Gladwell for Dummies
In 1996 The New Yorker hired Gladwell as a staff writer after first publishing an essay he wrote for the magazine's "Black in America" special issue. He had spent the previous nine years at the Washington Post, where he covered health policy and science. In his rumination on the nuances of prejudice (which is the basis of the last chapter of Outliers), Gladwell defenestrated the fallacy that Canadians are less racist than Americans with an anecdote describing a coffee date with an old college acquaintance. The man launched into a tirade about the threat Toronto was facing from Jamaican immigrants, Jamaica being the outpost where all the most "troublesome and obstreperous" slaves had been sent. "I have told that story many times since, usually as a joke, because it was funny in an appalling way," wrote the half-Jamaican Gladwell. "I tell the story that way because otherwise it is too painful."
"Somebody," he concludes, "always has to be the nigger."
That Gladwell would rarely again end a story with such a downer of a line is in evidence in his new book, What the Dog Saw, a collection of his articles from his tenure at The New Yorker. The collection provides an archive of just a fraction of the stories he's written since the mid-'90s, when, under the employ of the magazine's famously buzz-obsessed former editor Tina Brown, Gladwell began studiously scrubbing his sentences of the mildew of the old, liberating his readers from references to anything that might dirty undiluted all-newness with the dourness of precedent. Gladwell focused his sights on the more vacuous anxieties of the heirs and heiresses of American affluence. In 1999 he wrote a story called "Running From Ritalin," about the wildly overprescribed drug for attention-deficit disorder, which he claimed was merely the modern answer to a widespread dopamine deficiency that previous generations had treated with cigarettes and cocaine, "a drug," he explains helpfully, "that people thought would help them master the complexity and the competitive pressures of the world around them." Soon after, Gladwell would tackle college admissions, shopping, parenting, standardized testing, corporate culture and transformative household inventions of the twentieth century, often all in the space of a few dozen column inches, and in the template that he had fashioned in the Ritalin story: a cheerful, conversational voice deployed in a perfectly paced dopamine prose that had the palliative effect of nullifying whatever concerns readers might have about this product or that problem.
Gladwell promised readers mastery of the complex and competitive world around them, if only they would accept the facile conclusions he extrapolated from the findings of the many endearingly eccentric, iconoclastic scholars and researchers who were busy applying the scientific method to the investigation of everyday living. These scientists tended to share a universal message: contrary to our latent anxieties about modern life, everything is all right--or can be, with a few minor psychopharmacological tweaks--so come on, get happy! From a stammering "retail anthropologist" we learn that shoppers are not nearly so slavish and easily manipulated as the chain stores believe them to be. From a "heroically counterintuitive" historian of loopholes we learn to appreciate, rather than resent, tax cheats, smut peddlers and sources close to the investigation who exploit the letter of the law to undermine its spirit. From a series of surprisingly sincere marketing executives we gain a nuanced appreciation for both the fullness ("amplitude," in industry parlance) of the taste of ketchup and the subtle subversiveness of early Clairol commercials. "In writing the history of women in the postwar era," Gladwell wonders in this last piece, "did we forget something important? Did we leave out the hair?"
Gladwell's protagonists are generally intelligent but ordinary folks who have imbued their work with a passionate practicality. Their laboratories are courtrooms and high-concept shopping malls, office parks and African villages, but whatever their locale, they are always buried in data, endless stacks and reams and massive videotape libraries full of tens of thousands of hours of footage documenting their findings, their desks buckling under thick piles of "carefully annotated tracking sheets." With this abundance of evidence they espouse theories that Gladwell depicts either as regrettably naïve or courageously counterintuitive, depending on whether he is debunking conventional wisdom or advancing a hitherto unknown experimental truth. He takes pains to skewer, for instance, the delusion that the Central Park jogger was saved by a "miracle" and the misconception that the Challenger explosion revealed a hideously corrupt species of neglect at NASA. Particularly vexing to Gladwell and his data marshals are overblown health hazards scaring the consumptive populace off such marvels as breast implants, estrogen therapy, newfangled birth control pills and products containing the fat substitute Olestra, the famed and feared "stool loosening" side effect of which Gladwell expends many sentences likening to that of bran cereal.
A recurring straw man for Gladwell is misguided evangelism, generally the kind that rallies around fringe causes, though his aversion to strident moralism usually keeps him from fixing on a villain. A notable exception is the late diet guru Dr. Atkins, upon whom he loosed his most withering scorn in a comprehensive takedown of the diet industry published in 1998. Otherwise Gladwell seems to regard his intellectual foes as somewhat pathetic figures. He wants to love, for instance, Dr. Susan Love--the charismatic but suspiciously shrill critic of estrogen therapy he profiled in 1997--but the data just don't support her claim that the treatment dramatically increases women's risk of developing breast cancer. Estrogen, however, does cause breast cancer, we learn three years later in "John Rock's Error," the cautionary tale of another wayward evangelist, the Roman Catholic doctor who helped develop the birth control pill. Rock lobbied the Catholic Church to lift its ban on the pill and, having failed, eventually lost his faith in God and drank himself to death.