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. [...]
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.