Revisionist History I’ve telling everyone I meet about a three-part series of podcasts on Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History program about the Minnesota Starvation Project. In the first episode, The Department of Physiological Hygiene, he describes what this experiment was about: during the last year of WWII 36 men volunteered to undertake a year-long experiment in what happens when you are put on a starvation diet that results in a loss of 25% of your body weight? Three months were spent measuring and regulating calorific intake and output, then six months on a very stringent diet and exercise regime, then three months to return to health. In Episode Two, The Rise of the Guinea Pigs, Gladwell challenges the scientific consensus that such an experiment would never be conducted today for ethical reasons. He digs deeper into the process by which the experiment was set up, and found that the volunteers were genuinely volunteers- they were conscientious objectors who wanted to do something for the war effort but did not want to fight. Most of what we know about nutrition and starvation comes from this experiment, why not repeat it with genuine volunteers (as these men were) now that we could monitor what was happening with much more precision than was done sixty years ago? (I don’t agree). Episode Three The Mennonite National Anthem looks more closely at the volunteers’ motivations for enlisting in the experiment, many of which related to their religious beliefs. They look at one volunteer, Lester Glick, who kept a diary throughout, and using the oral histories provided by many of the participants, note that none of them regretted their involvement. This is really good.
The History Listen (ABC) The Loveday Trilogy Part I looks at German Oskar Speck, who decided in 1932 to paddle his kayak single-handed to Cyprus but then kept on going- all the way to Australia. By now, Hitler’s National Socialist Party was the government of Germany so his relationship with Nazism is confused but either way, he ended up in Loveday Internment Camp as an enemy alien. Fancy going all that way, only to end up interned!
Now and Then When the news came out that Rudy Giuliani was drunk on election night, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman dive back into American history to see other times when the tide and tenor of American politics may have been affected by alcohol. Alcohol in American Politics starts with Franklin Pierce (never heard of him), but moves onto Warren Harding’s hypocrisy during Prohibition, Teddy Kennedy’s alcoholism that led to Chappaquiddick and Gerald Ford hiding his addictions under the cover of his wife Betty.
The Ancients Much as I might want it, it’s almost impossible for me to even conceive of a mindset where race is completely irrelevant. But in this episode Race in Antiquity it seems that this might have been the case in Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures. The Kushite pharaohs, Septimus Severus, Peter the Great’s son – being ‘black’ was described much the same way that being ‘blonde’ might be described today. Features Luke Pepera who is writing a book Motherland: 500,000 Years of African History, Cultures, and Identity (big topic!) which will be published next year.
History Hit In Russia Falters in Ukraine: Parallels with World War I historian Alexander Watson, author of the award-winning book The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl, talks about the Eastern front during WWI- the one that we hear less about. Although he is cautious not to say “history is repeating”, there certainly are parallels. After the Russo-Japanese war, Russia made a huge investment in its army in an attempt to project great-power status. The Russian people were never as enthusiastic about the war as the political elites were, and there were draft riots in 1914 (I think of the lines of cars leaving Russia in the wake of its recent draft). Russia came into WWI ostensibly to protect Serbia (I think of Putin designating Ukraine “Little Russia” and the need to “defend” the territories annexed through his recent “referendum”). Because of the huge size of the Russian army, people thought that its force would be overwhelming (just as many thought would be the case with Ukraine). The parallels (so far) stop once the elites lose legitimacy after 1916 and a string of defeats, and once revolution breaks out. Dare we hope?
Nothing on TV It’s time to hear a good Aussie voice, and who better than Robyn Annear. She hasn’t done a podcast for ages, so I’m having to delve into her back catalogue. Clean Hands starts off with the theft of soap from the front entrance to the Melbourne Public Library (now State Library of Victoria) – the soap was carefully cut into small pieces the size of a domino, but people were quite annoyed by the thefts. But not as outraged as they were when people stole the books, cutting out the Melbourne Public Library stamp on p. 91 (always), and erasing the stamp on the front and back pages. The Melbourne Public Library was open to everyone, which was a principle quite unusual at the time, and one which Redmond Barry vigorously defended. There were suggestions that there be a special room for people who just came into the library to lounge instead of read, but that never happened either. Although thinking back to nights at SLV, before the roof was opened up and everything was plunged into an eternal twilight lit by little green lamps, I think that there were many people there then too, in overcoats and smelling of alcohol, who were not actually ‘reading’.
Thank you, Janine! I listened to the first 2 and then read the transcript of the third. Good stuff! I live across the river from Minnesota (in ND) and my parents went to the UofM during WWII. My dad joined the Merchant Marines during the war because no fighting but his ship got torpedoed. They were very Lutheran – not Mennonite or anything.
I think most people don’t understand that the US was a different place until the Vietnam War when the famous Pilgrim experiments were done. Those volunteers were eager to experiment for science – the Zimbardo experiments too. Today – in part because of those experiments, people just do not trust science the way they used to. We’re not looking at a glorious future now – science seems to have messed up a lot of the planet – working with capitalism of course.
I love that Mennonite anthem part.
I hadn’t heard of the Zimbardo experiment, and I just looked it up then. I found it interesting that Gladwell did not have the same ethical qualms that a lot of the present-day researchers held about these experiments.
I think the Mennonite thrust and as an alternative to military duty are mitigating factors for him. Also science has benefited so much from the study because of the excellent notes made. Many people were going through this in the Nazi camps.