Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: “Common Sense”

Posted by Maximum Fun on 11th October 2009

There’s a very popular podcast out there called Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Though your Podthinker hasn’t heard it, he’s totally unable to stop hearing about it on every recommended podcast list, in every discussion of podcasts, from so many enthusiastic podcast listeners. While your Podthinker has nothing against historical shows and all that is hardcore, he has gotten the feeling that, where Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is concerned, the job of fandom has been filled, repeatedly and vigorously.

Fortunately, the well-respected Mr. Carlin, reportedly possessed of a grippingly engaging personality, a stunningly comprehensive knowledge of history, politics and geography and hosting skills of the highest caliber, produces another podcast that your Podthinker doesn’t get pitched nearly as often. It’s called Common Sense [iTunes] [XML], and it’s about American politics, political opinion and news analysis. While this would normally send your Podthinker straight to the bathroom — especially that “news analysis” bit — Carlin’s reputation (and, admittedly, the sheer curiosity fluffed by all that Hardcore History talk) made it unignorable.

Can’t we all agree that the saying about opinions being just another stinky thing everyone’s got goes double for political opinions, triple for mediated ones? In the realm of poltics, evidence halves, stubbornness doubles and thoughtfulness shrinks to near-nonexistence. Factor in the media’s uninterruptable bullhorn effect — or, if you’re a George Saunders fan, which you almost certainly are, its “braindead megaphone” effect — and DO NOT WANT. Given that, neither Carlin’s background as a “real” political radio host nor his program’s electric guitar-y theme music bode particularly well. What a delightful surprise, then, to find that the show’s actually smart.

But what does it mean for political talk to be “smart”? When someone makes that claim, “smart” usually translates to nothing more than “shares my prejudices.” The first welcome quality of Carlin’s perspective is that he runs an aggressively nonpartisan speeakeasy: he’s not out to pile blame on the Rethuglicans or the Spendocrats for all of the country’s ills, and — better yet — he doesn’t believe their solution lies with a particular party or ideology, either. He operates from a point of view outside established platforms, movements and interest groups, his only interest calling bullshitters on their bullshit. Fortunately, politics being politics, he’ll never run out of the stuff.

Also refreshing is his capacity to change his mind, whose tools are a rarity in the political talk show host’s armory. An example comes in his recent discussion of The Health Care Debate [MP3], also known as The Least Intelligent American Political Debate of Your Podthinker’s Lifetime. Carlin therein explains that he used to hold a strong stance against socialized health care, but he changed his mind when he realized that almost all of the negative consequences of socialized health care seem to be present in America already. And even with issues as tangled and often nonsensical as the U.S. health care system, the man has some sort of magic touch — perhaps as a result of playing toward listeners outside the country as well as inside it — that allows him to explain them clearly, concisely and in an entertaining fashion. (A bit on the ACORN controversy [MP3] provides another data point.)

Despite Carlin’s deeply announcer-y mien, though, “entertaining” doesn’t mean the usual dense, broad commercial-radio goofiness: he’s drops quite a bit of wit — though, yes, sometimes of a slightly goofy stripe — amid his oration. If all this approbation is beginning to sound implausible, bear in mind the horrendously low standard for this sort of thing. Is Dan Carlin perfectly unbiased? Of course not — he’s something of a libertarian, but doesn’t even really conform to that slant — but at least he doesn’t claim to be. Is he perfectly rational? No, but at least he makes the attempt, and he’s entertaining when worked up. Is he perfectly omniscient? No, but he seems to be honest about how he knows, what he knows and what he doesn’t. (The roots provided by all that historical knowledge, hardcore and otherwise, doesn’t hurt.) Besides, it’s not that Common Sense is the most intelligent political opinion program your Podthinker has ever heard — it’s the only intelligent one.

Vital stats:
Format: political monologues with occasional interviews
Duration: 40m-120m
Frequency: twice a month
Archive available on iTunes: last 30

[Questions, comments, ideas, suggestions or threats for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]