Malcolm Gladwell has found God (and Glenn Beck)

On Beck’s show Gladwell went well beyond anything he said in his book.

This piece originally appeared on newrepublic.com

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of numerous best-selling books and a writer for The New Yorker, recently made a surprising stop on the publicity tour for his latest effort, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. At Glenn Beck’s television studio in Dallas, where his online show is filmed, the two men discussed faith, the mainstream media, and Gladwell’s career. Beck, dressed in a suit and donning a colorful blue bowtie, was nevertheless playing it cool: far from the ringmaster presiding over a circus of conspiracy-theorizing and racial pot-stirring, the former Fox host was calm and relaxed.

Indeed, Beck seemed surprised to see Gladwell in the flesh, but the tone of the conversation – pleasant, agreeable, religiously-themed – struck me as surprising. The interview began when Beck scolded the mainstream media for ignoring the faith-based aspects of Gladwell’s new book. “It’s an odd thing,” Gladwell responded. “By the end of the book I realized what I really wanted to talk about was faith...The weapons of the spirit.” Beck asked whether Gladwell himself was spiritual, and Gladwell responded that although he grew up in a religious household, he “drifted away,” and “with this book I am coming back.” He added: “This book was a weird journey for me.”

Listening to all this seemed like a weird journey for me, as someone who has closely followed Gladwell's career. I have read nearly everything Gladwell has written – I wrote a long piece for The New Republic about him in 2009 – and I had never sensed a spiritual or religious dimension in his work. (I did criticize him for writing a form of self-help book, a genre that often has a religious tinge.) So I decided to call Gladwell up and discuss some of these issues with him.

Gladwell was working on an article, but he was solicitous and engaged, and answered all my questions. When I asked him why he had chosen to go on the show of someone known for racially insensitive remarks and deranged political commentary, Gladwell said that Beck was an “important member of the media community,” and that when you enter into a contract with your book publisher, you are obligated to get the book out to as many people as possible. (After we got off the phone, Gladwell also emailed me a “disclosure statement” he wrote on his website about book writing, and how book authors and magazine/newspaper writers have different obligations and responsibilities.) He added that it isn’t necessary to agree with the views of everyone who is interviewing you.

What most interested me was Gladwell’s claim about the book’s religious content. On this subject, Gladwell seconded what he had said to Beck, essentially arguing that different people read the book in different ways. “It’s a very interesting experience—I was in Salt Lake City...and everyone read the book that way,” Gladwell told me. “I must have done six interviews and all they talked about was the faith part. I think it depends where you stand.” He added, in a phrase that one could hear Beck uttering, that “people on the coast” seemed to be ignoring the faith-based aspects of the book. (On his show, Beck claimed that the book was something he himself could have written.)

Gladwell’s book has an index: Neither “faith” nor “God” nor “religion” appear in it. Faith is not mentioned on the cover flap. It’s true that some of the stories he tells involve religious people, but he shies away from religious language and lays almost no stress on the religious dimensions of the various tales.

When I pressed him to identify the spiritual aspects of the book, he more than once mentioned the epigraph, which is a quote from the first Book of Samuel. (There is also the title, of course.) When I pressed for more, he said there was not a “specific passage of the book,” but that the idea of faith coursed through it. He used none of the language that he used with Beck, where he stated, “Sometimes people of faith don’t understand how powerful their faith makes them.”

I am not going to review David and Goliath here – in our next issue of the magazine, John Gray has written a detailed essay on it – but on Beck’s show Gladwell went well beyond anything he said in the book. For example, in the book Gladwell talks about a French town run by Protestants who decided to shelter Jews. Some reviewers have taken issue with the lesson Gladwell draws from the story, which is essentially that underdogs do stand a fighting chance. But on Beck’s show, Gladwell exclaimed, approvingly taking the voice of the French resisters, “Woah. Armed with the spirit of the Lord, we can actually hold our own against a bunch of [Nazis] with tanks.”

In the book, Gladwell attributes some of the French Protestant defiance to their difficult history of being persecuted, but the chapter is not about religion. (The chapter also makes clear that there were other factors that led to the strange situation in this particular town.) I did not ask Gladwell whether he actually thinks faith is the best resistance to totalitarianism and genocide.

Gladwell seemed disappointed that, as he said, some of the people who had criticized his book had not read it, and he was also clearly thankful that Beck himself certainly appeared to have consumed David and Goliath with interest. He told me that this book was different from the other books he had written, and returned to the idea of a journey: “one the book will take the reader on.”

This piece originally appeared on newrepublic.com

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit