There aren’t many things likely to distract you during a conversation with Malcolm Gladwell: the author is a veritable blizzard of curious facts, surprising anecdotes and flailing arms. But I find myself distracted nonetheless, because on the wall of his office in Hudson, New York, is a giant picture of Chairman Mao. Dressed in his signature gray suit and gently smirking, the murderous dictator hovers menacingly over the 57-year-old’s right shoulder.
Gladwell finds the poster hilarious, explaining that he bought it at a garage sale 15 years ago and rediscovered it in a cupboard recently. “I thought how fun it would be, while transacting business at my desk, to have Mao visible over my shoulder,” he explains. “The idea of having this truly despicable tyrant reminding me of the importance of being human while I work — I thought that was good.” There’s Gladwell for you: quirky, offbeat and a master of surprise.
We meet via Zoom, me in a gloomy Manhattan hotel room, him in his sunlit office. Terrifyingly skinny in his runner’s hoodie, with his trademark curly mop trimmed down, Gladwell’s face looms alarmingly close to the screen each time he is feeling emphatic. He has the air of an overzealous children’s party entertainer — Einstein meets Blue Peter — but it’s all strangely infectious. Even if you don’t love his “smart thinking” schtick, which has spawned an entire industry of offshoots and imitators, it’s impossible to be bored in this man’s company.
These are the qualities that have powered his extraordinary career, spanning 25 years at The New Yorker, six best-selling books and now a burgeoning podcast empire driven by his new company, Pushkin, and anchored by his show, Revisionist History, which takes alternative glimpses at all manner of issues such as why golf courses are such a scam, why the desegregation of American education had unexpected downsides and the difference between Israeli and American chutzpah (you might have to listen to that one). Revisionist History is about to begin its sixth season and is a regular chart-topper.
It’s no exaggeration to call Gladwell the most famous intellectual in America and perhaps the world: that rarest of eggheads who is able penetrate the Christmas stocking market. Many prominent wonks, from John Gray to Daniel Kahneman, have dunked on Gladwell for his tendency to simplify science into airport wisdom, but there’s no denying he’s a riveting storyteller. The books that made him famous — The Tipping Point, Outliers and Blink — thrive not because of their stunning originality, but because he takes dry academic research and weaves it into compelling narratives.
Genius or Oversimplifier?
Gladwell defies easy categorization. His Jamaican mother, Joyce, met his English father, Graham, at University College London in the 1950s. When Gladwell was six, they moved from Southampton to Ontario, Canada, where his father took up a role as a math professor at the University of Waterloo.
So is he British, Canadian, Jamaican or American? “Whatever works is my perspective,” he says. “I have so many competing identities, I pick the one that is most convenient in the moment. In Canada it’s nice to remind people you’re English; in America it’s nice to remind people you’re Canadian; in England it’s nice to remind people you’re Jamaican.”
Gladwell went to the University of Toronto but his grades weren’t good enough for graduate school, so he gravitated toward journalism, first at The Washington Post and then at The New Yorker, which is where he started on the pop science beat, publishing The Tipping Point in 2000 and dominating his field ever since.
Not everyone appreciates his simplifications, though, or his success. Gladwell’s most famous theory, the “10,000 hours rule”, which argued that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to master a given field, has been regularly debunked. “Malcolm Gladwell is America’s best-paid fairy-tale writer” was how The New Republic headlined a review — by Professor John Gray — of David and Goliath, his 2013 book about how underdogs triumph against the odds. One reviewer in Esquire even invented a name for Gladwell’s technique: the “Gladwell feint”, which is when an author questions an obvious assumption about the world, tells the reader they have it all wrong and then flatters their vanity by suggesting they subconsciously knew the real answer all along.
“It doesn’t really bother me,” Gladwell says of the criticism. “It’s all about your goal. If you’re a professor of English literature at Oxford, writing an academic book that culminates a lifetime of research, you had better not cherry-pick and simplify. If your audience are people as smart and learned as you, and you wrote something that didn’t measure up to that level, you would be considered a failure and a fraud.”
His audience, however, is very different. He’s aiming to reach “13-year-olds”, “rich Republicans in Texas” or the person who reads only two books a year. They choose his work, he believes, because it is fun and accessible, exposing them to ideas they might not otherwise encounter. “For me to write something that was dense and obtuse and crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’ would make the book useless to that person,” he says. “That same academic who is critical of me: I’m not critical of them. I worship them.”
After all, he points out modestly, Jesus also taught largely in parables. “Jesus has one famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. The rest is elliptical stories that he wants you to think through on your own.”
“In Canada it’s nice to remind people you’re English; in America it’s nice to remind people you’re Canadian; in England it’s nice to remind people you’re Jamaican.”
He assures me that his pandemic experience, flitting between his leafy upstate manse and the Pushkin office in Hudson, has been a pretty easy ride, though he won’t say if he shared it with a partner (“the British always ask these questions”, he tuts knowingly). He’s had plenty of time to catch up on his hobbies, which primarily revolve around buying cars, selling cars, arguing about cars, getting speeding tickets and “reading the greatest magazine, Car magazine, England’s own, of which I have every edition going back to 1990 or so”.
Ever the optimist, Gladwell is eager to see the potential upside amid the past year’s woe. He’s hoping that if the exodus from cities such as London and New York continues, property prices will fall, allowing more “interesting” people to move back in. He also believes our recent experiences might have given us the tools we need to survive climate change. “It’s restored our faith in science,” he says. “It’s restored our faith in collective action. It’s reminded us that good government really matters and lousy government screws you up. We’re going to need all these three.”
He also thinks society has proven more resilient than many of us expected. “Tremendous loss of life, that was the expected part,” he says. “The unexpected part is we didn’t fold.” Gladwell segues on to the subject matter of his latest book — a history of bombing strategy in the Second World War — to illustrate his point.
“Take the Blitz. Everyone thought it was going to lead to widespread panic, but it doesn’t. The opposite happens. It teaches people in the UK that they are much stronger than they realized. People dust themselves down and get on with their lives. They realize that war, as horrible as it is, is not a reason to run screaming into the woods. I think the pandemic has had a very similar effect on many people. Those who have survived have learnt that they’re more resilient than they imagined, that society is more resilient than they imagined.”
W.W. II, but Make It Gladwellian
The Bomber Mafia, Gladwell’s seventh book, is out later this month and reflects his recent pivot to audio. He’s no longer writing regularly for The New Yorker and, perhaps conscious that his Gladwell feint was wearing a bit thin, in place of neatly packaged pop psychology books comes a history of wartime bombing that grew out of his podcast series. It’s still recognizably Gladwellian — dorky and absorbing — but the subject matter is a sharp departure.
His fascination with the Second World War dates back to his childhood in England, which he spent obsessing over war stories, keeping a picture of himself beneath a statue of Lord Nelson on his bedroom wall. When his father told him about finding an unexploded Luftwaffe bomb in his back garden in Kent, he was enthralled. “Can you imagine a better story for an eight-year-old boy? To learn that your father was part of a war story just seemed impossibly glamorous. You know nothing at that age of the terror and grisly reality of war.”
The Bomber Mafia tells the story of a group of cerebral US air force officers based at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, who developed a theory of precision bombing before and during the Second World War. Haunted by the horrors of the Western Front from the First World War, they hoped that air power and new technologies such as bombsights could make war more efficient. Bombers would hit selected targets — factories, command posts, supply lines — and prevent soldiers dying by the million over contested scraps of mud.
Yet as the 19th-century Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke liked to say, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Even with the new bombsights, even though they tried flying in daytime to improve accuracy (at dreadful cost), in the heat of battle the bombing simply wasn’t precise enough to hit specific targets. Eventually the Americans moved toward the British approach of “area bombing”, also known as “obliteration bombing”, which carpeted target areas of key industrial cities, often heavily populated, to sap opposition morale and wreak general havoc. It was brutal and, some historians have argued, a war crime, but by 1944 such objections were for the birds.
“Take the Blitz. Everyone thought it was going to lead to widespread panic, but it doesn’t. The opposite happens.... People dust themselves down and get on with their lives.... I think the pandemic has had a very similar effect on many people.”
The American switch in strategy took real force when General Haywood Hansell was replaced by General Curtis LeMay as head of 21st Bomber Command in Guam, America’s launchpad for the aerial assault on Japan. Ferocious and unsentimental, LeMay was America’s answer to Arthur “Bomber” Harris. Under pressure to bring Japan to its knees, LeMay planned and led the firebombing campaign that used newly developed napalm to incinerate crowded wooden cities and claimed considerably more lives than the atomic bomb attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“Probably more persons lost their lives by fire at Tokyo in a six-hour period than at any time in the history of man,” Gladwell writes, estimating that the initial firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 killed up to 100,000. Upon returning to Guam, pilots had to fumigate their planes to rid them of the smell of burning flesh. In total, 67 other Japanese cities shared Tokyo’s fate.
Yet for all the horror, Gladwell doesn’t condemn the generals. “I’m sympathetic to the plight of decision-makers in that moment. By 1944 these air force guys are exhausted to their bones, they’ve lost dozens of colleagues and been through hell not for a week or a month, but for years. It’s difficult for me to pass judgment from my nicely appointed office in Hudson.”
The Bomber Mafia — thoughtful, Gladwell-esque obsessives — failed in their mission. Instead of saving millions of soldiers, aerial bombing during the Second World War multiplied the carnage, devastating civilian populations from London to Dresden to Tokyo. But while they lost the argument over bombardment tactics, their approach won out in the end — Hansell and his gang would be thrilled with today’s precision drone technology. “Drones represent an advance but not a victory,” Gladwell says. “The Bomber Mafia was correct that precision in bombing is a moral improvement, but it doesn’t solve any of your problems. If it makes it more likely for you to use bombs to solve a conflict, then it’s tricky.”
One person who receives a less sympathetic treatment from Gladwell is Arthur Harris, the air chief marshal who oversaw RAF Bomber Command and the bombardment of Germany. “I think he was a psychopath,” says Gladwell bluntly. Harris was responsible for the flattening of Dresden in February 1945, which claimed 25,000 or more lives to achieve a military advantage that has been debated and questioned ever since. “I have some sympathy for his position, but some of the decisions he was making at the end of the war were just nuts. Their [the RAF’s] conduct during the war does not bear up well in retrospect.” Gladwell believes that the war might have ended earlier had the RAF not conducted itself so “recklessly”. In his view, as well as costing civilian lives, saturation bombing usually strengthens the resolve of those under attack.
If Harris was a psychopath, perhaps Gladwell agrees with the campaign to take down his statue on the Strand in London? Absolutely not. “I get driven to distraction by the people who want to tear down statues,” he says. “We need more statues, not fewer. Let’s go crazy on the statues; they’re great opportunities to teach people history.” He proposes putting a statue of Harris’s most vehement contemporary critic, the nurse and pacifist Vera Brittain, next to the original. “You could have Brittain looking at Bomber Harris with as much venom and contempt as possible, because she thought he was a monster.”
“We need more statues, not fewer. Let’s go crazy on the statues; they’re great opportunities to teach people history.”
This answer sums up what I find most interesting about Gladwell. In the culture wars consuming American media and beyond right now, he doesn’t have a clear side. He is dual heritage, the son of a Jamaican woman who faced considerable prejudice when she married his white father in 1950s England. He writes thoughtfully on issues of race, segregation, policing and identity. He favors some form of reparations for slavery, believing that “everything has deeper roots than you think”. And he’s “incredibly encouraged” by the racial justice movement that has been turbocharged by the death of George Floyd last May. “The world has been run by white men for a long time. We’re finally standing up and saying they should share,” he says. “I think it’s totally appropriate.”
But I’m not sure you could call him “woke” either. Gladwell’s conservative Christian upbringing, his restless mind and his complex identity cause him to chafe against some of today’s new ideologies. He’s still skeptical about the legalization of cannabis, for example, believing we haven’t yet been given enough facts by weed advocates. Not only does he oppose tearing down statues of grizzly old men, he’s also opposed to cancel culture and adamantly pro free speech, putting him at odds with some on the American left.
“I feel like we’ve forgotten what it means to forgive people and be accepting of difference,” he says. His concern is about structural inequalities such as incarceration rates and educational disparities, not “matters of etiquette” such as the New York Times reporter Donald McNeil losing his job for using the N-word in a conversation about racism. “Let’s not get sidetracked with these questions of individual conduct,” he argues. “We’re all imperfect, I think we knew that. Let’s just move on to more important issues.”
He was particularly incensed when the newly appointed editor of Teen Vogue, 27-year-old Alexi McCammond, did not take up the post because of some racist tweets she wrote about Asians when she was 17. McCammond’s heartfelt apology wasn’t enough to save her. “It’s absurd,” he says. “Why would you even have a magazine called Teen Vogue if you’re not interested in the moral development of teenagers? The whole thing infuriated me. It is an utter failure of leadership.”
Gladwell’s preference for human complexity over moral absolutes is refreshing. He thought it was “wonderful” when the US TV genealogy show Faces of America informed him that one of his ancestors in Jamaica once owned a slave. “It was a reminder that life is not always clean or clear,” he says; “of how complicated we are as human beings. It’s a good corrective should I ever get on my high horse.”
This, I think, is the other secret to Gladwell’s success: enthusiasm. He’s happy to discover a dark chapter in his family’s past because it’s a chance to learn something new about history. He loves his Chairman Mao poster because it’s a chance to jolt people’s thinking. He adores obsessives and geeks because he’s one too. In a world of cynics and pessimists, his irrepressible optimism is a welcome tonic. He still believes we can do better.
When I ask what still motivates him after all his success, he references a podcast episode he is currently making about the science of laundry detergent. “There are 1,000 people in Cincinnati, PhDs, who spend their days trying to work out how to make Tide clean your clothes better, and I can go and hang out with them,” he enthuses. “Who doesn’t want to do that? I suspect that when I’m 80 I’ll still want to do that. I just find it all fun.” Sounds like a washout to me if I’m honest, but you just know millions will tune in.
Little, Brown will publish The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War, by Malcolm Gladwell, on April 27
Josh Glancy is the Washington correspondent for The Sunday Times of London