The Curious Incident of the Silent Tournament

O Scotland! Scotland!
The Tragedy of Macbeth IV, 3

Where Scotland?
The Comedy of Errors III, 2

 

 

The “breakup of Britain must now be considered a realistic possibility,” according to James Kirkup of the Daily Telegraph, because in the United Kingdom’s May 7 general election the Scottish Nationalist Party swept all but three of Scotland’s parliamentary seats—an event that took nearly the entire British establishment by surprise. But the 7 May results are really two surprising events: as the New York Times reported, in the United Kingdom as a whole the Conservative Party won “an unexpected majority in what was supposed to be a down-to-the-wire election, proving polls and pundits wrong.” The two victories have made both Scotland and England virtually one-party states—which perhaps paradoxically may be a sign that the British state has taken a first step to a republic. At least, if golf’s British Open is a guide.

“Who’s he when he’s at home?” is a British idiom, meaning, “what’s he like when he’s among friends, when nobody’s watching?” Admittedly, the idea that a golf tournament might tell you something useful about an important thing like a national election is odd at best. But scholar Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism shows how the claim might be justified: he argues that the “generation of the impersonal will” necessary to nations is “better sought in … diurnal regularities” than in the “rare and moveable feast” of an election. In other words, consulting official papers, census returns, election results and economic data and so forth are like visiting someone’s front parlor on Sunday: you’ll get a story, but only the most sanitized version. But by looking at something like the British Open it might be possible to get a sense of what Britain really thinks.

Anderson’s method, which teaches paying attention to small details, is after all rewarded by the very results of the 7 May election itself: reading the granular measurements of incomes, polling, and past results is what the official press did leading up to Election Day—just in time to receive the proverbial pie in the face. The Scottish Nationalist Party’s triumph is a classic example of an underdog’s victory—and it’s the definition of a David vs. Goliath battle that David’s win should be a surprise. Just so, when scholar Tom Nairn published The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-nationalism in 1977, few would have thought that Scottish nationalists would ever become the majority party in Scotland: at the time, Scottish electoral politics were dominated by the Labour Party, as they had been since the 1960s. Until this past election, Labour was still the top dog in Scottish politics—and then they weren’t.

Nevertheless, the idea that the SNP’s triumph might threaten the very integrity of the United Kingdom might, to the outsider, appear to be the apocalyptic hyperbole designed to sell newspapers. Scotland constitutes less than ten percent of the United Kingdom’s population; what happens there arguably can hardly affect much of the rest of the country. But that assumption would be false, as a scrutiny of the British Open might show.

From Anderson’s perspective, the fact that the golf tournament is far removed from the game of electoral politics is just what makes it worth examining—in a manner also suggestive of Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest creation. Like the dog in “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”—the dog that, famously, didn’t bark—the silence of the R & A (the organization that has run the golf tournament since 2004), is after all a bit curious, even on its own terms. The R & A has a vested interest in maintaining the Act of Union that binds the United Kingdom together because the possibility of an independent Scotland presents, at minimum, a practical problem.

The group’s headquarters are in St. Andrews, first of all, but more importantly, of the nine golf courses in the Open Championship’s current “rota,” five lie north of Berwick-upon-Tweed: the Old Course at St. Andrews (the “Home of Golf), Muirfield, Royal Troon, Carnoustie, and the Ailsa Course at Turnberry, within sight of Ailsa Craig. But most of the Open’s fans lie south of the Tweed; logistically, if for no other reason, an independent Scotland would be a great complication for the R & A.

The R & A’s silence then is suggestive—at the very least, it reveals something about how how difficult it might be psychologically to think about an independent Scotland. For example, consider both the name of the tournament—the “Open Championship”—and how the winner of each year’s tournament is introduced following victory: the “champion golfer of the year.” Despite name of the tournament in America—the “British Open”—neither of these make any reference to Great Britain as a nation; the organizers of the golf tournament thus might appear to be philosophically opposed to nationalism.

In that view, nationalism is “the pathology of modern developmental history, as inescapable of ‘neurosis’ in the individual,” as Tom Nairn puts it. It’s the view that reads nationalism as a slap in the face to Enlightenment, which proclaims, as British academic Terry Eagleton says, “the abstract universal right of all to be free” regardless of the claims of nationality or other conceptual divisions of identity like class or race or gender. Hence, the name of the tournament and the title of the R & A’s champion could be a read as a sign that the R & A heroically refuses nationalism in the name of universal humanity.

Yet Anderson gives us reason to doubt that sanguine view. The name of the old “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” Anderson remarks for instance, billed itself as “the precursor” of an “internationalist order” because it refused to acknowledge nationality in its name—a style it shared with Britain’s current name. But where the Soviet Union’s name was meant to point to a post-nationalist future of a universal humanity, the name of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” is the name of a “prenational dynastic state.” Where the name of the Soviet Union bid towards a future beyond the nation-state, the name of the United Kingdom hearkens back before the nation-state.

The name in other words reflects the fact that Great Britain is ruled by an anachronistic form of government: a kingdom, a style of government virtually unique in the contemporary world. Whereas, as Benedict says, in “the modern conception, state sovereignty is fully, flatly, and evenly operative over each square centimetre of a legally demarcated territory,” a kingdom “revolves around a high centre”: the monarch, who may add or lose new territories as war and marriage might permit.

A kingdom’s borders are thus “open” to new territory in a way that a republic’s are not: Henry V, of Shakespeare’s famous play, ruled nearly as far east as Paris, and on a historical timescale it wasn’t that long ago that a resident of Calais was as much an “Englishman” as any Londoner. In those days, as Anderson says, “borders were porous and indistinct.” The “openness” of the Open may not therefore reflect a pious refusal of nationalism so much as it is a studied ignorance of nationalism’s terms—which is to say, it would reflect how most Englishmen (and, presumably, women) think about their country. The apparent universality of the name of the Open Championship may thus reflect more the atavistic qualities of the United Kingdom than a utopian vision of the future.

For the R & A to take a position regarding Scottish secession would require revisiting the name of the tournament, which would require rethinking the assumptions behind the name—and doing that would lead to a confrontation with the monarchy, because as Anderson demonstrates, the question of Scotland is necessarily a question of the monarchy. That is why, for example, he says that “[Tom] Nairn is certainly correct in describing the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland as a ‘patrician bargain.’” What Anderson means is that it was the “conception of a United Kingdom [that] was surely the crucial mediating element that made the deal possible”—in other words, only in a world where lands and peoples are no more than pieces on a chessboard can such deals be struck.

One has only to imagine Paris today selling Normandy to London to see how uniting England and Scotland would be “impossible,” as Nairn puts it, once “the age of democratic nationalism had arrived.” Many witnesses at the time testified to the Act of Union’s unpopularity with the Scottish people: one negotiator on the Scottish side—a pro-Union man to boot—wrote that he thought the Act was “contrary to the inclinations of at least three-fourths of the Kingdom.” Only under a monarchy could such a deal have been possible—again, another way to put the matter is to imagine the United States selling Louisiana back to France, or California back to Mexico.

It isn’t any wonder then why the R & A would refuse to bark; or to put it better, avoid discussing the matter. To discuss Scottish independence is to discuss how Scotland lost its independence, and to discuss that is necessarily to discuss the monarchy. To bring up one subject is to bring up, sooner or later, the other. Reversing the polarity, however, solves the problem of the “double event” of the 7 May general election: if Scottish nationalism threatens the monarchy by threatening the premises it relies upon, then why England simultaneously elected the most pro-aristocracy party isn’t much of a mystery—as Holmes remarks about coincidence in Sherlock, the most recent television adaptation of his adventures, the “universe is rarely so lazy.”

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His Dark Materials

But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight.
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds
—Paradise Lost II, 913-16

One of the theses of what’s known as the “academic Left” in America is that “nothing is natural,” or, as the literary critic (and “tenured radical”) Stanley Fish more properly puts it, “the thesis that the things we see and the categories we place them in … have their source in culture rather than nature.” It’s a thesis however, that seems to be obviously wrong in the case of professional golf. Without taking the time to do a full study of the PGA Tour’s website, which does list place of birth, it seems undoubtable that most of today’s American tour players originate south of the Mason-Dixon line: either in the former Confederacy or in other Sun Belt states. Thus it seems difficult to argue that there’s something about “Southern culture” that gives Southerners a leg up toward the professional ranks, rather than just the opportunity to play golf more times a year.

Let’s just look, in order to keep things manageable, at the current top ten: Jordan Speith, this year’s Masters winner, is from Texas, while Jimmy Walker, in second place, is just from up the road in Oklahoma. Rory McIlroy doesn’t count (though he is from Northern Ireland, for what that’s worth), while J.B. Holmes is from Kentucky. Patrick Reed is also from Texas, and Bubba Watson is from Florida. Dustin Johnson is from South Carolina, while Charlie Hoffman is from southern California. Hideki Matsuyama is from Ehime, Japan, which is located on the southern island of Shikoku in the archipelago, while Robert Streb rounds out the top ten and keeps the score even between Texas and Oklahoma.

Not until we reach Ryan Moore, at the fifteenth spot, do we find a golfer from an indisputably Northern state: Moore is from Tacoma, Washington. Washington however was not admitted to the Union until 1889; not until the seventeenth spot do we find a golfer from a Civil War-era Union state beside California. Gary Woodland, as it happens one of the longest drivers on tour, is from Kansas.

This geographic division has largely been stable in the history of American golf. It’s true of course that many great American golfers were Northerners, particularly at the beginnings of the game (like Francis Ouimet, “Chick” Evans, or Walter Hagan—from Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan respectively), and arguably the greatest of all time was from Ohio: Jack Nicklaus. But Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan were Texans, and of course Bobby Jones, one of the top three golfers ever, was a Georgian.

Yet while it might be true that nearly all of the great players are Southern, the division of labor in American golf is that nearly all of the great courses are Northern. In the latest Golf Digest ranking for instance, out of the top twenty courses only three—Augusta National, which is #1, Seminole in Florida, and Kiaweh in South Carolina—are in the South. New York (home to Winged Foot and Shinnecock, among others) and Pennsylvania (home to Merion and Oakmont) had the most courses in the top twenty; other Northern states included Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio. If it were access to great courses that made great golfers, in other words—a thesis that would appear to have a greater affinity with the notion that “culture,” rather than “nature,” was what produced great golfers, then we’d expect the PGA Tour to be dominated by Northerners.

That of course is not so, which perhaps makes it all the stranger that, if looked at by region, it is usually “the South” that champions “culture” and “the North” that champions “nature”—at least if you consider, as a proxy, how evolutionary biology is taught. Consider for instance a 2002 map generated by Lawrence S. Lerner of California State University at Long Beach:

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(Link here: http://bigthink.com/strange-maps/97-nil-where-and-how-evolution-is-taught-in-the-us). I realize that the map may be dated now, but still—although with some exceptions—the map generally shows that evolutionary biology is at least a controversial idea in the states of the former Confederacy, while Union states like Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are ranked by Professor Lerner as “Very good/excellent” in the matter of teaching Darwinian biology. In other words, it might be said that the states that are producing the best golfers are both the ones with the best weather and a belief that nature has little to do with anything.

Yet, as Professor Fish’s remarks above demonstrate, it’s the “radical” humanities professors of the nation’s top universities that are the foremost proponents of the notion that “culture” trumps “nature”—a fact that the cleverest creationists have not led slide. An article entitled “The Postmodern Sin of Intelligent Design Creationism” in a 2010 issue of Science and Education, for instance, lays out how “Intelligent Design Creationists” “try to advance their premodern view by adopting (if only tactically) a radical postmodern perspective.” In Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology, Alister McGrath argues not only “that it cannot be maintained that Darwin’s theory caused the ‘abandonment of natural theology,’” and also approvingly cites Fish: “Stanley Fish has rightly argued that the notion of ‘evidence’ is often tautologically determined by … interpretive assumptions.” So there really is a sense in which the the deepest part of the Bible Belt fully agrees with the most radical scholars at Berkeley and other top schools.

In Surprised By Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish’s most famous work of scholarship, Fish argues that Satan is evil because he is “the poem’s true materialist”—and while Fish might say that he is merely reporting John Milton’s view, not revealing his own, still it’s difficult not to take away the conclusion that there’s something inherently wrong with the philosophical doctrine of materialism. (Not to be confused with the vulgar notion that life consists merely in piling up stuff, the philosophic version says that all existence is composed only of matter.) Or with the related doctrine of empiricism: “always an experimental scientist,” Fish has said more recently in the Preface to Surprised By Sin’s Second Edition, Satan busies himself “by mining the trails and entrails of empirical evidence.” Fish of course would be careful to distance himself from more vulgar thinkers regarding these matters—a distance that is there, sure—but it’s difficult not to see why creationists shouldn’t mine him for their own views.

Now, one way to explain that might be that both Fish and his creationist “frenemies” are drinking from the Pure Light of the Well of Truth. But there’s a possible materialistic candidate to explain just why humanities professors might end up with views similar to those of the most fundamentalist Christians: a similar mode of production. The political scientist Anne Norton remarks, in a book about the conservative scholar Leo Strauss, that the pedagogical technique pursued by Strauss—reading “a passage in a text” and asking questions about it—is also one pursued in “the shul and the madrasa, in seminaries and in Bible study groups.” At the time of Strauss’ arrival in the United States as a refugee from a 1930s Europe about to be engulfed in war, “this way of reading had fallen out of favor in the universities,” but as a result of Strauss’ career at the University of Chicago, along with that of philosophers Mortimer Adler (who founded the Great Books Program) and Robert Hutchins, it’s become at least a not-untypical pedagogical method in the humanities since.

At the least, that mode of humanistic study would explain what the philosopher Richard Rorty meant when he repeated Irving Howe’s “much-quoted jibe—‘These people don’t want to take over the government; they just want to take over the English Department.’” It explains, in other words, just how the American left might have “become an object of contempt,” as Rorty says—because it is a left that no longer believes that “the vast inequalities within American society could be corrected by using the institutions of a constitutional democracy.” How could it, after all, given a commitment against empiricism or materialism? Taking a practical perspective on the American political machinery would require taking on just the beliefs that are suicidal if your goal is to achieve tenure in the humanities at Stanford or Yale.

If you happen to think that most things aren’t due to the meddling of supernatural creatures, and you’ve given up on thoughts of tenure because you dislike both creationist nut-jobs and that “largely academic crowd cynical about America, disengaged from practice, and producing ever-more-abstract, jargon-ridden interpretations of cultural phenomena,” while at the same time you think that putting something in the place of God called “the free market”—which is what, exactly?—isn’t the answer either, why, then the answer is perfectly natural.

You are writing about golf.

Luck of the Irish

 … I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath.
Antony and Cleopatra V, ii

Stephanie Wei, the ex-Yalie golf blogger, recently got her press credentials revoked for the crime of filming tour players during a non-televised Monday practice round at the WGC-Match Play using a live-stream video app. According to her own account, the tour said that her “live-streaming of behind-the-scenes content had violated the Tour’s media regulations.” Wei has admitted that the tour did have a right to take away her credentials (it’s in her contract), but she argued in response that her work produced “fresh, interesting and different content,” and thus enhanced the value of the tour’s product. Wei’s argument however, as seductive as it might be, is a great example of someone manipulating what Thomas Frank has called “the titanic symbolic clash of hip and square” for their own ends: Wei wants to be “hip”—but her actual work is not only just as “square” as any old-school sportswriter who didn’t see fit to mention that Ty Cobb was one of the meanest and most racist men in America, or that Mickey Mantle was a nihilistic drunk, but in fact might be even more harmful.

As Thomas Frank was writing so long ago as the 1990s, the new digital economy has been sold as an “economic revolution,” celebrating “artists rather than commanders, wearers of ponytails and dreamers of cowboy fantasies who proudly proclaim their ignorance of ‘rep ties.’” In contrast to the old world of “conformity, oppression, bureaucracy, meaninglessness, and the disappearance of individualism”—in a word, golf—the new would value “creativity” and “flexibility.” It’s the bright new world we live in today.

So inevitable does that narrative appear that of course Deadspin, the hipsters’ ESPN, jumped on it. “It’s not surprising,” proclaimed Samer Kalaf, “that the PGA Tour, a stuffy organization for a stuffy sport, is being truculent over something as inconsequential as this, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.” The part of Judge Smails (Caddyshack’s prototypical stuffed shirt) is played in this drama by the PGA Tour’s Ty Votaw, who told Golf.com that in the eyes of the tour, what Wei did was “stealing.” On the theory of the tour, what Wei did extracted value from the tour’s product.

Wei herself, to be sure, had a different theory about her actions. Wei wrote that her purpose in transmitting the “raw, alternative footage”—excellent use of buzzwords!—was to “spread fanfare.” In other words, Wei was actually doing the PGA Tour a favor because of her hip, new kind of journalism. It’s an argument you are probably familiar with, because it is the same one the venues that don’t pay bands, or the companies that tell you to take an internship, or people who tell you to “get on YouTube” make: think of the exposure, man!

Yet while Wei pleads her case on the basis of her hepcat, app-using new jive journo-ing, in fact her stuff isn’t much, if any, different from the bad old days of sports reporting, when writers like Grantland Rice were more interested in palling around with the athletes (and, more worryingly, the owners) than with the audience. The telling detail can be found in her coverage of Rory McIlroy’s win at the very same tournament she got busted at: the Match Play.

The Match Play, obviously, is conducted under match play rules and not stroke play, which meant that, to win, Rory McIlroy had to win seven consecutive matches. In several of those matches, McIlroy came from behind to win, which prompted the following from Wei: “What I found the most interesting [what? Wei is missing a noun here] about McIlroy’s victory,” Wei wrote, “and his route to the winner’s circle was the way he found another gear when he was losing late in the match.” This McIlroy is not the same McIlroy as the one “we knew two years ago”—he is “a more mature one that knows how to dig deep.” Wei thusly repeats one of the most standard sorts of sportswriting cliche.

What of it? Well, the difficulty with this particular cliche, the reason why it is not “on a par” with those jolly old-school fellows who didn’t mention that a lot of ball players took speed, or cheated on their wives, or beat them, or that the owners were chiseling everyone for pennies on the dollar while looking the other way as men’s brains were slowly battered into jello—oh wait, that still happens—is that it justifies a species of rhetoric that gets repeated in many other arenas of life. (The most important of them being, of course, the economic.) That is the rhetoric of “toughness,” the “intangibles,” and so on—you know, the ghosts that don’t exist but are awfully handy when justifying why nobody’s getting a raise.

The belief in a player’s “toughness” or whatever words a given sportswriter can invent—the invention of such terms being largely what sportswriting is about—has been at best questionable, and at worst a knowing cynicism, ever since Gilovich’s, Tversky’s, and Vallone’s landmark 1985 paper, “The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences.” The “hot hand,” the three proved, is merely a product of cognitive bias: when people are asked, for instance, to predict sequences of coin tosses, they inevitably expect the tosses to be half heads and half tails—even though such an even breakdown, no matter how many tosses are made, is nearly impossible.

So too in sports: writers continually ask their audience to believe that an athlete has “matured,” or “dug deep,” or what have you, when the more likely explanation is just that the athlete’s inherent talent level eventually expressed itself—or, in the case of a losing effort, the other side “got lucky.” Outcomes in sports are determined by skill (and the lack of it), not by “grit” or “will.” Rory won because he is a better golfer than nearly anyone on the planet, and while that skill can be masked by chance, over time it is more likely to expose the other player’s relative lack of skill.

Rory McIlroy won his tournament because he is a good golfer, not because he has some kind of psychological strength the rest of us lack. The fact that Stephanie Wei participates in this age-old sporting charade demonstrates that, for all her pretensions to the contrary, there isn’t a great deal different between her “new school” approach and that of her “stuffy” opponents. There is, perhaps, even reason to cheer for the PGA Tour in this dispute: at least they, unlike many in the age of the New Economy, believe people ought to get paid.