History is a Weapon

How comedian and writer Dave Anthony turned a history podcast into a potent tool for radicalizing its listeners

While “The Dollop” is categorized as a comedy podcast, it is dark comedy. The laughter comes more from a combination of shock and outrage than anything else. One’s only reaction is laughter because what else can one do in the face of such horror?

The premise of “The Dollop” is simple: Dave Anthony — comedian, writer, and history buff — tells Gareth Reynolds — comedian, writer, and history neophyte — a story from history, usually American history. Reynolds reacts to the story as it unfolds, improvising jokes and impressions based on its details. It can take some getting used to, but what makes it compelling is the whipsawing between the grim details provided by Anthony and Reynolds’ astonishment at what he’s learning. Reynolds is our stand-in, dumbfounded by the depravity of so much of our country’s history.

Listen to a few episodes and it will become clear that there’s an anti-capitalist bent to the podcast. This is not by accident.

“Yeah, I’m very, very anti-capitalist,” Anthony said, “I think it’s really destructive.”

“[My socialist views are] a direct result of reading history,” Anthony said. “Once you get into how people were treated, unless you don’t have a soul, it’s pretty hard not to go super left. Just if you know what happened to people, and how labor, and people of color, and women, and everyone has been crushed — and it’s all because of capitalism.”

“Paul Krugman’s tweet yesterday was basically that America’s done a lot of really bad things but had really great intentions, which is the largest line of bullshit that there is.

Anthony considers “The Dollop” an homage to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”

“That’s what radicalized me,” Anthony said, “I’m just doing my version of that. And I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who’ve said that they used to be conservatives before they started listening, and now they’re basically socialist, or they’ve moved very far left from where they were.”

The more one learns about the uglier aspects of our country’s history and capital’s role in perpetuating them, the more obvious it becomes that capitalism itself is at the root of many of society’s ills. This is likely one of the reasons many leftists find the views of self-identified moderates to be frustrating. History tells us that it’s not reasoned compromise that changes power dynamics in society, but organized struggle, and that means understanding what people are struggling against.

“When you talk to [centrists] about how much they know about history,” Anthony said, “it’s not that much. Paul Krugman’s tweet yesterday was basically that America’s done a lot of really bad things but had really great intentions, which is the largest line of bullshit that there is.”

When asked if there’s a particular Dollop episode that best exemplifies the excesses of capitalism, Anthony’s momentarily stumped.

“Oh my God – I think there are a ton,” Anthony said, before settling on an episode about Australia’s Macquarie Island, once home to millions of penguins. “Back in the day when they were using animals’ blubber and that sort of thing to create heating oil, they found an island just loaded with penguins. So naturally they just started grinding them up and rendering them down into oil.”

“[It’s an example] of the brutality of capitalism,” Anthony said. “Let’s just make money off these things, and we’ll cook them up and turn them into oil — and they’re just cute penguins!”

Anthony’s day job is as a comedy writer in Hollywood. I asked if he had seen a change in attitudes there since Trump’s election, and the rise of a new leftist politics in the USA.

“Obviously I’m surrounded by liberals here in Hollywood,” Anthony said, “And most of them are still on the same path, but there are definitely quite a few who have been watching how feckless and pathetic the Democrats are, and corrupt, and realizing the only way out is to just go hard left . . . a lot of people are taking a look at the landscape and realizing the only way to beat this guy is not to be half him, but just to be the complete opposite.”

That’s far from the norm, though. Anthony still finds a lot of complacency among his Hollywood co-workers.

“It’s really hard,” Anthony said. “I’ve sat there in writer’s rooms, and in other places, and talked to these people about this stuff and their faces will just kind of blank over and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, but Obama was awesome.’ OK, we’re not getting anywhere at all!”

“The main thing, I think, about Hollywood that people don’t understand is that it’s systemic classism,” Anthony said. “They had this big diversity push, but most of those people still come from Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth, and those kinds of schools. I was in a writer’s room, and we were talking about the ‘80s, and oppression came up, and there was a Latinx guy who had been hired, and he’d gone to Princeton. I brought up the oppression of Latinx people in California in the ‘80s, and the early ‘90s especially, and he said there was absolutely no oppression of Latinx people. And I said ‘What are you talking about?’ And he said it’s just not something that happened. I said, ‘Dude, I got arrested with my old Latinx friends on campuses because of exactly that!’ So they’re getting diversity . . . but it is wealthy, privileged people who have had an easy life. No agent is going out to East L.A. or South Central and finding a kid who can write well or act well, they’re still going to Dartmouth and Harvard.”

I asked Anthony, given this example, if it’s ever caused him to make podcast episodes specifically addressing these kinds of misconceptions.

“Yup, for sure,” Anthony said. “People say stuff, and then I go, ‘Ok, I guess I have to do a podcast about that!’ That’s definitely something that happens.”

Anthony related a story about being in a writer’s room where a person of color disputed the notion that the Civil War was fought over slavery, making the argument that it was actually fought over states rights.

“After she said that,” Anthony said, “I now have to do an episode about the Daughters of the Confederacy, who basically twisted all history, using their little propaganda memes, to create that belief that [the Civil War was] about states’ rights.”

Anthony doesn’t limit his political interests to his podcast, he also has engaged with local politics in the Los Angeles area, which is another point of frustration for him in the entertainment world.

“There’s a city council candidate running here in LA, Nithiya Raman,” Anthony said, “And a lot of people don’t realize how powerful the LA City Council is, it controls the money of 9 million people . . . I’ve been trying to help that campaign. I wish more people understood how important local government is, but it seems that’s not happening. I really try to talk to other people in my business about how important it is, and they just don’t seem to get it. They’re all focused on Trump, and they just don’t seem to get it’s fucking super important!”

“That’s the interesting thing about DSA [Democratic Socialists of America],” Anthony said. “DSA, because it’s so focused on the local level stuff, they can really have a profound effect on those races that really matter. I think there are some DSA people that are getting on board [with Raman’s campaign], they haven’t endorsed her yet but I’m hoping they will.” [DSA-LA did vote to endorse Raman.]

“It’s really frustrating,” Anthony said. “We can change so much at the local level if we take control – like Chicago is a great example, it’s too bad [DSA] didn’t win the mayoral race, but they put a lot of people on boards that matter.”

“Marching doesn’t do anything. Go down and surround the city council and yell at them. That’ll do something.

An issue Anthony takes particular interest in these days is trying to rally people to tackle climate change.

“So many people around the country that I meet when I travel,” Anthony said, “They’re just terrified about what’s happening with climate change, but they don’t know who to turn to or who to talk to. My idea is to create a website where people can find a meeting and talk about how they feel about climate change in a safe space, without anybody yelling at them and telling them that they’re wrong, and then getting those people into groups together and turning that into action.”

“The thing is,” Anthony said, “The way that our government and society is structured, people just have no hope that they can change anything. So we need to get people together in groups. Physically together in groups.”

“Like, in Glendale here,” Anthony said, “They were going to build out the power plant and put in two new natural gas combines, and we went down there and raised hell at a city council meeting, and then they delayed it. The guys who were selling them on the idea were guys who worked on the Keystone pipeline, so they obviously had an agenda. We got them to delay it, and then got other research in there. And then they had a meeting that had nothing to do with any of this, and we just went down there and were really fucking loud, like 300 of us. And then the next meeting they voted to just use renewables. So it’s doable.  That’s 300 people in a city the size of Glendale. If you just get a few people it freaks them out, they’re not used to it. They don’t know what to do when there’s a bunch of people yelling at them.”

“I think people don’t realize,” Anthony said, “Like when they go do a march — like the march for women, the march for the climate — marching doesn’t do anything. Go down and surround the city council and yell at them. That’ll do something. There’s a way to use people, but walking around with signs isn’t the way to do it. But to have an objective and say, ‘we want this to happen,’ and put pressure on people, it works!”

The Dollop is listed on all the usual sources for podcasts, and they’ll be doing a live performance in San Francisco on February 14th at the Palace of Fine Arts. Anthony wouldn’t say what the subject will be, but did say it’ll be something from the 1970s. Whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll be horrifying.