two new podcasts remind us that while history involves longings for truth, not all historical longings are the same in the “post-truth” age.
Two new podcasts, Wind of Change and The Last Archive, focus on unlikely histories to address questions of how we perceive truth in our own so-called “post-truth” era. Each has an air of conspiracy to it, which is fitting for our conspiratorial times, however they also differ in important ways. Wind of Change speaks to the longing many have for something highly unlikely to be true; The Last Archive is about how much we long for something historically true not to have happened the way it did.
On Wind of Change, investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe takes us into his own obsession with the unlikely idea that the CIA secretly wrote the song “Wind of Change” by the German band Scorpions. Written at the end of 1990, released in 1991, which was after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, “Wind of Change” became perhaps the anthem that announced the end of communism. Could it really have been written by the CIA? It’s an absurd claim, but a tantalizing one. Wouldn’t it make so much sense as a form of covert soft power working, as a brilliant Cold War cultural campaign winning the day for the USA? The chaotic, surprising, world-changing moment would click into place, its many contingencies understood in retrospect as inevitable, engineered rather than erupting spontaneously.
The plot unfolds at first like a political thriller. Given a lead by an old friend with CIA contacts, Keefe seeks out the truth. He meets with CIA analysts, tight-lipped spies and spooks, former drug smuggling music business managers, Ukrainian rock fans, skeptical Russian journalists, and, at last, Scorpions lead singer Klaus Meine. It’s a funny tale at times, but also a creepy one, a kind of absurdist, kitschy John Le Carré novel of a story that ultimately becomes a sort of shaggy dog—or should we say shaggy Scorpion—story.
Keefe’s journey into the conspiracy collapses in on itself eventually. In the quest to discover the truth, is he in fact spreading more lies? By contrast, The Last Archive, hosted by historian Jill Lepore, begins with the question of, as she playfully puts it, “how we know what we know.” What is historical evidence, she asks? And what has it come to mean in a contemporary moment some call a “post-truth” era?
The Last Archive adopts a retro-radio gumshoe noir tone (say, pal, that’s a good way to go at the topic). As Lepore puts it, playing the role of Sam Spade as historical inquirer, the first season is “trying to solve a crime: who killed truth?” Based on a course she has taught and various essays and books she has written as well as new material, The Last Archive looks to colorful, mysterious stories from the past—the origins of Wonder Woman, the making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a 1919 who-done-it in the rural town of Barre, Vermont—to connect history to current dilemmas of relativism and skepticism.
Sometimes the show is too quaint by half, but Lepore’s vocal delivery, which is full of bemusement, sly wit, and expressively musical dips, turns, twists, and almost giggles, cuts through to speak to the listener directly—one might even say truthfully—about the big stakes of the theme at the center of the show. These include especially and recurringly the shift she notices from a premodern focus on only God’s ability to know the truth to a democratization of judgment among “the people” as modernity unfolded. First, only the divinity new if you were guilty. Now a jury of peers might make the call. What did they use to do so? Evidence.
So where does that evidence—the search for it, the consideration of it—lead Lepore? Repeatedly, her stories follow leads that reflect not only a wish to know the truth, to get to the bottom of things, but also, just as often, a tinge of regret, a wish that fate might have worked out differently. If Wind of Change proposes that the truth remains concealed, nothing more than a whistle on the breeze, classified and redacted to the point that it can neither be confirmed nor denied, The Last Archive reminds us that when it comes to the bitter certainties of the American past we may not always really want to hear just the facts, ma’am.