How Spotify’s greed sparked an uprising

Neil Young in Oslo. Photo (cc) 2013 by Kim Erlandsen, NRK P3

Previously published at GBH News.

No sooner had Neil Young announced he was pulling his music off Spotify because of vaccine falsehoods on Joe Rogan’s podcast than we began to learn about other dicey content on the service.

Will Dunn had a list at The New Statesman. Among them: Steven Crowder, who’s been accused of racism and homophobia; Hearts of Oak, which has featured anti-Muslim interviews; and Taake, a Norwegian black metal band whose front man appeared on stage in Germany with a swastika on his chest.

“This is the great problem of the platform economy,” Dunn wrote. “In traditional broadcasting the platform publishes a small amount of material to a large audience, taking responsibility for its quality. In the platform economy, a vast amount of material is published — there are almost three million podcasts on Spotify — and the market for attention decides who wins.”

Well, no. In fact, Dunn’s article illustrates a significant misunderstanding that has permeated the furor over Spotify. And it underscores the sad reality that podcasting, like the open web in general, is being eclipsed by business interests focused on dollars rather than democratic discourse.

Most material on Spotify and competing services can be considered third-party content, no different from what’s posted on Facebook and Twitter. Podcasts are distributed to all the major platforms. You’ll find Crowder and Hearts of Oak at Apple Podcasts, for instance, and Taake is available on Apple Music. I may not like what they say, but they’re free to say it.

Starting last April, though, Spotify and Apple announced they were going to start signing celebrity podcasters to exclusive deals. Rogan reportedly got $100 million and is immensely popular — certainly more popular these days than Young and the other musicians who’ve joined him, including (so far) Joni Mitchell and Nils Lofgren.

In other words, Spotify now embraces two entirely different business models. On the one hand, it’s a neutral platform for most podcasters as well as independent musicians who upload their music to the service. On the other, it’s a broadcaster, as fully responsible for Rogan’s content as Fox News is for Tucker Carlson. That’s just as true for Spotify’s less controversial fare, such as “Renegades,” an exclusive podcast featuring Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama.

The difference has significant implications for free speech. It would be absurd for Young to demand that Spotify remove every bit of third-party content he finds offensive as the price for keeping “Like a Hurricane” in rotation. But it’s perfectly reasonable for Young to decide he doesn’t want to be associated with a company that pays and actively promotes a host who’s indulging in dangerous vaccine nonsense.

Even so, Young et al. have been accused in some quarters of failing to respect Rogan’s free-speech rights. For instance, Zaid Jilani, writing at City Journal, sneered at “Young’s transformation from countercultural champion of freedom of speech to corporate censorship advocate and defender of the public-health bureaucracy.” That’s an absurd argument because it suggests that Young shouldn’t exercise his own free-speech rights. He’s free to stay on Spotify or leave, and he’s chosen to leave.

“I support free speech. I have never been in favor of censorship,” Young said in a statement on his website. “Private companies have the right to choose what they profit from, just as I can choose not to have my music support a platform that disseminates harmful information.”

That’s a refreshingly tolerant attitude toward free speech given the frightening wave of repression taking place in the broader culture — from the banning of LGBTQ books and “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust, to legislation being debated among New Hampshire lawmakers to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory, and to empower snitches who are eager to turn in teachers.

Then again, Young has also made it clear that he’d come back if Spotify got rid of Rogan’s program. Do Young and Mitchell, years past their heyday, really exercise that kind of clout? I think the answer to that is maybe. They’re still popular, especially with older listeners. Some other musicians with a profile higher than Lofgren’s may join them, though few own the rights to their recordings. (Bob Dylan and Springsteen are among the artists who’ve sold their catalogs recently.)

But the real economic challenge Young and his compatriots pose is to the idea of Spotify as the infinite jukebox. If you are a paying customer, you expect to be able to find anything you want, no matter how obscure. I wouldn’t pay for a service without Neil Young. (Yes, I am old.) And though I’m not a Joni Mitchell fan, I recently listened to five of her classic albums — on Spotify.

Besides, a sudden wave of negative publicity can bring a company under scrutiny in ways it had previously escaped. As I’ve been discussing the issue over the past few days on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve learned that Apple Music pays musicians double what Spotify pays. It’s still inadequate, and some smaller services like Tidal do better. But for a mainstream service with access to just about everything you’d ever want to listen to, Apple might be a superior choice. And that’s where I’m moving.

It remains to be seen how much harm the Rogan episode will do to Spotify. He and the company have both issued statements promising to improve their behavior, but there are no signs that they’re going to back down. And though there was some excitement last week over Spotify’s slide in the stock market, it was actually up 13.5% on Monday. (I’m finishing this early Tuesday afternoon, and the price is more or less flat.)

The original sin was Spotify and Apple’s move last year to try to turn podcasting into a walled garden for their economic benefit. Before that, podcasting was wide open. Whether a show was entirely a volunteer effort or supported by advertising, you could listen to it on any platform. Now, like the video-streaming services, you are forced to choose platforms based on which one has your favorite programs.

Spotify is now reaping what it has sown. Rogan has survived, at least for now. In the days ahead, we’ll learn what matters more to company executives — offering a one-stop platform for all the music and podcasts you want to listen to, or leaning on the drawing power of a few stars.

The answer, needless to say, will come down to which approach brings in more money.

Al Green at the Apollo, 1990

I had a chance Tuesday night to watch this video of Al Green performing at the Apollo Theater in 1990. This was at the height of Green’s reinvention as a minister and gospel singer, so there’s not much secular here. Lots of shoutouts for Jesus. The concentration and intensity he brought to the stage that night has to be experienced. Prepare to be dazzled.

A photo exhibit documents New Haven during the COVID shutdown

Photos by Dan Kennedy

I first heard about Roderick Topping’s Instagram photos of New Haven during the COVID shutdown (you’ll find him at @robobtop) from an interview he did with Babz Rawls Ivy on WNHH-LP. Topping shot a series of gloomy, moody pictures showing mostly abandoned cityscapes in an attempt to capture a historical moment that we all experienced, and that we still haven’t put entirely behind us.

Thirty-six of Topping’s photos are now on display at the New Haven Museum in an exhibit titled “Strange Times.” I had a chance to visit recently, viewing COVID photographs under COVID protocols — visitors are required to register ahead of time and masks must be worn throughout the building.

In the introductory text, Topping explains what he’s up to:

For the past year and half I’ve been walking the streets documenting this new reality in New Haven. These photographs focus on the structures, outlines, and topography that serve as the background to our daily lives. Many of the photos here are black and white, much how I think I’ll remember these days: bleak, lonely, and surreal.

There are some evocative images here. I particularly like one from January of this year, just before vaccines became widely available. A man sits alone on a park bench, at night, on New Haven Green. His back is to the camera. Center Church is directly in front of him. The story told by that photo is that human interaction was missing even when we were able to get outside.

Yet there are some odd choices here as well. For instance, Topping shows us a man standing alone at a bus stop during the daytime on Chapel Street. In viewing it, you start telling yourself that the scene would normally be crowded with people. Then you look at the date: Feb. 14, 2020, a moment when COVID was still just a rumor. So what exactly is Topping trying to convey?

There are also some photos taken as the city was opening up again, such as a group of diners sitting outdoors at a restaurant on Crown Street during July of this year.

You can see some of Topping’s photos in a story that the New Haven Independent published about the exhibit.

Overall, “Strange Times” provides an illuminating look at downtown New Haven. Even if not every image fits in perfectly with the pandemic theme, the exhibit is worth your attention if you happen to find yourself in the New Haven area. And save some time for the rest of the museum as well.

“Strange Times” will be on display at the New Haven Museum through March 25. Click here for more information.

Joan Didion, 1934-2021

The iconic journalist Joan Didion has died at the age of 87. Earlier this year I wrote about a documentary about her life called “The Center Will Not Hold.” I’m republishing it here.

There is a moment in the Joan Didion documentary “The Center Will Not Hold” that says a lot about Didion, about writing and about journalism. The filmmaker, her nephew Griffin Dunne, asks her about a scene in her 1968 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (included in a collection of the same name) in which she describes a 5-year-old girl who’s tripping on LSD.

Didion thinks about it for a moment, her arms in motion from Parkinson’s disease, and then replies: “It was gold.” And so it was. Horrifying though the scene may have been, any journalist wants to be able to witness such things and tell the world about them. Didion’s account of 1967 Haight-Ashbury remains definitive, and it’s because of her eye for detail. Here’s the scene in question:

When I finally find Otto he says “I got something at my place that’ll blow your mind,” and when we get there I see a child on the living-room floor, wearing a reefer coat, reading a comic book. She keeps licking her lips in concentration and the only off thing about her is that she’s wearing white lipstick.

“Five years old,” Otto says. “On acid.”

The five-year-old’s name is Susan, and she tells me that she is in High Kindergarten. She lives with her mother and some other people, just got over the measles, wants a bicycle for Christmas, and particularly likes Coca-Cola, Marty in the Jefferson Airplane, Bob in the Grateful Dead, and the beach. She remembers going to the beach once a long time ago, and wishes she had taken a bucket. For a year now her mother has given her both acid and peyote. Susan describes it as getting stoned.

I start to ask if any of the other children in High Kindergarten get stoned, but I falter at the key words.

“She means do the other kids in your class turn on, get stoned,” says the friend of her mother’s who brought her to Otto’s.

“Only Sally and Anne,” Susan says.

“What about Lia?” her mother’s friend prompts.

“Lia,” Susan says, “is not in High Kindergarten.”

This is writing of the highest order. The documentary is on Netflix; I first watched it a couple of years ago and then again recently because I had assigned it to my opinion journalism class — along with her brilliant 1961 essay “On Self-Respect.” The documentary is flawed but riveting, mainly because Didion herself is riveting. She has been an icon for much of her career, and she still is. It is astonishing how many photos of her have been taken over the years.

In Googling around, I see that Rebecca Mead latched onto exactly the same scene when she reviewed the film for The New Yorker. How could she not? Since Mead was taking notes, here is Didion’s full quote: “Let me tell you, it was gold. You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”

Of course, there has been a lot more to Didion’s career than her description of Susan. She has a new collection out. She has written compellingly about the deaths of her husband and her daughter. She reported from El Salvador, which she says in the film was a terrifying experience, and on the Bush-Cheney White House. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Now 86 and frail, she is nevertheless still very much with us.

If you’re looking for something to watch on Netflix, you can do a whole lot worse than “The Center Will Not Hold.” Highly recommended.

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An unexpected tale of love and redemption

We all have our favorite movies about journalism. Best known are the heroic films, which portray reporters as indefatigable warriors on behalf of truth, justice and the American way. At the top of that particular heap are “Spotlight,” “The Post” and — at the very pinnacle — “All the President’s Men,” which inspired a generation of young journalists. For those who like a bit more nuance, there’s “Absence of Malice.” And if you prefer pure entertainment to instruction or uplift, there’s “His Girl Friday,” a romantic romp starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

I’ve enjoyed all these movies. But I have to admit that my favorite film about journalism is “Shattered Glass,” a docudrama about a troubled young man named Stephen Glass, who concocted an increasingly outlandish series of articles while he was working at The New Republic in the 1990s. Exposed at last, he was drummed out of the business. It was the sort of scandal that proved defining for a small publication like TNR.

Indeed, I was somewhat startled over the weekend when I saw the magazine described as “at the time an influential journal of the center left.” At the time. It’s been a long decline for a magazine co-founded by Walter Lippmann; I understand it’s doing better these days. And though there are multiple factors responsible for its marginalization, most of which have to do with the explosion of digital opinion journals, it was the Glass scandal that provided the magazine with its first swift kick down the stairs.

“Shattered Glass” never made the big time, but it’s long since become a staple of journalism ethics classes. (I don’t know why; “don’t make stuff up” can be dispensed with during the first 10 minutes of the first meeting of the semester.) People in journalism have long been passionate about it as well. I was once asked to take part in a panel discussion and found myself sitting next to Marty Peretz, then TNR’s owner and editor-in-chief, who, of course, is portrayed in the film. I remember telling him something like, “I agree with you about the commas.” (If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) I don’t think he laughed.

All this is by way of my introduction to a story that you must read if you haven’t already. Titled “Loving Lies,” the piece — by Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact and no thus coddler of journalists who fabricate — appears in a digital publication called Air Mail, which has been around for a couple of years even though I hadn’t previously heard of it. (Since I first published this in the Members Newsletter, I’ve learned that it was co-founded by former New York Times journalist Alessandra Stanley and former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.) The quality looks to be quite high, as I would expect of an outlet able to commission a piece from someone as accomplished as Adair.

If it seems like I’m dancing around the main topic, it’s because I am. I don’t want to write any spoilers here. I will tell you that it’s one of the most moving stories about love and redemption that I can remember reading in a long time, and even that’s more than I ought to say. Just read it. You’ll need to provide your email address, but it’s absolutely worth doing so.

This post was first published as part of last week’s Media Nation Members Newsletter. To become a member for just $5 a month, please click here.

H.L. Mencken: Semi-forgotten genius or a flawed but talented figure?

Photo (cc) 2013 by Paul Sableman

I recently attempted to fill one of the many gaps in my education by reading an anthology of work by H.L. Mencken, a Baltimore-based journalist of some renown during the first half of the 20th century (“The Vintage Mencken,” edited by Alistair Cooke). I came away disappointed.

Though I had already prepared myself for his well-advertised racism and antisemitism, I hadn’t realized that he was a misogynist as well. And, though he could certainly turn a phrase, many of his pieces do not hang together with any sort of coherence. For example, the longest — a critical essay about Theodore Dreiser — begins by mocking him, moves on to trashing him and then concludes with the observation that maybe he wasn’t so bad after all. I say this without any personal insight into Dreiser, as I don’t believe I’ve ever read him, not even his best-known novel, “Sister Carrie.” I just thought it was odd that Mencken couldn’t make up his mind.

Some of Mencken’s writing, of course, was satisfying. I particularly enjoyed this description of life as young reporter and how it had deteriorated into something approaching factory work:

Whether or not the young journalists of today live so spaciously is a question that I am not competent to answer, for my contacts with them, of late years, have been rather scanty. They undoubtedly get a great deal more money than we did in 1900, but their freedom is much less than ours was, and they somehow give me the impression, seen at a distance, of complacency rather than intrepidity. In my day a reporter who took an assignment was wholly on his own until he got back to the office, and even then he was little molested until his copy was turned in at the desk; today he tends to become only a homunculus at the end of a telephone wire, and the reduction of his observations to prose is commonly farmed out to literary castrati who never leave the office, and hence never feel the wind of the world in their faces or see anything with their own eyes.

Some of Mencken’s best pieces are obituaries of the famous and the infamous, and he especially rises to the occasion following the death of William Jennings Bryan. “He was, in fact,” Mencken writes, “a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses…. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the barnyard.”

Good stuff, even if it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Hunter S. Thompson’s monumental sendoff of Richard Nixon, which remains in a class of its own.

I enjoyed Mencken’s putdown of Woodrow Wilson, who has only gradually come to be regarded as one of our worst presidents. (“[H]e knew better than they did how to arrest and enchant the boobery with words that were simply words, and nothing else.”) Then again, Mencken disdained Franklin Roosevelt and even expressed some misgivings about Abraham Lincoln, offset by his grotesque nostalgia for the Confederacy.

I guess the best way to understand Mencken is not as a half-forgotten genius but, rather, as a flawed but talented writer who will probably continue to fade into obscurity.

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Linking reconsidered

Photo (cc) 2013 by liebeslakritze

Although I started blogging in 2002, the first regular column that I ever wrote for a digital publication was for The Guardian. From 2007 until 2011, I produced a weekly commentary about media, politics and culture that was not much different from what I write now for GBH News. What was new was that, for the first time, I could embed links in my column, just as if I was blogging. I did — liberally. (Only later did my editor tell me that the software he used stripped out all the links I had put in, which meant that he had to restore them all by hand. And this was at one of the most digitally focused newspapers on the planet.)

Links have become a standard part of digital journalism. So I was surprised recently when Ed Lyons, a local political commentator who’s an old-fashioned moderate Republican, posted a Twitter thread denouncing links. It began: “I hereby declare I am *done* with hyperlinks in political writing. Pull up a chair and let me rant about how we got to this ridiculous place. What started off as citation has unintentionally turned into some sort of pundit performance art.”

The whole thread is worth reading. And it got me thinking about the value of linking. Back when everything was in print, you couldn’t link, of course, so opinion columns — constrained by space limitations — tended to include a lot of unattributed facts. The idea was that you didn’t need to credit commonly known background material, such as “North Dakota is north of South Dakota.” Sometimes, though, it was hard to know what was background and what wasn’t, and you didn’t want to do anything that might be perceived as unethical. When linking came along, you could attribute everything just by linking to it. And many of us did.

In his thread, Lyons also wrote that “it is my opinion that nobody visits any of these links. I think readers see the link and say oh well that must be true.” I agree. In fact, I tell my students that no one clicks on links, which means that they should always write clearly and include all the information they want the reader to know. The link should be used as a supplement, not as a substitute. To the extent possible, they should also give full credit to the publication and the writer when they’re quoting something as well as providing a link.

I agree with Lyons that links ought to add value and not just be put in gratuitously. And they certainly shouldn’t be snuck in as a way of whispering something that you wouldn’t want to say out loud. The classic example of that would be a notorious column a couple of years ago by Bret Stephens of The New York Times, who wrote that the intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews might be genetically superior — and backed it up with a link to a study co-authored by a so-called scientist who had been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist and a eugenicist. Stephens’ assertion was bad enough; his citation was worse, even if few people read it.

One of the most successful self-published writers currently is the historian Heather Cox Richardson. I’ve noticed that she leaves links out of her Substack essays entirely, posting them at the bottom instead. Here’s an example. I’m not going to do that, but it seems to be a decent compromise — showing her work while not letting a bunch of links clutter up her text.

In any event, I don’t expect you to follow the links I include in my writing. They’re there if you want to know more, or if you want to see if I’m fairly characterizing what I’m describing. At the very least, Lyons has reminded me of the value of including links only when they really matter.

This essay was part of last week’s Media Nation Member Newsletter. To become a member for just $5 a month, please click here.

The ugly truth about Eric Clapton — and the line between the art and the artist

Eric Clapton. Photo (cc) 2009 by Andrea Young.

Eric Clapton was one of my first musical heroes. As an aspiring blues guitarist of soaring ambitions and slight talent, I played his greatest album — Derek and Dominos’ “Layla” (No. 6 on my all-time list, by the way) — over and over again, trying to figure out what he was doing on songs like “Key to the Highway” and “Have You Ever Loved a Woman.” I saw him at the Boston Garden in 1974, one of my first rock concerts. A full-page ad for that show from one of the alt-weeklies (probably The Real Paper) was on my bedroom wall. Clapton was and is a great guitarist, and by all appearances seemed to be a humble, generous ambassador for the Black music that he championed.

But appearances can be deceiving. Throughout this year, bits and pieces of Clapton’s dark side have been emerging. He came out as an anti-vaxxer along with Van Morrison (at least we already knew he was a jerk). Old racist comments surfaced, along with his cringe-inducing I-apologize-but-not-really reactions.

Now Rolling Stone has pulled it all together (sub. req.) and added some details. A 5,000-word-plus story by David Browne reports on Clapton’s racist outbursts, focusing especially on a drunken rant he delivered at a Birmingham concert in 1976 during which he offered up some vile racial slurs and spoke favorably of a British politician named Enoch Powell, described in the article as the George Wallace of the U.K. Over the years Clapton has repeatedly apologized and blamed it on the booze; he has also repeatedly said it was no big deal and that he continues to think it was “funny.”

His current anti-vax crusade extends to sending money to a down-on-their-luck anti-vax band and playing shows in the U.S. before maskless audiences in the Deep Red South. As Browne writes:

For the longest time, anyone asked to rattle off Clapton’s accomplishments would cite the vital role he played in bringing blues and reggae into mainstream culture and his prodigious guitar playing. (There was a reason someone spray-painted “Clapton Is God” on a London subway wall in the mid-Sixties.) Others couldn’t help but remember the horrific tragedy of his four-year-old son’s death and the emotional catharsis of “Tears in Heaven.” But the current controversy is prompting a fresh examination of Clapton’s past behavior, which includes jarringly racist statements he made in the early part of his career. How did we get from admiration and empathy to bewilderment and even a feeling of betrayal?

Although it wasn’t in the Rolling Stone article, Twitter reminded me this week that Clapton admitted to raping his wife in the 1970s, back when he had serious alcohol and heroin addictions. That’s not an excuse — it’s just evidence of how low he had sunk.

Here we get to the age-old dilemma about separating the art from the artist. Clapton is a great artist. He’s also a racist anti-vaxxer who’s also admitted to sexual assault. That said, John Lennon, Miles Davis and any number of other great musicians could be pretty terrible people as well. Do we still want to listen to Clapton’s music? Is it possible to do so without thinking about Clapton the person?

Clapton has had an odd career, as he’s remained at least somewhat in the spotlight even though his last good album, “461 Ocean Boulevard,” was released nearly 50 years ago. He’s done it on the strength of a few hit singles here and there, especially the aforementioned “Tears in Heaven”; an overpraised blues album, 1994’s “From the Cradle,” that’s derivative and flat compared to “Layla”; and his live performances, which have included multiple televised benefit concerts on which his guitar wizardry has stolen the show.

Now, at 76, wealthy and successful, he’s tearing down his legacy. Maybe we can let Buddy Guy remind Clapton of how lucky he’s been. “The man can play,” he told Rolling Stone. “If somebody’s good, I don’t call you big, fat, or tall. He just bent those strings, and I guess he bent them right on time. The British exploded the blues and put it in places we didn’t put it. I wish I could have had the popularity he got. Maybe I wouldn’t have to work so damn hard.”

More: Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan takes a look at Rolling Stone under new editor Noah Shachtman and what the Clapton story says about his plans to toughen up the magazine’s coverage.

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Charlie Watts, 1941-2021

Charlie Watts and Keith Richards. Photo (cc) 2012 by Jonathan Bayer.

I’ve seen the Rolling Stones just once, in 1989 at Sullivan Stadium. Even though that was 32 years ago, there was a lot of talk that they were over the hill and that it was probably their farewell tour. Not even close. But on Tuesday, the Stones’ unparalleled six-decade run came to an end with the death of 80-year-old drummer Charlie Watts.

Oh, sure, the band announced several weeks ago that they would hit the road with Steve Jordan on drums, holding out hope that Watts might be able to rejoin them later in the tour after he’d recovered from an unspecified medical problem. But the essence of the Stones is Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts. Without Watts, they should tour under a different name. His drumming was as essential as Keith’s thickly chorded guitar and Mick’s prancing.

As numerous tributes to Watts have noted, he was not flashy. He wasn’t even as flashy as Ringo Starr, an underrated drummer in his own right. But Watts was incredibly steady, rock-solid, with an uncanny sense for exactly what touch was needed to propel a song. Everyone’s got their favorite moments. Mine is when he comes thundering back in toward the end of “Tumbling Dice” (their best song on their best album, “Exile on Main Street”) after marking time for a few measures. It doesn’t sound like a big deal — but listen.

Charlie Watts was a giant of the rock era and a fine jazz drummer as well. He didn’t burn out, nor did he fade away. He just kept playing.

Ibram X. Kendi on race, antiracism and the problem with assimilationists

Ibram X. Kendi. Photo (cc) 2017 by the American Association of University Professors.

Later this year The Boston Globe plans to launch a racial-justice website called The Emancipator, overseen by Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman and Ibram X. Kendi, who runs the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. Because I wanted to become more familiar with Kendi’s thinking, I spent several months listening to the audio version of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.”

Definitive is a good description — 19 hours’ worth. (The hardcover version is nearly 600 pages long.) Kendi traces 500 years of racist thought, from the early Portuguese explorers up to the dawn of the Trump era. Published in 2016, “Stamped” won a National Book Award.

Kendi’s scholarship is daunting, and the audio version probably isn’t the best way to take it all in. His organizational scheme is to tell the history of racism in America through the lives of five key figures — Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois and Angela Davis. Mather and Jefferson are the hypocritical white semi-liberals of their day. Garrison, in Kendi’s view, failed to overcome his own racist ideas despite fighting passionately against slavery. DuBois moved beyond the racist stereotypes that hampered his early writing to emerge in his later years as a true antiracist.

Davis is the most problematic of Kendi’s five. I don’t think he quite succeeds in establishing that the full breadth of her career ranks with those of the other four. Despite his best efforts, Davis comes across as someone whose significance waned over the decades following her days as an iconic revolutionary in the early 1970s.

In addition to the five people he places at the center of his narrative, Kendi builds his argument around two big ideas. The first is that there are two types of racists, white supremacists and what he calls “assimilationists.” Posited against these two groups are antiracists. So who are the assimilationists? Essentially they are well-meaning liberals who believe that the route to Black advancement is through betterment, education and becoming more like white people. (As Kendi notes, this view depends on ignoring the reality that white people are no more immune from the effects of poverty and other social ills than Black people or any other racial group.)

The assimilationist camp is a large one. Kendi says he was among that group early in his career, as is former President Barack Obama. In listening to “Stamped,” I concluded that I would have to place myself within the assimilationist group as well; I also concluded that not all assimilationist ideas are bad, though we would do well to ask ourselves where those ideas come from and why we hold them.

Kendi’s second big idea is to redefine racism as effect rather than as cause. It’s an idea he explores at length in a recent podcast with Ezra Klein. I recommend you give it a listen, as it serves as an excellent introduction to Kendi’s work. To understand Kendi’s argument, consider his take on theories of Black inferiority and their relationship to slavery. What most of us were taught is that slaveholders justified their evil practice because of false notions that Black people were not as intelligent as whites. Kendi says we have it exactly backwards — that slavery came first, and the theories of Black inferiority were developed after the fact as a way of maintaining slavery.

What does this look like in practice? Consider same-sex marriage. Many LGBTQ activists believed that overcoming hostility to homosexuality was crucial to building support for marriage equality. But as Kendi would have it, the Supreme Court’s legalizing of same-sex marriage resulted in a rapid decline in hostility to LGBTQ people. In other words, ideas follow actions rather than the reverse.

Finally, a word about audiobooks: You don’t have to buy them from Audible, which is now part of the Amazon empire. I buy them from Libro.fm, which sends some of the revenues I give them to An Unlikely Story, my favorite independent bookstore. If you like audiobooks, I hope you’ll give Libro a try.

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