If I had the money, I would send Tina Rosenberg on an all-expenses-paid trip to Cairo. Here’s why: Back in 1987, the MacArthur Foundation, which does have the money, awarded her a “genius” grant. Rosenberg used it to research and write an excellent book, Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America. Afterward, she turned her attention to Eastern Europe and to the moral, political, and ethical difficulties of apportioning guilt and innocence in post-Communist nations. The resulting book, The Haunted Land, possesses a rare combination of nuance and force. It also possesses a rare combination of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Rosenberg has thoughtfully tracked the difficult transition to democracy on two continents, and I’d love to hear her reflect on the current turmoil in the Middle East. But it turns out she had other plans. “Problems were in endless supply,” she writes in her new book. “But it was starting to seem more interesting and valuable to write about solutions.”
That new book—Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World—is, to put it mildly, an unlikely third act. The Haunted Land concerned not just the madness of tyrants but the complicity of the masses—all those “card-carrying members” of one of the most catastrophic clubs in history. So why is Rosenberg suddenly championing the virtues of being a joiner? Because, she says, she stumbled on something called “the social cure”—a panacea so powerful that it can help you quit smoking, lose weight, escape poverty, ace calculus, combat Islamic terrorism, overthrow a dictator.
That sounds promising, assuming Utopia is your thing. But it also sounds odd. As readers will remember from their D.A.R.E. days, peer pressure is better known for less salutary effects: We drop acid, wear jeggings, turn a blind eye when our neighbors are dispatched to the Gulag. Rosenberg’s response to this is homeopathic: We should fight bad peer pressure with good. Accordingly, she showcases situations where social conformity produces positive results. South African teens practice safe sex. Minority college students improve their grades. Serbian citizens bring down a despot. Members of a megachurch befriend their neighbors and grow closer to God.
Rosenberg’s readers will presumably find these outcomes largely laudable. So do I. But there’s something discomfiting about them, and it’s not just that giving up cigarettes is up there with ousting dictators and skinniness is next to godliness. Once you burn off a lot of definitional fog, the “social cure” reveals itself as nothing more than peer pressure applied toward ends that Rosenberg supports. That raises a question that, bafflingly, she never addresses: Who gets to decide what constitutes acceptable peer pressure? Your idea of a good peer group might be my idea of a cult. Your worthy goal might be my worst nightmare. Rosenberg cherry-picks positive outcomes, but the process she describes as “the social cure” is fundamentally neutral—equally useful to Samaritans and to Stalin.
How did someone as smart as Rosenberg miss this? Specifically, how did she wind up coining a catchy name for an everyday phenomenon whose benefits she overstates and whose demerits she overlooks? The answer, as Zen masters like to observe, lies within the question. Rosenberg, too, yielded to peer pressure and joined a club: the club of the Big Idea book.
Big Idea books have been around for a long time; see The Communist Manifesto. But the Big Idea Book Club (I mean “club” as Rosenberg defines it: an identifiable in-group with enough status to influence the behavior of others) is a recent phenomenon. Its accidental founder and president in apparent perpetuity is Malcolm Gladwell. Its membership, like the membership of most powerful groups, is largely male. Its combined sales are stratospheric; whatever these books are hawking, we can’t stop buying it.
As for the books themselves, I’ll generalize (as, often, do they). Big Idea tomes typically pull promiscuously from behavioral economics, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology. They coin phrases the way Zimbabwe prints bills. They relish upending conventional wisdom: Not thinking becomes thinking, everything bad turns out to be good, and the world is—go figure—flat. (With Gladwell’s Blink, this mania for the counterintuitive runs top-speed into a wall, crumples to the ground, and stares dizzily at the little birds circling overhead. This is, let me remind you, a best-selling book about the counterintuitive importance of thinking intuitively.)
Before I get any further, let me say this: I am very much in favor of books that contain ideas. (And, full disclosure, I wrote a book that fits some of the above criteria.) What troubles me about the Big Idea Book Club is the way ideas often slide toward ideologies—grand unifying theories of culture, cognition, happiness, talent, the Internet, the future, you name it. “The Hidden Side of Everything,” “The Story of Success”: the italics are mine, but the emphasis is theirs.