It is difficult to describe to people who have never heard of Malcolm Gladwell what he does for a living. He is a journalist, author, and public speaker who writes about the kinds of things calculated to appeal to the movers and shakers of the new tech world: tipping points, intuitive thinking, innovation, the secrets to success, and so on. A staff writer at The New Yorker, he has produced a number of influential books, including, most recently, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). Gladwell has recently launched a podcast entitled “Revisionist History” which studies the same types of questions in the same Gladwellian way.
An essay by Allison Miller, “History and You: Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Revisionist History’ Podcast Cleanses History of the Past,” which recently appeared in The Baffler, has taken Gladwell to task for masquerading as a historian:
Miller points out that crafting history is an act of empathy. As she puts it, “Analyzing the past requires you to see a particular set of circumstances from someone else’s point of view—knowing full well that the gulf between then and now will prevent you from truly understanding them and what they faced.” To analyze people from the past, though, Gladwell relentlessly employs the latest concepts garnered from the social sciences. These concepts generally do not recognize that people from the past were fundamentally different. Miller chooses the example of Episode 1, “The Lady Vanishes” to explain the faults of Gladwell’s modus operandi. A concept that he borrows from the social sciences (in this case, “moral licensing,” which comes from social psychology), she argues, is an inappropriate tool for explaining why Victorian artist Elizabeth Thompson did not obtain admittance to the Royal Academy for her widely acclaimed painting, The Roll Call (1874).
Having listened to a number of episodes on “Revisionist History,” One Thing after Another couldn’t agree more with Miller. Gladwell’s podcast disregards one of the most fundamental truths established by the discipline of history: everything—including people’s behaviors and world views—changes over time. Miller does neglect, however, to mention another important way in which “Revisionist History” fails to live up to its title. The way in which Gladwell applies his various concepts from the social sciences indicates that he does not understand what the word “revisionist” signifies when associated with history. Over time, for a wide variety of reasons, historians constantly revise their understandings of the past—they employ different methods to interrogate it, they use different sources, they bring different world views to the task, or they use their imagination in different ways. History is an ongoing conversation in which many interpretations are provisional; no matter how well they explain the past, they are usually superseded by subsequent understandings. This process of revision is what revisionist history is all about. For Gladwell, though, revisionist history appears to consist simply of revisiting certain past incidents and solving their mysteries definitively. There is no sense that his findings are part of a larger exchange or that they are in any way tentative. Gladwell provides clarity and closure. One obtains the impression that for Gladwell, the past is merely a scene where he can demonstrate the utility of his latest interesting theory in cracking various paradoxes.
This attitude on Gladwell’s part may be the product of sloppy thinking (surprising in someone who was a history major as an undergraduate). One cannot help noting, however, that Gladwell himself benefits from peddling this point of view. Using the social sciences to solve many puzzles from the past, Gladwell dramatically expands their jurisdiction and gives the impression that they produce immutable, universal laws that transcend time and space. Who should benefit from this impression but the popular purveyor of social scientific explanations, Gladwell himself?
One Thing after Another is not merely attempting to defend history’s turf for turf’s sake. The questions Miller raises about how to do history have important implications. As Miller points out, those who wrestle with the past can develop the judgment to provide a variety of feasible alternatives for the future. Gladwell’s vision is very attractive; he provides easily grasped certainties. History is less attractive; it asks us to wrestle with an alien past for the sake of sharpening our judgment. At the end of the day, as we confront the future, Gladwell supplies answers. History, on the other hand, compels us to struggle, but in so doing, it gives us the opportunity to develop wisdom.