<i>Outliers</i> and the Hillbilly Sterotype

I would like to see Malcolm Gladwell test his theory about Southerners being more prone to violence than Northerners.
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Never understood that ain't no good, you shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you.

-Bob Dylan

Author Malcolm Gladwell's career path reminds me of 1970's rock star Peter Frampton.

In 1976, Peter Frampton released Frampton Comes Alive. Critically acclaimed, it was one of the biggest selling live albums of all time.

He followed up with I'm In You, a lesser effort. He then flamed out with the movie, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Gladwell's first book was The Tipping Point, a critically acclaimed best seller. The second, Blink, was a lesser effort.

His latest book, Outliers, is Gladwell's Sergeant Pepper. A total embarrassment. Frampton was embarrassing because he made bad choices and took bad drugs.

Gladwell's book is embarrassing because it is inane and plays on stereotypes.

I'm not sure what point Outliers is supposed to be making. He talks about hockey players, birth years and other random topics. He sucks up to some New York lawyers, including his agent.

I don't mind pointlessness or shout-outs to his buddies. Lot of authors write pointless book and butter-up their friends.

What I mind is his prejudice and hatred against the people of Appalachia.

Gladwell devotes an entire chapter of the book to Harlan, Kentucky. A place I am pretty familiar with. I've been there countless times and my daughters were born in an adjoining county.

Nothing suggests that Gladwell has been near Harlan, but that doesn't stop him from being an expert on it, anyway.

Although Outliers is subtitled, "The Story of Success," Gladwell thinks the people in Harlan are a bunch of losers. He calls it "a remote and strange place" and tells the story of a 1930's fight between the Turner family and the Howard family. He spends the rest of the chapter promoting a theory that people in Appalachia are more prone to violence than people in the north because of their "Scotch-Irish heritage."

Gladwell doesn't let facts get in the way of his theory. Thus, he doesn't cite any crime statistics at all.

I can see why. According to the Crime in Kentucky report issued by the Kentucky State Police, there was only one murder in Harlan County in 2007.

If the Howard's and the Turner's are still feuding, one of them is not shooting back.

There were 12 Harlan County robberies and 53 assaults. That number might rise to 54 if Gladwell ever sets foot there.

If someone in Harlan takes a swing at him, Gladwell is getting off easy. New York City had 494 murders that same year. Imagine if Gladwell attributed those killings to the ethnic heritage of the murderers. His publisher (Little, Brown and Company) would have mobs in front of its building.

Gladwell slopped the chapter together without a lot of research. As noted, he skipped statistics and personal interviews. He leans heavily on a book written in 1962 and an article written in 1949. He throws in a couple of studies and books from the1980's and 1990's.

Thus, this chapter in his 21st Century "Story of Success" does not reflect a single piece of research done in the 21st Century.

Lack of research doesn't stop him from pushing his prejudices anyway. He plays on the same stereotypes that color many people's view of Appalachia and which come from television comedies like The Beverly Hillbillies.

The Beverly Hillbillies was the second most outrageous caricature to come out of the 1960's. (It's impossible to be worse than Hogan Heroes, which turned Nazis into a bunch of stumbling, funny men.)

Something else was going on the 1960's - the civil rights movement. The decade started with segregated restaurants and restrooms and ended with the assassination of Martin Luther King. Lots of good was done during that time period. It was a major step in a journey that led to the first African-American being elected President of the United States.

When Barack Obama is sworn in as president on January 20, it should be the day that Americans stop making bigoted generalizations about people whom they know little or nothing about. It's time to stop perpetrating stereotypes about race, religion, heritage, nationality, disabilities and sexual preferences.

It's time to stop demeaning the people of Appalachia, too.

Appalachian crusaders, such as Gurney Norman, have made tremendous strides in keeping The New Beverly Hillbillies television show off the air and the Kentucky Cycle out of theaters.

Like Peter Frampton, Gladwell is coasting on the success of his previous work. That's not a bad money making strategy. The book is on the best seller list.

I would like to see Gladwell test his theory about Southerners being more prone to violence than Northerners. A good way to do it would be for Gladwell to walk the streets at midnight in urban areas that have the same economic and unemployment challenges as those of Harlan.

If he survives that, I invite Mr. Gladwell to come to Harlan, do some readings of his book, and have a heaping helping of their hospitality.

Hillbilly that is. Set a spell. Take your shoes off. Y'all come back now, y'hear.

Don McNay is the founder of McNay Settlement Group in Richmond, Kentucky. You can read his award winning, syndicated financial column at www.donmcnay.com or write to him at don@donmcnay.com McNay is the author of Son of a Son of a Gambler and The Unbridled World of Ernie Fletcher. He is also proud to have been named a Kentucky Colonel and an honorary Duke of Hazard.

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