Hardcore History with Dan Carlin
Dan Carlin’s sheer enthusiasm for history is infectious in his podcast, Hardcore History. Rather than trying to convince his viewers that the subject matter is important or interesting, he cleverly asks, why wouldn’t this be interesting to you? I recently discovered his podcasts during my daily commute. Most days, I toggle to the One Direction/Taylor Swift playlist. However recently, Everything Has Changed and I have felt the need to fill the Blank Space of my morning tube-journey with something that will wake me up and Shake It Off, so to speak. This led me to Dan Carlin’s podcasts. In sum, an American man who looks and sounds like Champ Kind from Anchorman gets progressively more excited about different periods of human history, during a four-hour episode. Needless to say, my mornings have been improved immeasurably.
I regret that I was previously unaware of this immensely popular show – indeed, the fact that I didn’t know about it is somewhat of a mystery. Even a cursory glance at Carlin’s stats on Google reveals that as of 2013, each episode was downloaded more than one million times. Given that the content remains accessible online, these figures will only increase, as more people become aware of the podcasts. Few of my friends and academic colleagues know about this project, which is surprising given that it is such a popular form of public history. I view this post as an opportunity to critique Dan Carlin from a historical perspective – a necessary critique, given Carlin’s popularity today.
Firstly, there is Carlin’s persona. Carlin’s positive attitude towards learning is the foundation of his programme. Other techniques, such as his use of contemporary images and metaphors to explain larger, historical movements make his show effective. For instance, he uses sports metaphors to explain the advancement of Ghengis Khan’s Mongol Army, compared with that of the European armies in the early 13th Century. He suggests the difference was like that of a ‘Major League sports team dropping down to the Minor leagues.’ By academic standards, the description is crude; however, a disinterested teenager studying history in school might suddenly comprehend terms or ideologies that, previously, were daunting and inaccessible.
Further, Carlin’s focussing on the gruesome, inhumane aspects of history makes his show more engaging. He vividly portrays the brutality of the ancient Assyrian empire and medieval torture, as well as the unimaginable horrors of the First World War. His sources are varied and more or less reliable. The effect of this is to create a sense of disbelief at the savagery and barbarousness of history. It also heightens self-awareness among sheltered listeners – typically Westerners – who have been fortunate enough never to have experienced such brutality firsthand.
Finally, Carlin harbours a healthy skepticism, with regards to the reliability of his podcasts. Armchair cynics and keyboard warriors are quick to criticise Carlin’s sources and interpretations. However, Carlin is quick to address the issues with his podcasts. Never once does he claim to be the authority on any subject; rather, he weaves the positions of various historians into his own narrative. The narrative he provides acknowledges the current academic debates, without going so far as to offer a definite solution As for the format of the podcast itself, it presents some challenges in terms of keeping the story coherent – the audio format necessarily allows for more diversions Still, as if to remind his audience to consult more reputable sources, Carlin repeatedly states, “I am not a historian, I am a fan of history.”
Overall then, it would unfair to say that Carlin is doing anything other than a bloody good job. He delivers interesting, considered, and accessible content in the form of public broadcasts. The millions who are listening are a testament to the entertainment – if not pedagogical – value of his work. In my iTunes at least, he is currently at the top of my morning playlist. Whether he’ll survive the release of Little Mix’s new album, only time will tell.