Revisionist History

I have neglected you over here, part of that being because of eye surgery. I had a macular hole, and after having it stitched up had to be face down for a week. I won’t be able to see out of that eye for 3-5 more weeks, but I plug along.

This is the main post about Gladwell’s series, but I had related posts Malcolm Gladwell Gets It Right and Gladwell Addition

Mr. Gladwell has a series of 30+ podcasts entitled “Revisionist History.” I’ve listened to about half of them and they are fun and somewhat informative, a welcome distraction for someone who has to be face-down listening to podcasts for most of a week. He brings to light some interesting research.

Unfortunately, he overclaims beyond what his research can support, and he does this repeatedly. One comes away believing explanations for historical events not much better than the conventional wisdom.

Imagine a plain typewritten document – a company report, a term paper, text-rich. Now in your mind pick up a red marker and draw a line with an arrow at the end from lower-left to upper right. Write NO!! over it and circle a single word at the end of the arrow point. This is Gladwell’s style. He then goes into detail about that word, showing how it is the key to understanding the entire topic, but we, popular culture, have neglected or buried this information and don’t know the Real Story.

He does it well, not only in the framing of the new story but in his tone of voice and the evidence he brings to bear. It is a common technique, familiar to people who read history and science for fun – stories of how we nearly lost WWII but for a single letter delivered by a single Dutchman in 1943; uncredited tinkerers who were the real inventors of the microscope or theory of vitamins; powerful and popular figures of a century ago whose pet corruptions led to the problems we have today. If-only History. Loads of fun, even when not done very well. There is enough truth in these tales to make us reflect on the precariousness of all we hold dear, or resent the tragedies that needn’t have happened. Ah, if only Bogdan Zerajic had succeeded in assassinating the Bosnian governor in 1910, WWI need never have happened, eh? Yet they are also purely linear histories, which assume everything would have gone the same after.

Gladwell reports that immigration from Mexico was largely(85%) circular until the early 70’s when a USMC commandant took over an inefficient INS and started enforcing the law. Previously, it was easy to get across the border in both directions, so young men would come up to America to work for 2-10 months a year, then return home. Once the border became hard to cross, going back to Mexico carried the risk of being unable to return, or even get in trouble in the US. Therefore, once they came to the US, they stayed. By the late 80’s immigration was no longer circular and now we have double the problem of illegals (or even 4x the problem) than we would have otherwise. If only we had just left things alone, he concludes, winking at the law and enforcing it haphazardly, we wouldn’t have these problems.

It’s a nice Burkean conservatism or even libertarian sort of argument, of letting societies find their own balance of what they want without heavy government intervention. Nor will I dispute that proceeding under the old inefficient method might have better after all. Maybe.

Yet there are pieces missing from this story. Drug smuggling, for example, has changed the landscape. Oh, yeah. This in turn has resulted in an even more corrupt Mexican government, and near societal breakdown in some areas. Yeah, right, I’d forgotten that. This in its turn has meant that people coming from Mexico – and even more from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador – are in no way ever planning on going back. 1988 is not 2018. The treatment of agricultural workers, and their impact on local wages, especially of previous immigrants, were beginning to become big issues in the Southwest in the 1980’s. We don’t know what different pressures would result from maintaining the earlier status quo. Finally, even if none of the above were true, we can’t say that 1965-1985 would just seamlessly extend 1985-2005.

Gladwell gives an impassioned speech at UPenn about CTE, because one of their football players had committed suicide and was found upon autopsy to have had this condition. In this Revisionist History, Malcolm compares this to miner’s lung, which was denied for years and resulted in premature deaths, likely in the very families of these Pennsylvania students. It was known, he says, but we refused to act. He ties that incident to another very similar-sounding one of a popular UPenn player from a few years earlier, who similarly quickly deteriorated and committed suicide. Gladwell asserts that we know, we know, yet we refuse to see. At the very end he brings in another football player from Washington who committed suicide. Sounds like the same thing, and the podcast ends ominously on that, with the “How long will we let this go on?” left hanging in the air. Very effective presentation. Problem. The second case is not confirmed CTE, it just sounds possible from his description. The third suicide – well, we know almost nothing from this source. Is there reason to think this is CTE? Could be. But strong evidence hasn’t been presented. One confirmed case has been turned into three by sleight-of-hand for purpose of selling an idea.

Mr. Gladwell may be entirely right in his assessment, and we should be abandoning the sport as too dangerous for our young people. We may indeed be ignoring miner’s lung in our midst. But he hasn’t made the case. Nor is there any discussion whether newer safety measures are helping enough or at all. Nor any discussion what the baseline suicide rate is for young men who don’t play football. Malcolm had his chance at these, but chose instead to tell a persuasive story.

This pattern repeats throughout the series. He introduces us to Carlos, who is brilliant but comes from a poor and dysfunctional family and ends up in foster care, nearly blighting his chances to have a good life. Carlos has to settle for the second prize of a public high school and a state college, and even that might have been in jeopardy if he had not had a powerful advocate. We heard about a dedicated scientist, falsely accused. Gladwell tells about Larry Adler, virtuoso of the harmonica and raconteur (“A Polite Word For Liar,”) in order to talk about the unreliability of memory in the context of explaining Brian Williams, who changed his story to put himself nearer the action in Iraq. Stories, stories, he always starts with stories, which is good literature, and good persuasion, and good entertainment. It’s just not a good way to get at the truth. Truth looks for possible weaknesses and answers them. Truth is on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand.Williams’s change of memory is very human – but facts are his job and he could have researched his own contemporaneous accounts of what happened.

I have mentioned before that this is news by anecdote, the human interest feature, what NPR does instead of giving you real news. Kukrit, who runs a bicycle repair shop in Bangkok, wonders what the new trade agreement will mean for him getting parts…I have objected before because it is an emotional, rather than logical appeal. There are no numbers, no downstream effects noted. But I see that it is also a cheating form of news, even when it is entirely accurate and scrupulously honest. There is no other side to the story of Kukrit, or of Maria, of Theung. They are humans, and when we are faced with human stories we don’t think to look for the other answers. But they are only a part. They do not upend all other stories. They lie.

I have another, probably unrelated complaint. There are quiet elitist assumptions throughout that do not bear examination. One example: Gladwell is convinced that one gets a much better education at prestige colleges. Better initial leg up because of prestige, perhaps. Better education than at Fresno State – not proven.

17 thoughts on “Revisionist History”

  1. I just finished reading a very sympathetic biography of Maximillian Robespierre.

    I would say he was a monster and of the sort that was described here a week ago by CS Lewis, quoted here.

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

    Robespierre was definitely convinced of his own virtue as he killed thousands including his friends Danton and Desmoulins.

    The author of this sympathetic version of his life also seemed to regret the end of the Soviet Union. She writes for the NY Review of Books, a tell,

  2. I am not familiar with the work of Malcolm Gladwell, and based on AVI’s review I am rather unlikely ever to become familiar with it; the merest hint of political correctness is enough to render most things unbearably dull. This is in contrast to my reaction to some of the other interesting hints picked up here at Chicago Boyz — for example, a copy of Neville Shute’s “In the Wet”, mentioned in an earlier thread, arrived today from an Irish bookstore. (Isn’t the Internet wonderful?)

    On the other hand (to depart from Mr. Gladwell’s practice), I enjoy contrarian views on real history and well-written alternative histories. Both can be genres which at their best are informative and thought-provoking. Since no-one can change what has actually happened, that might be the best we can hope for.

    Real history contains enough puzzles to fill anyone’s spare time. One that is worth some thought is the abject failure of England in 1939 to react to the Soviet invasion of Poland from the east, whereas the German invasion of Poland from the west was treated as causus belli. Especially strange in light of former President Hoover’s advice to the English at the time to stay out of continental Europe and not get in the way of the inevitable conflict between Germany & the USSR (where Hoover was hoping to see both sides lose). Declaring war on Germany over Poland seems even more strange in light of English behavior at the end of WWII, when the West forgot all about going to war to defend democracy in Poland and abandoned that poor country to the tender mercies of the USSR. Looking back on that history, one has to wonder what was really going on?

  3. a copy of Neville Shute’s “In the Wet”, mentioned in an earlier thread,

    Shute often uses dream sequences to tell a story. If you like that one, try “The Rainbow and the Rose,” which also tells a story with dream sequences.

    There is an international society of his fans that meets every few years at locations of his stories.

    If you want to think of an abject failure of England try this more recent example.

    A senior member of the police locked himself in his car and watched as a terrorist stabbed his colleague to death at the House of Commons, an inquest has heard.

    The acting Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police stayed in his car as Khalid Masood murdered an unarmed officer because he had no protective equipment.

    Sir Craig Mackey, now Deputy Commissioner of Scotland Yard, had been to a meeting with Policing Minister Brandon Lewis and was being driven out of the Palace of Westminster when the carnage unfolded on March 22 last year.

    Masood, 52, had mowed down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge before crashing his hired SUV into the perimeter fence near the Houses of Parliament, running through the gates and stabbing unarmed Pc Keith Palmer to death.

    PC Keith Palmer was stabbed to death as he guarded Parliament

    Mackey has now been promoted.

  4. @ AVI — getting a little way from the topic of Gladwell and adding to Hoover’s assessment of Germany’s intent to attack the USSR … here is a book with an interesting perspective on Germany/USSR that I came across while trying to understand the strange occurrences in Eastern Europe. (Who remembers these days that England declared war on democratic little Finland in WWII?)

    Viktor Suvorov: The Chief Culprit (Naval Institute Press, 2008).

    The style of the book seems stereotypically Russian — detailed & repetitive. Suvorov advances the view that Stalin had for years been interested in provoking a widespread European war, in the Marxist expectation that Communist regimes would emerge out of the wreckage. The USSR/German deal to invade Poland was only an opportunistic late element in that scheme, and Stalin certainly intended to double-cross his temporary ally Hitler at some point.

    In 1941, the USSR was moving to attack the German forces in Poland, at the same time as the German forces were massing to attack USSR forces in Poland. USSR forces had left their defensive lines and moved men & equipment into highly exposed salients in preparation for attacking the Germans. Consequently, when the Germans attacked first, the USSR forces were not organized to resist, and were thrown into chaos, suffering massive initial losses.

    Suvorov’s interpretation does suggest that, if the USSR had in fact struck first, the Germans would have been similarly exposed and over-run. Without the USSR’s depth and lacking the USSR’s arms production capacity and manpower, Soviet armies could well have pushed the Germans all the way across Europe into the sea at the English Channel long before the Western Allies would have been ready to invade — and Europe post WWII would have been a rather different place.

  5. France and Britain didn’t declare war on the USSR over Poland in 1939, because they already had all the war they could handle with Nazi Germany. (“One war at a time” was the motto.) It should be noted that Poland didn’t declare a state of war with the USSR.

    France and Britain did contemplate moves against the USSR at that time, though.

    In particular, there was a proposal (“Operation PIKE”) for destroying the Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus by aerial bombing, thus cutting off the supply of oil to Germany. This project went as far as allocating a substantial force of bombers to the operation.

    The end-of-war abandonment of Poland was another complex issue. First, Poland was occupied by the Soviets while the Allies were still fighting Nazi Germany, and the on-going war had priority. Second, in 1944-45 the USSR didn’t explicitly violate Polish sovereignty; Poland continued to exist. The Soviets exploited their position as military occupiers to impose a pro-Soviet regime on that surviving Polish state. The new regime was initially formed by Polish Communists, and several members of the goverment-in-exile joined it under pressure for “unity”. The degree to which this was oppressive to Poles was not obvious for several years.

  6. The “one war at a time” theory is certainly the conventional excuse for England’s failure to declare war on the USSR over its invasion of Poland. But one has to remember that England’s declaration of war against Germany for the same act was followed by the “Phony War” — in which effectively no war against Germany was in progress for the better part of a year. There could equally have been a Phony War against the USSR.

    Today, we know that the English government of the time (like the US government) had been infiltrated at high levels with Communist sympathizers. Was that part of the peculiar English rationalization about who would be allowed to invade Poland without consequences?

    Or following English feeble acquiescence in earlier German expansion in Austria and Czechoslovakia, were the English authorities simply seeking an excuse — any excuse — to redeem themselves by attacking Germany?

  7. Oh my, I don’t know if that was the real Gladwell making that comment or not, but I hope it was. Appealing to the army of editors, staffers, drones, not to mention the sophisticated urbane connoisseurs that faithfully read him. That’s just great.

    Otherwise that piece rather nicely captures AVI’s observation about Gladwell’s tendency to confuse cause and effect by taking a single seed and extrapolating an entire jungle out of it. Good teeth is the key to ending poverty. Right… it’s not like there are any other factors that someone with the conscientiousness to take care of their teeth could use to succeed in other areas of life. Nope, we all exist in a vacuum of individual, easily identifiable political policy elements.

  8. Mike K: re: that Lewis quote, I like this from Daniel Webster:
    Good motives may always be assumed, as bad motives may always be imputed. Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of power; but they cannot justify it, even if we were sure that they existed. It is hardly too strong to say, that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intention, real or pretended. When bad intentions are boldly avowed, the people will promptly take care of themselves. On the other hand, they will always be asked why they should resist or question that exercise of power which is so fair in its object, so plausible and patriotic in appearance, and which has the public good alone confessedly in view? Human beings, we may be assured, will generally exercise power when they can get it; and they will exercise it most undoubtedly, in popular governments, under pretences of public safety or high public interest. It may be very possible that good intentions do really sometimes exist when constitutional restraints are disregarded. There are men, in all ages, who mean to exercise power usefully; but who mean to exercise it. They mean to govern well; but they mean to govern. They promise to be kind masters; but they mean to be masters. They think there need be but little restraint upon themselves. Their notion of the public interest is apt to be quite closely connected with their own exercise of authority. They may not, indeed, always understand their own motives. The love of power may sink too deep in their own hearts even for their own scrutiny, and may pass with themselves for mere patriotism and benevolence.

  9. Another good quote is from Dickens.

    “I have known a vast quantity of nonsense talked about bad men not looking you in the face. Don’t trust that conventional idea. Dishonesty will stare honesty out of countenance, any day in the week, if there is anything to be got by it.”

    –Charles Dickens

    I keep a page of quotes on my blog and keep adding to it.

  10. > One that is worth some thought is the abject failure of England in 1939 to react to the Soviet invasion of Poland from the east

    Winston Churchill has a fair amount to say about that in his history of WWII.
    In tedious detail for an American unfamiliar with 1930s British politics… I strongly recommend the work, though. It’s only six volumes, quite readable. It was probably ten before the various security services and others started censoring it…

  11. The only Gladwell book that I’ve read is “Blink”. It’s the one where some sort of gestalt is supposed to beat more systematic evaluation. I found that the evidence he presented contradicted his conclusion. I was unmoved.

    I would not trust either his “facts” or conclusions or waste the time to become familiar with either. I’d sooner take medical advice from Gwyneth Paltrow.

  12. I never could buy the concept that the Japs JUST “HAD” to attack us in ’41. As if they had no other choice?
    We stopped selling them oil (We were the Saudis-back then)…….
    We stopped selling them steel scrap…………………..

    All for a REASON–namely they would not stop napalm-ing, Nanking-ing, and otherwise murdering the Chinese since the days of the Mukdin bridge attack in ’31.

    They coulda–like–STOPPED, you know.
    Maybe even BOUGHT the oil they needed from the Dutch………….who knows?

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