On the Power of Teaching Philosophy in Prisons

Philosophy is often seen as an arcane academic discipline, in competition with the hard sciences or laden with abstruse concepts and language inaccessible to ordinary people. Such a perception may be warranted. This is not to damn academic philosophy but to highlight what has been lost through professionalization: classical notions of ethics as “the art of living” or what Michel Foucault called “the care of the self”; the ancient Greek idea of parrhesia—bold, honest speech unclouded by proprietary jargon; philosophy as a practice like meditation or yoga, a technique for self-knowledge, self-control, and wise, just, and considerate relationships with others.

From Socrates to Aristotle to Epicurus and the Stoics, ancient Western thinkers believed philosophy to be intimately relevant to everyday life. This was very much the case in ancient Eastern thought as well, in the Jainist sages, the Buddha, or Lao-Tzu, to name a few. We will find some form of popular philosophy on every continent and every historical age. And while plenty of modern teachers still believe in philosophy for everyone, they operate in a consumer culture that often deems them irrelevant, at best. Still, many educators persist outside the academy, endeavoring to reach not only ordinary citizens but a class of disempowered people also deemed irrelevant, at best: the imprisoned, many of whom have had few educational resources and little to no exposure to philosophical thinking.

We have many examples of influential thinkers writing from prison, whether Boethius’ early Christian Consolations of Philosophy, Antonio Gramsci’s passionate Marxist prison letters, Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s essential “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” These have maybe provided readers who have never been jailed with tragic, yet romantic notions of philosophy while doing time. But the philosophers who enter prisons to work with people convicted—justly or otherwise—of all manner of crimes cannot afford to have romantic ideas. Philosopher Alan Smith found this to be especially so after teaching in UK prisons for 14 years, and writing boldly and candidly about the experience in his Guardian column “Philosophy for Prisoners.”

Finally retiring in 2013, Smith confessed, “If I carried on in prison, I would have to do it differently; I would have to admit that it was prison.” He may have felt burned out at the end of his sojourn, but he hadn't lost his sense of ethical purpose:

When we don't know about history and art and society we are adrift. Most of you reading this will never have had that experience, but many of the men I taught were ignorant of just about everything, and as grown men felt this keenly. Education was a relief, a route to self-respect.

Those who do this work report on how so many inmates hunger for routes to self-knowledge, reflection, and rigorous intellectual exercise. Several educators at The Philosophy Foundation, for example, have written about their experiences teaching philosophy in various UK prisons. Conditions are different, and often much bleaker, in the US—a country with 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners—but here, too, philosophers have helped inmates discover new truths about themselves and their society. In the very short TED talk up top, Damon Horowitz, who teaches at San Quentin through the Prison University Project, gives a passionate, rapid-fire accounting of his mission behind bars: “Everyone's got an opinion. We are here for knowledge. Our enemy is thoughtlessness.” A chorus of venerable ancients would assuredly agree.

Further down, you can see participants in Princeton's Prison Teaching Initiative talk about the virtues and rewards of their accredited program. That includes teachers and students alike.

Note: You can find 140+ Free Philosophy Courses in our ever-growing list, 1,250 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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

Long Before Photoshop, the Soviets Mastered the Art of Erasing People from Photographs — and History Too

Adobe Photoshop, the world's best-known piece of image-editing software, has long since transitioned from noun to verb: "to Photoshop" has come to mean something like "to alter a photograph, often with intent to mislead or deceive." But in that usage, Photoshopping didn't begin with Photoshop, and indeed the early masters of Photoshopping did it well before anyone had even dreamed of the personal computer, let alone a means to manipulate images on one. In America, the best of them worked for the movies; in Soviet Russia they worked for a different kind of propaganda machine known as the State, not just producing official photos but going back to previous official photos and changing them to reflect the regime's ever-shifting set of preferred alternative facts.

"Like their counterparts in Hollywood, photographic retouchers in Soviet Russia spent long hours smoothing out the blemishes of imperfect complexions, helping the camera to falsify reality," writes David King in the introduction to his book The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia. "Stalin's pockmarked face, in particular, demanded exceptional skills with the airbrush. But it was during the Great Purges, which raged in the late 1930s, that a new form of falsification emerged. The physical eradication of Stalin's political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence."

Using tools that now seem impossibly primitive, Soviet proto-Photoshoppers made "once-famous personalities vanish" and crafted photographs representing Stalin "as the only true friend, comrade, and successor to Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and founder of the USSR."

This quasi-artisanal work, "one of the more enjoyable tasks for the art department of publishing houses during those times," demanded serious dexterity with the scalpel, glue, paint, and airbrush. (Some examples, as you can see in this five-page gallery of images from The Commissar Vanishes, evidenced more dexterity than others.) In this manner, Stalin could order written out of history such comrades he ultimately deemed disloyal (and who usually wound up executed as) as Naval Commissar Nikolai Yezhov, infamously made to disappear from Stalin's side on a photo taken alongside the Moscow Canal, or People's Commissar for Posts and Telegraphs Nikolai Antipov, commander of the Leningrad party Sergei Kirov, and Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet Nikolai Shvernik — pictured, and removed one by one, just above.

This practice even extended to the materials of the Soviet space program, writes Wired's James Oberg. Cosmonauts temporarily erased from history include Valentin Bondarenko, who died in a fire during a training exercise, and the especially promising Grigoriy Nelyubov (pictured, and then not pictured, at the top of the post), who "had been expelled from the program for misbehavior and later killed himself." Yuri Gagarin, the cosmonaut who made history as the first human in outer space, did not, of course, get erased by the proud authorities, but even his photos, like the one just above where he shakes hands with the Soviet space program's top-secret leader Sergey Korolyov, went under the knife for cosmetic reasons, here the removal of the evidently distracting workman in the background — hardly a major historical figure, let alone a controversial one, but still a real and maybe even living reminder that while the camera may lie, it can't hold its tongue forever.

h/t @JackFeerick

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

India on Film, 1899-1947: An Archive of 90 Historic Films Now Online

India, the largest democracy in the world, is a rising economic powerhouse, and a major player in the fields of media, entertainment, and telecommunications.

But for many armchair travelers, subcontinental modernity takes a backseat to postcard visions of elephants, teeming rustic streets, and snake charmers.

Fans of Rudyard Kipling and E.M. Forster will thrill to the vintage footage in a just released British Film Institute online archive, India on Film (see a trailer above).

1914’s The Wonderful Fruit of the Tropics, a stencil-coloured French-produced primer on the edible flora of India offers just the right blend of exoticism and reassurance (“the fruit of a mango is excellent as a food”) for a newly arrived British housewife.

A Native Street in India (1906) speaks to the populousness that continues to define a country scheduled to outpace China’s numbers within the next 10 years.

An Eastern Market follows a Punjabi farmer’s trek to town, to buy and sell and take in the big city sights.

The archive’s biggest celeb is surely activist Mahatma Gandhi, whose great nephew, Kanu, enjoyed unlimited filming access on the assurance that he would never ask his uncle to pose.

The Raj makes itself known in 1925's King Emperor's Cup Race, a Handley Page biplane arriving in Calcutta in 1917, and several films documenting Edward Prince of Wales’ 1922 tour

Explore the full BFI’s full India on Film: 1899-1947 playlist here. It features 90 films in total, with maybe more to come.

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

Artists Put a Hidden Message in Their Letter Resigning from President’s Committee on the Arts & the Humanities

It wasn't the most high profile mass resignation of last week. (The CEOs on Trump's business advisory councils got that distinction.) But it was arguably the most creative one. Last Friday, "all 16 of the prominent artists, authors, performers and architects on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities resigned," reports The New York Times. And while their resignation letter didn't mince words (read it online here), it did take the added step of encoding in its text a short message for POTUS. Circle the first letter of each paragraph and what do you get? RESIST, the mantra of 2017.

In other related news, the administration announced that Trump will skip the annual Kennedy Center Honors this year--just the fourth time that a president has missed this annual national celebration of the arts. This year's honorees include Gloria Estefan, LL COOL J, Norman Lear, Lionel Richie, and Carmen de Lavallade.

via Boing Boing/Artnet

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The Comedic Legacies of Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis (RIP): A Study in Contrasts

Two titans of comedy passed away this weekend, but the deaths of Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis have seemed like cultural footnotes amidst some of the most anxious, angry few days in recent U.S. history. Gregory and Lewis are stars of a bygone era, maybe two full generations behind contemporary popular relevance. And yet, in many ways, the mid-20th century world where both men got their start feels closer than ever.

Both Gregory and Lewis once wielded considerable power in the entertainment industry and in their other chosen spheres of influence—the civil rights movement and charitable giving, respectively. In nearly every other respect, the two could not have been more different.

Gregory broke into mainstream success with a new wave of black comics like Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, and like Pryor, he did so by telling painful truths about racism that many white Americans laughed about but were unwilling to honestly confront or change. You can hear an early example in the routine above, from his 1962 album Dick Gregory Talks Turkey.

Gregory got his big break in 1961 when he seized the moment in a tryout at Hugh Hefner’s Chicago Playboy Club. As he later told CBS Sunday Morning, “I pushed that white boy out of the way and ran up there…. Two hours later, they called Hefner. And Hefner came by and they went out of their mind.” That same year, he made his first national TV appearance. See it at 15:16 in the documentary Walk in My Shoes just above, which also features Malcolm X and Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) founder James Farmer.

In the playlist  below, you can hear three full Gregory comedy recordings, Living Black & White (1961), East & West (1961), and an interview album, Dick Gregory on Comedy. Throughout his career, Gregory was an uncompromising civil rights activist who was beaten and arrested in the sixties at marches and protests. He was at the 1963 March on Washington, faced down the Klan to help integrate restaurants, and fasted to protest the Vietnam War. In a review of his provocatively-titled autobiography, The New York Times described him as “a man who deeply wants a world without malice and hate and is doing something about it.”

He also did something about it in comedy. When Jack Paar’s producer called him to appear on the show, Gregory hung up on him. Then Paar himself called, and Gregory told him he wouldn’t come on unless he could sit on the couch, a privilege afforded white comics and denied their black counterparts. Paar agreed. “It was sitting on the couch,” he said, “that made my salary grow in three weeks from $250 working seven days a week to $5,000 a night.” For the next several decades, he leveraged his wealth and fame for humanitarian and civil rights causes, and even a run for mayor of Chicago in 1967 and a popular write-in presidential campaign in the 1968 election. He died at 84 a venerated elder statesman of stand-up comedy and of the Civil Rights Movement.

Jerry Lewis’s legacy is much more complicated, and serves in many ways as a “cautionary tale,” as Nick Gillespie puts it, for the hubris of celebrity. Lewis broke through in the 50s as the animated, rubbery comic foil to Dean Martin’s suave straight man in the hugely famous comedy duo of Martin & Lewis. See them above do a standup routine in 1952 on their Colgate Comedy Hour, with an introduction (and intervention) from Bob Hope. The act was a phenomenon. “Coming from literally nowhere,” writes Shawn Levy at The Guardian, “the pair rode a skyrocketing 10-year career that made them staples of American showbiz for the rest of their lives…. They met when they were just two guys scuffling for a break in Times Square, and they helped forge a new brand of popular entertainment suited to the postwar mood.”

In the same year as the broadcast further up, Lewis made his first appearance, with Martin and Jackie Gleason, on the Muscular Dystrophy Associations of America (MDAA) telethon. Just above, see them do a bit while the familiar banks of operators stand by behind them. Lewis began hosting his own MDAA telethon in 1966 and did so until 2010, raising billions for the organization, which remembers him as a “Comic genius. Cultural icon. Humanitarian.” Many disability activists feel otherwise, including many former “Jerry’s Kids,” his “pet name,” writes Gillespie, for the poster children he recruited to represent the MD community on the telethon and related advocacy materials. “The telethon was widely parodied,” and Lewis’s efforts have been seen by many activists and protestors as self-serving, perpetuating harmful, demeaning attitudes and encouraging pity for MD sufferers rather than acceptance and social equality.

As a movie star, Lewis often played an all-American doofus whose physical antics and stammering, boyish persona endeared him to audiences (see above, for example, from 1952’s Sailor Beware). As a director, he made tightly choreographed madcap comedies. He also traded in offensive stereotypes, participating in an ugly Hollywood tradition that emerged from anti-Chinese bigotry of the 19th century and anti-Japanese World War II propaganda. (Lewis was unflatteringly remembered in The Japan Times as the “king of low-brow comedy… forever squealing, grimacing and flailing his way” through various roles.) He introduced Asian caricatures into his act in the Martin & Lewis days (see below) and reprised the shtick in his critically-loathed 1980 film Hardly Working, in which, writes Paul Macovaz at Senses of Cinema, he “realizes an offensive, profoundly racist yellow-face sashimi chef.”

“I imagine that most viewers will be troubled by it,” Macovaz comments, “wrenched viscerally from their enjoyment of the Lewisian idiot and pressed squirming into the overdetermined conceptual narrative zone of American Orientalism.” Those viewers who know another of Lewis’s later-career disasters will recognize another awkward character in Hardly Working, the sad-faced clown of 1972's disastrous The Day the Clown Died, a film so ill-advised and badly executed that Lewis never allowed it to be released. (Just below, see a short documentary on the abortive effort.)  In the movie, as comedy writer Bruce Handy noted in a 1992 Spy magazine article, the comedian plays “an unhappy German circus clown… sent to a concentration camp and forced to become a sort of genocidal Pied Piper, entertaining Jewish children as he leads them to the gas chambers.” Meant to be his first “serious,” dramatic role, the largely unseen film now stands as an archetypal epitome of poor taste—an artistic failure that Mel Brooks might have dreamed up as a sick joke.

As Gillespie points out, Lewis’s last years saw him threatening to punch Lindsay Lohan and telling refugees to “stay where the hell they are.” Long past the time most people wanted to hear them, he persisted in making "racist and misogynistic jokes" and gave “the most painfully awkward interview of 2016” to the Hollywood Reporter. He became well-known for verbally abusing his audiences. The running joke that Lewis was beloved by the French, which “only made him less respectable in his home country,” may have been run into the ground. But in the latter half of his career, it sums up how much American comedians—even those like Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and Eddie Murphy, who were clearly influenced by his manic humor—were often unwilling to make too much of the debt. But looking back at his 1950s dada zaniness and at films like The Nutty Professor, it's impossible to deny his contributions to 20th century comedy and even a certain brand of absurdist 21st century humor.

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

Final Show of Metallica’s North American Tour Now Streaming Free Online

A quick fyi: Metallica wrapped up their North American tour on Friday night in Edmonton--their first North American tour in eight years. The show was live-streamed on YouTube, and it's now fully viewable online, thanks to MetallicaTV. Enjoy all 2 hours and 41 minutes of it. You can see a setlist for the show here.

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Artistic Maps of Pakistan & India Show the Embroidery Techniques of Their Different Regions

Journalist Saima Mir posted to Twitter this "map of Pakistan showing the embroidery techniques of its regions." And, sure enough, it led to someone surfacing a corresponding map of Pakistan's neighbor, India. The underlying message of the maps? It's to show, as @AlmostLived noted, "how diverse elements come together to make beautiful things." The map above was originally produced by Generation, a Pakistani fashion company. We're not clear on the origin of the India map, unfortunately.

via Boing Boing

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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Neil deGrasse Tyson: “Because of Pink Floyd, I’ve Spent Decades Undoing the Idea That There’s a Dark Side of the Moon”

In 1973, Pink Floyd released their influential concept album, The Dark Side of the Moon, which garnered both critical and commercial success. The album sold some 45 million copies, and remained on Billboard's Top LPs & Tapes chart for 741 weeks (from 1973 to 1988). All of which was great for Pink Floyd. But not so much for science and education.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson explains above. "That Pink Floyd had an album with that title meant I spent decades having to undo [that fact] as an educator." That's because "there is no dark side of the moon." "There's a far side and there's a near." "But all sides of the moon receive sunlight across the month."

To delve deeper into this, it's worth reading this short article (Mythbusters: Is There Really a Dark Side of the Moon?) from Yale Scientific Magazine. There, they elaborate:

No matter where we are on Earth, we see and always have seen only one face of the moon. Since the moon rotates on its axis in the same amount of time that it takes the body to orbit our planet, the same half face of the moon is consistently exposed to viewers on Earth. This timing is caused by a phenomenon called tidal locking, which occurs when a larger astronomical body (Earth) exerts a strong gravitational pull on a smaller body (the moon), forcing one side of the smaller body to always face the larger one....

[T]he fact that we earthlings cannot see the far side of the moon does not mean that this face is never exposed to sunlight. In fact, the far side of the moon is no more and no less dark than the hemisphere we do see.

Get the rest here.

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How TV Addles Kids’ Brains: A Short Film Directed by Godfrey Reggio (Maker of Koyaanisqatsi) & Scored by Philip Glass

On October 4, 1982, "more than 5,000 people filled the Radio City Music Hall to experience a remarkable event. That event was the world premiere of Koyaanisqatsi." So says the poster for the wide release of that film, an experimental documentary without spoken words on the natural and manmade environment that neither looked nor sounded — nor felt — like anything many of its viewers had ever experienced in a movie theater before.

Unable to muster any of their standard reactions, they had no choice but to sit and observe as, in slow motion and fast motion and every speed in between, waterfalls thundered, chasms yawned, skyscrapers soared, commuters scurried, and rockets launched before their eyes — all to the music of Philip Glass. You might say that Koyaanisqatsi (see trailer below), as well as its formally similar sequels Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, puts its viewers in an altered state of mind.

The trilogy's director, a former monk-in-training named Godfrey Reggio, might say the same thing about television, whose flickering blueish presence emerges from time to time in his work, but he wouldn't mean it in a good way. In 1995, between Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, he made a short called Evidence which, in the words of koyaanisqatsi.org, "looks into the eyes of children watching television - in this case Walt Disney’s Dumbo. Though engaged in a daily routine, they appear drugged, retarded, like the patients of a mental hospital."

Accompanying and in a sense commenting on their glazed, often slack-jawed expressions, we once again, as in Reggio's transfixing feature documentaries, have a Glass-composed score. Unlike moviegoers in a theater, "television viewers become prey to the television’s own light impulses, they go into an altered state — a transfixed condition where the eyes, the mind, the breathing of the subject is clearly under the control of an outside force. In a poetic sense and without exaggerating one might say that the television technology is eating the subjects who sit before its gaze."

In the more than two decades since, this kind of criticism of television has given way to a more general criticism of electronic media, most of whose currently popular forms didn't exist in 1995; Reggio and Glass' most recent collaboration, 2013's Visitors, deals with "humanity's trancelike relationship with technology." You and your children may have escaped the "tractor beam that holds its subjects in total control" as Evidence depicts it, but in the 21st century the number of tractor beams has greatly multiplied. And so the question remains worth asking: which ones have you under their control?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear the Beach Boys’ Angelic Vocal Harmonies in Four Isolated Tracks from Pet Sounds: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B” & “Good Vibrations”

I didn’t get the Beach Boys for a while. They had provided the soundtrack to an alien world, one I knew mostly from chewing gum commercials. They were “uncool—cornball,” writes Ben Ratliff, “unenlightened” purveyors of “beach privilege.” The “narrators of Beach Boys songs used their time as they liked: amusement parks, surfing, drag racing, dating, sitting in their rooms.” They had no cares, no real burdens, just shallow summer loves and heartaches. They came off as some of the blandest, safest-sounding people on earth.

Then, in a puzzling turn in the nineties, indie artists like Neutral Milk Hotel, Jim O’Rourke, and The Sea and Cake began experimenting with the complex arrangements, odd instrumentation, and sunny melodies of 60s pop artists like The Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach.

This is music that can seduce us into thinking it is simplistic, childish, uninspired vanilla. Its use as background muzak in supermarkets and shopping malls confirms the impression. But critical listening explodes it. (Dig the phrasing in the otherwise silly, Bacharach/Hal David-composed “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.”)

Yes, it took a retro-hip return to '60s lounge music, bossa nova, and surf pop for many people to reconsider the Beach Boys as serious artists. And while the trend became a little cloying, once I put on the headphones and gave the radical Pet Sounds a few dozen spins, as so many songwriters I admired had gushed about doing, I got it. Of course. Yes. The arrangements, and those harmonies…. It isn’t only the technical wizardry, though there’s that. It’s how thoroughly weird those classically-inspired arrangements are. Perhaps a better way to put it would be, totally counterintuitive.

What nearly any other pop arranger would naturally do with a harmony or rhythm part—just to get the house in order and showcase more important “lead” parts—Brian Wilson almost never does. As the minimalist composer John Adams put it, “more than any other songwriter of that era, Brian Wilson understood the value of harmonic surprise.” At least in Pet Sounds and the long-unfinished “labyrinth of melody” SMiLE, each part of the song sustains its own individual interest without breaking away from the miniature symphonic whole.

Even within the harmonies, there is a strange tension, an off-kilter wobbling as in a machine whose gears are all just a bit off-center. Instruments and voices go in and out of key, tempos slow and quicken. The vocal harmonies are angelic, but troubled, uncertain, maudlin, and underlined with unexpected intensity given the innocuousness of their lyrics. In the isolated vocal tracks here for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B,” and “Good Vibrations,” you may catch it, or not. It isn’t foreboding, exactly, but a kind of uneasy recognition that the pleasures these songs celebrate will soon pass away. An Arcadian theme in the California pastoral.

The tension is there in Wilson’s idol Phil Spector’s compositons as well, but the contrast is remarkably greater in Pet Sounds, of longing, nostalgia, and youth at its peak. The utopia they imagine may only appeal to a specific subset of boomer Americans, but their intricate, melodically complex, yet harmoniously appealing soundworld belongs to everyone. As Zack Schonfeld observed in a sadly prophetic review of Wilson’s Pet Sounds performance in Brooklyn last summer, “it is hard to imagine modern indie or indie-pop—or pop in general—without Pet Sounds.” (That includes, of course The Beatles, who answered with Sgt. Peppers.) “A world without Pet Sounds is a frightening dystopia,” he writes, “like imagining a world without beaches or one in which Donald Trump is president.” Maybe as you sit back and listen to the otherworldly beauty of these naked harmonies, think of all those lovely beaches we still have left.

via Twisted Sifter

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





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