Malcolm Gladwell, a hunter-gatherer of human behavior, and about as well known a writer as one could be, appeared at Dominican College last week touring his latest effort: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

In an earlier talk with Michael Krasny on KQED‘s morning Forum show he said this book was an extension of The Outliers which was concerned about the context in which success occurs.  This book, he said,  is a more personal examination of that question:  How a person, or in one case, a group of people, has come upon a challenge and dealt with it.

Interestingly, his talk at Dominican did not touch on the details of the book, but was a long, interesting mini-biography of Alva Vanderbilt, once one of the wealthiest women in America and a veritable dragon, who became the driving force in the American suffragette movement and passage of the 19th women’s right to vote amendment.  Though her wealth would not indicate she was an underdog in the usual sense of the word, Gladwell set the context of being a woman in America in the late 19th century, the structured and enforced lack of power, to account for her underdog anger. 

The book itself is composed of anecdotes about people who have overcome neurological difficulties such as dyslexia, social difficulties such as ostracization, or simply cultural differences such as not growing up with American basketball but having to coach it.   The organizing theme is that some difficulties in life, when properly seen and acted on, can be “desirable difficulties.”  Having dyslexia and difficulty with reading for some folks is turned on its head: listening becomes a much stronger skill; getting others to work as a team becomes a strength.

He is particularly interesting about Wyatt Walker,  the “nuts and bolts man” for the Civil Rights campaigns in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Losing momentum and supporters Walker and others in the leadership of the movement figured out how to use their underdog status at first to baffle the local police and then to work them into displays of excessive force — culminating in the famous photo of a German Shepard lunging at the non-resisting young man, which swept the country and changed completely the dynamics of the struggle.

Bill Hudson's searing images of the civil rights era.

The chapter that engaged me the most, however, is not that of individuals but of many, mostly nameless, ordinary people and their instinctive resistance to Nazi rule.  Titled “André Tocmé,” it uses as the focal point a Huguenot pastor in the village of Le Chambon in south-central France in August of 1940 when the Nazis over-ran France. Certainly with Tocmé’s moral and physical leadership, but out of their own sense of being, the teachers refused the required loyalty oath, the people of Le Chambon refused the stiff-armed Nazi salute and soon took in Jewish refugees, without question.  Jews flocked to the area by the hundreds.   At one point a group of young students presents a visiting Vichy functionary with a letter which included the sentence “we feel obliged to tell you that there are among us a certain number of Jews.  But, we make no distinction between Jews and non-Jews.  it is contrary to the Gospel teaching.”  It ended with a declaration of resistance:  “We have Jews.  You’re not getting them.”

Even the police worked out ways to avoid seeing or finding what they had been sent to put an end to.

How does this happen and why does it happen so seldom, in the face of clear and present terror under cover of authority?

This has been the question with me since young adult hood:  why do so few recognize the necessity of resistance when authority demands terrible things of them?  In a short, suggestive book like this Gladwell doesn’t have a thoroughgoing answer.  French Huguenots have century’s long experience of being persecuted he says,  and of fighting to maintain their beliefs and culture.  That experience burbled up somehow in the face of Nazi demands.  I want to know more but it surely seems  that resistance comes more easily when there is a deep and long-held belief in its necessity.  When that belief is born of experience it  would more likely be stronger than if simply absorbed through reading or street corner conversations.  Even in the case of no recent experience of persecution and resistance we might expect less compliance to the claims and orders of authorities when deep familial and cultural values “make no distinction between ” them and us.  How to grow such values?

The actions of the people of Le Chambon should be on the study list of every high school in America — for starters.  Gladwell has a nice, compact set of notes and references at the end of the book, including Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened (1994) by Phillip Hallie. 

I’ll be looking in it for root and branch of such behavior.  Surely graftings are possible. What can a village of French Huguenots have to teach us, Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, Shiite, Sunni, Cambodian, Burmese, American, Syrian, Iraqi…