Notes from Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Talking to Strangers’

The social human species evolved to default to truth when encountering each other. That works well more than it doesn’t but in complex society it results in many unintended consequences.

That’s the heart of Talking with Strangers, the 2019 book by journalist-public intellectual Malcolm Gladwell. That year, I saw Gladwell speak about his research informing the book. Though I got a copy of the book then, I only just got around to reading it.

Like many others, I enjoy Gladwell and admire the journey he’s taken as journalist, extending into longform narrative nonfiction to push forward our understanding of the world. Below I share a few short notes for myself in the future.

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Either you ride the horse or the horse rides you

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

For a couple of years in college, I spent a few days a month working at the Belmont Stables in Philadelphia’s West Fairmount Park. It’s just a dozen or so stables built in 1936 to house police horses on perhaps an acre of land.

I was under the tutelage of Ike Johnstone, an imposing, grandfatherly, gregarious kind of man who made you work for his respect. Ike, whose son played in the NFL, effectively ran the stables, which were owned by the City of Philadelphia, and operated his Bill Picket Riding Academy — a summer camp for mostly poorer Black kids from North Philadelphia.

Ike, who is Black, hosted horses for a handful of mostly Black families — offering a kind of opportunity and access that always seemed a point of pride for him. Despite that healthy Black riding community he fostered, Belmont Stables was unrelated to the Fletcher Street Riding Club that is most associated with mixing social justice and Black horse riding in Philadelphia.

“Plenty of Black cowboys if you know where to look,” Ike told me once.

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I believe Donald Trump should be impeached

One of the reasons I’ve maintained this blog for more than 10 years is as an effort to hold myself accountable. I want to make sure I know in the future where I stood on something.

I am the publisher of a news organization and still operate as a community journalist. I do maintain the dated and increasingly unpopular opinion that journalists do have a responsibility for prioritizing policy, over politics. That is, though I don’t believe in an “objectivity ideal” and despite the anti-media climate we are in, I still prize journalists fighting for results and data and something resembling a shared truth. This is unpopular work, but I think it’s important.

This, then is not a partisan cry. I believe Donald Trump should be impeached.

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My resolutions for 2021

Self-deception or not, I am an active participant in an annual reset. I personally appreciate taking a break, evaluating my goals and setting new ones for the next.

I hold some personal truths close, but I share annual resolutions each year. Even, or perhaps especially, after the very strange 2020, I am quite ready for 2021. Like you, I spent most of 2020 locked down at home or wearing a mask — as depicted above while walking my newborn daughter through a favorite nearby park. This will continue for what seems much of 2021. I suppose now I’m better prepared for it.

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My 2020 Review

I am not alone in welcoming the end of this chaotic and disruptive year.

I’ve been gifted enough perspective to be well aware of how fortunate I am. Still, I’m allowing myself to wallow in the enthusiasm I hold for the end of 2020. The feeling of closure around the end of year is purely psychological and it’s a feeling I enjoy every year. But, man, 2020 am I right?

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Actual conversations I had in 2020

This is not intended as a note of self-pity but rather a kind of reminder for me in the future. 2020 will be a famously challenging year. My experience was far less painful than many due to an array of privileges.

But goodness, I still found it stressful — and fast changing. One way I found myself thinking about it was by keeping a very strange list of the actual conversations I had with family, friends and coworkers this year.

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My first political endorsement

For the first time in my life, I made a political endorsement. I ddi this on Facebook intentionally to engage with many of those in my life who are active on that platform. I am re-posting this here for archiving.

Hello, I do not post political messages often. I do it even less on Facebook. And yet…

I grew up pretty centrist politically, and I developed professionally in a bipartisan journalistic tradition — one that, despite policy is more important than politics. I have voted for Republicans and Democrats, so I have never made a public endorsement. I’m writing this here because I was raised in a conservative county, and so I believe this is my best opportunity to try to share with people who might not agree with me.

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When ordinary fear is enough

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

I used to think all the great kinds of fear were personal ones. Artisanal fear; handcrafted fear; the kind of things that came with a story worth telling. Being lost a bit too long in Japan; crashing an ATV in Qatar; Running with the bulls. Some real life or death adventure, lest I fall victim to ordinary fear.

Back in late March, when it became increasingly clear that it was altogether conceivable that our healthcare system could collapse under the weight of this pandemic, I recognized I was experiencing a kind of universal fear. Certainly not ordinary, exactly, but something so widespread as to begin to feel ordinary. A universal fear that very nearly every person on the planet was experiencing at the same time.

Perhaps there has never been a time when more people in the world were scared of the same thing at the same time.

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Civility is complicity

White Americans often have a habit of assuming the best intentions. It’s a habit I still confront in myself.

We have faith in our institutions and in American exceptionalism. Especially the educated middle class and wealthier among us have been trained to be polite and respectful. We are predisposed to acquiesce.

I’ve struggled with this myself, both as someone who does believe a lot of important work can happen behind the scenes (calling in, rather than calling out) and as a journalist who is washed in the belief of “getting both sides.” This approach as it’s time to be effective. Issues of racial equity is not one of those times.

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White Silence is Violence: a self-audit on doing the work

I run a community journalism organization in part because I believe independent voices that push honest, challenging and productive dialogue are vital.

Especially because of our audiences (a political range of business and civic minded with Technical.ly; and a social services coalition with Generocity.org), we can be a force for change in our communities. I find that everyday, which keeps me excited by our work. It’s even more true in moments of intense scrutiny.

On the heels of a pandemic and an ensuing economic shock, we are in the midst of one of the most consequential conversations on racial equity in a half-century — sparked by yet another high-profile murder of a Black man by a white police officer. I’ve found myself taking a critical look at how I’ve responded. I don’t do enough, but I’ve certainly already been to the “Acceptance Stage of Grief for white supremacy.”

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