The Otherworldly Art of William Blake: An Introduction to the Visionary Poet and Painter

Given his achievements in the realms of both poetry and painting, to say nothing of his compulsions to religious and philosophical inquiry, it’s tempting to call William Blake a “Renaissance man.” But he lived in the England of the mid-eighteenth century to the near mid-nineteenth, making him a Romantic Age man — and in fact, according to the current historical view, one of that era’s defining figures. “Today he is recognized as the most spiritual of artists,” say the narrator of the video introduction above, “and an important poet in English literature.” And whether realized on canvas or in verse, his visions have retained their power over the centuries.

That power, however, went practically unacknowledged in Blake’s lifetime. Most who knew him regarded him as something between an eccentric and a madman, a perception his grandly mystical ideas and vigorous rejection of both institutions and conventions did little to dispel.


Blake didn’t believe that the world is as we see it. Rather, he sought to access much stranger underlying truths using his formidable imagination, exercised both in his art and in his dreams. Cultivating this capacity allows us to “see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.”

Those words come from one of Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.” Despite being one of his best-known poems, it merely hints at the depth and breadth of his worldview — indeed, his view of all existence. His entire corpus, written, painted, and printed, constitutes a kind of atlas of this richly imagined territory to which “The Otherworldly Art of William Blake” provides an overview. Though very much a product of the time and place in which he lived, Blake clearly drew less inspiration from the world around him than from the world inside him. Reality, for him, was to be cultivated — and richly — within his own being. Still today, the chimerical conviction of his work dares us to cultivate the reality within ourselves.

Related content:

Enter an Archive of William Blake’s Fantastical “Illuminated Books”: The Images Are Sublime, and in High Resolution

William Blake’s Paintings Come to Life in Two Animations

William Blake’s Masterpiece Illustrations of the Book of Job (1793-1827)

William Blake’s Hallucinatory Illustrations of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

William Blake Illustrates Mary Wollstonecraft’s Work of Children’s Literature, Original Stories from Real Life (1791)

William Blake: The Remarkable Printing Process of the English Poet, Artist & Visionary

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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Maya Angelou Becomes the First Black Woman Featured on a U.S. Quarter

The US Mint announced that it has “begun shipping the first coins in the American Women Quarters (AWQ) Program.” And it all starts with the outstretched arms of poet Maya Angelou gracing the reverse of the quarter. The Mint writes:

A writer, poet, performer, social activist, and teacher, Angelou rose to international prominence as an author after the publication of her groundbreaking autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Angelou’s published works of verse, non-fiction, and fiction include more than 30 bestselling titles. Her remarkable career encompasses dance, theater, journalism, and social activism. The recipient of more than 30 honorary degrees, Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” at the 1992 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.  Angelou’s reading marked the first time an African American woman wrote and presented a poem at a Presidential inauguration. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and she was the 2013 recipient of the Literarian Award, an honorary National Book Award for contributions to the literary community.

According to NPR, other honorees in the series will include “astronaut Sally Ride; actress Anna May Wong; suffragist and politician Nina Otero-Warren; and Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. The coins featuring the other honorees will be shipped out this year through 2025.”

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Watch Laurie Anderson’s Hypnotic Harvard Lecture Series on Poetry, Meditation, Death, New York & More

These days the term multimedia sounds thoroughly passé, like the apotheosis of the 1990s techno-cultural buzzword. But perhaps it also refers to a dimension of art first opened in that era, of a kind in which trend-chasers dabbled but whose potential they rarely bothered to properly explore. But having established herself as a formally and technologically daring artist long before the 1990s, Laurie Anderson was ideally placed to inhabit the multimedia era. In a way, she’s continued to inhabit it ever since, continually pressing new audiovisual platforms into the service of her signature qualities of expression: contemplative, articulate, highly digressive, and finally hypnotic.

Anderson’s commitment to this enterprise has brought her no few honors. Biographies often mention her time as NASA’s first (and, it seems, last) artist-in-residence; more recently, she was named Harvard University’s 2021 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. This position entails the delivery of the Charles Eliot Norton Lecture, a series meant to deal with poetry “in the broadest sense,” encompassing “all poetic expression in language, music, or the fine arts.”


Norton lecturers previously featured here on Open Culture include Leonard Bernstein, Herbie Hancock, and Jorge Luis Borges. “I am pretty sure that the Norton committee at Harvard made an enormous mistake when they asked me to do this lecture series,” Anderson told the Harvard Gazette, “and it was really my own sense of the absurd that made me want to say yes.”

Few could seriously have doubted Anderson’s ability to rise to the occasion. She did, however, face a unique challenge in the history of the Norton Lectures: delivering them on Zoom, that now-ubiquitous video-conferencing application of the COVID-19 era. Despite belonging to a generation not all of whose members demonstrate great proficiency with such technologies, Anderson herself appears to have taken to Zoom like the proverbial duck to water. Such, at least, is the impression given by “Spending the War Without You: Virtual Backgrounds,” her six-part Norton Lecture series now available to watch on Youtube. Its subtitle hints at one feature of Zoom of which she makes rich use — but hardly the only feature.

Throughout “Spending the War Without You,” Anderson also superimposes a variety of virtual faces over her own: Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, Loni Anderson, and even her musical collaborator Brian Eno. This sort of thing wouldn’t have been possible even in the longtime fantasy she cites as an inspiration for these lectures: hosting a radio show at 4:00 a.m., “a time when reality and dreams just sort of merge and it’s hard to tell the difference between them.” That’s just the right headspace in which to listen to Anderson make her elegantly spaced-out way through such topics as her life in New York, tai chi and meditation, language as a virus, the death of John Lennon, the culture of the internet, Catherine the Great, the combination of sound and image, The Wind in the Willows, non-fungible tokens, and American cheese. Taking advantage of her digital medium, she also plays the violin, explores virtual realms, and dances alongside her younger self.

The collision of all these elements feels not unlike Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, Nam June Paik’s television broadcast of New Year’s Day 1984. Anderson also took part in that project, sharing with Paik an artistic willingness to embrace new media. “I’ve almost always been a wirehead,” she says in these lectures 38 years later. “But it’s become a nightmare in some ways, with people attached now to their devices, with a death grip on their phones. At the same time, it’s the same machine that created celebrity culture.” Looking back on a “humiliating” clip of herself and Peter Gabriel performing on Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, she recalls her state of mind during the commercial and technological onrush of the 1980s: “Everything was moving fast, and I just wasn’t thinking. That’s my excuse, anyway.” See the full lecture series here, or up top. The lectures will be added to our collection: 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967-8 Norton Lectures On Poetry (And Everything Else Literary)

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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.

Witness Maya Angelou & James Baldwin’s Close Friendship in a TV Interview from 1975

In the mid-50s, Maya Angelou accepted a role as a chorus member in an international touring production of the opera, Porgy and Bess:

I wanted to travel, to try to speak other languages, to see the cities I had read about all my life, but most important, I wanted to be with a large, friendly group of Black people who sang so gloriously and lived with such passion.

On a stopover in Paris, she met James Baldwin, who she remembered as “small and hot (with) the movements of a dancer.”

The two shared a love of poetry and the arts, a deep curiosity about life, and a passionate commitment to Black rights and culture. They forged a connection that would last the rest of their lives.


In 1968, when Angelou despaired over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin did what he could to lift her spirits, including escorting her to a dinner party where she captivated the other guests with her anecdotal storytelling, paving a path to her celebrated first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The book wouldn’t have been written, however, without some discreet behind-the-scenes meddling by Baldwin.

Angelou considered herself a poet and a playwright, and resisted repeated attempts by fellow dinner party guest, Random House editor Robert Loomis, to secure her autobiography.

As Angelou later discovered, Baldwin counseled Loomis that a different strategy would produce the desired result. His dear friend might not conceive of herself as a memoirist, but would almost assuredly respond to reverse psychology, for instance, a statement that no autobiography could compete as literature.

As Angelou recalled:

I said, ‘Well, hmmm, maybe I’ll try it.’ The truth is that (Loomis) had talked to James Baldwin, my brother friend, and Jimmy told him that ‘if you want Maya Angelou to do something, tell her she can’t do it.’

“This testimony from a Black sister marks the beginning of a new era in the minds and hearts and lives of all Black men and women,” Baldwin enthused upon its publication.

They became siblings of affinity. Witness their easy rapport on the 1975 episode of Assignment America, above.

Every episode centered on someone who had made an important contribution to the ideas and issues of America, and Angelou, who alternated hosting duties with psycho-historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, columnist George Will, and oral historian Studs Terkel, landed an extremely worthy subject in Baldwin.

Their friendship made good on the promise of her hopes for that European tour of Porgy and Bess.

Their candid discussion covers a lot of overlapping ground: love, death, race, aging, sexual identity, success, writing, and the closeness of Baldwin’s family — whom Angelou adored.

Those of us in the generations who came after, who became acquainted with Angelou, the commanding, supremely dignified elder stateswoman, commanding more authority and respect than any official Poet Laureate, may be surprised to see her MO as interviewer, giggling and teasing, functioning as the chorus in a room where code switching is most definitely not a thing:

Baldwin: I think…the only way to live is knowing you’re going to die. If you’re afraid to die, you’ll never be able to live. 

Angelou: Hey, hey!

Baldwin: You know. 

Angelou: Hey, hey.

Baldwin: And nobody knows anything about that. 

Angelou: Yes, yes, yes.

She poses great questions, and listens without interrupting to her friend’s thoughtfully composed answers, for instance, his description of his family’s response to his decision to base himself in France, far from their Harlem home:

Sweetheart, you have to understand, um, you have to understand what happens to my mother’s telephone when I’m in town. People will call up and say what they will do to me. It doesn’t make me shut up. You, you also gotta remember that I’ve been writing, after all, between assassinations. If you were my mother or my brother, you would think, who’s next?

There’s a lot of food for thought in that reply. The familiar connection between interviewer and subject, both towering figures of American literature, brings a truly rare dimension, as when Angelou shares how Baldwin’s older brothers would reserve a part of the proceeds from selling coal in the winter and ice in the summer to send to Baldwin:

In France! I mean to think of a Black American family in Harlem, who had no pretensions to great literature… and to have the oldest boy leave home and go to Paris, France, and then for them to save up enough pennies and nickels and dimes to send a check of $150 to him, in Paris, France!

Baldwin: That’s what people, that’s what people don’t really know about us. 

Angelou: One of the things I think, I mean I believe that we are America. It is true. 

Baldwin: You believe it? 

Angelou: Well. 

Baldwin: I know it. 

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

Sylvia Plath’s Tarot Cards (Which Influenced the Poems in Ariel) Were Just Sold for $207,000

We celebrated my birthday yesterday: [Ted] gave me a lovely Tarot pack of cards and a dear rhyme with it, so after the obligations of this term are over your daughter shall start her way on the road to becoming a seeress & will also learn how to do horoscopes, a very difficult art which means reviving my elementary math. 

– Sylvia Plath, in a letter to her mother, 28 October 1956

Sylvia Plath’s Tarot cards, a 24th birthday present from her husband, poet Ted Hughes, just went for £151,200 in an auction at Sotheby’s.

That’s approximately £100,000 more than this lot, a Tarot de Marseille deck printed by playing card manufacturer B.P. Grimaud de Paris, was expected to fetch.

The auction house’s description indicates that a few of the cards were discolored —  evidence of use, as supported by Plath’s numerous references to Tarot in her journals.


Recall Tarot’s appearance in “Daddy,” her most widely known poem, and her identification with the Hanging Man card, in a poem of the same name:

By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.

I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

The nights snapped out of sight like a lizard’s eyelid :

A world of bald white days in a shadeless socket.

A vulturous boredom pinned me in this tree.

If he were I, he would do what I did.

This century has seen her collection Ariel restored to its author’s intended order.
The original order is said to correspond quite closely to Tarot, with the first twenty-two poems symbolizing the cards of the Major Arcana.

The next ten are aligned with the numbers of the Minor Arcana. Those are followed by four representing the Court cards. The collection’s final four poems can be seen to reference the pentacles, cups, swords and wands that comprise the Tarot’s suits.

Ariel’s manuscript was rearranged by Hughes, who dropped some of the “more lacerating” poems and added others in advance of its 1965 publication, two years after Plath’s death by suicide. (Hear Plath read poems from Ariel here.)

Daughter Frieda defends her father’s actions and describes how damaging they were to his reputation in her Foreword to Ariel: The Restored Edition.

One wonders if it’s significant that Plath’s Page of Cups, a card associated with positive messages related to family and loved ones, has a rip in it?

We also wonder who paid such a staggering price for those cards.

Will they give the deck a moon bath or salt burial to cleanse it of Plath’s negative energy?

Or is the winning bidder such a diehard fan, the chance to handle something so intimately connecting them to their literary hero neutralizes any occult misgivings?

We rather wish Plath’s Tarot de Marseille had been awarded to Phillip Roberts in Shipley, England, who planned to exhibit them alongside her tarot-influenced poems in a pop up gallery at the Saltaire Festival. To finance this dream, he launched a crowd-funding campaign, pledging that every £100 donor could keep one of the cards, to be drawn at random, with all contributors invited to submit new art or writing to the mini-exhibition: Save Sylvia Plath’s cards from living in the drawers of some wealthy collector, and let’s make some art together!

Alas, Roberts and friends fell  £148,990 short of the winning bid. Better luck next time, mate. We applaud your graciousness in defeat, as well as the spirit in which your project was conceived.

via Lithub

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

Ethan Hawke Explains How to Give Yourself Permission to Be Creative

The most creative people, you’ll notice, throw themselves into what they do with absurd, even reckless abandon. They commit, no matter their doubts about their talents, education, finances, etc. They have to. They are generally fighting not only their own misgivings, but also those of friends, family, critics, financiers, and landlords. Artists who work to realize their own vision, rather than someone else’s, face a witheringly high probability of failure, or the kind of success that comes with few material rewards. One must be willing to take the odds, and to renounce, says Ethan Hawke in the short TED talk above, the need for validation or approval.

This is hard news for people pleasers and seekers after fame and reputation, but in order to overcome the inevitable social obstacles, artists must be willing, says Hawke, to play the fool. He takes as his example Allen Ginsberg, who appeared on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in May of 1968 and, rather than answer Buckley’s charge that his political positions were “naive,” pulled out a harmonium and proceeded to sing the Hare Krishna chant (“the most unharried Krishna I’ve ever heard,” Buckley remarked). Upon arriving home to New York, says Hawke, Ginsberg was met by people who were aghast at what he’d done, feeling that he made himself a clown for middle America.


Ginsberg was unbothered. He was willing to be “America’s holy fool,” as Vivian Gornick called him, if it meant interrupting the constant stream of advertising and propaganda and making Americans stop to wonder “who is this stupid poet?”

Who is this person so willing to chant at William F. Buckley for “the preservation of the universe, instead of its destruction”? What might he have to say to my secret wishes? This is what artists do, says Hawke, take risks to express emotions, by whatever means are at hand. It is the essence of Ginsberg’s view of creativity, to let go of judgment, as he once told a writing student:

Judge it later. You’ll have plenty of time to judge it. You have all your life to judge it and revise it! You don’t have to judge it on the spot there. What rises, respect it. Respect what rises….

Judge your own work later, if you must, but whatever you do, Hawke advises above, don’t stake your worth on the judgments of others. The creative life requires committing instead to the value of human creativity for its own sake, with a childlike intensity that doesn’t apologize for itself or ask permission to come to the surface.

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

Three Leonard Cohen Animations

Leonard Cohen, High Priest Of Pathos…

     Lord Byron of Rock and Roll…

          Gentleman Zen

                Master Of Misery…Morbidity… Erotic Despair…

                    Prince of Pessimism…Pain…

                         Troubadour For Troubled Souls…

The gravel-voiced singer-songwriter accumulated hundreds of nicknames over a career spanning more than half a century. He wasn’t thrilled by some of them, remarking to the BBC, “You get tired, over the years, hearing that you’re the champion of gloom.”

Taken all together, however, they make for a decent composite portrait of a prolific artist whose sensuality, mordant wit, and obsession with love, loss, and redemption never wavered.


He took some hiatuses, including a 5-year stint as a monk in California’s Mount Baldy monastery, but never retired.

His final studio album, You Want It Darker, was released mere weeks before his death.

Journalist Rob Sheffield articulated the Cohen mystique in a Rolling Stone eulogy:

This man was both the crack in everything and the light that gets in. Nobody wrote such magnificently bleak ballads for brooding alone in the dark, staring at a window or wall – “Joan of Arc,” “Chelsea Hotel,” “Tower of Song,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Closing Time.” He was music’s top Jewish Canadian ladies’ man before Drake was born, running for the money and the flesh. Like Bowie and Prince, he tapped into his own realm of spiritual and sexual gnosis, and like them, he went out at the peak of his musical powers. No songwriter ever adapted to old age with more cunning or gusto. 

Cohen also excelled at interviews, leaving behind a wealth of generous, freewheeling recordings, at least three of which have become fodder for animators.

The animation at the top of the page is drawn from Cohen’s 1966 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Adrienne Clarkson, shortly after the release of his experimental novel, Beautiful Losers. (His debut album was still a year and a half away.)

Earlier in the interview, Cohen mentions the “happy revolution” he encountered in Toronto after an extended period on the Greek island of Hydra:

I was walking on Yorkville Street and it was jammed with beautiful, beautiful people last night. I thought maybe it could spread to the [other] streets and maybe even … where’s the money district? Bay Street?… I thought maybe they could take that over soon, too.

How to tap into the source of all this happiness?

The future Zen monk Cohen was pretty convinced it could be located by sitting quietly, though he doesn’t condemn those using drugs or alcohol as an assist, explaining that his fellow Canadian, abstract expressionist Harold Town, “gets beautiful under alcohol. I get stupid and generally throw up.”

8 years later, WBAI’s Kathleen Kendel came armed with a poem for Cohen to read on air, and also plumbed him as to the origins of “Sisters of Mercy,” one of his best known songs, and the only one that didn’t require him to “sweat over every word.” (Possibly the consolation prize for his dashed hopes of erotic adventure with the song’s protagonists.)

(The animation here is by Patrick Smith for PBS’ Blank on Blank series.)

Animator Joe Donaldson riffs on an excerpt from Cohen’s final major interview, with The New Yorker’s editor-in-chief, David Remnick, above.

Remnick recalled that his subject, who died a few days later, was “in an ebullient mood for a man… who knew exactly where he was going, and he was headed there in a hurry. And at the same time, he was incredibly gracious.”

The 82-year-old Cohen spoke enthusiastically if somewhat pessimistically about having a lot of new material to get through, “to put (his) house in order,” but also admitted, “sometimes I just need to lie down.”

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

RIP Radical Poet and Revolutionary Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti proclaimed on the wall of his City Lights bookstore, a San Francisco fixture since the poet, activist, and publisher founded the landmark with Peter D. Martin in 1953. Ferlinghetti, who died on Monday at age 101, was himself a fixture, a venerated steward of the counterculture. (See him read “Last Prayer,” above, in a clip from The Last Waltz). On his 100th birthday–on which the city instituted an annual “Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day”–Chloe Veltman interviewed him, describing the poet as “frail and nearly blind… but his mind is still on fire.” It was the same mind that started a publishing house in the 50s with the intent to stir an “international dissident ferment.”

Ferlinghetti and Martin started their bookstore with a mission: “to break literature out of its stuffy, academic cage,” Veltman writes, out of “its self-centered focus on what he calls ‘the me me me,’ and make it accessible to all.” City Lights was the first all-paperback bookstore, opened at a time, he says, when “paperbacks weren’t considered real books.”


For Ferlinghetti, literature and democracy were not separate pursuits. The idea was radical, and so were his patrons. “A bookstore is a natural place for poets to hang out,” Ferlinghetti told NPR’s Tom Vitale, “and they started showing up there”–“They” being East Coast Beats like Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the great, unsung Bob Kaufman.

Like a Northern California Shakespeare and Company, Ferlinghetti’s City Lights became the physical embodiment of a literary movement, especially after the infamous publication of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl and Other Poems, for which Ferlinghetti stood trial for obscenity, an event that “propelled the Beat generation into the international spotlight,” writes Evan Karp. “For the first and–arguably–only time, literature became a popular movement in the U.S.” Young people around the country realized that poetry was relevant to their politics (and lives), and vice versa.

Ferlinghetti published his own first book of poetry, Pictures of the Gone World, in the same year he published Ginsberg’s, but he has not received his critical due alongside the other Beats, despite the fact that his second book, 1958’s A Coney Island of the Mind, “sold more than 1 million copies over the year, ranking perhaps second to Howl as the most popular book of modern American poetry,” Fred Kaplan notes at Slate. (See him read the book’s first poem, “In Goya’s Greatest Scenes We Seem to See…,” from his City Lights office, above.)

Ferlinghetti himself never wanted to be identified with the movement. In a 2013 documentary, he emphatically says, “don’t call me a Beat. I was never a Beat poet.” He described his poetry as an “insurgent art”:

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of

apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words….

His purpose, he writes, was to pierce a culture he calls “a freeway fifty lanes wide / a concrete continent / spaced with bland billboards / illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness.” From his Navy service in WWII–in which he saw the aftermath of Nagasaki weeks after the dropping of the atomic bombs–to the last days of the Trump administration, he kept his keen eye on America’s abuses. His “poetry is notoriously critical of politicians and the status quo,” Karp writes, and he was “unafraid to name names and take stances publicly” as a writer and a lifelong activist.

“Gerald Nicosia, the critic,” Vitale points out, “says Ferlinghetti’s two greatest accomplishments were fighting censorship, and inaugurating a small press revolution.” What did Ferlinghetti himself think of his place in the culture? “In Plato’s republic, poets were considered subversive, a danger to the republic,” he told The New York Times in 1998. “I kind of relish that role.” As for what might finally shake the country out of the anti-democratic spirit that has held its people hostage to corporations and a hostile government, he was not sanguine: “It would take a whole new generation not devoted to the glorification of the capitalist system,” he said. “A generation not trapped in the me, me, me.”

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

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