When Self-Justifying Analogies Go Bad

by Brien Jackson

I’m late to this, but this article by Malcolm Gladwell is really, really awful, even by Gladwell’s standards. The premise is that insurgent tactics improve David’s chances against Goliath, and he uses the case of a 12 year old girls’ basketball coach who decided to employ a full court press defense for entire games to demonstrate this. I don’t care to get into broader arguments about Gladwell’s writing (I’m not really a fan), because there’s a more obvious flaw with the article; the entire premise, as presented, is completely false.

To put it simply, a weaker team, or at least a less athletic team, who tried to press for an entire basketball game would get obliterated. The press is a great defense, if the other team is unready for it. If they are, most teams have well rehearsed press breakers. But if they’re simply more athletic than you, that’ll be enough to get through the defense. And the downside of the press is that, should the other team beat it quickly, it tends to allow for a lot of easy points around the basket, because 3 or 4 of your players are on the other end of the court. A less talented team might have some success running a press out of the blue at points of the game, but one who tried to employ it for an entire game would get blown out. In the real world, a weaker team’s best bet is to fall back into a zone defense, which is designed to keep the ball away from the basket, and out of the middle of the court, by filling those areas with bodies and limbs and making it difficult to maneuver the ball through those areas. If executed well, this forces the other team to take longer shots that will be made a fewer % of the time. On the offensive end of the ball, unless you’ve got an easy lay-up or something, you want to slow the game down, and minimize the number of possessions in the game, so that you have fewer times on defense to make a mistake and give the other team an easy basket. This strategy is basically the complete opposite of pressing for an entire game.

The problems with Gladwell’s piece would be easy enough to ignore, if it weren’t for the larger point, which is that effort can be substituted for ability. The person who “wants to win more than the other guy” is the one who wins, regardless of talent, resources, etc. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and such. It’s another admonition that the reason the United States loses is a lack of will, wrapped in an argument that people don’t succeed because they don’t work hard enough, and it’s based on bullshit. It never seems to occur to Gladwell, for example, that there’s a fairly limited set of circumstances in which insurgent tactics can be deployed. Or, even more obviously, that even in the Biblical story that serves as the cliche for the entire piece, David had God assisting him in his fight with Goliath, which I would consider a pretty fucking big resource.

It wouldn’t matter much, except that it reinforces dangerous norms about the way people see the United States that just aren’t right.