January 30, 2014

Cruel and asinine punishment: Malcolm Gladwell book assigned to eco-arsonist by a federal judge


Piss tests, community service, and this guy.

Piss tests, community service and this guy.

“If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them” Malcolm Gladwell said to interviewer Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian last September. That’s a fair policy, and a good one to follow, unless you’ve been assigned Gladwell’s oversimplified, pacifying collections of culturally-congratulatory gee-whiz-isms by a federal judge.

Rebecca Rubin was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Portland, Oregon this Monday, for her part in a series of fires set between 1996 and 2001. Rubin pled guilty last October to her role in the arson, committed while she was a member  of the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. Rubin had been a fugitive in Canada for six years before turning herself in to agents at the U.S. border in November 2012.

As Nigel Duara of the CP/AP reports, Rubin was extremely contrite in a letter sent to Judge Ann Aiken. From the Guardian:

“I reached a point in my early twenties when I could longer contain or appropriately channel the grief, despair, and powerlessness I felt in response to the mistreatment of animals and the natural world,” wrote Rubin. “Although at the time I believed my only motivation was my deep love for the earth, I now understand that impatience, anger, egotism and self-righteousness were also involved. In retrospect, I recognise how immature my actions were.”

Aiken sentenced Rubin to a five year term—nobody was hurt in any of the fires—and an impossible $13 million reparations bill. As Helen Jung reports for The Oregonian Aiken expressed her admiration for Rubin’s statement of regret:

“I understand more than you know when you work in a democracy that all things look like they’re black and white when you’re young,” she said. But there are many shades of gray, she said. “We can’t be settling disputes with raw power and in physical or damaging ways.”

And in what I’m sure she felt was an effort at compassion, Aiken assigned Rubin to read Gladwell’s latest, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants in order to teach her more about nonviolent protest.

That’s right. Not Gandhi, not Doctor King: she assigned her Gladwell.

Can there be any stronger affirmation of a book’s reactionary nature than to be assigned as punishment—or worse, as rehabilitation—in a court of law? (By that token, can there be a more persuasive argument that nonviolence protects the state?)

Aiken seems a compassionate judge and, indeed, Gladwell also means well. But this is damning stuff.

The central problem with Gladwell and the TED culture that arose from and supports his writing is that it engenders a highly materialist mindset which, while fetishizing ‘creativity’, also establishes the inviolability of the status quo. It is pat cocktail party factoid scientism, explaining away the possibility of and urge toward change. If that was ever in doubt, the fact that a Gladwell book might seem the perfect book to teach better methods of conformity to a prisoner places us well beyond that. Foucault is spinning so quickly in his grave we’re going to have to turn our clocks back by a few minutes.

Malcolm Gladwell can write about David for the rest of his career if he wants, but beginning this week even federal judges recognize his books as a way to ensure that Goliath need never fight.



Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.