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Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath , received some attention from David Mills on this blog last week. At the same time, it was also the subject of two articles in The Spectator , both of which highlighted the troubling matter of ambiguity in application of the biblical story.

In his review , William Leith highlights the ticklish matter of technology. In retrospect, it is clear that the lumbering, over-dressed Goliath never really stood a chance against the agile David, armed with a weapon that allowed for the application of deadly force from a safe distance. So who was the technological underdog? I am not myself a betting man but I have a suspicion where such a person might put their money—if, that is, they could find someone foolish enough to take the bet.

More disturbing are the observations of Jenny McCartney who points to the problematic nature of using the Irish Troubles as the basis for ‘triumph of the underdog’ narratives. To portray Britain as Goliath and the Irish as David is simplistic . To prove her point, McCartney cites Gladwell’s use of the case of Eamonn McCormick, shot dead at the age of seventeen by British troops in 1972. That the death of any seventeen year old in such a manner speaks to the tragic nature of this world surely goes without question. Whether it is a morally simple matter is quite another: McCormick appears to have been an active member of the Provisional IRA and has certainly been lauded as such since; that fact in itself adds layers of moral murkiness to the narrative.

I am not here trying to make a political point. I have no stake in Irish politics. As an Englishman growing up in the 70s and 80s, I am afraid that my attitude to the Troubles was simply that of wanting them to stop. I did not care who won, if that is the appropriate term. But while I am not political, I am very wary of  philosophies of life or technique built on straightforward narratives drawn from situations of great moral complexity and insoluble tragic dilemmas.

One of my early childhood memories is that of going with my father to deliver food parcels to  victims of the Birmingham Pub Bombings. Even today I can recall the hopelessness carved into the faces of the families touched by the crime. Those bombings later became notorious not so much for the people who were killed and maimed in the attack but because the wrong men went to prison for the crime. The British Government rightly faced the full force of media outrage concerning this miscarriage of justice. There was even an Oscar-nominated movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Yet the men who planted the bombs, who committed the murders, and who could have come forward at any time in order to end the miscarriage of justice never did so; and, needless to say, the victims’ families never received their loved ones back from the dead. One wonders who the underdogs really were in that situation.

McCartney’s closing paragraph sums the problem up nicely:

“[I]n the service of his overarching theory, Gladwell has sent some toxic simplicities on Northern Ireland ricocheting around the world. Easy reading, I guess, but poor history. Eleven days before Eamonn McCormick finally died, an 18-year-old soldier called Keith Bryan from Bristol was shot dead by the IRA while on foot patrol in the Lower Falls area of Belfast. He had joined the army as a boy soldier, and his Gloucester regiment had sustained one of the highest casualty rates at the time.

“I wonder if Gladwell could tell us which one of those two lads was Goliath.”

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