Malcolm Gladwell, remember him? He has a podcast now. What’s a podcast? Are you for real? Anyway, the point is that the wild-haired author of pop sociology bestsellers such as Blink, What the Dog Saw, Outliers, and Tipping Point is now doing radio-on-demand and he’s damn good at it, too.
He has released five of the 10 episodes for this season. I listened to all them last night and boy, was I transported to places I’d never been!
The series reviews history because, as a species, we are unfortunately forgetful and often repeat mistakes of the past, especially the really terrible ones.
Gladwell argues in his exemplary narratives that sometimes we have to look back again to take the right lessons from the events of yesteryears. This is how the future can make more sense to us, he says. And this is why he calls his podcast Revisionist History.
I love, love, love it. Bursting with high-end production values (mood-setting accompanying music, vivid sound effects, and perfect tone of voice), the series makes radio on demand a joy. Even though it’s history, it doesn’t in any way, shape, or form sound boring.
Take The Lady Vanishes, for instance. This episode is about Moral Licensing. It’s how people do a singular good deed and use that as an excuse to become evil. For example, Germany once celebrated a gifted Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, for being so uniquely intelligent (and an “un-Jewish Jew”) but turned around and banished hundreds of other Jews from Berlin.
And in England in 1874, the Royal Academy of Arts, a secretive old boy’s club, allowed one woman into its circle. The woman, Elizabeth Thompson, was an impossibly gifted artist whose painting, the Roll Call, became the breakout star of the academy’s show that year. After the exhibition, Roll Call toured London, with lines of people extending down the streets to see it. It was as if the people were queueing for the new iPhone.
Queen Victoria ended up acquiring the painting after winning a severe bidding contest. But that was the closest Ms Thompson ever got to becoming a member of the Royal Academy. The next year, they hung her entry in an obscure section of the building, way beyond eye level, even though the painting was equally phenomenal and could have become sensational as well. As a final gift to her, the RA crafted a rule to limit the privileges of women who may eventually join the evil society called the Royal Academy.
There are more sinister examples of Moral Licensing if you look around.
Another episode of Revisionist History tells the fascinating story of two highly respected American experts who looked at the same research findings and made different conclusions. The powers that be chose to go with the conclusion more convenient for them, one that bolstered their preconceived notions. That conclusion cost the United States a lot of lives, and billions of dollars in the ill-conceived Vietnam War. It’s ridiculous when you think about it, because the US did the exact same thing when it invaded Iraq in 2003.
Being thoroughly researched is a plus for Revisionist History and its distinctive quality also helps the cause of the podcast as medium for expression in the mobile app age. Like Serial before it, Revisionist History will bring new converts to what some now describe as the new indie records.
Imagine yourself after hours, plugged in with your earphones, listening to a soft-spoken Gladwell as he paints a lifelike picture with words, of times past, lessons missed, and opportunities yet to be discovered. You’ve got to check out some podcasts; it’s a whole different world out there.