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The One Where Malcolm Gladwell Chews More Than He’s Bitten Off.

In The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais, Lucian Fevbre writes: “The first caveman, to rub two sticks together to start a fire, no matter how much a genius, is not responsible for the electric stove…”

I was reminded of that after stumbling over Malcolm Gladwell’s Ted Talk on David and Goliath.

It’s a fashionable type of historiography lite in which someone (preferably someone with an aw-shucks nerdy/geek to normal ratio of at least ten to one) seems to unpack something the foolish Alphas (defined by having normal hair and attractive partners) have always taken at face value. They show us how ignorant the Alphas are and how smart they are and without their fingers ever leaving their hands they also demonstrate that we’d all be much better off if we listened to the Betas who, it turns out, are really Alphas in disguise. It’s the old 90 pound weakling transformed into the tough guy who beats the bully trope updated to the contemporary scene. And among the stars of the genre is Malcolm Gladwell with his crazy professor hair that seems a mash-up of Lynchian Eraserhead aesthetics and any number of B movie images of what used to be called eggheads with their suggestion of Einsteinian other-worldly genius.

Gladwell’s shtick, so to speak, is that there is a universe of data in the margins and it takes a margin dwelling Beta (with weird hair slight build and whose ability to attract a partner is calculated by their being as attractive as he is, or a representative of the counter-intuitive marketing trope where the traditionally attractive woman – usually blond usually with large breasts – “falls” for the nerd/geek Brainiac and leaves the Flash Thompson jock  -old Peter Parker scene not new Peter Parker scene – i.e., Aunt May is not, Hot) to show the Alphas what’s what and what’s bunk.

Peter is in many respects the ancestor of Gladwell. Except that Parker combines the best of both worlds – a science whiz or as we would say today – nerd/geek, who is also an Alpha male but must live a split existence because the world with its binary codes of social norms defined by the needs of Kapital, won’t allow for the integration of brains and brawn in one person – there is either Einstein and Johnny Unitas, or there is nothing because you can’t have both.

And so to Gladwell who when asked in a C-Span interview about some description of his exalted place in the world of nonfiction writing says: well, it’s been going on for centuries long before I started writing and it (the description) is probably something my marketing team came up with…

Putting aside the possibility of what would currently be called a humble-brag Gladwell does get credit for admitting the genre predates his efforts by centuries. Where we have a problem is with the second half of the statement because it’s the marketing that is ripe.

In his David and Goliath Gladwell gives us the traditional overview – Philistines vs Israelites, Goliath, Saul, David, Shepherd boy vs giant. Underdog wins over giant.

Gladwell offers a summary but (emphasis added) he throws in an intriguing twist:

“The battle is won miraculously by an underdog who, by all expectations, should not have won at all. This is the way we have told one another the story over the many centuries since. It is how the phrase “David and Goliath” has come to be embedded in our language—as a metaphor for improbable victory. And the problem with that version of the events is that almost everything about it is wrong.”

Wrong, you say? Is it not as we have always assumed a metaphor that tells us sometimes the clearly disadvantaged, smaller, weaker of the fighters can actually triumph against the odds? Is it not exactly about improbable victory?

Well, that’s the thing…because Gladwell then spends several pages offering his readers an excavation of the evidence and introduces us to things like acromegaly:

“What many medical experts now believe, in fact, is that Goliath had a serious medical condition. He looks and sounds like someone suffering from what is called acromegaly—a disease caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary gland. The tumor causes an overproduction of human growth hormone, which would explain Goliath’s extraordinary size. (The tallest person in history, Robert Wadlow, suffered from acromegaly. At his death, he was eight foot eleven inches, and apparently still growing.)”

And he tells us one of the side effects of the disease is poor eyesight – thus, mighty Goliath, weighed down by heavy armor, suffering from poor eyesight, is no match for the little shepherd with his sling.

About which Gladwell says (emphasis again, added):

“In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem. David came running toward Goliath, powered by courage and faith. Goliath was blind to his approach—and then he was down, too big and slow and blurry-eyed to comprehend the way the tables had been turned. All these years, we’ve been telling these kinds of stories wrong…”

So, let’s review.

Gladwell gives us

1.The traditional meaning of the David vs Goliath myth is that the little guy, if he has courage and faith, and is resourceful, can defeat the bigger guy who is stronger and more experienced.

2. Except it turns out, according to Gladwell, that’s somehow wrong and that the smaller guy, the nerd/geek Peter Parker/Gladwell is really the one with the advantage(s) because he’s smarter, and more agile and an examination of possible medical issues and military technology reveals an alternative narrative.

3. Therefore, says Gladwell, the story about David and Goliath is not about what you’ve always been told, it is in fact about…just what you’ve always been told except now nerd/geek Beta Gladwell has inserted himself into the narrative as some sort of expert in awe of his own sense of wonder at just how smart he is and has slain the giant of ignorance and demonstrated that he is a post-modern David. Because he (unlike you) has noticed that Goliath had poor eyesight and David precisely because he is smaller had to rely on creativity (a form of intelligence) and dexterity (vs sheer power derived from extraordinary size) is going to win.

We now know, per Gladwell, that Goliath was ill (or perhaps he was just an anomaly and was really, really tall compared to everyone else. For example, consider that contemporaries, Napoleon, Admiral Nelson and John Keats were all about five foot four while Napoleon’s marshal Augereau – a former street brawler before the revolution – was approximately six foot eight. But, so far as the evidence can confirm, did not suffer from a tumor on his pituitary gland), and we are informed that (surprise!) sling launched rocks were deadly (unless of course you already knew that and it’s not at all a surprise, because you’ve read the fairly substantial extant descriptions of ancient combat) – though Gladwell doesn’t offer any information or thoughts on why the Philistines were ignorant of the sling which was hardly the classified high-tech weaponry of the Israelites but was fairly common knowledge in the Eastern Med.

Nor does Gladwell explain how his version of the fable is really any different from the traditional version. (except for the medical theory).

But since that’s probably the work of his marketing team one can assume we’re not supposed to ask complicated questions that lead us to other questions like: how is Malcolm Gladwell getting a pass on this kind of nonsense? How is he able to get away with confusing different data* with claiming that he is establishing that the original conclusion is wrong? That is, the additional data (i.e. Goliath’s possible ill health and the relative lethality of the sling) does not as Gladwell claim, render the traditional meaning of the story wrong but, in a lovely example of scoring on your own goal, does establish that the traditional meaning of the story is still accurate and that Malcolm Gladwell is a bit of a prat.

Which brings us to the cult of the new savants – the deeply troubled geniuses with their strange habits of Asperger’s* in which they are brilliant but social catastrophes.

Paging Dr. House.

It is a curiosity of late Kapitalism that it cannot accommodate itself to the idea that someone can be brilliant and socially effective. Remora like Gladwell offer a paradigm that suits marketing codes operating in the service of the dominant culture. Alphas retain their perch atop the social hierarchy precisely because the geeks while brilliant can’t get laid and thus pose no threat. House after all took six years to get Dr. Cuddy to go out with him where as the suave Australian doctor with his charm and easy good looks was (along with the female resident whose beauty was so obvious that it became fodder for metacommentary within the show) able to “score” nearly at will.

In this context Gladwell is a striking example of a tool. His insights are not useful, his conclusions are unoriginal and his persona is a fabrication dreamed up in a marketing meeting.

In the end House, after nearly killing half a dozen people by running a car through the wall of Dr. Cuddy’s house, fakes his own death and rides off with his terminally ill best friend because like some latter day version of Frankenstein’s monster, he cannot live in this world.

The world of Kapital cannot tolerate genius that itself cannot tolerate other people – especially women (a consistent misogyny being the other hallmark of the popular vision of the anti-social high functioning autistic individual – genius that attracts attractive Alpha females yet crippled by social inadequacy that prevents sex because of course, the traditional Alphas run the empire and they’re not giving up their seat at the table and so will not offer alternative versions of social paradigms).

A brief survey of the type proves the point: Both strikingly attractive and brilliant, neither Scully nor Mulder can manage a relationship because in Mulder’s case he’s trapped by the neurotic belief that he is responsible for his sister’s abduction and instead of a partner (romantic partner) he has porn and with Scully, the world of television cannot allow a brilliant woman to be sexually engaged unless she is presented in costumes that are designed to please and attract men. So Scully the brilliant scientist/cop is trapped with Mulder (brilliant obsessed perceptive genius) whose deepest relationship is with his video collection. Intelligence, yes. Intelligence and sexuality – no. And while on the one hand Scully is subversive of the dominant misogyny (because her character is not sexed up in the shallow traditional normative style of television – though ironically Gillian Anderson is almost always presented as a fetish) she is still defined by it.

Or consider Numbers in which the main character is less physically present than his brother but is a math genius who can’t get laid – precisely because his extraordinary math ability has crippled his social skills.

Or consider the geeks/nerds in any number of procedurals in which the action is handled by good looking men and women but the analysis is handled by slight of build nerd/geeks who may know how to connect clues at a crime scene to obscure song lyrics and lines in novels (thus helping the alphas catch the killer/terrorist/thief etc) but again, can’t get laid.

This is a vision of a Brave New World in which the natural order of things creates an environment that in Huxley’s novel was the result of genetic manipulation. In the contemporary world it happens because it is the nature of things – a natural order – and the ones who look like models play the cops and the ones who look like they fell off a charm bracelet play the nerd/geeks.

Where, one might ask, is David when you really need him…


*Though no longer part of the official diagnostic toolbox, Aspergers raises interesting questions about what we talk about when we talk about our systems of defining categories of relative mental health. Named for Nazi fanboy Dr. Asperger, the condition was said to involve a demonstrated lack of empathy and emotional response in its sufferers. What no one has to our knowledge bothered to ask is, in occupied Austria, during the Second World War, with Nazis more or less on every corner, exactly what would empathy and an emotional response look like? Were people supposed to smile at the thought of an especially nice pair of jackboots? Were brown shirts supposed to elicit a sense of poetic bliss? To put it another way, Asperger’s was not a symptom of emotional atrophy but a symptom of a disease called fascism which itself is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon.

*Needless to say there is a difference between data and information. Gladwell is, in his David and Goliath, confusing one with the other. There is data that suggests Goliath may have suffered from a medical condition that impacted his eyes. There is however, no information to support that conclusion. And more importantly, even if it were true it only serves to reinforce the meaning of the traditional narrative.

One comment on “The One Where Malcolm Gladwell Chews More Than He’s Bitten Off.

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