­dents from the Yale School of Drama’s Depart­ment of Dra­matur­gy and Dra­mat­ic Crit­i­cism are giv­en free license to explore the ori­gins of “vom.”

(This loosey goosey approach also allows for uncred­it­ed appear­ances by oth­er the­atri­cal tropes—the marathon rehearsals where pop­corn con­sti­tutes lunch and one actor repeat­ed­ly com­plains that his work has been insuf­fi­cient­ly acknowl­edged.)

A “What Does This Word Mean” tab for each term anchors the video silli­ness, pro­vid­ing his­tor­i­cal and anec­do­tal con­text. It’s in keep­ing with the Dictionary’s greater goal of bring­ing the­ater to the peo­ple, let­ting every­one play with the toys.

Some of the def­i­n­i­tions are prac­ti­cal short­hand…

Oth­ers are couched in long­time, pos­si­bly archa­ic the­ater lore…

I’d exer­cise cau­tion with some of this lin­go. Even though many of these terms are born of prac­ti­cal­i­ty, overus­ing them may cause oth­ers to view you as the most obnox­ious of self-declared Triple Threats, the kid in the com­e­dy-tragedy mask sweat­shirt, prone to belt­ing out the entire sound­track of CATS at the slight­est provo­ca­tion. (“Thanks, 5!!!”)

Some of these terms have unex­pect­ed crossover appeal, most recent­ly Ghost Light, above. Know­ing the mean­ing of the term will help you bet­ter appre­ci­ate the pow­er of the Ghost­light Project, a post-elec­tion com­ing togeth­er of the­ater artists and audi­ences in defense and sup­port of vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties.

You can browse the The­ater Dic­tio­nary com­plete glos­sary here or watch the videos on TDF’s Youtube chan­nel.

The The­ater Dictionary’s FAQ con­tains infor­ma­tion on how pro­fes­sion­al the­atre com­pa­nies and orga­ni­za­tions and col­lege-lev­el the­atre pro­grams can apply to con­tribute a video.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

100,000+ Won­der­ful Pieces of The­ater Ephemera Dig­i­tized by The New York Pub­lic Library

Young Orson Welles Directs “Voodoo Mac­beth,” the First Shake­speare Pro­duc­tion With An All-Black Cast: Footage from 1936

Take a “Breath” and Watch Samuel Beckett’s One-Minute Play

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.

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

Image by NASA, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

There have been many the­o­ries of how human his­to­ry works. Some, like Ger­man thinker G.W.F. Hegel, have thought of progress as inevitable. Oth­ers have embraced a more sta­t­ic view, full of “Great Men” and an immutable nat­ur­al order. Then we have the counter-Enlight­en­ment thinker Giambat­tista Vico. The 18th cen­tu­ry Neapoli­tan philoso­pher took human irra­tional­ism seri­ous­ly, and wrote about our ten­den­cy to rely on myth and metaphor rather than rea­son or nature. Vico’s most “rev­o­lu­tion­ary move,” wrote Isa­iah Berlin, “is to have denied the doc­trine of a time­less nat­ur­al law” that could be “known in prin­ci­ple to any man, at any time, any­where.”

Vico’s the­o­ry of his­to­ry includ­ed inevitable peri­ods of decline (and heav­i­ly influ­enced the his­tor­i­cal think­ing of James Joyce and Friedrich Niet­zsche). He describes his con­cept “most col­or­ful­ly,” writes Alexan­der Bert­land at the Inter­net Ency­clo­pe­dia of Phi­los­o­phy, “when he gives this axiom”:

Men first felt neces­si­ty then look for util­i­ty, next attend to com­fort, still lat­er amuse them­selves with plea­sure, thence grow dis­solute in lux­u­ry, and final­ly go mad and waste their sub­stance.

The descrip­tion may remind us of Shakespeare’s “Sev­en Ages of Man.” But for Vico, Bert­land notes, every decline her­alds a new begin­ning. His­to­ry is “pre­sent­ed clear­ly as a cir­cu­lar motion in which nations rise and fall… over and over again.”

Two-hun­dred and twen­ty years after Vico’s 1774 death, Carl Sagan—another thinker who took human irra­tional­ism seriously—published his book The Demon Haunt­ed World, show­ing how much our every­day think­ing derives from metaphor, mythol­o­gy, and super­sti­tion. He also fore­saw a future in which his nation, the U.S., would fall into a peri­od of ter­ri­ble decline:

I have a fore­bod­ing of an Amer­i­ca in my chil­dren’s or grand­chil­dren’s time — when the Unit­ed States is a ser­vice and infor­ma­tion econ­o­my; when near­ly all the man­u­fac­tur­ing indus­tries have slipped away to oth­er coun­tries; when awe­some tech­no­log­i­cal pow­ers are in the hands of a very few, and no one rep­re­sent­ing the pub­lic inter­est can even grasp the issues; when the peo­ple have lost the abil­i­ty to set their own agen­das or knowl­edge­ably ques­tion those in author­i­ty; when, clutch­ing our crys­tals and ner­vous­ly con­sult­ing our horo­scopes, our crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties in decline, unable to dis­tin­guish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost with­out notic­ing, back into super­sti­tion and dark­ness…

Sagan believed in progress and, unlike Vico, thought that “time­less nat­ur­al law” is dis­cov­er­able with the tools of sci­ence. And yet, he feared “the can­dle in the dark” of sci­ence would be snuffed out by “the dumb­ing down of Amer­i­ca…”

…most evi­dent in the slow decay of sub­stan­tive con­tent in the enor­mous­ly influ­en­tial media, the 30 sec­ond sound bites (now down to 10 sec­onds or less), low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor pro­gram­ming, cred­u­lous pre­sen­ta­tions on pseu­do­science and super­sti­tion, but espe­cial­ly a kind of cel­e­bra­tion of igno­rance…

Sagan died in 1996, a year after he wrote these words. No doubt he would have seen the fine art of dis­tract­ing and mis­in­form­ing peo­ple through social media as a late, per­haps ter­mi­nal, sign of the demise of sci­en­tif­ic think­ing. His pas­sion­ate advo­ca­cy for sci­ence edu­ca­tion stemmed from his con­vic­tion that we must and can reverse the down­ward trend.

As he says in the poet­ic excerpt from Cos­mos above, “I believe our future depends pow­er­ful­ly on how well we under­stand this cos­mos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morn­ing sky.”

When Sagan refers to “our” under­stand­ing of sci­ence, he does not mean, as he says above, a “very few” tech­nocrats, aca­d­e­mics, and research sci­en­tists. Sagan invest­ed so much effort in pop­u­lar books and tele­vi­sion because he believed that all of us need­ed to use the tools of sci­ence: “a way of think­ing,” not just “a body of knowl­edge.” With­out sci­en­tif­ic think­ing, we can­not grasp the most impor­tant issues we all joint­ly face.

We’ve arranged a civ­i­liza­tion in which most cru­cial ele­ments pro­found­ly depend on sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy. We have also arranged things so that almost no one under­stands sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy. This is a pre­scrip­tion for dis­as­ter. We might get away with it for a while, but soon­er or lat­er this com­bustible mix­ture of igno­rance and pow­er is going to blow up in our faces.

Sagan’s 1995 pre­dic­tions are now being her­ald­ed as prophet­ic. As Direc­tor of Pub­lic Radio International’s Sci­ence Fri­day, Charles Bergquist recent­ly tweet­ed, “Carl Sagan had either a time machine or a crys­tal ball.” Matt Novak cau­tions against falling back into super­sti­tious think­ing in our praise of Demon Haunt­ed World. After all, he says, “the ‘accu­ra­cy’ of pre­dic­tions is often a Rorschach test” and “some of Sagan’s con­cerns” in oth­er parts of the book “sound rather quaint.”

Of course Sagan could­n’t pre­dict the future, but he did have a very informed, rig­or­ous under­stand­ing of the issues of twen­ty years ago, and his pre­dic­tion extrap­o­lates from trends that have only con­tin­ued to deep­en. If the tools of sci­ence education—like most of the coun­try’s wealth—end up the sole prop­er­ty of an elite, the rest of us will fall back into a state of gross igno­rance, “super­sti­tion and dark­ness.” Whether we might come back around again to progress, as Giambat­tista Vico thought, is a mat­ter of sheer con­jec­ture. But per­haps there’s still time to reverse the trend before the worst arrives. As Novak writes, “here’s hop­ing Sagan, one of the smartest peo­ple of the 20th cen­tu­ry, was wrong.”

via Charles Bergquist

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Carl Sagan Presents His “Baloney Detec­tion Kit”: 8 Tools for Skep­ti­cal Think­ing

Carl Sagan & the Dalai Lama Meet in 1991 and Dis­cuss When Sci­ence Can Answer Big Ques­tions Bet­ter Than Reli­gion

An Intro­duc­tion to Hegel’s Phi­los­o­phy of His­to­ry: The Road to Progress Runs First Through Dark Times

Philoso­pher Richard Rorty Chill­ing­ly Pre­dicts the Results of the 2016 Elec­tion … Back in 1998

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

A Free Online Course on Dante’s Divine Comedy from Yale University

Over the years, we’ve fea­tured the many draw­ings that have adorned the pages of Dan­te’s Divine Com­e­dy, from medieval times to mod­ern. Illus­tra­tions by Bot­ti­cel­li, Gus­tave Doré, William Blake and Mœbius, they’ve all got­ten their due. Less has been said here, how­ev­er, about the actu­al text itself. Per­haps the most impor­tant work in Ital­ian lit­er­a­ture, Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) wrote the Divine Com­e­dy (con­sist­ing of Infer­no, Pur­ga­to­rio, and Par­adiso) between the years 1308 and 1320. And that text is large­ly the sub­ject of Dante in Trans­la­tion, a free online course taught by Yale’s Giuseppe Maz­zot­ta. The course descrip­tion reads as fol­lows:

The course is an intro­duc­tion to Dante and his cul­tur­al milieu through a crit­i­cal read­ing of the Divine Com­e­dy and select­ed minor works (Vita nuo­va, Con­viv­io, De vul­gari elo­quen­tia, Epis­tle to Can­grande). An analy­sis of Dan­te’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, the Vita nuo­va, estab­lish­es the poet­ic and polit­i­cal cir­cum­stances of the Com­e­dy’s com­po­si­tion. Read­ings of Infer­no, Pur­ga­to­ry and Par­adise seek to sit­u­ate Dan­te’s work with­in the intel­lec­tu­al and social con­text of the late Mid­dle Ages, with spe­cial atten­tion paid to polit­i­cal, philo­soph­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal con­cerns. Top­ics in the Divine Com­e­dy explored over the course of the semes­ter include the rela­tion­ship between ethics and aes­thet­ics; love and knowl­edge; and exile and his­to­ry.

You can watch the 24 lec­tures from the course above, or find them on YouTube and iTunes in video and audio for­mats. To get more infor­ma­tion on the course, includ­ing the syl­labus, vis­it this Yale web­site.

Pri­ma­ry texts used in this course include:

  • Dante. Divine Com­e­dy. Trans­lat­ed by John D. Sin­clair. New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1968.
  • Dante. Vita Nuo­va. Trans­lat­ed by Mark Musa. Bloom­ing­ton: Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1973.

Dante in Trans­la­tion will be added to our list of Free Online Lit­er­a­ture cours­es, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy: A Free Course from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty

William Blake’s Last Work: Illus­tra­tions for Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy (1827)

Botticelli’s 92 Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy

Alber­to Martini’s Haunt­ing Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy (1901–1944)

Hear Dante’s Infer­no Read Aloud by Influ­en­tial Poet & Trans­la­tor John Cia­r­di (1954)

Physics from Hell: How Dante’s Infer­no Inspired Galileo’s Physics

Watch L’Inferno (1911), Italy’s First Fea­ture Film and Per­haps the Finest Adap­ta­tion of Dante’s Clas­sic

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.