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The Rules of the Game

by Sarah Ruden

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown, 320 pp., $29)

Malcolm Gladwell has had quite a different career than might be expected from a mathematician’s son who grew up mainly in a Canadian Mennonite community. For at least a decade, he has been America’s most popular social-science journalist. His fifth book, however, ventures much farther than his previous ones into political, historical, and religious matters, in its exploration of the meaning of the Biblical story of David’s triumph over the Philistine champion. This venture proves a distinct problem.

The dominance of the social sciences in our thinking is too great, if you ask me; we’re too used to being told where we need to go in our lives, and how to get there, and we’re too used to complying. But often the priesthood of expertise is quite limited, serving cults of success, fame, wealth, beauty, youth, fitness, or shopping, cults that don’t impinge much on serious people’s lives; and it can be great to have a guide to the shrines who is a believer, an insider, who has the priests’ confidence and so can tell us what’s going on. (I’ve found Gladwell’s past meditations on, for example, how hair coloring and small kitchen appliances are marketed useful and entertaining.) But when, as in this new book, the priesthood’s vehicles (the slogan, the arresting image, the statistical surprise, and so on) run up against civilization — that deeper, more solid structure on which humanity either depends or impales itself — then the clank and rattle are loud and disturbing.

The main point of the David and Goliath story, as Gladwell tells it, is that bigger is not necessarily better. He goes on to apply this principle to, among other far-flung situations, those of a novice coach of a girls’ basketball team who made the full-court press his dominant strategy; of a wealthy Hollywood director who is worried that his children don’t have to work hard, in the way that toughened him; of an undergraduate who chose Brown over a school where she would have had less competition in science courses; and of a civil-rights leader who acted like the trickster Brer Rabbit of southern folklore.

Only in the echoing absence of context can such examples all fit into the single idea of smallness’s advantages. The context most undeniably missing is civilization’s typical concern for lessons of the past and plans for the long term; and more recent civilization’s concern for rules that are broadly fair as well as efficient. The flash and blare of the advertising mode, in contrast, urging that a legitimate “dream” is only what I want right now for myself or my family or friends, have pretty low mileage and certainly don’t make for a thoughtful essay.

One of Gladwell’s crucial exhibits in David and Goliath, Vivek Ranadivé, an Indian immigrant to Silicon Valley who tried to revolutionize basketball for his own purposes, gets a bizarrely stripped-down presentation. Ranadivé was in reality puzzled by a lot more than “the way Americans play basketball.” He clearly had no sense of what basketball is about — what kind of game is exciting for both sides to play and fun to watch, what kind fairly rewards the talents and tactics peculiar to the sport. If the full-court press Ranadivé favored ever did become commonplace, it would threaten to turn basketball into a contest in stampeding and looming, and the rules would have to change.

Ranadivé seems to have been — with Gladwell’s approval afterwards — indifferent to the anger of other teams’ coaches and parents and miffed at the intervention of a referee who called numerous touch fouls (“Ticky-tacky stuff,” comments Gladwell). The tragedy, in the author’s eyes, was that “Ranadivé called the press off. He had to. . . . [His team] played basketball the way basketball is supposed to be played, and in the end they lost — but not before proving that Goliath is not quite the giant he thinks he is.” Somehow, I don’t imagine that everybody in National Junior Basketball shared that conclusion.

There is an even stranger presentation, as a David and Goliath fable, of an anonymous Hollywood multimillionaire’s past struggles and his present ambivalence about his wealth, as a bad influence on his children. I read between the lines that the children are, at the least, spoiled. So how does this lesson work? The father, as a David, overcame hardships, his Goliath, through the very toughness and adaptability they created; fine. So the money he made on the way is an independent monster, another Goliath, and this time one who will inevitably defeat the young Davids in his home? He has no say in this? Many parents (I’m thinking of Mormons in particular) take care to limit the influence of money — no matter how much there happens to be — on their young children. In this connection, it is good to be part of a community with traditions and ideals that help in imposing limits — such as, most often, a religious community.

It’s also a head-scratcher that Gladwell didn’t look beyond the personal frustration of the Brown undergraduate with the competition she claimed deprived her of a career in science. He takes a typical freshman crisis very seriously, never considering its typical sources and its long-term and general purposes. There is an immense gap between, on the one hand, the demands of high schools in this country that pass as pretty good, and, on the other, the demands of our elite universities. But the issue isn’t the crushing of talent and dreams in an overly competitive environment as much as the sorting of kids who will work like fiends from those who expect a better social life than in high school, but the same high grades too, while dealing with multivariable calculus and organic chemistry.

Those subjects are the same everywhere: They have to be strafed with study, and if students at mid-tier schools have any advantage, it’s in thinking less of themselves and wanting to move on to somewhere more prestigious. The we-need-more-scientists-and-engineers-not-more-lawyers whine that Gladwell deploys, with the implication that it can and should be academically easier to get the requisite degrees, wouldn’t survive the experience (which I had in South Africa) of a higher-education system that “manages” competition. There is no honest and efficient way to do that. Our techies are the best: They invent at a blinding rate, and pillage Nobels; that we don’t have more of them, of the same quality, is largely the fault of public schools that don’t prepare young people, either with knowledge or with discipline, to major in science at college.

The civil-rights movement was a sort of David and Goliath story, in which intelligence, energy, courage, and the consciousness of right on the part of the materially weak won out over all the practical power of bigotry. It’s therefore downright perverse of Gladwell to highlight, as if it were characteristic of the whole movement, the antics of Wyatt Walker, a Baptist minister who was Martin Luther King’s fixer but sometimes worked underhandedly. (Gladwell: “Walker knew better than to tell King all that he was doing. King would disapprove. Walker kept his mischief to himself.”) Walker was not even a pacifist (“By this time, you know, if I’d had my razor I’d have cut him,” he said of an attacker), and his tactics echo the moral degradation that slavery created (and that gave a perpetual excuse for oppression), the opposite of King’s determination to confront wrongdoing with principled resistance.

In the quest for sympathetic publicity for the movement, Walker “succeeded” by luring black schoolchildren into confronting the brutal Birmingham police, their attack dogs, and their willingness to jail hundreds of peaceful protesters of any age. It was the classic Brer Rabbit/slave tactic of throwing those who were more susceptible into the breach, and if the tactic had predominated, if the civil-rights leaders had not normally confronted evil with their own bodies, taken the risks themselves, and shrugged off the personal price, their movement would have failed. As it was, Walker did a great deal of damage. Even Malcolm X, no great fan of scruples in the face of racism, was among the disgusted, remarking that “real men don’t put their children on the firing line.”

A book that pays so little attention to such important values as the common reluctance to place anyone beyond the rules of decent behavior is bound to have problems with definition and proportion. Martin Luther King and his movement were big, huge in the ways that count, whereas their opponents were puny and petty; nor was the marchers’ and boycotters’ bigness in essence about coming out ahead in any worldly sense. The overall leader, after all, was assassinated; the political goals were achieved, but not the economic ones. The people were great because, in their sacrifices, they became part of us, bled into the whole in imitation of Jesus, whom most of them espoused. Gladwell’s gestures, almost toward the Prosperity Gospel, his claims that faith can help make you come out on top, really do not cut it.

– Sarah Ruden is a classicist, poet, and journalist. Her next book, The Music Inside the Whale, and Other Marvels: A Translator on the Beauty of the Bible, will be published in 2015.

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