Glibness and inconsistency weaken theory of underdogs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 5:57pm

David and Goliath
by Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown & Co
2.5 stars

Janet Maslin

The world becomes less complicated with a Malcolm Gladwell book in hand. Gladwell raises questions - should David have won his fight with Goliath? - that are reassuringly clear even before they are answered. His answers are just tricky enough to suggest the reader has learned something, regardless of whether that's true.

As Gladwell specifies, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants just sets out to explore ideas. The first is that there is greatness and beauty in David-Goliath fights, at least when the underdog wins. The second is that "we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong" by failing to realise giants have weaknesses, and that underdogs can accomplish the unexpected. If this were a more serious book, it would have to apply that thought to terrorism. But Gladwell is not in the business of providing disturbing information.

Instead, his emphases are on uplift and novelty. So he analyses the David-Goliath bout, comparing the effects of slingshots to those of sword and spear. He lauds David's little-guy manoeuvrability. And he suggests that Goliath, like scientifically studied giants, might have had acromegaly, a growth disorder that would have meant a pituitary tumour, which could have created vision problems, which might explain why Goliath had an attendant to lead him. Maybe that led him to misjudge David's power. Maybe the Israelites watched from a distorting vantage point that made Goliath look excessively big, David excessively puny. Do we see the relevance of these thoughts to our daily lives?

Not yet? Then consider the title of this three-part book's first section: The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages). This turns out to be much more blunt than it sounds. During the course of a multipart, one-note argument, Gladwell demonstrates that short teenage girls playing basketball and a schoolteacher with a 29-student classroom could make seemingly adverse circumstances work to their advantages.

The girls learn to dominate the courts on which they play. And the teacher likes the variety of that seemingly overcrowded classroom, which may stir up an argument among the polite elite most likely to read Gladwell: the contrast between elite prep schools and colleges and more downscale ones in which students may be likelier to excel. His advice: ignore school ratings. Be a big fish in a small pond. Who wants to be a guppy at Harvard?

The book's middle section is its messiest. It scrambles through the stories of trial lawyer David Boies, film producer Brian Grazer, Goldman Sachs president Gary D. Cohn, pioneering leukaemia oncologist Jay Freireich and civil rights leaders who, according to Gladwell, successfully conned Eugene Connor, known as Bull, the white supremacist public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.

Boies, Grazer and Cohn created ingenious strategies to cope with their dyslexia. Freireich overcame terrible childhood hardship and would dare, as an adult, to put children through excruciating experimental treatments to save their lives. The black citizens and civil rights workers of Birmingham also had things to overcome.

The final part of David and Goliath is the one that hews closest to conventional wisdom. Entities with power, Gladwell says, should not invalidate their own legitimacy. As an example of how legitimacy might be lost, he cites an episode in Northern Ireland when the British army tear-gassed a Catholic priest. As an example of how it might yield benefits, he cites a police officer in New York who cultivated the worst juvenile offenders on her turf, even to the point of giving Thanksgiving turkeys to their families.

Gladwell has a less Christmassy point to make with the stories of how differently two California families dealt with the murders of daughters. Mike Reynolds, the first victim's father, helped drum up support for the state's three-strikes law, although Gladwell points out the law's weaknesses. It has since been overturned.

The second victim's story is quirkier. And it is a reminder of how much gutsier, if less comforting, Gladwell's all-but-patented investigative process would be if it flouted expectation. Wilma Derksen and her husband, Canadian Mennonites whose daughter was hog-tied and murdered, originally voiced a forgiving desire to know the killer. But then the man was apprehended, and Derksen could not bear the details she learned at his trial.

Perhaps Derksen might have exploited her daughter's fate, or otherwise made herself a strong counterpoint to Reynolds. But she showed courage in choosing not to. She had the strength to walk away, and Gladwell takes her story no further, not even to the point of relevance. Derksen was no David. Fate did not give her a Goliath to fight. She doesn't really belong here. David and Goliath lacks the temerity to say so.

The New York Times