In this week's issue ("The Innovators Issue") of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell upends the conventional wisdom (TM) about David vs. Goliath, by interweaving the gee-whiz story of a scrappy team of cute, unskilled youth basketball players with stories about Rick Pitino, war games and T.E. Lawrence. It is Gladwell's most exquisitely spieled bullshit in some time — such bullshit, in fact, that he is forced to swerve, screeching, away from his own not merely idiotic but genuinely dubious conclusions.
Gladwell's jumping-off point is the full-court press. Specifically, why don't more underdog basketball teams employ it, to disrupt the pace of the game and negate their opponents' advantage in skill? The way Rick Pitino's college hoops teams, from Providence College on, do?
As an analogue, Gladwell takes the sporting world's warfare metaphor at face value: the full-court press is roughly equivalent, it seems, to guerilla warfare, like the raids carried out by Lawrence and his Arabs, against the stronger Ottoman Empire.
Too often, for whatever reason, Gladwell observes, David chooses to play by Goliath's rules. But, by ignoring the conventional wisdom of how basketball ought to be played (take the ball up and run a set play) (Gladwell's apparently never heard of the fast break or the outlet pass, but let's leave that be for now), or how wars ought to be fought (massed face-to-face on a battlefield), teams or armies with less conventional advantages (skillz, manpower) can change the nature of the conflict to their advantage, disrupt the patterns of their opponent, and catch them off balance, as in the story of David and Goliath.
Gladwell sums up his premise thusly:
"David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability."
This formulation is, as always with Gladwell, more dichotomous than it needs to be — more dichotomous than, in fact, things are, when you consider the effort involved in cultivating skill, or, say, Rick Pitino's failure as a coach in the pros, where the "skilled" players are indeed actually skilled and well-coached enough to break a full-court press, and where the relatively close player-to-player difference in "skill" and "effort" closes up the competitive loophole that exists more frequently at lower levels.
So far, so inane, so usual for the po-faced Gladwell, whose brand
is to present an overly simplified version of conventional wisdom; then challenge it with a couple of raptly told anecdotes, so that a new, equally simplistic paradigm is introduced; and then conclude by walking back slightly, ending with the observation that the truth is more complicated than our entrenched ways of thinking have led us to believe.
But it's not just typical Gladwell this time: there's a noted moral component here. (As well as an unfortunate echo of the many sportswriters who think that physically unexceptional white athletes simply care
more than innately gifted black athletes.) With sermon-ish exclamation points, Gladwell plays up the hardship involved in playing like David, and the moral weakness of teams that won't press for 48 minutes:
Pitino shook his head. "We practice every day for two hours straight," he went on. "The players are moving almost ninety-eight per cent of the practice. We spend very little time talking. When we make our corrections" — that is, when Pitino and his coaches stop play to give instruction — "they are seven-second corrections, so that our heart rate never rests. We are always working." Seven seconds! The coaches who came to Louisville sat in the stands and watched that ceaseless activity and despaired. The prospect of playing by David's rules was too daunting. They would rather lose.
And he tells the story of a computer scientist who designed a program, called Eurisko, to win a naval simulation tournament, by comprising a fleet entirely of many small, expendable ships. Other, more "establishment" gamers were horrified by this protocol, and tried to change the rules on this cheeky upstart. (Much like, Gladwell, notes, the Ivy Leagues once tried to weed out the truly gifted WASPs from the "grinder" Jews.) Gladwell concludes:
Goliath does not simply dwarf David. He brings the full force of social convention against him; he has contempt for David... It isn't surprising that the tournament directors found Eurisko's strategies beyond the pale. It's wrong to sink your own ships, they believed. And they were right. But let's remember who made that rule: Goliath. And let's remember why Goliath made that rule: when the world has to play on Goliath's terms, Goliath wins.
Elsewhere in the article, Gladwell isn't shy about calling Lawrence's forces, or other similar armies, "insurgents." He even quotes Eurisko's design admitting that expending his (simulated) forces is "socially horrifying."
So it's either autistically oblivious, or cavalierly disingenuous, for Gladwell to shy away from some real-world, real-warfare implications. Lawrence was on our side, but today's insurgents... well. To full-court press Goliath, today's Davids blow themselves up in marketplaces ("sink their own ships"), along with dozens of bystanders. To full-court press Goliath, today's Davids kill their own neighbors, when their neighbors accept aid from occupiers.
Unlike in basketball or war games, the only "rules" in real warfare are agreed-upon notions of what's accepted. Today's Davids are morally strong enough, it would appear, to "make the effort" to not play by our power-perpetuating notions of the rules. Are we contemptuous of suicide bombers because they flaunt the rules we wrote to our own advantage? Terrorism (a word that does not appear in Gladwell's article) is out of bounds, we say — but do we, in fact, only say that because we've set the rules that best ensure our victory?
Does Gladwell honestly think this? I doubt it. So either he's sidestepping it, or it honestly didn't occur to him. So we conclude that either a) Malcolm Gladwell is a mountebank making ideas into shiny objects for fun and profit, or b) he's a more verbally gifted version of the bedazzled children who make up his core audience.
The best thing that can be said about him, which is also the best thing that can be said about Wernher von Braun or Leni Riefenstahl, is that he's a babe in the woods, and likes playing with his toys so much that he's unaware of any larger implications of his play. His editors at the New Yorker
, though, should be ashamed of themselves.