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When contrarianism attacks
June 8, 2012 11:18 AM   Subscribe

Malcolm Gladwell says that he got into journalism by accident, that his real dream was to work for an ad agency. “I decided I wanted to be in advertising. I applied to eighteen advertising agencies in the city of Toronto and received eighteen rejection letters, which I taped in a row on my wall,” he wrote in his What the Dog Saw. If true, then Gladwell didn’t fail at all. Rather, he has achieved his dream of becoming an ad man beyond all expectation.
The hidden histories of Malcolm Gladwell. [Previously.]
posted by Sonny Jim (94 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Malcolm Gladwell Unmasked: A Look Into the Life & Work of America’s Most Successful Propagandist

Uh, Malcolm Gladwell is Canadian?
posted by nathancaswell at 11:25 AM on June 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Well, yes, but he has had pretty much all of his career in the US. So there's that. Also "Canada's Most Successful Propagandist" doesn't really have the same sense of power and menace, does it?
posted by Sonny Jim at 11:27 AM on June 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


I saw this the other day, and was mildly interested... but really, they're neglecting the other issue that Gladwell's skill with prose hides the fact that he's really often full of shit. It's not that rare for me to have a sudden, forceful remembrance of some ridiculous logical leap he took in Blink, for instance.
posted by COBRA! at 11:31 AM on June 8, 2012 [13 favorites]


I hadn't gotten around to reading Gladwell yet, and now you've ruined him for me. THANKS A LOT.
posted by edheil at 11:36 AM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Still doesn't explain the hair.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 11:39 AM on June 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


nathancaswell: I believe Canada is part of North America. Also he's based in New York.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:41 AM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


whoops, means to say logical leaps. Lots of them.
posted by COBRA! at 11:48 AM on June 8, 2012


So this is why he uses all those advertising concepts, such as the Pepsi Challenge, to prove his points. That's where he started from. Not what he researched to illustrate his concept.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:51 AM on June 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, this appeals to my prejudices.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:53 AM on June 8, 2012 [31 favorites]


I got leery of Gladwell since I heard his story on The Moth. I know The Moth is supposed to be tales that are not necessarily true, but he was so good at selling it -- and it was about a journalism experience, so it kinda cast a shadow of fakery over everything he's done.
posted by angrycat at 11:54 AM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


When contrarianism attacks
Is Gladwell actually a contrarian? Seems like most of the things he talks about are fairly obvious. In fact, a lot of times when people criticize him, they criticize him for stating the obvious

The only really "contrarian" thing I recalling him ever saying was that football causes brain injuries, which is becoming a more and more accepted view. It also doesn't sound like the kind of thing a corporate whore would spend time talking about.

He gets lumped in all the time with people like the freakonomics guys or Thomas Friedman or whatever. He doesn't seem to be nearly as inaccurate. Of course, I havn't read any of his books, so perhaps they are full of the crazy.
posted by delmoi at 11:54 AM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


No one will remember Malcolm Gladwell in 50 years.
posted by Pendragon at 11:55 AM on June 8, 2012 [12 favorites]


Picturing Malcolm Gladwell as a Golgafrincham makes a twisted sort of sense to me.
posted by Mooski at 11:55 AM on June 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


That was a very enlightening article. I still can't hate Gladwell, he introduced me to Taleb.
posted by KaizenSoze at 12:02 PM on June 8, 2012


Malcolm Gladwell says that he got into journalism by accident

This starts off with a lie. Gladwell never got into journalism.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:14 PM on June 8, 2012 [12 favorites]


Still doesn't explain the hair.

He's a big admirer of Sideshow Bob, a fellow contrarian and a man of erudition and taste.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:19 PM on June 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


Malcolm Gladwell Unmasked: A Look Into the Life & Work of America’s Most Successful Propagandist

Uh, Malcolm Gladwell is Canadian?


That's how good a propagandist he is!
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:25 PM on June 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


Mexico is also part of North America. I want Gladwell to get proper credit for also being Mexico's premiere propagandist.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:27 PM on June 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I do have to give him props for his in-depth article on why ketchup is so delicious. But maybe looking back, he was shilling for Big Ketchup over independent producers?
posted by scose at 12:30 PM on June 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I did like his book The Tipping Point but as the years go on it's patently obvious that Gladwell is a tremendous bullshit artist.

And on a more serious note, living and working in the United States made his success possible. In Canada we tend to shoot down a lot of talent, who move south, make it big, and then get reclaimed as "Canadian". It's one of our national flaws.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:30 PM on June 8, 2012 [11 favorites]


I think Malcom Gladwell's on CBC Radio's Writers & Comany this weekend. Coincidence?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 12:37 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


The great thing about Gladwell, though, is that if you read Blink it provides you with a rationale for commenting in threads without reading the links first.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:40 PM on June 8, 2012 [32 favorites]


Oooh! Is he on Mexican radio too, Alvy Ampersand?
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:47 PM on June 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Blazecock Pileon: "Still doesn't explain the hair.

He's a big admirer of Sideshow Bob, a fellow contrarian and a man of erudition and taste.
"

Nah, Steven Dubner.
posted by symbioid at 1:13 PM on June 8, 2012


I stopped reading after "the notorious National Bureau of Economic Research, an organization with ties to the tobacco industry and bankrolled by the biggest names in right-wing corporate propaganda funding." NBER is probably the preeminent economic research organization in the United States, if not the world, whose (approximately 1000) members include left-wingers like Joe Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. (Yes, you might argue that it leans a bit corporate, but calling it "notorious," is simply ludicrous.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:38 PM on June 8, 2012 [19 favorites]


Uh, Malcolm Gladwell is Canadian?

Many of the United States' greatest propagandists are Canadian.
posted by docgonzo at 2:00 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Many of the United States' greatest propagandists are Canadian.

See Frum, David.
posted by carmicha at 2:15 PM on June 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wow, they try to insinuate that gladwell is a racist, on acccount of working for this outfit called the Ethics and Public Policy Center
But Lefever wasn’t just pro-corporation, he was also pro-white supremacy. In 1981, Ronald Reagan picked Lefever for the position of Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, but the nomination process blew up in his face after Lefever’s own brothers outed the man as a frothing white supremacist who believed blacks to be genetically inferior to whites. Gladwell, who is part-Jamaican, apparently didn’t mind working for a white supremacist who argued that people like Gladwell were inferior. Incredibly enough, Gladwell has continued to participate in events with EPPC outfit as late as 2005, and is currently listed on its promotional materials.
Yet, apparently they don't feel the need to point out that Gladwell, unsurprisingly, is not a racist but actually takes the time to argue that whites aren't genetically superior

So according to these people, the alleged private conversation in the 1970s between some dude who started a thing that later hired Gladwell are key to understanding Gladwell's views on race, but his actual articles on the topic are ignored.

Like I said, I haven't read any of Gladwell's books, so I don't really know whether his work is solid or not. But this article is just character assassination bullshit.

Also, seriously. What is he supposedly a contrarian about? In my mind a contrarian is someone more interested in sounding smart then being correct.
posted by delmoi at 2:49 PM on June 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


Mr.Know-it-some -- thanks for the perspective. I wasn't quite sure how to take this piece, and that's a helpful tidbit.
posted by edheil at 2:51 PM on June 8, 2012


In my mind a contrarian is someone more interested in sounding smart then being correct.
You're onto something with the character assassination, delmoi (this piece comes from the eXiled stables, after all), but this quote actually nails Gladwell's whole schtick.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:53 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Huh, I was just about to point out that the "explanation" for Gladwell's hair is his Jamaican heritage, and that I find comments about people's hair failing to conform to the Caucasian norm to be offensive for lots of "you're probably not actually a racist but you're not doing a great job of not perpetuating racism" type reasons.
posted by endless_forms at 2:53 PM on June 8, 2012 [14 favorites]


I'm not a big Gladwell fan, but this is a repulsive smear job.
posted by John Cohen at 2:56 PM on June 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


To elaborate, the problem is that they clearly set out to make the case that Gladwell is horrendous. I don't know why they hate him so much, but I doubt it's because they disagree with him about the fiscal consequences of decreasing rates of smoking. So they make all their facts conform to their contemptuous thesis. Who knows if their research turned up facts that complicated the picture? Those were clearly not going to make it into the article.

I note that this article is part of something larger called "the S.H.A.M.E. Project," in which the "S" stands for ... "Shame"! To borrow from Jerry Seinfeld's old standup routine about waiting rooms (there's no chance of not waiting — that's the name of the room!): there's no chance that they're not going to shame him — that's the name of the project.
posted by John Cohen at 3:32 PM on June 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


The Naked Capitalism article exposes Gladwell as the lowest form of corporate shill. Thanks for head up.
posted by telstar at 4:17 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


The guy who wrote this is a founding editor of eXiled. It's an entertaining publication but New Yorker has better fact checking.

(I am not a fan of Malcom Gladwell.)
posted by bukvich at 4:47 PM on June 8, 2012


The funny thing about Gladwell and racism is that it's the one thing I agree with him about. And the comment I heard him make was that yes, he was a racist, and that growing up in America when he did (no Canada quibbles, please, you know what he means) he received so many messages valuing certain racial types and devaluing other that it had to make an impression. Of course, our experiences are different as he's "half-black", and I'm all "white" (again, these concepts have no basis in biology but are well understood in 20th century American culture), but I like his ideas.

But to suggest that he's a white supremacist? That's pretty damn wacky.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:53 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yet, apparently they don't feel the need to point out that Gladwell, unsurprisingly, is not a racist but actually takes the time to argue that whites aren't genetically superior

And that right there is the problem. Let's be clear, Gladwell is a shill. He's somebody who's willing to say most anything if it would be to his advantage. The fact that he was reliable "third party" for Big Tobacco says it all; this guy was all too happy to use his few talents in the service of evil. (And anybody who thinks the tobacco companies aren't evil should grow up.) And I have no doubt the guy would jump on some racist bandwagon if there plenty other of the "right people" jumping on too.

But people like Gladwell are a dime a dozen. There is no shortage of whores. What's interesting is how he was able to slip so easily from the fringe into the mainstream. It's abundantly clear that in the accountability-free media where the elites are never subjected to anything even approaching real criticism people like Gladwell can thrive and flourish. The S.H.A.M.E project that produced this work is very refreshing but it's a shame that it's even needed.
posted by nixerman at 4:58 PM on June 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


The typical Gladwell essay starts with a problem in consumer behaviour, and tries to figure it out. (Why do children like Blue's Clues? What makes people buy ketchup?) The answer usually turns out to lie in some odd quirk of human nature. (Blue's Clues is perfectly tailored to the way children learn! Ketchup perfectly balances the five tastes in the human palate!) This hardly makes Gladwell a right-wing propagandist, but it means that he tends to underestimate the role of advertising and the media in creating and influencing consumer demand. If you take a Chomskyite view of the media as 'manufacturing consent' (which I don't, but the writers of this article evidently do), then Gladwell's reflections on consumer behaviour will seem naive at best, hypocritical at worst.

For me, the most surprising revelation in the article was the appearance of 'Penn Gillette [sic], magician' in the list of Big Tobacco's media contacts. But as Penn is a fellow of the Cato Institute I probably shouldn't be surprised.
posted by verstegan at 5:12 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


The higher you climb, the harder you'll fall.
posted by mwark at 5:17 PM on June 8, 2012


I fail to see how it's surprising that Malcolm Gladwell's original interest was in advertising, or that he's a "corporate shill", or whatever.

I kind of thought that was his whole schtick, writing about advertising, marketing, and the way that corporations influence consumers.
posted by Sara C. at 5:26 PM on June 8, 2012


Funny, this breezy claim that 'American' also means 'Canadian' ("I believe Canada is part of North America [mmm'kay?]") is just the type of bullshit misinformation that Gladwell loves to throw around.

In Canada we tend to shoot down a lot of talent, who move south, make it big....

In Canada we tend to talk a lot about this 'tall poppy syndrome' (resentful drudges cutting down anyone who dares rise above mediocrity) but can you name a Canadian who has actually been "shot down" before moving south and making it big? I might be wrong, but to me it just seems that the US is bigger, with a bigger job market and more opportunities for career development. I did the same thing, for quite a few years in the UK. I don't think Canadian society actively conspires against success, as this chestnut implies.
posted by Flashman at 5:40 PM on June 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


you're probably not actually a racist but you're not doing a great job of not perpetuating racism

Nobody tell this guy about Mr. Smithers.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:51 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


In Canada we tend to talk a lot about this 'tall poppy syndrome' (resentful drudges cutting down anyone who dares rise above mediocrity) but can you name a Canadian who has actually been "shot down" before moving south and making it big? I might be wrong, but to me it just seems that the US is bigger, with a bigger job market and more opportunities for career development. I did the same thing, for quite a few years in the UK. I don't think Canadian society actively conspires against success, as this chestnut implies.
Economic geography plays a huge role. SF is a hub for internet stuff, NY is a center for performing arts, fashion, writing and media (as well as banking), LA is a center for the film industry, as well as music. What kind of stuff does Canada have? I mean, I'm sure the world's most famous oil sands miner is Canadian, but he's probably not that famous.
posted by delmoi at 6:39 PM on June 8, 2012


In my mind a contrarian is someone more interested in sounding smart then being correct.

Oh, delmoi.
posted by sidereal at 6:57 PM on June 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


So, I actually enjoy Gladwell's writings, and I especially liked the long exchanges he'd have with Bill Simmons (who, ugh, normally I just can't stand), and it was always a little peculiar to me why people hated on Gladwell so much. It just seemed sort of irrational and out of proportion. But now I'm coming to understand that it's because he's Canadian. And that makes sense. Man, does that make sense.
posted by MoonOrb at 6:58 PM on June 8, 2012


This guy is the geek version of a douche. Everything I hate about journalism--an expert on nothing, yet speaks with the air of someone who knows what they are talking about. Which is the problem with journalists--they know next to nothing about what they write about. The demise of print means experts in any field can communicate directly with the masses without the mediating influence of these dilletantes.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:12 PM on June 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oooh! Is he on Mexican radio too, Alvy Ampersand?

Argh, instant earworm. I wish I was in Tijuana, eating barbecued iguana.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:39 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are good reasons to critique Malcolm Gladwell. This article raises a couple interesting misdirections he makes. But most of it is guilt by association: it shows that worked for X organizations. But it does not follow that his thought must necessarily be bad.

He's slippery, and perhaps opportunistic, but what matters if what he says is true or not.
posted by john wilkins at 8:42 PM on June 8, 2012


It's fine to not like a writer, but what is it that drives people to say deranged things about him? He's an excellent writer who talks about interesting stuff; nor does he claim to make up the interesting stuff himself; he gets it by talking to interesting people. And he works for one of the few publications with a ferociously thorough fact-checking department.

I think the article thoroughly discredits itself by talking about his work for tobacco companies and some idiot racist. That tells me zero, zip, and nada about the value of his articles about hair color or ketchup or IQ or racism in police reports.

I was surprised at one point to learn he worked for a conservative magazine, but everyone has faults, and now he works for a liberal one, so he's going in the right direction at least.
posted by zompist at 9:02 PM on June 8, 2012


On any scientific topic he writes about where I know the literature, Gladwell is routinely and appallingly full of shit. I assume it extends to his work on subjects I don't know as well.
posted by spitbull at 9:14 PM on June 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


No one will remember Malcolm Gladwell in 50 years.

true, but only because the world ends in 49 years. 2061 - you can bank on it.

Malcolm Gladwell Unmasked: A Look Into the Life & Work of America’s Most Successful Propagandist

Uh, Malcolm Gladwell is Canadian?


And Hitler was Austrian, which doesn't make him Germany's most ... notable leader of all time.
posted by philip-random at 9:26 PM on June 8, 2012


And ..... Godwin. Check.
posted by blucevalo at 9:47 PM on June 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Malcolm Gladwell is one of those topics Metafilter does not do well. I've seen the Gladwell hate threads. They are almost as epically biased as the Chomsky hate threads. It's one thing to challenge specific points that he makes, but this thread (and the linked article) are almost 100% devoid of explicit, sourced criticisms. It's all just smear and pile-on.

I've read 2 or 3 of his books. They have been entertaining, interesting and generally have made me think about the world differently. Is it peer reviewed science? No. Is it journalism? I'm not sure. Is it worth reading? For me, yes. It doesn't mean he's right about everything, but his theses are certainly well argued and entertainingly written.

Ideologically, I think Gladwell is further to the right than a lot of liberals, but he's no Randian fascist, or big tobacco apologist. This article is all bluster and guilt-by-association, as mentioned above. Being thought of by big tobacco as a third-party whatever does not prove he took money or distorted facts. It just proves that some chump in the company thought his writing was potentially beneficial to their aims. This is hardly shilling.

And no, I am not in the Gladwell fan club. I can dig his books as popular non-fiction without drinking up all his Kool-aid. I just see a different standard of evidence applied when a Gladwell thread pops up. It would be nice if all the haters would apply their own criticisms of Gladwell when cutting him down. Where's the evidence?
posted by hamandcheese at 11:18 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


On any scientific topic he writes about where I know the literature, Gladwell is routinely and appallingly full of shit. I assume it extends to his work on subjects I don't know as well.
posted by spitbull at 9:14 PM on June 8 [1 favorite +] [!]


And I guess we'll all just have to assume that your knowledge of the literature is beyond both reproach and proof on all of these scientific topics. Good thing you are routinely and non-appallingly full of peer-reviewed facts.

/that sounds snarkier than I'd like, but come on...
posted by hamandcheese at 11:21 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Still doesn't explain the hair.

That's how you know he is Canadian...
posted by Chuckles at 11:46 PM on June 8, 2012


Every time there's a Gladwell post on Metafilter, you'll see people jump to insult him. "He's not saying anything new," they say. "Or the least bit insightful." But that's not the point. People don't learn new things just to learn new things. People learn new things because they like the way learning new things feels. Gladwell gives you the feeling that you're learning something - exactly the same feeling you would get if you actually were learning something. In other words, the experience is authentic. Even if the author is a fraud.
posted by univac at 12:28 AM on June 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


And Hitler was Austrian, which doesn't make him Germany's most ... notable leader of all time.
posted by philip-random Almost 3 hours ago [+]

And ..... Godwin. Check.
posted by blucevalo


Well, first all there's a NOT missing from my comment (ie: "which doesn't NOT make him Germany's most ... notable leader").

But calling me on a Godwin when I haven't done anything remotely hyperbolic is undermining the whole Godwin thing, I think. That is, Hitler was Austrian -- a simple statement of fact (I bet there's even a birth certificate). Yet we think of him as German, because he did end up running the country.
posted by philip-random at 12:30 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think Canadian society actively conspires against success, as this chestnut implies.

In fact quite the opposite in a number of domains. Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, the cast of SCTV...all these people benefited from honing their craft in an extremely sheltered environment where anyone Canadian could survive the early part of their career because of Canadian content laws ensuring they got radio play and tv time.

Pretty much the only people who are stifled in Canada are bankers and that turned out to be a very good decision.


I think of Gladwell as America's version Guardian. It feels good to read him and he often confirms what you already believe and in the end it changes nothing about how you live.
posted by srboisvert at 1:00 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Having read "the tipping point" with great interest, finding the subsequent titles rather bland. After reading this comment thread I'm ready to go out to get me a tire, a gallon of gasoline and go find the mf already.
posted by ouke at 1:22 AM on June 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh boy; just wait 'til Steven Pinker sees this...
posted by TedW at 1:57 AM on June 9, 2012


Dismissing the piece outright as a smear job seems pretty stupid; there's more than enough direct evidence of Gladwell distorting evidence and hiding conflicts of interest - and then responding by not directly responding to the criticisms - to make the critique stick and stick hard. Linking it to Gladwell's early conservative training is an interesting approach, too.

The stuff about the pharmaceutical industry and Gladwell's laughably wrong attempt at a defense of Enron execs seemed excellent and very much on point. That the intent of the piece was to savage Gladwell's moronic brand is clear, but that doesn't invalidate the accumulated information, which accomplishes the goal nicely.
posted by mediareport at 5:39 AM on June 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


It feels good to read him and he often confirms what you already believe...

I'm not sure that "Pharmaceutical companies aren't responsible for dramatically increased U.S. drug prices!" and "Enron execs didn't do anything criminal at all and I'm going to lie to you about a study to create evidence to back myself up!" count as "confirming what you already believe."

The guy's pathetic.
posted by mediareport at 5:44 AM on June 9, 2012


what matters if what he says is true or not.

Again, the article points out a number of examples where Gladwell distorts and misrepresents evidence and comes to clearly incorrect conclusions. Joe Nocera's detailed 2007 takedown of Gladwell's absurd Enron defense is still a must-read for anyone wanting to clarify an opinion on Gladwell's worth as a commentator. Then read the linked article's quote of Gladwell's defense:

In a 2008 interview with New York magazine, he sidestepped the issue altogether, saying that his articles aren’t supposed to be authoritative or correct, but simply to “provoke a debate” on the subject. “I don’t think it’s proper for someone in my position to be a definitive voice. These books and New Yorker articles are conversation starters.”

Stuff like this has been going on for years with Gladwell. Throw in the paid consulting gigs for Bank of America, Merck and all the rest and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that any thoughtful person would have stuck a fork in the guy's ass and turned him over long ago. But apparently he's a glib and engaging enough writer that he still carries folks along. It's understandable that folks who've enjoyed his style in the past would be reluctant to see him for what he actually is when it's pointed out with so much venom.

But what the link says Gladwell is?

It's really what he is.
posted by mediareport at 5:58 AM on June 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


John Cohen: I'm not a big Gladwell fan, but this is a repulsive smear job.
Well, yeah, to an extent. It's a hit piece, and it's working in a long tradition of hit-piece journalism that unquestionably influences its tone and presentation. It's uncivil; it's not nice. It's, in places, unfair. This is the eXiled community's house style. And, yes, that can be pretty repulsive.

But I think that's part of a larger rhetorical strategy. The liberal "left" has spent the decades since the triumph of neoliberalism turning in on itself; championing identity politics; celebrating diversity as though it were an end in itself. But has that suffocating emphasis on plurality and tolerance actually enabled the solidification of elite power and influence that have characterized the last thirty years? Is it part of a wider pattern of not questioning authority figures, of celebrating (the largely illusory) "power" of the consumer, of ignoring the forces in the media that actually determine taste, opinion, and political beliefs? What if this kind of lazy pluralism has actually led to our present impasse of hegemonic bad politics, bad art, bad music, and closed-off alternatives? What if it's actually an aspect of the politics it claims to resist?

So, what would a critique of media power operating outside those enabling strictures of "liberal" pluralism look like? I'd argue that it would look very much like this. Resistance has to be uncivil: if you're polite and tolerant, you'll simply get walked over.
posted by Sonny Jim at 6:43 AM on June 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


The liberal "left" has spent the decades since the triumph of neoliberalism turning in on itself; championing identity politics; celebrating diversity as though it were an end in itself. But has that suffocating emphasis on plurality and tolerance actually enabled the solidification of elite power and influence that have characterized the last thirty years?

So, in order to search out truth the eXile has to print lies?
posted by KokuRyu at 8:19 AM on June 9, 2012


Gladwell gives you the feeling that you're learning something - exactly the same feeling you would get if you actually were learning something

Exactly whati hate about the modern world--it's focus on delivering the emotional equivalent of something rather than the reality of it.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:33 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, in order to search out truth the eXile has to print lies?
Well, no. But the idea that we always have to be respectful and tolerant of those who have massive advantages over us needs a little questioning.
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:37 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I found the first chapters of "Outliers" were a nice buttress to my thinking about the bullshit nature of the "Great Man" libertarian success narrative. Is that book thought of as poorly as all this other stuff?
posted by Trochanter at 9:55 AM on June 9, 2012


One frustrating thing about Gladwell is that the "Hey 'dja ever notice that" components of his articles are often quite good. That ketchup story is a great example. It's a really interesting observation that ketchup hasn't turned out to be market-segmentable the way other foods are — that we all apparently do agree on what ketchup ought to taste like.

The part of the article where he's laying out that observation — explaining how market segmentation works for other products, giving you some examples and history, convincing you that ketchup really doesn't work the same way — is a really enjoyable read. And for all people are bashing Gladwell as an anti-intellectual, you do learn something from that piece of the article. Or at least, I did: not being a business-major or communications-major type, I had no idea how or when that market-segmentation-gone-wild business strategy arose — and now I do; win. It's a nice piece of popular economic history. The sort of thing that John McPhee could have written on an off day. (Gladwell doesn't have McPhee's fabulous prose style, of course; but his sentences are tolerably good, he's actually a great storyteller, and he's got the New Yorker style nicely under control.)

But then he sets out to explain why we've got a single ideal for how ketchup should taste. And that part of the article is total unmitigated bullshit. Worse, it's obvious bullshit — you realize as soon as you think about it for a minute that everything he says about the flavor of ketchup would also hold true about spaghetti sauce, the big contrasting example that he uses throughout the article, and he just handwaves this and moves on.

Thinking more about the comparison with John McPhee — McPhee just wouldn't have gone there. He wouldn't have offered an explanation at all. It's actually sort of one of his hallmarks: he loves to tell stories where some clever iconoclast bets on A, and sure enough A looks totally plausible, but then B happens instead — and who knows why? Life sure is more complicated than we give it credit for. Maybe someone will figure it out someday. I think if Gladwell could dial back the urge to explain everything, he'd be a solid and credible writer. But then, his success is based on this idea that This One Simple Concept Can Explain Everything (with different Simple Concepts rotating in and out of his repertoire every few years), so I doubt he'll be stopping any time soon.

So I guess what I'm saying is, just read the first 2/3 of his articles and you'll come out ahead.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:01 AM on June 9, 2012 [12 favorites]


Or just say fuck it and read some McPhee. I think I'm overdue for my annual hubris-deflating trip through The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:02 AM on June 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


But then he sets out to explain why we've got a single ideal for how ketchup should taste. And that part of the article is total unmitigated bullshit. Worse, it's obvious bullshit — you realize as soon as you think about it for a minute that everything he says about the flavor of ketchup would also hold true about spaghetti sauce, the big contrasting example that he uses throughout the article, and he just handwaves this and moves on.


That's quite interesting from my perspective. I've read this ketchup/spaghetti sauce story before but had forgotten about it. I remember thinking when I was reading this that this was a very American-centric perspective, because there are indeed places where there is a great deal of market segmentation for ketchup -- India. There are a number of different "flavors" for ketchup in India -- Hot and Sweet, Chilli Garlic, Plain etc. We love spicing things up in different ways and we expect our sauces to deliver more than just a sweet tomatoey flavor.
posted by peacheater at 11:52 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


A lot of the criticism of the SHAME article is kinda nonsense. For example, the National Bureau of Economic Research is the preeminent economic thinktank probably in the world, but is also funded by explicitly free-marketeer foundations, and students at Harvard, where the NBER is based, have long recognized and protested its ideological bias.

"Also, seriously. What is he supposedly a contrarian about? In my mind a contrarian is someone more interested in sounding smart then being correct.""

What's he contrarian about? Well, that lawsuits are necessary to remedy the troubles Big Tobacco has wrought, that the pharmaceutical industry is responsible for price gouging, that ADHD medication was overprescribed for youth — all things that were in the fucking article, man.
posted by klangklangston at 12:19 PM on June 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


Journalists absolutely shouldn't take huge (or even tiny) speaking fees from corporations and Malcolm Gladwell can be extremely annoying. He's also sometimes fascinating and writes extremely well. Unfortunately, he has spawned an entire genre of "think books" that completely ignore counter-arguments and nuance, which rapidly climb the bestseller lists and make it hard for books that do engage complexity to flourish.

What's equally infuriating is that sometimes his arguments— and those of pharma— are correct. The case of ADHD drugs is one instance: some people are genuinely helped and their stories get drowned out in the cries of "drugging our kids" and "overmedication." The idea that crack dealers or tobacco companies are solely responsible for addiction is genuinely problematic— it ignores the fact that people with addiction *do* tend to have underlying issues and the fact that humans have always sought consciousness alteration. Making this case does not mean you are a pharma or a tobacco shill, merely that you have read the literature and know something about drugs.

Ironically, it is exactly the type of journalism exhibited by both this piece and by Gladwell that is the problem: ignoring complexity leads to simplistic solutions (let's just lock up the dealers! let's ban ADHD meds! let's prohibit cigarettes! let's ban painkillers!) that don't actually work.
posted by Maias at 12:52 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why do people still take Naked Capitalism seriously? I agree with their ideology and often find their posts interesting, but they'll let anything on there which agrees with their worldview.
posted by Estragon at 1:02 PM on June 9, 2012


I'd be careful there about ascribing simplistic responses, e.g. that ADHD meds should be banned.

ADHD medications can be simultaneously overprescribed and underprescribed. They can be given for routine childhood behavior, as well as missing many kids that need them (questions of access and stigma, for example, can keep them from hitting the populations they need).

But by explicitly buying the PhRMA self-interested line, while simultaneously taking their money for speaking engagements, and finally by not disclosing that information, Gladwell acts counter to the ethics of pretty much any serious journalist. And further, that doesn't necessarily mean his arguments are correct — you can reach correct conclusions from invalid premises and that still means that the argument itself is wrong.

Finally, this article doesn't advocate any of those simple solutions — it simply pillories Gladwell. People have complained that it's a hit piece, which, yeah, but a lot of those hits connect.
posted by klangklangston at 1:03 PM on June 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've long thought the rhetorical practices Gladwell utilized were borderline malicious : this is how he does it as far as I'm concerned.

1. Assert by anecdote. He tells an anecdote, often a powerful anecdote, and one that bypasses actual data.

2. Tell an underlying story, of the mechanism he wishes to push. Again no data, just a story that connects his anecdote to the theory.

3. Have reader to tie personal association to story, ie as the reader you naturally insert your own anecdote into place with his story which ties in your mind the truth of the theory.

4. You end up believing the shit he peddles without any relation to actual data.

Now I find out he's a straight propogandist? Makes perfect sense.

Also, straight fuck this guy.
posted by stratastar at 2:30 PM on June 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


ok I finally got to the comments. One commenter reported that this article is not credible enough to cite for Gladwell's wikipedia article. Link to the discussion of the article on the wikipedia Gladwell talk page.
posted by bukvich at 3:24 PM on June 9, 2012


From bukvich's link: the wikipedia editors' are arguments around notability and credibility of the reporting sources is fascinating to follow. I wonder what percentage of editors efforts goes into arguing around the "no true scottsmanship" of notable sources.

In sum: the epistemology and politics of wikipedia editing is really interesting.
posted by stratastar at 4:50 PM on June 9, 2012


because there are indeed places where there is a great deal of market segmentation for ketchup -- India. There are a number of different "flavors" for ketchup in India -- Hot and Sweet, Chilli Garlic, Plain etc. We love spicing things up in different ways and we expect our sauces to deliver more than just a sweet tomatoey flavor.

This is weird to me because, when I was traveling in India, I eventually had to stop getting ketchup on the side for pakoras and things because it just didn't taste "right" to me. Too sweet, kind of watery, and not vinegar-ey enough.

I believe you that there are different options, of course. But I think it might be the answer to why Heinz dominates the US ketchup market and there has never been any market segmentation. Americans expect ketchup to taste exactly like what ketchup already tastes like. We don't want it to be any different (to the point that I couldn't stomach a slightly off-kilter ketchup for a couple months while traveling overseas). Who knows why that's the case? But it's true. And there are probably some other foods you can say the same about. I don't think every product is subject to the segmentation concept in the same way.

I bet there are also products that Indians wouldn't be interested in segmenting.
posted by Sara C. at 8:58 PM on June 9, 2012


For that matter, I don't know that ketchup is totally unique even in the US in being a non-segmented thing.

I mean, we could segment the hell out of the paprika market if we wanted to. There are, if you go to Hungary, a gajillion different kinds of paprika. But unless you go to a specialty spice shop, here we've got exactly one kind of paprika and you'll eat it and you'll like it.

Or mayonnaise. We could totally be selling Japanese-style mayonnaise and Russian-style mayonnaise and Dutch-style mayonnaise and extra-tangy and extra-eggy and extra-mustardy and oooh-fancy-pants-olive-oil-based and on and on and on. Instead it's Hellmans, Hellman's Light, Miracle Whip and the fake vegan stuff if you count that shit, and that's as far as it goes. (Or have I missed some sort of Weird Mayonnaise Renaissance here? I don't really get out much.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:17 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Or have I missed some sort of Weird Mayonnaise Renaissance here? I don't really get out much.)

Yes, you have.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:32 PM on June 9, 2012


Eh, there's the whole Aioli thing, and the chipotle mayo/wasabi mayo thing is there. But I don't think any of that is nearly as ubiquitous as the dozens of different kinds of pasta sauce you'll find in every supermarket in the US.

Agreed, by the way, that there are plenty of products Americans aren't interested in segmenting. I just did some grocery shopping today, and I actually can't think of that many foods that are ubiquitously segmented in the way that tomato sauce is.
posted by Sara C. at 10:45 PM on June 9, 2012


Credit where due: sidereal. Spot fucking on.
posted by joe lisboa at 12:08 AM on June 10, 2012


Sara C., BBQ sauce is highly segmented. Mustard is partially segmented. Yogurt has become increasingly segmented ( especially with introduction of greek yogurt, and stir-ins).
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:37 AM on June 10, 2012


Mustard is mentioned in the article. Yogurt is one of the few that I can think of that has become segmented to the extent and with the success of pasta sauce. In another five years there's going to be a special yogurt aisle of the supermarket, just like there's now a special pasta aisle.

BBQ sauce I didn't think of, though if you think about it, that one makes probably the most sense since there are already huge regional differences in sauce styles.
posted by Sara C. at 8:45 AM on June 10, 2012


Journalists absolutely shouldn't take huge (or even tiny) speaking fees from corporations and Malcolm Gladwell can be extremely annoying.

Is he a journalist, though? He's a popular writer. His books are the kinds of things that are read around the water cooler. The best way to demolish an idea is to propose another idea. Ad hominem attacks are pointless, unless what really motivates the eXile is professional jealousy rather than getting at the truth.

Gladwell is just a writer. Want to compete with his ideas? Write something better.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:17 AM on June 10, 2012


The Shame Project has just released another profile on Freakonomics co-author Steven D. Levitt.

Looks like we will be seeing a few more of articles like the one about Malcolm Gladwell soon.
posted by Pseudology at 12:06 PM on June 10, 2012


A lot of the criticism of the SHAME article is kinda nonsense. For example, the National Bureau of Economic Research is the preeminent economic thinktank probably in the world, but is also funded by explicitly free-marketeer foundations, and students at Harvard, where the NBER is based, have long recognized and protested its ideological bias.
Yeah, but that has nothing to do with Gladwell, any more then it does with Paul Krugman (Who actually worked for Enron!!) Trying to argue about someone's ideology based on a subset of their social and business contacts is bullshit. Have you only worked for companies run by liberals in your lifetime? Seems unlikely.

The most absurd part is the bit about he was some kind of white supremacist, when if you read his actual writing, he spends his time bashing white supremacists.
Finally, this article doesn't advocate any of those simple solutions — it simply pillories Gladwell. People have complained that it's a hit piece, which, yeah, but a lot of those hits connect.
And a lot are clearly, obviously bullshit. You can't have an article that's half obviously bullshit and then say well, the good stuff is still good. It may still be bullshit, but just less obvious. The Wikipedia talk page indicates that the tobacco thing was probably B.S, as his name was on a list they had drawn up internally for media contacts. It doesn't indicate any money changed hands.

As far as speaking fees, you may not like it, but isn't that a fairly common practice?
posted by delmoi at 1:55 PM on June 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


You can't have an article that's half obviously bullshit and then say well, the good stuff is still good.

I thought that was what some people were saying about Galdwell's books.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:01 PM on June 10, 2012


What the hell is wrong with believing in free markets?
posted by KokuRyu at 10:18 PM on June 10, 2012


Koku, who are you ask that of?
posted by benito.strauss at 11:16 PM on June 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


God, what am I, a space alien? I mean "Who are you asking?", of course.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:02 AM on June 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


I was referring to this:

A lot of the criticism of the SHAME article is kinda nonsense. For example, the National Bureau of Economic Research is the preeminent economic thinktank probably in the world, but is also funded by explicitly free-marketeer foundations
posted by KokuRyu at 10:18 AM on June 11, 2012


The Shame Project has just released another profile on Freakonomics co-author Steven D. Levitt.

Looks like we will be seeing a few more of articles like the one about Malcolm Gladwell soon.


“Freakonomics” author Steven Levitt: Corporate shill? Levitt is assumed to be a harmless, quirky pop economist for trivia nerds. Let's take a closer look
posted by homunculus at 1:56 PM on June 16, 2012


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