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Friday, January 16, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell on Obama: "Nothing Has Changed"

Posted By on Fri, Jan 16, 2009 at 12:27 PM


Malcolm Gladwell
January 15, 2008
Herbst Theatre

Better than:
Reading all those damn New Yorker articles from start to finish.

I wish there was some sort of operation that could transport a portion of Malcolm Gladwell's intelligence into my head. The New Yorker writer and popular nonfiction author is one of our more interesting cultural theorists, and just hearing him speak makes you feel, as my friend pointed out in the Herbst Theatre lobby last night, "like your brain just grew a little bigger."

After plugging away at his best-seller The Tipping Point, however, I'll admit that I enjoy hearing Gladwell speak more than I like reading his books. I read as many of his New Yorker pieces as possible, but the guy likes to go long. Very long. In his books it seems every discovery he's made about human nature comes with an exhaustive case study that could've been explained in a five-page magazine piece.

But that's where events like the City Arts & Lectures series come in handy. Last night, Gladwell was the featured City Arts guest. As he was interviewed by Salon's features editor, you could understand the nuggets of Gladwell's ideas in an hour or so, as well as hear him admit to his mistakes, expand his theories to the Bushes and the Obamas, and learn that when he lets his hair grow too long he gets pulled over by the cops far too often.    

Last night's conversation was geared toward those who had read Gladwell's most recent book, Outliers,  but the interview offered CliffsNotes for those (like me) who hadn't done their homework in advance (although I heard Gladwell talk about Outliers on some books channel over the holidays, does that count?).

The author discussed the main points of his Outliers research: from the fascinating issue of plane crashes being social problems (because in certain countries, copilots are too scared to disrupt their substatus ranking to tell the pilot there's a problem) to the advantages cultural outsiders hold (the best comedians are black, gay, Jewish, etc ... people on the margins who can call out the insiders).

The program comprised a lively interview topped with an audience Q&A. One questioner asked Gladwell his thoughts on the Obama presidency, since apparently another Outliers point is that you are only as smart and/or "talented" as your familial history. Gladwell believes that Obama's election, while historical, should not be overvalued. "I'm worried we'll say we've solved the problem [of racism]," he said. "But nothing has changed." He pointed out that Obama's privileged upbringing helped him navigate his way to the presidency, and we still have a long way to go when it comes to breaking down racism in this country.

As for me, I have a long way to go before I get through all of Gladwell's many written observations about trendsetting, success, bankers, comedians, presidents, the Beatles, pilots, and privilege. But one night of hearing him speak at least added some brain cells where most Thursday nights out only work work to deplete them.

Critical bias: I like hearing smart journalists being interviewed by other smart journalists.

By the way: For the full list of City Arts & Lectures programs, look here.  

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Ian S. Port


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