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Arts and Culture

David and Goliath

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Posted on Oct 25, 2013
Hachette Book Group

By Tracy Quan

To see long excerpts from “David and Goliath” at Google Books, click here.

“David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants”
A book by Malcolm Gladwell

Like a lot of Truthdig readers, I didn’t grow up studying the Old Testament. We no longer expect every well-educated reader of English to know bits of the King James by memory. How quaint would that be, when so many who haven’t read the Bible are carving out respectable careers in publishing—or thumbing the pages of Malcolm Gladwell’s fifth book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants”?

Gladwell, though made in England and Canada, has made it in America, where the Bible belongs to its believers. The Old Testament is literary catnip for social conservatives, but secular readers rarely investigate because our resources include an intellectual freedom often missing in many religiously shaped lives. This privilege turns out to be a disadvantage because the Old Testament stories have never gone away and have more power than we realize.

In “David and Goliath,” Gladwell uses the tale related in 1 Samuel 17 to explore “lopsided conflicts”—a curfew imposed by the British army on a Catholic part of Belfast; a mediocre team from an affluent California city playing against the “born-with-a-basketball girls”; a canny civil rights leader looking for ways to provoke Birmingham, Ala., public safety commissioner Bull Connor in 1963. Gladwell begins by warning us that “we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. … Giants are not what we think they are.” The “giants” or “powerful opponents” Gladwell wants us to get right (or at least reconsider) include “disability, misfortune” and Ivy League schools.

In Gladwell’s “theory of desirable difficulty,” we mistakenly identify privilege as strength. He focuses on colorful individuals such as Hollywood producer Brian Grazer and the well-known litigator David Boies, suggesting that dyslexia, apartheid, childhood misery and the size of your daughter’s fifth grade class are existential cousins. Juicy opportunities are left on the table because we’re so busy trying to ally ourselves with giants—like the Ivy League. When holding the upper hand, we underestimate the underdog’s advantage and place too much faith in our own. The British Army in Belfast “did not understand that power has an important limitation. It has to be seen as legitimate, or else its use has the opposite of its intended effect,” says Gladwell, showing a pronounced sympathy for Northern Ireland’s besieged Catholics. Too often, we misconstrue our enemies.

All this because we don’t really know what went down with David and Goliath.

Gladwell sets out to correct the record, though what happens when shepherd boy meets professional monster in the valley of Elah is “a matter of legend.”

We should be wary, though, when Gladwell, who grew up around evangelicals, makes a point of indulging both secular readers and believers. He plays a gentle trick on the latter—“medical experts now believe ... Goliath had a serious medical condition”—and makes this poignant loser, with his pituitary tumor and his “diplopia” (a fancy name for double vision), sound like the invalid next door rather than a constructed character designed to advance political and tribal agendas. So far, so mischievous.

If we consistently get David and Goliath wrong, it’s partly because we get our impressions of this dynamic dyad from everything but the Book of Samuel. The mismatched fighters appear in paintings, cartoons, movies and—too often—news headlines. Facebook, Israel, immigration reform and high finance, along with primary and state elections, have all inspired confusing comparisons with David and Goliath. Confusing, because nobody likes to identify with Goliath, and everybody (even a reactionary anti-immigration lobbyist) wants to be seen as David, the righteous and ultimately triumphant underdog.

Somewhere in our collective secular hard drive, we have stored a tabloid story that seems, like a Daily Mail teaser, wonderfully cheap and compelling: small cocky shepherd boy, hulking giant, slingshot, moral victory. (Or perhaps merely a military solution.) This, and the lesson itself—the small shall conquer the large because they have justice (previously known as God) on their side—is what we carry in our heads.

Einstein called the Bible “a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.” This particular legend is alarmingly childish because of its happy ending. Our biggest mistake is in seeing it as a physical duel, rather than a political triangle involving King Saul. Because of Saul, the long aftermath of David’s showdown with the giant is neither happy nor pretty.

A seriously premodern ruler, Saul will try to get David killed by ordering him to go forth and circumcise a hundred Philistines. He sweetens the trap by offering David one of his daughters. When that plan backfires, Saul tries to have David assassinated. David’s most important adversary isn’t Goliath, it’s King Saul—the father-in-law from hell. To stay alive, David concocts a murky deal with the Philistines. Jonathan, Saul’s son, makes a controversial pact with David, creating yet another political trine. By the time Saul is dead and David proclaimed king, the ingenious shepherd has slaughtered so many people we’ve lost count.


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