Monday, July 4, 2016

Revisionist Licensing

Malcom Gladwell's new podcast is called Revisionist History (feed) and this title instilled in me a slightly different expectation than what I got in the first episode. I was expecting either a revision of any widely accepted narrative, or a study of any such widely accepted narrative that had been challenged, more or less successfully. What Gladwell does rather, is take on a certain subject and show how we would generally assume a certain history and in stead get another. It is not very different, but still it is not negating an established thought but rather revealing the twist of closer inspection versus superficial expectation.

There are two episodes out, while I write this and I have only heard the first one, but this episode, The Lady Vanishes was so powerful, I just had to review immediately. Gladwell asks us: If Hilary Clinton will be elected as president, will that pave the way for more women in office or will generally enhance the chances for any other woman to be elected president? The historical sample taken is from the 19th century when the female painter Elizabeth Thompson was about to enter the Royal Society of the Arts in England.

Yes, we would expect such occurrences to work as a sluice that opens, but Gladwell invokes the concept of Moral Licensing from social psychology to show that the opposite might be true and presents the historic examples to support this kind of revisionist history (which I maintain is not exactly revisionist history in the regular sense, but we catch the drift). His point is that frequently individuals and societies allow particular cases of minority members (Women, Colored people, Jews etc) to enter a realm otherwise closed for them, only to satisfy their conscience and consequently proceed to discriminate with renewed ardor. The saddest example Jews in Germany as he takes it from Amos Elon's study "The pity of ot all" - which shows the Jews in German society from 1743-1933 occasionally succeeding to break the glass ceilings and walls, but nevertheless finding themselves eventually in a land that embraced the lethal antisemitism of the Nazis.

It is a very bleak conclusion; it cautions us that when we think discrimination might be over it may come back with a vengeance. While this may exactly be the case, there are two major reservations I have here. One is that this line of thinking has a tendency to be irrefutable because no matter how many examples you may find that discrimination is receding, it might still be a case of moral licensing. The second is that this idea of moral licensing comes from psychology, hence it describes processes in individuals and Gladwell takes this micro-level theory and applies it on a macro-level which is a jump cannot be made just like that.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Wrong artwork for podcast - does anyone know a fix?

Some of the podcasts show up in my iPhone with the wrong picture. For a long time I thought I did something wrong, but some internet research shows that many more people complain about media files that have the proper artwork in iTunes on the PC are synched on a device with the wrong artwork. I checked my iPad and the same problem occurs there.

Take for example this episode from the Talking History podcast as it shows in the player on my PC (screenshot on the left - correct) and on my iPhone and iPad with the artwork of a totally other podcast (screenshot to the right). As a matter of fact, when you look more closely, more than just the picture is messed up. It seems that more mp3 labels are not exactly in place.

Does anybody else have this problem? Did you manage to solve it? I would love to hear about it and many more with me as the internet is full of complaints about this but few suggestions to solutions.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

History of Oil - resurrected from podfade

We have gone through this history in quite a number of podcasts: Sarajevo 1914, Pearl Harbor 1941 and even the fall of Mossadegh 1953, haven't we? How is it that I was glued to my iPod with these narratives all over again? I was listening to A History of Oil an amateur podcast by Peter Doran. (feed). I wrote this review in 2013 and for a long time this podcast seemed to have finished, but it came back from hiatus and promises to keep on from where it left off. All I wrote in 2013 is worth repeating.

Any new history podcast should reveal a fact about history that was not that clear until now. A History of Oil does that even where you hardly expect to be surprised. Take for instance Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi Invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. We already knew the Germans over-stretched themselves. We knew they had fuel shortages. We knew they had to capture the oil fields on the Caspian Sea around Baku and failed to do so. We knew that no matter how long they could hold out in Soviet territory, this was a turning point in the Second World War, but still A History of Oil's perspective gives something new.

A History of Oil effectively starts in the middle of the nineteenth century when crude oil began to enter the markets as a commodity and before long we approach the First World War. The British are the first to let their navy switch from coal to oil, but others are soon to follow, so that we are more than normally aware how oil has become a vital strategic resource by the time the Second World War comes around. Then, in 1941, as the Nazis invade the Soviet Union and have one success after another, oil became a problem. The Germans had used many times more fuel than planned. In fact operation Barbarossa rapidly depleted the oil reserves and no source was at hand that could meet the increased demand. So, if we thought that the defeat at Stalingrad was the turning point, A History of Oil, makes it clear that the defeat was inherent. Not a radically new point, but still a new support for the thesis that Barbarossa was a decisive Nazi mistake from the get go.

This is only one example of what the slightly altered perspective of A History of Oil brings to familiar data. Another refreshing experience is to go through the era not by means of national histories, but by means of the history of corporations; Standard Oil, Royal Dutch, Shell, British Petroleum and so on. It makes John D. Rockefeller more prominent than Theodore Roosevelt. It makes the Japanese invasion of Borneo more prominent than their attack on Pearl Harbor. It places Mexico, Venezuela and Indonesia in the center of attention what rarely happens and so on.

In short, A History of Oil is a remarkable enrichment to the library of history podcasts and highly recommended listening.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The History of Islam podcast

The most essential history podcast right now must be The History of Islam podcast (feed) by Elias Belhaddad. Current affairs have a very palpable presence of Islam and much of the history since the rise of Islam (and it rose at lightning speed) has a strong presence of Islam. Yet most historiography (and podcasts as well) can only offer the perspective from without. Yet, as we are in crisis with Islam (and maybe we always were) it seems without a doubt extremely important to acquire understanding of Islam. I certainly feel that way.

Elias Belhaddad clearly has set this as a goal: to inform about Islam and convey its perspective to his audience. The consequence of this is that while we have proceeded 14 episodes into the series, we have only just now arrived at Muhammad and he is about to leave for Medina. Belhaddad has deliberately spent most of his time until this point in laying out the groundwork for what he sees is indispensable for understanding the world and people from which Muhammad and Islam came about.

He has invested in explaining the environment of the Arabian Penninsula and how the harsh nature designates the mentality and life style of the Arab peoples. Then he has gone through great lengths laying out the history of the Quraysh clan, how they came to control Mecca and from there on along the lineage down till Muhammad.

He is clearly passionate about the subject, he has great admiration for the Arab people (though not without criticism), he knows his Arabic and personally I assume he is a Muslim, although he has not divulged any such details about himself which is his full right of course.

Hence this is a podcast of great relevance, done with passion and with much purpose. In addition his audio is good and his delivery is much to my liking. Nevertheless I keep wondering with each and every episode: why is this important? What is the take away message? I am sure Elias has a clear idea where he wants to go, and why he narrates the way he does, but he reveals very little of it. Maybe he feels this keeping of the cards to his chest is an advantage, but I wager, the podcast would gain in depth if he were to be transparent on his decisions of what to put in, what to leave out and what it is he wants to make clear in particular.

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The History of Denmark podcast

Søren Krarup is an 18 year old Danish high school student who is about to take his final exams and as a result there will be a one month hiatus in his podcast The history of Denmark (feed). No need to apologize, Søren ; what is a month? I have so many other podcasts in my playlist. Anyway, here is part ONE of the review.

Where in the world can we expect from a youth who has not even finished his school to supply a full fledged history podcast and in another than his native tongue? Krarup pulls it off with flying figures and fills in yet another gap in the large supply of 'The history of [this country]' podcasts. His English, although with a slight accent, is fluent; his writing is perfect; his presentation very professional, his structure is a straightforward chronological telling of Danish history - everything is in the right place and done properly. Speaking of language: there are a large number of German names in his history so far, and these he pronounces with a flawless German accent. I am extremely sensitive to language, so this is a sheer delight.

A lot of my readers are history podcasters and would be history podcasters and I would like to point to Krarup's work as an example. I was raving about Zack Twamley (When dimplomacy fails) the other day as the exemplary history podcaster of this day and age, but his may be a tough standard to emulate. So I would suggest to begin by looking at The History of Denmark in order to get a good view of the basics - this is what you have to get right. And as for the readers of my blog who are interested in Denmark, we have enough to recommend the podcast. Follow the URL, subscribe and take it all in.

In my earlier blogging days I would have stopped at this point, but now I wish to share my thoughts on how to get it to the next level. And this is meant generally. Every podcaster should make these considerations, and if I apply it to The History of Denmark, then that is a concrete example and definitely no reason to say Søren Krarup is doing something wrong. If anything it is how to get it better. On to part TWO of the review.

The Jelling stone mentioning Gorm and Denmark
In the last episode Krarup happily announced he had some 400 subscribers to the podcast. After I publish my review, he will get instant exposure to another 200-2000 potential subscribers. What will convince these readers to go and subscribe? It could easily double or even triple the listener base, but what would bring my readers to spend time with Denmark, when there is also Latvia, Bulgaria, Italy, Germany, England, Japan, China and on and on? Can you expect them to be interested in Denmark? Would they subscribe simply because Denmark's history has not yet been covered in another podcast? And what if it has? Why Krarup's podcast? Actually, I wonder if the mere reason that Denmark was not covered yet in podcast could in earnest be enough reason for Krarup to make one.

The question what makes Denmark interesting can potentially be met by a wide range of answers, but it struck me that the way this podcast is structured, has one question almost pushing itself to the forefront. The country boasts to be the oldest Kingdom in the world. Krarup emphasizes with tangible pride in one of the early episodes that the current queen of Denmark is a direct descendant of Gorm the Old, who is mentioned in the runes on the 10th century Jellingstenen which is the oldest source referring to the country by its name Danmark. So we have a country here of stable continuity spanning over a 1000 years.

Continuity over such a long time is not common in history, so there is the first question: How can a small country maintain its social, linguistic and political continuity over such a long time? It has had its share of civil war, succession crises, occupation and unions with other countries, just like others, yet it stayed the same (it did, did it not?) - what explains that?

Any podcaster who embarks on a series and poses such a central question, gives purpose to the project and greater power of keeping the listeners tied in. As a matter of fact, every episode should have such a question (Like: How did Valdemar manage to win the Danish civil war and reunite the Danes?) to draw us in again and again. It certainly makes this Israeli crave for the next episode on the edge of his seat. One month waiting will be such a long time.

The world's oldest Kingdom

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Monday, June 6, 2016

The alleged racism of Albert Camus

Albert Camus became my idol, when at the age of 16-17 I read The Stranger for the first time (L’Étranger - I read it in French and in Dutch). On one of the recent issues of Entitled Opinions (feed) host Robert Harrison discussed this novel with Alice Kaplan, Professor of French at Yale University: Alice Kaplan on Albert Camus and The Stranger. And from the start the discussion gave a new interpretation of the racism in The Stranger.

Albert Camus as my idol represented the ultimate personal moralism, cleansed from common hypocrisy and ideological and religious pomposity. However, soon enough my personal saint was seriously challenged in his sainthood: I read an analysis of The Stranger by Conor Cruise O'Brien. O'Brien attempted to show that The Stranger was the product of French colonialist bourgeois cultural baggage. In the novel all the French characters have names and a personalized identity. Yet all the native Algerians are 'Arabs' and Meursaults murder of an 'Arab' is a mere vehicle to bring about an unconvincing show trial which is a vehicle to show Meursaults sanctity of the Camusian kind, yet indifferently ignores the cruelties towards the Arabs in the book to which Meursault shows no protest, judgment or even regret. In short, the Arabs are treated as the subhuman the French colonial was used to treat them and hence the writer and his book are marred by inherent racism. My hero was markedly tainted now; I would not want to give up on him and kept on reading and studying his work, yet O'Brien's harsh criticism was impossible to overlook.

Alice Kaplan turns the issue completely around. She claims that Camus saw his society for what it was and as a court reporter was acutely aware that a case such as Meursault's would be treated as the murder of 'an Arab'. Hence, in her view, Camus' use of the French colonialist language and point of view is deliberate and entails among others a critical view on the inherent racism of his environment. I find it partly convincing for two reasons. For one it fits in with the naturalistic style of The Stranger which meticulously describes Meursault's world as it is, without making it grimmer or prettier and carefully abstaining from all judgment. Secondly, it fits in with Camus' independent moralism as expressed also in his later work. Listen and judge for yourself; as for me, as reluctant as I ever was to take in O'Brien's criticism I still feel that something holds.

The point where it holds connects with my personal experience, today, here in Israel, but also previously, when I still lived in The Netherlands. You see, it has always struck me that even the most politically correct people, those that reject racism wherever they see it and choose the side of the oppressed, they still talk of the oppressed in those generalizing terms. In the society where ethnic identity has such deep implications, even if you are totally against it, you are stuck with a language and public discourse that is drawn along the lines of ethnic categorization and profiling. It means that only if The Stranger would not be written in French and not be set in Algeria in the 1940's the novel would have a beginning of a chance to get away with this kind of inherent racism. It would no longer be The Stranger and would no longer be by Camus. So we will have to live with the criticism no matter what.

More Camus on the blog:
Entitled Opinions (2009),
In Our Time (2008),
In Our Time (2009),
The Partially Examined Life (2011),
Philosophy Bites (2008),
Philosophy Bites (2009).