Sunday, November 16, 2014

David against Goliath

In a speech he made on September 25, president Mas used a passage from the Bible to refer to the Catalan independence process: “It wasn’t strength that allowed David to defeat Goliath, but his skill and shrewdness”.

Xavier Sala i Martin
The 17th chapter of the First Book of Samuel (The Old Testament) recounts how the Philistines and the Israelites occupied a hill each, separated by the Elah valley. A 9-feet tall giant came forth from the Philistine camp. It was Goliath. He wore a helmet, a bronze scale armour and held a sword and a shield. He carried a bronze javelin and an iron spear slung on his back. A shield bearer went ahead of him. As he approached the ranks of Israel, Goliath yelled a challenge: “Give me a man and let us fight each other. If he kills me, we will become your subjects; but if kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us”.

The Israelites retreated in great fear. None of their soldiers wanted to fight such an invincible-looking ogre. But then a young shepherd named David said to King Saul that he wished to fight. The king agreed but tried to persuade the young man to wear a helmet and armour, to no avail. David only took his shepherd’s staff and a sling. He bent down, picked five stones, put them in his satchel and walked towards the giant. When Goliath noticed that he was facing an armourless young man, he shouted: “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?”. “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”

Then David reached into his bag, took out a stone, slung it and struck the Philistine right on the forehead. Goliath collapsed facedown on the ground. And, since then, this biblic episode has become the paradigm of seemingly uneven fights where the weaker party ends up beating the stronger opponent.

In his latest book, Canadian philosopher Malcolm Gladwell questions whether the story of David and Goliath is truly an example of a battle where the underdog beats its mightier enemy because … neither Goliath was so strong, nor David was so weak.

First of all, let’s ask ourselves why Goliath needed a shield bearer to show him the way to the battlefield. Next, notice his words: “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” Sticks? Plural? David didn’t carry sticks, but a single shepherd’s staff! And Goliath added: “Come here and I’ll give your flesh to the beasts of the field!” Why does he ask David to come closer when, in fact, he is right there? Shield bearer, sticks, come closer … everything seems to suggest that Goliath’s eyesight wasn’t great!

Combined with the fact that he was abnormally tall, this has led many doctors and researchers –since back in the 60s– to think that Goliath suffered from acromegaly, a form of giantism caused by a tumor of the pituitary gland that produces an excess of growth hormone. As the gland becomes larger, it compresses the optic nerve, causing vision problems. So Goliath was not the invincible giant that he seemed, but a poor, sickly man who was half-blind.

In addition, David was not as weak as he looked, either. First of all –as Artur Mas would put it– David was a shrewd young man who knew that the Philistine would tear him to pieces, if he engaged him in close quarter combat. That’s why he turned down the helmet and armour offered by the King and chose to fight from a distance. In military jargon, Goliath was an infantry soldier, whereas David served in an artillery unit. And, as a good gunner, David chose not to engage in hand-to-hand combat.

And let’s not be fooled by the fact that David was “only” a shepherd with a sling. In ancient times, artillery units included archers that shot arrows and slingers who shot stones. Well-trained slingers were able to hit a target from 150 metres (in fact, some books even talk of people hunting birds by hurling stones at them!). They would turn their sling around at up to five revolutions per second and the stone would fly out at 150 km an hour. David was no soldier, but he was well trained in the art of slinging because –according to The Bible– he used a sling to ward off the wolves and bears that threatened his flock.

What’s more, it turns out that the rocks in the Elah valley are made of barium sulphate, a mineral that is twice as dense as normal rocks. By calculating the stone’s density, the speed of the whirling sling and the rough distance, Gladwell has estimated that David’s projectile hit Goliath’s skull with the same stopping power as .45 calibre bullet. No wonder David only needed one blow to take Goliath down!

So this takes us back to the simile used by Artur Mas to describe the Catalan process. The president equated Goliath with Spain and David with Catalonia. Gladwell’s book should make us consider that perhaps this Spain, armed with their Constitution, their courts of law and their loyal press, isn’t as mighty or as frightening as it is believed: the partisan manipulation of the State’s institutions (the Ministry of the Interior, the police force, the Public Prosecution and the Constitutional Court), the widespread institutional decay and the government’s inability to see and solve problems are all signs of the weakness typical of an imploding regime. Gorbachev’s USSR springs to mind. Furthermore, the cocky threats coming from the PP leadership remind me of the sentence “I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”, Goliath’s bluff shortly before being struck down. Like the Philistine giant, Spain is not strong and mighty but a sickly country that is half-blind.

Moreover, perhaps Catalonia is not as weak as many of us believe. Besides being shrewd, Catalonia has a weapon that will make it unstoppable: the determination and the enthusiasm displayed by over two million citizens on November 9.

A few second before casting my ballot into the box, I thought about my father and was moved. Later I read on Twitter that thousands of Catalans had felt the same. Well, this emotion, this enthusiasm and this determination give us great strength. The same strength that the famous sling gave David against Goliath.

Article by Xavier Sala-i-Martín, Professor of Development Economics at Columbia University (New York) at Ara

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