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Indiana Jones vs. Goliath

2 Jan

uNDERDOGV

“…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…”
Ecclesiastes 9:11
Last September when the Floyd Central football team unexpectedly defeated Jeffersonville High, the News Tribune quoted Floyd running back Gaige Klingsmith as saying, “This was a huge win, and everybody was doubting us. We were the underdogs and came through.” Just the other night my wife Diane and I were watching a Scottish television show about how a group of misfit underdogs managed to defeated their powerful arch-rivals in the traditional Scottish game of shinty (a cousin to racquetball). Whether it’s sports, politics, or international conflicts, people are always attracted by the idea of a winning underdog. From the Old Testament’s David and Goliath to the Hunger Games’ Katniss, the successful underdog is an archetype that is familiar to all of us. In fairy tales we have Cinderella and in sports we have James J. Braddock the “Cinderella Man” who defeated heavily favored Max Baer for the world’s heavyweight boxing championship in 1935. What else, besides a preference for underdogs, could account for all those Chicago Cubs fans.
Many of us identify with the underdog automatically. This may be because there are so many more underdogs than top dogs. In most endeavors, there is only one top dog, while there are many underdogs. To paraphrase Lincoln, God must have really love underdogs, since he made so many of them.
A few years ago University of South Florida psychologist Joseph Vandello, conducted several studies about people’s preferences for underdogs. In one study participants first read an essay about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Afterwards, half of the group was presented with a map showing Palestine as an area smaller than Israel, while the other half was given a map which was altered to show Israel as being smaller in size. When asked who they sided with, all participants chose the side that had the smaller map representation. Delving a bit deeper into the issue, Vandello also found that most people believed that underdogs worked harder than favorites. People naturally seemed to like for someone to defy the odds.
New York Times writer Steven Kotler suggest that we are attracted to underdogs due to that most American of values— “infinite possibility”. We like to believe that in America any one can grow up to be president and it encourages a sense of hope in our own lives.
Aside from our respect for hard work and the sense of hope they engender, the underdog’s appeal might be rooted in something even more basic. According to Los Angeles Times science writer Geoffrey Mohan, our brains may be actually hard wired to identify with the underdog. He cites a Japanese’ study, in which 10 month old infants watched an animated video of a yellow square (the underdog) being pursued by a bullying blue circle. The ball bumps the square seven times and then smashes it completely. The researcher found that 16 of the 20 infants tested reached out for the underdog yellow square.
In his most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell, a writer at the New Yorker magazine, examined the underdog phenomena in the light of modern social science. Gladwell first considerers the biblical story of David and Goliath, analyzing it from a novel perspective. He maintains that in ancient times, armies had three types of troops— infantry, cavalry, and projectilists (slingers and archers). Each group had its strengths and weakness. For example, infantry required close quarters fighting in order to be effective, while cavalry moved too fast to be accurately targeted by projectiles. The slinger was a feared and respected warrior, not just a youth with a slingshot, as we often think of the shepherd boy David. When the Philistines proposed one-on-one combat to settle their dispute with Israel they had an infantry vs. infantry confrontation in mind. David, however, turned the tables, as he felt no obligation to play by those arbitrary rules. Gladwell cites one historian who said that Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword, would have against an opponent armed with a .45 automatic pistol. In contemporary vernacular it seems that without realizing it, Goliath had taken a knife to a gunfight.
Diane says that it’s like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the crowd parts and the huge swordsman steps forward expertly handling a massive blade. Like David, Steven Spielberg changes the paradigm and instead of giving us the arduous close quarters fight we expected, he has the exhausted Indiana Jones simply pull out his pistol and readily dispatch the scary and troublesome fellow. We didn’t expect it, but we loved it.
Changing the paradigm is the primary weapon in the underdog’s arsenal. Gladwell also refers to the work of Harvard political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft. In 2001 Arreguín-Toft published an article in the journal International Security entitled; How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict. This work analyzes how underdogs can and often do win.
According to Arreguín-Toft’s analysis of international conflicts over the past two hundred years, the stronger side typically wins about 70% of the time. When the underdog, however, doesn’t play by traditional rules and adopts guerrilla or other unconventional tactics, this weaker side wins almost 64% of the time. But even underdogs, find it difficult to abandon tradition. During the American Revolution George Washington, for example, was determined to fight the war using classic European military strategy, despite the colonists’ early success with unconventional tactics. He found them distasteful and it almost cost him the war. Underdogs often win using approaches that the opposition finds “unsportsman like”.
This willingness to be disagreeable is related to the basic personality structure of the successful underdog. For the past 30 years psychologists have refined a theory of personality based on what is called the Five Factor Model. Using factor analysis they identified a set of basic personality traits, known as the Big Five. The Big Five factors are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. University of Toronto psychologist Jordon Peterson’s research suggests that successful underdogs display high levels of openness and conscientiousness, but low levels of agreeableness. This profile paints a picture of an individual who is open to new ideas, self-disciplined and works very hard, but who is also prone to be uncooperative, antagonistic, and uncomformist— just the sort of person liable to skillfully use a creative and unconventional approach that others might find objectionable.
According the Gladwell, we should all keep in mind that the strong are not necessarily as strong as they think they are. Likewise the weak are not necessarily as weak as they are believed to be. If you find yourself in an underdog position the three things to remember are: (1) work as hard as you possibly can (2) Don’t be bound by convention and be open to new and creative approaches and finally (3) Don’t worry about what other people think. I’m pretty sure that the Philistines booed David when he first pulled out his slingshot.

Originally Published in The Southern Indiana News-Tribune

 

SLING

The Hungary Lorax

11 Apr

                       

 

 

                         Last weekend was the premiere of The Hunger Games,  the movie version  of  the best-selling young adult novel. My daughter and oldest granddaughter read this novel  at  a mother/daughter book club and when they   finished,  they  gave the book to my wife, Diane.   I haven’t exactly read it myself, although I’ve overheard a lot of conversations about it.  I gather it is a rather depressing and intense sci-fi story, a bit like Steven King’s Running Man, except instead of Schwarzenegger, it features a couple  dozen post-apocalyptic teenagers maiming and killing each other with sharp objects in some sort of competition.

            After reading the book all three of them wanted to see the movie, which left me and the younger three grandchildren,  ages 3, 5, and 8,  at loose ends, since The Hunger Games  was rated PG13.  It was thus decided that us, peanut gallery folk, should see the Dr. Seuss movie, The Lorax.

The Lorax is the movie   that Fox Business host Lou Dobbs claimed was an attempt to “indoctrinate our children.” He said it was “The President’s liberal friends in Hollywood   targeting a younger demographic, using animated movies to sell their agenda…”

Despite my vocal concerns, including the dangers of inciting class warfare,  I was assigned to take the three younger children to see that orange eco-socialistic Lorax.  As soon as we arrived at the theater the  Hunger Games contingent of our party, abandoned the rest of us to make sure they could find a seat.  

My strategy was that I would ply my charges with refreshments,  hoping to slow them down by inducing a stupor of sorts. I bought each of them a 16 oz. cherry ICEE  and  purchased two large popcorns. Our five-year-old grandson said that he couldn’t hold his drink  because it was too cold,  so I got a cardboard drink holders and tried to balance the  drinks and the popcorn. I didn’t make it out of the lobby. One of the cherry  ICEEs  immediately fell and  exploded as it hit the tile floor,   spraying a bit  of the frozen cherry concoction on  a couple of  teenage girls standing in line on the other side of the lobbby. Fortunately they were not armed with bows and arrows, so they had to settle for giving me a dirty look.

The grandchildren, for their part, were highly amused by this and   just couldn’t wait to tell mommy and grandma on me. I began to wonder if it was all these unpatriotic animated movies they had seen, that had made them so willing to thrown me under the bus. Later I told Diane that if we have lived in Nazi Germany, I was certain they would, have turned me over to the Gestapo without a second thought.

The stadium theater was completely empty when we arrived, so we scooted into the good seats where you can put your feet up on the metal railing.  To kill time we started in on the      refreshments. The theater slowly filled up, mostly with kids and grandparents.  The children all seemed to know the Lorax story by heart,  either from the book or from watching a video of  some earlier version. My eight-year-old granddaughter informed me that the Lorax “Speaks for  the trees. ” and her three-year-old sister chimed in repeating, “Yeah, he speaks for the trees.”   making sure I understood, dense as I am.

The movie was visually stunning,  but  kind of  preachy. One of the characters is a young man called the Once-ler who invents the Thneed—  a Slanket-like  pair  of long johns, that becomes so popular,  that everyone has to buy one.  To make the  Thneeds, all of the truffula trees are chopped down,  turning the world into a wasteland. 

Years later a boy name Ted  helps bring back the trees  by planting the last truffula seed,  that the Once-ler has been saving. It’s true that business people don’t come off too well in this movie. As the Once-ler destroys the environment, he says things like,  I’m  just trying to grow the economy.  

I suppose  Dr.  Seuss could have   explained the difference between   “good rich people” and “evil rich people”.  Although this fine of a distinction  would have probably been lost on my party,  preoccupied as they were with  ICEEs and popcorn. My three-year-old granddaughter spent most of her time battling the folding theater seat,  which kept threatening to swallow her. She also kept banging her shoes on the metal railing. I eventually got her to stop, only to notice that some other kid picked up where she had left off. 

Except for making a horrible mess of spilled popcorn and sticky ICEE residue, the children were pretty well behaved. They seemed a little upset during the climatic chase scene towards the end of the movie,  but they were more than satisfied with the ending. Personally I was disappointed in how powerless the Lorax appeared. Despite descending, from what evidently was heaven,  to speak for the trees, the Lorax’s only  power apparently was his moral authority. I suppose the point that Seuss was hamfistedly trying to make is that “The  kind of world we have  is really up to us”.     

Never-the-less,  we all left the theater in a  good mood with cherry colored lips and oily fingers. We still had 30 minutes to go before The Hunger Games was over, so after a much needed trip to the rest room, we retired to the lounge area.  The eight-year-old immediately discovered that slowly rubbing the vinyl covered couch  made a loud flatulent sound, which kept everyone happily occupied for the next 15 minutes. By this time the sugar from the drinks finally kicked in full throttle and the wild running and crawling on the floor commenced in earnest. I killed another ten minutes, and about ten bucks, by letting the children take a variety of  pictures in a photo booth creating a nice mugging and  grimacing memento  for their mother.     

Finally we were reunited with the family members who saw The Hunger Games. They said their theater was packed.  I read where the film set records, making more than  155 million dollars last  weekend. When I asked what she thought  about The Hunger Games movie, my oldest  granddaughter pronounced  it “Epic!”, which I think is just a cut above “awesome”.

Diane wasn’t impressed by some of the casting, costumes,  or goofy campiness, but she said it was still about 75% acceptable.  On Flixster’s Rotten Tomatoes Website, The Hunger  Games got a rating of 85% fresh, while The Lorax only got a 57% fresh rating on the tomatometer.

These two movies are now indelibly linked in my mind.  I suspect in the future,  if  I   think about the Lorax movie, I will remember it  the way I thought it should’ve been—  featuring  a bright orange creature with a  bushy moustache, happily  skewering  greedy  industrialists with  his  lethal bow and arrow.

 

Original published inthe Southern Indiana News Tribune