Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History sidles up to listeners with the faux-charming tagline “Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.” This plea-cum-disclaimer is an act of charity, perhaps, for a school subject supposedly demanding rote memorization of facts and dates. The podcast relates no catechism of presidential greatness, no royal hemophiliac genealogies, no battles that transformed the world—which is all to the good. But patient students of Gladwell soon learn that this “second chance” is not the sort of exercise in critical self-interrogation that is the calling card of historical revisionism. It is, rather, a series of uncritical wallows in the skylarking world of social science, of the type Gladwell is known for.
This is the first-order genre challenge that historical inquiry under the Gladwell brand presents: a podcast about history that seems to have no interest whatsoever in the stuff. In its first season (it was recently renewed for another) Revisionist History featured a three-episode centerpiece: a gambol through the American educational system, focusing on the ways that it fails low-income students. (Of note was “Food Fight,” which offered a didactic tour of the cafeteria fare of Vassar and Bowdoin Colleges. In the zero-sum world of elite higher education, apparently, skimping on comestibles allows Vassar to provide more need-based scholarships.) But what does any of this have to do with the past—with the people who lived there, with their struggles and triumphs?
This matters a great deal. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please,” wrote Marx, explaining that people are born into “circumstances” they can’t choose for themselves. Yet historians also believe in allowing the people of the past to determine who they were and how their ideas ordered their worlds. Analyzing the past requires you to see a particular set of circumstances from someone else’s point of view—knowing full well that the gulf between then and now will prevent you from truly understanding them and what they faced.
Still, the point is, you have to try.
This empathy is the essence of academic historical methodology today, and it’s also a hallmark of good popular history. But in the episodes of Revisionist History that actually deal with history, people of the past come across as basically the same as we are today. Neither Gladwell nor his listeners have to dig very deeply into radically different mindsets, or to exert themselves much to achieve a cross-temporal state of empathy.
In episode 1, “The Lady Vanishes,” Gladwell treats us to a behind-the-scenes tour of St. James Palace, the vault of a priceless royal art collection that includes The Roll Call (1874), a Crimean War scene painted by Elizabeth Thompson. He explains the seeming historical significance of the work—purchased by Queen Victoria, it hangs in the most prestigious place in the palace, but its success wasn’t enough to ensure that a female artist like Thompson would gain admission to the all-male Royal Academy, Britain’s highest honor for an artist at the time.
“Where did I come from? Tell me the story of me!”—this is the typical plaint of a child demanding to know his origin story, not the stuff of historical argument.
Yet instead of exploring the aesthetic and critical tensions that likely shaped Thompson’s approach to her work and career in her own discrete historical age, Gladwell speeds to the present to explain a “fairly new” concept in social psychology. “Moral licensing” is a process through which people can do a virtuous thing, then use that one good deed to assure themselves that all future negative actions they may happen to perform will also count as good ones. Moral licensing, he glibly intones, is what really explains Thompson’s exclusion from the Royal Academy: after lauding her one painting, members of the academy patted themselves on the back for this one act of generous-minded acceptance of a member of the outcast clan of female artists, and turned her away. This is an analogue to Germans nurturing an ancient tendency to love one Jew at a time while denying basic rights to all others, Gladwell argues. Moral licensing explains the Holocaust. It also explains the election of a woman prime minister of Australia in 2010, and the misogyny she faced for the rest of her tenure in office. In short, people today must have the same psychological makeup as people in 1874 or 1941.
While this might seem like empathy—trying to understand who people really were, how they really thought—it’s fundamentally ahistorical. It seeks to explain us. “Where did I come from? Tell me the story of me!”—this is the typical plaint of a child demanding to know his origin story, not the stuff of historical argument.
The problem with all this public-facing preening of the historical project is that the way we think and the circumstances we think about are fundamentally different than they were in the past. This (among many other reasons) is why most debates about the true character and religio-moral rooting interests of our country’s founders drive historians up the wall. These were people who were different from us. Looking into what we think today to understand their motivations does no one any good. Historians don’t “forgive” or “understand” Washington and Jefferson for owning slaves because it was something that a lot of other rich men and women did. That tepid cultural relativism circumvents analysis in the name of avoiding “judgment.” Instead, following the example of the late Edmund Morgan, historians might think about how the fact of slavery permitted men like these to consider the meaning of freedom.
“Moral licensing,” or any of the other concepts that provide momentum for the rest of the episodes, simply don’t apply to people of the past—even, I would argue, for figures as recent as Wilt Chamberlain (who, Gladwell says, wouldn’t shoot foul shots underhand because of a “low threshold” . . . don’t ask). Historians evoke alternatives to what we know today: not ego psychology, but things like sin, corruption, luxury, and vice, all of which meant something a great deal different in, say, the eighteenth century than they do today. This difference, approached but never entirely grasped through empathy, conclusively shows that things have changed. And that, in turn, can lead us to imagine how the future might look different from what we know—as well as what we might do to bring that different world about.