Wednesday, August 18, 2021

DAVID & GOLIATH By Malcolm Gladwell (2013)

DAVID & GOLIATH By Malcolm Gladwell (2013)

Adventure of Discovery of the Minds of Others.  Reading Malcolm Gladwell is to be in the presence of a great mind, a great heart, and a great spirit.  He goes beyond the intellectual stimulation for which he is so rightly famous, and shows real sensitivity to the human condition.  I feel that Malcolm Gladwell cares about what I do with the insights he has given me.  The insights themselves are a treat.  The caring on top of that is surprising and delightful.

I would feel presumptuous in the extreme to write a book review of any of  Malcom Gladwell's works.  I would feel wholly inadequate to do a book report on any of his works.  Instead, my attempt is to make notes on my experience of the adventure of discovery of the minds of others.  In so doing, it is my hope to honor Mr. Gladwell by showing just how much his work made me think, feel, and get more in touch with my humanity.

Mr. Gladwell wanted to be a lawyer.  He would have been an excellent lawyer (but it would have been a waste in the same way Eddie Redmayne becoming a lawyer would have been a waste).  Understanding the view from the other side of the table is vital to lawyering.  Getting into the mind of the opposing party, and opposing counsel, and understanding how they think and perceive the situation is an invaluable skill.  Mr. Gladwell celebrates that skill.  He is a master at play with that skill.  It is beautiful to watch.


The Forum is the Fight.  Mr. Gladwell's retelling of the story of  the Biblical story David & Goliath is masterful.  I am 6'5" and wear glasses, so I could relate to the concept that being big and slow and not seeing well can be a disadvantage.  As a lawyer representing Debtor's in bankruptcy, I see that Creditors always want to talk on the phone.  If I never talk on the phone, but put everything in writing, then I win because that is where I have significant advantage.  David's sling was a deadly (and rightly feared) weapon.  By not meeting Goliath hand to hand with a sword he had the advantage.  The fight was over before it even started.

I kept thinking of a line from the song Me & Bobby Magee: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."  Hardship, disadvantage, and minority status creates an urgent need for (and continual practice of) certain survival skills not needed by the majority in relative ease.  I loved the Uncle Remus stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear as a kid.  I found them speaking to me.  On my face you cannot see my African American and Native American ancestors, but they are with me always - deep and buried.  Mr. Gladwell's mother is Jamaican, so the display of his heritage of color is on the surface.  Mine is stealthy.  A story of cleverness used to overcome superior strength is deeply appealing.  I also grew up with the Tortoise and the Hare and slow and steady wins the race.  I had never heard the story of the Terrapin and the Deer in which the Terrapin's family place themselves along the race route with the Terrapin close to the finish line crossing before the Deer.  After all, the Terrapin says we all look the same to the Deer.  The Deer doesn't have to pay attention to what Terrapin look like and that is a weakness and disadvantage.

The Inverted U Curve.  Better understanding this concept as a society could have tremendous impacts.  I remember in school, some students would complain that we were never going to use what we were learning.  Instinctively I knew from a young age that we don't get to keep all of the knowledge we gain (we forget), and we don't know how and when the process of learning will be of use in the future (the world can be dangerous).  That sounds like the thinking of an underdog.  I never thought of it as a strength.  It may have been related to my parents getting a divorce when I was 6 years old (in 1974).  My father is an M.D.  My peers had financial security and social status that I did not have in a single parent household as a "latchkey kid."  I remember asking one of my classmates how he got into the house if he didn't have a key.  He said his mom was always there.  I said: "Don't you hate that?"  My mom was working 2 jobs as a nurse.  She told me she couldn't be there to watch me all the time.  She asked me to help keep what remained of our family together (my sister, aunt, and grandparents).  I did my best.  When I counsel debtors in bankruptcy sometimes they ask about hiding assets.  I hear my mother when I encourage them to think about the kind of society in which they want to live rather than thinking about whether and how much they can get away with.  Gandhi said: "Be the Change you want to see in the World."  There is a vast difference between living with meaning and purpose according to your values and breaking the law simply because you ascertain that you will probably get away with it.

Underdogs.  Underdogs instinctively get the concept of limits.  Underdogs know that the infinite growth model in economics is impossible to sustain.  If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.  We need more underdogs in Congress who understand that tax breaks work at first, then become neutral, and then become harmful.  Longer prison sentences work at first, then become neutral, and then become harmful. Smaller class sizes work at first, then become neutral, and then become harmful.  When millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent (and wasted and worse), understanding where the points of neutrality and harm are can not only save millions of dollars, but also alleviate suffering.

Part of my heritage is Northern Ireland Catholic, which is to say a religious minority in a part of Ireland that is part of the United Kingdom.  When I was growing up, kids would tell Polack jokes.  Later I heard the same jokes with Irish substituted for Polish.  I learned that Freud said the Irish were impervious to Psychoanalysis.  Being an underdog means that I will never be part of the Protestant Club, so I don't even have to try to belong.  I do not remember being taught that Rich, White, Male, Protestants have been in control since before the founding of America.  I just knew it; and I knew that I wasn't one of them.  I did not think of that as a strength until a few years ago when there was talk of a Muslim Registry.  My first thought was to put me on it.  I thought of Eugene V. Debbs and his powerful identification with underdogs.  In my mind, I will never be anything else.  It doesn't matter how much money I earn, or how much property I have - I am a permanent underdog.

Perhaps because I did not have a father, brothers, uncles, or male cousins, I did not grow up watching sports and learning the things men are supposed to do.  I grew up in a Matriarchy, in which my mother was the Head of Household and her Mother was the Head of Household.  Some of my classmates in high school thought I was gay.  My best friend from high school is gay.  He told me that I meet every gay stereotype including liking show tunes.  He said he hated show tunes.   I identified with people who are gay because I was treated like I was gay even though I am not.

Forgiveness is Strength.  I graduated from a Jesuit Law School where I read the Supreme Court Cases in which the Ku Klux Klan attempted to eradicate Catholic Education from America.  There was religious hate in America too, not just in Northern Ireland.  Hate is not a strength; Hate is a weakness.  

Conclusion.  Thank you to Mr. Gladwell for showing me that some of the most painful episodes of my life (and the suffering of my ancestors) can be sources of strength and advantage.  Thank you for showing me that the story of David & Goliath is a story of someone with a .45 going up against someone with a knife - no contest.  What we think of as weakness is strength; and what we think of as strength is weakness.

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