Revisionist History in need of some revisions

Malcolm Gladwell has been subjected to significant amounts of criticism over the years, which are to varying degrees compelling and valid. His approach to storytelling is both overly simplistic and engaging. He reproduces what others have researched in accessible ways, but makes mistakes and misrepresentations. He is entertaining but, given his reach and looseness with the truth, arguably dangerous.

His recent podcast series, Revisionist History, is customarily full of both interesting perspectives and conclusions that are likely to leave many in the same position as Professor Steven Pinker after he’s read a Gladwell book, namely ‘gnawing on my Kindle.’

If you are an Australian, best to skip the entirety of the first episode involving Julia Gillard and sexism. But if you like comedy, you should listen to the episode on satire, which proves the point that even a stopped clock can be right at some point within the passage of half-a-day’s worth of podcasting.

Perhaps most revealing are the three episodes devoted to education. Gladwell focuses on how the education system is affecting the extent to which human potential is realised – what he calls ‘capitalisation’. Or, in other words, ‘what percentage of those who are capable of achieving something actually achieve it.’ He starts at the granular level, looking at getting bright but poor kids into college. He then broadens the scope and looks at colleges and how they spend their funds to attract and retain these bright kids. The last episode considers the role of philanthropy in higher education in America.

These are worthwhile topics, which are paid far too little critical attention. And Gladwell has strong opinions on all this, and there is something quite refreshing in his pithy takedowns of established wisdom on the inherent goodness of these institutions. Unsurprisingly, these episodes attracted controversy from the elite institutions and wealthy individuals Gladwell targeted (for more, see the fascinating conversation with former President of Stanford, John Hennessy, who seems to endlessly chase billions of dollars).

But in the second episode in this trio, Gladwell also hoes into a small liberal arts college for spending money on high quality food, rather than directing those funds to assisting poorer kids to join the student cohort. Spending money on food is a moral choice, Gladwell says, which is a small point, yet he ends up making it in a way that is far more strident than warranted.

Well, allow me to have a go at using Gladwellian tools to try to dismantle the master’s house. It comes as quite a disappointment that Gladwell made this podcast with Panopoly Media, who boasts advertisers like General Electric, which notoriously paid no tax in recent times, despite reporting pre-tax profits. The podcast is also distributed through Apple, one of the worst offenders when it comes to tax dodging. ‘Even for a jaded tax lawyer used to hokey schemes to avoid taxation,’ wrote Lee Sheppard in the wake of revelations in a 2013 Senate Report, ‘Apple’s arrangements were surprising.’ It’s gone from surprising to illegal: an EU investigation recently determined Apple had done a deal with the government of Ireland that meant the company paid almost no taxes between 2003 and 2014 (on profits on sales throughout the EU). Ireland has been ordered to seek back taxes of $14.5 billion from Apple.

Creating and distributing Revisionist History via Panopoly and Apple is a moral choice, Malcolm! And at the moment, you are choosing to support rapacious, tax dodging capitalists!

If that seems simplistic, well Revisionist History is probably not for you. And if you think it’s a fair criticism, well Revisionist History is probably not for you either. The thing is, it’s understandable on several levels why Gladwell would choose to create and distribute his podcast through these networks. What is hugely troubling, however, is the apolitical nature of Gladwell’s work and the solutions he poses. It seems a shame that much of the critique of Gladwell has neglected to focus on his politics. Indeed, he is mostly depicted as apolitical (though he has discussed spending some of his early years as a Republican). As Pinker writes, Gladwell’s apolitical populism ‘has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left.’

One way to truly rise above the oversimplification that clouds Gladwell’s work is to think through the political nature of the questions he asks and the solutions he offers. It is true, for instance, that even if all that unpaid tax from GE and Apple went into government coffers, not much of it would end up funding education. In the last US federal budget, only about 2.7 per cent of spending was on education. By way of comparison, the largest proportion of spending was on unemployment and social security at 32.3 per cent, followed by Medicare at 27.4 per cent. The military was not far behind with 15.9 per cent. So maybe we need to think about how that revenue pie has been divided up, as well as ways to tax people appropriately to grow the pie itself.

However big the problems of the US budget might seem or ambitious the reforms needed to start to transform society, they are better places to start than trying to convince billionaires to stop donating to elite colleges. Billionaires should not get to decide how public infrastructure is funded. They should be taxed properly and these decisions – moral, social, economic – should be made democratically.

These are political questions – they involve issues that ought to be decided in a deliberative, participatory way by society as a whole. They are not solved by hacking college admissions processes, or skimping on food budgets so that poorer kids can squeeze into a liberal arts college. We can only really start to tackle these issues by redistributing wealth away from private individuals and towards public good projects that ensure everyone has equal access to the resources they need to reach their potential. All children should have access to a decent education, with excellent food to sustain them through their studies. It’s only a moral choice between the two because we live in a capitalist system that allows people to accumulate private wealth at the expense of the public good.

Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

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  1. Why should episode 1 be skipped if you’re an Australian? Julia Gillard wasn’t subject to misogyny in her term as prime minister? The door hasn’t subsequently slammed shut as far as women achieving high political office in Aus? It’s not a subject worthy of investigation? How strange.

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