Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
What an intriguing book this is! Gladwell starts with the premise that having what seem to be a plethora of advantages can in fact hide what are really disadvantages, and that being at a supposed disadvantage can actually turn out to be advantageous. These are the lessons he takes from the story of David and Goliath, exploring the possibility that Goliath’s height was the result of a malfunctioning pituitary gland and that David’s use of the sling makes him an artilleryman who was naturally superior to the heavily armed and slow-footed infantryman represented by Goliath. So far, so good.
And so it continues, through stories of an Indian middle school girls’ high school basketball coach whose team of nerds won with the full-court press because the experienced players couldn’t break it, a high school teacher who preferred a slightly larger class because a smaller one drowned out voices, and a would-be science major whose preference for Brown over the University of Maryland placed her in classes where her perceived inferiority converted her to an arts major. The Indian coach is the amateur equivalent, of course, of Rick Pitino, who Gladwell points out was a freshman spectator when Digger Phelps’ undersized and overmatched Fordham team came into Amherst and beat the powerhouse UMass team led by Julius Erving. The student choosing between Brown and the University of Maryland had a choice that Gladwell convincingly presents as equivalent to that faced by Impressionist artists in mid-19th Century France, when they needed the Salon for success but were not the Salon’s usual artists.
But then things go awry. Gladwell begins Part Two of the book by examining the prevalence of dyslexia among successful entrepreneurs as well as the great producer Brian Glazer and the famous trial lawyer David Boies. Again, so far, so good. Until he begins to address the loss of parents during childhood. Here Gladwell’s reliance on second-hand sources begins to betray him. He cites an ‘informal survey of famous poets and writers like Keats, Wordsworth, Swift, Edward Gibbon, and Thackeray’ which purports to explain their success by the death of a parent. The educated observer has to ask: how does the great historian Gibbon fit with the others, all of whom wrote fiction? He doesn’t. He was selected deliberately as someone who fits the data.
Then Gladwell continues to claim that ‘Sixty-seven percent of the prime ministers [of England from 1800 to 1938] lost a parent before the age of sixteen. […] The same pattern can be found among American presidents. Twelve of the first forty-four U.S. presidents […] lost their fathers while they were young.’ Two problems emerge with this comparison: first, he only addresses fathers with the U.S. presidents. We have no idea about mothers. Second, twelve out of forty-four is 27.3 percent. That is VASTLY different from 67 percent. It is barely more than a quarter being compared with two-thirds. No qualitative facility with language can make up for the abuse of statistics that Gladwell is here passing off on his readers. And yet I do not know whether Gladwell himself understands this. He is, after all, deliberately passing on second-hand information.
In the next chapter he purports to show how the Civil Rights movement as led by Martin Luther King and Wyatt Walker in Alabama overcame a lack of support from the African-American community in Birmingham. Here again he relies on second-hand sources, most notably the historian Taylor Branch, rather than the greatest of all primary sources, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s great book Why We Can’t Wait. The narrative conflicts, most likely because it is overly reliant on the memories of Wyatt Walker, whom Gladwell himself presents as somewhat erratic. In presenting the Birmingham issue as the product of Bull Connor’s failure to recognize that less than twenty demonstrators were being shadowed by thousands of spectators, he makes Connor appear stupid–which he was not–and distorts what I believe to be fact and historical accuracy. King had hundreds if not thousands of demonstrators. There may have been some spectators. It was probably as difficult then as it is now to differentiate between the two crowds.
Nor is this the first time he distorts history, using secondary sources, to make it conform to what he wishes to portray as a moral message. As Gladwell says, ‘WIlliam Polk writes in Violent Politics, a history of unconventional warfare, Washington “devoted his energies to creating a British-type army, the Continental Line. As a result, he was defeated time after time and almost lost the war.’ This is a complete misunderstanding of Washington’s achievement in the Revolutionary War. What Washington did was to master and brilliantly execute the Fabian Strategy, a strategy designed to exhaust the resources of an invader who does not know the soil. The Fabian Strategy does entail losses. It is a strategy designed to win a war of attrition. I’ve described it in depth in Volume 3 of Essays on the Classics! Gladwell doesn’t know that. Instead he is preaching the virtues of nonconformity, using an alleged Washington failure, and inciting others based on historical inaccuracy. This is deeply problematic to me.
The end result is the audacious, even outrageous claim that ‘we need to remember that our definition of what is right is, as often as not, simply the way that people in positions of privilege close the door on those on the outside.’ No doubt there is some element of ‘might equals right’ in any moral code, and that element is abusive. But if this is the sole justification for glorifying the fact that Gary Cohn, another dyslexic, lied to get his initial entry into banking and used that lie to rise to the top then it is extremely problematic. It is the equivalent of justifying Antonio Bastardo’s use of steroids to obtain the 25th spot on the roster of the Philadelphia Phillies. The guy who plays by the rules and also does not have advantages gets screwed by an immoral act. Gladwell makes the immoral act sound like an act of outright genius and something we should all look up to and emulate. I have no respect for that kind of thinking.
In short, Gladwell’s moral claims are dubious, and there are problems in the book with selection of data, use and interpretation of statistics, and historical accuracy. This is a work of sloppy scholarship that is disturbingly, even dangerously persuasive. And it is a total disappointment because the topic is meaningful, the introduction is brilliant, and the subject matter needs to be addressed seriously. It’s really too bad.