Malcolm Gladwell on Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird

I have two fundamental problems with Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker concerning To Kill a Mockingbird: one is philosophical/moral, and the other aesthetic. The philosophical/moral problem is that incrementalism is not necessarily an invalid approach to major social injustice. Gladwell says:

Old-style Southern liberalism—gradual and paternalistic—crumbled in the face of liberalism in the form of an urgent demand for formal equality. Activism proved incompatible with Folsomism.

That’s true: but it doesn’t mean that the James Folsom approach—who was progressive by southern standards in the first of the twentieth century—wasn’t an improvement over what came later as part of the unjustified backlash. Gradual change can set the stage for radical change, as it did with the Civil Rights movement, and pragmatism is sometimes more effective than attempting to radically alter social, economic or political life.

The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy describes the philosopher Richard Rorty this way: “Rorty is a self-proclaimed romantic bourgeois liberal, a believer in piecemeal reforms advancing economic justice and increasing the freedoms that citizens are able to enjoy.” Rorty gives a convincing defense of those piecemeal reforms in his various books, and I’m not wholly convinced of Gladwell’s interpretation that To Kill a Mockingbird is problematic for that reason.

And this idea applies to more than politics. Megan McArdle just posted a piece on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernacke that ended, “As it says in To Kill a Mockingbird, Bernanke did the best he could with what he had. It was not perfect. But looking around at the mostly employed people on the streets, I’m glad he was there.” From what I understand of the recent financial crisis, I basically agree with her assessment: Bernacke and the other players in Washington did the best they could given the information they had at the time, which is based on pieces like The Final Days of Merrill Lynch in The Atlantic and Inside The Crisis: Larry Summers and the White House economic team in the New Yorker.

The second problem is aesthetic: like Nabokov, I don’t think novels need to play the role of social arbiter or champion. A novel that is sufficiently abhorrent—like one that actively praises segregation in the fashion that Soviet novels would advance inaptly named social realism, or one that shills for retrograde religious ideals—would probably be bad by virtue of their social commentary, but I think To Kill a Mockingbird is subtler than that, and to me the novel’s most interesting component is the development of Scout as a person. That’s inherently tied up with morality and politics, of course, but how and whether the novel succeeds in that respect ought to be the major consideration in evaluating a novel.

In other words, once the novel passes the relatively low bar of not being actively abhorrent, it should be judged on other principles than whether it conforms to what appear to be a person or age’s moral norms.

Commencement — J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement is a less accomplished version of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and it has all the narrative tension of an overcooked noodle. It shoots for modern-day Jane Austen and hits something closer to the chick-lit bulls-eye. I noted this to my girlfriend, who said that she could’ve told me it was chick-lit based on its teal dust jacket. I try not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case apparently my principles apparently wouldn’t have mattered.

The writing in Commencement isn’t bad, but it also isn’t good; I’m searching through pages, looking for a representative quote, or something that’s at least stylistically unusual enough to merit consideration and am finding… nothing. The prose conveys information effectively but without any pizzaz; it is what James Wood might call an efficient literary/commercial novel, having absorbed a few conventions of modernism while retaining a passionate eye and penchant for understatement. Wood says that “There is a familiar American simplicity, for instance, which is Puritan and colloquial in origin, ‘a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to the essentials,’ as Marilynne Robinson has it in her novel Gilead.” Sullivan doesn’t have that. She works for the New York Times, which might explain why Commencement reads like a long piece for the Sunday Styles or one of the other less rigorous sections.

I read Commencement based on a mostly positive review in the same paper. It says, for example, that “Sullivan’s characters are often motivated by urges that are taboo to admit in certain quarters: getting love and nurture from men, or staying protected in a cocoon of female friendship rather than confronting the larger world.” Outside of the Mormon church and some university Women’s Studies departments, I can’t imagine what those “certain quarters” might be. In an age of Sex and the City and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl (And I Liked It),” taboos aren’t very strong. One notable thing about the review is that while it comments extensively on the novel’s social content, it says virtually nothing about its style or prose. Perhaps that’s because the reviewer drew a blank, just as I did, and therefore fell back on sociology when aesthetics failed to rouse any feeling whatsoever.

The death of literature part 11,274, from Saul Bellow

“From the first, too, I had been warned that the novel was at the point of death, that like the walled city or the crossbow, it was a thing of the past. And no one likes to be at odds with history. Oswald Spengler, one of the most widely read authors of the early ’30s, taught that our old tired civilization was very nearly finished. His advice to the young was to avoid literature and the arts and to embrace mechanization and become engineers.”

That’s from Saul Bellow’s “Hidden Within Technology’s Empire, a Republic of Letters” for the New York Times’ Writers on Writing collection. Fortunately he didn’t listen to the various Spenglers of his day. I often find it amusing to read the various predictions of literature’s demise, which have so frequently been trumpeted in the 20th Century and now the 21st; Orwell does a good job with the same theme in his collected essays.

Although being wrong in the past doesn’t necessarily equate to being wrong in the present, the poor track records of both religious apocalypse and the demise of reading tend to make me skeptical of new claims about either.

(Legitimately) free music: The Orange Mountain Music Philip Glass Sampler Vol.I

Amazon is currently giving away The Orange Mountain Music Philip Glass Sampler Vol.I, which caught my attention because I’ve liked Glass since really hearing him for the first time last year during a University of Arizona dance showcase when some of the students used “Metamorphosis.”

I’m listening to the “sampler” now, which has more variation in style than a complete album for obvious reasons. While some transitions between songs verge on jarring, but the album still seems worth downloading.

(Hat tip Crooked Timber.)

Why Women Have Sex: Understanding Sexual Motivations from Adventure to Revenge (and Everything in Between) — Cindy M. Meston David M. Buss

Terry Teachout says that “Scientists are forever proving what everybody knows, especially when it comes to music.” Cross out music and replace it with sex, and you’ve also got a substantially true statement. One big advantage to Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: neither is exclusively about sex or relationships, but both have some unusual experiments. The former discusses how marriage and dating are like markets and how gender imbalances work, while the latter discusses the differences in cognition and choices when in aroused versus unaroused states.

In contrast, Why Women Have Sex gives us a lot of the obvious: women have sex for a variety of reasons, not surprisingly, but the authors don’t go into why a particular reason might predominate at a particular time. The reasons are mostly descriptive instead of explanatory and predictive. Reading the table of contents is almost as good as reading the book: women do it because they’re attracted to the person, for pleasure, for love, for conquest/status, for duty, for adventure, for barter and trade. One could probably figure that out from a few months of reading Cosmo.

We learn that women like men who are tall, have a sense of humor, wealthy, skilled, upbeat, symmetrical, and attractive, the last adjective comprising the earlier ones. On page 22 we learn that “A person’s mood at the time of an initial encounter is an important factor in determining attraction—positive feelings lead to positive evaluations of others and negative feelings lead to negative evaluations.” Really? I had no idea. Notice also the hedging words: mood is an “important factor,” but far from the only one. Later on the same page, we learn that “Having a good sense of humor usually signals an easygoing, fun-loving, adaptable personality.” To my mind, the word “adaptable” is the most interesting word—how does humor signal adaptability?—but the authors don’t pick up on that thread.

The idea behind Why Women Have Sex is to give a large portrait of some of the research findings out there. This is a useful service, and if I were preparing for an academic career in sexuality or sexuality studies, or if I were a journalist who wrote about such issues frequently, I’d buy this book for its bibliography. Even so, however, the book has more scientific trappings than actual science. The introduction states their study was conducted between June 2006 and April 2009 and:

Web links and online classified advertisements requested women’s participation in a study designed to understand sexual motivations. The survey itself was hosted by a database using 128-bit encryption technology to protect the information from hackers and ensure the utmost anonymity to the study’s participants.

The tech terms are poorly used: 128-bit encryption is meaningless without noting the algorithms used, although the authors are probably talking about generic TLS/SSL layers for authentication between client and server. But the larger problem is likely to come from people posing as women who aren’t women and ballot stuffers. Even if they took care of that, they still don’t have a random sample, which would be necessary to draw conclusions about the general population. This means the conclusions that they do draw from their sample aren’t useful. For more on why this is important, take a look at almost any introduction to statistics textbook; the upshot is that their data is suspect, which undermines the book’s conclusions.

I read the first third of Why Women Have Sex closely anyway, and some claims aren’t cited in their bibliography. For example, page 14 says that “DNA fingerprinting studies reveal that roughly 12 percent of women get pregnant by women other than their long-term mates, suggesting that some, but certainly not all, women pursue this dual mating strategy.” That seems improbable, which made me curious about the study backing it up. Page 14 has two research citations; neither relates to this claim.

To me, the biggest reminder Why Women Have Sex offers is why literature retains its power over time while pop sexuality books fade like flowers against the onset of winter. Literature can withstand the onset of cold time because it tells us something that can’t easily be captured by survey; to me, Madame Bovary, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Alain de Botton’s On Love have vastly more explanatory power and aesthetic interest than Why Women Have Sex. I’m reminded of this passage from Robertson Davies’ The Lyre of Orpheus:

But Darcourt was not disposed to Freudian interpretations. At best, they were glum half-truths, and they explained and healed extraordinarily little. They explored what Yeats called “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart”, but they brought none of the Apollonian light that Yeats and many other poets cast upon the heart’s dunghill.

I quote Davies quoting Yeats: there’s a very fine movement of thought there, which Why Women Have Sex lacks. Even a book like Neil Strauss’ The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists offers more explanation, and it doesn’t even have the backstop of the many but still incomplete peer-reviewed studies offered by Why Women Have Sex. In short, there are more useful ways of looking at the questions this book asks. Try reading this interview with the authors or looking at some of the other books mentioned and you’ll begin to find those more useful ways of knowing.

Starbucks and instant coffee: Signs of ill times?

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Starbucks will now sell instant coffee. This is more than a little bit strange, since the company has spent 25 years implicitly and explicitly arguing that hot brown water, sometimes combined with milk, should be a necessary luxury for modern life, and ideally costing $2 – $3 because of the fine ingredients and the whole process around making it. But if you don’t need the fine ingredients and long process, why pay $2?

The WSJ article says, “It’s worth noting that the last time instant coffee made any sort of splash was when Nescafé came to market in 1938—as though we really needed yet another indication that the economy is languishing in dreary pseudo-depression.” Good point: and we know what happened in the years after 1938.

Breaking the News follow-up

My post on James Fallows’ Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy generated a fair amount of e-mail and commentary. In the comments section, Steve Karger pointed to The 3 key parts of news stories you usually don’t get, which rehashes of some of Fallows’ points but without acknowledgement except at the top, which has a quote, and the very bottom of the page, which says “With fond apologies to James Fallows.” Nonetheless, it’s worth reading.

I found What should be “the new rules of news” in The Guardian, one of the UK’s major newspapers. I especially like this rule:

3. Transparency would be a core element of our journalism. One example of many: every print article would have an accompanying box called “Things We Don’t Know,” a list of questions our journalists couldn’t answer in their reporting. TV and radio stories would mention the key unknowns. Whatever the medium, the organisation’s website would include an invitation to the audience to help fill in the holes, which exist in every story.

Sadly, its recommendations seem unlikely to come to pass: the incentives against better journalism seem too deeply entrenched, especially compared with the cost of real journalism.

Salon.com reports that “Journalists like Evan Thomas now admit the Clinton scandals were bogus. When will they admit they played along?” And the answer appears to be “never.” These kinds of retrospective pieces remind us of what’s wrong with the news business: reporters are participating in the practices that weaken confidence in the business, much like individual investors who make decisions that collectively shake the market’s foundation yet are personally beneficially.

Finally, Fallows himself caught my post and wrote in reply:

I have thought several times about revising or updating the book but have held back for two reasons. One is the shark-like instinct that it’s worth always moving ahead to new territory. The other, that the central points to make remain the same; the details would differ and be more depressing.

He’s correct, and others have been gathering plenty of fresh examples, as “The 3 key parts of news stories you usually don’t get” shows. I have no idea what arrangements he has with his publisher, but perhaps a new edition with a new forward/afterward would a) give a reason for additional coverage of the book and b) give the benefit of a small number of new examples without having to overhaul the entire thing. Then again, as far as I can tell, Breaking the News got a fairly loud reception the first time and the problems it discusses are fairly well-known, so maybe this wouldn’t matter much.

As I said in my first post, I think the individual’s response to lousy news is likely to be limited, since I can’t immediately make structural changes in the big news organizations that produce lousy “news,” which some people seem to prefer, like Fox News. But if you are interested in better news, try The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal (which still seems pretty good) and the New York Times.

Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy — James Fallows

The weird thing about Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy is how timely it still seems—I think Thoreau called books “the news that stays news.”* Even after some of the particulars that Fallows wrote about have receded—like, say, the healthcare debate—the main point that news celebrities and TV-style have cheapened, perhaps dangerously, American knowledge and democracy remains. More importantly, the habit of political score-keeping rather than dealing with substantive issues remains too. He quotes a Clinton administration who said after the 1994 Republic landslide:

They [meaning voters] had ‘made the monkey jump’—they were able to discipline an institution they didn’t like. They could register the fact that they were unhappy. There doesn’t seem to be any way to do that with the press, except to stop watching and reading, which more and more people have done.

The process seems to have accelerated. In part that’s because of the Internet—people have more choices for news—but I wonder if it’s also in part because of the product being produced. Fallows gives an excellent sample of what TV news is like: mostly chasing sensation and catastrophe that doesn’t really mean anything, or have any nuance: there’s no real ambiguity concerning whether a killer should be caught and punished, or that a tornado is a tragedy. As Fallows says, “Then there is political news, almost always in the context of horse race politics—the mayor is criticizing his opponents, the city council is arguing with the mayor.” But over what? And why? The scorecard aspect ignores these important issues.

I’m not giving specific examples from Breaking the News largely because they’re too involved for a relatively short blog post. But Fallows gives numerous anecdotes and stories to back his points, and it’s almost impossible to have seen TV news over the last ten years and not nod in agreement. The only place he fails in his proscriptions for working past the problems; most revolve around the idea of public journalism, which involves greater citizen participation in news topics, commitment to real information, and so forth. The major problem appears to be that most of the public doesn’t seem genuinely interested in such subjects, or at least in paying for them. Those who are interested subscribe to The Atlantic (Fallows’ current home), or, today, find what they need on specialized forums on the Internet.

For me, Hacker News does a better job of finding what’s worthy than all but a handful of publications (The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and The New York Times being the most obvious). But Hacker News is only an aggregator, not an originator. Despite strides being made by blogging, it hasn’t come close to replace media organizations—in part because of lawsuit threats that can stymie the proverbial little guy.

As Jack Shafer says on Slate, “Among the many glorious things about American journalism is that no credentialing organization or regulatory body stands between an individual who wants to break a story and his public reporting of it.” This is true: but it’s also true that the “big media,” much as hate using that phrase, has disproportionate power—especially television. And the media business (another unfortunate phrase) doesn’t seem able to reform itself, so the Internet is doing part of the job for it. Still, media companies are in the business of giving people what they want, or at least what they seem to want, and what people seem to want is to have their prejudices massaged, whether by Fox News or MSNBC. And the status conveyed by TV (which Fallows deals with in a chapter titled “The Gravy Train;” one consultant says of pundits, “Every time they vanish from the tube for a period of time, the requests for their speaking and lectures drop off dramatically.” In other words, appearing on TV is insanely lucrative) means that far more people want to get on than can get on. The result: you can get people to do or say almost everything. As Shafer says, no professional body will stop you. But if people become more accustomed to unfiltered material on the net, maybe they’ll grow more tired of the news blowhards.

Against these problems, the individual doesn’t have a tremendous amount he or she can immediately do. “Don’t watch TV, or at least most TV news” is an obvious one that’s akin to telling people to eat their broccoli, even as McDonald’s continues to expand like waistlines. But, as any community organizer knows, making people aware of a problem is often an important step in solving it. Fallows made people aware of this problem in 1996. Alas: too little has changed. Maybe this post is another step, however tiny, in the direction of change for the better.


* This quote is probably slightly wrong, or wrongly attributed. Maybe he was the one who said, “Read not the times. Read the eternities.”

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