Mr. Gladwell has a series of 30+ podcasts entitled “Revisionist History.” I’ve listened to about half of them and they are fun and somewhat informative, a welcome distraction for someone who has to be face-down listening to podcasts for most of a week. He brings to light some interesting research.
Unfortunately, he overclaims beyond what his research can support, and he does this repeatedly. One comes away believing explanations for historical events not much better than the conventional wisdom.
Imagine a plain typewritten document – a company report, a term paper, text-rich. Now in your mind pick up a red marker and draw a line with an arrow at the end from lower-left to upper right. Write NO!! over it and circle a single word at the end of the arrow point. This is Gladwell’s style. He then goes into detail about that word, showing how it is the key to understanding the entire topic, but we, popular culture, have neglected or buried this information and don’t know the Real Story.
He does it well, not only in the framing of the new story but in his tone of voice and the evidence he brings to bear. It is a common technique, familiar to people who read history and science for fun – stories of how we nearly lost WWII but for a single letter delivered by a single Dutchman in 1943; uncredited tinkerers who were the real inventors of the microscope or theory of vitamins; powerful and popular figures of a century ago whose pet corruptions led to the problems we have today. If-only History. Loads of fun, even when not done very well. There is enough truth in these tales to make us reflect on the precariousness of all we hold dear, or resent the tragedies that needn’t have happened. Ah, if only Bogdan Zerajic had succeeded in assassinating the Bosnian governor in 1910, WWI need never have happened, eh? Yet they are also purely linear histories, which assume everything would have gone the same after.
Gladwell reports that immigration from Mexico was largely(85%) circular until the early 70’s when a USMC commandant took over an inefficient INS and started enforcing the law. Previously, it was easy to get across the border in both directions, so young men would come up to America to work for 2-10 months a year, then return home. Once the border became hard to cross, going back to Mexico carried the risk of being unable to return, or even get in trouble in the US. Therefore, once they came to the US, they stayed. By the late 80’s immigration was no longer circular and now we have double the problem of illegals (or even 4x the problem) than we would have otherwise. If only we had just left things alone, he concludes, winking at the law and enforcing it haphazardly, we wouldn’t have these problems.
It’s a nice Burkean conservatism or even libertarian sort of argument, of letting societies find their own balance of what they want without heavy government intervention. Nor will I dispute that proceeding under the old inefficient method might have better after all. Maybe.
Yet there are pieces missing from this story. Drug smuggling, for example, has changed the landscape. Oh, yeah. This in turn has resulted in an even more corrupt Mexican government, and near societal breakdown in some areas. Yeah, right, I’d forgotten that. This in its turn has meant that people coming from Mexico – and even more from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador – are in no way ever planning on going back. 1988 is not 2018. The treatment of agricultural workers, and their impact on local wages, especially of previous immigrants, were beginning to become big issues in the Southwest in the 1980’s. We don’t know what different pressures would result from maintaining the earlier status quo. Finally, even if none of the above were true, we can’t say that 1965-1985 would just seamlessly extend 1985-2005.
Gladwell gives an impassioned speech at UPenn about CTE, because one of their football players had committed suicide and was found upon autopsy to have had this condition. In this Revisionist History, Malcolm compares this to miner’s lung, which was denied for years and resulted in premature deaths, likely in the very families of these Pennsylvania students. It was known, he says, but we refused to act. He ties that incident to another very similar-sounding one of a popular UPenn player from a few years earlier, who similarly quickly deteriorated and committed suicide. Gladwell asserts that we know, we know, yet we refuse to see. At the very end he brings in another football player from Washington who committed suicide. Sounds like the same thing, and the podcast ends ominously on that, with the “How long will we let this go on?” left hanging in the air. Very effective presentation. Problem. The second case is not confirmed CTE, it just sounds possible from his description. The third suicide – well, we know almost nothing from this source. Is there reason to think this is CTE? Could be. But strong evidence hasn’t been presented. One confirmed case has been turned into three by sleight-of-hand for purpose of selling an idea.
Mr. Gladwell may be entirely right in his assessment, and we should be abandoning the sport as too dangerous for our young people. We may indeed be ignoring miner’s lung in our midst. But he hasn’t made the case. Nor is there any discussion whether newer safety measures are helping enough or at all. Nor any discussion what the baseline suicide rate is for young men who don’t play football. Malcolm had his chance at these, but chose instead to tell a persuasive story.
This pattern repeats throughout the series. He introduces us to Carlos, who is brilliant but comes from a poor and dysfunctional family and ends up in foster care, nearly blighting his chances to have a good life. Carlos has to settle for the second prize of a public high school and a state college, and even that might have been in jeopardy if he had not had a powerful advocate. We heard about a dedicated scientist, falsely accused. Gladwell tells about Larry Adler, virtuoso of the harmonica and raconteur (“A Polite Word For Liar,”) in order to talk about the unreliability of memory in the context of explaining Brian Williams, who changed his story to put himself nearer the action in Iraq. Stories, stories, he always starts with stories, which is good literature, and good persuasion, and good entertainment. It’s just not a good way to get at the truth. Truth looks for possible weaknesses and answers them. Truth is on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand.Williams's change of memory is very human - but facts are his job and he could have researched his own contemporaneous accounts of what happened.
I have mentioned before that this is news by anecdote, the human interest feature, what NPR does instead of giving you real news. Kukrit, who runs a bicycle repair shop in Bangkok, wonders what the new trade agreement will mean for him getting parts…I have objected before because it is an emotional, rather than logical appeal. There are no numbers, no downstream effects noted. But I see that it is also a cheating form of news, even when it is entirely accurate and scrupulously honest. There is no other side to the story of Kukrit, or of Maria, of Theung. They are humans, and when we are faced with human stories we don’t think to look for the other answers. But they are only a part. They do not upend all other stories. They lie.
I have another, probably unrelated complaint. There are quiet elitist assumptions throughout that do not bear examination. One example: Gladwell is convinced that one gets a much better education at prestige colleges. Better initial leg up because of prestige, perhaps. Better education than at Fresno State - not proven.