Masters and Servants

It’s a lot

It’s a lot

It’s a lot like life.

— “Master and Servant”

Some Great Reward

Depeche Mode (1984)

There’s a school of literary scholars who think that telling stories is a way human beings have adopted to enable us to think about ethical decisions—as good a justification as the tabloid press needs to tell wild tales of celebrities. The Tiger Woods story, I think, for the most part doesn’t even rise to that level, but this week Steve Williams, Tiger Woods’ caddie, has spoken publicly to what reports are calling New Zealand’s answer to 60 Minutes, and the results aren’t pretty but they are pretty odd. The money quotes are these: “it would be very difficult for the caddie not to know but I’m a hundred per cent telling you I knew nothing,” on the one hand, and “If I’d have known something was going on, the whistle would have been blown” on the other. A (very minor) controversy has blown up about Williams’ words that, it may or may not be, allow us to think about ethical decisions that have very little to do with marriage vows but just might, as some thinkers say they ought, reverberate beyond golf., the droller, hipper Internet version of ESPN, provokes the debate by jumping all over Williams’ second phrase—and not just for its passive-voice construction. “If I’m Tiger Woods,” writes Barry Petchesky, “I fire Steve Williams right now.” Williams has, according to Petchesky, broken “the trust that a golfer-caddy [sic]relationship needs to have.” But, what trust? And has Steve Williams broken it? The odd part is that it’s arguable that Williams has not broken that trust with Woods precisely because he’s lying to the press.

Williams does have a longstanding trust relationship with Woods: he has a well-known reputation as kind of a bulldog for Woods. Once, Williams threw a fan’s camera into a lake when it disturbed Tiger. That goes further than a lot of caddies would go to “protect” their player, but then it is known that Woods and Williams are (or were) a lot closer than many other caddies and players.

Early in Tiger’s career, Williams often stayed with his boss on the road. Tiger has had a known reputation with women ever since a GQ magazine piece came out in April 1997, and Willliams has known Tiger longer than Tiger’s wife, Elin, has known Tiger. Where that leads us is the significant question, “what did Stevie know and when did he know it?” It isn’t likely that Williams didn’t know anything about Woods’ private life before he was married—Tiger didn’t have much reason to hide it from Williams then—nor that he didn’t after the marriage.

Williams’ claim not to know seems implausible then, something he himself admits by saying “it would be very difficult.” It might be plausible coming from some other caddie about some other golfer, but in the context of the Williams-Woods relation the percentages, I think, drop approximately to zero.

Yet Petcheskey doesn’t say that Williams needs to be fired because he is lying, but rather— though he doesn’t actually state the argument, but if his words mean anything it’s this—because Williams is implicitly saying that he has loyalties he places above his loyalty to Tiger. Therefore, Williams needs to be fired because he is not wholly and completely Tiger’s creature, as the Victorians said about their servants. It’s at that point, I believe, that this entire issue ceases to be a topic for the tabloids and becomes something more universal.

That’s because what the question turns on is what your notion of what Williams’ relation to Tiger ought to be. The model that Petcheskey evokes is, it seems, even older than the Victorians: today it is mostly remembered by pre-war British comedies like P.G. Wodehouse, but the master-servant relation has been part of Western literature from ancient times. From Sancho Panza to Plautus’ comic servants, the type is well-known: indeed, the relation forms part of the basis of Hegel’s entire philosophy. But while in that sense it is familiar to us, the master-servant bond conceptualizes the relation between the paid and the paying entirely differently than we do today.

Today we would call that relationship one between the employed and the employer. The difference can perhaps be illustrated by reference to the story of the British ambassador to one of the Italian states during the eighteenth century, who candidly said something to effect that lying in the service of a king was no vice. He was, unfortunately for him and also possibly for Williams’ prospects, promptly fired by that king. After all, what good is an openly untrustworthy ambassador? The justification is precisely built on the idea that master and servant are not equal: as Orwell remarks about Wodehouse, “Bertie Wooster’s helpless dependence on Jeeves is funny partly because the servant ought not to be superior to the master.” That hierarchy means also that the deeds of the servant are the responsibility of the master, so any misdeeds on the part of the servant are excusable (for the servant) because they must be laid at the feet of the superior.

It so happens that this model for the most part is the conception of how golfers and caddies should relate. The Rules of Golf, for instance, treat players and caddies as, for the purposes of the rules, indistinguishable. If a caddie makes a mistake, his golfer pays the price in the form of penalty strokes. That happened to me once during a Hooters tour (yes, there is such a thing) event when I raked a bunker for another player when my player had not yet hit out of the same bunker. (It’s a rule that’s since been changed, I believe.) The United States government, through the IRS, also says caddies are not strictly employees: they are “independent contractors.” Petchesky can appear right then to invoke this master-servant relation with regards to Williams.

It isn’t so clear that such an idea should govern how Woods and Williams should relate to each other off the golf course. For most of us after all, and Williams’ reference to whistle-blowing makes the point, employees and employers are thought of as free equals who arrive at an agreement, called a contract, that specifies the rights and obligations of each to the other—an agreement that leaves untouched everything else. Contracts only cover that which they describe. What that means is that the employee still has a higher obligation: to the state and its laws, above all. A contract cannot be made that contravenes the laws of the state, because that would conflict with that higher obligation.

On the Internet it’s usually said that whoever brings up the Nazis first loses the argument, but it’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this: one way to put it is to say that Petchesky is blaming Williams for not having the sort of blind loyalty that, say, got people into trouble at Nuremburg. That’s one reason why what Williams said is a lot smarter than Petchesky gives him credit for: it’s possible that what Williams has done here is acknowledge the new ideal of the relation between paid and paying, while simultaneously demonstrate his loyalty to the old ideal. It’s a neat trick.

What do I mean by that? Well, there are several well-known stories about caddies acting similarly to roadies for rock and roll bands, if you see what I’m saying. A lot of people therefore, rightly or wrongly, naturally assumed when the first stories came out about Tiger that Williams had something to do with the business. A lot of the same people have been calling for Williams’ head on the grounds that if Tiger wants to demonstrate he’s changed he needs to get rid of the people who either actively helped him or looked the other way. Williams is in the top two or three on that list (depending on what you think about Woods’ agent.)

Petchesky wants to impale Williams on that Morton’s fork: if he’s telling the truth then he’s insufficiently loyal, while if Williams is lying then, well, he’s one of the sycophants that needs to be fired. But Williams’ answer (and what’s more impressive is that he’s done it before Petchesky wrote) has effectively turned that inside out: Woods must know if Williams knew or didn’t know. If Woods knew that Stevie did know, then by saying all that about “blowing the whistle” and so on Williams reassures Woods by effectively saying I’d never rat you out. The further he protests his innocence, in fact, the more Williams can reassure Woods of his loyalty. See how far I’ll go? he could be construed as saying. The bigger the lie, the better (demonstrated) the loyalty, you might say—with the added benefit that Williams attacks the charge that Woods surrounds himself with yes-men by asserting his independence.

At once, in short, Williams invokes the modern employer-employee relation while actually—if he really is lying—paying homage to precisely the master-servant relation Petchesky wants to hoist him by. I think that’s a pretty adroit trick. Still, all of this lies in the realm of the tabloids for the most part, even if you are concerned with how caddies and players should conduct themselves, as I am. But the conflict of these two different ideas of service, employee or servant, has applicability beyond the sport of golf.

This week a federal judge in Chicago ruled that Donald Rumsfeld can be sued by two American citizens, Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel, who were captured by the American military, held without trial for weeks and, allegedly, tortured mentally and physically. According to the two men, they were taken into custody by the military because they were reporting to the FBI about illegal payments the security company they worked for was making to Iraqis—in other words, they were targets because they were whistleblowers. Rumsfeld’s lawyers have tried to get the suit dismissed on the grounds that Rumsfeld wasn’t personally involved, but the federal judge on the case has now ruled that the suit can go forward because, he says, Vance and Ertel have provided enough evidence to plausibly think that Rumsfeld authorized the torture techniques allegedly used on Vance and Ertel.

One defense that Rumsfeld might like to deploy, but probably can’t, is that he was “merely following orders,” or in short that he was acting as a kind of servant to the United States government. But Rumsfeld’s immediate superior was the president of the United States, and according to several presidents the proper analogy for a president is not the employee-employee model, but the master-servant relation. Nixon justified himself on the basis that he was a servant to the nation, and the second George Bush’s notion of the “unitary executive” is similar.

The question of course is whether such a concept is still valid: many might argue that Nuremburg trials after World War II, for instance, definitely refuted the idea that anything can be sanctioned if it is in service to the state. If everyone is equal, in other words, then everyone has a responsibility for their actions that cannot be laid at another’s door, no matter what the cause.

In one version of Depeche Mode’s 1984 single “Master and Servant,” if anyone remembers that record format now, the flip side asked “Are People People?” It was a re-edited version of an earlier release that seemed to answer the question definitively: “People Are People.” Thinking about Steve Williams’ dilemma, I submit, inevitably involves deciding what people are: servants or employees? That question, and its answer, involves matters far greater in importance than Tiger Woods’ trevails—which is to say that maybe the tabloids aren’t so ridiculous after all.


Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at Thanks for reading!

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