How We Lie to Ourselves About History [Rachel Syme/The New Yorker]
“You’re Wrong About” debunks the stories of the past. But its real subject isn’t so much facts as the process by which we absorb them.
The “You’re Wrong About” podcast, co-hosted by journalists Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall, digs into stories that made headlines, mainly tabloid stories in the 90s and 2000s, and finds out what really went on. Subjects include the OJ Simpson murders and trial, the lives of Anna Nicole Smith, Jessica Simpson, and Amy Fisher, the Kitty Genovese murder, and multiple serial killers. Public memory of these events is clear-cut, with black-and-white heroes and villains. Hobbes and Marshall discover the reality is nuanced, with even villains being just people who are doing the best they can.
“You’re Wrong About” is often funny, despite the generally dark subject matter, and always smart.
What keeps the show fresh is its outlook. Marshall and Hobbes are endlessly curious about their own blind spots, which they hunt down like truffle pigs set loose in a damp forest. Each brings a unique view and tone to the show; Marshall is more world-weary and sardonic, with a gravelly voice that sounds not unlike the caustic cartoon character Daria Morgendorffer. Hobbes is excitable and buzzing, often so eager to rattle off information that he speaks in full paragraphs. Together, they make up a kind of millennial Statler and Waldorf, heckling the shoddy journalism of the past. But even their response to the media is one of amusement, or droll resignation—they stay far away from the outrage that has become the pattern of public life. (Indignation would imply certainty, and certainty would cut against the core of their project.) In one episode, the hosts discuss the Y2K-bug scare, in which people feared that the year 2000 would cause computer systems—and society at large—to crash. Hobbes tells Marshall that people often use the subject as a bludgeon. “When we’re talking about climate change, people will bring up, like, Oh, we were worried about Y2K, too, and that turned out to be a hoax,” he says. “And somebody else will respond to that by saying, No, Y2K is an example of us coming together and fixing a problem.” After he’s done, Marshall playfully clears her throat. Then she says, “And, since we have now had two years of doing this show, I am able to extrapolate that perhaps the answer is no one is right.”
It’s an apt mission statement for “You’re Wrong About,” which, despite the neatness of its name, is the one history podcast I’ve heard that assumes the audience is capable of complex thought. It doesn’t try to sift out nuance; it’s a podcast for adults, albeit those who have spent most of their lives telling themselves the wrong stories.
“You’re Wrong About” isn’t the only smart, nuanced history podcast out there. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is equally good, while very different. Carlin’s subject matter is generally military history. A friend who was a combat veteran in Vietnam says combat brings out the best and worst in people, and that’s a main theme of Hardcore History. Soldiers and civilian victims see brutality of a kind the rest of us can only imagine—what kind of person does those things? And what kind of person remains noble despite living through them?