Malcolm Gladwell’s Beige Skin Privilege

Would the New Yorker have launched Malcolm Gladwell’s ascent to Billionairehood if he wasn’t a person of color? Would the white liberal decision makers have let him use their pages to attack Susan Love, MD, the UCLA breast-cancer specialist who warned about the dangers of Hormone Replacement Therapy? Would those lovers of pelicans and terns have published Gladwell’s pitch for the renewed use of DDT?

The editors of the NYer and their counterparts in book publishing and television and online media have created a Frankenstein who they keep pretending is not monstrous. On CNN this week Gladwell was fawned over by smart, sensible Ari Melber as he promoted his latest best-seller, “The Bomber Mafia.”  The book was deemed “a love song to the United States Air Force” by Thomas Ricks in the NY Times Book Review.

“In Gladwell’s deft hands, the Air Force generals of World War II come back to life as the stirring 20th-century equivalent of Adm. Horatio Nelson and his band of audacious captains from the age of fighting sail,” writes Ricks. “The unexpected hero of Gladwell’s story is Curtis LeMay — yes, that one, the general who firebombed Tokyo and dozens of other Japanese cities and then, decades later, supposedly advocated bombing the Vietnamese back into the Stone Age. (Gladwell partly excuses this notorious phrase, saying it was likely the work of a ghostwriter.)”

“As Gladwell tells it, the practical problem was how to win the war as quickly as possible. LeMay’s solution was to saturate Tokyo with napalm bombs, killing as many as 100,000 people in about six hours, and then to go on and firebomb dozens of other Japanese cities, killing thousands upon thousands, sometimes when the target cities were of little or no military value…

“Gladwell is a wonderful storyteller… The Bomber Mafia is gripping. I enjoyed this short book thoroughly, and would have been happy if it had been twice as long.” Blurbs ‘R’ us! As for the book’s main point:  “Gladwell argues that LeMay’s savage firebombing campaign succeeded, and that, combined with the two atomic bombs that followed, shortened the war. ‘Curtis LeMay’s approach brought everyone — Americans and Japanese — back to peace and prosperity as quickly as possible.’”

Ricks expresses two minor misgivings. He questions whether Secretary of War Stimson was the man most “responsible for the extraordinary war machine that the US built,” noting that “it certainly is arguable that others, like Gen. George C. Marshall, were just as important.”  And he’s dismayed by a line in the Bomber Mafia’s subtitle —”The longest night of the war”— that refers to the firebombing of Tokyo.

Gladwell, a consummate opportunist, expresses cursory admiration for what Ricks calls “the ability of today’s ‘stealthy’ radar-evading bombers to drop ordnance from great heights and have them guided to precise points on a given target — say, a hardened aircraft hangar or an enemy intelligence agency’s power system.” But the object of Gladwell’s book-length “love song,” Curtis LeMay’s strategy of wiping out vast regions, might again prove useful, according to the Times Book Review:

“The American military’s precise new way of information-based warfare so far has been tested only in relatively small and short bombing campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, the gunboat wars of our time. Precision-guided munitions are hugely expensive, and the stockpiles of them are surprisingly small. What would happen with bombing in a really big war remains to be seen. So it is probably too early, far too early, to believe that wide-area, city-destroying attacks that kill large numbers of civilians have become a horror only of the past.”

In Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 movie Dr. Strangelove, George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden both play Air Force generals and both are said to have based their portrayals in part on Curtis LeMay.

Rumsfeld Remembered

After a career as a heart surgeon, Thomas Orvald, MD, came out of retirement some 20 years ago to approve marijuana use by patients in Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii. Orvald had played college basketball at Princeton in the 1950s. As he tells it, “I had a routine. I was very compulsive, just like I was as a surgeon. Every day after classes I would come to Dillon Gymnasium and I would do 150 jump shots around the perimeter. That’s how I developed my touch. Anyway, I was in there all by myself in Dillon Gymnasium, doing my jump shots, and there’s this kid doing laps around the gym. I didn’t know who the hell he was, I knew he was on the wrestling team.

“So he’s running, and I take a shot, and the ball rolls down, and he kicks it! On purpose! All the way down to the other end of two basketball courts!  It was a big place, like a barn. I said, ‘Hey! What’d you do that for?’ He gave me the finger. ‘I said ‘Well, go get the ball.’ He came charging at me, tried to tackle me. And I got him with an uppercut, right square in the nose. Broke his nose.

“To make a long story short, it was Donald Rumsfeld. He was a wrestler at that time, he wrestled 145 pounds, he had to sweat to make it down to that. He was a very good wrestler. I was 6′ 5″ and about 225. And he was a smaller guy. Anyway, we got into it. A couple of guys came over, there was blood on the court, he had blood all over him. After that, the upperclassmen never messed with me.”

Orvald was a sophomore, Rumsfeld a senior when they had their encounter.

I put him in a song once. Never tried to drive traffic to the site and over the years the graphics have become out of sync, but now that Liz Cheney is considered a noble character, it’s worth a spin: Goodbye, Judy.

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at