COWEN: Would you settle for 55?
On our nation’s capital
COWEN: I’m very glad to hear that answer. Now, I looked back — there was an article you wrote, actually, in the 1990s for the Washington Post. It’s not online, but I can confide to you all that it was leaked to me. It’s called “10 Things DC Could Learn from New York City.” I know it will be very hard for this crowd to believe, but you actually evinced an ever-so-slight preference for New York City over Washington, DC, at that time. And one of the things you thought Washington needed more of — this is number 3, and I quote, “More adventurous celebrities.” Do you still feel that we need more adventurous celebrities?
GLADWELL: Pretty sure my opinion would change if I was doing that today.
COWEN: Your number 1, however, was “shame.” That this was a city that needed more shame.
GLADWELL: I have no memory of this.
COWEN: Number 5 was the Knicks. So clearly you have no memory of this.
COWEN: But over time how has your view of Washington, DC, changed?There’s a 2007 radio show you did with your mother. It’s actually my favorite of all your outputs. I love this podcast; I recommend it to everyone. But there you said, and also she did as well, because you were always serial outsiders. Now do you feel that in any way Washington, DC, with its culture that is in some ways fairly bland, passively pushy, nervously ambitious, and just too full of politics — has this now become a city where it’s a good place to be a serial outsider, or simply not?
GLADWELL: Wow. That’s really a good question. What was particular about . . . ? So, I was in DC from January of 1985 until July of 1993. And the city obviously has gotten a lot wealthier and safer and wider, and the area a lot more diverse, since I was there. I came here in Reagan years when an upheaval was going on politically. I suppose that’s happening again, in some sense.
The thing that’s peculiar about DC is — particularly if you’re in your twenties — is the turnover. There are very few places . . . and you actually make this point in Complacent Class, about how Americans are a lot less mobile than they used to be. Strikingly less mobile, and this has huge consequences for society. I actually think you’re absolutely right. It’s a really, really important point. DC, if you’re in your twenties, is this grand exception. This massive turnover, everyone — not everyone, but when I think of the cohort I was with when I was 23 in DC — none of them are in DC anymore. All gone, with a few exceptions.
And I feel there is that kind of churning. And that churning is really, really useful in terms of giving people opportunities to look at what’s going on from an outsider’s perspective because you’re not committing to the city. There’s the permanent Washington, and in your twenties, you’re not part of permanent Washington. You’re skipping through, you’re ringing the permanent city. And that was what made my time here so special. If I had stayed, I feel like it would, in my memory, have diminished a little bit.
COWEN: By the way, in the ’90s you also wrote a profile of Pat Buchanan, which I would encourage you to reread. You may be surprised by your own prescience. You would have to change a few words in the article, but much of it would apply today.
On remaining an outsider
Cowen: Do you think New York City, and Manhattan in particular, is that still a good place to be a serial outsider? And what is it that you do in general to keep yourself as a serial outsider?
GLADWELL: Well, I leave Manhattan.
COWEN: Where do you go?
GLADWELL: Well, there’s two things. One problem that I have is . . . as a writer, you have a series of problems. One problem, a serious problem, is that I’m old. And I don’t mean that I’m decrepit. What I mean is that it’s very important, if you are a writer, to remain current. And the greatest danger you face is this fossilization of your positions and views.
One of the main reasons that I wanted to do a podcast is that a podcast forces me out of my age cohort, and puts me back in the land of people in their twenties and thirties primarily. I’m not being Peter Pan. I’m trying to rejuvenate my thinking because you become aware . . .
Many professionals have a professional peak in your forties. And then you can feel yourself, your views, hardening, and you feel yourself closing off to new ideas. And the minute you see yourself rolling your eyes at something — “that’s what the kids think” — then you realize the end is nigh.
GLADWELL: So part of what I do is try . . . even when I’m writing, I don’t write in an office. I write in coffee shops. Why? I don’t particularly think coffee shops are amazing places to write. But I do think that simply being around people who are not my age is really useful.
And I travel a lot. And that’s a really, really useful way of breaking out of bad intellectual habits, and to remind yourself about what the rest of the world is like.
COWEN: I also try to be intellectually flexible. Let me tell you about a worry I have. Maybe you can talk me out of my worry. I worry that, insofar as one is intellectually flexible on any particular thing, it becomes a way actually of protecting some broader and more hidden edifice — that there’s an oddly hidden desperation or even pessimism embedded in certain kinds of flexibilities. There’s something to be said for erecting a quite rigid structure, which people tend to do more when they’re young — then it can be toppled. So one becomes “wiser, more flexible, more willing to revise.”
You’ve written about how different columns — they’re opening questions, they’re to get people to think. And I worry in my own writing, when I try to do this, that in some ways, it’s a deeper dogmatism than erecting the highly dogmatic structure, which can be toppled. Do you have that same worry, or how do you see those tradeoffs? Do you see what I’m saying?
GLADWELL: We’re at the point in the conversation where you reveal yourself to be much smarter than I am.
GLADWELL: I’ve never thought it through that deeply. I think . . . well, I don’t think of myself as having an edifice. I have a series of positions and feelings about things. You said early on that you thought of my work as being optimistic, so I feel that’s a feeling and not an edifice. I don’t have a formal reason to be optimistic, I’m just an optimistic person. I have a physiological optimism as opposed to intellectual optimism. And also I don’t understand what the point would be if you weren’t optimistic, like why would you get up?
COWEN: I know people who enjoy their own pessimism in a strange way.
GLADWELL: Also I don’t think you could be an athlete — to come back to running, you can’t really be an athlete and be a pessimist. Why? The whole point of being an athlete is you’re building toward something, right? You don’t just work out to work out. You work out because there’s something out there that you’re trying to . . .
Anyway, that’s a side point. But here’s a good example: on the Affordable Care Act, I’ve changed my mind six, seven times. And I’m not toggling back and forth between pro and con. I feel like I’m jumping around, I’m eminently persuadable on it. And what that has done is, it’s been very, very useful now because now, it’s very fashionable for liberals to be super into the Affordable Care Act because it’s under fire. And I feel myself being sucked in that direction.
But then I remember, “Wait a minute. I’ve been bouncing around for five years on this. Why am I suddenly — just because it’s politically expedient — running to defense of this thing?” Which literally a year ago, if you cornered me at a party, I would be the guy saying, “And here’s another problem with that . . .” Right? And still the best book I read about health care was an out-and-out attack on Obamacare. That to me is really useful, to accept the fact that 50 percent of the time, you’re going to be wrong on these kinds of things, but that’s fine.
On Tina Fey, Melisa McCarthy, and good satire
COWEN: It’s been said that satire sometimes reaffirms power, while poetry affirms only its own power. You have a podcast where you express a worry that Tina Fey, by mimicking and satirizing Sarah Palin, actually made her more acceptable and more likeable in doing so. So fast-forward to the current moment: we have Saturday Night Live.
COWEN: Alec Baldwin and Donald Trump. Is that useful satire? Is it not sufficiently negative? Should we be deploying poetry or is that the effective medium for social commentary?
GLADWELL: Well, I don’t like the Alec Baldwin Donald Trump, I don’t think, actually, if you compare it to the Sean Spicer . . .
GLADWELL: It’s not as good, and it’s not as good because the truly effective satirical impersonation is one that finds something essential about the character and magnifies it, something buried that you wouldn’t ordinarily have seen or have glimpsed in that person.
With the Spicer impersonation, why that’s so brilliant is, it draws out his anger. He’s angry at being put in this impossible position. That is the essence of that character. So how does a person respond to this, it’s almost an absurd position he’s in. And he has this kind of — it’s not sublimated — it’s there, this rage. In every one of his utterances is, “I can’t fucking believe that I am in this . . .”
GLADWELL: And so that Saturday Night Live impersonation gets beautifully at that thing, it satirizes that. I’ve forgotten the name of the woman who does it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Melissa McCarthy.
GLADWELL: Yes, when Melissa McCarthy, when she picks up the podium . . .
GLADWELL: That’s an absurd illustration of that fundamental point. But the Alec Baldwin Trump doesn’t get at something essential about Trump. It simply takes his mannerisms and exaggerates them slightly. But he hasn’t mined Trump. There are many directions you can go with Trump, the extraordinary insecurity of the man. Like I said, there are many things you could pluck out, but that for one, the idea of doing an impersonation where you really thought deeply about what it would mean in a comic way to represent this man’s almost tragic level of insecurity. Alec Baldwin is not . . . he’s a little too glib . . .
That’s the problem with Saturday Night Live, the larger problem — I was trying to get at it in that podcast episode on satire — the problem with doing satire through the vehicle of a show like Saturday Night Live is, they’re not incentivized to do that kind of deep thinking. The Melissa McCarthy thing is an exception; it’s not the rule.
Really what they’re incentivized to do is, for the actor — who is in many cases as famous or more famous than the person they are impersonating — the actor is using the character to further their own ends. Tina Fey is infinitely more popular, more accomplished, more whatever than Sarah Palin will ever be. And so she’s using Sarah Palin to further her own ends. That’s backwards. She’s not inhabiting the character of Sarah Palin in order to make a point about Sarah Palin, she is inhabiting Sarah Palin in order to make a point about Tina Fey.
I feel, so long as satire is done by a television show which has such a lofty position in the cultural hierarchy, it’s always going to be the case that that’s what’s going to drive their impersonations. They’re always going to be sitting on their hands. Remember they’re making fun of Trump six months after they had him on the show, right? After they were complicit in his rise, and after Jimmy Fallon ruffled his hair on camera. Maybe that’s fine. My point is you can’t be an effective satirist if you are so deeply complicit in the object of your satire.
On the Pentagon Papers
COWEN: My last question before we have a few audience questions: I was very struck by what I think is your latest New Yorker column where you wrote about what is parallel and not parallel between the cases of Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers Case.
In my reading of the Pentagon Papers Case, here’s what really struck and astonished me, and I’d like your view on how it’s changed. When the Pentagon Papers became public in, I think, 1971, first they were incredibly boring, but when you did read them or read excerpts, one thing that startled so many people is, it came out that there were accords dating back to 1954 where, it turned out, America had broken the accords and not North Vietnam. And this shocked people and caused them to reassess their whole sense of the Vietnam War. And that’s 1954, which was then, from 1971, a long time ago.
So there was a sense of history embedded in how people understood that episode that seems to me entirely lacking today. To get someone to care that much about something done under other administrations 17 years earlier seems virtually impossible. And what is it about America that’s changed so that history now doesn’t matter the way it did then?
GLADWELL: Yeah, you’ve touched on the thing about the Pentagon Papers controversy, which is in retrospect so unbelievable. If viewed through a present-day lens, the whole thing is bananas. It makes no sense whatsoever. It’s the most hilariously wonky, nerdy exercise.
So, step back — what is the Pentagon Papers? It is Robert McNamara saying, in whatever, ’69 or ’68, whatever, “What we really need is to get the smartest historians in a room to write me a 10-volume set on historical analysis going back 20 years on this conflict we’re involved in.” So, right from the start, we’re in a rarefied academic realm. He gathers a bunch of PhDs who slave away on this thing and produce this massive, turgid . . .
And you have Ellsberg, who is the central player in this whole thing, and what is Ellsberg? He is the wonkiest of the wonks. He wrote a bit of it, and his great complaint as he takes a copy of the Pentagon Papers, he’s trying to get everyone to read it. And by reading it, he means, “I need you to go away for however many months it’ll take you and work your way through all 10 volumes.”
There’s these hilarious conversations he has with [Henry] Kissinger where Kissinger just wants a summary. It’s like, “No, you can’t do a summary. You gotta read the whole thing. You gotta get a couple of thousand pages in before it makes any sense.” There’s no contemporary . . . it’s like history . . . 2017 and 1971 viewed through the lens of the Pentagon Papers controversy — they belong on different planets. And when the New York Times gets the copies — remember, it takes them a year or whatever to photocopy all of it because it’s just enormous and the copiers are really slow.
And the great story, which is the woman who is now Lynda Resnick, who’s now a billionaire, and lives in a great . . . when you’re driving down Wilshire in Beverly Hills, there’s those massive houses to your left as you drive into Beverly Hills — she lives in one of those houses. She’s the one who has the pomegranate juice, POM juice. She was the girlfriend of Ellsberg’s best friend, and she ran an ad agency on Beverly Boulevard, and she had a Xerox machine, which is a huge deal in 1971. So he does it. He goes, she’s the one who provides this pretentious thing. I once ran into her at some event in LA. I was like, “You had the Xerox machine!”
GLADWELL: What a great role to play in history. But every part of it is all about people who took history so seriously that they were willing to spend all night photocopying for months on end.
Then Ellsberg took copies and he went around the Capitol, also trying to get senators to read it. And over and over again, the complaint that drove him to leak it to the New York Times was that no one’s taking this seriously. What does the New York Times do when they get the copies? They rent a room, two rooms, in the Hilton, right next to the New York Times headquarters, put a guard out front, and then spend months reading it. Again, months reading it. Months.
Imagine today, if this thing dropped. I don’t even know how we would . . . people would have to do takes that would come out within six hours. They’d have to do an executive summary of the executive summary in order to be able to . . .
It belongs to a different era. It feels like it is the final act in an intellectual era in American life, when institutionalized government was expected to comport itself according to standards and norms that came from the academy. That’s what the whole thing is about: people who came out of elite schools and had a certain expectation about what it meant to be a public servant, and what your intellectual responsibilities were as a public servant. And they carried those norms with them from graduate school to Washington. And the fact that Ellsberg is a PhD in decision sciences and wrote papers with Thomas Schelling is not a peripheral fact — it’s the core fact. That’s who they were.
So when we fast-forward and you have Edward Snowden, who is a community college dropout, which I don’t say as a snobbish thing, I’m contrasting him to his predecessor who was a PhD from MIT, and Snowden’s intellectual understanding of what he was engaged in, it is a fraction of . . . He used a search engine just to pluck stuff at random from the NSA files and hand it over to people. That’s not what Ellsberg was doing. And in the gap between those two figures is the story of the changes in the last 50 years in American life.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, I just wanted to know when we’re going to get more podcasts?
GLADWELL: I’m writing them as we speak. I’m actually doing some interviews tomorrow in the DC area for one of the shows there and they’ll come back out in June.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Awesome, thank you.
COWEN: Next question, over here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, good evening, thanks again. What tools should we use to discover talent within ourselves and others?
COWEN: Simple question.
GLADWELL: It’s a great question. Impossible to answer in the time that I have, but if I can use my favorite subject of running as an example. If you look at times in the marathon today and compare them to times from 30 years ago, we are radically slower today. I’m not talking about the elite level, I’m talking about at the sub-elite level. The number of Americans, for example, who can break three hours in a marathon today is a fraction of what it was in 1980 or 1985. And that goes to this point: In order to extract running talent from the general population, you need to have a really, really broad base and the broad base is gone.
There is still elite running that produces really good, fast runners. But in 1980, there was this many people running the kind of mileage necessary to run a marathon properly, and today there’s this many. And all of our attention and focus is on the 95th percentile. But what we don’t understand is, we’ll never find the next great marathoner until we re-broaden the base. When we had a base this big of mediocre marathoners we had the two greatest marathoners in the world. Now that our base is this big, we got nobody in the top 10.
COWEN: This side, next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you. My question is, when you were interviewed by Ezra Klein recently, you said that you and some friends used to run a publication titled Ad-hominem: A Journal of Slander and Political Opinion. In a world where academics and quality journalists and intellectuals so often fail to connect with the public, and, at least if November’s any indication, ad-hominem attacks do — should we bring that, or something like that, back?
GLADWELL: No. This is a zine that had an unnecessarily provocative title. We were all obsessed with William F. Buckley, and we thought that there was a quality of high-end invective that he personified that we were trying to emulate. I don’t think that is a necessary exercise in 2017. [laughs] I think it was more useful in a more genteel era, but I think it’s a bad . . .
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well, screw you.
GLADWELL: Yes, exactly.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. I’ve heard you talk about systematic inequalities and how we identify students in education. Do you think the same exist in small business? And, if so, what could a small business do to identify an under-mined pool of talent that isn’t being reached?
GLADWELL: Yeah, that’s another interesting question. I don’t know if I have a useful answer to that. I was struck recently by looking at a set of numbers, and I may have been on Marginal Revolution, about how the rate of start-ups in this country has been falling quite dramatically.
COWEN: Correct, since the ’80s.
GLADWELL: Since the ’80s. Like most people, I was surprised, but I sort of bought the Kool-Aid, the thought we were in this great age of new business formation. And the thing about that that’s so worrying is, I would imagine, that an awful lot of what it takes for someone to start a new business is some direct knowledge of someone else who started a new business. In the same way that it’s very hard to get people to want to go to college if they don’t have someone in their life who has gone to college, or to understand the importance of it unless they have some personal connection.
So when you see a trend line that’s going down in something like that, I wonder whether it will accelerate over time — the less businesses that get started, the less businesses get started because there’s no one with any kind of connection. You have to have some glimpse of this as a potential possibility. And that would result, I think, in a lot of business talent being squandered.
I will say parenthetically, I’m someone who is self-employed. Before I was self-employed, I worked for large organizations. And if you would ask me when I worked for the Washington Post, say, would I ever want to be self-employed? I would have reacted with horror. I would have thought, “I can’t understand how you could do that. Don’t you wake up every morning in a cold sweat [not] knowing where your next dollar is coming from?”
It turns out, I’m way happier self-employed than I was working for . . . but getting there took 20 years, it took all kinds of lucky breaks. There was no one in my life who . . . I didn’t know any self-employed people. I didn’t know how to make that jump, and I wonder how many people are in a similar position of not realizing they have the ability to do something entrepreneurial and would be happier doing something entrepreneurial but just have no example.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. Thanks for being here. Something that surprised me about what you just said earlier in the conversation was that you feel you’re a very risk-averse person. Can you expand on that?
GLADWELL: Well, I’m a product of one of the greatest welfare states in the history of welfare states, Canada in the ’70s. I have come from a home with two happily married people who were the sweetest, kindest, most nonthreatening parents of all time. I went to genial Canadian public schools [laughs] where I was treated with respect at every turn. And then I got out of college and was almost immediately given a job by a very, very well-heeled Fortune 500 company, where I was cosseted and even given every opportunity without ever asking for it. So where’s the risk taking?
GLADWELL: My bio is just one long, effortless, riskless, frictionless. There was a wonderful phrase that Charles Lane once used to describe the Washington Post. He would describe it as the fur-lined rat hole.
GLADWELL: I have gone from one fur-lined rat hole to the next over the course of my life. So, yeah, I’ve never had to really take any risks.
COWEN: Final question.
On American backlash
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. As a Canadian and Jamaican background, can you explain your take on the anti-intellectual movement in the United States? Is it just that we have big guns, big religion, and we’re not afraid to throw that around, or what do you think?
GLADWELL: Yeah. Is it any different? First of all I don’t know whether . . .
Well, let me back up. The role that Evangelical Christianity plays in this country’s culture is very different from other Western countries, so that’s clearly a consideration. That’s been a force, not for anti-intellectualism, that’s wrong. It’s been a force for a particular approach to intellectual life. Christianity — and I say this as someone who comes from an Evangelical Christian background — is a deeply intellectual culture on many levels. But there are certain questions on which the religious perspective orients thinking a little differently from the secular intellectual mainstream. So that’s been a prominent part of this country, I think, for a long time.
But also I would phrase a lot of what’s going on now, not in terms of intellectualism versus anti-intellectualism, but a kind of . . . I’ve said this before, that the most striking thing about American public life, to me, as a non-American, is the extent to which it’s dominated by backlash. I think of the history of American life over the last 150 years as just one period of prolonged backlash after another.
You have a backlash to the Civil War that basically lasts 75 years. Then you have the Brown decision. Then you have backlash to the Brown decision that lasts 25 years. Then you have a little moment for feminism in the ’70s and you have a backlash that lasts until . . . might still be going on. There’s a gay rights backlash, which dwarfs the little moment of gay rights — pops its head into the public discourse, and the backlash goes on for years and chases every Democrat out of Congress and distorts two election cycles. I feel like we’re in the middle of another one of these.
I don’t know why American backlash cycles, it’s one step forward, four steps back that I don’t — maybe I’m naïve — I don’t see that in other cultures. I’m only thinking this because I’ve been doing these podcast episodes on the ’50s and ’60s and on civil rights movements in those. And the backlash to Brown is so phenomenal, it’s so great, that you have to seriously ask yourself whether Brown was worth it.
There’s a great paper written on the Brown backlash thesis by a historian whose name, sadly, is escaping me right now. Is it Klar? Michael Klar, maybe — Michael Klarman, thank you. Which you should read because, although he doesn’t take this tack, but as I read that paper, he just points out, the backlash is 10X what Brown is, distorts the politics of the South for two generations, etc., etc., etc. You read that and you have to think, “Jesus! Maybe, it wasn’t worth it. Maybe we should’ve just done something a lot more subtle and not risk this.” And I feel like what’s going on now in American life is a backlash that — maybe one reading is that there was the dominant liberal, intellectual culture in this country went too fast. Maybe we went too fast. We just have to learn to slow down. You can’t do everything you want in one generation. I’m currently pro-Obamacare, and so, changed.
GLADWELL: My current take is, it was a good idea, but you know what? Maybe it was a bridge too far. Maybe we should have done a little tiny smaller piece of it, and just mellowed out because, in part, that’s what we’re seeing now. The centrality of Obamacare in the current backlash narrative is so weird. It doesn’t make any sense. Many of the people who are against it are beneficiaries of it. This law is not this pox on American life. It’s managed to bring down . . .
From a perfectly rational standpoint, if you were an ardent right-winger, this is not the thing you would go after. There’s a ton of other battles. The fact that they want to fight this battle first is really strange and can only be interpreted in terms of — it’s the backlash. It’s the symbol of the thing that just drove you crazy and appalled you over the last couple of years, and you just want to banish it from your sight.