The Igon Value is probably the most famous mess up, but my personal favorite Malcolm Gladwell error, the most Gladwellian, the Platonic Ideal of Gladwell, is his New Yorker article which became the basis for a book, “How David Beats Goliath.” In it, he looks at the unconventional but successful strategies that underdogs often use to upset apparently better opponents. His main example is the full court press in basketball, and the subjects are a relatively untalented group of 12-year-old female basketball players who just smash the competition. Why doesn’t everybody embrace this insurgent strategy?
There are all kinds of problems with this that actual basketball experts can tell you about, but my favorite part is that a central bit of evidence is the 1995-1996 Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team. Skinny underdog Rick Pitino learned all about the value of long shot strategy and took plucky upstart Kentucky basketball to a championship. That 1996 champion, nickamed “the Untouchables,” is widely considered one of the best and most talented basketball teams in college basketball history, with nine players eventually making it to the NBA. They would not have been a bad team in the NBA in 1996. So, yeah: Kentucky won with a full court press, but that team could have won with virtually any defense or offense any basketball team in America runs. There’s a lesson here – we know that professional sports teams often use strategies which are objectively less efficient than others – but one that’s resistance to pleasant generalizations or pat lessons.
Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast miniseries, Revisionist History, is about what you’d expect from Gladwell after two episodes.* It has a collection of fantastic stories and anecdotes, wonderfully told, that refuse to work as any larger moral or lesson. Like so much of Gladwell’s work, the failure of inductive reasoning, the inability to take individual facts and create successful larger theories, results in a whole that is less than the sum of the parts.
The less egregious but less entertaining second episode,”Saigon, 1965,” looks at U.S. efforts to understand what was going on in Vietnam. How could different people look at the exact same intelligence reports, Gladwell asks, and come to completely different conclusions about what the chances for American victory in the Vietnam War actually were? It turns out, three people with different life experiences can look at the same pieces of evidence but come to completely different conclusions. Yes! OK. And? Well, that’s pretty much it.
The first episode makes the flaws of Gladwell’s particular brand of toe-dipping journalism a bit more apparent. “The Lady Vanishes” starts with a really great story about Elizabeth Thompson Butler and the unprecedented success of her painting, The Roll Call. Butler reached almost the heights of the British art world, doing better than any female painter in Victorian England could expect. Gladwell compares this to the misogyny faced by Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and to the Holocaust (!). The link, Gladwell asserts, is a psychological concept known as “moral licensing.” Once a person has done something good, they believe it gives them a license to do something bad; going to the gym in the morning may strengthen your conception of yourself as a healthy person but also undermine it by giving you license to drink a milkshake because after all you are a health-conscious person so it must be OK. “I can’t be racist, I have black friends!” is a cliche for a reason. These people all faced the same problem: given a little bit by society, that society in turn felt justified in treating them all the worse thereafter.
I like pop psychology as much as the next guy, but this is abysmal historical analysis. Gladwell wonders how Germans could laud the Jewish poet Berthold Auerbach in the 1800s but then launch into a policy of genocide in the 1930s. Gladwell answers this by asserting that, once Germans had treated one Jew well, they felt licensed to treat others poorly. Besides of the obviously flaw of conflating an individual’s psychological behavior with a large and varied community’s actions, this ignores something that actual historians are well aware of: context and change over time. The Germany of 1860 is not the same as the Germany of 1900 or 1940. Antisemitism increased almost everywhere in Europe in the late 1800s; Germany isn’t necessarily the most antisemitic country in Europe prior to the interwar period. The things which make Germany unique aren’t about moral licensing – it’s about war and nationalism and colonization (I didn’t notice Gladwell mention the Herero Wars, which seems a far more significant issue than some poet).
But the biggest problem with attributing all of this to moral licensing is the obvious one: it’s not moral licensing. Sexists who attacked Julia Gillard didn’t engage in moral licensing because they saw no inherent moral virtue in having a female prime minister. Racists who attack Barack Obama see no or negative value in having a black president. There are some subtle propagandists who use Gillard or Obama to prove that their countries have overcome historical sins, but these aren’t people feeling morally licensed; they’re opportunists. Do people who accused Obama of being a secret communist Muslim Kenyan really get some moral boost out of Obama’s election? Do they feel justified by the success of an individual they opposed from the beginning? German Nazis didn’t see the acceptance of Jews in previous generations as some good deed which meant they could engage in less morally right behavior. They saw the acceptance of Jews into European society as a great wrong, and they believed they acted in the right in remedying the error.
Just to be clear, tokenism is definitely a real thing. If historians say Elizabeth Thompson Butler was a token female considered by the Royal Academy, I am willing to believe it. But those who employ the tokenist strategy don’t do so to assuage concerns about their own moral worth. White school officials who might allow a single black student to enroll at a previously all-white school didn’t do so out of some misplaced sense of proper behavior. They did it to avoid real change.
To get to Gladwell’s main subject: the status quo which rejected female artists in Victorian England didn’t see open-mindedness or acceptance of outsiders as inherently virtuous. Conflating the crowds who came to see a painter with the elite who jealously guarded their privileges assumes a democratic culture that not every society has and not every social and political elite accepts. Gladwell mistakenly projects the values of his own society onto the historical subjects he treats. It’s the kind of mistake you expect to see in freshman-level survey classes, not the most popular podcast in America.
*Let’s ignore the fact that there is an entire class of people who do not get seven-figure book deals and still manage to “go back and reinterpret something from the past: an event, a person, an idea” full time, professionally, people called historians. Gladwell is a popularizer, etc etc.