Ashlie D. Stevens

The parentification trap: How evangelical daughters like the Duggar girls become mothers in training

By the time she was 13 years old, Ruth's daily schedule was almost identical to that of her mother's.

Both would wake up at 5:30 a.m. and spend an hour picking away at the seemingly endless list of chores associated with running what would eventually become a 12-person household: laundering and mending the mountain of hand-me-down clothes that occupied a corner of the kitchen, loading up three slow cookers with ingredients for dinner, cleaning the bathrooms before they'd be in use, on-and-off, all day.

If Ruth's mom was pregnant — which is how Ruth, who asked that only her first name be used, primarily remembers her — then the bulk of the work would fall to Ruth. She would be the one to wake her younger siblings and prepare them breakfast before walking the ones who were old enough to a church-run elementary school nearby.

"I didn't really have the option to pursue school outside of homeschooling, though, because my mom needed me to help with the much younger kiddos," Ruth told me in a phone call.

"I remember complaining about it for the first time when I was probably 11 and I'll never forget what she told me," she continued. "She said, 'Ruth, this is what God made you for.'"

Ruth, who is now 31 and lives outside of Atlanta, describes her family's religion as a "slippery slope that led to Quiverfull."

Her father was raised in a sleepy independent Baptist church in rural Georgia in the 1970s.

"But he always had a flair for the dramatic," Ruth said. "Dad liked the Bible stories about the 'big miracles.' Jesus feeding the thousands, Moses parting the Red Sea, that kind of thing. So, when he visited a Pentecostal tent revival, where they were handling snakes and speaking in tongues, I think that was it for him."

Her father, she says, was deeply compelled by the idea of demonstrating one's faith in God through outsized public displays. He gravitated towards scripture that encouraged followers of Christ to "be in the world, but not of the world." After traveling through the South for a few years as a self-made evangelist who did odd jobs on the side, he married and saw an opportunity to follow God to the extreme by having as many children as possible to serve Christ.

When asked about his decision, Ruth remembers her father would recite a Psalm from the King James Version of the Old Testament: "As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them."

It's the same verse that other adherents to Quiverfull ideology — as well as the scandal-ridden Duggar family of TLC's "19 Kids and Counting," who have previously said they do not identify as part of the Quiverfull movement — point to as a theological backing for their movement. They interpret it as a command to reproduce often without any birth control or family planning.

"I grew up around at least a half dozen other Quiverfull families, maybe more," Ruth said. "And the parents, the fathers mostly, would talk about what a blessing children are, but I'll tell you, they didn't care about the female arrows in their quiver."

Even in many more mainstream evangelical congregations, girls are trained up to be wives and mothers.

Before I hit puberty, youth leaders at my parents' Baptist church would talk to us about the virtues inherent to "Proverbs 31 wives," which was based on a description of the ideal Godly woman that was purportedly written by King Solomon — who, if you'll remember, also supposedly had 700 wives and 300 concubines. (The irony is overwhelming in retrospect).

It was made clear that we were to be pure and virtuous "help meets" for our future husbands, someone to assist them in their role as spiritual leader of the household.

In Quiverfull families, however, the eldest daughters often take on the role of "little mothers," as the blog "Quivering Daughters" aptly put it, or as additional help meets.

While it's inevitable in any family with multiple children that the older siblings will have some responsibilities that younger siblings do not, in families that reach the double-digits in size and where Biblical patriarchy is preached, the burden falls heavily to the girls, which can have long-lasting psychological effects.

In 2017, The Atlantic published an article titled "When Kids Have to Act Like Parents, It Affects Them for Life," which dove into the concept of "destructive parentification," a form of emotional abuse or neglect where a child becomes the caregiver to their parent or sibling. Researchers are increasingly finding that in addition to upending a child's development, this role reversal can leave deep emotional scars well into adulthood.

Lisa M. Hooper, a University of Louisville professor who studies parentification, told the publication that many children who were made to parent their siblings now "experience severe anxiety, depression, and psychological distress. Others report succumbing to eating disorders and substance abuse."

"The symptoms look similar to some extent, from cradle to grave," Hooper told the Atlantic.

Donna Jackson Nakazawa, the author of "Childhood Disrupted," added: "Chronic, unpredictable stress is toxic when there's no reliable adult."

Much of the research that has been done on destructive parentification focused primarily on children whose parents were neglectful or unavailable because of alcoholism or addiction. But a survey of writings from women who were raised as Quiverfull daughters shows similar evidence of feeling anxiously unmoored.

Hillary McFarland, the author of "Quivering Daughters: Hope and Healing for the Daughters of Patriarchy," shared an excerpt of an old diary entry on her blog in 2009. She'd written it when she was 14.

"I'm having a bad day today," she wrote. "I'm just so tired! I'm so tired of working—there is always something that needs to be done and dad is never satisfied. I'm tired of being overwhelmed with everything. I'm tired of washing dishes every night, I wish that the house would stay clean for 2-3 days—the kids are always cutting up paper, getting out toys, splashing water all over the bathroom sink, getting mud and sand all over the bathroom floor."

She continued: "I'm tired of getting mad at my brothers and sisters, I wish I were perfect. I absolutely abhor the thought that every idle word will be judged . . . lately I have been doing some self-analyzing, or examining—I'm trash . . . I'm sick of disappointing God."

That concept of disappointing God runs heavily through Quiverfull families. In many cases, there aren't enough hours in a day or resources, emotional and financial, to go around and it's burdensome; but as Vyckie Garrison, a former Quiverfull wife told Salon in an interview last week, many mothers approach it as a spiritual challenge or a backyard mission field.

"The [fellow Quiverfull] women would tell me, 'Missionaries risk their lives every day and they do it because it's their calling,'" she said. "'When they get to heaven, they'll get their martyr's crown.' There's a huge martyr's mentality."

Over the last decade, the concept of parentification has gained enough mainstream traction that former viewers of the now-cancelled TLC show "19 Kids and Counting" have started to question whether the network's framing of the family as an oversized "Waltons" was shielding something more sinister, especially as the family's eldest son, Josh, has fallen into scandal after scandal, and has now been arrested for the possession of child pornography.

Throughout the years, there have been numerous web forums and subreddits dedicated to going back and watching old footage of the show while advocating for the "freedom" of some of the Duggar family's daughters. Former Quiverfull daughters are now speaking out as well while the family is under increased scrutiny.

"One time, my family attended a talk by the Duggar parents and my baby brother was crying, so I had to take him out to the hall where all the other older daughters were handling their parents' babies, including Jessa and we all shared this exhausted look that I remember to this day," one Twitter user wrote.

She continued: "Looking back now, it's so f**king funny that you had all these families who worshipped the Duggars and their way of life and all these daughters were in the hall with their parents' babies just like… f**k this, I'm tired."

Ruth felt this acutely while growing up. Most nights, she would only get five hours of sleep — between staying up late to finish chores, waking throughout the night to feed or comfort one of the babies, and getting up early — and was always exhausted.

"Since I was so tired, I would lash out at my parents and siblings and then I would get reprimanded," she said. "While I was being punished, I would angrily pray to God, 'Why are you doing this to me? I'm just trying to serve you.'"

Ruth ended up running away when she was 17 after watching "Now, Voyager," a 1942 film starring Bette Davis. Her parents were strict about what she and her siblings watched, but most "black and white classics" were deemed acceptable.

The film takes its name from the Walt Whitman poem "The Untold Want," which says, "The untold want, by life and land ne'er granted, Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find."

"In it, Bette Davis' character lives with a controlling mother who always puts her down and then she has this mental break," Ruth said. "She ends up moving away, getting healthy, becoming fashionable and then she comes back. I thought that I could do that, too. All I really wanted was a break."

Her break was a little less glamorous than Davis'. She got a job at a local convenience store and split rent with an elderly coworker. At night, she studied for her GED and on weekends, she'd eat cereal in her pajamas and watch television — trashy reality shows and Animal Planet, mostly.

It was the first time in Ruth's life that she didn't have a schedule; it was also the first time that she really watched the Duggars on television. "I watched this sanitized version of what Quiverfull life was like and I was hurt, I was disgusted," she said. "I can't even look at them to this day without getting angry."

Ruth said she hopes that the Duggars' crumbling facade in the face of Josh's scandals will make the public question other aspects of the family life they modeled for years on TV.

"I think back to how my mom said, 'God made you for this,' and I finally had to say, 'No, God made me for more,'" she said.

The dark side of Mother Teresa's order

One of the most striking things about the new podcast "The Turning: The Sisters Who Left" is how some of the former nuns describe their experiences with life behind the walls of Mother Teresa's world-famous order, the Missionaries of Charity: in language reminiscent of the way we talk about cults.

They use terms like "isolation" and "brainwashing." They were only permitted to write home once a month and visit home once every decade. They describe what it feels like to look at a single human: as having a direct line to holiness.

Of course there were beautiful, spiritually affirming moments, too — times where these women felt achingly close to the God for whom they'd given up their normal lives — but for some, the suffering and separation were too much. "The whole idea was to make you feel as alone as possible," Kelli Dunham, a self-described "ex-nun," said.

It was enough to make some fantasize about escaping — and some did. Through "The Turning," a new 10-episode podcast by Rococo Punch and iHeartMedia, producer and host Erika Lantz tells their stories.

"I really am interested in stories that don't have a clear right and wrong," Lantz told Salon in an interview. "I think there's a lot of gray in the story. There are different sets of facts and, depending on what perspective you're using to look at them, you might have a very different opinion of what they mean."

Understanding their journeys starts with understanding the cultural power of Mother Teresa herself. Though she wasn't canonized as a saint until 16 years after her death in 1997, she was recognized as saintly by many in the Catholic church and beyond long before then due to her charitable work, especially after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

The order she founded in 1950, the Missionaries of Charity, ran soup kitchens and opened and staffed orphanages and schools for the underprivileged across the globe (though not without some controversy), and still manages homes for the terminally ill. Over the course of 71 years, thousands upon thousands of women took vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and "wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor."

Because of that, Lantz said, Mother Teresa's name has become a "synonym for kindness."

"It's like the shorthand in our culture," she said. "When I started working on this project, I noticed that people would drop her name as a metaphor. Even in 'Tiger King,' and this isn't a direct quote, but you had someone introduce Carole Baskin as 'the Mother Teresa of Cats.'"

Many of the women with whom Lantz spoke, even if they had left the order, said that the reverence towards Mother Teresa was absolutely warranted. "She was so close to God and you knew it when she was there," one said.

But life within the order Mother Teresa had created was hard.

The sisters kept a rigid schedule that began at 4:30 a.m. and only included 30 minutes of unstructured recreation time, which was most often spent catching up on work that hadn't gotten done. Though they were required to go everywhere in pairs, the nuns were never allowed to have private conversations and would instead recite prayers together.

This was to encourage chastity, a virtue that, as Lantz found out in her reporting, Mother Teresa was strict about maintaining, almost to the point of paranoia. After all, the Missionaries of Charity were spiritually wed to Jesus and were organized to "satiate the thirst of Jesus Christ on the Cross for Love and Souls."

It's a telling detail that Mother Teresa was so intently focused on Christ's crucifixion. While, as Lantz put it in "The Turning," one would anticipate that the scriptural passages that would have most impacted Mother Teresa would have centered on Jesus' interactions with the poor, sick and hungry, she was perhaps most moved by how his pain catalyzed his holiness.

This was reflected in how the sisters lived in their respective convents, the series reports. Why would you pray from a chair when you could kneel on the hard ground? Why would you open the windows or wear one less layer when you could simply swelter? Why, as in the case of one nun, would you rest in bed after sustaining major burns when you could go back to work in almost unspeakable pain?

However, as Lantz found out, the emphasis on achieving holiness through suffering didn't stop there. As is revealed early in "The Turning," the sisters would frequently engage in self-flagellation.

Mary Johnson, a former nun and author of "An Unquenchable Thirst" — who also spoke with Salon back in 2013 about her experiences in the order — joined the Missionaries of Charity when she was 19 after seeing Mother Teresa on the cover of TIME Magazine.

She detailed her first self-flagellation session to Lantz, remembering how the bundle of cords she was given left her upper thighs streaked with red and white lines. In the bathroom stall next to her, there was another, more experienced nun doing the same thing.

This shocked Lantz, who said that the effects of that kind of trauma, even if self-inflicted, are lasting for many of the former sisters.

"I don't think anyone pictures Mother Teresa and imagines that her sisters are whipping themselves daily," she said. "I know Mary Johnson had told me, at one point, she asked her now-husband to beat her — he did not, I should say —because she craved a way to have relief from guilt."

As Johnson told Lantz, the extreme nature of the religious order is part of its appeal, but it also contributes to some of the "cultishness."

"It did surprise me that multiple sisters started using words like 'cult' or 'mind-control' or being 'brainwashed,'" Lantz said. "It doesn't necessarily mean those women thought they were in a cult, but it often felt like the closest thing they could compare it to. And it's interesting — often we think of cults as being on the fringes of society, but here we have the Catholic Church and Mother Teresa, who is so admired around the world."

"I think it's important to look at any institution with power with a critical eye and examine what role that power plays," she added. "When you have a strict vow of obedience, where the superior is a direct voice of God, you're creating a power dynamic."

Throughout "The Turning," Lantz examines how that power dynamic played out in other ways through abuses, betrayals and forbidden love. She also teases out, quite beautifully, a question that many will enter the series thinking: "Why didn't these women leave sooner?"

"It's hard because you believe that Jesus has been fervently calling you to this, it's what you must do," Lantz said. "Once you take that vow of obedience, that includes obeying God's will for you. Then Mother Teresa is also telling you that you've been called. It's hard to leave that. For some it's impossible."

The first two episodes of "The Turning: The Sisters Who Left" are now available. New episodes will be released weekly, wherever you get your podcasts.

'Didn't help us': Guy Fieri calls out Jeff Bezos for not donating to relief fund for food workers

Food Network star Guy Fieri claimed that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos did not contribute to an emergency relief fund that the honorary Flavortown mayor formed for out-of-work restaurant employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Fieri said he launched the relief fund soon after the pandemic began because he was angry at the way local restaurants were left out of the handling of the national health crisis and associated government relief efforts.

"I don't get pissed or lose my sh*t," he said. "But I was pissed."

Most of the small, local restaurants that would have appeared on his long-running Food Network series "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" likely only had enough money in the bank to last 10 days amid government-mandated shut-downs and reductions of services, Fieri told the Hollywood Reporter.

"[Fieri] decided to ask his business manager for contact info for CEOs of major corporations," the article said. "He drafted personal emails to power brokers like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, soliciting donations for an emergency relief fund that would ultimately award more than 43,000 grants — of $500 each — to out-of-work line cooks, servers and other restaurant professionals."

Food Network President Courtney White said there was no better salesman than Fieri.

"There's a power to his enthusiasm," she said. "It gets people to rally around his vision, whether it's a pitch for a show or in raising all that money."

Fieri went on to receive large donations from PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Uber Eats.

"I'm not into shaming people and telling who didn't donate," he said. "That's not my style."

However, after a pause, Fieri revealed to the publication that neither Bezos nor Amazon had rallied around the cause.

"Jeff, by the way, didn't help us," he revealed.

Regardless, Fieri has raised more than $25 million for food workers left unemployed by COVID-19 closures over the last year. He also co-directed "Restaurant Hustle 2020: All on the Line," a documentary that premiered in December and highlighted four chefs trying to stay in business amid the pandemic. A sequel is planned for this summer.

The right wing launches a new sexist attack against First Lady Jill Biden

Over the weekend, First Lady Jill Biden's patterned tights went viral on conservative Twitter. It began when a photograph of her deplaning at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland — wearing a tailored black blazer, an A-line leather skirt, the aforementioned tights and black booties — was shared on the platform and a user likened them to "fishnet stockings."

It started a really nasty pile-on, underscored by a lot of Republicans drawing comparisons to former first lady Melania Trump; a couple of the tamer comments read, "Jill Biden is too old to be wearing fishnets. It's gross. Melania, on the other hand, would rock them," and "Madonna called and wants her trashy look back, Doc."

Biden's supporters were quick to defend her. "She is wonderful, you are jealous," one wrote, while another added: "She looked very chic."

For what it's worth, Biden's tights weren't actually fishnets. They were sheer tights with a geometric pattern — not that it should matter, obviously. However, the immediate backlash to Biden's outfit echoes past pearl-clutching, especially from conservatives, about what type of clothing is "appropriate" for the first lady of the United States.

It's an exercise that often speaks to a certain societal discomfort with reconciling cultural understandings of what femininity and power look like, and has since extended to criticism of how other women politicians dress.

According to Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the author of "First Ladies: The Saga of Presidents' Wives and Their Power," first ladies of the United States have held a "highly visible, yet undefined, position in the U.S. government."

"The role of the first lady, the U.S. president's spouse, has evolved from fashion trendsetter and hostess of White House dinners to a more substantive position," he wrote. "While there have been diverging views on the roles of women in society, the first lady is still a role model for American women. One of the highest-profile jobs in the U.S. government comes with no official duties, no paycheck, and almost limitless possibilities."

Inherent to that concept of being a role model is an understanding that the first lady will be, well, "ladylike." The meaning of that term has shifted some throughout time, though it denotes politeness and a certain demureness or docility. As such, it's no surprise that male politicians have weaponized the term against their female counterparts, like when Republican Todd Akin complained that his Democratic opponent, Claire McCaskill, was not sufficiently "ladylike" in 2012.

This expectation of demureness has long extended to FLOTUS fashion, which has ignited a number of fashion scandals throughout history. When Mary Todd Lincoln wore shoulderless, sleeveless dresses, she was criticized as "showing off her bosom." Several years later, the Women's Christian Temperance Union started a petition over Florence Cleveland's sleeveless gowns, claiming they were an immoral influence on America's young women.

While some first ladies have been criticized as being "frumpy" — Mamie Eisenhower with her pressed shirt dresses and Hillary Clinton in her pant suits, for instance — it seems that there's no bigger affront to being in a position of political power or prestige than being considered provocative. We've seen this reaffirmed over and over again as more and more women take office of their own.

For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been criticized for her signature red lip – which she wears as a nod to Latina culture – as being too frivolous or seductive, a sentiment that was echoed by some conservatives when a video of her dancing in college was released hours after she was sworn in.

It remains to be seen, however, how or if eventual first gentlemen (FGOTUS?) will be judged by their attire. The closest search result that comes up when you Google "Doug Emhoff too sexy" is a lighthearted piece by The Forward, "Kamala Harris' husband Doug Emhoff is our hot Jewish dad crush," and we all know that male politicians' style choices rarely cause a blip on the radar. I don't think I've ever seen a commentator decry an especially vibrant red tie as too much for the House floor, for instance.

Yet in more recent memory, Michelle Obama ignited controversy by wearing a pair of shorts while exiting Air Force One at Grand Canyon National Park Airport which caused the blogosphere, as Time reported in August 2009, to explode with debates over whether they were "hot pants? Cutoffs? Booty Shorts?"

Obama's shorts were far from "booty shorts." They were gray, loose and looked like they could have been pulled off the shelf at GAP or J. Crew. To me, this is reminiscent of the Jill Biden tights situation. Sure, fishnets — like hot pants — are culturally recognized as sexy, if a bit campy in certain contexts (in "The Pleasures of the Text," French essayist Roland Barthes posited that the appeal was found in "intermittence, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing").

But in both situations you have commentators who seem intent on positioning certain items of clothing as more seductive than they actually are as a way to shame or discredit the women wearing them.

There is, of course, a certain amount of hypocrisy that comes from Trump supporters criticizing either Michelle Obama or Jill Biden over the appropriateness of their attire. Before marrying Donald Trump, Melania worked as a model and occasionally posed nude. Those photos ran on the cover of the the New York Post in 2016, during Trump's campaign.

The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik posited at the time that this was potentially done with Trump's knowledge, or even blessing, as the Post was resolutely pro-Trump. It could have been Trump's way, Gopnik wrote, of trying to lure his feminist opponents into "revealing their hypocritical readiness to turn on a woman with the wrong politics." That didn't happen.

"The photographs were received almost entirely without scandal, because, well, because education does happen, and change does take place, and even the most benighted among us, Trump quite possibly aside, now understand that a woman's body is hers to pose and have photographed more or less as she chooses, and that it is for the rest of us to respect her choices and to look or not at the photographs as we choose," Gopnik wrote.

It seems that Jill Biden's detractors could take that advice, as well.

'Murder Among the Mormons' filmmakers on how forgeries, faith and a salamander led to Utah bombings

Netflix's "Murder Among the Mormons" co-directors Jared Hess and Tyler Measom were both young — six and 14, respectively — when a series of Salt Lake City bombings killed several high-profile members of the Mormon church in 1985. The murders drew national attention to the church, which, after a century of being viewed as a sort of "outsider religion" plagued by 19th-century extermination orders and persecution campaigns, had become and remains one of the fastest-growing denominations in the United States.

The violent nature of the crimes was a juxtaposition against a religious group that is often caricatured for its unrelenting optimism (as David Foster Wallace once wrote, "There's always a Mormon around when you don't want one, trying your patience with unsolicited kindness"), and as such, the bombings captured tabloid attention, which quickly gave way to conspiracy theories.

"Nobody knew what was going on," Hess told Salon in an interview. "Because of that, it was a really uncomfortable time for so many people. Everyone was trying to get to the bottom of this tragedy, the likes of which Salt Lake City had never really experienced before."

Speculation continued. Was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints actually behind the bombings? Or was it tied to the impending collapse of an investment business with which two of the bombing victims were involved?

The real answer, which is comprehensively outlined over the gripping three-episode true crime docuseries, is stranger than fiction. And it's a story that many Americans either never knew or don't clearly remember.

It starts with Mark Hofmann, a master forger who had initially made a name for himself in the burgeoning Mormon antiquities market. He launched his career by selling "found" documents about the early LDS Church to collectors, or the Church itself, and was known by some at the time as the "Indiana Jones" or a "rock star" of Mormon documents.

But then, in 1984, he produced what was later termed the "Salamander Letter."

The correspondence describes how Joseph Smith found golden plates, which later resulted in the Book of Mormon, with the help of what the letter described as "a seer stone, a kind of magical looking-glass." The letter also said Smith was initially barred from gaining possession of the plates by an "old spirit" that "transfigured himself from a white salamander."

This stood in opposition to the early church's claims that it was the angel Moroni who had appeared to Smith and told him about the buried ancient record that would later become the Book of Mormon, and the fear was that the "Salamander Letter" would call into question Smith's spiritual experience by associating it with folk magic.

"I think when a lot of these documents were 'discovered,' it was really disrupting for the church, because it called into question the basis of what the church was, its history and founding," said Hess. "[The LDS Church leaders] had never dealt with anything like this before."

That revelation could potentially cause a huge rift in the denomination. Hofmann anticipated this fear and acted to suppress the letter, but then his life, finances and work came under increased scrutiny — and secrets began to emerge from his past, sparking violence.

"There's no other true crime saga out there like this," Hess said. "There are the murders, the forgeries and the religious aspects of it. And it was important to tell it from the perspective of people who lived it."

According to Hess, who is still a member of the Mormon church, and Measom, who left the faith years ago, the initial title of the series was "The Salamander," and then later "The Salamander Murders," but they were ultimately influenced by the streaming service to change it.

"I think clearer is better for Netflix true crime," Hess said. "There was this question of 'Is it about killing lizards? What is it about?' But there was this clip of archival news from the time, I think it was a national news report about all the attention on Utah, that said, 'There's murder among the Mormons.' And that was it."

Measom continued with a laugh: "Plus, we like alliteration."

The new title is more conspicuous, which Hess and Measom anticipate could turn off some potential viewers. "But I think anytime you're doing a film about a particular group, people are going to be nervous," Measom said. "You could say you're doing a film about a country club, and if someone is a member, they're going to be at least a little nervous about how it's portrayed."

However, one of the ultimate goals of the series, Hess said, was to clarify the events surrounding the Salt Lake City bombings which, while becoming part of the church's collective mythology, are largely unremembered by the mainstream public.

That was what drew him to the project after nearly two decades of making offbeat comedies like "Napoleon Dynamite," "Nacho Libre" and "Don Verdean," a 2015 comedy lightly based on Hofmann's forgeries about an archeologist who, after being bankrolled by an evangelical pastor, searches for items that can prove that the stories from the Bible are true.

"We showed it to several people during production, including my brother and some other people who are also LDS, and they said that it was educational and that it helped 'clear the air' regarding some of the details of the bombings," Hess said. "It's a true crime story that just has so many layers to it."

But the docuseries isn't just a reflection on the history of a crime. A major, contemporary theme woven throughout "Murder Among the Mormons" is how susceptible people are to disinformaion when they want to believe something simply because it supports an existing point of view, much like how Hofmann found eager buyers for his earlier forged documents.

"We are all surrounded by so much information, it's everywhere, and people could do so much research — and they just don't," Measom said. "And what Mark found in his forgery victims were people who were willing buyers, people who were susceptible to that disinformation, because they were blinded by their own faith or beliefs or sometimes greed. He even says at one point, 'When somebody says something is real, it becomes real.'"

And, "Murder Among the Mormons" quietly asserts, we could all be similarly taken. Not that we'd necessarily rack up thousands of dollars of debt to purchase purported Mormon antiquities, but for all of us, there's likely a point that we would take an ill-advised leap of faith, without fact-checking, simply because doing so supports the beliefs we currently hold. With that in mind, the series overwhelmingly eschews salaciousness for compassion in its retelling of the Salt Lake City bombings.

One of the reasons the series is able to achieve that tone is because "Murder Among the Mormons" offers unprecedented access to people who were intimately familiar with Hofmann and the bombing victims, including Brent Metcalfe, a historian who did research for Hofmann; Dorie Olds, Hofmann's ex-wife; Randy Rigby, a close friend of one of the bombing victims; Richard E. Turley Jr., a Latter-day Saint historian; and Ken Sanders, a Salt Lake City-based expert in rare books and antiquities.

Many of those interviewed for the series were still emotional about the tragedy, the filmmakers said, largely because it was underpinned by fundamental questions about faith, religion and skepticism, which are also often private topics in American culture. You see hints of this as soon as the documentary opens on a visibly upset Shannon Flynn, a rare documents dealer whose voice wavers when he's asked about Hofmann.

"Can I ask a favor?" he says. "Don't make me answer that. Don't make me answer that. Let someone else do it. I don't want to make a hero out of him. Because he was fantastic."

Hess and Measom said that getting people to open up was a process. It helped that they were both raised in the LDS church, currently lived in Salt Lake City and had been toying with the idea for a documentary project about the "Salamander Letter" for almost a decade.

Measom also has a track record of exceptionally thoughtful work about Mormonism, including the longform NPR radio documentary "Wives Tale," a short documentary about a love story between a Mormon missionary and a communist in 1974 called "Elder," and "Sons of Perdition," which "follows three teenage boys after they escape from the secretive FLDS polygamist sect and must fend for themselves in mainstream America."

But according to Measom, in the case of "Murder Among the Mormons," the biggest thing they had going for them was time. Living in Salt Lake City, they spent years going to lunch with the individuals whom they would eventually go on to interview.

"This wasn't a situation where we just spent an hour with someone to get a quote," he said. "We would sit with them, just asking questions and really listening to their memories and feelings. Think about it — how often do people have the opportunity to tell their stories and have someone really listen?"

Hess added: "A lot of the people we spoke with hadn't had to talk about [the events surrounding the bombings] for years, so I think when they started reliving it, and we were listening, the emotions became very fresh again."

"Murder Among the Mormons" is currently streaming on Netflix.

'Who cares!': Trump writes bizarre letter resigning from the Screen Actors Guild

Former president Donald Trump resigned from the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists on Thursday, after the union's National Board voted "overwhelmingly" to convene a disciplinary process that could have resulted in expelling him in response to Trump's part in inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol.

Trump released an open letter to SAG-AFTRA on what appears to be photocopied White House stationery addressed to union president Gabrielle Carteris (of "Beverly Hills 90210" fame) detailing his immediate resignation. "I write to you today regarding the so-called Disciplinary Committee hearing aimed at revoking my union membership," Trump wrote. "Who cares!"

Trump went on to write that while he was "not very familiar" with the union's work, he was proud of his work on movies and television shows like "'Home Alone 2,' 'Zoolander' and 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps'; and television shows including 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,' 'Saturday Night Live,' and of course, one of the most successful shows in television history, 'The Apprentice' – to name just a few!"

He also wrote that, due to his involvement in politics, he helped resurrect interest in television, which he characterized as a "dying platform with not much time left."

"[I've] created thousands of jobs at networks such as MSDNC and Fake News CNN, among many others," Trump wrote.

He concluded the letter by saying that he no longer wished to be involved in the union and was tendering his immediate resignation.

On Thursday afternoon, SAG-AFTRA offered a two-word statement, jointly attributed to Carteris and the union's National Executive Director David White, in response to Trump's resignation: "Thank you."

Trump's resignation letter was a response to a Jan. 19 release from SAG-AFTRA, which stated that the organization's National Board had ordered a disciplinary hearing regarding Trump's role in inciting the attack on the U.S. Capitol and "in sustaining a reckless campaign of misinformation aimed at discrediting and ultimately threatening the safety of journalists, many of whom are SAG-AFTRA members."

"Donald Trump attacked the values that this union holds most sacred – democracy, truth, respect for our fellow Americans of all races and faiths, and the sanctity of the free press," Carteris said at the time. "There's a straight line from his wanton disregard for the truth to the attacks on journalists perpetrated by his followers."

The release stated that if Trump was found guilty of violating SAG-AFTRA constitutional guidelines during the union's disciplinary committee hearing, there would be possible penalties including reprimand, censure, fines, suspension from the rights and privileges of membership, or expulsion from membership in SAG-AFTRA.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Trump had pensions at both the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Radio and Television Artists — dating back from before the two organizations merged in 2012 — and throughout his time in office continued to receive residuals from roles in projects such as "The Apprentice," "Home Alone 2" and "The Little Rascals."

Steven Mnuchin's wife plays a cannibalistic killer in a weird trailer for her campy new film

The trailer for Louise Linton's new movie "Me You Madness" dropped on Thursday, and well, it's a lot.

I'm here to offer a description of a film that, while real, feels more like an insane game of GOP-adjacent "Mad Libs." "Me You Madness" stars Linton, the wife of former Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, as a sociopathic bisexual woman who, per IMDB, "hunts down and kills men with crossbows, martini glasses, and kitchen knives in order to eat them."

Catherine Black (Linton) is a 1980s Malibu hedge fund manager who is addicted to fashion, money and sex. "You may think that I'm a materialistic, narcissistic, self-absorbed misanthrope," Black muses in a voiceover in the trailer below. "I don't deny it."

Her life is an endless parade of stacks of cash, spin classes and metallic boots — that is until Tyler, played by infamous "Gossip Girl" star Ed Westwick, answers her ad for a roommate. Tyler, a petty criminal, thinks he's struck gold when he rolls up to her beachside mansion; Catherine thinks she's found her next meal. It's a love story for the modern ages (made all the weirder by the recent allegations that actor Armie Hammer allegedly identifies as "100% a cannibal").

Linton is not primarily known as an actress, though she's had several small roles in low-budget horror movies and on shows like "CSI: NY"; she did, however, write, direct and finance "Me You Madness" through her production company Stormchaser Films.

Rather, she rose to a certain level of infamy in 2017 when she Instagrammed a photo of herself and Mnuchin disembarking a military jet following a trip to Fort Knox. She added hashtags that nodded to her designer apparel #rolandmouret, #hermesscarf, #tomford and #valentino. A woman responded with the comment, "Glad we could pay for your little getaway. #deplorable," which incensed Linton.

"Aw!!! Did you think this was a personal trip?! Adorable!" Linton responded. "Do you think the US govt paid for our honeymoon or personal travel?! Lololol. Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country?"


Me You Madness - OFFICIAL TRAILER www.youtube.com


Three months later, Linton accompanied her husband to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington. Someone took a photo of her holding up a sheet of freshly printed dollar bills while wearing elbow-length black leather gloves. The image went viral — as did the frequent comparisons to Cruella de Vil — and cemented her status as a real-life cartoon villain.

With that in mind, perhaps Linton's lines in the trailer that detail her obsession with "the accumulation of money" are a self-aware nod to the public's perception of her? Perhaps. In interviews, Linton has expressed that the movie is an attempt to subvert the femme fatale steretotype, with a little "American Psycho" thrown in for good measure.

But according to the New York Times, the weirdest parts of the camp-fest aren't revealed in the trailer.

"In one sequence that plays like an MTV video, Catherine caresses frozen, severed male body parts while dancing to 'Let's Hear It for the Boy' in stiletto-heeled boots." writes Brooke Barnes. "There is a drug-fueled poolside orgy. Please, pretty please, stay around for the madly spinning nunchaku, thong leotard and choreographed 'tomayto-tomahto' conga."

"Me You Madness" debuts on demand on Friday, Feb. 12.

Behind Donald Trump's childish Diet Coke button

President Joe Biden had a busy first day in office. He halted construction on the border wall and re-established DACA protections. He rejoined the Paris Climate Accord and recommitted the United States to the World Health Organization. And, according to broadcast journalist Tom Newton Dunn, Biden removed Donald Trump's "Diet Coke button," which the former president used to request cold sodas on-demand.

"When @ShippersUnbound [Tim Shipman] and I interviewed Donald Trump in 2019, we became fascinated by what the little red button did," Dunn tweeted. "Eventually Trump pressed it, and a butler swiftly brought in a Diet Coke on a silver platter. It's gone now."

Throughout Trump's presidency, his obsessive love of the beverage was well-documented. In 2017, the Washington Post published that he reportedly drank a dozen cans of Diet Coke per day and, while the majority of Americans are just finding out about the Diet Coke button, that same year, Demetri Sevastopulo wrote for The Financial Times about how he noticed the red button on Trump's desk. He jokingly asked if it was the nuclear button, to which Trump replied, "No, no, everyone thinks it is. Everyone does get a little nervous when I press that button."

According to the Associated Press, the button has been a fixture "on the Resolute Desk that presidents have used for decades," though not for summoning diet soda. The fact that Trump appropriated for it for such use is, frankly, unsurprising. Its existence is a reminder for some of the most laughable parts of Trump's personality (and its removal seems to have been an almost a necessary exorcism).

While assigning goodness or inherent value to a food item can turn into an uncomfortable pseudo-classist exercise (like when the New York Times hosted a quiz where readers could guess whether refrigerators belonged to Biden voters or Trump voters based on their contents), there's a certain "Home Alone 2: Escape to New York" childishness inherent to slapping a button 12 times a day as a way to demand a Diet Coke on a silver platter.

It's a warped idea of what fanciness or indulgence denotes, which is both a perfect encapsulation of Trump's public persona and, in part, what led to Diet Coke's heyday in the '90s.

Consider the often-memed image of Trump and Melania standing, wax figure-like, in their $100 million New York penthouse. It's gaudy and gold-covered with columns, chandeliers and frescos reminiscent of a Cheesecake Factory dining room. That photograph is the visual definition of the adage, "You can't buy taste."

Trump's tastelessness was a glaring, omnipresent facet of his presidency. A photograph that feels strikingly similar was taken in 2019, when Trump invited the Clemson Tigers, that year's national college football champions, for a White House dinner, only to serve them a buffet of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and slices of Domino's pizza, a choice that many criticized as racist and classist. He stands beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln with his arms outstretched over a mahogany table, stacked high with cardboard burger boxes and flimsy plastic packets of fast food sauces that were balanced inside pewter gravy boats.

"We went out and we ordered American fast food, paid for by me," he told reporters that night. "Lots of hamburgers, lots of pizza. Three hundred hamburgers. Many, many French fries."

It may seem odd that a well-documented fast food devotee (and former McDonald's and Pizza Hut spokesperson) like Trump would opt for Diet Coke instead of the real thing, but it's important to consider what the beverage likely meant to him.

In his essay "The Decline and Fall of Diet Coke and the Power Generation That Loved It," Nathan Heller asserts that while the Coca-Cola company tried to endear the beverage to "hip, scrappy youths, it became, enduringly, the beverage of the power generation that emerged across the Clinton years and cheered tie-less, outside-the-box, rule-bending thought in business and in life."

"During the late eighties and nineties, Diet Coke seemed less fussy, less patrician, less 'Frasier' than second-wave coffee," Heller wrote."It helped define a novel archetype of masculinity — the bootstraps kid who'd made it big, who was cool and modern, in a suit."

This is, despite the fact, that diet soda was traditionally marketed to women as a way to control weight. Emily Contois, the author of "Diners, Dudes and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture," wrote that while Coca-Cola went after male and female customers with Diet Coke, unlike their previous diet product Tab, they were largely unsuccessful.

"Men (and broader culture) seemed to deem the beverage derisively feminine in later decades," Contois wrote. "For example, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution an unidentified Coca-Cola executive declared that diet is a 'four-letter word' for men, or at least those aged 16–24."
When I emailed Contois to inquire as to why she thought President Trump, a leader who was deeply preoccupied with a limited and pugilistic view of masculinity, would drink Diet Coke, her answer was succinct.

"Trump seemed to believe that rules, of any sort, don't apply to him," she wrote via email. "That guided his food and beverage choices — from a dozen Diet Cokes a day to well-done steak with ketchup to copious fast food — and much of his presidency."

While it's impossible to know what exactly Diet Coke meant to Trump (though we know it was something he would request during tense conversations, like when he cried out for one while discussing purchasing the rights to a story about an alleged affair he had with ex-Playboy model Karen Mcdougall), the bizarre optics surrounding the revelation of the Diet Coke button is a fitting epilogue to his presidency. It's a reminder of a man who could have just used an office mini-fridge to satiate his cravings, but obviously liked the feeling of being able to summon a servant with a cold drink at the push of a button. While so many of his stump speeches were bolstered by ramblings about being a man of the people, his actions consistently contradicted that — even down to how he took his dozen daily sodas.

But the Trump era has concluded, and the Oval Office already looks different. Where a bust of Fred Trump used to preside over the office, there is now a statue of labor organizer Cesar Chavez; Trump's beige rug has been swapped out for a royal blue replacement, and a portrait of Andrew Jackson was taken down in favor of a painting of Benjamin Franklin. No word yet on whether the Resolute Desk button will be replaced — and if so, what pushing it will summon.

This young poet laureate stole the show at Biden's inauguration with an unforgettable performance

When poet Amanda Gorman took center stage during President Joe Biden's inauguration to deliver her poem "The Hill We Climb," it became immediately clear why she was chosen to precede him on the podium.

Only four presidents —John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and now, Biden — have had poets read at their inaugurations and Gorman captivated viewers across America as she spoke of a shaded past and a lighter future, not shying away from four years of grief and trauma, but nevertheless determined to offer an outlook for America's redemption.

Her presence as a young Black woman artist on stage felt deeply historic, especially as deep political divisiveness and racist rhetoric from government leaders and law enforcement has continued to come into clearer view over the last four years. And everything about her reading — from the development of her work, to her chosen outfit, to the poem itself — is imbued with symbolism.

Here's everything you need to know about Gorman and her performance:

Who is Amanda Gorman?

Gorman is a 22-year-old poet from Los Angeles and is the youngest poet to ever perform on Inauguration Day. According to the New York Times, Gorman developed a love of poetry at a young age.

As Gorman told NPR's Steve Inskeep, she, like President Joe Biden, had a speech impediment as a child. She said that was one of the reasons that she was drawn to poetry. "Having an arena in which I could express my thoughts freely was just so liberating that I fell head over heels, you know, when I was barely a toddler," she said.

Gorman was encouraged to really pursue her craft by her middle school teacher mother, Joan Wicks, and became the first person to hold the position of National Youth Poet Laureate at 16. Later, she attended Harvard to study sociology.

How was Gorman chosen to perform at the inauguration?

According to Harper's Bazaar, several weeks before the inauguration, Dr. Jill Biden stumbled upon a video of Gorman reading her original poem "In This Place: An American Lyric" at the Library of Congress in 2017. A Zoom call was set up between Biden and Gorman, during which Gorman was invited to compose and read an original poem.

"They did not want to put up guardrails for me at all," Gorman told the New York Times. "The theme for the inauguration in its entirety is 'America United,' so when I heard that was their vision, that made it very easy for me to say, great, that's also what I wanted to write about in my poem, about America united, about a new chapter in our country."

What was Gorman's writing process like?

Gorman described to several publications how she initially struggled with the enormity of the project ahead of her. She told the Los Angeles Times that she listened to music that helped put her "in a historic and epic mind-set," including soundtracks from "The Crown," "Lincoln," "Darkest Hour" and "Hamilton."

What enabled her to fully complete the poem, however, was observing the insurrection attempt at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

"I wasn't trying to write something in which those events were painted as an irregularity or different from an America that I know," Gorman said. "America is messy. It's still in its early development of all that we can become. And I have to recognize that in the poem

With this in mind, she wrote the lines: "We've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it / Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy / And this effort very nearly succeeded / But while democracy can be periodically delayed / It can never be permanently defeated."

What poem did Gorman read and what did it mean?

Gorman recited her original poem "The Hill We Climb," a poignant, self-aware piece that speaks boldly to the deep divides in this country, led by people who would rather topple democracy than accept defeat. And yet, she acknowledges how powerful it is that we are in "a country and a time where a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one."

While "The Hill We Climb" describes the brokenness and hopelessness many in this country may feel following Trump's incitement of violence, the poem encourages listeners with the knowledge that they can "step out of the shade." Gorman told NPR that she dug into the works of orators like Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, who all were tasked with calling for hope and unity in times of division.

One particular line that seemed to stand out to viewers was, "Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid. If we're to live up to her own time, then victory won't lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we've made."

"Under their own vine and fig tree" is a phrase found in multiple places throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and is used to describe the simple life of a farmer who was independent of military oppression. It was later used by George Washington nearly 50 times in various correspondence, as a reference to the American Revolution. Then, in a 1787 issue of the New York Journal it was used by a writer to describe America as a place for oppressed immigrants to find independence.

You may also recognize the line from the "Hamilton" song "One Last Time," where it's contextualized as, "Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree/And no one shall make them afraid/They'll be safe in the nation we've made."

Gorman's inclusion of that phrase speaks to America's founding as a place that had the potential to be free of oppression, and the ongoing dream that it could be true for all Americans, regardless of race or cultural background.

How did people respond to "The Hill We Climb"?

Gorman's recitation was met with rhapsodic praise from celebrities, artists, and political organizations alike, who took to Twitter to express their own thoughts on her sober, yet hopeful outlook.

"I have never been prouder to see another young woman rise! Brava Brava, @TheAmandaGorman!" said celebrity entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey, "Maya Angelou is cheering — and so am I."

Gorman also got nods from people in the news media, with CBS National Correspondent David Begnaud saying, "Watch Amanda Gorman. It's a treat." Seth Abramason, a popular columnist from Newsweek, also boosted Gorman's poem on Twitter, urging others to do so.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown posted on Twitter, "Oh this is just lovely. Flow like water," later quoting one of Gorman's most poignant lines on Twitter: "If only we're brave enough to see it, if only we're brave enough to be it." American legal scholar Lawrence Tribe also applauded the youth poet: "Amanda Gorman's inspiring inaugural poem perfectly captured the challenge of the moment — and our hopes for the future.

Meanwhile, many Democratic politicians joined the chorus. Senator Cory Booker, expressed on Twitter, "Thank you, Amanda Gorman, for sharing such powerful and inspiring words today." Congresswoman Stacey Abrams said, "Amanda Gorman's message serves as an inspiration to us all." Former First Lady Michelle Obama also added, "With her strong and poignant words, @TheAmandaGorman reminds us of the power we each hold in upholding our democracy. Keep shining, Amanda! I can't wait to see what you do next."

Even Republican political action committee The Lincoln Project chimed in, "Amanda Gorman's poem on unity is one for the history books."

Dazzling as it was, however, reception to Gorman's poem was not without criticism. Editor-in-chief of The Dispatch Jonah Goldberg went against the grain, and admitted, "Not loving this poem."

What's the story behind Gorman's outfit?

Gorman accessorized with subtle symbolism in mind. She wore a ring bearing the emblem of a caged bird, a tribute to poet Maya Angelou, the author of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," who performed at the 1993 presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton.

That ring was a gift from Oprah Winfrey. As Gayle King reported on CBS News on Wednesday morning, Oprah had actually gifted Angelou with the coat she wore that day and wanted to continue the tradition, but Gorman had already purchased the yellow coat seen on Biden's Inauguration Day, so Oprah gave her the earrings she is wearing, as well as the ring, as a nod to Angelou.

Trump's 'American Heroes' list is truly unhinged

On Monday afternoon the White House released an executive order detailing the figures that Trump wants represented in his National Garden of American Heroes.

Trump originally pitched the idea during a July 2020 speech at Mount Rushmore, amid nationwide protests that again brought questions of who should be memorialized through monuments into focus; across the country, statues of slave owners and Confederate officers were vandalized and removed.

In his speech, Trump said that these actions constituted a branch of "cancel culture."

"This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore," he said."They defile the memory of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt."

He continued: "I am announcing the creation of a new monument to the giants of our past. I am signing an executive order to establish the National Garden of American Heroes, a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live."

In the seven months since, there has been no movement on creating the statue park. No Congressional funding was secured for the proposed project and, despite the executive order, it's unlikely to be picked up by the next administration. Regardless, two days before leaving office, Trump released the list of figures he'd like to see memorialized — and it is completely unhinged.

The list is a bizarro grab bag of 244 individuals, defined simultaneously by its randomness and tone-deafness. Logistics aside (How large would the park be? How close will the insane amount of statuary be to each other? Will it be like a Madame Tussauds cast in stone?), Trump's definition of "hero" is muddled.

You'd have Grover Cleveland, Walt Disney, Whitney Houston and Dolley Madison all next to each other, flanked by Kobe Bryant, Louis Armstrong, Neil Armstrong and Theodor Geisel aka "Dr. Seuss." There are civil rights champions and abolitionists like Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe, alongside slave-owning presidents such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. More members of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show are present on the list than Asian Americans.

In many ways, however, Trump's list of "American Heroes" — which can be viewed in its entirety here — is emblematic of his presidency. It's riddled with choices that will make readers pause due to their obvious lack of research, regard for the truth and sensitivity. Here are some of the most weirdest missteps on the list (there are many more), starting with the demographic breakdown:

Demographic Breakdown

While the list is overwhelmingly random, it's also overwhelmingly male. As Axios' Danielle Alberti reported, Trump's "American Heroes" are 73% men. Additionally, 86 of the nominees, nearly a third, were born between 1900 and 1950.

When asked in that same article by Axios about his views on the list, historian Michael Beschloss, who specializes in the United States presidency, said, "Any American who loves democracy should make sure there is never some official, totalitarian-sounding 'National Garden of American Heroes,' with names forced upon us by the federal government."

"The glory of American democracy is that every one of our citizens decides who his or her personal heroes are," Beschloss said. "That is not the prerogative of any president, especially one rejected by American voters and who is on his way out the door. Many of the people on this list of 'heroes' would be embarrassed to be singled out by someone like Donald Trump."

Additionally, as the Associated Press reported, when Trump first proposed the list in 2020, there were no Native American, Hispanic or Asian American individuals. The list has been diversified some, but it's obviously an afterthought.

Christopher Columbus

One of the most incendiary names on the list was Christopher Columbus — who was neither American, nor did he ever actually set foot in North America. He did, however, initiate the Atlantic slave trade and the genocide of thousands of indigenous people. His cruelties are difficult to fully quantify, ranging from allowing the settlers under him to sell 9- and 10-year-old girls into sexual slavery, to forcing indigenous people to collect gold for him.

In June 2020, three statues of Columbus were damaged or pulled down in as many days.

"In St. Paul, demonstrators toppled a ten-foot-tall statue that stood in front of the Minnesota state capitol," wrote Theresa Machemer for Smithsonian Magazine. "In Richmond, protesters pulled down an eight-foot-tall statue in Byrd Park, carrying it about 200 yards before setting it on fire and throwing it into the nearby Fountain Lake. And, around 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, police in Boston received a report that a marble statue of the Italian explorer and colonizer had lost its head."

Andrew Jackson

This choice is very much in the same vein as Columbus. Jackson, who was the seventh president of the United States, was one of the primary supporters of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the government to extinguish any Indian title to land claims in the Southeast.

"The result was the Trail of Tears, in which Cherokee and other native peoples of the Southeast were forced at gunpoint to march 1,200 miles to 'Indian territory,'" Billy J. Stratton wrote for Salon in 2017. "Thousands of Cherokee died during the passage, while many who survived the trek lost their homes and most of their property. Ironically, much of the land on which the Cherokee and other removed tribes were settled was opened to homesteading and became the state of Oklahoma some 60 years later."

Because of this, it seems deeply tone-deaf to include Jackson next to Native American icons like Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull and Tecumseh.

Muhammad Ali

So, admittedly, this name stuck out to me because I live in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali's hometown, and have reported previously on why there are no full-body statues of the boxing legend. According to Jeannie Kahnke of the Muhammad Ali Center — whom I interviewed in 2018 — they receive a lot of requests to use Ali's likeness.

"Over the years, I cannot tell you how many times people have come to us, saying 'I want to do a Muhammad Ali statue,'" she said. "It has probably been at least 15."

However, Ali was a devout Muslim, and he felt his faith would prohibit full-body statues being erected of him — which, Kahnke said, would prevent Ali's family from giving their blessing for a life-size statue of him. Some sculptors have done so without his family's permission, but many have found other, more creative, ways to honor the boxer.

Including his name on the list demonstrates either an obvious lack of research or a willingness to dishonor Ali's wishes and religious beliefs.

Ingrid Bergman

In Trump's executive order, he stated that the park's goal is to honor those believed to be "historically significant," and "individual[s] who made substantive contributions to America's public life or otherwise had a substantive effect on America's history."

To that end, one of the defining characteristics of Trump's list is the mishmash of political and pop culture, but Swedish actress Ingrid Bergan stands out because she . . . wasn't American. And unlike Alfred Hitchcock and Alex Trebek (who were born in the U.K. and Canada, respectively), she never became an American citizen.

It really raises the question of what qualifies as a "substantive contribution to America's public life" in Trump's mind. Was he just a big "Casablanca" fan? Perhaps, because Humphrey Bogart is on the list, too.

Woody Guthrie and Hannah Arendt

As New York Daily News reporter Chris Sommerfield tweeted yesterday, there are several "incredible self-owns" found on Trump's list, like the inclusion of Woody Guthrie, "who wrote 'Old Man Trump,' a blistering 1950s tune about the Trump family's racist housing practices in Brooklyn."

Additionally, Trump included the German-born American political theorist Hannah Arendt, who was perhaps best known for her book "The Origins of Totalitarianism." Her writings on "the banality of evil" have been repeatedly invoked to describe Trump's apparent and growing desire for autocratic rule.

"I think she would be appalled," Roger Berkowitz, who directs the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College — on whose campus Arendt is buried and where she taught for many years — told Jewish Insider on Monday evening. "I think Arendt would find it ridiculous that Trump nominated her. I think she would find Trump ridiculous, and I think she'd find him dangerous insofar as he undermines the basic idea of truthfulness and truth in the country. His attack on the election she would have found abhorrent and dangerous."

Edward R. Murrow

Finally, Trump's disdain for legitimate, objective reporting is no secret. He has called the media the "enemy of the people," and as such, it was no surprise to see the phrase "Murder the media" scrawled on a door of the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

That's why it was kind of a shock to see Edward R. Murrow, the broadcaster and war correspondent who had a deep impact on journalistic ethics, included on Trump's list. If Murrow were still alive and writing, I have no doubt that he would have reported truthfully on Trump — just as he reported critically on Senator Joseph McCarthy — and been decried as another "enemy of the people."

For what it's worth, Trump's executive order directed the secretary of the interior to identify a site and provide funding and said a taskforce would "publish an annual public report describing progress on establishing the National Garden and on building statues."

Joe Biden has nominated Deb Haaland for the position, and neither she nor Biden's transition team have issued a comment on the garden, making it unlikely that it will ever actually take root.

New 'Heaven's Gate' series looks to Christianity to explain the method to the cult's madness

Many people first became aware of the Heaven's Gate cult in 1997, when — after an anonymous tip was called into the San Diego Police Department — the bodies of 39 men and women were found in a rented seven bedroom mansion. Each of the bodies were dressed in androgynous outfits with matching haircuts and Nike sneakers. On their arms were "Star Trek"-inspired bands that read "Heaven's Gate Away Team," and in their pockets were $5.75.

The discovery caused an inevitable media frenzy, especially after law enforcement authorities reported it as the largest mass suicide on American soil ( The "Jonestown Massacre," during which more than 900 Americans died, took place in Guyana in 1978). The group believed that once they shedded their physical "vehicles," they would ascend to heaven in a spaceship where they would reach the "Next Level. There, they would be transformed from their human shell into an alien form.

According to group documents, members had taken phenobarbital mixed with applesauce or pudding, followed by vodka, then asphyxiated themselves with plastic bags. The suicides occurred in shifts over three days, with cult founder Marshall Applewhite — known as "Do" — being among the final shift.

The scene was horrifying, but had enough of an aura of oddity to eventually become fodder for late-night television shows and comedy sketches. For example, in its first live show following the discovery of the bodies, "Saturday Night Live" aired a sketch in which the Heaven's Gate members actually make it to space, followed by a fake advertisement for Keds, with the tagline, "Worn by level-headed Christians."

Inherent to all jokes was a question that tends to underlie many mainstream discussions of cults: "How could someone be so easily taken?" The more fringe the group, the more blunt the question — but one that HBO Max's new docuseries "Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults," spearheaded by documentarian Clay Tweel, carefully attempts to dismantle and subvert over four hour-long episodes. It's a thoughtfully paced series, rich in original source material and striking watercolor animations in place of reenactments.

The first two episodes aren't the most salacious (if that's what you're looking for, skip ahead to the last two episodes), but they are the most illuminating when it comes to identifying where the tenets of Heaven's Gate fall in the orbit of culturally accepted religious and spiritual teachings.

If — like me — you grew up in or around a Christian church that was heavy on themes of sanctification and purification, some of the cult's ideologies won't sound, well, too alien; just replace the hellfire and brimstone with spacecraft and stargazing.

As this docuseries asserts early in the first episode, a key teaching of both mainstream Christianity and Heaven's Gate was that growing in one's spirituality hinges on shedding one's worldliness. As the Apostle Peter wrote to his followers, "Dear friends, I warn you as 'temporary residents and foreigners' to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls."

Meanwhile, archived footage of Heaven's Gate members — gleaned by Tweel from early videos of recruiting sessions, public access television appearances, and the now-infamous "farewell messages" from group followers — features them espousing similar sentiments.

"I don't think people know how deep their humanness goes," said Dick Joselyn, a one-time Air Force pilot trainee, who was a member of the Heaven's Gate cult for over a decade, but as another member, Margaret Ella Richter, said, "It's possible to overcome humanness."

"Heaven's Gate: Cult of Cults" is built on the insight of various sociologists and religious scholars — most notably author and researcher Reza Aslan — who thoughtly weave together this connection, before landing on one of the things that makes a cult a cult. The leaders "break you down and create a new you."

Again, this has a Biblical parallel. Ephesians teaches, "Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds."

Many of the teachings of Heaven's Gate have a spiritual, though not always Christian, analogue — ideas of ascension (like in the Biblical book of Revelation), a state of enlightenment reminiscent of nirvana, an afterlife. This gospel, if you will, was deeply influenced by New Age concepts, including the idea of "walk-ins," a person whose original soul has departed his or her body and has been replaced with a modified soul. These teachings were also eventually recorded by Applewhite in a series of videos that are deeply evocative of televangelism.

How could people be naive enough to join Heaven's Gate? Well, as one of the featured religious scholars posits, the group was something akin to an errant branch of Christianity (a point that host Glynn Washington made in his popular "Heaven's Gate" podcast, wherein he details his own upbringing in a Doomsday Christian cult.)

It appealed to members for the same reasons churches continue to fill their pews. People want to find connection, they want to feel like they are destined for something greater and that there is evidence of life beyond our immediate and perceptible surroundings. Some former members — who, like the members who eventually died by suicide, were largely educated with strong family ties — still describe their Heaven's Gate years as the best time of their lives. For a brief moment in time, they felt like they belonged.

That said, Heaven's Gates teachings were ultimately dictated by its leaders. Applegate's "spiritual partner," Bonnie Nettles — known as Ti — is presented as the mastermind behind the original recruitment. She was raised Baptist, but her beliefs ultimately became a kind of spiritual grab bag, influenced by New Age teachings, astrology, divination and science fiction.

And once she eventually died, and Applegate was on his own (and absolutely bereft, it should be noted) those teachings became flexible in order to cope with the cognitive dissonance that her "leaving her vehicle early" sparked. That's when, Tweel asserts, Heaven's Gate became more about the messenger than the message, and Applegate transitions from kooky, fringey New Age leader to the leader of the, as he puts it, "cult of cults."

That's when things dip into the salacious — and into more familiar territory for those who already know the story.

Where "Heaven's Gate: Cult of Cults" falls a little short is in its explanation or exploration of Applegate and Nettles' appeal. As leaders, they lack any kind of discernable charisma. While their teachings may have initially been palatable — even appealing — there's a disconnect when it comes to why their followers stayed, especially when they were asked to forsake their families, mainstream society and any source of income.

This wasn't just popping into a church service once a week — it was a full-time commitment, so I was left wondering when things became uncomfortable, what it was about their leadership that compelled their flock to persevere?

That said, "Heaven's Gate: Cult of Cults" is a thoughtful assessment of the mechanisms of how otherwise smart, savvy people are attracted to fringe beliefs.It takes a story that is larger than life and brings it solidly back to earth.

All four episodes of "Heaven's Gate: Cult of Cults" are now available to stream on HBO Max.

Trump's ongoing refusal to concede was the giant turkey in the room at bizarre annual pardon

Days before Thanksgiving 2018, two turkeys — Peas and Carrots — were vying for the presidential pardon, an oddball tradition formalized by George H.W. Bush in 1989. Leading up to the event, the White House had set up online and social media polls to determine the fowls' fates.

When the votes were finally tallied, President Donald Trump revealed that Peas had won in "a fair and open election."

"Unfortunately, Carrots refused to concede and demanded a recount, and we're still fighting with Carrots," Trump said at the time. "And I will tell you, we've come to a conclusion — Carrots, I'm sorry to tell you, the results did not change. Too bad for Carrots!"

Too bad for Carrots, indeed.

During this year's turkey pardon, held Tuesday in The White House Rose Garden, Trump didn't mention his own refusal to officially concede the 2020 presidential election, nor did he reference the numerous, baseless allegations of voter fraud he and his oddball legal team lobbed into courts across the country (despite the fact, as Salon's Roger Sollenberger has reported, no state election officials have reported evidence of such fraud).

The president did, however, open the event by talking about the stock market, and even managed to squeeze in a racist reference to the "China virus" between pardoning one of the "two magnificent gobblers" in attendance.

"Thank you very much, please," Trump said as he stepped in front of the microphone. "I just want to congratulate everybody. The Dow Jones Industrial Average just broke, for the first time in history, 30,000. That's good, that's great for jobs and good for everything."

The president had already held a surprise, one-minute press conference earlier in the day, The Hill reported.

"His appearance on Tuesday may have been an attempt to grab credit for the historic rise on the Dow, and to siphon some attention away from Biden, who was scheduled to speak at 1 p.m. about his Cabinet picks," The Hill's Brett Samuels wrote.

It's also worth pointing out that the Dow surpassed 30,000 shortly after several of Biden's Cabinet picks were announced, along with updates on the development of several effective COVID-19 vaccines.

The turkey pardoning was a short event as well, lasting less than ten minutes, much of which Trump spent talking about the novel coronavirus.

"During this Thanksgiving we extend our eternal gratitude to the doctors, nurses, healthcare workers and scientists who have waged the battle against the China virus," Trump said. "We give thanks for the vaccines and therapies that will soon end the pandemic. It's just such a tremendous feeling knowing they are coming, and they are coming likely next week or shortly thereafter."

The president then proceeded to officially pardon Corn — whose compatriot was named Cob — a 42-pound turkey who will retire to Virginia Tech's "Gobblers Rest," at the university's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

As Trump turned to walk back into the White House, a reporter called after him, asking what most Americans are probably thinking as the president's days in office draw to a close: "Will you be issuing a pardon for yourself?"


As winter approaches, America's racist produce distribution system makes food insecurity worse

In late July, a group of Kentucky gardeners and farmers marched through downtown Louisville, pushing wheelbarrows and demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old unarmed Black woman who was fatally shot by Louisville Metro Police Officers in March.

They started at a local farmer's market and moved 1-1/2 miles westward, towards Jefferson Square Park — now called Injustice Square, after serving as the nightly gathering place for protesters — where they had planted Breonna's Roots, an edible garden that was bursting with summer produce like ruby red tomatoes and peppers, deep purple eggplants and bunches of kale, dill, rosemary and parsley.

According to volunteer Jody Dahmer, the vegetables were harvested and transported a few miles further west to be distributed in Russell, one of Louisville's historically Black neighborhoods that is also one of the city's most barren food deserts. There are only two accessible major supermarkets to serve nearly 60,000 residents (and there's a longstanding rumor among food access advocates in the community that the nearest Kroger will eventually close permanently, after it shuttered sporadically amid protests, leaving only one option).

But now, the weather is snapping cold. Temperatures dip into the low 30s overnight, and soon, Injustice Square will be blanketed with morning frost, so the garden volunteers are having to pivot.

"With frost dates approaching, we are focusing on cole crops," Dahmer said, referring to a designation of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and brussels sprouts that grow better in cooler temperatures. "But [we] also have garlic and onions planted between."

This isn't a unique conversation — all across the country, community garden leaders are having to adapt their plots for the winter or, in some cases, simply latch the garden gates behind them until early spring. But in food insecure neighborhoods, those decisions can have a community-wide impact on produce access, a sad reality that is particularly evident during the colder months.

"It becomes a real scarcity over winter," said Cordia Pugh, the founder of Hermitage Community Gardens in Chicago. "A real scarcity as we race through the winter, waiting for spring to come when we can get back in the gardens to get fresh produce."

Pugh spoke with Salon earlier this year about her community gardens, which are located in Englewood, where, according to municipal data, nearly 95% of the neighborhood's residents are non-Hispanic Black, and nearly 80% of that population lives with low or volatile access to fresh produce.

"This is not hobby gardening, this is food security for us," Pugh said at the time. "This is food insurance in the epicenter of a food desert. If we did not grow this fresh produce, we would not have fresh produce accessible to us. There is no accessible big box store in this community — or if we bought it through those venues, it would be from vendors that would quadruple the price."

Typically, Pugh works with garden volunteers over the spring and summer to preserve fresh produce for the colder months, but the pandemic lockdowns and social distancing recommendations drastically impacted that initiative. There is very little produce stockpiled, as a result, and Pugh said that she's currently in the midst of attempting to get fresh produce boxes to her garden members.

"I'm speaking out of my own desperation this year, because I'm really scrambling now to get the resources in place for fresh produce food distribution over the course of November through April of next year," Pugh said. "Especially because some of our members don't have access — financially or otherwise — to those big box stores."

And even if they can get to the store, Pugh said, there's no guarantee that the quality of the produce available will be the same as in stores in more affluent or mixed-race areas.

This is a well-documented phenomenon. In 2010, The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based food access nonprofit, and the Oakland-based PolicyLink published "The Grocery Gap," a comprehensive paper that detailed how, in hundreds of lower-income communities of color, access to healthier foods like high-quality produce, high-fiber bread and low-fat milk was compromised.

In Louisville, Shauntrice Martin has taken the last several months to examine these disparities, focusing specifically on the city's food deserts, like Russell. Martin is the founder and director of #FeedTheWest, a community food justice initiative that advocates for a Black-owned, fresh food source for residents.

She published her findings under the title, "The Bok Choy Project," wherein she compared five Krogers across five different zip codes, assessing four characteristics: the number of organic produce options available, the presence of police officers, the Black population of said zip code, and the availability of bok choy.

According to Martin, she chose bok choy as a stand-in for "premium produce" because it was an item that she only saw on shelves once she moved out of West Louisville to Maryland when she was in her 20s. Now that she's back, she definitely sees discrepancies in selection and quality between the supermarkets in the zip code with 11% Black population — 11 organic produce options — compared to the one with 92%, which had only three organic options.

"When you walk into that store, there is an 'organic section,'" Martin said. "But it usually only has pears and apples. The rest of it is conventional produce. It's wilted, some of it is rotten or expired on the shelf."

These are the options that are available, Martin and Pugh said, for food insecure communities, which statistically tend to be lower-income communities of color. And while community gardens like Hermitage Community Gardens and Breonna's Roots serve as a stopgap in warmer months, they aren't a replacement for equitable food access and distribution systems.

In Toronto, the food access nonprofit FoodShare spends a lot of time thinking about what food security actually means and what food sovereignty would look like in Northern climates that experience winter. According to Natalie Boustead, the organization's community gardens leader, a lot of our current eating habits are reliant on expensive greenhouse production and imported items to maintain a level of consistency in our diets throughout the year.

"Which, if we were actually eating locally, seasonally [and] within a framework of true self-reliance here in Northern climates, would not be possible," Boustead said. "If we were to shift our cultural expectations around eating seasonally to involve only eating dried fruits, and fermented, salted and sugared foods from summer harvest . . . we may have a shot at actual food sovereignty and self-sufficiency."

Not to mention, she said, there would need to be a complete overhaul of North America's racist food distribution system.

"Until all of that begins to shift, there are very few deeply meaningful ways that those experiencing food insecurity in an urban setting can do to lessen their systematically entrenched relationship to an unfair food system, especially in winter months," she said.

How this Pennsylvania Republican's bizarre tweet launched a furor

On Tuesday afternoon, Pennsylvania politician Dean Browning — a white, heterosexual, self-described "proud pro-life & pro-2A Christian conservative" — tweeted, "I'm a black gay guy and I can personally say that Obama did nothing for me, my life only changed a little bit and it was for the worse."

The tweet continued: "Everything is so much better under Trump though. I feel respected — which I never do when democrats are involved."

Browning, who is a former commissioner in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, sent this tweet in response to one of his earlier posts, in which he said, "What Trump built in 4 years, Biden will destroy in 4 months."

Twitter users leapt on Browning's bizarre response, many speculating that it was obvious that he had forgotten to log into his "sock puppet" account. A sock puppet account is an online identity used for purposes of deception by concealing its owner's real identity. In this case, it seemed Browning had exposed an account on which he masquerades as a gay Black Trump supporter.

Or had he?

If this situation already seems bizarre to you, just buckle up. Things are about to get much weirder.

After several hours had passed, Browning posted an explanation by way of an additional tweet.

"Regarding the tweet that is going viral from my account — I was quoting a message that I received earlier this week from a follower," he wrote. "Sorry if context was not clear. Trump received record minority votes & record LGBTQ votes. Many people won't say it vocally, but do in private."

But then, in a now-deleted tweet, the Washington Post's Philip Bump found a contender for Browning's sock puppet account. "You know who replies to Dean Browning a lot? 'Dan Purdy,' a gay black Trump supporter who joined Twitter in October," wrote Bump.

But then, in a now-deleted tweet, the Washington Post's Philip Bump found a contender for Browning's sock puppet account. "You know who replies to Dean Browning a lot? 'Dan Purdy,' a gay black Trump supporter who joined Twitter in October," wrote Bump.

When Salon reached out to Browning, he responded via email that his failure to make it clear that his viral tweet was a follower's quote was "an oversight on [his] part" and that "there will be a video up shortly that will clear things up."

Sure enough, just after 5pm, the Dan Purdy account posted a video — the first to be posted from the account — that featured a middle-aged Black man claiming, "I sent that message to Dean, Dean accidentally posted it somehow, that's the end of the story. No, he's not a sock puppet. No, I'm not a bot."

At this point, the entire saga had gone bananas on social media, and a horde of Twitter sleuths began dissecting the video. Some theorized that Purdy was merely an actor hired by Browning to help cover his gaffe. "Fiverr will get you any Dan Purdy you want," one tweeted in response, referring to online platform fiverr.com, in which anyone can quickly hire freelance talent.

Then there was a break in the case.

Some internet sleuths noticed the avatar used on the Dan Purdy account was identical to one used as a profile picture on the Facebook account of a Philadelphia man named Byl Holte — and that the man tagged in photos as Holte bore a shocking resemblance to the man who appeared in Purdy's Twitter video (purported to be Purdy).

A dive into Holte's background reveals several interesting things: He's written several articles on Medium, where he identifies himself as an "Anti-feminist TV Critic" and complains about anti-racism and feminism in the film industry; he is listed on LinkedIn as a "boutique landscape designer" in Pennsylvania; And, in the weirdest twist yet, he is music legend Patti LaBelle's adopted son.

LaBelle adopted the two children of her sister, Jackie Holte, after her death in 1989. They are named Stayce and William, or "Byl." Byl Holte's Facebook account features public photos of him with LaBelle at family gatherings.

The Dan Purdy account has since been deactivated, and Browning's last tweet reads: "I see I'm trending with Patti LaBelle tonight. I guess we've not gone only viral — but over the rainbow."

Regardless, some questions still remain unanswered: What is the relationship between Holte and Browning? Is the "Dan Purdy" account actually Holte's? Was Browning ignorant of the racist and sexist comments on the fake Dan Purdy account — and if not, why choose to quote that specific follower? And, most importantly, what does Patti LaBelle think about all this?

Here are 6 historic and progressive wins in 2020 that people are missing

While the unprecedented (and seemingly never-ending) presidential election took up much of the spotlight last week — as did the welcome news that Kamala Harris will be first woman and woman of color as Vice President — history was made in a lot of smaller state and local races, too.

From politicians of color reaching new heights in the legislature, to big shifts in local government leadership, here are some of the wins that should be on your radar.

A record number of Native American women were elected to Congress

Three Native American women have been elected to the House of Representatives: Democrat Deb Halaand, a Laguna Pueblo member representing New Mexico, Democrat Sharice Davids, a Ho-Chunk Nation member representing Kansas, and Republican Yvette Herrell, who is Cherokee and will represent New Mexico.

Halaand and Davids, the Guardian reports, both retained their seats after becoming the first Native American women elected to Congress in 2018. Additionally, the Center for American Women and Politics reports that 18 indigenous women ran for congressional seats this year, which is also a record in a single year.

Cori Bush becomes the first Black congresswoman in Missouri

Bush, a registered nurse and Black Lives Matter activist, will become the first Black congresswoman in the state's first congressional district, which includes Ferguson, where, as the New Yorker reports, she led protests against the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

All four members of the "Squad" were comfortably re-elected

Shortly after the 2018 midterm election, Representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley — all Democratic, first-term congresswomen of color— gained nationwide attention and promptly dubbed themselves "The Squad."

The four freshmen congresswomen have vocally supported progressive proposals like raising the minimum wage, advocating for the Green New Deal and calls to impeach Trump — who had previously attacked the women, who are all obviously American citizens, in a series of 2019 tweets, telling them they should "go back" to their countries of origin.

According to the Associated Press, Pressley defeated Roy Owens in Massachusetts, Omar defeated Lacy Johnson in Minnesota, Ocasio-Cortez defeated John Cummings in New York, Tlaib defeated David Dudenhoefer in Michigan

LGBTQ+ politicians had several monumental victories

Sarah McBride, a former spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, will become the nation's first person who publicly identifies as transgender to serve as a state senator after winnng last week's election in Deleware; this makes her the highest-tanking trans official in U.S. history.

In Vermont, Taylor Small — the 26-year-old director of the health and wellness program at Pride Center of Vermont — was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives, where she will be the first openly transgender member of the state's Legislature.

Ritchie Torres, a New York City Council member, won his U.S. House race to represent the South Bronx, becoming the first Afro-Latino Congress member who identifies as gay, reports CNN.

Meanwhile in Kansas, former schoolteacher Stephanie Byers — who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation — beat out her Republican challenger, Cyndi Howerton, for the District 86 Kansas House of Representatives seat. This makes her the state's first openly transgender lawmaker.

Kim Jackson became Georgia's first openly LGBTQ state senator; Torrey Harris and Eddie Mannis became the first LGBTQ legislators elected in Tennessee and Shevrin Jones and Michele Rayner-Goolsby became the first in Florida.

Francesca Hong becomes the first Asian American to serve in Wisconsin's State LegislatureAccording to Madison 365, Francesca Hong, a restaurateur and activist, won Wisconsin's 76th Assembly District, which will make her the first Asian American to serve in the state's Legislature.

"Hong, a second-generation Wisconsinite, mother, community organizer, and service industry worker, easily defeated Republican candidate and real estate intern Patrick Hull, 88 percent to 12 percent," David Dahmer wrote for the publication.

Local government leadership is changing, too

According to WUSA9, a local television station in Washington, D.C., a majority of the city's Council will be women for the first time in more than 20 years, and a majority of members will be Black for the first time since 2013.

The cities of Asheville, N.C. and El Monte, Calif., both elected their first all-women city councils.

How to fix our country's empathy problem

Bruce Goldstein, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based organization Farmworkers Justice, said that after the novel coronavirus was declared a global pandemic in March, he saw many people become worried about their access to food for the first time. Not necessarily because of cost, but because the farmworkers who grow, harvest and manufacture it — the majority of whom are undocumented immigrants — may have been forced to stop working.

"They became aware, or more aware than in the past, of who exactly is producing food for them," Goldstein said.

But then states across the country quickly began classifying those farmworkers as "essential employees," people who — even if they didn't have legal protections against deportation or access to healthcare in the country — were needed to keep food on American tables.

The pandemic spotlighted exactly how integral the labor of undocumented and migrant workers is to our country's food system. However, as election results continue to trickle in, it's clear that many Americans still voted for Trump, whose platform has consistently included vocal anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric.

A large part of that is due to America's eroding sense of empathy, which only seems to have further disintegrated over the last four years.

Dr. Sarah Konrath is an associate professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University and director of the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research. She studies the decline of empathy and rise of narcissistic behavior, and published a study in 2011 about North American college students' self-reported scores on a widely used empathy scale.

"In that paper, we tracked those scores from 1979, when the scale was first developed, to 2009, which was the latest year," Konrath said. "We found out that the college students in the late 1970s and early '80s scored higher in empathy than college students over time, especially in the post-2000 period."

Empathy can be defined in several ways, but many researchers agree that it can be summarized as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. According to Konrath, who is in the middle of producing an update to the study, there are a number of potential contributing factors, including shifts in family, community and government structures. One of the most perceptible is the relative isolation in which many Americans now live.

Dr. Jamil Zaki, a Stanford neuroscientist and author of "The War for Kindness: Building empathy in a fractured world," said that people empathize most easily "when they can see others' suffering with their own eyes, or when their actions are visible to others."

"But the modern world has stripped them away," Zaki told the Washington Post in 2019. "Humans increasingly live in cities and live alone. We see more people than ever but know fewer of them. Rituals that used to bring us into regular contact, ranging from bowling leagues to grocery shopping, have been replaced by more solitary pursuits, often carried out online. The result is our interactions with each other are often thinned out, anonymous and tribal — barren soil for empathy."

In the age of Instacart orders and Whole Foods check-outs lined with Amazon Prime lockers, it's easy to see how many Americans have become increasingly disconnected from the reality of who harvests their food, and that kind of anonymity could certainly breed the idea that whomever is doing that work isn't a member of your community, but a faceless stranger. Add in potential differences in racial background and immigration status, and — as Zaki asserts, our interactions have grown increasingly tribal — that only accentuates a certain sense of "otherness."

It also contributes to ignorance about some of the main issues that impact migrant and undocumented farmworkers.

"Many employers in this country benefit from the vulnerability that undocumented immigrants have, which causes them to be reluctant to ask for better wages and working conditions," Goldstein said. "They're often ineligible for basic services and benefits, like federally funded legal aid programs, so if they are ripped off by their employer, they often can't afford a lawyer and are not eligible for free legal services. Employers can also pay a poverty-level wage, but the workers can't get public benefits like food stamps."

So how do we as a country bridge the empathy gap between many American consumers and the (to them) invisible masses who put food on their tables? Thankfully, empathy is a cultivatable skill.

But Mel Schwartz, a therapist and author of "The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live, and Love," says creating a more empathetic country will require a seismic shift in how we think about otherness.

"Our worldviews, the way we see reality, particularly in our country, is so overly individualistic and self-interested," Schwartz said. "It's oriented toward greed — and not just financial greed. It's narcissism, it's 'all about me,' social media, how many 'likes' you have. When we live in a culture that is too focused on individualism, we lose the capacity to think about and feel the realities of others."

To change that would require individuals to start valuing caring for other people and tending to their communities above the individual self. In his book, Schwartz posits that quantum physics has "actually told us that all reality is actually inseparable."

"It's all as one," he said. "Everything is connected to everything else. And my point is that, from that vantage point, if everything's connected to everything else, then we should be caring for each other, because in my caring for you, I recognize that you're not separate from me. We need to introduce this new paradigm of oneness."

While that concept may sound spiritual or intangible, the pandemic and the subsequent disruptions of the food supply chain in the states — from COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants largely staffed by immigrant workers, to agricultural counties across the U.S. facing higher rates of infection — drive the point of oneness or connectedness home. The issues impacting a farmworker thousands of miles away can determine what's on your plate tomorrow night.

For some, that may still be too abstract a reason to care deeply about the working conditions with which vulnerable farmworkers are faced, and that makes sense. Researchers have found that trying to imagine how someone feels is often not enough to elicit true empathy — you need to actually ask them.

"For me, the core of empathy is curiosity," Jodi Halpern, a psychiatrist and bioethics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told the New York Times. "It's what is another person's life actually like in its particulars?" Exchanging stories with other people, especially people whose realities look very different from your own, is a way to vicariously "try on" someone else's life.

Organizations that work with undocumented individuals and workers know this, and many are poised to pair personal storytelling with political messaging as a way to better serve their organizations' missions.

Greisa Martinez, the executive director of the immigrant youth-led network United We Dream which advocated for DACA, says that the organization's "secret sauce" is in members having the capacity to share their own stories.

"There are people out there that know what it's like to have your electricity cut off, they're likely the same people out there that know exactly what it feels like to not have access to food," Martinez said. "So there's this feeling of moving people from isolation into community."

Once they've found community with people like them, they feel more empowered to share their personal experiences on a wider stage.

"We found one another and we shared our stories, we shared our pain, we celebrated the things about our culture that made us resilient," Martinez said. "We then said, 'Why don't we do something together?' and we went after the DREAM Act in 2010, and failed, but because we found community we didn't let go. We came up with a strategy to win DACA and eventually persuaded the most powerful man in the world to use his executive power to grant protection for us and for our people."

Since then, United We Dream has launched a community-driven research initiative leading on topics of importance to the immigrant community. These publications help tell the story of the communities they represent in their own words — and hope that it's enough to spark some people to action, which is an important key to systemic change.

"It isn't enough to just feel what other people are feeling," said therapist and writer Dr. Mary Lamia, "Empathy can show up in a lot of different ways, it's what you do with it that matters."

So, actively seek out the stories of farmworkers to listen to and read. If you live in or nearby an agricultural community, see what worker-led organizations exist close to you and get involved. Spend time elevating the voices of farmworkers sharing their concerns.

For advocates like Bruce Goldstein from Farmworkers Justice, they're hoping to capitalize on how the pandemic highlighted the conditions of farmworkers because their stories were told more frequently in these ways.

"We think that there's a greater awareness of the difficulties that farmworkers are experiencing, and the need to take action," Goldstein said. "So, I'm hopeful the empathy quotient went up. Then over the next couple of years, farmworker advocates can take advantage of that and motivate people to take action that results in the change in policy and in business practices."

Mitch McConnell beats Amy McGrath to win seventh Senate term for Kentucky

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., won his bid for re-election, reports the Associated Press. He defeated Democratic challenger Amy McGrath in the closely-watched Senate race.

Shortly after 8 p.m., McConnell was ahead of McGrath 61% to 35% statewide.

McConnell, who first took office in 1985, was unanimously elected as Senate majority leader by Republicans following the 2014 elections. Before that, he served as Senate minority leader from 2007 to 2015.

If the Senate flips to Democratic control, an outcome that is being predicted by polling websites like FiveThirtyEight, the 78-year-old McConnell has already vowed to serve as minority leader, Politico reported in June.

McConnell's obstructionist tactics have long been criticized by Democrats, with his enthusiastic shepherding of the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in September prompting outcries of hypocrisy.

In 2016, McConnell refused to hold confirmation proceedings for Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, saying in a Washington Post opinion piece at the time that "given that we are in the midst of the presidential election process, we believe that the American people should seize the opportunity to weigh in on whom they trust to nominate the next person for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court."

While other red states like Georgia, Texas and Arizona have been slotted into the purple column this year, due in part to college-educated suburban voters swinging to Democratic candidates, reliable and recent Kentucky polls showed McConnell with a handy lead over McGrath in the home stretch of this election season, even as they predicted Trump's lead in Kentucky, while still secure, might shrink. The AP called Kentucky, with its eight electoral votes, for Trump earlier this evening.

Despite national Democratic enthusiasm for McGrath's campaign, which helped bring in millions of dollars in campaign contributions, hers would be an uphill fight from the start. In 2014, McConnell, who embraces his reputation as "the Darth Vader of Capitol Hill," defeated Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes by 16 percentage points; two years later, Trump won Kentucky by a nearly 30-point margin. McGrath's previous run in Kentucky ended in a loss; in 2018, she challenged incumbent Republican Andy Barr for Kentucky's sixth Congressional district seat, but the blue wave that flipped the House to Democratic control failed to carry her home.

McGrath's campaign also hit some noticeable snags early on. The former Marine fighter pilot publicly wavered on whether she would have voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and in July 2019 she publicly said McConnell had prevented Trump from accomplishing much of his agenda during his first two years in office.

"If you think about why Kentuckians voted for Trump, they wanted to drain the swamp, and Trump said that he was going to do that," McGrath said during the announcement of her candidacy on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "Trump promised to bring back jobs. He promised to lower drug prices for so many Kentuckians. And that is very important."

This led to questions from the left over whether McGrath had decided to run as a pro-Trump Democrat. Republicans, as the Louisville Courier Journal reported, mocked McGrath's TV appearance as pandering. As a result, her progressive views struck critics on the left as anemic, especially when compared to those of State Rep. Charles Booker, her challenger in the Democratic primary who was the youngest Black state lawmaker elected in Kentucky in nearly a century.

McGrath later established stronger anti-Trump messaging. In February she said that she would have voted to impeach and convict Trump, and she was an early supporter of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

McGrath also managed a strong fundraising campaign. She raised $88 million, spent $73.3 million, and reported $14.7 million in cash on hand as of Oct. 14, campaign finance filings show, while McConnell raised $55 million, spent $43.9 million, and reported $11.8 million in cash on hand.

But in the end McGrath's impressive fundraising wasn't enough to beat McConnell.

From 'Hillbilly Elegy' to 'Fried Green Tomatoes,' Hollywood has a rural perception problem

As soon as Donald Trump was elected to the presidency in 2016, it seemed that all eyes turned to rural America for answers. I was working at a public radio station in Louisville, Kentucky on election night — a typically blue dot in a state that has a complex voting history, voting for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as Reagan, both Bushes and Trump — when the results began to roll in. As it became clear that Trump was pulling ahead, my phone began to light up with texts from friends and other journalists who lived in larger cities, most asking the same question: "How could this happen?"

Almost immediately, media members, policymakers, and academics set about trying to contextualize the beliefs of portions of the country that had seemed to fade below notice or were dismissed as "flyover country." America at large sought to understand "rural America," a term that quickly became shorthand for the white, non-college-educated voters that aided in Trump's victory.

A growing handful of thoughtful, regionally focused media outlets — "The Bitter Southerner," "Scalawag," "Southerly" — emerged to tell true, nuanced stories of the communities they represented, but stereotypes and oversimplifications persisted.

The Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham, who has resided in a northwest Minnesota farming community since 2016, said that the "near-singular focus on Donald Trump has yielded a body of discourse that views rural Americans primarily through a white, conservative Republican lens."

"This is somewhat understandable as a matter of raw numbers — its residents do tend to be whiter and more conservative than people living in more densely populated areas," Ingraham said. "But that focus also has perpetuated a number of myths, blurring out much of the messiness and complexity of rural life."

The tendency to paint rural communities with a broad brush isn't just restricted to the political sphere. From "Hee Haw" to "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," pop culture has borrowed from, celebrated, and in some ways, immortalized stereotypes and depictions that have come to represent rurality. But now, in an election year where eyes are again locked on the same states that helped determine 2016, there's a distinct need for cultural representations that don't oversimplify those same communities, or portray them as a social and cultural monolith.

Will that happen? Well, in the last month there have been two big pieces of news related to this topic: the trailer for the film adaptation of J.D. Vance's memoir "Hillbilly Elegy" was released, and then it was announced that Reba McEntire was slated to star in a "Fried Green Tomatoes" television series, which will be directed by Norman Lear.

I've been disappointed by "Hillbilly Elegy" since I read Vance's book in 2016. The memoir about his family became a bestseller in large part because it not-so-subtly promised readers, who were perplexed and enraged by Trump's ascendency, the background needed to understand what the "white, working-class Trump voter" was thinking.

As Salon's Erin Keane wrote in her 2019 piece "Amy Adams probably will win her Oscar for 'Hillbilly Elegy' and that's a damn shame," Vance's framing of the story tells people who don't know much about Eastern Kentucky or Appalachia what they think they already know.

"That the addiction and abuse and poverty that shaped his family are part of a stubbornly ingrained cultural lineage passed down through generations, and that's what keeps the people of Appalachia (a very large geographical area, mind you) poor and under-educated, even lawless and violent," Keane wrote. "And what's more, largely content to stay that way despite their anger, though exceptional individuals can overcome these innate cultural deficits. His overarching themes point to an attitude adjustment as the solution: poor people wouldn't have to stay poor, with all the social problems that can accompany poverty, if they could decide they didn't want to act like poor people anymore."

Forget nuance. "Hillbilly Elegy" frames the hardships faced by many in Appalachia — opioid addiction, lack of access to professional and educational resources, poverty — as the consequences of individual shortcomings and an overwhelming lack of gumption, rather than the result of systemic ills and oppression that have emerged from predatory pharmaceutical companies, a gaping digital divide and a long history of extractive economies that decimate communities' resources.

"Narratives like this sell not only because a 140-minute redemption arc can be written around them but also because they absolve their creators and viewers of any complicity in systemic issues," Keane said.

Even with a stellar cast — led by Amy Adams and Glenn Close, directed by Ron Howard — it's unlikely that "Hillbilly Elegy" will challenge that formula once it hits Netflix on Nov. 24. I'd love to be proven wrong, though.

"Fried Green Tomatoes," however, has an opportunity to insert additional nuance into a story that was flattened for the big screen in 1991.

Based on Fannie Flagg's 1987 novel "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe," the film adaptation is set in two distinct time periods. Jessica Tandy plays Ninny Threadgoode, a vibrant octogenarian, who entertains Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates), a depressed housewife, with her tales of Depression-era Whistlestop, Alabama.

The main characters in her story are Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson), her free-spirited sister-in-law, and Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker), who was Idgie's closest friend and eventual...well, the film kind of skirts around this part.

In the book, Idgie and Ruth's relationship is never explicitly sexual, but definitely is more grounded as a straightforward love story; at one point in the novel, Flagg writes, "When Idgie had grinned at her and tried to hand her that jar of honey, all these feelings that [Ruth] had been trying to hold back came flooding through her, and it was in that second in time that she knew she loved Idgie with all her heart."

This wasn't just BFF love, but the movie was certainly billed that way, perhaps, as Buzzfeed's Kate Aurthur suggests, in order to piggy-back off the success of "Thelma and Louise."

Aurthur also states in her essay, "Why 'Fried Green Tomatoes' Is A Lesbian Classic — Yes, Lesbian!," that Masterson once told her that, compared to the book, the movie was "redacted."

"We were talking at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, when she played the mom of a queer teenage son in an indie movie called 'As You Are,'" Aurthur wrote. "When I brought up 'Fried Green Tomatoes' as a mainstream movie with a lesbian love story, she said some things had been cut that would have made the relationship more obvious. 'It wasn't a love scene, but there were, like — clearly a love relationship type of a fight, of jealousy,' she said. 'There was some more sensual kind of stuff in there. We were clearly playing that.'"

As I wrote in 2019, LGBTQ visibility and celebration in country music has come a long way since Chely Wright had received death threats and an industry-wide cold shoulder after coming out in 2010. Often, country music veers into a "trucks and beer" monolith that feels like it's solely made for white, straight consumption — an extension of those simplified stories told by and about rural communities.

Over the last decade, artists like Brandi Carlile, Lil Nas X, Kacey Musgraves, and Ty Herndon have stepped forward to complicate that narrative with songs that challenge the idea that rural communities are somehow devoid of queer love stories. The "Fried Green Tomatoes" reboot has the opportunity to do the same.

Will it? McEntire has long been a vocal propoent for LGBTQ rights, but there aren't many details available yet about the series. According to Variety, the hour-long drama project is "described as a modernization of the novel and movie that explores the lives of descendants from the original work. When present-day Idgie Threadgoode (McEntire) returns to Whistle Stop after a decade away, she must wrestle with a changed town, estranged daughter, faltering cafe and life-changing secret."

And while one hour-long special isn't going to undo decades of oversimplifying rural life, pop culture representation is important. It's a powerful lens through which viewers can both recognize themselves and come to better know people who exist outside their immediate orbit. People with lives and desires that, granted, can't be wholly encapsulated in a single film — but that doesn't mean the industry shouldn't strive for more careful, considered depictions.

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