Revisionist History podcast with Malcolm Gladwell | E1/S1: The Lady Vanishes (Transcript)

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The Lady Vanishes with Malcolm Gladwell

Episode 1| Season 1| Revisionist History
Length: 33 min | Released: June 16, 2016

Malcolm Gladwell: St. James’s Palace in London, down the street from Buckingham Palace. It’s the official residence of the British Monarchy, built in the 1530s by Henry VIII. It’s not open to the public, but you can apply to go inside, which I did not long ago. It’s not that hard. There’s a solider with a machine gun standing by a little cottage, he tells me to go inside and then a man named Desmond Shawe-Taylor comes and gets me. He’s the curator of the Royal Art Collection, early middle aged, distinguished, a kind of high-end exuberance.

Desmond Shawe-Taylor: Hey, you know, look at that building there that’s kind of missing a bit.

MG: It has a nice, a nice jumble.

DST: Yeah!

MG: I came here to see a painting bought by Queen Victoria nearly 150 years ago. It’s called The Roll Call.

Inside the palace, there’s red everywhere, Royal red, red carpets, red wallpaper; all the trim is in gold. The rooms are massive and almost entirely empty except for the art on the walls, enormous canvases spanning many centuries, everywhere. And in a kind of hallway, not far from the entrance, there it is, Roll Call, 1874.

DST: The absol… Point of The Roll Call is that it has a single, brilliant image idea.

MG: The painting depicts a group of British soldiers in the Crimean War, which is a war England and France fought against Russia in the 1850’s. In Roll Call, there’s just been a battle and the soldiers are lining up in the grey light of morning to be reviewed by the commanding officer. We start talking about a particular distinctive figure in the middle of the painting; Desmond has a flashlight in his hand because it’s quite gloomy in the palace, of course. Palaces are supposed to be gloomy. He shines the light directly on the man’s face.

DST: That’s a brave young man.

MG: Yeah.

DST: He manages to stand upright, and this sort of encounter is suggestive of comradeship, isn’t it?

MG: St. James’s Palace has dozens of war paintings. Handsome generals on white chargers, panoramic battle scenes, faceless soldiers in glistening uniforms, they’re almost cartoons. But in Roll Call, the men are exhausted, wounded, defiant, bedraggled. It’s real.

DST: And they are standing in a line but they’re not in a straight line and they’re not anonymous.

MG: Yes.

DST: So it’s got one fantastic idea.

MG: Yeah.

DST: Of oomph.

MG: My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You’re listening to the first episode of my podcast, Revisionist History.

Every week for the next 10 weeks, I’m gonna take you back to examine something that I think has been overlooked or misunderstood. One week, I’m gonna talk about a car crash just outside of San Diego. Another week, I’m gonna take you back to a secret Pentagon project in Saigon. The tagline of this show, “Sometimes the past deserves a second chance,” and that really goes to the heart of it. I think, too often, we make up our minds about something that has happened and then we move on without pausing to ask, “Wait a minute, is that actually what happened? Do we really understand it?”

I’m starting with something very simple, a painting, The Roll Call, all but forgotten now. If you want to see it before you listen to this story, you can pause and go to But in 1874, when this painting became famous, something extraordinary happened that I think is worth revisiting because it’s an issue that we deal with all the time today, which is what it means to be the first, the first outsider to enter a closed world.

The art world in England at that time is controlled by something called the Royal Academy. It consists of 40 artists and being elected to the Royal Academy is the highest honor any artist can get. It’s like winning an Oscar. Membership makes your reputation; it makes it possible to become very wealthy as an artist. And every year, the Academy puts on an art exhibition, thousands of paintings are submitted, they choose a select few and display them at Burlington House on Piccadilly.

Remember, this is before movies and television and recorded music. Painting is it. Hundreds of thousands of people come to these shows, and Roll Call gets chosen for the Royal Academy, and not just chosen, chosen in a way that makes it a really big deal. First of all, where the Academy hangs a painting on the wall matters a lot. If they hang it way up into the ceiling, if they sky it, that means your painting is considered second class. If they hang it at eye level, what’s called on the line, that’s fantastic. Roll Call is on the line.

Then there’s where in Burlington House put it. There’s a gallery in the back called the Lecture Room. The Lecture Room is known as “the black hole.” Being hung in the black hole was almost as bad as not being hung at all. But if they hang a painting near the front, in Gallery Two, that’s incredibly prestigious. So where was Roll Call hung? Gallery Two. Unbelievable. On the line, in Gallery Two.

MG: I was reading about it. It creates an extraordinary sensation.

DST: Yes, completely. Yeah.

MG: In, in, in an unusual way, even for that time.

The day the show opens, the crowds make a beeline for Roll Call.

DST: The crowd were so great that you had to have… Basically, we employ a warden, but they had to hire a policeman to say, you know, “Don’t touch,” or you know, “Don’t… Move, move on.”

MG: The only contemporary equivalent I can think of is people camping out in line for two days to buy Beyoncé tickets, or the kind of frenzy the Beatles faced when they first came to America. Roll Call is the hit of the Royal Academy show. After that, Roll Call goes on a tour of England.

In Newcastle, men walk up and down the sidewalks with sandwich boards, saying simply, “The Roll Call is coming.” In Liverpool, 20,000 people go to see it. In those days, prominent paintings were put on little playing cards and 250,000 cards are sold with an image of Roll Call. A bidding war breaks out among potential buyers. Finally, Queen Victoria, one of the greatest art collectors of her day, decides she absolutely has to have it, which is how it comes to hang in St. James’s Palace.

Desmond Shawe-Taylor must’ve seen Roll Call a thousand times, but as he shines his flashlight over the artist’s brush work, it’s like he’s seeing it for the first time. He’s excited about every little detail, even down to the soldiers’ shoes.

DST: That’s pretty fabulous, isn’t it? It is oh so difficult to, to paint nothing in particular happening without over doing it. And if you just get one grey color and just a little bit of… And just pick out that problem with his shoes. It’s just… It’s very impressive. I mean, no, I’m enjoying looking at this.

MG: It’s a remarkable story, but I’ve left out the most remarkable fact of all, the artist, an unknown, more importantly, a woman, at a time when the art world was overwhelmingly male. British women in the 19th century weren’t even allowed to study fine art. It was a closed world and suddenly, in the middle of that closed world, there enters a striking young woman named Elizabeth Thompson, raised in Switzerland by wealthy bohemian parents, an outsider, and she breaks down the door.

I’ve been fascinated by the story of Elizabeth Thompson for years, by Roll Call, and more particularly, by what happened to Elizabeth Thompson after the stunning success of her painting. What fascinates me is how her story is repeated over and over again. Once you know about Elizabeth Thompson, you see Elizabeth Thompson’s everywhere.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Julia Gillard, she was the first woman to become Prime Minister of Australia. She served from 2010 to 2013, and she had an incredibly tumultuous time in office. Near the end of her tenure, she gave a famous speech on the floor of the Australian Parliament. Here’s the part everyone noticed.

Julia Gillard: The leader of the opposition says that people who hold sexist views and who are misogynists are not appropriate for high office. Well, I hope the leader of the opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation because, if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror; that’s what he needs.

MG: When I heard Julia Gillard give that speech, I thought about Elizabeth Thompson, because Gillard and Thompson were in the same situation, women dealing with the consequences of breaking down the door. I also remember Elizabeth Thompson when I think of Hillary Clinton.

There’s an idea that I think helps explain the phenomenon of Elizabeth Thompson and Julia Gillard, it’s called “moral licensing”; it’s a fairly new concept in social psychology. It was developed by a number of the best young psychologists in the field, chief among them Daniel Effron, who teaches at the London Business School. Here’s the official definition of moral licensing, “Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.” When we do something good, in other words, sometimes we then, on occasion, give ourselves permission to do something bad.

One of Effron’s first experiments in moral licensing was in 2009. He surveys people who publicly self-identify as supporters of Barack Obama for president. And what he finds is that supporting a black politician doesn’t always signal that you’re a racially open person who is inclined to be progressive in other areas. It can also have the opposite effect; it can free you up to go back to your old racist ways because you’ve proven to the world what a good person you are. And that’s what he discovers. A significant chunk of the people who supported Barack Obama were then more likely, at least in the experiment, to express racially questionable opinions.

Daniel Effron: I was taken by this finding that people appear to be able to license themselves based on pretty paltry virtues.

MG: I met Effron in his office, in London, up near regent’s park. I asked him why a little egalitarian behavior doesn’t lead to more egalitarian behavior. Why don’t good deeds just lead to more good deeds?

DE: So your question is about when does evidence that I’m virtuous lead to more virtuous behavior versus when does evidence of virtue lead to less virtuous behavior? When does doing good lead to doing bad and when does doing good lead to doing more good?
 This is the million dollar question in this literature, and it’s, it’s been a puzzle.

MG: All we know is that human beings go both ways. After a good deed, they sometimes follow a virtuous trajectory, and sometimes they don’t. There’s what happens after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, becomes the first ever Black professional baseball player. Within five years, there are 150 Black ball players in the major leagues. I think that’s what we expect; it fits our romantic notion of progress. The door opens for one person and, soon, it opens for everyone. But what we have to understand is that a lot of times, the opposite happens. The door opens for one person and they’re the only one to slip in. Those who opened the door then feel free to close it again for everybody else.

A couple years ago, the Israeli author, Amos Elon, wrote a history of the Jews in Germany called “The Pity of it All.” It’s a fascinating book for precisely this reason, because what Elon is interested in is the great paradox of Germany’s history with the Jews. Here we have a country that committed the greatest historical atrocity against the Jewish people. Yet, if you take the long view, as Elon does, you see that, time and time again, German culture welcomed Jews, or at least welcomed some Jews. From the 17th century onwards, many German states had a tradition of what were called “court Jews.” Most Jews were banned from living in major German cities; there were severe restrictions on what they could do, but simultaneously, there was a group of protected Jews who were allowed to live and work within the city walls. In the 1730s, the King of Prussia becomes alarmed by the number of Jews in Prussia, likening them to locusts bringing ruin to Christians. So he banishes them from Berlin, but not all of them. He kicks out 140 families and he keeps 120. That pattern is repeated over and again in the German speaking world.

In the 18th century, the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who is Jewish, was considered one of the most brilliant men in Europe. He lives in Berlin and people come from far and wide to visit him. How does he stay in Berlin? The King grants him “exceptional status.” That is to say, and these are Amos Elon’s words here, “Mendelssohn is the “un-Jewish Jew.”

The same happens 100 years later with Berthold Auerbach. He’s Jewish, and he’s the most widely read German novelist of his day. He’s called the German Dickens. This is now at a time of virulent anti-Semitism throughout Germany, but Berthold Auerbach is somehow immune from that prejudice. Richard Wagner, Wagner the notorious anti-Semite, loves Auerbach, and calls him, “A man who rooted in German life.” One of the brothers Grimm thanks Auerbach for curing him of prejudice. The Germans hate Jews as a rule, but they love Auerbach. What’s going on here? It sounds like a contradiction; it’s not. It’s just textbook moral licensing. The Germans love Berthold Auerbach, and because they think they have demonstrated their open mindedness by loving this one Jew, they feel free to act in the most despicable way to other Jews. You open the door to one outsider, and that gives you permission to close the door to others.

After seeing Roll Call at St. James’s Palace, I went to the tape and sat on a little bench outside the Turner Gallery with Paul Usherwood. Usherwood is an art historian who has written extensively on Elizabeth Thompson. In fact, I first learned about Elizabeth Thompson because I stumbled across an absolutely brilliant article by Usherwood in the Woman’s Art Journal. It was called “Elizabeth Thompson Butler: A Case of Tokenism.” Usherwood is wispy and tweedy in the best possible English way. I imagine that, after our chat, he’ll go straight home, spend an hour in the garden, then go for a brisk walk across a few soggy fields with the dogs. Usherwood argues that, in making sense of what happened to Elizabeth Thompson, it’s really important to understand the role of the Royal Academy. They control the art world at this point, 40 aloof, dictatorial, white men.

Paul Usherwood: As a, an institution, it was just very, very powerful and much resented by people who, um, weren’t, very, very well-biased.

MG: Academy members gave their own pictures the best positions on the walls of the annual exhibition. Meanwhile, they pretty much ignored everyone else’s art; including in 1874, the year when Roll Call went up.

PU: For that year, there were 6000 paintings which didn’t meet the exhibition.

MG: There’s only one art show that matters in England and it’s so small that thousands of artists are stuck on the outside looking in. It’s a revolution brewing.

So along comes Elizabeth Thompson, a woman, an outsider with an absolutely brilliant painting, and the Academy hangs it on the line in Gallery Two and everyone thinks this is a sign that the Academy is finally opening its doors. To what? To the Holy Grail, membership in the Royal Academy itself. It seems destined to happen. One of the most prominent art critics of the day writes in The Daily Telegraph that Roll Call’s success proves that, and I’m quoting here, “Real genius has no insurmountable obstacles in the English art world.”

In short order, Thompson is nominated for election to the Royal Academy. She’s one of the most famous artists in England, she has a huge public following. Every artist in the country is riveted by her candidacy. And what happens? She loses, but by just two votes. It doesn’t feel like the end. Everyone says, “This is progress. Here we have a young artist, still in her 20s, and on her first try, she comes within a hair’s breadth of acceptance into the old boys’ club.” Everyone thinks that she’s gonna be a lock for election the next time around. They look at her and they say, “Elizabeth Thompson, pioneer.”

But then Thompson submits another painting to the Academy, another brilliant painting, called Quatre Bras, a depiction of the battle of Waterloo.

PU: Well, at that time, she’s a celebrity and has a fantastic, um, assistance from the army, which is… I mean, 300 soldiers, at one point, are paraded so she can paint that picture.

MG: This is in 1875, the year after Roll Call’s triumph. So what happens to Quatre Bras?

PU: What they do is, they stuff it away in an obscure corner so it’s quite hard to see.

MG: Thompson’s new work is hung in the Lecture Room, at the back, the black hole. And the black hole is where her election to the Royal Academy also goes. Remember, she was within two votes of getting in and everybody said, “She’s a lock for the next time round,” but she isn’t. There is no next time around. Instead, the male academy members have these absurd internal conversations about how it would work if a woman ever got elected. What about the etiquette?

PU: At the banquet, how would that be arranged? How, you know, who would bring in… It was the thing for the male academicians to escort a woman into the banquet. But how would that work with a woman?

MG: They fussed about it; they tied themselves in knots at the thought of a woman entering their club. So the Academy members pass new regulations to limit the privileges of any women who might get elected in the future, because they’d proven their bona fides — they hung Roll Call on the line in Gallery Two. Who can doubt how open and progressive they are? Now, they can go back to the way they were.

In 1881, Elizabeth Thompson paints what might be her most famous painting, “Scotland Forever.” It’s a thrilling depiction of a charge of the Scots greys at Waterloo in 1850. “Scotland Forever” is never shown at the Royal Academy and Thompson doesn’t even try again to get elected. She can read the writing on the wall. In fact, no woman would be elected to the Royal Academy until 1936, more than half a century later. As for Thompson, she married an army officer named William Butler. She changed her name, she raised six children, her career took a backseat to her husband’s. When he writes his memoirs, he doesn’t say a word about her, his own wife, one of the most famous artists in England.

PU: His autobiography, 455 pages, she’s not mentioned in the index, he mentions that he was married, he mentions that he did have children, and that’s it.

MG: And when she writes her memoirs, she acts as if the whole incident with her near election to the Royal Academy never happened. Today, people would write an entire book about it, but she’s been defeated and she knows it. Here’s all she says, “As it turned out in 1879, I lost my election by two votes only. Since then, I think the door has been closed, and wisely.”
 That’s the part that always gets me, “and wisely.” She’s given up.

More in a moment after this break.

MG: Now, back to our story.

Remember how I mentioned that when I saw Roll Call, the first thing I thought about was Julia Gillard, the former Prime Minister of Australia? That’s because it’s the same story. Gillard’s election was a milestone in Australian history, the same way it would be for any country. Australia had been an independent nation for more than a century, 110 years of uninterrupted male rule and that came to an end in 2010 with this funny, whip smart, tough woman. In former British colonies like Australia, the representative of the British Crown is called the Governor General. And the Governor General is a person who swears in the new Prime Minister. When Gillard stands up to take the oath of office, it’s a doubly incredible moment.

JG: What made it loom large for me that day is our Governor General at that time was the first woman to ever serve as Governor General.

MG: This is Julia Gillard telling the story.

JG: And I could see in her face and in her eyes, you know, this incredible shock, awe, delight, that she was going to be the person to swear in the first woman Prime Minister.

“I, Julia Eileen Gillard, duly affirm and declare that I will well and truly serve the Commonwealth of Australia…”

And, you know, she subsequently said to me, “Look, I, I didn’t think I’d live to see it. I didn’t think I’d live to see the day our nation had a female Prime Minister.”

MG: It’s a big deal and Gillard, like many at the time, thinks that Australia has undergone a permanent transformation. And she also thinks that, after the novelty of her election passes, she’ll just be “Prime Minister Gillard,” the fact of her gender will become unremarkable, the way the fact of a baseball player’s race is now unremarkable.

JG: If you’d asked me then, that all would’ve played itself in the first few months and then I thought, sort of the political cycle would go back to normal, and I made that judgment call spectacularly wrong.

MG: When was the first moment that you realized you were wrong?

JG: Oh, look, I don’t think it was a, you know, it wasn’t that the thud of a penny dropping in my brain, um, but it just became clearer and clearer, particularly, uh, by the time we were in the government’s second year and we were putting a price on carbon and the campaigning against that, by the opposition and in the community, was getting, uh, hotter and shriller. Uh, it was in the course of that that the gendered stuff really started to show.

MG: Things got ugly.

Protestor1: You’re the people that elected this bloody bitch in!

Protestor2: It’s a witch! It’s a witch!

Protestor1: Get that down! Get that down!

MG: Her opponents would circulate lewd, sexual cartoons of her. She would be referred to in the newspapers as “Julia,” as if she was a reality TV star and not the head of state. The media would constantly refer to the outfit she wore, or how much cleavage she showed, or the tone of her voice. The CEO of a major Australian company publicly called her an “unproductive old cow.” One restaurant offered on its menu “Julia Gillard Kentucky fried quail,” small breasts, huge thighs in a big, red box.

MG: Was there any particular moment or thing said that, that hurt you the most?

JG: I mean, it’s obviously, uh, not a good thing to look out on a scene of protests and see yourself described as a bitch and a witch and things like that, but for me, actually the worst moment in my Prime Ministership was, uh, not, in and of itself, a gendered remark, but came from a shock jock.

MG: She’s talking about the Rush Limbaugh of Australia, a major radio personality who hosts a fundraiser for the Conservative Party, the other party, not Julia Gillard’s.

JG: And I had recently lost my father, my father died while I was Prime Minister, and he said to his audience that my father had died of shame, uh, because he was ashamed of me as Prime Minister. I mean, that, that was the worst.

MG: Oh, wow. Yeah, yeah, that’s appalling.

JG: It is appalling, it is appalling, and, uh, you know, it’s, you don’t expect to have to do that in your life and you don’t expect that, you know, uh, someone like my mother, who’s just a lovely woman and a , you know, great Australian citizen, should have to tolerate that being said about the husband she’s just lost.

MG: Why do you think that intelligent, educated members of a progressive country feel they can get away with such vile behavior? Because they’ve just elected a woman. They’ve proven their progressive bona fides, ending 110 years of patriarchy. When the female Governor General swears in the female Prime Minister, Australia has a collective lump in its throat. But then what happens? Moral licensing happens.

And of course, Gillard can’t fight back, can she?

MG: Until the very end of your tenure as Prime Minister, you keep a pretty stiff upper lip about this?

JG: Yes, I think I did.

MG: Tell me about that, about your decision of how to handle it.

JG: I mean, some of it’s, uh, innate, some of it’s just me, and then I also took a deliberate decision that, you know, if you looked like you couldn’t take it, if you looked upset, then that would be used against me personally, but more importantly, against women generally. That there would’ve been people muttering to themselves, you know, “You, you women weren’t up for this. You know, knew they couldn’t take it when the going got tough.”

MG: Then, near the end of Gillard’s time in office, a prominent member of her own party, the man she’s chosen to be Speaker, is found to have sent sexist text messages and incredibly, her critics come after her, Gillard. They accuse her of condoning sexism because she’s associated with this man. She sits in her office in disbelief.

JG: You know, I don’t want to use any bad language, uh, to you, but I did have, just going through my brain, “For heaven’s sake!” and the word I was thinking wasn’t heaven’s, but, “For heaven’s sake! I cannot believe that after everything I’ve had to listen to, now I’m somehow, you know, gonna walk into a Parliament and people who have used gendered insults against me are now, somehow, gonna try and give me a lecture on sexism.” Like, the injustice of this, uh, it was just boiling in me.

MG: So that day, in Parliament, she stands up and gives her famous misogyny speech. It’s addressed to her harshest critic, the leader of Australia’s opposition, a man named Tony Abbott. Gillard just starts listing all the things Abbott has said and done to her and other women over the years. She lets him have it.

JG: I was very offended, personally, when the leader of the opposition, as Minister for Health said, and I quote, “Abortion is the easy way out.” I was very personally offended by those comments. You said that in March 2004. I suggested you check the records.

MG: This is live, on the floor of Parliament. If you watched the video, Abbott’s sitting right in front of her. She’s dressing him down to his face, and the longer she goes on, the more he shrivels and shrinks.

JG: I was also very offended on behalf of the women of Australia when, in the course of this, uh, carbon pricing campaign, the leader of the opposition said, “When the housewives of Australia need to do… What the housewives of Australian need to understand as they do the ironing…” Thank you for that painting of women’s roles in modern Australia. And then of course, I was offended too by the sexism, by the misogyny of the leader of the opposition catcalling across this table at me as I sit here as Prime Minister, “If the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself,” something that would never have been said to any man sitting in this chair. I was offended when the leader of the opposition went outside in the front of Parliament and stood next to a sign that said, “Ditch the witch.” I was offended when the leader of the opposition stood next to a sign that described me as a “man’s bitch.” I was offended by those things. Misogyny, sexism, every day from this leader of opposition. Every day, in every way. Across the time, the leader of the…

MG: This was 2012; it was practically yesterday. At her last news conference as Prime Minister, Gillard says, “What I am absolutely confident of is that it will be easier for the next woman and for the woman after that and the woman after that and I’m proud of that.” But forgive me for being a little less optimistic than she was.

The difference between Julia Gillard and Elizabeth Thompson is that Thompson never had the chance to give a speech like that on the floor of Parliament. She went away quietly. Gillard got the chance to stand up and to be heard, and I suppose that’s progress, but the underlying dynamics these two women faced, are they all that different? A woman gets accepted into a man’s world, she thinks that somehow something has changed, but nothing has changed. The men pat themselves on the back and then they slam the door shut again. Tony Abbott, the man she eviscerated, he later becomes Prime Minister of Australia.

By the way, here’s a partial list of the countries that have had one, and only one female leader. Open the door, pat themselves on the back, close it again. Ready? Brazil, Germany, Costa Rica, Croatia, Nicaragua, Latvia, Panama, Bolivia, Ecuador, Pakistan, Poland, Turkey, France, Canada, and of course, Australia.

Makes you wonder about Hilary Clinton, doesn’t it? She’s not gonna have it easy.