Revisionist history: Today’s questions, yesterday’s answers
Two episodes in, best-selling writer Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History is at No.1 in the iTunes Charts of US Podcasts. The podcast, launched earlier this month, will have 10 weekly instalments on topics ranging from gender bias to basketball. As the title of the podcast suggests, Gladwell will take up a historical event or person in each episode—“Something we all missed. Something we all remembered but misunderstood”—and review it through a different lens to “correct the record”.
In episode 1, “The Lady Vanishes”, he talks about Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler), the 19th century English painter who seemed to have a real shot at getting into the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts after the exhibition of her 1874 painting, The Roll Call, which was bought by Queen Victoria.
But Gladwell explains why she never really had a chance of entering the then all-male bastion of the art academy. If anything, the academy’s decision to give Thompson the chance to be elected may have made it even harder for women to become actual members of it. For, once the Royal Academy members had proved they could disregard the sex of a great artist, as in Thompson’s case, they felt justified in going back to their gender-biased ways without fear of reproach. Gladwell explains with examples how this sort of “moral licensing” is prevalent even today.
The second episode, “Saigon, 1965”, is about an intelligence-gathering programme during the Vietnam war called the Viet Cong Motivation and Morale Project, run by the think tank Rand Corporation. Gladwell revisits the operation, which was funded by the US government and aimed at understanding the mind of the North Vietnamese communist in the 1960s. Through interviews, past recordings and compelling storytelling, Gladwell talks about why intelligence gathering falls short time and again. Gladwell speaks of our urge to know everything about our enemy even today, referencing the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks and the Islamic State (IS) network—but says what the Vietnam project tells us is that “you can know everything there is to know about your enemy and that still won’t solve your problem”.
Revisionist History stands out for three reasons. First, the questions Gladwell raises are topical and universal. Gender bias and everyday sexism, as well as intelligence failures, are continuing problems that are pertinent the world over.
Second, he culls some of the most interesting examples to make his point. The example of Thompson in the first episode is perfect: After being feted for a year, she vanishes from the public scene. When her husband, a military man, writes a book, she is absent from the book too. Her painting still hangs in St James’ Palace in London as part of the Royal Collection, but ordinary citizens need to take permission to go in and see it.
The third, of course, has to do with Gladwell’s storytelling style, which has been on display before, on platforms such as The Moth podcast (in the episode “The Moth Presents Malcolm Gladwell: Her Way”, 2012) and TED talks—his talk, “Choice, Happiness And Spaghetti Sauce”, 2004, has been viewed over six million times.
On Revisionist History, he sprinkles his narrative with similes and descriptions, sets a scene in its proper context and brings it alive. In the first episode, he explains how Royal Academy art exhibitions were the equivalent of a Beyoncé concert in the 19th century. People turned out in the hundreds of thousands to see The Roll Call, he explains. In episode 2, he takes care to give the background for each of his three main characters: Mai Elliott, Leon Gouré and Konrad Kellen. He even describes the tamarind-lined street where Gouré lived in Vietnam while he conducted interviews and collected intelligence.
Of course, making a hard and vast topic accessible can sometimes require a selective approach to history and a flattening of reams of data to arrive at its meaning. And Gladwell’s gift is to make ideas crystal clear, and make them relatable and engaging. The Revisionist History podcast is no exception.
Lately, critics have called Gladwell out on this flattening of research. On a recent Freakonomics Radio podcast, host Stephen Dubner spoke to Gladwell and asked if the 10,000-hour rule in his book Outliers might not be an extrapolation, and a simplification, of research by Anders Ericsson. Gladwell responded by saying that what he really wanted to say was that someone who wanted to excel at something would need that amount of time and, therefore, a team around him, to let him focus on his goal. That, however, is far from the popular understanding of the 10,000-hour rule, which is generally taken to mean that you can excel at anything if you persist with it for that long.
So, while listening to Revisionist History, you may want to not take all of Gladwell’s opinions as gospel truth.