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“The past is never past. Every headline has a history.”
NPR’s Throughline podcast is all about learning and understanding the moments that have shaped our world. From the origins of American policing and the Founding Fathers’ vision of the presidency to the development of the N95 respirator and the country’s very first conspiracy theories, hosts Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah explore today’s headlines through a historical lens.
This isn’t your high school history textbook. The past is full of little-known and unlikely events that changed the world.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Ramtin Arablouei Co-host and Co-producer, NPR's Throughline
- Rund Abdelfatah Co-host and Producer, NPR's Throughline
KOJO NNAMDIThe past is never past. Every headline has a history. NPR's Throughline is all about understanding the moments that have shaped our world. From the origins of American policing and the Founding Fathers' vision of the presidency to the development of the N95 mask and the very first conspiracy theories. The Throughline hosts explore today's headlines through the lens of history.
KOJO NNAMDIAnd joining us now are the co-hosts and producers of Throughline. It's a podcast that explores the history of current events. Joining us now is Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah, co-hosts of the show. Ramtin, thank you for joining us.
RAMTIN ARABLOUEIThank you. Thank you, Kojo. Thanks for having us.
NNAMDIAnd, Rund, thank you for joining us.
RUND ABDELFATAHThank you. It's an honor to be here.
NNAMDIRund, I'll start with you. For listeners who might not be familiar, what is Throughline?
ABDELFATAHSo, as you laid out, Throughline is a weekly audio documentary podcast. And we weave together expert voices, archival taped music sound design and really try to bring the stories of the past to life to help us contextualize the headlines.
NNAMDIWhat motivated you to craft this podcast about history, Rund?
ABDELFATAHWell, Ramtin and I were both working as producers on a couple other NPR shows, How I Built This and TED Radio Hour. And, you know, we struck up a fast friendship while working on those shows and started having a lot of conversations about being immigrants, about our Middle Eastern backgrounds and about history.
ABDELFATAHAnd, you know, we were looking at the 24-hour news cycle. And this was also right around the time of the 2016 election, and we were thinking a lot about the fact that there wasn't all that much context being provided in these kind of quick-hit stories. And so we started to think, you know, we're producers and Ramtin is also a composer. We like to think about creative ways of telling stories. Why not bring that to history?
NNAMDIWell, I know that Ramtin composes all the music for the show with the help of his D.C. band Drop Electric. But, Ramtin, have you always also had a passion for history?
ARABLOUEIYeah, I think, as Rund said, I think one of the things we have in common is that Rund is originally from Palestine and I'm Iranian. And I think growing up in a Middle Eastern household, the past is always present. You always hear about both the past of your family and from, you know, the country and the region you come from. So history has always been a part of my life and I really enjoy it. It was one of my majors as an undergrad.
ARABLOUEIAnd, you know, we -- I remember once, I was in Iran, it's been many years ago, and I was in a cab. And the cab driver said to me during the conversation we struck up, that he thinks that people in the west never remember and people in the east never forget. And that really stuck with me then. And I always thought there's an opportunity to make some kind of media or some kind of show that could really help us as westerners, the people living in the west, really remember our past and remember how much it actually impacts the moment we're living in. I would, you know, want to take that chance up.
NNAMDIRund, this is not your high school history textbook. In what ways did you want to make this podcast different?
ABDELFATAHWell, I think everything from the stories we choose to tell to kind of the perspectives and the experts that we bring on. We're always thinking about who is usually left out of the story, what is usually left out of the story and why. So, for example, when we did an episode on the history of the U.S. North Korea relationship, you know, we kind of went into it wanting to understand and challenge the narrative of, you know, one side is good and one side is bad and that's all there is to it, right. Bringing that nuance is so important to how we approach every single story.
ABDELFATAHAnd as we dug into it, we realized this is incredibly complicated and complex because, you know, it goes back to a war, the Korean War, which was incredibly destructive for North Korea. And has had a very lasting imprint on kind of their collective history in a way that it really hasn't in the same way in the U.S. And so, you know, that sort of approach of just challenging our own potential blind spots and biases, when exploring the stories, and then hopefully encouraging listeners to engage with history in a more nuanced and complicated way.
NNAMDII'd like to play a clip from the episode "Buzzkill" so our listeners can get a sense of the ways that you use sound in this podcast to craft a scene. Here it is.
ABDELFATAHThe Pontine creates fear and horror. Before entering it you cover your neck and face well before the swarms of large blood-sucking insects are waiting for you in this great heat of summer between the shade of the leaves, like animals thinking intently about their prey. Here you find a green zone, putrid, nauseating where thousands of insects move around, where thousands of horrible marsh plants grow under a suffocating sun.
NNAMDIThings got me hitting my shoulders and sweeping away mosquitoes. Ramtin, what was this particular episode about?
ARABLOUEI(laugh) Yeah, that's good. That was your reaction, Kojo. This episode is about the history of the mosquito. So in this case we looked at an animal that has had an outsized effect on human history, because, particularly in the moment we live in now, our lives -- all of our lives around the world right now have been upended in a sense by this invisible disease, this kind of microorganism. And we often forget that this has happened many times in our history. And the mosquito is a vector for many diseases, including malaria. And those diseases have greatly impacted American history and world history.
ARABLOUEIIn particular, you know, some people call the mosquito our founding mother in the United States, because the mosquito and malaria were really key in helping the revolutionary effort -- the revolutionaries during the Revolutionary War in America to defeat the British. So the episode looks at a couple different instances in world history where the mosquito played a real integral part in changing the course of history.
NNAMDIRund, Rob tweets to us, what is the process for choosing the relevant current events to dig further into?
ABDELFATAHThat's a great question. I think a lot of it is centered on, you know, what our team is talking about, right. We're constantly engaging with the news just like everyone else out there. And we have a great team of folks who, you know, we're constantly in conversation with trying to, you know, pinpoint what is kind of on people's minds. And how can we help bring some context to whatever it is that we're talking about.
ABDELFATAHYou know, so a lot of it comes from sort of the passion of the folks on the team, you know, consuming a lot of information and just trying to really provide the background that we feel in the moment we can best serve the listeners.
ABDELFATAHSo, for example, you know, we recently did an episode on the history of American policing, because as we were looking around there were so many conversations, of course, happening around policing. But that sort of extra step of really going back and really diving into how did we end up with this system, like how do we step back and really provide a broader context. We weren't seeing that and so we thought we need to step in and try and provide some of that context for folks, because it was something that we ourselves were trying to find.
NNAMDIRamtin, in that episode on the origins of policing, what did you discover?
ARABLOUEIDiscovered a lot. I think one of the things that most impacted me in the process of researching and also speaking to Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the historian we spoke to, was that at least -- there's two different stories in the south and the north. And in the south, police developed impart as a result of slave patrols, which were basically quasi police forces that were set up in many southern states to monitor the movement of enslaved people. And in many of the states they required every white man above a certain age to serve in slave patrols.
ARABLOUEISo you think about how much that inculcated white men, particular of a certain age in thinking that it was their responsibility or being deputized to oversee the movements and the behavior of a certain group of people, enslaved Africans, who were living in the United States. It really blew my mind that, you know, it's that deep in America's history.
NNAMDIAs we look at what's happening today, how has American policing evolved and not over the decades? Let's start with you, Rund.
ABDELFATAHYeah well, I mean, part of the story is that, you know, in the south you had -- you almost have parallel trajectories, right. So in the south, as Ramtin described, you know, you have the slave patrol system eventually evolving into -- out of that growth sort of the police force in the south. And you have, you know, vigilante groups like the KKK also kind of drawing inspiration from that. So you have that trajectory happening.
ABDELFATAHAt the same time or around the same time in the north, you have police forces developing that are based on a British model of policing. And so these police forces actually form to control the activity of immigrant groups that are coming, Irish, Polish, Italian immigrants that are coming. Those are white immigrant groups, right. And so the police forces initially are really controlling a lot of the immigrant workers in the north.
ABDELFATAHThen after the great migration, what happens is a lot of the surveillance and monitoring shifts to African-Americans, who are moving up to the northern cities. And what's fascinating is a lot of those immigrants who were initially the targets of the police in the north, those, you know, first generation Italian and Irish immigrants, they then start to enter the police force, and so now they start to enforce and police these black communities.
ABDELFATAHAnd it's all, you know, happening in conjunction with the emergence of Jim Crow laws, right. And so it's a direct reflection of where the society is at in any given moment. And so in that moment as Jim Crow becomes the reality, you know, that seeps -- is very much a foundational part of then what happens with policing in the early decades of the 1900s up to, you know, the civil rights era when things start to sort of be interrogated. And the policing system starts to be questioned in a really earnest way.
ABDELFATAHAnd so, you know, I think what really came across to us in that episode is that this is a deeply, you know, systemic problem. And it was kind of engrained as part of the institution. The control of, you know, black Americans was engrained in the system, in the conception of the system and continued to be a part of it throughout its history.
NNAMDIRamtin, there's a particular peculiar irony here that, in fact, a system that began out of tracking down runaway slaves eventually goes, one can argue, full circle where it now ends up tracking down African-Americans.
ARABLOUEIYeah, it's a tragic irony, but I think some historians would argue it's a natural evolution in the sense that the United States, from its inception, has had this -- there's many ways to describe it, but this oppressive relationship with a certain group of citizens that live here, who are citizens today, but have always lived here from the beginning, for black Americans. And so as a result, the orders of the police have changed -- I mean, maybe the structure of police has changed, but in many cases the function hasn't.
ARABLOUEIAnd so that irony is very tragic and very much present. And I think it's only, by looking at the origins of the police force, that we can really understand how systemic the problem is and how systemic the solution is likely going to need to be.
NNAMDIWhat do we know about what the president can and cannot do and why?
ABDELFATAHSo this also goes back to really the early days, the very, very early days of this country when all the Founding Fathers were, you know, trying to conceive of what the future should like, what the Constitution should look like. There's this incredible scene where, you know, you have Alexander Hamilton and George Washington and, you know, Ben Franklin all sitting in a room and they're debating, what exactly should executive power look like.
ABDELFATAHAnd it turns out there was debate as to whether there should even be a president. There was such a fear that a dictator would eventually result from that presidency that that was a really hotly debate question. And so when someone proposed that there be a president, everyone in the room fell silent. And eventually they talked it over for months and they came to the conclusion that, yes, we should have a president. Well, let's outline their powers.
ABDELFATAHSo Article II of the Constitution does outline what those executive powers are. But it reflects that confusion in a large way, because it's quite vague and it leaves a lot of room for interpretation, whether intentionally or not. But we do know that the Founding Fathers were kind of -- were really worried that executive power would get out of control. And so while they did, you know, outline some powers, almost every single power that they outlined had the asterisk, you know, with the consent of the Senate, right, with the advice and consent of the Senate.
ABDELFATAHAnd so the idea was there would be a checks and balances on executive power. The scholar that we spoke to, Andy Rudalevige, he argued that it's evolved to a point that you could argue it's maybe their worst nightmare come true in the sense that over the course of every single presidency, you know, after George Washington, regardless of party, each president has found ways to expand the power of the presidency, because, again, Article II left so much room for interpretation. And so, you know, what we have today is a much more powerful president than the Founding Fathers maybe intended it to be.
NNAMDIJust how did the executive branch grow its power over the last two centuries? As you were pointing out, Rund, it seemed like every single president, as you said, either Democrat or Republican, finds ways to muscle up the presidency, so to speak. Was that intentional on the part of the Founding Fathers?
ABDELFATAHI think they -- from what we could tell and from what Andy Rudalevige told us, no. I think they genuinely hoped they had done enough to prevent that from happening, because it was maybe their biggest fear, right. And so I think they would look at sort of that expansion. That, in some ways, is natural given the room for interpretation that was left. I think they would look at it and be very, very concerned.
NNAMDIYeah, it's also natural given the nature of politics. Ramtin, D.C. is a federal city. This has come up a lot during the protests of recent weeks. And just yesterday, as the president activated the National Guard to protect confederate monuments, what are the local effects of what many see as executive overreach here in Washington?
ARABLOUEII think the local effects you'll see is the kind of tension between the local governing body and the executive one. So in this case, as you noted, Mayor Muriel Bowser of D.C. and President Trump have had a bunch of tension in the last couple weeks, particularly around deployment of security forces in and around D.C. And I think depending on who's in office in each of those particular offices, what party they come from, that tension evolves in different ways.
ARABLOUEISo I think the tension we're seeing today may not be what it is in, you know, 15 or 20 years. And what that points to is that the kind of, you know, more stringent executive power that's shown, almost is like a signal to local powers and local government that, you know, the executive power's able to overstep in some cases, as some people would argue. And that really questions a lot about that relationship.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Ramtin Arablouei, thank you for joining us.
ARABLOUEIThank you, Kojo. It was a pleasure.
NNAMDIRund Abdelfatah, thank you for joining us.
ABDELFATAHThank you for having us.
NNAMDIThis segment with the hosts of NPR's podcast Throughline was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And our conversation about removing confederate and other controversial monuments was produced by Kayla Hewitt. Coming up tomorrow on The Politics Hour, Virginia Delegate Danica Roem discusses the results of the Virginia Primary, a proposal to rename Stonewall Jackson High School and LGBT nondiscrimination legislation going into effect July 1st. Plus, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser talks about the historic vote for D.C. Statehood and police reform. That's all coming up tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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