The 850 Books a Texas Lawmaker Wants to Ban Because They Could Make Students Feel Uncomfortable

“Who’s afraid of critical race theory?” asked lawyer, legal scholar and Harvard professor Derrick Bell in a 1995 essay. Bell helped pioneer the discipline in the 70s, and until recently, it remained mostly confined to academic journals, grad school seminars and the pages of progressive magazines. Now the phrase is everywhere. What happened? Did radical scholars force third graders to read footnotes? Or did conservatives show up fifty years late to a conversation, skip the reading, and decide the best way to respond was to lash out indiscriminately at every identity and civil rights issue that makes them uncomfortable, starting with kindergarten and working their way up? Maybe Bell’s question has answered itself.

In the recent moral panic over CRT, the term has become a denunciation, a shibboleth that can apply to any history, civics, or literature lesson broadly construed, whether taught through current events, fiction, poetry, memoir, nonfiction, or any material — to use the language of the “anti-CRT” Texas House Bill 3979 — that might make a student “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.” Connections to Bell’s critical race theory are tenuous, at best. As Allyson Waller notes at the Texas Tribune, that academic discipline “is not being taught in K-12 schools.”


This fact means little to right wing legislators, school board members and parents’ groups, who have found a convenient boogeyman on which to project their anxieties. What the Texas bill means in practice has been impossible to parse. American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Emerson Sykes filed a federal suit over a similar law in Oklahoma, arguing that it’s “so vague,” as Michael Powell reports at The New York Times, “that it fails to provide reasonable legal guidance to teachers and could put jobs in danger.” A Black principal near Dallas has already been forced to resign in the anti-CRT panic, for writing a public letter after George Floyd’s death that declared, “Education is the key to stomping out ignorance, hate, and systemic racism.”

In another part of the state, a district-level executive director of curriculum has recommended teaching “other perspectives” on the Holocaust to meet the bill’s mandates. Teachers and administrators are not the only ones targeted by the bill and its supporters. “One minute they’re talking critical race theory,” says middle school librarian Carrie Damon. “Suddenly I’m hearing librarians are indoctrinating students. One library in Llano County, about 80 miles northwest of Austin, shut down for three days for a “thorough review” of every children’s book. At the statewide level, Texas Republican State Representative Matt Krause launched an anti-CRT witch-hunt, in advance of a run for State Attorney General, by emailing a list 850 books to state superintendents, asking if any of them appeared in their libraries.

The list, writes Danika Ellis at Book Riot, is “a bizarre assortment of titles, formatted in a way that suggests it’s copy-and-pasted from library listings.” It includes books about human rights, sex education, any and every LGBTQ topic, race, American history, and policing. Ironically, it also includes books about burning books and bullying (a problem causing student walkouts around the country). The books range from those for young children to middle and high school students and college-aged young adults. Most of them “were written by women, people of color and LGBTQ writers.” It also includes “a particularly puzzling choice,” writes Powell (probably a mistake?): Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, two authors who have made careers out of exposing what they allege are illegitimate “grievances” in academia.

You can see Krause’s full list here. The state rep’s “motive was unclear,” Powell writes, but it seems clear enough he wished to flag these books for possible removal. Given that critical race theory is not, in fact, a phrase that means “anything that makes conservatives feel guilty and/or uncomfortable” but is foremost a legal theory, we might ask legal questions like cui bono? — “who benefits” from banning the books on Krause’s list? Who feels uncomfortable and guilty when they read about racist policing, healthy gay relationships, or the civil rights movement– and why? Should that discomfort provide just cause for censorship and the violation of other students’ rights to quality educational material? How can the subjective standard of “comfort” be used to evaluate the educational value of a book?

Debates over free inquiry in education seem never to end. (Consider that the first book banned in Colonial North America mocked the Puritans, who themselves loved nothing more than banning things.) As we approach the question this time around, it seems we might have learned not to ban books under vague laws that empower bigots to hunt down an amorphous enemy so insidious it can lurk anywhere and everywhere. Such laws have their own history, too, in the U.S. and elsewhere. Nowhere have they led to a state of affairs most of us want, one free from violence, bigotry, discrimination and state repression — that is, unless we need such things to make us comfortable.

via Book Riot

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

Stephen Fry on the Power of Words in Nazi Germany: How Dehumanizing Language Laid the Foundation for Genocide

In a recent series of Tweets and a follow-up interview with MEL magazine, legendary alt-rock producer and musician Steve Albini took responsibility for what he saw as his part in creating “edgelord” culture — the jokey, meme-worthy use of racist, misogynist and homophobic slurs that became so normalized it invaded the halls of Congress. “It was genuinely shocking when I realized that there were people in the music underground who weren’t playing when they were using language like that,” he says. “I wish that I knew how serious a threat fascism was in this country…. There was a joke made about the Illinois Nazis in The Blues Brothers. That’s how we all perceived them — as this insignificant, unimportant little joke. I wish that I knew then that authoritarianism in general and fascism specifically were going to become commonplace as an ideology.”

Perhaps, as Stephen Fry explains in the video clip above from his BBC documentary series Planet Word, we might better understand how casual dehumanization leads to fascism and genocide if we see how language has worked in history. The Holocaust, the most prominent but by no means only example of mass murder, could never have happened without the willing participation of what Daniel Goldhagen called “ordinary Germans” in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, about the Final Solution in Poland, makes the point Fry makes above. Cultural factors played their part, but there was nothing innately Teutonic (or “Aryan”) about genocide. “We can all be grown up enough to know that it was humanity doing something to other parts of humanity,” says Fry. We’ve seen examples in our lifetimes in Rwanda, Myanmar, and maybe wherever we live — ordinary humans talked into doing terrible things to other people.

But no matter how often we encounter genocidal movements, it seems like “a massively difficult thing to get your head around,” says Fry: “how ordinary people (and Germans are ordinary people just like us)” could be made to commit atrocities. In the U.S., we have our own version of this — the history of lynching and its attendant industry of postcards and even more grisly memorabilia, like the trophies serial killers collect. “In each one of these genocidal moments… each example was preceded by language being used again and again and again to dehumanize the person that had to be killed in the eyes of their enemies,” says Fry. He briefly elaborates on the varieties of dehumanizing anti-Semitic slurs that became common in the 1930s, referring to Jewish people, for example, as vermin, apes, untermenschen, viruses, “anything but a human being.”

“If you start to characterize [someone this way], week after week after week after week,” says Fry, citing the constant radio broadcasts against the Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide, “you start to think of someone who is slightly sullen and disagreeable and you don’t like very much anyway, and you’re constantly getting the idea that they’re not actually human. Then it seems it becomes possible to do things to them we would call completely unhuman, and inhuman, and lacking humanity.” While it’s absolutely true, he says, that language “guarantees our freedom” through the “free exchange of ideas,” it can really only do that when language users respect others’ rights. When, however, we begin to see “special terms of insult for special kinds of people, then we can see very clearly, and history demonstrates it time and time again, that’s when ordinary people are able to kill.”

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

In 1997, Wired Magazine Predicts 10 Things That Could Go Wrong in the 21st Century: “An Uncontrollable Plague,” Climate Crisis, Russia Becomes a Kleptocracy & More

Hydrogen-powered cars. Biological, then quantum computing. Gene-therapy cancer treatments. An end to the War on Drugs. Reliable automatic translation. The impending end of the nation-state. Man setting foot on Mars. These are just a few of the developments in store for our world by the year 2020 — or so, at any rate, predicts “The Long Boom,” the cover story of a 1997 issue of Wired magazine, the official organ of 1990s techno-optimism. “We’re facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world,” declares the cover itself. “You got a problem with that?”

Since the actual year 2020, this image has been smirkingly re-circulated as a prime example of blinkered End-of-History triumphalism. From the vantage of 2021, it’s fair to say that the predictions of the article’s authors Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden (who expanded their thesis into a 2000 book) went wide of the mark.


But their vision of the 21st century hasn’t proven risible in every aspect: a rising China, hybrid cars, video calls, and online grocery-shopping have become familiar enough hardly to merit comment, as has the internet’s status as “the main medium of the 21st century.” And who among us would describe the cost of university as anything but “absurd”?

Schwartz and Leyden do allow for darker possibilities than their things-can-only-get-better rhetoric make it seem. Some of these they enumerate in a sidebar (remember sidebars?) headlined “Ten Scenario Spoilers.” Though not included in the article as archived on Wired‘s web site, it has recently been scanned and posted to social media, with viral results. A “new Cold War” between the U.S. and China; a “global climate change that, among other things, disrupts the food supply”; a “major rise in crime and terrorism forces the world to pull back in fear”; an “uncontrollable plague — a modern-day influenza epidemic or its equivalent”: to one degree or another, every single one of these ten dire developments seems in our time to have come to pass.

“We’re still on the front edge of the great global boom,” we’re reminded in the piece’s conclusion. “A hell of a lot of things could go wrong.” You don’t say. Yet for all of the 21st-century troubles that few riding the wave of first-dot-com-boom utopianism would have credited, we today run the risk of seeing our world as too dystopian. Now as then, “the vast array of problems to solve and the sheer magnitude of the changes that need to take place are enough to make any global organization give up, any nation back down, any reasonable person curl up in a ball.” We could use a fresh infusion of what Schwartz and Leyden frame as the boom’s key ingredient: American optimism. “Americans don’t understand limits. They have boundless confidence in their ability to solve problems. And they have an amazing capacity to think they really can change the world.” In that particular sense, perhaps we all should become Americans after all.

via Reddit

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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.

Carl Sagan Warns Congress about Climate Change (1985)

Without climate change, we couldn’t inhabit the Earth as we do today. The greenhouse effect, by which gases in a planet’s atmosphere increase the heat of that planet’s surface, “makes life on Earth possible.” So says Carl Sagan in the video above. He adds that without it, the temperature would be about 30 degrees centigrade cooler: “That’s well below the freezing point of water everywhere on the planet. The oceans would be solid.” A little of the climate change induced by the greenhouse effect, then, is a good thing, but “here we are pouring enormous quantities of CO2 and these other gases into the atmosphere every year, with hardly any concern about its long-term and global consequences.”

It’s fair to say that the level of concern has increased since Sagan spoke these words in 1985, when “climate change” wasn’t yet a household term. But even then, his audience was Congress, and his fifteen-minute address, preserved by C-SPAN, remains a succinct and persuasive case for more research into the phenomenon as well as strategies and action to mitigate it.


What audience would expect less from Sagan, who just five years earlier had hosted the hit PBS television series Cosmos, based on his book of the same name. Its broadcast made contagious his enthusiasm for scientific inquiry in general and the nature of the planets in particular. Who could forget, for example, his introduction to the “thoroughly nasty place” that is Venus, research into whose atmosphere Sagan had conducted in the early 1960s?

Venus is “the nearest planet — a planet of about the same mass, radius, density, as the Earth,” Sagan tells Congress, but it has a “surface temperature about 470 degrees centigrade, 900 Fahrenheit.” The reason? “A massive greenhouse effect in which carbon dioxide plays the major role.” As for our planet, estimates then held that, without changes in the rates of fossil fuel-burning and “infrared-absorbing” gases released into the atmosphere, there will be “a several-centigrade-degree temperature increase” on average “by the middle to the end of the next century.” Given the potential effects of such a rise, “if we don’t do the right thing now, there are very serious problems that our children and grandchildren will have to face.” It’s impossible to know how many listeners these words convinced at the time, though they certainly seem to have stuck with a young senator in the room by the name of Al Gore.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

How the World’s First Anti-Vax Movement Started with the First Vaccine for Smallpox in 1796, and Spread Fears of People Getting Turned into Half-Cow Babies

A cartoon from a December 1894 anti-vaccination publication (Courtesy of The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

For well over a century people have queued up to get vaccinated against polio, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, the flu or other epidemic diseases. And they have done so because they were mandated by schools, workplaces, armed forces, and other institutions committed to using science to fight disease. As a result, deadly viral epidemics began to disappear in the developed world. Indeed, the vast majority of people now protesting mandatory vaccinations were themselves vaccinated (by mandate) against polio, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, etc., and hardly any of them have contracted those once-common diseases. The historical argument for vaccines may not be the most scientific (the science is readily available online). But history can act as a reliable guide for understanding patterns of human behavior.

In 1796, Scottish physician Edward Jenner discovered how an injection of cowpox-infected human biological material could make humans immune to smallpox. For the next 100 years after this breakthrough, resistance to inoculation grew into “an enormous mass movement,” says Yale historian of medicine Frank Snowden. “There was a rejection of vaccination on political grounds that it was widely considered as another form of tyranny.”


Fears that injections of cowpox would turn people into mutants with cow-like growths were satirized as early as 1802 by cartoonist James Gilray (below). While the anti-vaccination movement may seem relatively new, the resistance, refusal, and denialism are as old as vaccinations to infectious disease in the West.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

“In the early 19th century, British people finally had access to the first vaccine in history, one that promised to protect them from smallpox, among the deadliest diseases in the era,” writes Jess McHugh at The Washington Post. Smallpox killed around 4,000 people a year in the UK and left hundreds more disfigured or blinded. Nonetheless, “many Britons were skeptical of the vaccine…. The side effects they dreaded were far more terrifying: blindness, deafness, ulcers, a gruesome skin condition called ‘cowpox mange’ — even sprouting hoofs and horns.” Giving a person one disease to frighten off another one probably seemed just as absurd a notion as turning into a human/cow hybrid.

Jenner’s method, called variolation, was outlawed in 1840 as safer vaccinations replaced it. By 1867, all British children up to age 14 were required by law to be vaccinated against smallpox. Widespread outrage resulted, even among prominent physicians and scientists, and continued for decades. “Every day the vaccination laws remain in force,” wrote scientist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1898, “parents are being punished, infants are being killed.” In fact, it was smallpox claiming lives, “more than 400,000 lives per year throughout the 19th century, according to the World Health Organization,” writes Elizabeth Earl at The Atlantic“Epidemic disease was a fact of life at the time.” And so it is again. Covid has killed almost 800,000 people in the U.S. alone over the past two years.

 

Then as now, medical quackery played its part in vaccine refusal — in this case a much larger part. “Never was the lie of ‘the good old days’ more clear than in medicine,” Greig Watson writes at BBC News. “The 1841 UK census suggested a third of doctors were unqualified.” Common causes of illness in an 1848 medical textbook included “wet feet,” “passionate fear or rage,” and “diseased parents.” Among the many fiery lectures, caricatures, and pamphlets issued by opponents of vaccination, one 1805 tract by William Rowley, a member of the Royal College of Physicians, alleged that the injection of cowpox could mar an entire bloodline. “Who would marry into any family, at the risk of their offspring having filthy beastly diseases?” it asked hysterically.

Then, as now, religion was a motivating factor. “One can see it in biblical terms as human beings created in the image of God,” says Snowden. “The vaccination movement injecting into human bodies this material from an inferior animal was seen as irreligious, blasphemous and medically wrong.” Granted, those who volunteered to get vaccinated had to place their faith in the institutions of science and government. After medical scandals of the recent past like the Tuskegee experiments or Thalidomide, that can be a big ask. In the 19th century, says medical historian Kristin Hussey, “people were asking questions about rights, especially working-class rights. There was a sense the upper class were trying to take advantage, a feeling of distrust.”

The deep distrust of institutions now seems intractable and fully endemic in our current political climate, and much of it may be fully warranted. But no virus has evolved — since the time of the Jenner’s first smallpox inoculation — to care about our politics, religious beliefs, or feelings about authority or individual rights. Without widespread vaccination, viruses are more than happy to exploit our lack of immunity, and they do so without pity or compunction.

via Washington Post

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

Bill Gates Lets College Students Download a Free Digital Copy of His Book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

FYI: Earlier this year, Bill Gates published the New York Times bestseller, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. In the book, Gates explains why we need to work toward net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases, and how we can achieve this goal.  Given that this responsibility will eventually fall to a younger generation of leaders, Gates has decided to make a digital copy of his book available to every college and university student in the world.

The book can be downloaded an .epub file which can be opened in a compatible e-reader application on many devices. An email address, along with a name of college/university, is required. Find the book here.

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Why–and When–Did the United States Turn Against Science?: Views from Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Margaret Atwood & More

When did Americans lose the ability to think and act rationally? Or did they ever, on the whole, have such ability? These are the questions at the heart of the Big Think video above, a supercut of interview clips from public intellectuals — Neil DeGrasse, Michael Shermer,  Tyson, Kurt Andersen, Bill Nye, and Margaret Atwood — opining on the state of the nation’s intellectual health. Unsurprisingly, the prognosis is not good, as Carl Sagan predicted over 25 years ago.

Of interest here is the diagnosis: How did the country get to a place where it is unable to defend itself against a deadly virus because millions of citizens refuse to take it seriously? How did Americans let Exxon wreck the climate because millions of Americans refused to believe in human-caused climate change? How did a failed mogul and reality TV star become president? How did Qanon, Pizzagate…. How did any of it happen?

The roots are long and deep, says writer and former host of NPR’s Studio 360, Kurt Andersen, who has spent a significant amount of time thinking about the culture of American irrationalism. On the one hand, “Americans have always been magical thinkers and passionate believers in the untrue,” from the time of the Puritans, who were not persecuted refugees so much as fanatics no one in England could stand. And the problem is even older than the country’s founding, Andersen argues in his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History — it dates to the foundations of the modern world.


On the other hand, and somewhat contradictorily, it was those Puritans again who kept the worst of things in check. “We also have the virtues embodied by the Puritans and their secular descendants,” Andersen writes at The Atlantic: “steadiness, hard work, frugality, sobriety, and common sense” — such virtues as helped build the country’s scientific industries and research institutions, which have been steadily undermined by the relativism of the 1960s (Andersen argues), the effects of the internet, and a series of devastating political choices. The delusional irrationalism was built in — but hyper-individualism and profiteering of the last several decades supercharged it. “The United States used to be the world leader in technology,” says Bill Nye, but no more.

Margaret Atwood, who is Canadian not American, talks mostly about the universal human difficulty of letting go of comforting core beliefs, and the uses the example of the outcry against Darwinian evolution. Yet her very presence in the discussion will make viewers think of her most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which she imagined what lies beneath the supposedly enlightened common sense of the country’s government. The stage was long ago set for a revolution that could easily turn the country against science, she believed.

As Atwood wrote in 2018 of the novel’s genesis: “Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already…. The deep foundation of the United States — so went my thinking — was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the Republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of Church and State, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England — with its marked bias against women — which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.”

Rather than identifying the problems with Puritans or 60s hippies, Neil DeGrasse Tyson — as he has done throughout his career — discusses issues of science education and communication. On both fronts, there has been some improvement. “More journalists who are science fluent… are writing about science than was the case 20 years ago,” he says, “so now I don’t have to worry about the journalist missing something fundamental…. And [science] reporting has been much more accurate in recent years, I’m happy to report.”

But while the internet has amplified our opportunities for scientific literacy, it has also done the opposite, grossly muddying the intellectual waters with misinformation and a competitive need to get the story first. “If it’s not yet verified, it’s not there yet…. So be more open about how wrong the thing you’re reporting on could be, because otherwise you’re doing a disservice to the public. And that disservice is that people out there say, ‘Scientists don’t know anything.'”

There are also those who choose to side with handful of contrarian scientists who disagree with the consensus. “This is irresponsible,” says Tyson. “Plus it means you don’t know how science works.” Or it means you’re looking to confirm biases rather than genuinely take an interest in the scientific process. For all of their insights, the talking head critics in the video fail to mention a primary driver behind so much of the U.S.’s science denialism, a motivation as foundational to the country as the Puritan’s zealotry: profit, at all costs.

Read a transcript of the video here.

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

A Beautifully Illustrated Edition of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, the Bestselling Book by Historian Timothy Snyder

For all its talk of liberty, the US government has practiced dehumanizing authoritarianism and mass murder since its founding. And since the rise of fascism in the early 20th century, it has never been self-evident that it cannot happen here. On the contrary — wrote Yale historian Timothy Snyder before and throughout the Trump presidency — it happened here first, though many would like us to forget. The histories of southern slavocracy and manifest destiny directly informed Hitler’s plans for the German colonization of Europe as much as did Europe’s 20th-century colonization of Africa and Asia.

Snyder is not a scholar of American history, though he has much to say about his country’s present. His work has focused on WWII’s totalitarian regimes and his popular books draw from a “deep knowledge of twentieth-century European history,” write Françoise Mouly and Genevieve Bormes at The New Yorker.


These books include bestsellers like Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and the controversial Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, a book whose arguments, he said, “are clearly not my effort to win a popularity contest.”

Indeed, the problem with rigid conformity to populist ideas became the subject of Snyder’s 2017 bestseller, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, “a slim volume,” Mouly and Bormes note, “which interspersed maxims such as ‘Be kind to our language’ and ‘Defend institutions’ with biographical and historical sketches.” (We posted an abridged version of Snyder’s 20 lessons that year.) On Tyranny became an “instant best-seller… for those who were looking for ways to combat the insidious creep of authoritarianism at home.”

If you’ve paid any attention to the news lately, maybe you’ve noticed that the threat has not receded. Ideas about how to combat anti-democratic movements remain relevant as ever. It’s also important to remember that Snyder’s book dates from a particular moment in time and draws on a particular historical perspective. Contextual details that can get lost in writing come to the fore in images — clothing, cars, the use of color or black and white: these all key us in to the historicity of his observations.

 

“We don’t exist in a vacuum,” says artist Nora Krug, the designer and illustrator of a new, graphic edition of On Tyranny just released this month. “I use a variety of visual styles and techniques to emphasize the fragmentary nature of memory and the emotive effects of historical events.” Krug worked from artifacts she found at flea markets and antique stores, “depositories of our collective consciousness,” as she writes in an introductory note to the new edition.

Krug’s choice of a variety of mediums and creative approaches “allows me to admit,” she says, “that we can only exist in relationship to the past, that everything we think and feel is thought and felt in reference to it, that our future is deeply rooted in our history, and that we will always be active contributors to shaping how the past is viewed and what our future will look like.”

It’s an approach also favored by Snyder, who does not shy away, like many historians, from explicitly making connections between past, present, and possible future events. “It’s easy for historians to say, ‘It’s not our job to write the future,’” he told The New York Times in 2015. “Yes, right. But then whose job is it?” See many more images from the illustrated On Tyranny at The New Yorker and purchase a copy of the book here.

Via Kottke

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

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