Bend Sinister

The rebs say that I am a traitor to my country. Why tis this[?] [B]ecause I am for a majority ruling, and for keeping the power in the people[?]
—Jesse Dobbins
Yadkin County, North Carolina
Federal pension application
Adjutant General’s Office
United States Department of War
3 July 1883.

Golf and (the theory of) capitalism were born in the same small country (Scotland) at the same historical moment, but while golf is entwined within the corporate world these days there’s actually a profound difference between the two: for capitalism everything is relative, but the value of a golf shot is absolute. Every shot is strictly as valuable as every other. The difference can be found in the concept of arbitrage—which conventional dictionaries define as taking advantage of a price difference between two markets. It’s at the heart of the financial kind of capitalism we live with these days—it’s why everything is relative under the regime of capitalism—but it’s completely antithetical to golf: you can’t trade golf shots. Still, the concept of arbitrage does explain one thing about golf: how a golf club in South Carolina, in the Low Country—the angry furnace of the Confederacy—could come to be composed of Northern financial types and be named “Secession,” in a manner that suggested its members believed, if only half-jokingly, that the firebrands of 1860 might have not been all wrong.

That, however, gets ahead of starting another golf tournament on the tenth tee. Historically, as some readers may remember, I haven’t done well starting on the tenth hole. To recap: twice I’ve started loops for professional golfers in tournaments on the tenth tee, and each time my pro has blown the first shot of the day out of bounds. So when I saw where we were starting at Oldfield Country Club just outside of Hilton Head in South Carolina, site of an eGolf tournament, my stomach dropped as if I were driving over one of the arched bridges across the housing development’s canals.

Both of those tenth holes were also, coincidentally or not, dog-leg rights; holes that begin at the tee, or upper left so to speak, and move towards the green in a more-or-less curved arc that ends, figuratively, on the lower right. In heraldry, a stripe in such a fashion is called a “bend sinister”: as Vladimir Nabokov put it in explaining the title of his novel by that name, “a bar drawn from the upper left to the lower right on a coat of arms.” My player was, naturally, assigned to start at the tenth tee. My history with such starts went unmentioned.

Superstitious nonsense aside, however, there’s likely reasons why my pros should have had a hard time of a dog-leg right. Very often on a dogleg right trees close off the right side quickly: there’s no room on the right to start the ball there in order to draw it back onto the fairway; which is to say, golfers who draw the ball are at a disadvantage. As this is the typical flight of your better player—while it might be so that the very longest players very often play a “power fade”—it’s perhaps not accidental that marginal players (the only type I, as an unproven commodity, might hope to obtain) ought to be drawers of the ball.

Had I known what I found out later, I might have been more anxious: my golfer had “scrapped … Operation Left to Right”—a project designed to enable him to hit a fade on command—all the way back in 2011, as detailed in a series of Golf Channel articles about him and his struggles in golf’s minor leagues. (“The Minors” His favorite ball shape was a draw, a right-to-left shot, which is just about the worst kind of shot you can have on a dogleg-right hole. The tenth at Oldfield had, of course, just that kind of shape.

Already, the sky was threatening, and the air had a chill to it: the kind of chill that can cause the muscles in your hand to be less supple, which can make it just that much harder to “release” the clubhead—which can cause a slice, a left-to-right movement of the ball. Later on my player actually would lose several tee shots to the right, all of them push-fades, including a tough-to-take water ball on the twelfth (our third) hole, a drivable par four.
Eventually the rain would become so bad that the next day the final round would be canceled, which left me at loose ends.

Up past Beaufort there’s a golf club called Secession—a reference to South Carolina’s pride of place with regard to the events leading up to the Civil War: it was the first state to secede, in late December of 1860, and actually helped persuade the other Southern states to secede with it by sending encouraging emissaries to those states. Yet while that name might appear deeply Southern, the membership is probably anything but: Secession, the golf club, is an extremely private course that has become what Augusta began as: a club for the financial guys of New York and Chicago to go to and gamble large sums on golf. Or, to put it another way, the spiritual descendants of the guys who financed Abraham Lincoln’s war.

You might think, of course, that such a place would be somewhat affected by the events of the past five years or so: in fact not, as on the day I stopped in every tee box seemed filled with foursomes, with quite a few filled by loopers carrying doubles. Perhaps I should have known better, since as Chris Lehmann at The Baffler has noted, the “top 1 percent of income earners have taken in fully 93 percent of the economic gains since the Great Recession.” In any case, my errand was unsuccessful: I found out, essentially, that I would need some kind of clout. So, rather than finding my way back directly, I spent a pleasant afternoon in Beaufort. While there, I learned the story of one Robert Smalls, namesake of a number of the town’s landmarks.

“I thought the Planter,” said Robert Smalls when he reached the deck of the USS Onward outside of Charleston Harbor in the late spring of 1862, “might be of some use to Uncle Abe.” Smalls, the pilot, had, along with his crew, stolen the Confederate ship Planter right out from under the Confederate guns by mimicking the Planter’s captain—Smalls knew what the usual signals to leave the harbor were, and by the half-light of dawn he looked sufficiently enough like that officer to secure permission from the sentries at Sumter. (He also knew enough to avoid the minefields, since he’d helped to lay them.) Upon reaching the Union blockade ships on the open Atlantic, Smalls surrendered his vessel to the United States officer in command.

After the war—and a number of rather exciting exploits—Smalls came back to Beaufort, where he bought his former master’s house—a man named McKee—with the bounty money he got for stealing the Planter, and got elected to both the South Carolina House of Representatives and the South Carolina Senate, founding the Republican Party in South Carolina along the way. In office he wrote legislation that provided for South Carolina to have the first statewide public school system in the history of the United States, and then he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he became the last Republican congressman from his district until 2010.

Historical tourism in Beaufort thusly means confronting the fact that the entire of the Lowcountry, as it’s called down here, was the center of secessionism. That’s in part why, in a lot of South Carolina, the war ended much earlier than in most of the South, because the Union invaded by sea in late 1861: 80 years before Normandy, in a fleet whose size would not be rivaled until after Pearl Harbor. That’s also why, as the British owner of a bar in the town I’m staying in, Bluffton, notes, the first thing the Yankees did when they arrived in Bluffton was burn in down. It was in order to make a statement similar to the larger point Sherman would later make during his celebrated visit to Atlanta.

The reason for such vindictiveness was because the slaveowners of the Lowcountry were at what their longtime Senator, John Calhoun, had long before called the “furthest outpost” of slavery’s empire. They not only wanted to continue slavery, they wanted to expand its reach—it’s the moral, in fact, of the curious tale of the yacht Wanderer, funded by a South Carolinian. It’s one of those incidents that happened just before the war, one of those incidents whose meaning would only become clear after the passage of time—and Sherman.

The Wanderer was built in 1857 on Long Island, New York, as a pleasure yacht. Her first owner, Col. John Johnson, sailed her down the Atlantic coast to New Orleans, then sailed her back to New York where a William Corrie, of Charleston, South Carolina, bought her. Corrie made some odd alterations to the ship—adding, for instance, a 15,000 gallon water tank. The work attracted the attention of federal officers aboard the steam revenue cutter USS Harriet Lane, who seized the ship when she attempted to leave New York harbor on 9 June 1858—as a suspected slave ship. But there was no other evidence of the intentions of her owner other than the basic alterations, and so the Wanderer was released. She arrived in Charleston on 25 June, completed her fitting out as a slave ship and, after a stop in Port of Spain, Trinidad, sailed for the Congo on 27 July. The Wanderer returned to the United States on 28 November, at Jekyll Island in Georgia, still in the Lowcountry.

The ship bore a human cargo.

Why, though, would William Corrie—and his partners, including the prominent Savannah businessman Charles Lamar, a member of a family that “included the second president of the Republic of Texas, a U.S. Supreme Court justice, and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb”—have taken so desperate a measure as to have attempted to smuggle slaves into the United States? The slave trade had been banned in the United States since 1808, as per the United States Constitution, which is to say that importing human beings for the purpose of slavery was a federal crime. The punishment was death by hanging.

Ultimately, Corrie and his partners evaded conviction—there were three trials, all held in Savannah, all of which ended with a Savannah jury refusing to convict their local grandees. Oncoming events would, to be sure, soon make the whole episode beside the point. Still, Corrie and Lamar could not have known that, and on the whole the desperate crime seems rather a long chance to take. But the syndicate, led by Lamar, had two motives: one economic, and the other ideological.

The first motive was grasped by Thomas Jefferson, of all people, as early as 1792. Jefferson memorialized his thought, according to the Smithsonian magazine, “in a barely legible, scribbled note in the middle of a page, enclosed in brackets.” The earth-shaking, terrible thought was this: “he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children.” In other words, like the land which his slaves worked, every year brought an increase to the value of Jefferson’s human capital. The value of slaves would, with time, become almost incredible: “In 1860,” historian David Brion Davis has noted, “the value of Southern slaves was about three times the amount invested in manufacturing or railroads nationwide.” And that value was only increased by the ban on the slave trade.

First, then, the voyage of the Wanderer was an act of economic arbitrage, which sought to exploit the price difference between slaves in Africa and those in the United States. But it was also an act of provocation—much like John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry less than a year after the Wanderer landed in Georgia. Like the more celebrated case, the sailing of the Wanderer was meant to demonstrate that slave smuggling could be done—it was meant to inspire further acts of resistance to the Slave Importation Act.

Lamar was after all a Southern “firebrand,” common in the Lowcountry and represented in print by the Charleston Mercury. The firebrands advocated resuming the African slave trade: essentially, the members of this group believed that government shouldn’t interfere with the “natural” process of the market. Southerners like Lamar and Corrie, thusly, were the ancestors to those who today believe that, in the words of Italian sociologist Marco d’Eramo, “things would surely improve if only we left them to the free play of market forces.”
The voyage of the Wanderer was, in that sense, meant to demonstrate the thesis that, as Thomas Frank observed about how the ideological descendants of these forebears put it, that “it is the nature of government enterprises to fail.” The mission of the slave ship, that is, could be viewed as on a par with what Frank calls conservative cautions “against bringing top-notch talent into government service” or piling up “an Everest of debt in order to force the government into crisis.” The notion that the yacht’s trip was wholly contrived must have been lost on the Wanderer’s sponsors.

Surely, then, it isn’t difficult to explain the reasoning behind the appeal of a certain kind of South Carolinian thought and that of wealthy people today. What’s interesting about the whole episode, at least from today’s standpoint, is how it was ultimately defeated: by what, at least from one perspective, appears to be another case of arbitrage. In this case, the arbitrageur was named Abraham Lincoln, and he laid out what he was going to arbitrage long before the voyage of the Wanderer. It was in a speech in Peoria in the autumn of 1854, the speech that marked Lincoln’s return to politics after his defeat in the late 1840s after his opposition to the Mexican War. In that speech, Lincoln laid the groundwork for the defeat of slavery by describing how slavery had artificially interfered with a market—the one whose currency is votes.

The crucial passage of the Peoria speech begins when Lincoln begins to compare two states: South Carolina being one, likely not so coincidentally, and Maine being the other. Both states, Lincoln observes, are equally represented in Congress: “South Carolina has six representatives, and so has Maine; South Carolina has eight presidential electors, and so has Maine.” “Thus in the control of the government,” Lincoln concludes, “the two States are equals precisely.” But, Lincoln goes on to note, observe the numbers of their free people: “Maine has 581,813—while South Carolina has 274,567.” Somehow, then, the Southern voter “is more than double of any one of us in this crowd” in terms of control of the federal government: “it is an absolute truth, without an exception,” Lincoln said, “that there is no voter in any slave State, but who has more legal power in the government than any voter in any free State.” There was, in sum, a discrepancy in value—or what economists might call an “inefficiency.”

The reason for that discrepancy was, as Lincoln also observed, “in the Constitution”—by which he referred to what’s become known as the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” or Article One, Section 2, Paragraph 3: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States … according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons … [and] three fifths of all other Persons.” By this means, Southern states received representation in the federal government in excess of the number of their free inhabitants: in addition to the increase in wealth obtained by the reproduction of their slaves, then, slaveowners also benefitted politically.

In an article for the New York Times’ series Disunion (“The Census of Doom”), which is blogging the Civil War as it happened, Adam Goodheart observes that over the decade between the 1850 United States Census, however, as and the 1860 edition of same, the population of the North had exploded by 41 percent, while that of the South had only grown by 27 percent. (By comparison, Goodheart points out, between 2000 and 2010 the United States population grew by just 9.7 percent.) To take one state as an example, in less than 25 years one Northern state—Wisconsin—had grown by nearly 6400 (sic) percent. Wisconsin would, of course, go heavily for Lincoln in the presidential election—Lincoln would be the first president ever elected without the support of a single Southern state. (He wasn’t even on the ballot in most.) One Northern newspaper editor, Goodheart notes, smugly observed that “The difference in the relative standing of the slave states and the free, between 1850 and 1860, inevitably shows where the future greatness of our country is to be.” Lincoln’s election confirmed the fact that the political power held by the Southern states since the nation’s founding, with the help of an electoral concession, had been broken by a wash of new Northern voters.

If read in that light, then, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which ended both slavery and the Three Fifths Clause, could be understood as a kind of price correction: the two amendments effectively ended the premium that the Constitution had until then placed on Southern votes. Lincoln becomes a version of Brad Pitt’s character in the movie of Michael Lewis’ most famous book—Billy Beane in Moneyball. Just as Billy Beane saw—or was persuaded to see—that batting average was overvalued and on-base percentage was undervalued, thus creating an arbitrage possibility for players who walked a lot, Lincoln saw that Southern votes were too highly valued and Northern ones too undervalued, and that (sooner or later) the two had to converge towards what economists would call “fundamental value.”

That concept is something that golf teaches well. In golf, there are no differences in value to exploit: each shot has just the same fundamental value. On our first tee that day, which was the tenth hole at Oldfield Country Club, my golfer actually didn’t blow his first shot out-of-bounds—though I had fully expected that to happen. He did come pretty close though: it flew directly into the trees, a slicing, left-to-right block. I took off after everyone had teed off: clearly the old guy who was marshaling the hole wasn’t going to be of much help. But I found the ball easily enough, and my player pitched out and ended up making a great par save. The punch-out shot from the trees counted just the same as an approach shot might have, or as a second putt.

Understanding that notion of fundamental value taught by golf—among other possible human acts—allows the further understanding that the “price correction” undertaken by Lincoln wasn’t simply a one-time act: the value of an American vote still, today, varies across the nation. According to the organization FairVote, as of 2003 a vote in Wyoming was more than three times more valuable than, say, my vote as a resident of the state of Illinois. Even today—as the Senate’s own website notes—“senators from the twenty-six smallest states, who (according to the 2000 census) represent 17.8% of the nation’s population, constitute a majority of the Senate.” It’s a fact that the men of the Secession Golf Club might just as well people ignored—because it just may be why 93 percent of the wealth since the Great Recession has gone to the wealthy.

To take a small example of how the two points might be connected, a recent New Yorker piece has pointed out that “in the fifth year of his Presidency, Obama has failed to place even a single judge on the D.C. Circuit, considered the second most important court in the nation” because the Senate has refused to confirm any of his nominees. This despite the fact that there are now four vacancies out of eleven seats. Why? Because the Senate’s rules allow a minority of Senators—or even just one, in the case of what’s known as the “hold”—to interfere with the will of the majority: an advantage Republican senators have not hesitated to seize.

Nearly twenty years after the publication of Bend Sinister, Nabokov chose to write an introduction in which he endeavored to explain the novel’s name. “This choice of title,” he wrote, “was an attempt to suggest an outline broken by refraction, a distortion in the mirror of being, a wrong turn taken by life, a sinistral and sinister world.” If there are wrong turns, of course, that would suggest that there are right ones; if there are “distortions,” then there are clarities: that is, there is an order to which events will (eventually, sooner or later) return. It’s a suggestion that is not fashionable these days: Nabokov himself isn’t read much today for his own beliefs so much as for the confirmation his novels can provide for one or another thesis. But if he is right—if golf’s belief in “fundamental value” is right—then there must necessarily come some correction to this ongoing problem of the value of a vote.

The location of the new Fort Sumter, however, remains unknown.


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