Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
Last week, I found myself in the Aladdin Theater, a historic venue in downtown Portland. I climbed the stairs to a wide balcony looking out over a series of wooden seats and antique chandeliers. On the stage were two folding chairs and a table. Eventually, two men walked out to uproarious applause. We were all there to watch a live performance of The Dollop.
The Dollop is (loosely) an American history podcast. The premise is simple: one of the guys finds an obscure, bizarre story from U.S. history and reads it to the other one—who has never heard it before. The hosts, Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds, are comedians. They check all the boxes of annoying podcasters. They do extended improv bits and silly voices, collapsing in laughter at their own jokes. They’re incredibly crass. Episodes are long, meandering, and bogged down by countless interruptions and interjections.
And yet: they’ve won me over. The Dollop has become my go-to commuting podcast. It’s a fascinating bit of the nation’s history wrapped up in zaniness and humor. It’s like This American Life if it were staffed by the cast of Jackass. However, what was once an exercise in digging up the most bizarre bits of historical trivia has started to feel darkly resonant with our current political and cultural moment. Our past is often more than just our past. Sometimes, it’s our present and future.
The Dollop provides endless evidence for two cultural maxims, the first of which is that reality is always stranger than fiction. This point should not surprise us but, in a broken world like ours, it’s difficult to invent any evil more pervasive and creative than what already exists. Many of Dave and Gareth’s stories feel strangely familiar, but there’s always a wild tale tucked behind the big cultural signifiers: the founder of Domino’s and his dramatic conversion to zealot-like Catholicism, the creator of Kellogg’s cereal who stumbled across the recipe for Corn Flakes in an attempt to find a flavorless diet that would subjugate lustful impulses, the experts who were all fired before the Iraq War in favor of a single untested administrator, and the harebrained attempts to develop a working jetpack. Episodes occasionally push two hours long, making unexpected turn after unexpected turn.
For example: The 2017 film The Greatest Showman purports to tell the tale of P. T. Barnum, one of America’s most legendary entertainers and entrepreneurs. It’s a musical, filled with grand, show-stopping numbers and an inspiring plot line, carefully attuned to our current cultural moment. In the movie, the various “freaks” that Barnum incorporated into his shows are valued and appreciated for their differences. Episode 291 of The Dollop, recorded months before the release of The Greatest Showman, provides a corrective to this glitzy, feel-good version. Over the course of 90 minutes, the men focus on Barnum’s early life and rise from entrepreneur—he started a lottery and, when accused of corruption, started a newspaper to attack his critics—to purveyor of “low amusement” (which involved minstrel shows and similarly racist fare). They note that his first “show” featured an enslaved woman, Joice Heth, whom he claimed was over 160 years old and had served as young George Washington’s nurse. Barnum purchased the rights to display Heth for $1,000 and charged people to view her. His “astonishing and interesting curiosity,” as he referred to Heth, made it to Broadway. When she passed away, he invited a prominent surgeon to perform her autopsy to confirm her great age in front of a live audience. The autopsy revealed that the woman was in her 70s at most, and Barnum was a fraud. Barnum collected 25 cents admission from everyone in attendance and escaped to scam another day.
Our past is often more than just our past. Sometimes, it’s our present and future.
Barnum is far from the only unscrupulous capitalist covered by the podcast, and since the historically successful-in-spite-of-itself campaign and election of Donald Trump, the hosts have taken to drawing frequent parallels between history’s exploitative profiteers and the career of our current president. There is a two-part episode about Donald Trump, and together they span over three hours, listing the many lawsuits leveled against him for alleged sexual abuse, discriminatory housing policies, and failing to pay his employees.
Like any good Dollop, it becomes so repetitive as to be absurd: how many times can one person do the same thing and escape without consequence? As it turns out, it’s innumerable.
This principle is the second truism we learn from The Dollop: those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it. And with no real agenda besides a left lean to their personal politics, the men of The Dollop keep inadvertently unearthing things that we’ve forgotten and, consequently, are reliving.
There’s a popular theory emerging that our current times are worse, darker, than any before. The recent flood of school shootings—once unthinkable, now routine—make it hard to see any silver linings. Things are so different now, we say to each other, nothing like when we grew up. It’s a mental health crisis, it’s a lack of parental discipline, it’s a sign of the times. Etc.
But, as Dave and Gareth illustrate, it isn’t a sign of our times, of parenting trends, or of social media malaise. Pride, violence, racial prejudice, lust, the insatiable hunger of greed that prioritizes profits over human life: it’s as much the fabric of our American existence as Betsy’s flag. There’s never been a time when it hasn’t existed, flaring up whenever it sees an opportunity.
For instance, Episode 280 tells the story of opium in the United States, revealing how doctors took the success of the painkiller on Civil War battlefronts and ran with it, relentlessly pushing medical forms of opium and heroin as a cure—all that created a new wave of addictions. As the demand for these opiates grew in the 20th century, companies that profited from selling the drugs intentionally deceived the public about their potential hazards, downplaying the risk of dependency. It’s a classic case of something that comforts us—given to us by experts for our benefit—turning into something more harmful than anything it was prescribed to treat.
It would be a cautionary tale, but for the fact that this development of a new, dangerous drug that was pushed for profit would repeat itself over and over, until the advent of fentanyl, a powerful opiate 100 times more potent than heroin. Just like opium, morphine, and heroin before it, fentanyl was first used as an anesthetic, praised by doctors for its potency. And just like each of those drugs in turn, it now leads the country in overdose deaths. The episode’s winding tale of pharmaceutical company ad campaigns and kickbacks to doctors who prescribed the drugs repeats itself so many times that it led Gareth to wearily pronounce, “There’s no bottom to evil.”
The live Dollop I attended in Portland was exactly what you would expect: two slightly intoxicated men sitting in folding chairs, reading a telling piece of our history. Here’s another bit of history, about Portland itself: In the late 1800s, the city was a remote colony where prominent families would send their profligate offspring to disappear for a time.
Jonathan Bourne Jr. was one such prodigal son whose father, a wealthy whaler, shipped him to Portland to keep him secluded from the public eye. Bourne quickly developed a reputation as a debauched socialite who used his money and connections to garner political influence. By 1896, he had been elected to the House of Representatives. His greatest claim to fame, however, was his legendary stalling tactic. Attempting to delay a vote, he invited the majority of Oregon’s legislators to a party he was throwing in Salem. Plying the politicians with liquor and prostitutes, Bourne managed to sustain the revelry for 40 days, successfully ensuring that no such ballot could be cast.
The story is full of vice, money changing hands, and corruption. In short, it’s not all that different from politics over a century later. The overarching story of The Dollop feels like a tragic farce, exposing the cracks of racism, greed, and corruption that run to the bedrock of America. Our adolescent country is only in its third century, younger than its neighbors by thousands of years. Yet, we’ve seen the worst kinds of prejudice and evil rise in the most predictable fashion. When slavery was outlawed, Jim Crow laws took its place, and when the Civil Rights era tore down the remnants of Jim Crow, redlining kept segregation alive in our cities. We could have seen it coming. We should have seen it coming.
But it’s only a tragedy if we allow it to be. The larger story, beyond the hilariously depraved antics of everyone from our entertainers to our founding fathers, is that we have the raw material we need to stop the cycle. It’s all right there in our history.
By the end of an average episode, Gareth—the one who hasn’t heard the story before—sounds frazzled and exhausted. Once, after searching fruitlessly for words, he finally says, “It gets very hard to constantly hear what we’re still doing.” And too many episodes in a row can certainly produce outrage fatigue: so much of what we see in the news today has already played out in history. We have access to the whole story, its roots, the branching effects of corruption, the too-little-too-late ways we’ve tried to correct the problem that we contributed to. You’d think we would have learned our lesson by now.
It’s painful to have to hear the same dark history repeated so many times. Or as the author laments in Ecclesiastes 1:18, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” I think of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the 2004 science-fiction film where two former lovers decide that their shared memories are too difficult to bear any longer, so they undergo a procedure to eliminate them. Sometimes history is easiest when we don’t have to think about it.
But what will happen when we allow ourselves to forget? More importantly: what will happen again?
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