P.J. O’Rourke (RIP) Explains Why You Can Never Win Over Your Political Adversaries by Mocking Them

Don­ald Trump, as his sup­port­ers and detrac­tors alike can agree, is immune to humor. All the par­o­dy, satire, ridicule, and insult with which he was cease­less­ly bom­bard­ed dur­ing his four years as the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca had, to a first approx­i­ma­tion, no effect what­so­ev­er. If any­thing, it just made him more pow­er­ful. “There has been tremen­dous scorn for and fun made of Trump, and indeed Trump sup­port­ers,” says the late humorist P.J. O’Rourke in the clip above from a 2106 Intel­li­gence Squared event. But “when you are angry at the estab­lish­ment, and you see the estab­lish­ment not just dis­agree­ing with your can­di­date but mock­ing your can­di­date, there is an ele­ment that says, ‘They’re mock­ing me.’ ”

As a result, “every time you went out to make fun of Trump, you increased his sup­port, because peo­ple were feel­ing scorned.” The result of the 2016 elec­tion, which hap­pened the next month, would seem to have borne this out. “When peo­ple feel they are out­siders,” O’Rourke says, “you can­not con­vince them by mock­ing them.” This may, at first, sound some­what rich com­ing from a writer who spent half a cen­tu­ry turn­ing every­thing that so much as approached the world of pol­i­tics into joke mate­r­i­al. But O’Rourke did­n’t engage in mock­ery, per se; rather, he straight­for­ward­ly observed that which came before him. “Humor isn’t about being fun­ny,” he once said in anoth­er inter­view. “It’s about putting emo­tion­al dis­tance between your­self and the pat­terns of human behav­ior.”

I’ve long kept that obser­va­tion in mind, as I have so much else O’Rourke wrote and said. If any one thing made me a writer, it was all the fif­teen-minute breaks from my high-school job at the Gap I spent read­ing his books at the Bor­ders on the oth­er side of the mall. I took a rebel­lious plea­sure, at that age and at that time, in get­ting laughs from the work of a writer who was clear­ly not a man of the left. Or rather, a writer who was for­mer­ly a man of the left: a self-con­fessed 1960s hip­pie, he like many of the Baby Boom gen­er­a­tion under­went a polit­i­cal con­ver­sion after notic­ing the deduc­tions from his pay­check. “I’d been strug­gling for years to achieve social­ism in Amer­i­ca,” goes one of his oft-quot­ed lines, “only to dis­cov­er that we had it already.”

Yet O’Rourke was nev­er a doc­tri­naire right-winger. Forged at the Nation­al Lam­poon (for which he wrote the well known piece “How to Dri­ve Fast on Drugs While Get­ting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink”) he emerged as a 1980s lib­er­tar­i­an-lib­er­tine. In recent decades, dur­ing which he often appeared as a con­vivial polit­i­cal out­sider on shows like Nation­al Pub­lic Radio’s Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me, he shift­ed to the ter­ri­to­ry ref­er­enced in the title of his last book, 2020’s A Cry from the Far Mid­dle. In the video above he reads its intro­duc­tion, a dis­patch from a time of not just “moron pop­ulism and idiot par­ti­san­ship” but also a “griev­ous health cri­sis, lock­down iso­la­tion, eco­nom­ic col­lapse, and mate­r­i­al depri­va­tion.” Once a wise­crack­ing cor­re­spon­dent from the world’s trou­ble spots, he knew to bet that even in Amer­i­ca, “human nature will tri­umph over adver­si­ty and chal­lenge. And I don’t mean that in a good way.”

You can read O’Rourke’s obit­u­ary here.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky on Whether the Rise of Trump Resem­bles the Rise of Fas­cism in 1930s Ger­many

Come­di­ans Speak­ing Truth to Pow­er: Lenny Bruce, George Car­lin & Richard Pry­or (NSFW)

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

Mon­ty Python’s John Cleese Wor­ries That Polit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness Will Lead Us into a Humor­less World, Rem­i­nis­cent of Orwell’s 1984

Bill Hicks’ 12 Prin­ci­ples of Com­e­dy

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.

Read the CIA’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual: A Timeless Guide to Subverting Any Organization with “Purposeful Stupidity” (1944)

I’ve always admired peo­ple who can suc­cess­ful­ly nav­i­gate what I refer to as “Kafka’s Cas­tle,” a term of dread for the many gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate agen­cies that have an inor­di­nate amount of pow­er over our per­ma­nent records, and that seem as inscrutable and chill­ing­ly absurd as the labyrinth the char­ac­ter K nav­i­gates in Kafka’s last alle­gor­i­cal nov­el. Even if you haven’t read The Cas­tle, if you work for such an entity—or like all of us have reg­u­lar deal­ings with the IRS, the health­care and bank­ing sys­tem, etc.—you’re well aware of the dev­il­ish incom­pe­tence that mas­quer­ades as due dili­gence and ties us all in knots. Why do mul­ti-mil­lion and bil­lion dol­lar agen­cies seem unable, or unwill­ing, to accom­plish the sim­plest of tasks? Why do so many of us spend our lives in the real-life bureau­crat­ic night­mares sat­i­rized in the The Office and Office Space?

One answer comes via Lau­rence J. Peter’s 1969 satire The Peter Prin­ci­ple—which offers the the­o­ry that man­agers and exec­u­tives get pro­mot­ed to the lev­el of their incompetence—then, David Brent-like, go on to ruin their respec­tive depart­ments. The Har­vard Busi­ness Review summed up dis­turb­ing recent research con­firm­ing and sup­ple­ment­ing Peter’s insights into the nar­cis­sism, over­con­fi­dence, or actu­al sociopa­thy of many a gov­ern­ment and busi­ness leader. But in addi­tion to human fail­ings, there’s anoth­er pos­si­ble rea­son for bureau­crat­ic dis­or­der; the con­spir­a­cy-mind­ed among us may be for­giv­en for assum­ing that in many cas­es, insti­tu­tion­al incom­pe­tence is the result of delib­er­ate sab­o­tage from both above and below. The ridicu­lous inner work­ings of most orga­ni­za­tions cer­tain­ly make a lot more sense when viewed in the light of one set of instruc­tions for “pur­pose­ful stu­pid­i­ty,” name­ly the once top-secret Sim­ple Sab­o­tage Field Man­u­al, writ­ten in 1944 by the CIA’s pre­cur­sor, the Office of Strate­gic Ser­vices (OSS).

Now declas­si­fied and freely avail­able on the Home­land Secu­ri­ty web­site, the man­u­al the agency describes as “sur­pris­ing­ly rel­e­vant” was once dis­trib­uted to OSS offi­cers abroad to assist them in train­ing “cit­i­zen-sabo­teurs” in occu­pied coun­tries like Nor­way and France. Such peo­ple, writes Rebec­ca Onion at Slate, “might already be sab­o­tag­ing mate­ri­als, machin­ery, or oper­a­tions of their own ini­tia­tive,” but may have lacked the devi­ous tal­ent for sow­ing chaos that only an intel­li­gence agency can prop­er­ly mas­ter. Gen­uine lazi­ness, arro­gance, and mind­less­ness may sure­ly be endem­ic. But the Field Man­u­al asserts that “pur­pose­ful stu­pid­i­ty is con­trary to human nature” and requires a par­tic­u­lar set of skills. The cit­i­zen-sabo­teur “fre­quent­ly needs pres­sure, stim­u­la­tion or assur­ance, and infor­ma­tion and sug­ges­tions regard­ing fea­si­ble meth­ods of sim­ple sab­o­tage.”

You can read and down­load the full doc­u­ment here. To get a sense of just how “timeless”—according to the CIA itself—such instruc­tions remain, see the abridged list below, cour­tesy of Busi­ness Insid­er. You will laugh rue­ful­ly, then maybe shud­der a lit­tle as you rec­og­nize how much your own work­place, and many oth­ers, resem­ble the kind of dys­func­tion­al mess the OSS metic­u­lous­ly planned dur­ing World War II.

Orga­ni­za­tions and Con­fer­ences

  • Insist on doing every­thing through “chan­nels.” Nev­er per­mit short-cuts to be tak­en in order to expe­dite deci­sions.
  • Make “speech­es.” Talk as fre­quent­ly as pos­si­ble and at great length. Illus­trate your “points” by long anec­dotes and accounts of per­son­al expe­ri­ences.
  • When pos­si­ble, refer all mat­ters to com­mit­tees, for “fur­ther study and con­sid­er­a­tion.” Attempt to make the com­mit­tee as large as pos­si­ble — nev­er less than five.
  • Bring up irrel­e­vant issues as fre­quent­ly as pos­si­ble.
  • Hag­gle over pre­cise word­ings of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, min­utes, res­o­lu­tions.
  • Refer back to mat­ters decid­ed upon at the last meet­ing and attempt to re-open the ques­tion of the advis­abil­i­ty of that deci­sion.
  • Advo­cate “cau­tion.” Be “rea­son­able” and urge your fel­low-con­fer­ees to be “rea­son­able” and avoid haste which might result in embar­rass­ments or dif­fi­cul­ties lat­er on.


  • In mak­ing work assign­ments, always sign out the unim­por­tant jobs first. See that impor­tant jobs are assigned to inef­fi­cient work­ers.
  • Insist on per­fect work in rel­a­tive­ly unim­por­tant prod­ucts; send back for refin­ish­ing those which have the least flaw.
  • To low­er morale and with it, pro­duc­tion, be pleas­ant to inef­fi­cient work­ers; give them unde­served pro­mo­tions.
  • Hold con­fer­ences when there is more crit­i­cal work to be done.
  • Mul­ti­ply the pro­ce­dures and clear­ances involved in issu­ing instruc­tions, pay checks, and so on. See that three peo­ple have to approve every­thing where one would do.


  • Work slow­ly
  • Work slow­ly.
  • Con­trive as many inter­rup­tions to your work as you can.
  • Do your work poor­ly and blame it on bad tools, machin­ery, or equip­ment. Com­plain that these things are pre­vent­ing you from doing your job right.
  • Nev­er pass on your skill and expe­ri­ence to a new or less skill­ful work­er.

Note: This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on our site in Decem­ber 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The CIA’s Style Man­u­al & Writer’s Guide: 185 Pages of Tips for Writ­ing Like a Spook

The C.I.A.’s “Bes­tiary of Intel­li­gence Writ­ing” Sat­i­rizes Spook Jar­gon with Mau­rice Sendak-Style Draw­ings

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

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Toni Morrison Lists the 10 Steps That Lead Countries to Fascism (1995)

Image by Angela Rad­ules­cu, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

The term fas­cism gets thrown around a great deal these days, not always with high regard to con­sis­ten­cy of mean­ing. Much like Orwellian, it now seems often to func­tion pri­mar­i­ly as a label for whichev­er polit­i­cal devel­op­ments the speak­er does­n’t like. Even back in the 1940s, Orwell him­self took to the Tri­bune in an attempt to pin down what had already become a “much-abused word.” Half a cen­tu­ry lat­er, the ques­tion of what fas­cism actu­al­ly is and how exact­ly it works was addressed by anoth­er nov­el­ist, and one of a seem­ing­ly quite dif­fer­ent sen­si­bil­i­ty: Toni Mor­ri­son, author of The Bluest Eye and Beloved.

Fas­cism tends to come along with evo­ca­tion of Nazi Ger­many. In her 1995 Char­ter Day address at Howard Uni­ver­si­ty, Mor­ri­son, too, brought out the specter of Hitler and his “final solu­tion.” But “let us be remind­ed that before there is a final solu­tion, there must be a first solu­tion, a sec­ond one, even a third. The move toward a final solu­tion is not a jump. It takes one step, then anoth­er, then anoth­er.” She pro­ceed­ed to lay out a haunt­ing hypo­thet­i­cal series of such steps as fol­lows:

  1. Con­struct an inter­nal ene­my, as both focus and diver­sion.
  2. Iso­late and demo­nize that ene­my by unleash­ing and pro­tect­ing the utter­ance of overt and cod­ed name-call­ing and ver­bal abuse. Employ ad hominem attacks as legit­i­mate charges against that ene­my.
  3. Enlist and cre­ate sources and dis­trib­u­tors of infor­ma­tion who are will­ing to rein­force the demo­niz­ing process because it is prof­itable, because it grants pow­er and because it works.
  4. Pal­isade all art forms; mon­i­tor, dis­cred­it or expel those that chal­lenge or desta­bi­lize process­es of demo­niza­tion and deifi­ca­tion.
  5. Sub­vert and malign all rep­re­sen­ta­tives of and sym­pa­thiz­ers with this con­struct­ed ene­my.
  6. Solic­it, from among the ene­my, col­lab­o­ra­tors who agree with and can san­i­tize the dis­pos­ses­sion process.
  7. Pathol­o­gize the ene­my in schol­ar­ly and pop­u­lar medi­ums; recy­cle, for exam­ple, sci­en­tif­ic racism and the myths of racial supe­ri­or­i­ty in order to nat­u­ral­ize the pathol­o­gy.
  8. Crim­i­nal­ize the ene­my. Then pre­pare, bud­get for and ratio­nal­ize the build­ing of hold­ing are­nas for the ene­my-espe­cial­ly its males and absolute­ly its chil­dren.
  9. Reward mind­less­ness and apa­thy with mon­u­men­tal­ized enter­tain­ments and with lit­tle plea­sures, tiny seduc­tions, a few min­utes on tele­vi­sion, a few lines in the press, a lit­tle pseu­do-suc­cess, the illu­sion of pow­er and influ­ence, a lit­tle fun, a lit­tle style, a lit­tle con­se­quence.
  10. Main­tain, at all costs, silence.

Like any good sto­ry­teller, Mor­ri­son stokes our imag­i­na­tion while turn­ing us toward an exam­i­na­tion of our own con­di­tion. Over the past quar­ter-cen­tu­ry, many of the ten­den­cies she describes have arguably become more pro­nounced in polit­i­cal and media envi­ron­ments around the world. A 21st-cen­tu­ry read­er may be giv­en par­tic­u­lar pause by step num­ber nine. Since the 1990s, and espe­cial­ly in Mor­rison’s home­land of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, most enter­tain­ments have only grown more mon­u­men­tal, and most plea­sures have only shrunk.

Lat­er in her speech, Mor­ri­son fore­sees a time ahead “when our fears have all been seri­al­ized, our cre­ativ­i­ty cen­sured, our ideas ‘mar­ket-placed,’ our rights sold, our intel­li­gence slo­ga­nized, our strength down­sized, our pri­va­cy auc­tioned; when the the­atri­cal­i­ty, the enter­tain­ment val­ue, the mar­ket­ing of life is com­plete.” Few of us here in 2022, what­ev­er our polit­i­cal per­sua­sion, could argue that her pre­dic­tions were entire­ly unfound­ed. Few­er still have a clear answer to the ques­tion what to do when we “find our­selves liv­ing not in a nation but in a con­sor­tium of indus­tries, and whol­ly unin­tel­li­gi­ble to our­selves except for what we see as through a screen dark­ly.”

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

The Sto­ry of Fas­cism: Rick Steves’ Doc­u­men­tary Helps Us Learn from the Hard Lessons of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

Yale Pro­fes­sor Jason Stan­ley Iden­ti­fies 10 Tac­tics of Fas­cism: The “Cult of the Leader,” Law & Order, Vic­tim­hood and More

Hear Toni Mor­ri­son (RIP) Present Her Nobel Prize Accep­tance Speech on the Rad­i­cal Pow­er of Lan­guage (1993)

Why Should You Read Toni Morrison’s Beloved? An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

George Orwell Tries to Iden­ti­fy Who Is Real­ly a “Fas­cist” and Define the Mean­ing of This “Much-Abused Word” (1944)

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.

Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments for Living in a Healthy Democracy

russell rules 2

Image by J. F. Horra­bin, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Bertrand Rus­sell saw the his­to­ry of civ­i­liza­tion as being shaped by an unfor­tu­nate oscil­la­tion between two oppos­ing evils: tyran­ny and anar­chy, each of which con­tain the seed of the oth­er. The best course for steer­ing clear of either one, Rus­sell main­tained, is lib­er­al­ism.

“The doc­trine of lib­er­al­ism is an attempt to escape from this end­less oscil­la­tion,” writes Rus­sell in A His­to­ry of West­ern Phi­los­o­phy. “The essence of lib­er­al­ism is an attempt to secure a social order not based on irra­tional dog­ma [a fea­ture of tyran­ny], and insur­ing sta­bil­i­ty [which anar­chy under­mines] with­out involv­ing more restraints than are nec­es­sary for the preser­va­tion of the com­mu­ni­ty.”

In 1951 Rus­sell pub­lished an arti­cle in The New York Times Mag­a­zine, “The Best Answer to Fanaticism–Liberalism,” with the sub­ti­tle: “Its calm search for truth, viewed as dan­ger­ous in many places, remains the hope of human­i­ty.” In the arti­cle, Rus­sell writes that “Lib­er­al­ism is not so much a creed as a dis­po­si­tion. It is, indeed, opposed to creeds.” He con­tin­ues:

But the lib­er­al atti­tude does not say that you should oppose author­i­ty. It says only that you should be free to oppose author­i­ty, which is quite a dif­fer­ent thing. The essence of the lib­er­al out­look in the intel­lec­tu­al sphere is a belief that unbi­ased dis­cus­sion is a use­ful thing and that men should be free to ques­tion any­thing if they can sup­port their ques­tion­ing by sol­id argu­ments. The oppo­site view, which is main­tained by those who can­not be called lib­er­als, is that the truth is already known, and that to ques­tion it is nec­es­sar­i­ly sub­ver­sive.

Rus­sell crit­i­cizes the rad­i­cal who would advo­cate change at any cost. Echo­ing the philoso­pher John Locke, who had a pro­found influ­ence on the authors of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence and the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, Rus­sell writes:

The teacher who urges doc­trines sub­ver­sive to exist­ing author­i­ty does not, if he is a lib­er­al, advo­cate the estab­lish­ment of a new author­i­ty even more tyran­ni­cal than the old. He advo­cates cer­tain lim­its to the exer­cise of author­i­ty, and he wish­es these lim­its to be observed not only when the author­i­ty would sup­port a creed with which he dis­agrees but also when it would sup­port one with which he is in com­plete agree­ment. I am, for my part, a believ­er in democ­ra­cy, but I do not like a regime which makes belief in democ­ra­cy com­pul­so­ry.

Rus­sell con­cludes the New York Times piece by offer­ing a “new deca­logue” with advice on how to live one’s life in the spir­it of lib­er­al­ism. “The Ten Com­mand­ments that, as a teacher, I should wish to pro­mul­gate, might be set forth as fol­lows,” he says:

1: Do not feel absolute­ly cer­tain of any­thing.

2: Do not think it worth­while to pro­duce belief by con­ceal­ing evi­dence, for the evi­dence is sure to come to light.

3: Nev­er try to dis­cour­age think­ing, for you are sure to suc­ceed.

4: When you meet with oppo­si­tion, even if it should be from your hus­band or your chil­dren, endeav­or to over­come it by argu­ment and not by author­i­ty, for a vic­to­ry depen­dent upon author­i­ty is unre­al and illu­so­ry.

5: Have no respect for the author­i­ty of oth­ers, for there are always con­trary author­i­ties to be found.

6: Do not use pow­er to sup­press opin­ions you think per­ni­cious, for if you do the opin­ions will sup­press you.

7: Do not fear to be eccen­tric in opin­ion, for every opin­ion now accept­ed was once eccen­tric.

8: Find more plea­sure in intel­li­gent dis­sent than in pas­sive agree­ment, for, if you val­ue intel­li­gence as you should, the for­mer implies a deep­er agree­ment than the lat­ter.

9: Be scrupu­lous­ly truth­ful, even when truth is incon­ve­nient, for it is more incon­ve­nient when you try to con­ceal it.

10. Do not feel envi­ous of the hap­pi­ness of those who live in a fool’s par­adise, for only a fool will think that it is hap­pi­ness.

Wise words then. Wise words now.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in March, 2013.

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.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Inter­ests Grad­u­al­ly Wider and More Imper­son­al”

Bertrand Russell’s Advice to Peo­ple Liv­ing 1,000 Years in the Future: “Love is Wise, Hatred is Fool­ish”

Bertrand Rus­sell: The Every­day Ben­e­fit of Phi­los­o­phy Is That It Helps You Live with Uncer­tain­ty

Bertrand Rus­sell Author­i­ty and the Indi­vid­ual (1948) 

How Martin Luther King, Jr. Wrote His Momentous “I Have a Dream” Speech (1963)

Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech ranks as one of the most famous of Amer­i­can speech­es. As Evan Puschak, the Nerd­writer, says in his video above, it’s “arguably the most impor­tant and well-known speech of the 20th cen­tu­ry.” King’s pop­u­lar vision of a peace­ful, har­mo­nious, mul­tira­cial democ­ra­cy might explain why nine out of ten Amer­i­cans have a pos­i­tive atti­tude toward King now. That polling looks very dif­fer­ent by par­ty affil­i­a­tion. Even so, many more Amer­i­cans look fond­ly on King’s mem­o­ry than sup­port­ed (or now sup­port) the racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice for which he fought. The cur­rent use of King as a white­washed mar­tyr fig­ure, Michael Har­riot argues, obscures the real­i­ty of “a dream yet unful­filled,” as King once called the U.S.

Even after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton and his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize win, only about 37% of Amer­i­cans approved of his mes­sage in 1966 Gallup polling, a num­ber that dropped even low­er when he came out against the Viet­nam war in 1967. Approval for MLK “only start­ed to shift after his assas­si­na­tion in 1968,” writes Senior Data Sci­en­tist Lin­ley Sanders at YouGov.  King’s “Dream” speech at the Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al may be posthu­mous­ly remem­bered as his finest hour by those who weren’t there. For thou­sands of peo­ple who were, his address was also a fiery sum­ma­tion of the major themes up to that point in dozens of speech­es and ser­mons.

“Rid­dled with big dif­fi­cult terms and full of rhetor­i­cal devices that are inten­tion­al and prac­ticed,” Puschak says, the speech elo­quent­ly explained “why ful­ly 100 years after… the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion,” Black Amer­i­cans were still polit­i­cal­ly dis­en­fran­chised and eco­nom­i­cal­ly dis­ad­van­taged. It did so through a series of dense allu­sions to the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion, the coun­try’s found­ing doc­u­ments, the song “My Coun­try ‘Tis of Thee,” and oth­er arti­facts of Amer­i­can nation­al iden­ti­ty, in an attempt to “frame civ­il rights in the larg­er Amer­i­can mythol­o­gy so that those who iden­ti­fy with that mythol­o­gy might incor­po­rate this strug­gle into that sto­ry.”

The Amer­i­can sto­ry has jus­ti­fied oppres­sion and fear of the same peo­ple fight­ing for full inte­gra­tion into the nation­al poli­ty dur­ing the Civ­il Rights move­ment, a prob­lem­at­ic irony of which King was hard­ly unaware. He also drew from tra­di­tions old­er than the U.S. found­ing — the human­ism of Shake­speare and the prophet­ic voic­es of the Old Tes­ta­ment, for exam­ple. These were indeed prac­ticed maneu­vers. (King very much lived down the C he once got in a pub­lic speak­ing class.) But the rous­ing refrains in his speech’s con­clu­sion — which gave the speech its title and spread its fame around the world — were ad-libbed.

“I start­ed out read­ing the speech, and I read it down to a point… the audi­ence response was won­der­ful that day” King lat­er remem­bered. “And all of a sud­den this thing came to me that… I’d used many times before… ‘I have a dream.’ ” The ref­er­ence did­n’t come out of nowhere, says Clarence Jones, who helped King write the speech’s text just hours before it was deliv­ered. Jones recalled that King’s favorite gospel singer Mahalia Jack­son called out for the then-famil­iar (to her) theme:

As he was read­ing from the text of his pre­pared remarks, there came a point when Mahalia Jack­son, who was sit­ting on the plat­form, said, “Tell them about the dream, Mar­tin! Tell them about the dream.”

Now I have often spec­u­lat­ed that she had heard him talk in oth­er places… and make ref­er­ence to the dream. On June 23, 1963, in Detroit, he had made very express ref­er­ence to the dream.

When Mahalia shout­ed to him, I was stand­ing about 50 feet behind him… and I saw it hap­pen­ing in real time. He just took the text of his speech and moved it to the left side of the lectern. … And I said to some­body stand­ing next to me: “These peo­ple don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.”

Before cel­e­brat­ing a redeemed inter­pre­ta­tion of the Amer­i­can dream in his extem­po­ra­ne­ous finale, King’s speech con­demned the nation’s real­i­ty as moral­ly cor­rupt and ille­git­i­mate. He urged restraint among his fol­low­ers through non­vi­o­lent “direct action,” but fore­saw worse to come before the coun­try could real­ize its poten­tial.

It would be fatal for the nation to over­look the urgency of the moment. This swel­ter­ing sum­mer of the Negro’s legit­i­mate dis­con­tent will not pass until there is an invig­o­rat­ing autumn of free­dom and equal­i­ty. 1963 is not an end, but a begin­ning. Those who hope that the Negro need­ed to blow off steam and will now be con­tent will have a rude awak­en­ing if the nation returns to busi­ness as usu­al.

“There will be nei­ther rest nor tran­quil­i­ty in Amer­i­ca until the Negro is grant­ed his cit­i­zen­ship rights,” King con­tin­ued. “The whirl­winds of revolt will con­tin­ue to shake the foun­da­tions of our nation until the bright day of jus­tice emerges.” Maybe it’s lit­tle won­der many white Amer­i­cans, hear­ing these remarks, turned away from King’s vision of racial jus­tice, which required reck­on­ing with “the unspeak­able hor­rors of police bru­tal­i­ty.” End­ing the “unearned suf­fer­ing” of Black Amer­i­cans, King knew, would come at too great a cost to unearned priv­i­lege. Indeed, the FBI heard King’s words as a direct threat to the coun­try’s his­toric pow­er struc­ture. After the “I Have Dream” speech, the Bureau seri­ous­ly inten­si­fied its pro­gram to sur­veil, dis­cred­it, and destroy him.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Got C’s in Pub­lic Speaking–Before Becom­ing a Straight‑A Stu­dent & a World Class Ora­tor

Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Explains the Impor­tance of Jazz: Hear the Speech He Gave at the First Berlin Jazz Fes­ti­val (1964)

Imag­in­ing the Mar­tin Luther King and Mal­colm X Debate That Nev­er Hap­pened

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

John Cleese Presents His 5‑Step Plan for Shorter, More Productive Meetings (1976)

Let’s face it, meet­ings are bor­ing at best and at worst, chaot­ic, volatile, and poten­tial­ly vio­lent. And let’s also face it: to get through life as func­tion­ing adults, we’re going to have to sit through one or two of them — or even one or two of them a week.

Maybe we’re the one who calls the meet­ings, and maybe they all feel like a waste of time. One solu­tion is to have more infor­mal meet­ings. This can be espe­cial­ly tempt­ing in the age of work-from-home, when it’s impos­si­ble to know how many meet­ing atten­dees are wear­ing pants. Few­er rules can raise the spon­tane­ity quo­tient, but allow­ing for the unex­pect­ed can invite dis­as­ter as well as epiphany.

On the oth­er end of the scale, we have the for­mal­i­ty of par­lia­men­tary rules of order, such as those intro­duced by U.S. Army offi­cer Hen­ry Mar­tyn Robert in 1876. Robert, whose father was the first pres­i­dent of More­house Col­lege, gained a wealth of expe­ri­ence with unpro­duc­tive meet­ings as he trav­eled around the coun­try with the Army. One par­tic­u­lar meet­ing became a defin­ing expe­ri­ence, as one account has it:

While in San Fran­cis­co, the local leader of his com­mu­ni­ty didn’t show up for a church meet­ing. Hen­ry Robert was asked to pre­side over the town hall (with­out any pri­or notice). Let’s just say that on this par­tic­u­lar evening in 1876, he did a bad job. An hour into the meet­ing, peo­ple were scream­ing and the church actu­al­ly erupt­ed into open con­flict.

Sad­ly, this sort of thing has become almost rou­tine at town halls and school board meet­ings. But it needn’t be so at the office. Nor, says John Cleese in the brief video above, do meet­ings need to fol­low the for­mal­i­ty of par­lia­men­tary pro­ce­dure.

Cleese’s rules are sim­pler even than the sim­pli­fied Roberts or Rosen­berg’s Rules of Order, an even more sim­pli­fied ver­sion of Robert’s Rules. Fur­ther­more, Cleese avoids using words like “Rules” which can be a turn-off in our egal­i­tar­i­an times. Instead, he presents us with a “5‑Step Plan” for hold­ing bet­ter and short­er meet­ings.

1. Plan — Clear your mind about the pre­cise objec­tives of the meet­ing. Be clear why you need it and list the sub­jects.
2. Inform — Make sure every­one knows exact­ly what is being dis­cussed, why, and what you want from the dis­cus­sion. Antic­i­pate what infor­ma­tion and peo­ple may be need­ed and make sure they’re there.
3. Pre­pare — Pre­pare the log­i­cal sequence items. Pre­pare the time allo­ca­tion to each item on the basis of its impor­tance not its urgency.
4. Struc­ture and Con­trol — Take the evi­dence stage before the inter­pre­ta­tion stage and that before the action stage and stop peo­ple jump­ing ahead or going back over ground.
5. Sum­ma­rize all deci­sion and record them straight away with the name of the per­son respon­si­ble for any action

Easy, right? Well, maybe not so easy in prac­tice, but these steps can, at the very least, illu­mi­nate what’s wrong with your meet­ings, which may cur­rent­ly resem­ble one of Cleese’s many par­o­dies of busi­ness cul­ture. Nobody video­phoned it in at the time, but try­ing to fig­ure out who’s sup­posed to be doing what can still take up an after­noon. Let Cleese’s five steps bring order to the chaos.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

John Cleese on How “Stu­pid Peo­ple Have No Idea How Stu­pid They Are” (a.k.a. the Dun­ning-Kruger Effect)

John Cleese Revis­its His 20 Years as an Ivy League Pro­fes­sor in His New Book, Pro­fes­sor at Large: The Cor­nell Years

Mon­ty Python’s John Cleese Cre­ates Ads for the Amer­i­can Philo­soph­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion

John Cleese’s Very Favorite Com­e­dy Sketch­es

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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

20 Lessons from the 20th Cen­tu­ry About How to Defend Democ­ra­cy from Author­i­tar­i­an­ism, Accord­ing to Yale His­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der

The Sto­ry of Fas­cism: Rick Steves’ Doc­u­men­tary Helps Us Learn from the Hard Lessons of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

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

Hobbes, Locke & Rousseau: An Animated Introduction to Their Political Theories

The phrase “state of nature” doesn’t get much use in phi­los­o­phy these days, but every polit­i­cal philoso­pher must grap­ple with the his­to­ry of the idea — a foun­da­tion­al con­ceit of mod­ern Euro-Amer­i­can thought in the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These three “con­trac­tu­al­ist” philoso­phers, often grouped togeth­er in syl­labi and select­ed intro­duc­to­ry texts, relied on the notion that humans once exist­ed in an anar­chic state pre­dat­ing civ­il soci­ety, and that this state might be re-dis­cov­er­able in indige­nous ways of life in the Amer­i­c­as. In the three School of Life videos here, you can learn the basics about each of these philoso­phers and their polit­i­cal the­o­ries.

Unlike the Bib­li­cal gar­den of Eden, the state of nature was hard­ly per­fect, at least for Hobbes and Locke, who saw gov­ern­ment as a nec­es­sary medi­a­tor for com­pet­ing self-inter­ests. The kinds of gov­ern­ments they the­o­rized were vast­ly dif­fer­ent from each oth­er — one an absolute monar­chy and the oth­er a cap­i­tal­ist repub­lic. But in each theorist’s pseu­do-pre­his­to­ry, ear­ly humans gave up their inde­pen­dence by mak­ing social con­tracts for pro­tec­tion and mutu­al inter­est. These “con­tracts,” claimed both Hobbes and Locke, were the ori­gin of gov­ern­ments.

Hobbes was the first major thinker to elab­o­rate a ver­sion of this sto­ry, and his descrip­tion of life before gov­ern­ment is well-known: “soli­tary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of their painful exis­tence, humans would have sought out a pow­er­ful ruler to pro­tect them. They were right to do so, Hobbes believed, because only a king, as he argued in Leviathan, could pro­vide the pro­tec­tion peo­ple need. It was per­haps no coin­ci­dence that Hobbes worked for a king, his for­mer stu­dent, Charles II, restored to the throne after the Eng­lish Civ­il War that drove Hobbes to his author­i­tar­i­an views, sup­pos­ed­ly.

Despite his defense of divine pow­er, Hobbes stood accused of athe­ism and blas­phe­my for, among oth­er things, writ­ing a sec­u­lar jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for monar­chy that was not based on rev­e­la­tion or the divine right of kings. Like­wise, the first part of John Locke’s Two Trea­tis­es on Gov­ern­ment was a force­ful refu­ta­tion of divine right. But Locke’s ideas of tol­er­a­tion were far more threat­en­ing to the state, which is why he pub­lished anony­mous­ly. In his Sec­ond Trea­tise, he laid out his ver­sion of the state of nature and the social con­tract — ideas drawn in part from trav­el­ogues writ­ten by ear­ly colo­nial adven­tur­ers.

Locke’s the­o­ry of gov­ern­ment is also a the­o­ry of pri­vate prop­er­ty — the right­ful source of polit­i­cal pow­er, he believed — and who should own it. Decades lat­er, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his most salient works, includ­ing a book titled The Social Con­tract, in oppo­si­tion to the inequal­i­ty of Hobbe­sian and Lock­ean states. Rousseau believed in human per­fectibil­i­ty and claimed that gov­ern­ments imposed a “gen­er­al will” on indi­vid­u­als, repress­ing an essen­tial­ly benev­o­lent state of nature in which resources were shared.

Rousseau’s rejoin­der to the myth of vicious sav­agery gave rise to anoth­er: that of the noble sav­age, an appeal­ing image for the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies of late-18th cen­tu­ry France and lat­er utopi­an social­ists tasked with the dif­fi­cult project of imag­in­ing an alter­na­tive to polit­i­cal hier­ar­chy. In social con­tract the­o­ry, the imag­ined way for­ward derives from an imag­ined pre­colo­nial past, more “moral fic­tion” than “his­tor­i­cal fact,” as schol­ar Richard Ashcraft argues. Learn more about the myth­i­cal state of nature and the pri­ma­ry the­o­rists of the social con­tract above.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Leo Strauss: 15 Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es Online

Social and Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy: A Free Online Course 

Intro­duc­tion to Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy: A Free Online Course from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty 

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

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