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Heather Cox Richardson didn't set out to build a fan base when she started her daily "Letters from an American." The Harvard-educated political historian and Boston College professor had actually just been stung by a yellow-jacket as she was leaving on a trip from her home in Maine to teach in Boston last fall when she wrote her first post.
Since she's allergic to bees, she decided to stay put and see how badly her body would react. With some extra time on her hands, she decided to write something on her long-neglected Facebook page. It was September of 2019, and Representative Adam Schiff had just sent a letter to the Director of National Intelligence stating that the House knew there was a whistleblower complaint, the DNI wasn't handing it over, and that wasn't legal.
"I recognized, because I'm a political historian, that this was the first time that a member of Congress had found a specific law that they were accusing a specific member of the executive branch of violating," Richardson told Bill Moyers in an interview in July. "So I thought, you know, I oughta put that down, 'cause this is a really important moment. If you knew what you were looking for, it was a big moment. So I wrote it down..."
By the time she got to Boston she has a deluge of questions from people about what she'd written.
<p>"It was clear that the readers wanted to know more," she said. "They seemed to want to know the answers, so I wrote again...And I've written every night since because questions just poured in, and people flooded me with questions about what was going on. And who were the players? And how was this going to play out? And what were the laws, and why should I have any hope that this was gonna turn out in a good way? And this was just something that really was sort of reader-driven, not driven by me at all. And I think that's probably why it's had such staying power."</p><p>For a year now, Richardson has synopsized the day's political news in a way that only a historian can. She places everything into the big picture of American history while also offering facts and details that help readers understand the significance of what's happening at the moment. </p><div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="195fe81856e2118da0b6533361bf246e"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/heathercoxrichardson/posts/2424201651057220"></div></div><p>Prior to her letters, Richardson was best known as an academic for the five books she's written, including "How the South Won the Civil War," and "To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party." Now, everyday Americans love her for her informative daily Facebook posts.</p><p>In an age where people build personal social media brands around being sensational, entertaining, or the loudest voice in the room, Richardson's concise, historical, fact-based, no-drama posts are an unlikely way to form a following, but here we are. In 2020 there are still a whole lot of us who are desperate for a steady, knowledgeable voice of reason and sanity, and Richardson's posts have have become lifelines of knowledge and hope for the nearly 600,000 readers who follow her Facebook page.<br></p><p><span></span>Part of Richardson's appeal is her clear love of the topic. "I take our government extraordinarily seriously," she told Moyers. "I have lived with American politics really since I was about 21, and maybe earlier because I was really first aware of the world during Watergate. And I care deeply about our traditions, about our heritage, about democracy. I'm happy to criticize it, because I always want it to be better, but I take that stuff really seriously."</p><p>Another part of her appeal is that she is able to take the rapid pace of the news cycle, the constant craziness of our political climate, the complex patterns of history, and the way each of those things intertwines, and then condense it down into a 1200-word, easy-to-read "letter" that anyone can digest.</p><div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="133a126aca19a98da22c066f16232491"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/heathercoxrichardson/photos/a.518541981623206/2297280003749386/"></div></div><p>Having a political historian providing context is a huge gift, especially in the era of Donald Trump as president. While he clearly tramples over political and democratic norms—which some love and some hate—it's not like we haven't seen politicians like him before. In fact, his tactics are straight out of an autocratic playbook. <br></p><p>"It's not just that he's good at reading an audience, and it's not just that he himself might have a short attention span," Richardson told Moyers about Trump. "If you continually change the subject, you continually stay one step ahead of the story, you can do a couple of things. First of all, you can control the narrative, because by the time people have fact-checked you, you're already onto the next story. Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s developed that tactic really carefully. Because the media simply couldn't catch up with the stories, by the time you fact-checked 'em, they were fourth-page news. And there was the first-page story of something else outrageous. So it's partly to control the narrative, but it's also something I think more nefarious with this particular president. And that is that, if you, as Steve Bannon said, 'flood the zone with expletive–' what you do is, you keep your audience off guard all the time. They never know what the truth is. They never know what's coming next, and they don't know how to answer to any of it. And it's a game of psychological warfare, if you will. But if you keep knocking people around enough, eventually what they will do is simply say, 'I don't care. It's too much for me. Everybody's lying. I don't know what's real. Just make it all go away.' And when you do that, the way is pretty clearly open for an autocrat to step in."</p><p>Richardson eloquently explains some of the realities—or alternate realities—that have so many of us baffled in the disinformation age. One of her areas of expertise is how politicians and political parties deliberately construct narratives to create their own reality; it's something she's spent a lot of her research time studying.</p><p>But the main draw to Richardson's letters is how well she distills and contextualizes everything the way a history book would—only she does it for us in real time.</p><p>Writer Elly Lonon summed it up perfectly:</p><p>"Honestly, if democracy were a tv series, Heather Cox Richardson would be that little blurb that runs before the actual show starts. You know, 'Previously, in Democracy...' and then the summary so you remember where you left off and what you're supposed to be paying attention to."</p><p>It is definitely worth a click to follow her <a href="https://www.facebook.com/heathercoxrichardson/" target="_blank">on Facebook</a>. </p><p>She also hosts fairly frequent Facebook Live History & Politics chats in which she answers reader questions about things in the news. Her video from today addresses the I.C.E. whistleblower complaint about COVID handling and mass hysterectomies in an I.C.E. detention facility, gives some history of eugenics and poverty and wealth in the U.S., and explores whether or not there will likely be another coronavirus stimulus bill. It's a worthwhile way to spend an hour. </p><div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="86f57a7216009a5f9263e56bcfa6777d"><div class="fb-video" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/heathercoxrichardson/videos/636443960347086" data-allowfullscreen="true"></div></div>
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Sunshine For All
When I opened Twitter Saturday morning, I saw "Chris Evans" and "Captain America" trending. Evans is my favorite of the Marvel Chrises, so naturally I clicked to see what was happening with him—then quickly became confused. I saw people talking about "nude leaks," some remarks about (ahem) "size," and something about how he'd accidentally leaked naked photos of himself. But as I scrolled through the feed (not looking for the pics, just trying to figure out what happened) the only photos I saw were of him and his dog, occasionally sprinkled with handsome photos of him fully clothed.
Here's what had happened. Evans apparently had shared a video in his Instagram stories that somehow ended with an image of his camera roll. Among the tiled photos was a picture of a penis. No idea if it was his and really don't care. Clearly, it wasn't intentional and it appears the IG story was quickly taken down.
<p>Of course, people screenshotted it before it was taken down. Then Twitter blew up. And the internet being what it is, one might expect that the photo would have dominated the Twitter feed—but it didn't. Fans are so protective of his Evans' wholesome goodness and right to privacy that thousands flooded the feed with sweet public photos of him, largely with his rescue dog, Dodger. It was a clear, purposeful effort to drown out any shares of the private photos, and from what I saw—or rather, didn't see—it worked. </p><p>Fans also pointed out that Evans has talked openly about having anxiety, so people were particularly sensitive to how the actor might feel about having such an embarrassing thing happen. </p> <div id="f736c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fd57e1447fa08a7583a1173df3dfd6f1"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1305250163368366084" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">#ChrisEvans unknowingly posted a private image for a brief moment. he is suffering from anxiety. imagine to be him… https://t.co/hKeHTgCJ99</div> — kiramvor (@kiramvor)<a href="https://twitter.com/kiramvor/statuses/1305250163368366084">1600030863.0</a></blockquote></div> <p>Post after post of Chris-being-his-awesome-self photos. </p> <p><br></p> <div id="db423" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="87b2cb24fd812612e92fee08189b6a71"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1305255543427289088" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">here’s some #chrisevans and his pup, Dodger ❤️ nothing but respect for our captain. https://t.co/d8UWJ0GbsI</div> — BLACK LIVES MATTER (@BLACK LIVES MATTER)<a href="https://twitter.com/hannnbabyy/statuses/1305255543427289088">1600032146.0</a></blockquote></div> <p><br></p> <div id="0c6bb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a5b86a42e2e13d3950530d3be002a4b9"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1305140023222730753" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Just a daily reminder that #ChrisEvans is a freaking national treasure. https://t.co/SIO5hcpOIz</div> — Emmaline (@Emmaline)<a href="https://twitter.com/oliverpenny1214/statuses/1305140023222730753">1600004604.0</a></blockquote></div> <p>It was a heartwarming response, honestly. In a world where the more salacious something is the more people click, it was lovely to see masses of Twitter users immediately mobilize to protect someone's privacy. <br></p><p>If only that were the way such leaks always went down. </p><p>Some people praised the move while simultaneously pointing out that women who have nudes leaked are not usually given the same courtesy. When Jennifer Lawrence's phone was hacked and nude photos were leaked on the internet, much of the buzz over it included people shaming her for having the photos on her phone in the first place. </p> <div id="7f7cf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9a94e8c095bc94a4f98570090de4573e"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1305199993699983360" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">@OfficialKat Reminds me of Jennifer Lawrence's case. https://t.co/msevgtKGLF</div> — Sid³⁴ (@Sid³⁴)<a href="https://twitter.com/realftmadridd/statuses/1305199993699983360">1600018902.0</a></blockquote></div> <p>Lawrence responded<a href="https://mom.com/news/15189-jennifer-lawrence-responds-awesomely-nude-photo-leak" target="_blank"> with a solid defense</a>, in which she laid out the fact that she didn't need to defend herself for what she did privately in her own relationship. But people still acted as if she had no right to that privacy as a celebrity, which is, of course, dead wrong. </p><p>There's also the fact that Lawrence's photos were illegally stolen and leaked, which adds an extra layer of offense that should enrage any decent person. Evans leaked his photos himself, which is super unfortunate, but for some reason kicked in a more compassionate response than Lawrence received. Maybe we've matured since 2014, maybe we've just become more accustomed to seeing such leaks, or maybe women are held to different standards of decency and respect. </p> <div id="1902c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="eeb73476cde99d7cf66f9ccd8fccf9d1"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1305213719127961603" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Chris Evans accidentally leaked a nude photo. For the most part, social media has rallied around him. Nobody called… https://t.co/RVNnepMYvE</div> — Anne Boleyn (Sussex Supporter) (@Anne Boleyn (Sussex Supporter))<a href="https://twitter.com/TudorChick1501/statuses/1305213719127961603">1600022174.0</a></blockquote></div> <p>Chris Evans has yet to comment on the leak and the protective response of his fans, as far as I'm aware. But his brother Scott did manage to pull off a bit of humor from the incident. </p><p>Ah, brothers. </p> <p>Let's all make a pact that when leaked nude photos of anyone start circulating, we flood the space with images they've given the public permission to see. Chris Evans got this treatment because he is beloved, well respected, and a genuinely good guy. But everyone has a basic right to privacy no matter who they are—male or female, famous or not. </p> <div id="2a2bc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6fcee574848c2a4e4ac8bb6453220efb"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1305205102249041920" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">My boy #ChrisEvans and his doggo, Dodger. Look how content he is! https://t.co/mN6nULVXnP</div> — Skias (@Skias)<a href="https://twitter.com/Skias2/statuses/1305205102249041920">1600020120.0</a></blockquote></div><p><br></p>
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Harvard historian Donald Yacovone didn't set out to write the book he's writing. His plan was to write about the legacy of the antislavery movement and the rise of the Civil Rights era, but as he delved into his research, he ran into something that changed the focus of his book completely: Old school history textbooks.
Now the working title of his book is: "Teaching White Supremacy: The Textbook Battle Over Race in American History."
The first book that caught his attention was an 1832 textbook written Noah Webster—as in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary—called "History of the United States." Yacovone, a 2013 recipient of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois medal—the university's highest award for African American studies—told the Harvard Gazette about his discovery:
"In Webster's book there was next to nothing about the institution of slavery, despite the fact that it was a central American institution. There were no African Americans ever mentioned. When Webster wrote about Africans, it was extremely derogatory, which was shocking because those comments were in a textbook. What I realized from his book, and from the subsequent ones, was how they defined 'American' as white and only as white. Anything that was less than an Anglo Saxon was not a true American. The further along I got in this process, the more intensely this sentiment came out. I realized that I was looking at, there's no other word for it, white supremacy. I came across one textbook that declared on its first page, 'This is the White Man's History.' At that point, you had to be a dunce not to see what these books were teaching."
<p>Yacovone went on to explain that white supremacy preceded the founding of the United States—it wasn't born from our history of race-based, chattel slavery—and that white identity dominated every social interaction in the 1700s and 1800s. Even many abolitionists didn't believe in true racial equality—Africans weren't generally viewed as equals; they just didn't deserve to be enslaved like animals. Yacovone explained:</p> <p><em>"Even people who opposed slavery believed that African Americans could never be absorbed by white society. Samuel Sewall, who wrote the first antislavery pamphlet in 1700, condemned slavery, but he also characterized people of African descent as 'a kind of extravasate Blood,' always alien. His idea remained central to the American mind for the next 200 years."</em></p> <p>Yacovone said textbooks began to change a bit—briefly—just after the Civil War, when African Americans finally began to be included. But it didn't take long for white supremacy to dominate education again, this time through positive depictions of slavery as a benevolent institution and dismissal of slave narratives as "propaganda":</p> <p><em>"For the most part, the textbooks from the pre-Civil War period through the end of the century followed a basic format: They would go from exploration to colonization to revolution to creation of the American republic, and then every succeeding presidential administration. Anything outside of the political narrative was not considered history and was not taught.</em></p><p><em>During the brief period of Reconstruction (1863-1877), the story emphasized the fulfillment of democracy, and the ideology of freedom suffused many books. This was a dramatic change. I even came across a couple of books that contained pictures of African Americans, and I was flabbergasted when I discovered one that had a picture of Frederick Douglass — that was unheard of. Prior to Reconstruction, textbooks had a few pictures, some engravings. But they disappear pretty quick once we get into the 20th century, because the 'Lost Cause' mythology takes over academia and white supremacy reappears with full force.</em></p><p><em>During the 1920s, the 1930s, and the 1940s, it was astonishing to see positive assessments of slavery in American history textbooks, which taught that the African American's natural environment was the institution of slavery, where they were cared for from cradle to grave. There was a legacy of African American writing about freedom, but the white power structure simply wouldn't accept it as legitimate. They dismissed the slave narratives as propaganda, downplayed the history of Africans before slavery, and ignored the work of African American scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois and others."</em></p> <p>Yacovone said textbooks began to improve after the Civil Rights movement. Today, the issue is not so much about the materials available as the collective will to teach it. We are no longer bound by limited texts—we have online curriculums that provide a broader picture of the true history of race and racism in the U.S.—but teachers have to be willing and able to teach that history. </p> <p><em>"In the mid 1960s, textbooks began noticeably to change because attitudes and scholarship were changing in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement...There was a gradual reintroduction of the African American element in history textbooks. And now, many history teachers don't even use textbooks. They're using online resources. Some of the best work is being produced by the </em><a href="https://www.zinnedproject.org/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"><em>Zinn Education Project</em></a><em>, the Gilder-Lehrman Center, and the </em><a href="https://www.tolerance.org/frameworks/teaching-hard-history/american-slavery/key-concept-videos" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank"><em>Southern Poverty Law Center</em></a><em>.</em></p><p><em>But even when textbooks are accurate, teachers have to be willing to teach it. We know there are many white teachers who are afraid of doing it. And you have to have school systems, both public and private, committed to doing this work and not to punish teachers for doing so, which is happening…"</em></p><p>Let's pause for a moment think about the impact of generation upon generation, right up until our current Baby Boomers, being overtly taught white supremacy in their school textbooks. That generation taught the next, who is teaching the current young people. While the materials have vastly improved in the past sixty years, there's a long legacy there to overcome. </p><p>And what happens when we ignore our legacy of teaching white supremacy? What happens when we don't acknowledge that that's how Americans were taught for most of our country's history? What happens if we don't teach the full history of slavery on our soil?</p><p>Yacovone addresses that too:</p><p><em>"If America is to be a nation that fulfills its democratic promise, the history of slavery and white supremacy have to be taught in schools across the country. We need to acknowledge that white supremacy remains an integral part of American society and we need to understand how we got to where we are. The consequences of not doing so are lethal. White supremacy is a toxin. The older history textbooks were like syringes that injected the toxin of white supremacy into the mind of many generations of Americans. What has to be done is teach the truth about slavery as a central institution in America's origins, as the cause of the Civil War, and about its legacy that still lives on. The consequences of not doing so, we're seeing every day."</em></p><p>You can read Yacovone's entire Harvard Gazette interview <a href="https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/09/harvard-historian-examines-how-textbooks-taught-white-supremacy/?fbclid=IwAR2qHyzqlxHVuNvmBvhbDHHcWqxNVPxmh6vY61MoZanmPuN2RgEor-GfHyY" target="_blank">here.</a> </p>
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