Instruments of Darkness

 

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths …
—William Shakespeare
    The Tragedy of MacBeth
Act I, scene 3 132-3 (1606) 

 

This year’s Masters demonstrated, once again, the truism that nobody watches golf without Tiger Woods: last year’s Masters, played without Tiger, had the lowest ratings since 1957, while the ratings for this year’s Saturday’s round (featuring a charging Woods), were up nearly half again as much. So much is unsurprising; what was surprising, perhaps, was the reappearance of a journalistic fixture from the days of Tiger’s past: the “pre-Masters Tiger hype story.” It’s a reoccurance that suggests Tiger may be taking cues from another ratings monster: the television series Game of Thrones. But if so—with a nod to Ramsey Snow’s famous line in the show—it suggests that Tiger himself doesn’t think his tale will have a happy ending.

The prototype of the “pre-Masters” story was produced in 1997, the year of Tiger’s first Masters win: before that “win for the ages,” it was widely reported how the young phenom had shot a 59 during a practice round at Isleworth Country Club. At the time the story seemed innocuous, but in retrospect there are reasons to interrogate it more deeply—not to say it didn’t happen, exactly, but to question whether it was released as part of a larger design. After all, Tiger’s father Earl—still alive then—would have known just what to do with the story.

Earl, as all golf fans know, created and disseminated the myth of the invincible Tiger to anyone who would listen in the late 1990s: “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,” Gary Smith quoted him saying in the Sports Illustrated story (“The Chosen One”) that, more than any other, sold the Gospel of Woods. There is plenty of reason to suspect that the senior Woods deliberately created this myth as part of a larger campaign: because Earl, as a former member of the U.S. Army’s Green Berets, knew the importance of psychological warfare.

“As a Green Beret,” writes John Lamothe in an academic essay on both Woods, elder and junior, Earl “would have known the effect … psychological warfare could have on both the soldier and the enemy.” As Tiger himself said in a 1996 interview for Orange Coast magazine—before the golfer put up a barrier between himself and the press—“Green Berets know a lot about psychological torture and things like that.” Earl for his part remarked that, while raising Tiger, he “pulled every dirty, nasty trick I could remember from psychological warfare I learned as a Green Beret.” Both Woods described this training as a matter of rattling keys or ripping Velcro at inopportune moments—but it’s difficult not to wonder whether it went deeper.

At the moment of their origin in 1952 after all, the Green Berets, or Special Forces, were a subsection of the Psychological Warfare Staff at the Pentagon: psychological warfare, in other words, was part of their founding mission. And as Lamothe observes, part of the goal of psychological warfare is to create “confidence” in your allies “and doubt in the competitors.” As early as 2000, the sports columnist Thomas Boswell was describing how Tiger “tries to imprint on the mind of every opponent that resistance is useless,” a tactic that Boswell claimed the “military calls … ‘overwhelming force’”—and a tactic that is far older than the game of golf. Consider, for instance, a story from golf’s homeland of Scotland: the tale of the “Douglas Larder.”

It happened at a time of year not unfamiliar to viewers of the Masters: Palm Sunday, in April of 1308. The story goes that Sir James Douglas—an ally of Robert the Bruce, who was in rebellion against the English king Edward I—returned that day to his family’s home, Douglas Castle, which had been seized by the English. Taking advantage of the holiday, Douglas and his men—essentially, a band of guerrillas—slaughtered the English garrison within the church they worshipped in, then beheaded them, ate the Easter feast the Englishmen had no more use for, and subsequently poisoned the castle’s wells and destroyed its supplies (the “Larder” part of the story’s title). Lastly, Douglas set the English soldiers’ bodies afire.

To viewers of the television series Game of Thrones, or readers of the series of books it is based upon (A Song of Ice and Fire), the story might sound vaguely familiar: the “Douglas Larder” is, as popular historian William Rosen has pointed out, one source of the event known from the television series as the “Red Wedding.” Although the television event also borrows from the medieval Scot “Black Dinner” (which is perhaps closer in terms of the setting), and the later incident known as the Massacre at Glencoe, still the “Red Wedding” reproduces the most salient details of the “Douglas Larder.” In both, the attackers take advantage of their prey’s reliance on piety; in both, the bodies of the dead are mutilated in order to increase the monstrous effect.

To a modern reader, such a story is simply a record of barbarism—forgetting that medieval people were, though far less educated, equally as intelligent as nearly anyone alive today. Douglas’ actions were not meant for horror’s sake, but to send a message: the raid on the castle “was meant to leave a lasting impression … not least upon the men who came to replace their dead colleagues.” Acts like his attack on his own castle demonstrate how the “Black Douglas”—“mair fell than wes ony devill in hell” according to a contemporary account—was “an early practitioner of psychological warfare”: he knew how “fear alone could do much of the work of a successful commander.” It seems hardly credible to think Earl Woods—a man who’d been in combat in the guerrilla war of Vietnam—did not know the same lesson. Nor is it credible to think that Earl didn’t tell Tiger about it.

Certainly, Tiger himself has been a kind of Douglas: he won his first Masters by 12 shots, and in the annus mirabilis of 2000 he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15. Displays like that, many have thought, functioned similarly, if less macabrely, as Douglas’ attacks. The effect has even been documented academically: in 2008’s “Dominance, Intimidation, and ‘Choking’ on the PGA Tour,” professors Robert Connolly and Richard Rendleman found that being paired with Tiger cost other tour pros nearly half a shot per round from 1998 to 2001. The “intimidation factor,” that is, has been quantified—so it seems jejune at best to think somebody connected to Tiger, even if he had not been aware of the effect in the past, would not have called his attention to the research.

Releasing a story prior to the Masters, then, can easily be seen as part of an attempt to revive Tiger’s heyday. But what’s interesting about this particular story is its difference from the 1997 version: then, Tiger just threw out a raw score; now, it’s being dressed in a peculiarly complicated costume. As retailed by Golf Digest’s Tim Rosaforte, the story goes like this: on the Tuesday before the tournament Tiger had “recently shot a worst-ball 66 at his home course, Medalist Golf Club.” In Golf Digest, Alex Meyers in turn explained that “a worst-ball 66 … is not to be confused with a best-ball 66 or even a normal 66 for that matter,” because what “worst-ball” means is that “Woods played two balls on each hole, but only played the worst shot each time.” Why not just say, as in 1997, Tiger shot some ridiculously low number?

The answer, I think, can be understood by way of the “Red Wedding”: just as George Martin, in order to write the A Song of Ice and Fire books, has revisited and revised many episodes of medieval history, so too is Tiger attempting to revisit his own past—a conclusion that would be glib were it not for the very make-up of this year’s version of the pre-Masters story itself. After all, to play a “worst-ball” is to time-travel: it is, in effect, to revise—or rewrite—the past. Not only that, but—and in this it is very much like both Scottish history and Game of Thrones—it is also to guarantee a “downer ending.” Maybe Tiger, then, is suggesting to his fans that they ought to pay more attention.

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Thought Crimes

 

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
Sherlock Holmes
    The Sign of Four (1890).

 

Whence heavy persecution shall arise
On all, who in the worship persevere
Of spirit and truth; the rest, far greater part,
Will deem in outward rites and specious forms
Religion satisfied; Truth shall retire
Bestuck with slanderous darts, and works of faith
Rarely be found: So shall the world go on …
John Milton
   Paradise Lost
   Book XII 531-37

 

When Tiger Woods, just after four o’clock Eastern time, hit a horrific duck-hook tee shot on Augusta National’s 13th hole during the third round of the Masters tournament Saturday, the golfer sent one of George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” after it, live on air. About an hour later, around a quarter after five, the announcer Ian Baker-Finch caught himself from uttering a taboo phrase: although he began by saying “back,” the Australian quickly corrected himself by saying “second nine.” To the novice Masters viewer the two misuses of language might appear quite different (Finch-Baker’s slip, that is, being far less offensive), but longtime viewers are aware that, had Baker-Finch not saved himself, his error would have been the more serious incident—to the extent, in fact, that he might have lost his job. Just why that is so is difficult to explain to outsiders unfamiliar with Augusta National’s particular vision of decorum; it may, however, perhaps be explained by one of the broadcast’s few commercials; an advert whose tagline connects a golf commentator’s innocent near-mistake to an argument about censorship conducted at the beginning of this year—in Paris, at the business end of a Kalashnikov.

France is a long way from Georgia, however, so let’s begin with how what Ian Baker-Finch almost said would have been far worse than Tiger’s f-bombs. In the first place that is because, as veterans of watching the Masters know, the announcing team is held to very strict standards largely unique to this sporting event. Golf is, in general, far more concerned with “decorum” and etiquette than other sports—it is, as its enthusiasts often remark, the only one where competitors regularly call penalties on themselves—but the Masters tournament examines the language of its broadcasters to an extent unknown even at other golf tournaments.

In 1966, for example, broadcaster Jack Whittaker—as described in the textbook, Sports Media: Planning, Production, and Reporting— “was canned for referring to Masters patrons as a ‘mob,’” while in 1994 Gary McCord joked (as told by Alex Myers in Golf Digest) “that ‘bikini wax’ is used to make Augusta National’s greens so slick”—and was unceremoniously dumped. Announcers at the Masters, in short, are well-aware they walk a fine line.

Hence, while Baker-Finch’s near-miss was by no means comparable to McCord’s attempts at humor, it was serious because it would have broken a known one of the “Augusta Rules,” as John Feinstein called them in Moment of Glory: The Year Underdogs Ruled Golf. “There are no front nine and back nine at Augusta but, rather, a first nine and a second nine,” Feinstein wrote; a rule that, it’s said, developed because the tournament’s founders, the golfer Bobby Jones and the club chairman Clifford Roberts, felt “back nine” sounded too close to “back side.” The Lords of Augusta, as the club’s members are sometimes referred to, will not stand for “vulgarity” from their announcing team—even if the golfers they are watching are sometimes much worse.

Woods, for example (as the Washington Post reported), “followed up a bad miss left off the 13th tee with a curse word that was picked up by an on-course microphone, prompting the CBS announcers to intone, ‘If you heard something offensive at 13, we apologize.’” Yet while even had Baker-Finch uttered the unutterable, he would only have suggested what Woods baldly verbalized, it’s unimaginable that Woods could suffer the same fate as a CBS announcer would, or be penalized in any way. The uproar that would follow if, for instance, the Lords decided to ban Tiger from further tournaments would make all previous golf scandals appear tame.

Undoubtedly, the difference in treatment conceivably could be justified by the fact that Woods is a competitor (and four-time winner) in the tournament while announcers are ancillary to it. In philosophic terms, players are essential while announcers are contingent: players just are the tournament because without them, no golf. That isn’t as possible to say about any particular broadcaster (though, when it comes to Jim Nantz, lead broadcaster since 1986, it might be close). From that perspective then it might make sense that Tiger’s “heat-of-the-moment” f-bombs are not as significant as a slip of the tongue by an announcer trained to speak in public could be.

Such, at least, might be a rationale for the differing treatment accorded golfers and announcers: so far as I am aware, neither the golf club nor CBS has come forward with an explanation regarding the difference. It was while I was turning this over in my mind that one of the tournament broadcast’s few commercials came on—and I realized just why the difference between Tiger’s words and, say, Gary McCord’s in 1994 caught in my brain.

The ad in question consisted of different people reciting, over and over again, a line once spoken by IBM pioneer Thomas Watson in 1915: “All of the problems of the world could be settled easily if men were only willing to think.” Something about this phrase—repeated so often it became quite literally like a mantra, defined as a “sacred utterance, numinous sound” by Wikipedia—rattled something in my head, which ignited a slight Internet investigation: it seems that, for IBM, that last word—think—became a catchword after 1915; the word was plastered on company ephemera like the name of the company magazine and even, in recent times, becoming the basis for the name of such products as the Thinkpad. The sentence, it could be said, is the official philosophy of the company.

As philosophies go it seems inarguable that this is rather a better one than, for instance, one that might demand “silence your enemies wherever possible.” It is, one might say, a hopeful sentence—if only people were willing to use their rationality, the difficult and the intractable could be vanquished. “Think,” in that sense, is a sentiment that seems quite at odds with the notion of censorship: without airing what someone is thinking, it appears impossible to believe that anything could be settled. In order to get people to think, it seems inarguable that they must be allowed to talk.

Such, at least, is one of the strongest pillars of the concept of “free speech,” as the English and law professor Stanley Fish has pointed out. Fish quotes, as an example of the argument, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, James A. Leach, who gave a speech in 2009 claiming that “the cornerstone of democracy is access to knowledge.” In other words, in order to achieve the goal outlined by Watson (solving the world’s problems), it’s necessary to put everyone’s views in the open in order that they might be debated—a notion usually conceptualized, in relation to American law, as the “marketplace of ideas.”

That metaphor traces back to American Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s famous dissent in a case called Abrams v. United States, decided in 1919. “The ultimate good desired,” as Holmes wrote in that case (interestingly, in the light of his theory, against the majority opinion), “is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” That notion, in turn, can (as Fish observes) be followed back to English philosopher John Stuart Mill, and even beyond

“We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion,” Mill wrote in his On Liberty, “and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.” Yet further back,  the thought connects to John Milton’s Areopagitica, where the poet wrote “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” That is, so long as opinions can be freely shared, any problem could in principle be solved—more or less Thomas Watson’s point in 1915.

Let’s be clear, however, what is and what is not being said. That is, the words “in principle” above are important because I do not think that Watson or Mills or Milton or Holmes would deny that there are many practical reasons why it might be impossible to solve problems with a meeting or a series of meetings. No one believes, for instance, that the threat of ISIS could be contained by a summit meeting between ISIS and other parties—the claim that Holmes & Watson (smirk) et al. would make is just that the said threat could be solved if only that organization’s leaders would agree to a meeting. Merely objecting that many times such conceivable meetings are not practical isn’t, in that sense, an strong objection to the idea of the “idea market”—which asserts that in conditions of what could be called “perfect communication” disagreement is (eventually) impossible.

That however is precisely why Fish’s argument against the “market” metaphor is such a strong one: it is Fish’s opinion that the “marketplace” metaphor is just that—a metaphor, not a bedrock description of reality. In an essay entitled “Don’t Blame Relativism,” in fact, Fish apparently denies “the possibility of describing, and thereby evaluating” everything “in a language that all reasonable observers would accept.” That is, he denies the possibility that is imagined by Thomas Watson’s assertion regarding “[a]ll of the problems of the world”: the idea that, were only everyone reasonable, all problems could be solved.

To make the point clearer, while in Watson’s metaphor (which is also Milton’s and Mills’ and Holmes’), in theory everything can be sorted out if only everyone came to the bargaining table, to Fish such a possibility is not only practically impossible, but also theoretically impossible. Fish’s objection to the “market” idea isn’t just that it is difficult, for instance, to find the right translators to speak to different sides of a debate in their own language, but that even were all conditions for perfect communication met, that would not guarantee the end of disagreement.

It’s important to note at this point that this is a claim Fish needs to make in order to stick his argument, because if all he does is advance historically-based arguments to the effect that at no point in human history has the situation described by Watson et al. ever existed, their partisans can counterclaim that just because no one has yet seen perfect communication, that’s no reason to think it might not someday be possible. Such partisans might, for example, quote Alice Calaprice’s The Quotable Einstein, which asserts that Einstein once remarked that “No amount of experimentation can prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” Or, as the writer Nassem Nicholas Taleb has put the same point while asserting that it ultimately traces back through John Stuart Mill to David Hume: “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.” In other words, Fish could be right that no such perfect communication has ever existed, but it would be logically inconsistent to try to claim that such evidence implies that it could never be possible.

To engage his opponents, then, Fish must take to the field of “theory,” not just adduce historical examples. That is why Fish cannot just claim that, historically, even regimes that claim to follow the creed of Watson and Holmes and so on in theory do not actually follow that creed in reality, though he does make that argument. He points out, for instance, that even in the Areopagitica, otherwise a passionate defense of “free speech,” Milton allowed that while “free speech” is all well and good for most people most of the time, he does not mean to imply “tolerated popery” (i.e., Catholics), because as that religion (according to Milton) “extirpates all religious and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate.”

In other words, Milton explains that anything that threatens the idea of “free speech” itself—as Catholicism, in Milton’s day arguably in the throes of the Inquisition, did so threaten—should not be included in the realm of protected speech, since that “which is impious or evil absolutely against faith or manners no law can possibly permit that intends not to unlaw itself.” And while it might be counterclaimed that in Milton’s time “free speech” was imperfectly realized, Fish also demonstrates that while Catholicism no longer constitutes a threat to modern “free speech” regimes, there are still exceptions to what can be said publicly.

As another American Supreme Court justice, Robert Jackson, would put the point centuries later, “the constitutional Bill of Rights”—including, one presumes, the free-speech-protecting First Amendment—is not “a suicide pact.” Or, as Fish himself put the same point, even today the most tolerant governments still ask themselves, regarding speech, “would this form of speech or advocacy, if permitted to flourish, tend to undermine the very purposes for which our society is constituted?” No government, in other words, can allow the kind of speech that threatens to end the practice of free speech itself.

Still, that is not enough to disrupt the “free speech” argument, because even if it has not been exemplified yet on this earth, that does not mean that it could not someday. To make his point, Fish has to go further; which he does in an essay called “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, And It’s A Good Thing Too.”

There, Fish says that he is not merely claiming that “saying something … is a realm whose integrity is sometimes compromised by certain restrictions”—that would be the above argument, where historical evidence is advanced—but rather “that restriction, in the form of an underlying articulation of the world that necessarily (if silently) negates alternatively possible articulations, is constitutive of expression.” The claim Fish wants to make in short—and it is important to see that it is the only argument that can confront the claims of the “marketplace of ideas” thesis—is that restrictions, such as Milton’s against Catholicism, aren’t the sad concessions we must make to an imperfect world, but are in fact what makes communication possible at all.

To those who take what’s known as a “free speech absolutism” position, such a notion might sound deeply subversive, if not heretical: the answer to pernicious opinions, in the view of the free speech absolutist, is not to outlaw them, but to produce more opinions—as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mill, and Milton all advise. The headline of an editorial in Toronto’s Globe and Mail puts the point elegantly: “The lesson of Charlie Hebdo? We need more free speech, not less.” But what Fish is saying could be viewed in the light of the narrative described by the writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb about how he derived his saying regarding “black swans” under the influence of John Stuart Mill and David Hume.

Taleb says that while “Hume had been irked by the fact that science in his day … had experience a swing from scholasticism, entirely based on deductive reasoning” to “an overreaction into naive and unstructured empiricism.” The difficulty, as Hume recognized, “is that, without a proper method”—or, as Fish might say, a proper set of constraints—“empirical observations can lead you astray.” It’s possible, in other words, that amping up production of truths will not—indeed, perhaps can not—produce Truth.

In fact, Taleb argues (in a piece entitled “The Roots of Unfairness: the Black Swan in Arts and Literature”) that in reality, rather than the fantasies of free speech absolutists, the production of very many “truths” may tend to reward a very few examples at the expense of the majority—and that thusly “a large share of the success” of those examples may simply be due to “luck.” The specific market Taleb is examining in this essay is the artistic and literary world, but like many other spheres—such as “economics, sociology, linguistics, networks, the stock market”—that world is subject to “the Winner-Take-All effect.” (Taleb reports Robert H. Frank defined that effect in his article, “Talent and the Winner-Take-All Society,” as “markets in which a handful of top performers walk away with the lion’s share of total rewards.”) The “free speech absolutist” position would define the few survivors of the “truth market” as being, ipso facto, “the Truth”—but Taleb is suggesting that such a position takes a more sanguine view of the market than may be warranted.

The results of Taleb’s investigations imply that such may be the case. “Consider,” he observes, “that, in publishing, less than 1 in 800 books represent half of the total unit sales”—a phenomenon similar to that found by Art De Vany at the cinema in his Hollywood Economics. And while those results might be dismissed as subject to crass reasons, in fact the “academic citation system, itself supposedly free of commercialism, represents an even greater concentration” than that found in commercial publishing, and—perhaps even yet more alarmingly—there is “no meaningful difference between physics and comparative literature”: both display an equal amount of concentration. In all these fields, a very few objects are hugely successful, while the great mass sink like stones into the sea of anonymity.

The replication of these results do not confine themselves simply to artistic or scientific production; they are, in fact, applicable to subjects as diverse as the measurement of the coast of England to the error rates in telephone calls. George Zipf, for example, found that the rule applied to the “distribution of words in the vocabulary,” while Vilfredo Pareto found it applied to the distribution of income in any give society.

“Now,” asks Taleb, “think of waves of one meter tall in relation to waves of 2 meters tall”—there will inevitably be many more one meter waves than two meter waves, and by some magic the ratio between the two will be invariant, just as, according to what linguists call “Zipf’s Law,” “the most frequent word [in a given language] will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word,” and so on. As the Wikipedia entry for Zipf’s Law (from which the foregoing definition is taken) observes, the “same relationship occurs in many other rankings unrelated to language, such as the population ranks of cities in various countries, corporation sizes, income rankings, ranks of number of people watching the same TV channel, and so on.” All of these subjects are determined by what have come to be known as power laws—and according to some researchers, they even apply to subjects as seemingly immune to them as music.

Zipf himself, in order to explain the distribution he discovered among words, proposed that it could be explained by a kind of physical process, rather than discernment on the part of language-users: “people aim at minimizing effort in retrieving words; they are lazy and remember words that they have used in the past, so that the more a word is used, the more likely it is going to be used in the future, causing a snowball effect.” The explanation has an intuitive appeal: it appears difficult to argue that “the” (the most common English word) communicates twice as much information as “be” (the second-most common English word). Still less does such an argument explain why those word distributions should mirror the distributions of American cities, say, or the height of the waves on Hawaii’s North Shore, or the metabolic rates of various mammals. The widespread appearance of such distributions, in fact, suggests that rather than being determined by forces “intrinsic” to each case, the distributions are driven by a natural law that cares nothing for specifics.

So far, it seems, “we have no clue about the underlying process,” as Taleb says. “Nothing can explain why the success of a novelist … bears similarity to the bubbles and informational cascades seen in the financial markets,” much less why both should “resemble the behavior of electricity power grids.” What we can know is that, while according to the “free speech absolutist” position “one would think that a larger size of the population of producers would cause a democratization,” in fact “it does not.” “If anything,” Taleb notes, “it causes even more clustering.” The prediction of the “free speech absolutist” position suggests that the production of more speech results in a closer approximation of the Truth; experiential results, however, suggest that more production results merely in a smaller number of products becoming more successful for reasons that may have nothing to do with their intrinsic merits.

These results suggest that perhaps Stanley Fish has it right about “free speech,” and thus that the Lords of Augusta—like their spiritual brethren who shot up the offices of Charlie Hebdo in early January this year—have it completely right in the tight rein they hold over the announcers that work their golf tournament: Truth could be the result of, not the enemy of, regulation. The irony, of course, is that such also suggests the necessity of regulation in areas aside from commentary about golf and golfers—a result that, one suspects, is not only one not favored by the Lords of the Masters, but puts them in uncomfortable company. Allahu akbar, presumably, sounds peculiar with a Southern accent.

Green Jackets ’n’ Blackfaces

But if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
Nothing’s changed all?
—“Pompeii”
    Bastille (2013)

 

 

Some bore will undoubtedly claim, this April week, that the Masters is unique among golf’s major tournaments because it is the only one held at the same course every year—a claim not only about as fresh as a pimento cheese sandwich but refuted by the architectural website Golf Club Atlas. “Augusta National,” the entry for the course goes on their website, “has gone through more changes since its inception than any of the world’s twenty or so greatest courses.” But the club’s jive by no means stops there; just as the club—and the journalists who cover the tournament—likes to pretend its course is timeless, so too does the club—what with the sepia photos of Bobby Jones, the talk of mint juleps, the bright azaleas, the “limited commercial interruptions” and the old-timey piano music of the tournament broadcast—like to pretend it is an island of “the South” in a Yankee sea. The performance is worthy of one of the club’s former members: Freeman Gosden, who became a member of Augusta National as a result of the riches and fame thrown off by the radio show he created in 1928 Chicago—Amos ’n’ Andy.

Gosden played Amos; his partner, Charles Correll, played Andy. The two actors had met in Durham, North Carolina in 1920, and began performing together in Chicago soon afterwards. According to Wikipedia, both were “familiar with minstrel traditions”: the uniquely American art form  in which white performers would sing and tell jokes and stories while pretending to be black, usually while wearing “blackpaint”—that is, covering their faces with black makeup. The show they created, about two black cab drivers, translated those minstrel traditions to radioand became the most successful minstrel show in American history. Amos ’n’ Andy lasted 32 years on the radio—the last performance came in 1960—and while it only lasted a few years on television in the early 1950s, the last rerun played on American air as late as 1966.

The successful show made Gosden and Correll made so rich, in fact, that by the early 1950s Gosden had joined the Augusta National Golf Club, and sometime thereafter the actor had become so accepted that he joined the group known as “the Gang.” This was a troop of seven golfers that formed around General Dwight Eisenhower—who had led the amphibious Allied invasion of France on the beaches of Normandy in 1944—after the former war hero was invited to join the club in 1948. Gosden had, in other words, arrived: there was, it seems, something inherently entertaining about a white men pretending to be something he wasn’t.

Gosden was however arguably not the only minstrel performer associated with Augusta National: the golf architecture website Golf Club Atlas claims that the course itself performs a kind of minstrelry. Originally, Augusta’s golf course was designed by famed golf architect Alister MacKenzie, who also designed such courses as Cypress Point in California and Crystal Downs in Michigan, in consultation with Bobby Jones, the great player who won 13 major championships. As a headline from The Augusta Chronicle, the town’s local newspaper, once proclaimed, “MacKenzie Made Jones’ Dream Of Strategic Course Into Reality.” But in the years since, the course has been far from timeless: as Golf Club Atlas points out, in fact it has gone through “a slew of changes from at least 15 different ‘architects.’” As it now stands, the course is merely pretending to be a MacKenzie.

Nearly every year since the Masters began in 1934, the course has undergone some tweak or another: whereas, once “Augusta National could have been considered amongst the two or three most innovative designs ever,” it has now been so altered—according to the Golf Club Atlas article—that to “call it a MacKenzie course is false advertising as his features are essentially long gone.” To say that course Tiger Woods won on is the same as the one that Jack Nicklaus or Ben Hogan won on, thus, is to make a mockery of history.

The primary reason the Atlas can make that claim stick is because the golf club has flouted Jones’ and MacKenzie’s original intent, which was to build a course like one they both revered: the Old Course at St. Andrews. Jones loved the Old Course so much that, famously, he was later made an honorary citizen of the town, while for his part MacKenzie wrote a book—not published until decades after his death in 1995—called The Spirit of St. Andrews. And as anyone familiar with golf architecture knows, the Old Course is distinguished by the “ground game”: where the golfer does better to keep his ball rolling along the ground, following its contours, rather than flying it through the air.

As Golf Club Atlas observes, “Jones and MacKenzie both shared a passion for the Old Course at St. Andrews, and its influence is readily apparent in the initial design” because “the ground game was meant to be the key at Augusta National.” That intent, however, has been lost; in a mordant twist of history, the reason for that loss is arguably due to the success of the Masters tournament itself.

“Ironically, hosting the Masters has ruined one of MacKenzie’s most significant designs,” says the Atlas, because “much of the money that the club receives from the Invitational is plowed back into making changes to the course in a misguided effort to protect par.” Largely, “protecting par” has been interpreted by the leadership of the golf club to mean “to minimize the opportunity for the ground game.” As Rex Hoggard—repeating a line heard about the course for decades—wrote in an article for the Golf Channel’s website in 2011, it’s “important to hit the ball high at Augusta National”—a notion that would be nonsensical if Jones and MacKenzie’s purpose had been kept in view.

In short, the Atlas understands—perhaps shockingly—that “an invitation to play Augusta National remains golf’s most sought-after experience,” it thus also believes that “fans of Alister MacKenzie would be better served to look elsewhere for a game.” Though the golf club, and the television coverage, might work to present the course as a static beauty, in fact that effect is achieved through endless surgeries that have effectively made the course other than it was. The Augusta National golf course, thus, is a kind of minstrel.

Similarly, the presentation of the golf club as a specifically Southern institution—perhaps above all, by ensuring that the chairman of the club, the only member who regularly speaks to the media, possesses a Georgia drawl (as recent chairmen Hootie Johnson and Billy Payne have)—is belied by the club’s history. Consider, in that light, a story from the beginnings of the club itself, a story ably told in Curt Sampson’s The Masters: Golf, Money, and Power in Augusta, Georgia.

In January of 1933—the depths of the Great Depression—a New York investment banker named Clifford Roberts approached the Southern Railroad System with a proposal: “comfortable conveyance for one hundred New Yorkers to and from Augusta, Georgia”—at a discount. “Business was so bad,” Roberts himself would later write in his history of the golf club, “that the railroad promised not only a special low rate, but all new Pullman equipment with two club cars for card players and two dining cars.” In this way, Sampson writes, “the grand opening of the Augusta National Golf Club began in a railroad station in New York City.”

Most golf fans, if they are aware of the club that holds the tournament at all, only know that it was founded by Bobby Jones when he retired from competitive golf following the annus mirabilis of 1930, when Jones won the Grand Slam of all four major tournaments in the same year. But, as Sampson’s story demonstrates, it was Clifford Roberts that made Jones’ vision a reality by raising the money to build it—and that money came largely from New York, not the South.

Sixty of the 100 men Roberts recruited to join the club before it opened were from New York City: the Augusta National Golf Club would be, as Sampson puts it, “a private enclave for rich Yankees in the heart of the South, just sixty-eight years after the Civil War.” Sampson calls the idea “bizarre”—but in fact, it only is if one has a particularly narrow idea of “the South.” Augusta National’s status as a club designed to allow Yankees to masquerade as Southerners only seems ridiculous if it’s assumed that the very idea of “the South” itself is not a kind of minstrelry—as, in fact, it arguably is.

Links between New York finance and the South, that is, long predated the first golf shot at the new course. It’s often forgotten, for instance, that—as historians Charles and John Lockwood pointed out in the New York Times in 2011—after South Carolina declared it would secede in December of 1860, “the next call for secession would not come from a Southern state, but from a Northern city—New York.”

On 7 January of the bleak “Secession Winter” of ’61, the two historians note, New York’s mayor, Fernando Wood, spoke to the city council to urge that it follow the Southern state and secede. The mayor was merely articulating the “pro-Southern and pro-independence sentiment” of the city’s financiers and traders—a class buoyed up by the fact that “the city’s merchants took 40 cents of every dollar that Europeans paid for Southern cotton.” The Southern staple (and the slaves whose labor grew that crop), had in other words “helped build the new marble-fronted mercantile buildings in lower Manhattan, fill Broadway hotels and stores with customers, and build block after block of fashionable brownstones north of 14th Street.” Secession of the South put all those millions of dollars at risk: to protect its investments, thus Mayor Wood was proposing, New York might have to follow the South out of the Union.

Such a move would have had disastrous consequences. The city was the site of the vast Brooklyn Navy Yard, which in the months after the fall of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor would assemble the fleet that not only would blockade the Southern coast, but would, in November of ’61, land an army at Hilton Head, South Carolina, the heart of secessionism—a fleet only exceeded by the armada General Eisenhower would gather against Normandy in the late winter and spring of 1944. But even more importantly, in that time the taxes collected by the New York Customs House virtually paid the entire federal government’s budget each year.

“In 1860,” as the Lockwoods write, “tariffs on imported goods collected at ports … provided $56 million of the $64.6 million of federal revenue, and more than two-thirds of imports by value passed through New York.” If New York seceded, in other words, the administration of president-elect Abraham Lincoln would be bankrupt before it took office: the city, as it were, held the nation’s government by a golden leash.

But New York City did not follow the South out of the Union: when the cannons fired at Fort Sumter that April, New York joined the rest of the nation in confirming the sentiments of Daniel Webster’s Second Reply to Hayne: “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable!” Over a hundred thousand would turn out to the “Great Sumter Rally” at (the appropriately-named) Union Square in the city on 20 April, after the fall of the federal fort in Charleston Harbor. It was, perhaps, the largest expression of New York’s patriotism before the fall of the towers overlooking the city at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Mayor Wood himself spoke at that rally to affirm his support for “the Union, the government, the laws and the flag”—reversing his course from mere months before, a turn that perhaps has served to obscure how close the city’s ties were to a region, and economic system, that had turned away from all of those institutions. But just because it was politically expedient to deny them did not conjure them away. Indeed, the very existence of the Augusta National Golf Club is testament to just how enduring those ties between New York and the Deep South may be.

Still, of course, none of these acts of minstrelry—the golf course’s masquerade as the work of a designer whose work barely survives, the golf club’s disguise as a Southern institution when in fact it has been largely the work of Yankee financiers, or even the South’s own pretense—could be said to matter, really, now. Except for one detail: those links, some might say, extend into the present: perhaps the biggest story in American political history over the past century is how the party that would win the Civil War, the party of Lincoln, has become the defender, instead of the antagonist, of that vision of the South portrayed every year by the Masters tournament. It’s an act of minstrelry that lies at the heart of American political life today.

In 1962, wrote Ian Haney-Lopez (John H. Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley) for Salon in 2013, “when asked which party ‘is more likely to see that Negroes get fair treatment in jobs and housing,’ 22.7 percent of the public said Democrats and 21.3 percent said Republicans, while over half could perceive no difference between the two.” The masks of the two parties were, on this issue, interchangeable.

Yet, by the summer of 1963, conservative journalist Robert Novak could report from the Republican National Committee’s meeting in Denver that a “good many, perhaps a majority of the party’s leadership, envision political gold to be mined in the racial crisis by becoming in fact, though not in name, the White Man’s Party.” It was a harvest that would first be reaped the following year: running against Lyndon Johnson, who had—against long odds—passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, would outright win five states of the Deep South: Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina. It was the first time a Republican nominee for president had won in those states, at least since the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow.

Still, those states—and electoral votes—were not enough to carry Goldwater to the White House. But they formed the prelude to the election that did make those votes count: 1968, won by Richard Nixon. According to one of Nixon’s political strategists that year, Kevin Phillips, that election demonstrated the truth of the thesis Phillips would lay out in his 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority: “The Negro problem, having become a national rather than a local one, is the principal cause of the breakup of the New Deal coalition”—the coalition that had delivered landslides for Franklin Roosevelt and, in 1964, for Johnson. Phillips predicted that a counter-coalition would emerge that would be “white and middle class,” would be “concentrated in the South, the West, and suburbia,” and would be driven by reaction to “the immense midcentury impact of Negro enfranchisement and integration.” That realignment would become called Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.”

The “Southern Strategy,” as Nixon’s opponent in 1972, George McGovern, would later remark, “says to the South:”

Let the poor stay poor, let your economy trail the nation, forget about decent homes and medical care for all your people, choose officials who will oppose every effort to benefit the many at the expense of the few—and in return, we will try to overlook the rights of the black man, appoint a few southerners to high office, and lift your spirits by attacking the “eastern establishment” whose bank accounts we are filling with your labor and your industry.

Haney-Lopez argues, in the book from which this excerpt is taken—entitled Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, published by Oxford University Press—that it is the wreckage from Nixon’s course that surrounds us today: economic attacks on the majority enabled by nearly transparent racial coding. He may or may not be right—but what might be of interest to future historians is the role, large or small, that the Augusta National Golf Club may have played in that drama.

Certainly, after all, the golf club played an outsize role in the Eisenhower administration: according to the Augusta Chronicle, Eisenhower made 45 trips to the golf club during his life: “five before he became president, 29 while president and 11 after his last term.” And just as certainly the club provided more than recreation for the general and president.

One Augusta member (Pete Jones) would, according to Sampson and other sources, “offer Ike $1 million for his 1952 campaign for president.” (“When Pete Jones died in a plane crash in 1962,” Sampson reports, “he had $60,000 in his wallet.”) Even before that, Clifford Roberts had arranged for one Augusta member, a publisher, to buy the general’s memoirs; the money made Eisenhower financially secure for the first time in his life.

It was members of the golf club in short who provided the former Supreme Commander of the West with both the advice and the financial muscle to reach for the Republican nomination for president in 1952. His friends while in Augusta, as Sampson notes, included such figures as Robert Woodruff of Coca-Cola, “Bud (washing machines) Maytag, Albert (General Motors) Bradley, Alfred S. (Singer Sewing Machines) Bourne” and other captains of industry. Another member of the golf club was Ralph Reed, president of American Express, who would later find a job for the general’s driver during the war, Kay Summersby.

All of which is, to be sure, a long way from connecting the club directly to Nixon and the “Southern Strategy.” There’s a great deal of testimony, in fact, that would appear to demonstrate the contrary. According to Golf Digest, for example, Nixon “once told Clifford Roberts”—the storied golf club’s sometimes-malevolent dictator—“that he wouldn’t mind being a member of Augusta National, and Roberts, who didn’t like him any better than Eisenhower did, said “I didn’t know you were that interested in golf.” “And that,” goes the story, “was the end of that.” Sampson’s work tends to confirm the point: a few of Ike’s cronies at the club, Sampson reports, “even urged Ike to dump Dick in 1956,” the year the general ran for re-election.

Still, the provable is not the same as the unimaginable. Take, for instance, the testimony of Charlie Sifford, the man Lee Trevino called the “Jackie Robinson” of golf—he broke the game’s color barrier in 1961, after the attorney general of California threatened to sue the PGA of America for its “whites only” clause. Sifford fought for years to be invited to play in the Masters tournament, only to be denied despite winning two tournaments on the PGA Tour. (The 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open.) In his autobiography, Just Let Me Play, Sifford quoted Clifford Roberts as saying, “As long as I live, there will be nothing at the Masters besides black caddies and white players.”

Sampson for one discounts this as implausible—for what it’s worth, he thinks it unlikely that Roberts would have actually said such a thing, not that Roberts was incapable of thinking it. Nevertheless, golfers in the Masters tournament were required to take “local” (i.e., black) caddies until 1983, six years after Roberts shot himself in the head beside Ike’s Pond on the grounds of the club, in late September, 1977. (The chairman, it’s said, took a drop.) Of course, the facts of the golf club’s caddie policy means nothing, nor even would Clifford Roberts’ private thoughts regarding race. But the links between the club, the South, and the world of money and power remain, and whatever the future course of the club, or the nation, those forged in the past—no matter the acts of minstrelry designed to obscure them—remain.

Now, and forever.

Great Lengths

‘A first class hole must have the subtleties and strategic problems which are difficult to understand, and are therefore extremely likely to be condemned at first sight even by the best of players.’
Alister MacKenzieThe Spirit of St. Andrews (1933; pub. 1995)

Both men were over two hundred yards from the hole when we arrived at their golf balls, far to the left side of Streamsong Red’s thirteenth. My player, though not as skilled a golfer as his companion, was slightly closer to the green; the other player was further away. His caddie counseled him to take a long club, and play up to the right of the dune fronting the thirteenth’s green. The man did, hitting a heroic shot that flew over the center fairway bunker, to the right of the dune. It left him with a short wedge into the green, only partially obscured by the massive dune. My player looked at me, presumably expecting me to counsel similarly. But while I told the other player, “good shot,” I was handing my guy a wedge.

My reasoning, had there been time to follow it at length, had much to do with a golf course nearly three thousand miles away: Riviera Country Club, outside Los Angeles. The thirteenth hole on Streamsong’s Red Course draws from that golf course on two distinct levels: in the first place, it is a short par five, designed to follow the long par four twelfth—a rehash of a trick the Coore and Crenshaw team had already used on the first and second hole of the same course: a short par five following a par four of nearly the same length. The artifice is inspired by the opening holes of Riviera, a course that begins with one of the easiest par fives in golf and is followed by one of the most difficult par fours. But the Red Course, and specifically the thirteenth, also draws much from the thought of Riviera’s architect, George Thomas.

“Each hole at Riviera,” reads the course’s review at the website, Golf Club Atlas, is a ‘how to’ of golf architecture.” One of these is the contrast between the first and the second holes: one of the easier par fives on tour (often not even requiring a driver to reach in two shots) followed by the course’s number one handicap hole. The idea is a kind of rhyme, where what happened on the previous hole matters in a way not often found in less sophisticated designs.

One way the first two holes at Riviera rhyme, for example, is by contrast of their greens: the first hole’s green is very wide, yet not very deep, while the second’s is the opposite. Hence, the one mitigates a shot that is the correct distance but is indifferently aimed, while the second mitigates the opposite kind of shot. Conversely, each also punishes the “wrong” sort of shot—the sort that might have been just the thing on the previous hole. It’s a subtle but far-reaching effect, one that can be hard to detect—unless you happen to read the scorecard.

A careful reading of any course’s scorecard can, in other words, reveal holes of extremely similar distances; the lesson Coore and Crenshaw, following Thomas, would impart is: “Pay attention when two holes of similar lengths have different par values.” The numbers are a clear signal to the careful golfer, because the choice of length is not haphazard; it is a sign that those two holes have a relation to each other. In the case of the thirteenth and the twelfth on Streamsong’s Red, each is—in part—a funhouse version of the other. Where one is downhill (the 12th) the other is uphill (the 13th), and where one offers a clear view of the green the other obscures it. But the dune of the thirteenth is not just a mirror; it is a razor.

It’s a razor because the thirteenth on the Red Course embodies George Thomas’ thought in an even more subtle sense. “The spirit of golf,” Thomas wrote in his Golf Architecture in America, of 1927, “is to dare a hazard, and by negotiating it reap a reward, while he who fears or declines the issue of the carry, has a longer or harder shot for his second.” Everything in golf revolves around that axis mundi; it is the turtle upon which the disc of the world, as the recently-deceased Terry Pratchett might have appreciated, rests. Proceed by one path, and others become unavailable—every choice, like Borges’ “Garden of Forking Paths,” is determined by previous choices.

One way the thirteenth does this is by separating the golfer from a clear view of the green until he nearly stands upon it. But it does not do that entirely: from the extreme left it’s possible to see the flag, if not the green itself. The trouble—and of course, as George Thomas’ maxim advertises, there is a trouble—is that, from the left, a player must traverse nearly a hundred yards of sand; not so from the right, where a smooth road of fairway grass chases gently to the green. The architecture appears to be designed, in Thomas’ sense, to reward a “spirited carry” over the dune.

Some version of that thought, presumably, is why my colleague counseled his player to play up the right side with the strong shot he hit. Yet two wedge shots of just more than a hundred yards would easily reach the green—a shot that even the worst golfer can usually manage. So, why have a player choose a club far more easily mishit, like a long iron, to a target that grants only a modest advantage? I didn’t ask the other caddie for his rationale, but I’d presume it has something to do with the conventions of golf, at least as played by Americans in the early 21st century—conventions that seem to ignore the second part of George Thomas’ remarks about the “spirit of golf.”

That second part is this: “yet the player who avoids the unwise effort gains an advantage over one who tries for more than in him lies and fails.” In other words the player who can pull off a difficult shot should get the edge over the player who can’t—but the player who knows his own game ought to get the edge over the player does not. In that sense, the thirteenth’s “spirited carry” over the dune rewards, as it should, the player with a possible eagle—but as few seem to realize, it does not reward a heroic second shot that does not finish on the green. In fact, it positively threatens the player who makes that choice.

Just out of sight from the fairway, concealed from anyone standing at a distance from the green, about eighty yards short and to the right of the green, Coore and Crenshaw dug a deep bunker that threatens any ball hit past the beginning of the tall dune, but not onto the green itself. In other words, to try to hit a long shot that does not attempt the green risks sticking the struck ball in that bunker. Needless to say, it is a difficult recovery that more or less takes par—and certainly birdie—off the table. The player who know he cannot carry the dune, and lays up in front of the dune, has a much easier time of it than the golfer who hits a long second shot that does not reach the green.

The answer for most American golfers, I’d say, is to hit it as far as possible anyway—even if there isn’t a reward at the other end. But that is the ruse of the Red’s thirteenth: sometimes it’s actually more “daring” to decline the dare. It may be worth noting that Thomas himself, at least as ventriloquized by the golf writer Geoff Shackelford, was rather pessimistic about that possibility of such a lesson ever being learned: “I sense that that the combination of technology, refined conditioning, the aerial game and the overall curiousity with fairness have combined to eliminate strategy,” says “Thomas” in an interview published in Golf Club Atlas, and these are signs, the great Californian concludes, of “a society willing to go to great lengths to avoid thought.” This may yet be unfair, however: the existence of the thirteenth at Streamsong’s Red is an argument to the contrary.