There are many things the incumbent in the White House has ruined. No need to list the big ones here, we all know what they are. I want to talk about a smaller one: listening to podcasts. Before the 2016 election in the US, podcast listening had come into its own as a powerful and popular new medium. Over an arc of maybe ten years, the form developed and flowered into something extraordinary. It was also sort of counterintuitive. In the age of the atomized attention span, here were often lengthy, substantial programmes – interviews, reviews, and analysis that covered politics, history, literature, art, cinema, comedy, sport, true crime, and just about anything else you care to mention. I’ve posted before about some of my favourites: Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, The Moment with Brian Koppelman, Marc Maron’s WTF. There’s also The Joe Rogan Experience, Sam Harris’s Waking Up, Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. And there are countless others. You know the drill. Make your own list.
It’s a commitment, though, listening to podcasts. Some of them last for hours and require your full attention. A lot of them come out weekly, others more frequently than that. You discover new ones, often with large back catalogues. You subscribe. But how are you supposed to fit them all in? Walking to work, that’s how. Or on the bus. Or jogging, driving, washing the dishes. You work something out. As with screen time, podcast listening is also immersive, and an effective withdrawal from the real world, but it does feel like you’re actually doing something – and not just tossing your brain into the woodchipper, one cell at a time.
So. Last year – early last year – I might have been listening to a podcast episode about . . . World War I or Jean Harlow or AI, or an interview with Gary Taubes or William Friedkin or Rhonda Patrick. Whatever. But then you-know-what came along, the election. Political podcasts were around in 2012, but in 2016 they took over. I remember following American presidential elections as a kid, and the pickings in Ireland at that time were fairly lean – snippets on the evening news as things progressed, the occasional magazine article, the debates maybe, election-night coverage, and that was it. The internet helped, of course. But the tidal wave of new political podcasts last year was a game changer. Now you could get down and dirty (in the weeds, granular, pick your metaphor) with just about any aspect of the cycle – issues, candidates, funding, polling. Experienced reporters gave first-hand, blow-by-blow accounts of the campaigns as they unfolded, along with considered, unhurried analysis, and all of it relatively free of the usual corporate filtering. There was Nate Silver’s wonky FiveThirtyEight. There was NPR Politics, with its crack team of millennials (plus old-school Ron Elving). And there was Keepin’ It 1600, hosted by former Obama aides, Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor.
This was all great – the whole inglorious shitshow unfolding before one in as close to real time as it’s possible to get (allowing, of course, for the fact that a person might occasionally need to shower or feed his children). And with this volume of political material flowing through the earbuds on a daily basis, the history and Hollywood stuff, naturally enough, had to be put on hold. Ditto the comedy and meditation stuff. Ditto the interviews with neuroscientists and anthropologists.
It’s just that . . . well, it’s already a full year on from the election and there’s been no let-up. That shitshow, it turns out, was just an appetizer, and now I find myself having to listen to the re-formed Obama vets on Pod Save America, to Jacob Weisberg and Virginia Heffernan on Trumpcast, to Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessey on Lawfare, to David Rothkopf on Deep State, to David Runciman on Talking Politics, and on and on. I said having to there. Obviously, this isn’t really the case. I have a choice. But these are all excellent shows, and I’m more informed about politics today than I‘ve ever been in my life.
Still, something is seriously out of whack here. I miss Dan and Karina. I’m nearly three seasons behind on You Must Remember This – ‘Dead Blondes’, ‘Jean and Jane’, and now ‘Boris vs. Bela’. I’m also a few eps behind on Hardcore History – ‘King of Kings’ and ‘Celtic Holocaust’, which is probably about twenty-five solid hours of quality Dan I’m missing out on (I did listen to the outstanding six-hour ‘Destroyer of Worlds’, about the early days of the Nuclear Age, but that felt weirdly topical). So it’s not just a question of time. It’s more the addictive, empty, sugar-rush nature of the Trump-generated news cycle. I’m like a rat in a modified Skinner box pressing the lever seven thousand times an hour to activate my reward circuits. Never has the old phrase “news junkie” been so apt. Because this is what the incumbent in the White House has done – turned us all into jittery addicts. And what is the product? Little white rocks of his own malignant narcissism, and we can’t get enough of it. “News junkie” used to be a badge of honour. Not anymore.
When Aldous Huxley talked about our “almost infinite appetite for distractions” in Brave New World Revisited (1958), it was understood that these distractions were supposed to prevent us from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation – in other words, to the news. Trump’s greatest (cue scare quotes) “achievement” over the last year has been to make the news itself the greatest distraction of them all.