How We Lie to Ourselves About HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: myths, popular history, digital history, cultural history, womens history, podcasts
I first started listening to the podcast “You’re Wrong About,” a cultural-history show hosted by the journalists Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall, because of a T-shirt. Late last year, while lazily strolling along the social-media promenade, I came across a woman wearing a boxy T with a cheeky, provocative illustration on the front. The design, which was drawn by the artist Aude White, featured an X-Y axis, along with the faces of eight notable women who had made headlines over the last six decades. The caption read “The Maligned Women of ‘You’re Wrong About,’ ” and it sorted the women into four categories: Mistreated by Politics (Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky), Mistreated by Media (Kitty Genovese, Anna Nicole Smith), Mistreated by Capitalism (Tonya Harding, Janet Jackson), and Mistreated by Religion (Tammy Faye Bakker, Terri Schiavo). At first, the shirt seemed like yet another piece of Girlboss merchandise, an attempt at hagiography that flattened women into symbols. But the categories intrigued me; I knew very well how Lewinsky had been mistreated, from her own public reclamation of her story through articles and activism. But I was less familiar with the story of, say, Kitty Genovese—I had only a hazy fable in my head, of a woman who was murdered in New York City while dozens of apathetic strangers watched.
As it turns out, I was wrong. Genovese, a twenty-eight-year-old whom Marshall introduces as “a real-life woman who became a metaphor,” was fatally stabbed, by Winston Moseley, in Kew Gardens, Queens, in 1964—but the narrative, pushed by a hyperbolic New York Times headline, about how thirty-seven people witnessed the attack and did nothing, was patently false. In fact, only a few neighbors were able to see the crime, and none saw it from beginning to end. Other neighbors called the police after hearing screams, and one witness, a valiant, petite woman named Sophia Farrar, immediately dashed downstairs to help, knowing full well that she might be rushing into a dangerous situation. Farrar cradled Genovese’s body until aid arrived, an act that directly contradicts the fearmongering media angle that the victim was left to die alone. For Marshall, the frenzy around Genovese’s death became a tool used to scare women about the dangers of moving through the city independently, and to scare the broader public about the terrors that new freedoms, forged by the civil-rights movement, might unleash upon an urban populace. “We used a story about what was wrong with a society we already had to make us feel afraid of that society changing,” she says in the podcast. “Once again, society figured out that it was sick, and decided that the antidote was more poison.”
“You’re Wrong About,” which began airing in May of 2018, has gradually climbed to the top of the history-podcast charts on iTunes, and now nets around 2.5 million downloads each month. The show works—and never feels preachy—because it follows a novel format. While many history podcasts feature one or two hosts reciting a litany of facts, like a staged reading of Wikipedia, Hobbes, thirty-eight, and Marshall, thirty-two, have taken a more exploratory approach. After they choose their subject—topics have included urban legends, infamous cultural figures, and tabloid fodder such as the Satanic Panic of the nineteen-eighties—one host usually does a mountain of research, and the other comes into the episode completely blind, with only their assumptions and memories to go on. The result is a sort of Schadenfreude theatre; you hear someone get absolutely schooled, in real time, as they make the journey from ignorance to insight. In a recent episode, for example, Marshall took on the task of explaining the story behind “The Stepford Wives,” the 1972 horror novel by Ira Levin about submissive housewives who may or may not be mechanical fembots. She begins by asking Hobbes what he knows about the book. He thinks that it was published sometime in the fifties, and that “all of the housewives are either robots or aliens, I can never remember.” Marshall simply laughs. “You’re Wrong About” thrives in these moments, when the hosts, after some acidic banter, begin evicting the untruths that have been occupying our brains.
And yet the show’s allure goes beyond mere fact-checking, which has become, by now, just another genre of entertainment. Fifteen years ago, in the first episode of “The Colbert Report,” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness,” to distinguish those who “know with their heart” from “those who think with their head.” The deeper theme of “You’re Wrong About” is this divide—how we transcend it, or whether we are doomed, for eternity, to subordinate facts to the iron force of our instincts. Getting the Genovese story “right,” for example, is a more complex process than debunking it; it’s about wading through what felt right, at the time, and why. When the murder took place, the horrors of the Holocaust were gaining further exposure, and many families had left New York City for the suburbs; readers were primed to accept a tale, albeit one that was false, about insidious apathy to violence. When Marshall explains what we got “wrong” about the event, it is not an indictment of fake news. Instead, she is interrogating the “truthiness” that elevated one narrative in the past, and that allows us to seek out revisions of that narrative—her own take on the Genovese story, for example—in the present. The show is less about facts than it is a meta-narrative about how we absorb them. If, as Joan Didion once wrote, we tell ourselves stories in order to live, then “You’re Wrong About” wants to know why we keep some stories going longer than others.
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