Direct Your Attention: Malcolm Gladwell’s perfect hi(story)

By OWEN MASON-HILL

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This article is an installation of the new column “Direct Your Attention” by Arts and Culture Editor Owen Mason-Hill. Each week, he will discuss his favorite media projects he’s discovered.

I can think of no better subject for the inaugural issue of Direct Your Attention than Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast because it has done for me precisely what I intend to do with this column. It is hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t aware of this masterclass in podcasting; I have begun to mark my calendar year by interchanging periods of listening to “Revisionist History” and then those of waiting for another season like one would a new iPhone.

To listen to “Revisionist History” is to become acutely aware of the world around yourself. There is an unquenchable thirst for truth that permeates Gladwell’s authorship of this podcast; even in his intro dialogue one comes to understand that he is unlike other hosts because of his refusal to take part in our historical zeitgeist. The aim of the podcast is to undermine the historical narratives we retell without question in order to find a better, more accurate version of the story we share.

The stories Gladwell tells and the narratives he weaves are unexpected to say the least, and nearly impossible to predict. He uncovers the reason why our society deems hoarding a disorder yet praises art museums that rapidly collect pieces. Later, in the next episode, he explores the invention of napalm and our weaponization of it in wartime. If “Revisionist History” were a ship, Malcolm Gladwell would most assuredly be a captain away from his steering wheel, letting the winds of curiosity fill his sails. 

Despite being released just a month ago, the finale of Season 5 has lived in my mind for what seems like years. In this episode, “A Memorial for the Living,” Gladwell interweaves two seemingly unrelated stories so that only in their combined retelling does the audience join Gladwell himself in understanding their link. 

In the Season 5 finale, the first story is Gladwell’s deep dive into what he describes as “the world’s most perfect memorial,” the 9/11 memorial in New York City. It is almost difficult to express in numbers just how much money, time, personnel and resources were thrown at the complex problem of translating a nation’s collective trauma into a single architectural design. 

The second story Gladwell recounts is about a trip he took earlier this year to Jacksonville, where he visited Changing Homelessness, an organization that conducts a yearly survey of their city’s homeless population. The results of this search are represented on a scatter plot, arraying them along a scale of vulnerability. Each dot on the plot has a name, and each week during their meetings the leadership of Changing Homelessness become increasingly familiar with the identities of their city’s most vulnerable. 

The question Malcom Gladwell presents is simple: What is the purpose of a memorial? Why is it that we have constructed, in Gladwell’s own words, “a gorgeous mausoleum for the dead and only a scatterplot for the living?”

COURTESY PHOTO

 I will not attempt to answer this question in a way that will spoil the episode for you but for me, it encapsulates everything that makes “Revisionist History” and its author unique: a fearless progression towards a better tomorrow. Gladwell has no intention of tearing down our attachment to our nation’s trauma, he simply implores us to uncover its purpose. Every episode can be summarized in two simple questions. The first: Why? The second: How can we do it better?

When something as large as a pandemic looms over your shoulder like a perpetual storm cloud, it is hard to discern what is worthy of our time and interest; suddenly all the world’s problems seem to pale in comparison. Yet, despite the overwhelmingness of it all, Gladwell always seems to make the issues feel approachable and, most importantly, personal. 

The sense one gets from “Revisionist History” is a warmth of humanity that is deeply embedded within every aspect of the podcast: Gladwell’s voice is both carefully articulate and wildly emotive, the show’s writing is conversationally casual while driving its emotional beats home with an undoubtedly poignant accuracy — and Gladwell’s own quirks make the show deliberately unacademic. I am not someone who can read a 40-page dissertation without a lapse in concentration, yet every time I finish an episode of “Revisionist History,” I feel immensely more knowledgeable than when I started and nonetheless light. 

“Revisionist History” was my first artistic love: a project in which I saw no flaws, not a single scuff on its polish. While Malcolm Gladwell’s search is to find and uncover the overlooked and misunderstood, mine is to find artists like him at the top of their craft. The purpose of this column is to direct your attention toward what I think are masterful projects more than worthy of your time, and “Revisionist History” is most assuredly at the pinnacle of artistic creation, head and shoulders above its peers.