How one podcast is looking to history to try stop America from spinning out of controlOn October 14, 2017 by Maybell
The United States of America is swinging – culturally, legally, and of course, politically.
For JadAbumrad, so-called public radio royalty, best known for bringing us the joys of Radiolab, the key to a more perfect union is finding a pivot point (the law) and using it to peel the layers of the onion (history) that has lead to the teary existential crisis of today.
In his latest podcast, More Perfect, a production of WNYC Studio, Abumrad and his team of radio producers and legal experts are focusing on the Supreme Court to create a history of the present.
From guns and internment camps to gerrymandering and the birth of super PACs in U.S. politics, each episode sounds akin to what a watchmaker opening up and poking around an old broken watch looks like. It’s surgical and microscopic, yet grapples with nothing less than the passing of time itself.
With all this “chaos coming out from the executive branch,” Abumrad said, and during a year when there’s been a mass shooting nearly every day, perhaps there’s no better time to take stock and figure out how things got this far.
The latest episode, which aired Oct. 13, shows just how right Abumrad was to try and use the Supreme Court as a diagnosis of contemporary society in America.
“The Gun Show,” which looks at the metamorphosis of the Second Amendment from a weird collection of words with unnecessary comma use to a powerful political weapon, took over a year to produce.
“There are raw wounds we keep poking at. You can do a story in a year out and be pretty sure that it feels pretty contemporary when it lands. Mass shootings keep being covered by news organizations as ‘this just in,’ but we all see the stuff and it’s not just in. It just is!”
It just is.
Abumrad is quoting Radiolab co-host Robert Krulwich here talking about the core of their mission. It’s not surprising it’s a mission that co-mingles with the raison d’etre of More Perfect, a podcast that borrows a lot more than an epistemological outlook on the world from its predecessor. In fact, More Perfect was born out of a Radiolab episode concerning a Supreme Court custody battle, Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl.
But even when it just is on so many levels – it doesn’t mean it always has been; or, more precisely, it doesn’t mean there was a clear path linking yesterday to today.
For a country that is so “pathologically forward-looking” (take the promise of the American dream), it’s fascinating how much is predicated on the past, Abumrad said.
Because, just like Newton once said, every action creates a reaction.
Or, more pressingly, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, paraphrasing another Supreme Court Justice, America is “not experiencing the best of times.” But the “pendulum” will swing back.
For Abumrad, there’s a more perfect analogy than the pendulum – a slinky.
“If you watch it go down the stairs – it sort of lurches forward and then gathers itself back and again. There’s a back and forth, but all the while it’s moving in a direction. I hope that in the swings we are actually moving in a positive direction.”
And to look back at how things came to be the way they are today is to find a certain comfort that they have indeed been lousy before and people are pretty good at finding ways to get through.
More Perfect‘s first season, Abumrad says, was a sort of trial run, a test to see if the format will work for radio. Season 2, which debuted last week with four episodes available already, has taken off the podcast training wheels.
More Perfect is more focused this season – “I’m looking at America right now,” Abumrad said. “We might do that with stories from 1783, but really the focus is about a story that will help me understand America as it exists in 2017.”
But at a time where breaking news is likely to stack up on your home screen; and in a world of social media addiction and various forms of tech-distractions, “we don’t remember what happened five seconds ago.”
So, how do you get (young) people to spend an hour listening to a podcast about the Commerce Clause?
Simple – you trick the gods by having the storytelling exist in the vessel of an ordinary person’s experience.
“I love being able to take these super boring words, like the Commerce Clause, like, ‘Oh, my God! You’ve lost 80% of your audience just saying these two words,’ and then quickly get them back by telling them exciting, suspenseful personal stories.”
Because while tracing the history of the Supreme Court may give you the taste of sawdust in your mouth, each story has people at its center – people who had something happen in their daily life that catapulted them into a national drama.
“It’s Kafkaesque. One tiny thing containing an entire nation.”
“You hear smart people trying to consider all sides.”
For Abumrad this strikes right at the heart. A child of immigrants, coming to the U.S. from the outside meant needing a manual of how to fit in. Looking back at that childhood, he remembers figuring out that there are these laws in America that can be your guide and help you figure out how this place works. Especially in this day and age, this sounds particularly valuable, both for outsiders like myself, as well as people living in America.
“One of the joys of getting to do this podcast is getting to listen to all the oral arguments. What you hear is a way of thinking – a deliberative way of processing. You hear smart people trying to consider all sides. They are political and ideological and there are all the everyday problems of life, but you hear them trying. I find that very comforting right now.”
And I think that’s what’s outstanding about More Perfect – it’s a show that at first look seems facile for focusing on the history of a banal institution like the Supreme Court. But, the humanity at the heart of the stories it unpacks goes beyond history and law to question the very essence of what it means to be American.
An identity that isn’t fixed in time or paper, but one that changes in discourse and adapts through dialogue. It’s precisely that deliberation that Abumrad senses in the oral arguments of the Supreme Court Justices.
The latest episode, called “The Gun Show,” about breathing life into the Second Amendment can be heard in full here: