Where contemporary history and politics meet the challenge of today.
Why the Blind Should Lead the Blind
By the time he was four, the little boy began to notice that he could see less of the world. Had he not been born into a working-class African American family, or lived in the rural panhandle of Florida, the child might have had his condition diagnosed and treated. However, Jim Crow segregation and poverty prevented that.
By 1937, the seven-year-old, now living and attending classes at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, went from low vision to a complete loss of sight, eventually having one eye surgically removed. As he understood when he was a man, the cause of this vision loss was glaucoma, a progressive but treatable disease that destroys the eye when the pressure of accumulated fluid crushes that organ’s delicate and complex structure.
But the boy’s life was not tragic or sad. Later, Ray Charles credited his mother, Aretha Williams Robinson, with his determination to live a full life as a blind person. “You lost your sight, not your mind,” he remembers her telling him. That clarity also gave him the strength to overcome an institutional education mostly intended to prepare disabled Black children for an adult life of menial, repetitive, underpaid manual labor.
Over the seven years he spent at the school, Charles learned to put brooms together, a profit-making enterprise that helped to support the school, one that white children were not required to perform. But he also learned to read braille, pages of small bumps that translated into language, but also into sheet music. Encouraged by a music teacher at the school, Charles trained as a classical pianist, playing with one hand while reading and memorizing the score with the other, and then reversing that process to memorize the part for the other hand.
In retrospect, although Charles used this technique because he was blind, it's also hard to imagine any activity that could be better for a maturing brain. But Charles’s life, often seen as a triumph over blindness, illustrates a larger point: blindness was part of who he was as a person, and may have been part of his musical genius. It also illustrates that many people who become legally blind have lived part of their lives as sighted and retain some vision. For example, Charles, who burst onto the national scene as a teenager in 1949 when he charted at #2 with “Confession Blues,” was sighted and partially sighted for a significant chunk of his life. Even when his vision loss was complete, Charles’s mind was still imprinted with colors, objects, and people, and throughout his life, he continued to gather sensory data that allowed him to experience the world visually.
In 1972, Charles sat down with television talk show host Dick Cavett, who asked whether, were it possible, the now-iconic musician would want his sight restored. In retrospect, Cavett’s approach to the subject of blindness is often as tasteless as the still-common phrase that describes futility: “the blind leading the blind.”
For example, riffing off of Charles’s abilities as a musician, as if they were improbable for a blind person, Cavett asked the artist about other things he could do. Could Charles land his private plane in an emergency? (Charles responded that he actually thought he knew enough about flying that he could.) Or could he perform an appendectomy? Although Charles had no medical training, there are, in fact, blind surgeons who do the delicate work of dissection through a refined sense of touch. Later, when Charles said that he had been watching the Cavett show for years, the host jumped on the word “watched.” Charles graciously explained that he saw everything sighted people did, because every piece of information entering his mind triggered his visual imagination.
As journalist Andrew Leland explains in The Country of the Blind: A Memoir At the End of Sight (Penguin/Random House 2023), despite the fact that sighted people “equate blindness with darkness, it's rarely experienced as a bl
Heather Cox Richardson Believes In You
You remember that morning. It was November 9, 2016, and defeated presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had gotten even less sleep the night before than the rest of us. In fact, things had started falling apart early on election night. Confirmed political junkies like me saw the look on James Carville’s face in the hour after the polls closed in Florida, listened to his uncharacteristically clipped, subdued tone, and knew he wasn’t seeing the early numbers for Clinton that he wanted in that state—or anywhere else.
Clinton would not learn definitively that she had lost the election for another nine hours. But the mood in places like my neighborhood in New York City grew increasing gloomy throughout the evening. We watched, stunned, as Clinton lost states to Donald Trump she should have won, and was deadlocked or behind in key midwestern states that the Democrats had held in national elections for generations. By 2:00 a.m., critical bricks in that so-called “Blue Wall”—Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—had either fallen, or were falling, to Trump.
I went to bed uncertain what America I would wake up to. Hillary may have gone to bed—but if she did, as I said—I don’t think she slept much.
The next day, Clinton gave what was by any measure an outstanding concession speech, wearing a black suit with purple satin lapels that was supposed to summon the history of women’s suffrage to the victory platform. Now her outfit seemed downright funereal. And compared to what has happened since, Clinton’s words sound like they came from another century, not seven years ago.
“Last night I congratulated Donald Trump and offered to work with him on behalf of our country. I hope he will be a successful president for all Americans,” she said, recounting the early morning concession call. This was a particularly gracious offer, considering that Trump had encouraged his partisans to chant “Lock her up,” invited women who had accused her husband of sexual assault to one of the debates, and spread false rumors that Clinton herself was chronically, perhaps fatally, ill.
I won’t go on. Unless you are younger than ten, you probably remember it yourself. And you remember what came after: a unilateral ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries entering the United States. The brief elevation of a conspiracy theorist to the position of National Security advisor. An attempt to blackmail Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into smearing Joe Biden with a fake corruption scandal. Impeachment Number One. An attempt to overthrow a legally constituted United States election. Impeachment Number Two!
By the time Joe Biden was inaugurated in January 2021, we knew that Trumpism was an assault on our democratic system the likes of which we had not seen since the Civil War.
Somewhere in there, Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College, started writing long Facebook posts about the state of our nation. Richardson is no stranger to creating history for a general audience. She has written seven books, and nearly all of them could be a holiday gift for your relative who is passionate about intelligent, well-written political history. She has done three podcasts, most recently Now and Then, co-hosted with Yale historian Joanne Freeman.
But those Facebook posts began to gather a mass audience, and in 2019, Richardson launched a Substack, Letters From an American, to help what was now a substantial readership make sense of the first Trump impeachment. Once the impeachment was over, she plucked a news item from the day’s political events to delve into or told a story from our nation’s history that illuminated the present.
Four years later, Richardson is still at it. Every morning, there is a newsletter waiting for subscribers that number in the hundreds of thousands (actually, at last count it was 1.2 million.) Letters From An American is the top politics newsletter on Substack, beating out The Bulw
Episode 40: Oswald's Mother
We had a feedback issue on this recording. We managed to eliminate most of it, but if you hear a squeak, or a bit of distortion, that’s us—not your equipment. More importantly, the show is about gun violence. If this is a trigger, you may want to skip this episode.
Before September 11, 2001, the cultural moment that everyone my age and older had in common—the sharing of confidences that begins with the phrase “Where were you when….” was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. On November 22, 1963, I was five. My mother had picked me up at nursery school and taken me into town to the Reading Terminal Market in South Philadelphia. This is where we were when, thousands of miles away in Dealey Plaza, a central thoroughfare in Dallas, Texas, a 21-year-old drifter named Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots. Two hit the president, and one wounded Texas Governor John Connally.
Today, the news would have been tweeted instantly, but back then it took ten minutes or so for it to be reported out, as beat reporters pushed each other out of the way at pay telephones. Most famously, CBS News’s Walter Cronkiteinterrupted the popular soap opera, As the World Turns, to break the story.
My mother, and everyone else line at one of the Italian stalls that sold meat, fish, and fresh vegetables, heard the news on a radio playing behind the counter. I remember only a churn of women’s legs around me—remember, I was five, and was as tall as the average hemline—and my mother seizing my hand and running to the door. “We have to go home,” she said. “The President has been shot.”
We got into her big yellow Mercury and started our drive to the suburbs with the radio on. I wasn’t really listening, but what I remember was this: my mother pulled to the side of the road and began to cry. I looked through the windshield (yes, children sat in the front seat then) and one after another, cars were pulling onto the shoulder.
Afternoon television audiences still watching As The World Turns, saw Cronkite return to their screen, choking back tears, to tell them that the President was dead.
At 2:38 p.m., Air Force One took off with First Lady Jacquelyn Kennedy on board and JFK’s body in the hold on its way to an autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital. In mid-air Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson took the oath of office as the 36th president of the United States. A few hours later, the assassin—a little-known figure named Lee Harvey Oswald--was captured in a Dallas movie theater, after killing again, this time patrolman J.D. Tippit. Oswald was a former Marine, defector to Russia, and briefly, a streetcorner activist with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Needless to say, initial speculation was that he was a foreign agent striking a blow against the leader of the free world.
That turned out to be wrong. Furthermore, in a brief appearance before a swarm of reporters outside the Dallas Police Department headquarters, Oswald insisted that he didn’t do it.
Of course, since he was a child, Oswald had never accepted responsibility for any of his misdeeds. We’ll get to that—but to say the least, his public disavowal of the crime that day complicated things—forever.
Had there been a trial, and Oswald proven to be the lone gunman, perhaps what became the foundational conspiracy theory in modern political history would never have been born. But on November 24, the day before President Kennedy’s funeral, that conspiracy theory gathered strength. Like millions of other Americans, I watched wide-eyed as a handcuffed Oswald was himself murdered in the basement of the Dallas Police Department by a nightclub owner Jack Ruby linked to the Mafia.
These events were a turning point in American life. Although Presidents had been assassinated before, I was born into an America where gun violence didn’t suddenly erupt in public places. By the end of the decade, that was no longer true. A few months before Kennedy was shot, civil righ
Episode 39: Old Enough To Fight, Old Enough To Vote
This episode begins with a 1994 exchange between a teenage American voter and sitting President William Jefferson Clinton. Running against an incumbent, Republican George W. Bush, in 1992, Clinton wanted to emphasize his youth. He played the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show, and appeared on MTV as part of the cable music channel’s youth voter initiative, “Choose or Lose.” In a town hall-style symposium, when asked by a young voter whether he had ever tried marijuana, Clinton deadpanned: “I didn’t inhale.” It was a canny answer. It showed that he wasn’t a prude, while expressing caution about the wisdom of intoxication. It also made Clinton the first president to talk about recreational drug use outside of a criminal justice context.
Clinton promised to return to the channel if he were elected, and in 1994 he did, leading to the famous “boxers or briefs” episode when he also became the first President to let an audience imagine him in his underpants.
Between 1968 and 1988—that’s five presidential elections—only one Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, won election to the White House. So, MTV was onto something during the Clinton campaign. Recruiting younger voters was a way to break Republicans’ hold on the presidency without being overtly partisan. Like Rock the Vote, an earlier initiative by Virgin Records executive Jeff Ayeroff, MTV sought to elevate its cultural position and use the power of cool to mobilize the 18–29-year-old demographic, only 20% of whom had cast a vote in 1988.
And by the way, of that 20%, a majority, 53%, had voted for Bush.
Between 1972 and 1988, youth voters either tipped Republican, or split evenly, probably reflecting longstanding GOP organizing on college campuses. I talk about this in my book, Political Junkies. Young people voted in relatively small numbers, and they still do. However, in 1992, they tipped Democratic. Only 11% of eligible voters in the 18-24 demographic cast a vote, and 10% between the ages of 25-29, but young people went to Clinton by 13 and 5 points, unseating Bush. And although they voted in even smaller numbers in 1996, young voters leaned even more heavily towards Clinton and away from the lugubrious Republican Senator from Kansas, Bob Dole.
The idea that young people have an investment in the future was the motivating force behind lowering the voting age to 18, a campaign for enfranchisement waged from early 1942 until July 1, 1971, when the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. For three decades, supporters emphasized military service as the criterion for maturity: men were eligible to be drafted at 18 and could volunteer at 17.
Although they have been voting for 50 years, the 18-24 demographic still does not punch its weight: only 17% cast a ballot in 2020 in an election that boasted a higher participation rate—66.3%--than any other election for 120 years. Yet, even if they do not vote in great numbers, young Americans are increasingly political and, in the absence of a military draft, they mobilize around other issues: the high cost of education, gun violence, racial and economic justice, reproductive rights and climate change are major issues that students promote.
Which is why some politicians, like Representative Ayanna Pressley (D, MA-O7), are suggesting that the federal voting age be lowered to 16, something that has already happened in three Maryland cities and Berkeley, California.
Pressley’s definition of citizenship goes beyond formal national service, linking patriotism to the work young people do in their families and communities. Voting at 16 could become a big issue, in part because it would potentially blunt the impact of voters 65 and over, who vote in much higher numbers and more conservatively. And it’s why I turned to historian Jennifer Frost, Associate Professor of History at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and her new book, "Let Us Vote!" Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment (2022),
Episode 38: The Adventures Of A Very Amateur Historian
You probably recognize the tune this episode begins with: it’s “The Song of the Volga Boatmen,” sung by Leonid Kharitonov and the Red Army Orchestra at Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow in 1965. It’s a folk song, originally sung by Russian barge haulers, or burlaks working on the Volga River in the 19th century. These peasants, in teams, literally hauled barges down the river, like beasts of burden, earning barely enough money to keep themselves and their families alive.
Over time the song came to stand in for the strength and the spirit of a Russian people laboring under an absolute monarchy and the capitalist system that propped it up. Each verse’s repetitive “Yo, heave ho” not only evoked the numbing, back-breaking labor that bound Russians to lives of misery and privation under the Tsar, but also for the capacity of the people to endure and fight for their own freedom. The Russian monarchy finally fell in the face of the successful 1917 revolution, giving way to a Communist state that survived until December 8, 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved.
But well before 1917, there were periodic uprisings of peasants, intellectuals, and workers who hoped to make a better world. In 1648, Muscovites rebelled against the imposition of a salt tax. In 1698, 4000 soldiers overthrew their commanders and marched to Moscow, demanding that the exiled Russian Princess Sophia Alexeyevna be made Tsarina instead of 17-year-old Peter I. In 1771, rioters entered Red Square, broke into the Kremlin, and sacked a monastery. In 1825, three thousand rebellious soldiers demanded a constitution and that the Grand Duke Constantine be put on the throne. Anti-imperial uprisings occurred periodically in Poland throughout the 19th century, as ordinary Poles demanded freedom from the Tsar’s rule. Despite constant repression and policing, socialism, anarchism, and other radical ideologies spread like wildfire through the Russian Empire.
The quest of the Russian people for democracy continues to this day, something that is worth remembering as the world musters support for the defense of Ukraine against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war machine. We don’t usually do Russian history on this podcast, but when I saw Allison Epstein’s new historical novel, Let the Dead Bury the Dead, just out this month from Penguin/Random House, I knew I wanted to read a story about Russians fighting for freedom. It’s a ripping tale about an officer coming home from the Napoleonic Wars to the man he loves, who just happens to be the tsar’s second son, a diffident, louche fellow who suddenly grows a conscience. And it also stars a brave band of revolutionaries, determined to set their country free, no matter what. And oh, yes—there’s a witch.
This is Allison’s second historical novel, and her first about Russia. They are serious works of historical fiction that you will love, But she’s also funny. A fellow Substacker, Allison writes a newsletter called Dirtbags Through the Ages, which is exactly what it sounds like. Posts have titles like “that don’t empress me much” (about Empress Elizabeth of Russia), “double, double, toil and throuple” (the sexual antics of James I of England), and “a real papal pleaser: Or, the horny and heretical adventures of tenth-century Bad Pope John XII.”
I love historical fiction: as I say in this interview, it’s what got me interested in history as a child, and I still turn to it—for pleasure, and to think through narrative strategies for the nonfiction books I write.
So, I knew I had to get Allison on the show.
* Would you like to read a first-hand account of the 1917 Russian Revolution? Try journalist John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, originally published in the United States in 1919.
* Allison notes that her novel begins as French Emperor Napoleon’s army is retreating from Moscow through a brutal Russian winter. This event wasmemorialized in Tchaikowsky’s 1812 Overture
Episode 37: Black Resistance, Black Joy
The peaceful march in Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 6, 2020, was organized by a chapter of the Black Lives Matter network to protest the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was one of numerous protests held around the United States and the world to protest Floyd’s death. But organizers also insisted on not treating this one murder as an isolated incident. Instead, it was another chapter in the daily violence against Black people that has not ceased since human beings were first exported from the African continent, sold, and consigned to forced labor over 500 years ago.
Let’s be clear: Black Lives Matter is a slogan, it’s a hashtag, it’s a way to organize in communities. However scholars refer to this latest incarnation of the Black freedom struggle as the Movement for Black Lives. And it’s not a new civil rights movement, although the tools of civil rights—the right to walk across a university quad without being stopped by campus police, the right not to be murdered for a minor traffic infraction, the right not to be killed in your own home during the execution of a no-knock warrant, the right not to be suffocated during an unnecessary arrest—all of these rights are certainly relevant.
Instead, the Movement for Black Lives seeks to transform a society that has always been lethal for Black people. And in our gun-saturated American culture, where white nationalism plays an increasing role in unleashing violence, it isn’t always the police that take Black lives. This new phase of the freedom struggle was inaugurated in 2012 when neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman saw African American teenager Trayvon Martin walking down the street in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman stalked the younger man and in the course of an illegal attempt to apprehend and question him, shot Martin. Why? Because, as Zimmerman explained, the young man was wearing a hoodie and looked suspicious.
Not only did the Department of Justice decline to prosecute Zimmerman under federal hate crimes statutes, but on June 10, 2013, a jury also acquitted him of all charges. Stunned at the verdict, Los Angeles community organizer Patrisse Cullors wrote on her Facebook: #BlackLIvesMatter. In subsequent days, Cullors, Opal Tometti, and Alicia Garza created what they called the Black Lives Matter network, a collection of organizations around the country that reignited the freedom struggle by organizing to stop police violence through community-based direct action and imagining a future where the most vulnerable among us—women, queers, immigrants, trans and disabled people—were at the center of the Movement’s concerns.
The Movement for Black Lives makes demands on municipalities; the decriminalization of society and redirecting police budgets to humanitarian needs are among them. Like some earlier social justice movements, organizers are deeply embedded in their own communities and committed to a democratic praxis, this time informed by Black feminism. But unlike prior movements, which often centered on the entry of Black people into existing institutions such as education, politics, and business, the movement centers a broader critique of capitalist society and demands transformation. As movement scholar Deva Woodly has argued, “What democratic education should do and what social movements must do is to help people connect the dots between the problems that they are experiencing in their own lives, their values, and possible and desirable solutions.”
Because of its decentralized nature, the movement isn’t easy to study. Scholars have to be agile and commit to the small community groups that spend less of their time marching and protesting over the high-profile murders that make the national news than in working through the daily forms of violence that don’t make the news, practicing care in community, processing trauma, and making sure that Black lives are not only mourned, but celebrated, honored, and commi
So, so smart
This newborn podcast does such a super job of inviting guests who can talk intelligently about American history and always explaining why the stories and lessons of history are relevant today. I love it. Personable and smart.