Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Does Decrying the Comparison of Tobacco Companies to Hitler Make One a Tobacco Industry Shill?

In an interesting commentary at The Exiled, Yasha Levine presents his case that Malcolm Gladwell -- author of the popular books The Tipping Point, Outliers, and Blink -- is a tobacco industry shill who has spouted tobacco industry propaganda and has a relationship with Big Tobacco.

One of the major arguments Levine puts forward to support his argument that Gladwell is a Big Tobacco shill is that Gladwell criticized journalist Philip Hilts for comparing tobacco industry executives to Nazis.

Levine writes: "What the hell is Gladwell doing on a list of tobacco-industry defenders? Well, at least one thing is clear: It’s not because of some freakish clerical error. He carried big tobacco’s water when they needed it most.

And he continued doing it even after being hired by New Yorker in the mid-90′s. For example: In a 1996 book review published in the New Republic, Gladwell slammed journalist Philip J. Hilts for comparing tobacco industry execs to Nazis, and then used the occasion to smear all tobacco critics in general:

What is grotesque about this passage is not just the casualness with which Hilts enlists the Holocaust in his campaign against the Marlboro Man; Auschwitz, after all, has been cheapened before. It is also the incredible moral and analytical simplification, the obliteration of notions of responsibility, that is required to compare the act of selling people cigarettes to the act of herding people into a gas chamber. At the moment of its greatest victory, the anti-tobacco movement has begun to acquire a noxious odor of its own.

Big tobacco was clearly pleased with his efforts."

Levine concludes by suggesting that Gladwell not only spouts tobacco industry propaganda but has a relationship, presumably financial, with Big Tobacco: "The New Yorker might want to ask Gladwell about the kind of relationship he had/still has with big tobacco. Readers would probably want to know."

The Rest of the Story

Whether Malcolm Gladwell is or is not a tobacco industry shill, I find it troubling that his criticism of the comparison of tobacco executives to Nazis is used as evidence to support that contention. I find the comparison distasteful, inaccurate, and insensitive to the victims of the Holocaust. To say that the Nazis were only as "evil" as the executives who sell a legal product which is in demand by millions of Americans is inappropriate and minimizes the tragedy of the Holocaust. Thus, to criticize such a comparison seems perfectly reasonable. It hardly characterizes one as a tobacco industry shill.

By Levine's argument, I am a tobacco industry shill because I criticized a former American Cancer Society president for comparing tobacco executives to terrorists. I wrote: "I completely reject any reference to tobacco manufacturers and marketers as "terrorists," and if Dr. Seffrin made this remark (and there is no reason to believe that the Post is not being accurate in its reporting), I think it is inappropriate, irresponsible, and plainly wrong."

Does this mean that I am a tobacco industry shill or that I must have a financial relationship with Big Tobacco?

One other aspect of the commentary which I find troubling is the accusation thrown at Gladwell that he has a relationship - presumably financial - with Big Tobacco. While the article provides evidence that Gladwell has taken positions that support the tobacco industry, it provides no evidence that he has ever received tobacco industry funding or that he had any type of relationship with the tobacco companies. I do not believe it is right to make such an accusation without having at least some evidence.

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