Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: My History Can Beat Up Your Politics

Posted by Maximum Fun on 30th May 2011

Vital stats:
Format: one guy talking about the history of political issues
Episode duration: 15-40m
Frequency: 3-4 per month

I tire of nothing quite so quickly as political arguments, especially ones about the blood-angrying issues of the moment. Paul Graham wrote sagely about what makes these so tiresome to hear, or worse, participate in:

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan.

Which topics engage people’s identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn’t. No one would know what side to be on.

Bruce Carlson, host of My History Can Beat Up Your Politics [iTunes], knows this. The historical lens glimmers as one of our last hopes for a way to talk about politics, a reasonable-izing agent, a technique that neutralizes the way politics can get so, well, political, and so he uses to look at current political questions. You might say that he either approaches history through politics or approaches politics through history — both seem true enough. Does the politics spice up the history, or does the history temper the politics? Does the history offer a way to understand the politics, or does the politics offer a way to understand the history? Does it matter?

The show uses the blessedly simple form so many popular history podcasts have settled on: one guy talking for a while. Carlson starts talking about an topic of long relevance to American politics — unions, social security, rights — or one that’s gained particular currency in the day’s news — gas prices, secret anti-terror operations, filibustering. He then lectures on the history of that topic, usually focusing on echoes of today’s concerns throughout the United States’ lifetime. Students of ancient and world history know there’s not much new under the sun in the public forum, but Carlson shows you don’t even have to go far back or far afield to understand that.

Despite his attempts to use history at the anti-politics, I’m sure people still accuse Carlson of political bias every so often. Putting out episodes called “The Dark Side of Rights” [MP3] or ambivalent assessments of unions [MP3] surely draws charges of crypto-conservatism, and — as I have learned from my peer group — conservative is the worst thing you can be. Then again, I’ve heard quite a few moments on the show when Carlson declares that conservatives won’t like what he’s about to show history revealing, and iTunes suggests Best of the Left as a show to which My History Can Beat Up Your Politics listeners also subscribe.

But regardless, doesn’t the one-guy-talking format sound… flat? People who’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to get into history podcasts again and again think so. I find that Carlson improves it with each program, sounding slightly more conversational and slightly less scripted. (Though you can still hear him turning the pages of his notes.) Listen to the older episodes he occasionally re-runs and, though the content holds up, you hear a farrago of strangely choppy editing, dropping out in mid-sentence, dropping in in mid-word, suddenly jumping back a sentence or to, repeating sonically identical parts of an intake of breath four or five times. The show can still sound a little glitchy, but it’s made much progress — something that, if you listen to enough of these talks, you’ll wonder if the American political process has ever made.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]