David and Goliath

David and Goliath by Titian
David and Goliath by Titian

So this headline came up in my news feed:

Yesterday in Maine, David beat Goliath

The story is not important (it’s about grassroots gun rights groups prevailing against billionaire Michael Bloomberg). What stopped me cold was the headline. Let’s recap the original source material.

In 1 Samuel chapter 17, Goliath is the champion of the Philistines, Israel’s mortal enemy. His height is given as “six cubits and a span,” which is almost three meters (or 9 feet 9 inches) tall. Some manuscripts give his height as “four cubits and a span,” which at 6 feet 9 inches/two meters is still impressive. Suffice to say, the man is a beast. He taunts the army of Israel every day, challenging any one of their warriors to single combat. No one bites until David, visiting his older brothers on the front lines, picks up the gauntlet. The plucky shepherd from Bethlehem meets the heavily armored and armed Goliath on the field of battle, equipped with only a sling and five stones. He only needs one. David fells Goliath with one rock to the noggin, then slices off the giant’s head for good measure. Israel wins.

Anyone who’s attended Sunday School, watched Veggie Tales, or grew up in the Western Hemisphere knows this story. Here’s something else everyone knows: David won.

David and Goliath has become such shorthand for the little guy taking on big business/big government/big money, that people forget the outcome of the original battle. Rather than ironic, this headline just reads as “so what?”

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath, people are rethinking the idea that David was the underdog. He did have the Almighty on his side, after all. Which is probably why scrappy startups like to think of themselves as David.

Anyhow, we have no beef with David and Goliath as a metaphor for little guy vs. juggernaut. We do take exception to headline writers with no sense of history.

Otto E. Mezzo







One thought on “David and Goliath”

  1. Thank you for David and Goliath. I have made this point for years at any number work-related planning meetings. Usually something like, “Oh, good. David won that one I recall. I was worried that we were risking a loss here, but it seems that we are in good shape. Excellent. Meeting adjourned.”

    Blank looks.

    Related to this one is “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” In some of those same meetings people have often said “Well, we don’t want to rob from Peter to pay Paul,” if we were contemplating, say, redistributing benefits in some way. They say this believing it is a winning argument.

    Except I depends on who Paul is!

    If Paul is someone whose well being you care about deeply and Peter is not, then robbing from Peter to pay Paul is entirely sensible. What I believe this axiom is being mixed with is the hazily remembered notion of Pareto optimality (a distributive state after which it is impossible to make someone better off with out making someone else worse off)..

    But you can happily ignore old Pareto if your goal is to keep Paul happy. Who cares if you are making Peter worse off if you goal is make Paul better off.

    Sorry Peter.

    ….And Pareto.

    (and it helps to have a Peter management contingency plan ready, just in case)

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