2019, Podcasts

Against the Rules (2019)

I have yet to actually read a Michael Lewis book. (I know, I know.) But if his first podcast is any indication, I will probably enjoy them. This is a fascinating podcast about “the decline of the referee in American society”. I don’t agree with everything in it, and I think there’s a lot that isn’t explored in terms of issues of fairness, but I still think it’s extremely worth your while to listen to it if you’re at all concerned about the current populist threat toward liberal democratic institutions.

If a non-fiction podcast which is about fairness can have spoilers, I guess this review has spoilers.

It’s an interesting approach: each episode Lewis focuses on a seemingly disconnected aspect in American life, only to tie it into his theme. I imagine many if not most listeners will be put off by the first episode, which is about refereeing in basketball. I wasn’t because I am a basketball fan. But you should trust me even if you don’t like the first episode, it’s worth it.

There are many moments throughout the series that worked for me on an intellectual perspective – as I agree with Lewis’ main contention – but I also really enjoyed the show from a storytelling perspective. Part of the fun is seeing how he’ll connect the dots when he’s off talking to somebody who seems to have nothing to do with anything the show’s been about so far. So it’s both intellectually stimulating and enjoyable.

The accumulated episodes add up to an indictment of American society – how in most cases the people who are supposed to be ensuring fairness are either bought and paid for or just don’t even exist any more. And the final episode gives (very American) hope for the future: maybe there is actually commercial demand for fairness which can be leveraged in fighting back against rampant corruption.

My one criticism is his notion of decline: Lewis seems to assume that things were better in the past. And maybe that’s true for a few of the areas he looks into but certainly it’s not true for all of them. Moreover, and more importantly, the myth of the neutral state/referee has always been just that, a myth. One of the things the podcast fails to explore is how past referees, who might have seemed fair to your average rich white American male, were not fair to people who were not your average rich white American male. Perhaps that’s coming in the next season, if there is one. Perhaps it’s an oversight. Or perhaps he just didn’t want to get into it, figuring there is plenty out there already about the unfairness of the “American Dream”.

But with that criticism aside, this is one of the more thought-provoking podcasts I’ve encountered recently.

9/10

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