Telegraphing A Punch

From his intense interest in the telegraph, Lincoln developed what Garry Wills calls a ‘telegraphic eloquence,’ with a ‘monosyllabic and staccato beat’ that gave Lincoln a means of ‘say[ing] a great deal in the fewest words’”
—Sarah Luria, Capital Speculations: Writing and Building Washington D.C.

“Well,” I said, “I wanted to indicate to you that, while I had not shot the distance”—that is, used a rangefinder to measure it, since I don’t have one—“yet still I felt pretty confident about it.” We were on the eighteenth hole at Butler, which was our ninth hole. Mr. B., the member I was working for, was rebuking me for breaking one of the cardinal rules of looping: a good caddie never adds a caveat. All yardages are “154” or “87” or such; never “about 155” or “just shy of 90.” He was right: what I’d said was “either 123 or 24,” which isn’t exact in a narrow sense, but conveyed what I wanted it to convey. The point raised, however, became apparent only recently; in a broader sense because of the recent election, and in a more particular sense because of a party I’d attended shortly before.

The party was in Noble Square, one of those Chicago neighborhoods now infested with hipsters, women working at non-profits, and “all that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking toward the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat,” as George Orwell once referred to the tribe. The food provided by the host was not just vegetarian but vegan, and so just that much more meritorious: the woman whose guest I was seemed to imply that the host, whose food we were eating, was somehow closer to the godhead than the rest of us. Of that “us,” there were not many; most were women while, of the three men present, one was certainly gay while the other wasn’t obviously so, and the third was me.

All of which sounds pretty awful, and almost certainly I’m going to catch hell for writing such so I’ll hurry to explain that everything wasn’t all bad. There was, for instance, a dog. So often, when attending such affairs, it’s necessary to listen to some explanation of the owner’s cat: how it cannot eat such and such, or needs such and such medicines, or how it was lost and became found—stories that, later, can become mixed up with said owner’s parallel stories of boyfriends discovered and discarded, so that it’s unclear whether that male of the species discovered in an alley outside of the Empty Bottle was of the human or feline variety. But a dog is usually a marker of some healthy kind of sense of irony about one’s beliefs: dogs, or so some might say, encourage a sociality that precludes the aloofness necessary for genocide.

I bring this up because one of the topics of conversation; one of the women present, a social worker by training, was discussing the distinction between her own leadership style and that of one her colleagues, both being supervisors of some kind. One of the other women present noted that it was difficult at times for women to assert that role: women, she said, often presented their ideas with diffidence and hesitancy. And so, as the women around nodded in agreement, sometimes ideas that were actually better got ignored, just because of what was essentially a better rhetorical technique.

As it happens, all of the women at said party—all of them, presumably, Obama voters—were white, which is just why I should have remembered the event just after the presidential election, upon reading a short John Cassidy piece in the New Yorker. There, Cassidy points out that, in the aftermath, a lot of ink has been spilled on the subject of why Obama lost the white male vote so disastrously—by twenty-seven percentage points—while simultaneously winning the women’s vote: Obama “carried the overall female vote by eleven [percentage] points” Cassidy notes. (The final total was 55% to 44%.) Yet the story of the “gender gap” papers over another disconnect: it’s true that Obama won over women as a distinct set of people, he actually lost one subset of women: white women.

Romney’s success among white women, in fact, is one reason why he did better among women in general than did the previous Republican candidate for the presidency, John McCain. In 2008, “Obama got fifty-six per cent of the female vote and John McCain got forty-three per cent,” which, even if the margin of error is taken into account, at least indicates that Obama did not make further inroads into the woman vote than he’d already made four years ago. And the reason Obama did not capture a greater percentage of women voters was that he lost white women: “Romney got fifty-six per cent of the white female vote; Obama got just forty-two per cent.” The question to be put to this fact is, obviously, what distinguishes white women from other women, or at least what it was about Mitt Romney that appealed to white women, and only white women.

Clearly there must be some commonality between Caucasian women and men: “Surely,” Cassidy says, “many of the same factors that motivated white male Romney supporters played into the decision-making of white female Romney supporters.” After all, both “are shaped by the same cultural and economic environment.” The explanatory factor that Cassidy finds is economic: “The reason Romney did a bit better … among white women is probably that they viewed him as a stronger candidate on economic issues, which are as important to women as to men.” Obviously, though, this begs the question: why did white women find Romney more persuasive on economic matters?

That, to be sure, is a very large question, and I wouldn’t presume to answer it here. What I would suggest, however, is that there might be a relationship between those results, the first presidential debate, and the anecdote with which I began this piece. If white people voted more for Romney, it might be because of one of the qualities he exhibited in the first presidential debate in early October: as many commenters noted afterward, Romney was “crisp and well-organized” in the words of one pundit, while President Obama was “boring [and] abstract” in the words of another. Romney was gut-punching, while Obama was waving his fists in the air.

Maybe Romney’s performance in that debate illustrated just why he should have been the candidate of white America: he, at least in early October if not elsewhere during the campaign, understood and used a particular rhetorical style to greater effect than Obama did. And, apparently, it worked: he did have greater success than Obama among the audience attuned to that appeal. In turn, what my experience at Butler might—perhaps—illustrate is just how that audience might be constructed: by what mechanisms is power sorted, and how are those mechanisms distributed?

If Romney achieved success among white Americans because he was briefer and more to the point than Obama—itself rather a whopper, it may be—then it remains to understand just why that should appeal to that particular audience. And maybe the experience of caddies demonstrates just why that should be so: as I mentioned at the start, the habit of saying “154” instead of “155 or so” is something that’s inculcated early among caddies, and while it might be taught in, say, the public schools, there’s something wonderfully clarifying about learning when there’s money at stake. White kids exposed to caddieing, in other words, probably take the lesson more to heart than other kids.

All of this of course is a gossamer of suppositions, but perhaps there’s something to it. Yet, if there is, Obama’s election in the teeth of Romney’s success among Caucasian voters also may forecast something else: that the old methods of doing things are no longer as significant, and may even be no longer viable. In caddieing, the old methods of saying a yardage aren’t as important: since everyone has a range finder (a device that tells the distance) it isn’t nearly as important to suppress uncertainties about what the actual distance is because there aren’t any uncertainties any more. (This actually isn’t true, because range finders themselves aren’t as accurate as, say, pin location sheets are, and anyway they still can’t tell you what club to hit.) Maybe, in part because of technologies and the rest, in the future it won’t be as necessary to compress information, and hence the ability to do that won’t be as prized. If so, we’ll exist in a world that’s unrecognizable to a lot of people in this one.

Including, I suspect, Mr. B.


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