What Historical Moment Is Leon Neyfakh Learning From Now?
What Historical Moment Is Leon Neyfakh Learning From Now?
In 2017, the first season of Leon Neyfakh’s podcast, “Slow Burn,” retold the story of the Watergate scandal, unearthing key details and subjecting them to close analysis.
It was a hit, something Mr. Neyfakh, then working for Slate, attributes to its timing: The Trump administration was in the midst of its own scandal, under investigation by Robert Mueller.
Since then Mr. Neyfakh, 35, has continued to produce podcast seasons that delve into moments in semi-recent history that can help illuminate the present. After making two seasons of “Slow Burn” — the second was about the impeachment of President Bill Clinton after his relationship with Monica Lewinsky — Mr. Neyfakh and his collaborators Andrew Parsons and Madeline Kaplan left Slate to form their own production company, Prologue Projects (as in “the past is prologue”).
The current season of their new podcast, “Fiasco,” looks at the yearslong fight over school desegregation in Boston, which intensified in 1974 after a federal judge ruled that the city’s public schools must be integrated. Thousands of white parents pulled their children out of class, and violence erupted in the city’s streets, stoked in part by the mobster Whitey Bulger, who firebombed an elementary school.
White protesters threw rocks at the buses carrying Black students to and from newly integrated schools, and deadly clashes between teenagers made national news, cementing an image of Boston as a bastion of northern racism.
This period of violence has often been referred to as a “busing” crisis (buses were used to transport Black children to mostly white schools and vice versa), which Mr. Neyfakh believes confuses the story.
“For a lot of people who know and remember busing, it’s this word that connotes chaos, and violence and failure,” he said. “Our show tries to question that a little bit and tries to understand what really went wrong. Was it really inevitable that it went as wrong as it did in Boston?”
In the interview below, which has been edited, Mr. Neyfakh talks about the new season of “Fiasco,” why he doesn’t consider himself a historian and whether there’s any danger in using the past as a way to understand the present.
You emphasized while doing “Slow Burn” that you wanted to get into how it felt to live through these historic moments. Why was that?
“Slow Burn” started in 2017. It hadn’t been that long since Trump became president. Every day just felt like a series of emergencies and we wanted to know: Did it feel the same way back in the Watergate days when the White House was going through a comparable kind of turmoil? Were people obsessively checking for the latest the way we do with our alerts?
Part of what led us to that angle — “What did it feel like to live through at the time?” — was a sort of a disbelief that it could have ever been this way before. And people moved on and the country survived. It just felt so overwhelming, as it continues to be. But I think hearing about this previous era in American history when people felt similarly, I think for a lot of listeners was maybe a little bit reassuring. It was proof that there could be a future after that.
The current season feels really relevant to the moment in its discussion of racism and segregation, particularly when it comes to schools. Are you always looking for the story you’re telling about the past to line up nicely with the present?
I’m definitely looking for resonance. I’ve sort of realized that you can’t just tell a fascinating story from the past if there’s no way to process it with an eye on the present. I think people need that motivation, that promise that they’ll be able to understand the world they live in through hearing the story.
With the story of desegregation in Boston, what drew me to it, is it’s the kind of story if you hear it in detail, it can really teach you something about how the world works, now and forever. If you zoom in close enough, which is what we always try to do, you find enough little subplots and individuals who can conjure up memories and you can say something true. And it will be true not just about the past but also about the present.
It also appealed to me because it presented a chance to slowly and methodically describe a morally complicated situation, one where it’s not 100 percent obvious what was motivating everyone. You can look back all these years later and ask questions about whether the opposition to desegregation was all about race or about class or was it some mix of the two.
We try to find stories that have some moral ambiguity. I think with this story it’s a little bit harder because you’re dealing with racism. As you will hear in the show, we’re pretty direct about calling it that when called for.
Those resonances with the present have been punctuated, on both “Fiasco” and “Slow Burn,” by phrases that are currently in circulation right now. In one episode of the new season, for instance, the phrases “law and order” and “enemy of the people” are both used to refer what was happening in Boston. Do you, like, fist pump in interviews when a source says something that very directly echoes of the present?
There’s a line you can cross with those things where it feels coy. I think we had a couple of moments in the first season of “Slow Burn” where obviously we were trying to draw attention to the fact that there were parallels to the Trump administration. I was always a little bit nervous about whether subtlety is coming across as coyness. How subtle was it, really, if it’s obvious to everyone who’s listening to what you’re doing?
With this season, it never felt like we were in danger of being coy. It was more like an overt indication to the listener that these ideas and these political weapons have been around forever and they’ve always been so potent. To me that’s one of the resonances of the season.
Some politicians choose to harness anger and fear and hatred, and it can be really, really, really powerful when they do. And it’s a little bit scary to think that’s the main difference between an era when we have this kind of concentrated, organized, violent opposition and one where we don’t: It’s just because someone chose to activate it. It’s always there.
The recurrence of those phrases, like “law and order,” how persistently certain phrases have remained dog whistles even as their meaning has become clear over the years, is just kind of amazing. It didn’t feel like we were in danger of being coy, more kind of an attempt to remind people how eternal some of these dynamics are.
You said earlier that you’re not a historian. Why do you make sure to emphasize that?
Academic historians have a very specialized set of skills and training. And I just don’t have those. And I’ll be the first to admit that as much as we rely on historians as secondary sources in our podcast, I don’t study primary sources in the same rigorous way they do.
I don’t conduct my analysis in any kind of formalistic way that adheres to one school of historiography versus another one. I’m just not in that world. The tools of our trade are very much reporting.
Nothing against historians! Quite the opposite.
You’re engaged in using events of the past to shed light on the present. Is there anything we stand to miss in that kind of exercise?
You see a lot of pretty facile attempts to conjure up parallels between different eras in history. I’ve done some of it myself! I wrote a piece for the ideas section of The Boston Globe about whether 1968 was the right reference point for the Arab Spring, and I talked to a bunch of people about whether 1848 was the more informative parallel. And I remember all the historians I talked to were like, “You know, you really shouldn’t go too far with the one-to-one analysis.” I knew they were right then.
I still think there’s something to be gained from it, as long as you’re not coming into it thinking that it’s a crystal ball. I think it’s possible to learn about certain internal dynamics that are consistent and predictable.
Our main objective is not to give people a road map to the present but to provoke them to think about the present using new questions. We want to raise serious moral issues that people are still obviously dealing with. And we want people to process the present in a way that’s hopefully richer for having been exposed to our prodding.