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David and Goliath
Posted on Oct 25, 2013
By Tracy Quan
In the Bible, David’s messy relationship with the king unfolds over 16 chapters; his brief encounter with Goliath occupies one. Even in the minds of nonbelievers and not-quite-believers, Goliath’s importance is exaggerated. Goliath is a Sunday-school favorite. A grotesque enemy has more popular appeal (and is easier to teach the children about) than a murderous father figure.
It’s been said in The Nation that Gladwell writes for people who buy “books you can talk about with your boss”—a snooty but relevant assessment, since you might speak as carefully to a boss as to a child.
So would you rather chat with the boss about Gladwell’s Goliath or Samuel’s King Saul, the jealous CEO plotting to destroy a talented newbie? King Saul, essential to the Goliath story, turns out to be a high-ranking in-house hater, triangulating and treacherous as only a family member can be. Goliath, a hired thug from across the way, is more clean than mean. That’s why David and Goliath is such a palatable—Gladwellian, actually!—story.
Gladwell keeps us engaged through seven congenial chapters, telling stories of individuals facing great challenges, while treating us to charts, graphs and diagrams. Have you ever wondered why so many dyslexic dudes appear to be running the world? Well, Ikea, Goldman Sachs and parts of Hollywood, certainly, and at least one prominent law firm. Your boss may be one of those gifted dyslexics, who, like Brian Grazer, “learned how to do everything possible to sell my point” or, if he has half of David Boies’ compensatory talent, there is “no stray comment or revealing admission from ... an hour or a day or a week before” that won’t be “heard, registered and remembered.” For Gladwell, who often sounds as shrewd and cheerful as Eleanor Porter’s fictional heroine Pollyanna, “The act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”
In Chapter 8, the tone changes.
Mike Reynolds, a dad who seems very much like an Old Testament figure, has never recovered from his 18-year-old daughter’s violent death. He’s the architect of California’s notorious Three Strikes statute, signed into law in 1994, two years after his daughter Kimber was killed—because, says her father, “I’m going to do everything in my power to try and prevent this from happening to anybody else.”
Reynolds isn’t satisfied—how could he be?—but he doesn’t admit that Three Strikes could be a mistake, even when he learns that California has become a place where you can be sentenced to 25 years to life for stealing a TV set if you’re a repeat offender. Gladwell creates a convincing portrait of a tragic individual who “employs the full power of the state in his grief” and still feels incomplete, “plunging his government into a fruitless and costly experiment.”
I don’t know whether a keen understanding of a Goliath’s limited power would have stopped Reynolds from embarking on his campaign, but he certainly didn’t do this alone. Career-building prosecutors, and all that profit from the California prison industry (including any companies doing business with the system) are among those benefiting from his grief—and, perhaps, from his daughter’s death.
Gladwell’s encounter with Reynolds is part of a problem we all, increasingly, live with. Three Strikes came into existence during the first decade of widespread sex offender registries. Consider the parallels:
Patty Wetterling, whose 11-year-old son Jacob disappeared in 1989, began promoting sex offender registration laws in 1990. In 1991, a Minnesota law was passed. In 1994, the Jacob Wetterling Sex Offender Registration Act was part of President Clinton’s Crime Bill. Another federal law, the Adam Walsh Act, received support, over the years, from grieving parents and was passed in 2006. Like Three Strikes, all these laws were championed to protect or vindicate the powerless. They are broader than you’d expect.
Sex offender registration has been used to punish children who would have been scolded for playing doctor in 1988, to imprison women who sell sex to survive, to criminalize high school students in consensual romantic relationships. Children younger than Jacob Wetterling was at the time of his abduction have been branded as sex offenders. One critic of sex offender registration in recent years is Patty Wetterling. Her principled opposition to a law she once lobbied for is rather inspiring, for our largest mistakes are the hardest to acknowledge.
It’s not just that people misread state power. It’s worse. By positioning yourself as the underdog, you can humiliate others, destroy lives, misuse your government’s power and maybe even get a bad law passed. People who see their struggles in David and Goliath terms are naive and often dangerous. Sometimes, as Gladwell shows us, they influence the justice system and create lasting damage.
On Twitter and elsewhere, “Check your privilege” has become the underdog’s political putdown du jour, a stone in every David’s virtual sling. Underdogs exist across the political spectrum—left, right, libertarian, feminist, antifeminist—and they have more in common than they care to admit. I don’t know whether Gladwell would agree with me, but I think the time has come for every David to check his conscience. Or hers.
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