Brooks on Gladwell
I am steeling myself to approach "Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell's latest. I am not an admirer, but I can hardly complain about this further contribution to the culture--as I hope to in due course--without having read it.
Since the first chapter of "Tipping Point" I have been enduring Gladwell out of an increasingly weary sense of professional obligation. This is what they pay me to do, I tell myself. The man has a nose for interesting tales, I grant you, but his unfailing combination of intellectual parasitism, credulity, false modesty, and self-importance repels me. In "Tipping Point", "Blink" and those of his New Yorker pieces I have read, the formula is always the same: find a scholarly opinion; sanctify said opinion with Gladwellian approval (transforming it from a disputed theory to something "we now know"); season with Madison Avenue terms of art; then deluge with anecdotes of questionable, if any, relevance. And let there be color. Always, the color. Please tell me about that man's wry smile, interesting foreign accent, and cluttered desk (often, as studies show, the sign of a creative mind). I need to know all that.
Well, as I say, I will report back on "Outliers" in due course. For this premature outburst, blame David Brooks. "Outliers" is an "important" book, he says, in an excess of professional courtesy. (Important to whom?) Further compliments follow. In the end he criticizes a little, but quite respectfully. I see no blood on the floor. It's disappointing.
As Gladwell told Jason Zengerle of New York magazine: "The book's saying, 'Great people aren't so great. Their own greatness is not the salient fact about them. It's the kind of fortunate mix of opportunities they've been given.' "
Rather than nodding wisely at this, shouldn't one just laugh? The "salient fact" about Newton was not his greatness but his "kind of fortunate mix of opportunities"? Einstein? Mozart? Does Gladwell actually know what "salient" means? As for the idea that nature and nurture are both involved in determining one's success or failure--am I asked to believe that this is a new insight, for heaven's sake? I learn from other reviews that Gladwell has also arrived, through the research for this book, at the discovery that "practice makes perfect". Yes, I was surprised too; once again conventional wisdom is turned on its head. There is a rather important academic paper about it.
Brooks' main point is to express concern at where these remarkable new findings might lead:
His book is being received by reviewers as a call to action for the Obama age. It could lead policy makers to finally reject policies built on the assumption that people are coldly rational utility-maximizing individuals. It could cause them to focus more on policies that foster relationships, social bonds and cultures of achievement.
Interesting. What might those policies be, I wonder? Are the policies supportive of mixed-economy capitalism--the ones we already have, which policy makers might finally reject--so inimical to relationships, social bonds and cultures of achievement? I mean, as compared to the alternatives, whatever those might be.
I know. None of this changes the fact that I will have to read that damn book.