Reith Lectures. A history of histories.

We live in a time of many, many podcasts. But while we’re here, one benefit is the ready availability of recordings that weren’t even made to be podcasts. Recently, I’ve been meandering through the archives of the Reith Lectures, an annual series of five lectures by a single speaker each year, exploring some topic of interest. The BBC has been putting the series on since 1948 before a small, invited live audience, but the whole catalog is available online for free, for posterity.

Some of my favorites have been Bertrand Russell speaking on “Authority and the Individual” and the need for a world order to prevent the recurrence of world war (1948), Dr. Jonathan Sacks on “The Persistence of Faith” in a secular world (1990), John Keegan on “War in Our World” (1998), Niall Ferguson on the enemies of the rule of law (2012), Kwame Anthony Appiah on culture (2016), and Hilary Mantel on historical fiction (2017). Other lecturers include Stephen Hawking and Aung San Suu Kyi.

The archive of these lectures is how the internet shows the best version of itself: it acts as a leveler to share humanity’s knowledge somewhat evenly. Without mass communication, these lectures would have been heard only by those elite few who were invited to the talk. The BBC was able to tear down that barrier by broadcasting the talks on the radio. But the internet sends the talks even further, into the future and into great distances of space, lasting however long the digital archives of the BBC do.

Beyond these recommendations, I have some observations.

First, are we now living through a new age of audience participation (and can we make it stop?) In the Reith Lectures, at some point around the late 20th century, audience questions and answers show up. I assume that the audience was allowed to ask questions before then (although, it would be fascinating to find out that they weren’t!) but it was only relatively recently that the audience participation was included as part of the lecture recording. As someone who has sat through several too many “more a comment than a question” sessions, I’m never stoked about the opportunity to be held hostage to the often egomaniacal whims of whoever runs fastest to the public mic. But sometimes, miraculously, the commenter does have something of interest to say, despite my impatience. Anyway, I wonder if the inclusion of these questions in the recording signals a recent phenomenon–a symptom of some deep societal change opening us up to the thoughts of the rando, or the decreasing cost of data storage, or who knows what. In any event, this has made the actual substance of the lectures shorter, but the recordings stay the same length to make time for the almighty q&a, and I suppose I have to live with it.

Second: in the last 60 years of lectures, the history of the period echoes a bit in the choices of lecture topics. Some topics are of continual interest (scientific advancement is a perennial favorite), whereas others dwindle: there have been very few lectures on religion in the last 30 years, for example. This reminds me of a story about the making of Downton Abbey: allegedly, the audience never sees the family begin eating a meal, because historical accuracy would also require showing them praying, and the modern audience would find that too spooky indeed. So too, perhaps, with the lecturers: we are in an age recently in which religion is not a topic for lectures of general interest.

Another fun aspect of a dive in the archive is that you get to hear the accents mutate and diversify from the absolute lunacy of the mid-20th century upper-class pinched aristocrat voice to a spectrum that includes all manner of Brits, international voices, and even the occasional Canadian.

A final observation: there is a strange middle ground here between enjoying something old as a curiosity, and enjoying something recent by learning from it at face value. A work of scholarship that is very old is a historical document. We’d study it to find out more about the period in which it was written, but we are not as likely to use it for information about what it actually says. In other words, it ages enough until it is a primary source document–but only a primary source document. On the other hand, very recent scholarship is just scholarship. But where is the line? How old does something have to be before it becomes a primary source for a historian studying the time it was written, or a curiosity?

The first lecture, from 1948, is from Bertrand Russell, talking about his views on the need for a world authority to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to prevent another world war. His views sound essentially quaint. They would be quite useful in assembling a history of the early anti-nuclear movement. But no one would use them now in a policy paper about nuclear policy or international relations.

More recent lectures felt, to me, to be in a funny kind of limbo in that regard. Lectures from the ’80s and ’90s are not yet far enough away in time to be quaint or revelatory (“my goodness, I didn’t realize people thought like that way back then!”). Instead, they’re just outdated. I guess they’re waiting in the vault, aging like a fine wine, but somewhat awkwardly. (Perhaps my bias is showing: I’ve never been very interested in history of the recent past. My interest in history has always been next door to my interest in fiction, trying to find other worlds to visit.)

As an example of this phenomenon, let’s briefly compare Bertrand Russell in 1948 to military historian John Keegan fifty years later in 1998. Both speakers saw a strong UN or other world body as the key to eliminating war. Russell thought it should do so through disarmament, eliminating nuclear weapons. In his day, scarcely out of World War II, it must have seemed quite possible that nuclear war would soon be frequent. But Keegan, speaking after the end of the Cold War, is adamantly against disarmament: he argues that the dangerous knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons can never leave humanity; therefore, responsible actors (the United States!) must retain them. For Keegan, nuclear weapons still looked like the future of war.

Twenty years on, as a lay observer of war, I’m not so sure. Yes, we have scares about nuclear Irans and North Koreas. But we also see something akin to “war” happening purely online through hacking and disinformation campaigns, and through the quiet misappropriation of information. These are “war” in the sense that the security state turns its full attention to them. But these appearances of “war,” in which nuclear weapons sit basically forgotten (we pray), where actual combat occurs only with unsophisticated non-state actors and technology otherwise is the most feared threat, would be unrecognizable to an ancient person. Or even to Russell.

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