Revealing History’s Underlying Layers: A Podcast Review of Revisionist History


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October 22, 2019
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Title: Revisionist History
Broadcaster: Pushkin Industries
Narrators: Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg
Start Date: June 16, 2016
End Date: Present (Recent release Aug 22, 2019)

Have you ever sat for hours considering the importance of a semi-colon? Do you enjoy visiting public libraries and consuming hours of oral history to discover the inconsistencies told in a story repeated over the course of decades? Have you ever wondered about the connection between Freud and the crooning King himself? My bet is that your curiosity is peaked at this point—I mean, who doesn’t like a good semi-colon? Still, who has the time to dig into this kind of stuff? Have no fear, Malcom Gladwell is here to sate your curiosity.

In his podcast, Revisionist History, Malcom Gladwell takes dive after deep dive into human history’s most overlooked and misunderstood topics. Across four seasons of podcasts, the acclaimed author of Outliers and David and Goliath exposes his listeners to their presupposed beliefs and expectations for how the world works. He provides a plethora of information about a variety of material you never knew you were so interested in.

Why, you ask? Well, that’s a good question.

Part of the reason is simply that it seems to bring Gladwell joy to investigate these things with a captive (or rather captivated) audience. The excitement that he finds in the intrigue of digging into the use of casuistic reasoning by the Jesuits is tangible. His criticism of the LSAT exams and its shortcomings in attempting to portray the likelihood of a student’s success in the legal realm becomes personal for him as he invests deeper and deeper into the intrigue. Much of my enjoyment with this podcast was listening to Gladwell get as worked up as he does, over things that I have never even thought about.

However, Gladwell clearly has another purpose for this podcast. It has to do with what he is hoping his audience will take away from having listened to them.

Let’s start broadly. In exhaustively investigating these fairly unknown stories and issues, Gladwell calls us to engage with life and stories more deeply. There is almost always a deeper level of complexity, no matter what the subject matter is; rarely is it because, “it’s just always been that way.”

Gladwell guides us through looking closely at some of these issues in Revisionist History. For instance, the way Americans treat our southern border is heavily influenced by the experience of one marine and how he reacted to his time serving in Vietnam. The actions of the Sons of Liberty during the Boston Tea Party were motivated by more than just a distaste for taxes in their tea. Pat Boone should be in the rock and roll hall of fame for something unexpected—his metal tribute album. By sitting with these stories for a while, we begin to see more of society’s under layer being pulled back as our perspective becomes more complete.

Now let’s descend into particulars, there is an excellent series of episodes in which Gladwell engages with memory and how untrustworthy it can be. Starting with two episodes about two different war stories, he systematically shows that memory is not something to be trusted. He reveals how the brain can fabricate complete lies—lies that, once told enough times, are believed to have happened. He also suggests that the fault for this self-deception should not always be placed squarely on the one who is caught in the lie.

In season four of Revisionist History, Gladwell invites us on a series of episodes which introduces his listenership to the use of casuistic reasoning. He starts by framing the information, and then applies casuistic reasoning to ask very intricate and difficult questions. For instance, when is it okay to take performance enhancing drugs? Does the birth control pill disrupt the Catholic definition of the natural order of procreation the same way an abortion does? On whose head rests the blame of an unarmed man being gunned down by a half dozen police officers? Using casuistic reasoning, Gladwell expertly unfolds these questions and reveals the unexpected narrative hidden within the particulars of each individual case.

Here something must be said of the structure and superior technical execution of this show. In Revisionist History, Gladwell has somehow managed to create a safe space for both himself and his listeners to ask some really difficult questions across a wide array of topics, some heavier than others. Through careful and intentional interweaving of topics, Gladwell invites the listener to engage more than one topic at once—all while driving home one metanarrative.

As an example, there is one episode in which Gladwell is trying to reframe the narrative around the Boston Tea Party, an event which kicked off the American Revolution. He wanders down a delightful rabbit trail of how to brew and enjoy tea. In the same episode, a significant amount of time is given to a tangent concerning the Mafia. All of these stories are brought around eventually and use their individual tangential conclusions to bring about the main point of the episode. What this style allows us as the listener to do is to take a bit of a mental break mid-episode to shift our perspective a bit, incorporate new information, and then reengage the main topic with a more complete view of things.

This is all executed with a rhetorician’s skill set to an impeccably produced sound experience. Jumping into one of these episodes means becoming immersed in a story—one that unfolds over the course of 45-50 minutes but could contain decades and sometimes centuries of time. Yet, each of the touchstones provided are expertly crafted and rendered in immersive audio quality that puts us right in the heart of whatever moment we’re keying into. This enables the listener to fully engage these stories. We’re right there next to the stage as Elvis breaks down on the spoken verse of “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” we chuckle with the audience at the Dick Cavett show as he interviews Governor Maddox, and we’re in the room when Sammy Davis, Junior gives Nixon his fateful hug.

This is typically where I would try to take a quick turn as a critic and provide some cons for the show. However, I honestly can’t think of any. Perhaps one could criticize the Gladwellian tendency toward hyperbole that occasionally takes over when the host begins to wax poetic about an issue in which he strongly believes. Truthfully, that’s half the fun of a given episode.

One could balk at some of the subject matter that Gladwell considers, since some of the content would fall into the category of “Not Safe for Work.” But, that’s just the consequence of Gladwell engaging hard themes and occasionally conducting difficult interviews of people whose stories are no less valid or valuable. However, I would recommend using headphones if you’re worried about who will overhear.

That being said, I cannot think of a good reason for you to not spend time with this podcast. If you’re at all a curious person, Malcolm Gladwell will pull you in and get you interested in whatever he is talking about—even if you’ve never spared it a thought before.

There are four full seasons of Revisionist History for you to consume, and I at least will be eagerly awaiting the release of season five.

About the Author
  • Jackson Nickolay is a trained theatre artist, audio producer, and avid podcast consumer who for the past 10 years has been working in finding the shared ground where faith and storytelling meet. He teaches scripture enactment and tableau in the vein of the Ancient Hebrew Drama project and the Network of Biblical Storytellers and is currently pursuing a Masters of Divinity at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan. He also produces a podcast titled No Script in which he and co-host Jacob Mann Christensen have unscripted conversations about theatre's best scripts.

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