Malcolm Gladwell’s Pop Science is Whitewashing Katrina Pain and People

Canadaville

Canadaville

New Orleans     President Obama here’s some advice before you come to New Orleans to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Katrina: no matter what happens please, please ignore every bit of advice you might possibly get from the author and The New Yorker writer, Malcolm Gladwell about what to say about New Orleans and Katrina, and probably any other advice he ever gives you any the future. Recently, Gladwell was cited as one of the wise and rich men and women that Obama was consulting about his future post-Pennsylvania Avenue.

Gladwell has been on a bit of a roll the last number of years as the highly popular author of a number of books that might be characterized as “applied pop psychology” books including The Tipping Point, The Outliers, and others. Don’t tell me you haven’t read anything he’s written or I’ll ask you to give me the address of your cave. I’ve certainly read several. He specializes in pseudo-science stories that act like brain candy. You can’t read them quickly enough and they all seem smooth and sweet until you make the mistake of actually thinking about them and then you’re not sure. Whatever? It’s candy, so what might be the harm, right? Well, having just finished reading his most recent piece, “Starting Over” in The New Yorker labeled “Dept. of Social Studies,” which goes past candy, approaches unmitigated drivel, and then swerves into just plain dangerous, I’m convinced we need to get a petition together to the Secret Service to keep Gladwell as far away from the President as possible. Who knew Canadians could be so diabolical!

The thin reed Gladwell tries to grasp starts by trying to look at Katrina as a social experiment that might measure the impact of mobility on survivor families torn away from their homes by the devastation of Katrina, who were dropped or came to shore in other communities, and how they fared. Ok, that might be interesting, but then he tries to expropriate a seminal study done by economists indicting the United States at large for decades of abandoning urban America and perpetuating inequality by pretending the only thing under that shell was the issue of mobility, rather than disinvestment, racism, a deteriorated and mean-spirited social safety net, deindustrialization, and tax policies that have stagnated most of us while creating the super-rich. I could go on.

And, Gladwell knows he’s treading on dangerous ground throughout the piece. He tries to act like Katrina was bad news and that he would not have been riding with the business interests and social elites who were avowedly trying to whitewash the city, but unfortunately he wears his neo-conservative, neo-liberal biases on his sleeves. Implicitly, he totally supports every effort to prevent families from being able to return home from closing the schools to denying rebuilding funds to providing no healthcare. He pretty much sees the economy and population of New Orleans as a horror. He rationalizes this with a pseudo-science argument that the odds of lower income families “moving on up” are better in Houston, which he insults by calling it the “Salt Lake City” of the south, because the odds are slightly better that someone might crawl out of poverty, so darned are they lucky they were in a hurricane, surrounded by water and dead bodies, separated from family, friends, community and culture so they have a little teeny bit better chance in an economically stratified country to make it out. Spoiler alert: Please remember that there was no real way to read the study as arguing anything other than the odds were almost impossibly low for upward mobility anywhere!

Canadaville

How do you unravel this preposterous pretzel of an argument? We need public policies for cities and their population which create equity, not that forcibly relocate people on buses, planes, and trains. And, those policies need to be applied to every city. If Gladwell, wants to pretend to look at the impact of mobility and social science, it is interesting that nowhere in the article is there mention of Canadaville, a post-Katrina project of his fellow Canadian, the huge auto parts gazillionaire Frank Stronach from Magma International and his 300-family relocation project of lower income families to Simmesport, Louisiana several parishes up the river. Perhaps he avoided that because it is universally seen as a disaster and was abandoned by Magma and Stronach.

Gladwell finally ends his piece saying with this monument to sophistry:

In the past ten years, much has been said, rightly, about the resilience and spirit of those who chose to rebuild the neighborhoods they had lost. It is time to appreciate as well the courage of those who, faced with the same disaster, decided to make a fresh start.

Balderdash!

Courage is triggered by choice, not a combination of disaster and coercion that for many families continues to this day. The overwhelming number of families still not able to return home are African-American. Where there was choice – and resources – in higher income white families, as has been well documented and even Gladwell seems to acknowledge, people overwhelming came home. On one count after another for lower income families Katrina was a pure and simple devastation that continues to this day. Gladwell would undoubtedly line up in favor of putting the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears, supporting pogroms forcing Jews to flee, and any number of outrages in the name of a few percentage points of progress in the by and by, rather than hunkering down and doing what’s right to support widespread progress for all the people where they live, including in urban areas like New Orleans.

Mr. President, don’t listen to Malcolm Gladwell. He may sell books, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a sycophantic apologist for the rich and, sadly, turns out to be a fool.

one of the homes at Canadaville

one of the homes in Canadaville

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Gone Fishing with Rod, Reel, and Books

Rock Creek   No newspapers, no cell service, no internet, no television, no plumbing, and only power from a car battery and some solar cells we brought along:  sweet!  Almost two days of chores, which we actually enjoyed, before we could wet a line.  Third cast, I caught a beautiful, good size brown trout.  Lucky days! Life is good!  Am I on vacation or what?

Reading has been interesting and besides catching up on sleep, boy we needed it, that’s what we’re doing.

Little Bets:  How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims was loaned to me on the West Coast recently by a friend.  It’s one of those kind of Malcolm Gladwell books that are so popular these days that draw large conclusions from small evidence.  It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t all that great either.  In terms of organizing, Sims borrowed a definition from psychologist Karl Weick to define “small wins,” which was interesting:  “…a concrete, complete implemented outcome of moderate importance.”  Another psychologist said these were “landmarks” indicating whether we are on the right direction or not.  Interesting.  Some right on points about the importance of “really listening,” which I wholeheartedly endorse.  A fascinating story about Procter & Gamble’s efforts to expand in lower income communities around the world was fascinating to me.  P&G hires ethnographers to “actually live with representative users” in a program they call “Living it.”  Along with senior managers they “spend time in low-income homes around the world to better understand what matters in their lives, including their desires, aspirations, and needs.”  Scary smart.  None of this was probably worth the $25.00 for the book, and if any of us have to read one more story about how they operate at Steve Jobs Nexus and animation outfit, we’ll all shoot ourselves, but not bad either for plane rides and the like.

One I’m really liking is a book by Keith Heyer Meldahl called, Hard Road West:  History and  Geology along the Gold Rush Trial.  I’m going to leave this one in the Silver Bullet on Rock Creek.  He weaves the rough road for the 49ers and farmers with the geology they are passing.  Having driven most of these trails on earlier trips West, it is riveting, and manages to make geology interesting.  Maybe not John McPhee interesting, but darned good!

The one that is closer to work, but very well written and actually a brilliant history that I’m enjoying is Victory:  The Triumphant Gay Revolution by Linda Hirshman.   Her understanding of social movements and how they develop is spot on, and the history and the players are not as well known to me, so she’s teaching me things that are critical.  Got a ways to go, but I’d recommend this history with four stars!

Plowed into two recent novels yesterday as well to good effect.  One is Richard Ford ‘s new work, Canada.  I like Richard for his work with ACORN in New Orleans after Katrina, and  a book called Canada  has to have value.  Couple that with the setting in Montana, and I was halfway through before I realized.   Finally I started True Believers: A Novel by Kurt Andersen.  The review had caught my eye as a different tale of the 60’s with reference points many of us who remember them would enjoy.  Add some politics to that, and who knows, it might be interesting.  I’m not hating it so far!

 


Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail