Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling books — The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers — are household names for many readers.
Less well-known from the Gladwell oeuvre is Ad Hominem, a zine Gladwell edited and published with two friends as a teenager living in a small farming town in Ontario, Canada.
“Our rule was you had to attack someone personally,” Gladwell says, explaining Ad Hominem in a recent interview on The Ezra Klein Show. “My column was called ‘The Moral Pejorative,’ and I would invite people to write things in the understanding that I would denounce them in the moral pejorative.”
In his interview with Klein, Gladwell explains the zine for young readers who came of age in the era of political blogs as well as how he and his buddies used it for a youthful rebellion against “Canadian left-wing dominance.”
“We were imagining: ‘If William F. Buckley were a 15-year-old Canadian in rural Ontario and had a zine, what would he say?’” says Gladwell, who is now nobody’s idea of a Buckley-ite conservative. “We had gone to the used bookstores in Toronto and collected every William F. Buckley column and memorized them, and tried reproducing them for our tiny audience.”
On the podcast, Klein and Gladwell also discussed why Gladwell believes the “internet is a fuck-up,” why he got fired from the American Spectator, and the big cultural divide between Canada and America. You can listen to the episode here or by subscribing to The Ezra Klein Show on iTunes.)
That time a 15-year-old Malcolm Gladwell tried to imitate William F. Buckley, Canada style
How did you first get involved in journalism?
I had what was called a zine — wait, are you too young for zines?
I know about them, but in an abstract way. I’m more of the generation that’s at the tail end of zines emerging into blogs. But as shocking as it is, some of our listeners may not know what a zine is.
A zine is a homemade magazine — it’s what you did if you lived in a small town and had some pretensions to cultural importance. You ran your own magazine and ran it off on a Xerox machine and distributed it to your friends. Lots of people had zines in the ’70s and ’80s.
I had a zine called Ad Hominem: A journal of slander and political opinion. And I did it with two people — my two best friends in high school, one of whom is now an opinion editor at the New York Times, and another of whom is a history professor at Harvard University.
These are my two best friends in a tiny, little, weird Bible Belt town in Elmira, Ontario — and we did the zine together and wrote opinion pieces. And our rule was you had to attack someone personally. That’s why it was called Ad Hominem. My column was called “The Moral Pejorative,” and I would invite people to write things in the understanding that I would denounce them in the moral pejorative. We put out six or seven episodes funded by the older brother of my friend.
So who are you attacking? Are you attacking Canadian politicians? Your teachers? Who is the target of Ad Hominem?
It was on a very high level.
This is ’70s Canada — the high-water mark of Canadian left-wing dominance. So the only way for us to rebel was to be conservative, and so we were all obsessed with William F. Buckley. We wanted to be William F. Buckley. And we were imagining if William F. Buckley was a 15-year-old Canadian in rural Ontario and had a zine, what would he say?
We had gone to the used bookstores in Toronto and collected every William F. Buckley column and memorized them, and tried reproducing them for our tiny audience. We would write for El Salvador or the Trudeau government or the big issues of the day — that’s what we were tackling.
I’m always interested in what direction people come to journalism from. Some love the craft of writing. And there are folks who ended up in these policy magazines who were interested in arguing and ideas and pushing them and saw journalism as a kind of activism.
It sounds like you began in that last group — is that fair?
Very much so.
The three of us, these friends in high school, were really mischief makers. That was our primary motivation. We engaged in a whole series of actions designed to subvert the school — one was Ad Hominem, but it was a sustained campaign of mischief.
We marched on city hall, for example. We had this principal who was a lovely, sweet man whom we all liked — beautifully bland and boring and ordinary, but a wonderful principal. But they transferred him, and to protest his transfer we arranged for the school buses to transport about 400 students 30 miles to the county seat. And we marched half a mile down the main street in Kitchener, Ontario, all carrying huge signs, “Hell no, Milken [the principal] won’t go.”
We were marching against the chair of the Board of Ed, whose name was Wollstonecraft. We had just read King Lear, and so another one of the signs said “Wollstonecraft, bloody scepter'd tyrant.”
It was all just mischief-making. We liked Milken, but we liked the opportunity to like him more than we liked him, you know?
Because it’s Canada — and I don’t think Americans quite get this — everyone was complicit. There was no opposition; no one got upset or in trouble. We took 300 students out of high school, transported them 30 miles, and had them march on city hall, and there wasn’t a single consequence to our actions. Not a one. The teachers thought it was hilarious; Milken was highly amused.
We stood with a megaphone under the Board of Education offices. With 300 kids, [my friend] Bruce gave this extraordinarily over-the-top speech, climaxing with, “You can run, Wollstonecraft, but you can’t hide.”
And no one cared, because it’s Canada. Because the whole ethos is permissive, in the best way. I can’t imagine that would be possible in Westchester County in 2016 at some high school.
What’s the big cultural divide between America and Canada?
There’s this cut on the US-Canada difference — that Canada is a gentle consensus but Americans are more bullish, more fractious. What do you think is the cultural difference between America and Canada?
There’s something quite fundamental that separates the two cultures — a disinclination to escalate social conflict.
It isn’t that there isn’t social conflict [in Canada]. But I feel that in this country, there’s no opportunity for conflict that is missed — you seize on it, and then you turn up the volume.
Whereas at least the Canada of my youth was the opposite. You found conflicts and you found a way to push them aside. So if you think about what I just described — taking kids out of school for an afternoon — people looked at that and said, “It’s kind of great kids like their principal a lot. We could make a big deal out of this, but what would be the point?”
I tell this story about my brother, an elementary school principal of a little school out in a very religious rural area. And it was the most well-behaved school of all time, where no one ever acted out. He transferred to the most troubled school in the district because he was getting bored and felt he was wasting his time.
He said that a lot of the best teachers wanted to be transferred with [him] because the top teachers always want to teach at the toughest school. I think in that profession, and maybe it’s broader in that, this is how they define their value. That’s really Canadian somehow — the idea that the profession is somehow stamped with this desire.
So why did you end up settling in America?
I’ve been obsessed with America from an early age.
I remember going into the library as a teenager and discovering the New York Review of Books — I’d never been to New York, and I remember being completely blown away. There was all of this intellectual excitement.
I grew up in a farming town in the country, where I was bored my entire childhood. I was desperate for some kind of excitement — drama, conflict, anything. I was bored from the age of 6 to the age of 16.
Why Gladwell thinks the modern-day version of the internet will one day be seen as nutty
I think the internet, as it is presently configured, in 25 years or 50 years from now will seem like a very bizarre experiment gone awry. That the idea of building a system fundamentally for every human interaction that is incapable of defending itself is insane. I mean, insane.
What do you mean by defending itself?
Exhibit No. 1 of complete public policy argument: Hillary’s emails.
People are jumping up and down because Hillary broke a rule and used a private server on her BlackBerry for stuff she could have kept on the State Department server. Meanwhile, the State Department server has been hacked so many times we’ve lost count.
Two years ago, the State Department server had to be shut down because there was Russian malware on it that they couldn’t get rid of. Snowden makes off with all of the diplomatic cables, and then OPM [Office of Personnel Management] gets hacked — every single file of every American who has ever applied for a national security clearance is in the hands of the Chinese. The federal government — the entire cyber apparatus of the federal government — is Swiss cheese.
And we’re still having an argument about it being on her BlackBerry. If it was on her Blackberry, it’d be 100 times safer than on the State Department server. It’s the only kind of argument you could have if you’re completely out of touch with the monster you’ve created. And the monster is indefensible. It can’t defend itself — it’s built so random people in Bulgaria can drop in at the drop of a hat. Every major institution in this country has been hacked. …
How long can this go on? At a certain point, we’re going to say: We need a new internet. The internet is a fuck-up! I don’t understand how no one sees this.
Here I am, a customer of Citibank. Why hasn’t Citibank come to me and said, “Malcolm, we are terribly sorry, but there’s nothing we can do to defend your finances from being hacked. If you pay us $1,000 a year, we can put you in a system to reduce your chances of being hacked by 99 percent.”
Why hasn’t Citibank done this? Because they’re numbskulls. Because they’re living with their head in the sand — and so does the State Department, and so does everybody.
I get hyper about this because I think it’s insanity on every level. We’re going to look and say, “Jesus, what were we thinking?”
One of the things I like about your Citibank example is that I think almost nobody would pay the $1,000. And the reason I’m pretty sure about that is that the lengths people will go to to not change a password is extraordinary.
I was hacked recently … and it made me realize how many things I have not taken the time to fortify. I think one of the points of vulnerability is not just that the systems are easy to hack but that we really dislike the work of making them hard to hack — even when we know better.
Yeah, I agree with all of what you said, but I will say that the internet was designed to be open. That’s the design flaw, in retrospect. Everything we deal with, with hacking, is not a bug of the internet — it’s a feature. And we have to fundamentally redesign it to eventually deal with hacking.