I Think I’m Gonna Be Sad

In all Republics the voice of a majority must prevail.
—Andrew Jackson.

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise that control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take control from them, but to inform their discretion.
—Thomas Jefferson. “Letter to William Charles Jarvis.” 28 September, 1820



When the Beatles first came to America, in February of 1964—Michael Tomasky noted recently for The Daily Beast—they rode from their gig at Ed Sullivan’s show in New York City to their first American concert in Washington, D.C. by train, arriving two hours and fifteen minutes after leaving Manhattan. It’s a seemingly trivial detail—until it’s pointed out, as Tomasky realized, that anyone trying that trip today would be lucky to do it in three hours. American infrastructure in short is not what it was: as the American Society of Civil Engineers wrote in 2009’s Report Card for American Infrastructure, “years of delayed maintenance and lack of modernization have left Americans with an outdated and failing infrastructure that cannot meet our needs.” But what to do about it? “What’s needed,” wrote John Cassidy, of The New Yorker, recently, “is some way to protect essential infrastructure investments from the vicissitudes of congressional politics and the cyclical ups and downs of the economy.” He suggests, instead, “an independent, nonpartisan board” that could “carry out cost-benefit analyses of future capital-spending proposals.” This board, presumably, would be composed of professionals above the partisan fray, and thus capable of seeing to the long-term needs of the country. It all sounds really jake, and just the thing that the United States ought to do—excepting only for the disappointing fact that the United States already has just such a board, and the existence of that “board” is the very reason why Americans don’t invest in infrastructure.

First though—has national spending on infrastructure declined, and is “politics” the reason for that decline? Many think so: “Despite the pressing infrastructure investment needs of the United States,” businessman Scott Thomasson wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations recently, “federal infrastructure policy is paralyzed by partisan wrangling over massive infrastructure bills that fail to move through Congress.” Those who take that line do have evidence, at least for the first proposition.

Take for instance the Highway Trust Fund, an account that provides federal money for investments in roads and bridges. In 2014, the Fund was in danger of “drying up,” as Rebecca Kaplan reported for CBS News at the time, mostly because the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn’t been increased since 1993. Gradually, then, both the federal government and the states have, in relative terms, decreased spending on highways and other projects of that sort—so much so that people like former presidential economic advisor and president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, say (as Summers did last year) that “the share of public investment [in infrastructure], adjusting for depreciation … is zero.” (That is, spending on infrastructure is effectively less than the rate of inflation—which itself is pretty low.) So, while the testimony of the American Society of Civil Engineers might, to say the least, be biased—asking an engineer whether there ought to be more spending on engineering is like asking an ice cream man whether you need a sundae—there’s a good deal of evidence that the United States could stand more investment in the structures that support American life.

Yet, even if that’s so, is the relative decline in spending really the result of politics—rather than, say, a recognition that the United States simply doesn’t need the same sort of spending on highways and railroads that it once did? Maybe—because “the Internet,” or something—there simply isn’t the need for so much physical building any more. Still, aside from such spectacular examples as the Minneapolis Interstate 35 bridge collapse in 2007 or the failure of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there’s evidence that the United States would be spending more money on infrastructure under a different political architecture.

Consider, for example, how the U.S. Senate “shot down … a measure to spend $50 billion on highway, rail, transit and airport improvements” in November of 2011, as The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman reported at the time. Although the measure was supported by 51 votes in favor to 49 votes against, the measure failed to pass—because, as Helderman wrote, according to the rules of the Senate “the measure needed 60 votes to proceed to a full debate.” Passing bills in the Senate these days requires, it seems, more than majority support—which, near as I can make out, is just what is meant by “congressional gridlock.” What “gridlock” means is the inability of a majority to pass its programs—absent that inability, nearly certainly the United States would be spending more money on infrastructure. At this point, then, the question can be asked: why should the American government be built in a fashion that allows a minority to hold the majority for ransom?

The answer, it seems, might be deflating for John Cassidy’s idea: when the American Constitution was written, it inscribed into its very foundation what has been called (by The Economist, among many, many others) the “dream of bipartisanship”—the notion that, somewhere, there exists a group of very wise men (and perhaps women?) who can, if they were merely handed the power, make all the world right again, and make whole that which is broken. In America, the name of that body is the United States Senate.

As every schoolchild knows, the Senate was originally designed as a body of “notables,” or “wise men”: as the Senate’s own website puts it, the Senate was originally designed to be an “independent body of responsible citizens.” Or, as James Madison wrote to another “Founding Father,” Edmund Randolph, justifying the institution, the Senate’s role was “first to protect the people against their rulers [and] secondly to protect the people against transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.” That last justification may be the source of the famous anecdote regarding the Senate, which involves George Washington saying to Thomas Jefferson that “we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” While the anecdote itself only appeared nearly a century later, in 1872, still it captures something of what the point of the Senate has always been held to be: a body that would rise above petty politicking and concern itself with the national interest—just the thing that John Cassidy recommends for our current predicament.

This “dream of bipartisanship,” as it happens, is not just one held by the founding generation. It’s a dream that, journalist and gadfly Thomas Frank has said, “is a very typical way of thinking for the professional class” of today. As Frank amplified his remarks, “Washington is a city of professionals with advanced degrees,” and the thought of those professionals is “‘[w]e know what the problems are and we know what the answers are, and politics just get in the way.’” To members of this class, Frank says, “politics is this ugly thing that you don’t really need.” For such people, in other words, John Cassidy’s proposal concerning an “independent, nonpartisan board” that could make decisions regarding infrastructure in the interests of the nation as a whole, rather than from the perspective of this or that group, might seem entirely “natural”—as the only way out of the impasse created by “political gridlock.” Yet in reality—as numerous historians have documented—it’s in fact precisely the “dream of bipartisanship” that created the gridlock in the first place.

An examination of history in other words demonstrates that—far from being the disinterested, neutral body that would look deep into the future to examine the nation’s infrastructure needs—the Senate has actually functioned to discourage infrastructure spending. After John Quincy Adams was elected president in the contested election of 1824, for example, the new leader proposed a sweeping program of investment in roads and canals and bridges, but also a national university, subsidies for scientific research and learning, a national observatory, Western exploration, a naval academy, and a patent law to encourage invention. Yet, as Paul C. Nagel observes in his recent biography of the Massachusetts president, virtually none of Adams’ program was enacted: “All of Adams’ scientific and educational proposals were defeated, as were his efforts to enlarge the road and canal systems.” Which is true, so far as that goes. But Nagel’s somewhat bland remarks do not do justice to the matter of how Adams’ proposals were defeated.

After the election of 1824, which elected the 19th Congress, Adams’ party had a majority in the House of Representatives—one reason why Adams became president at all, because the chaotic election of 1824, split between three major candidates, was decided (as per the Constitution) by the House of Representatives. But while Adams’ faction had a majority in the House, they did not in the Senate, where Andrew Jackson’s pro-Southern faction held sway. Throughout the 19th Congress, the Jacksonian party controlled the votes of 25 Senators (in a Senate of 48 senators, two to a state) while Adams’ faction controlled, at the beginning of the Congress, 20. Given the structure of the U.S. Constitution, which requires agreement between the two houses of Congress as the national legislature before bills can become law, this meant that the Senate could—as it did—effectively veto any of the Adams’ party’s proposals: control of the Senate effectively meant control of the government itself. In short, a recipe for gridlock.

The point of the history lesson regarding the 19th Congress is that, far from being “above” politics as it was advertised to be in the pages of The Federalist Papers and other, more recent, accounts of the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Senate proved, in the event, hardly to be more neutral than the House of Representatives—or even the average city council. Instead of considering the matter of investment in the future on its own terms, historians have argued, senators thought about Adams’ proposals in terms of how they would affect a matter seemingly remote from the matters of building bridges or canals. Hence, although senators like John Tyler of Virginia, for example—who would later be elected president himself—opposed Adams-proposed “bills that mandated federal spending for improving roads and bridges and other infrastructure” on the grounds that such bills “were federal intrusions on the states” (as Roger Matuz put it in his The Presidents’ Fact Book), many today argue that their motives were not so high-minded. In fact, they were actually as venial as any motive could be.

Many of Adams’ opponents, that is—as William Lee Miller of the University of Virginia wrote in his Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress—thought that the “‘National’ program that [Adams] proposed would have enlarged federal powers in a way that might one day threaten slavery.” And, as Miller also remarks, the “‘strict construction’ of the Constitution and states’ rights that [Adams’] opponents insisted upon”— were, “in addition to whatever other foundations in sentiment and philosophy they had, barriers of protection against interference with slavery.” In short—as historian Harold M. Hyman remarked in his magisterial A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution—while the “constitutional notion that tight limits existed on what government could do was a runaway favorite” at the time, in reality these seemingly-resounding defenses of limited government were actually motivated by a less-than savory interest: “statesmen of the Old South,” Hyman wrote, found that these doctrines of constitutional limits were “a mighty fortress behind which to shelter slavery.” Senators, in other words, did not consider whether spending money on a national university would be a worthwhile investment for its own sake; instead, they worried about the effect that such an expenditure would have on slavery.

Now, it could still reasonably be objected at this point—and doubtless will be—that the 19th Congress is, in political terms, about as relevant to today’s politics as the Triassic: the debates between a few dozen, usually elderly, white men nearly two centuries ago have been rendered impotent by the passage of time. “This time, it’s different,” such arguments could, and probably will, say. Yet, at a different point in American history, it was well-understood that the creation of such “blue-ribbon” committees or the like—such as the Senate—were in fact simply a means for elite control.

As Alice Sturgis, of Stanford University, wrote in the third edition of her The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure (now in its fourth edition, after decades in print, and still the paragon of the field), while some “parliamentary writers have mistakenly assumed that the higher the vote required to take an action, the greater the protection of the members,” in reality “the opposite is true.” “If a two-thirds vote is required to pass a proposal and sixty-five members vote for the proposal and thirty-five members vote against it,” Sturgis went on to write, “the thirty-five members make the decision”—which then makes for “minority, not majority, rule.” In other words, even if many circumstances in American life have changed since 1825, it still remains the case that the American government is (still) largely structured in a fashion that solidifies the ability of a minority—like, say, oligarchical slaveowners—to control the American government. And while slavery was abolished by the Civil War, it still remains the case that a minority can block things like infrastructure spending.

Hence, since infrastructure spending is—nearly by definition—for the improvement of every American, it’s difficult to see how making infrastructure spending less democratic, as Cassidy wishes, would make it easier to spend money on infrastructure. We already have a system that’s not very democratic—arguably, that’s the reason why we aren’t spending money on infrastructure, not because (as pundits like Cassidy might have it), “Washington” has “gotten too political.” The problem with American spending on infrastructure, in sum, is not that it is political. In fact, it is precisely the opposite: it isn’t political enough. That people like John Cassidy—who, by the way, is a transplanted former subject of the Queen of England—think the contrary is itself, I’d wager, reason enough to give him, and people like him, what the boys from Liverpool called a ticket to ride.



Just as ancient Greek and Roman propagandists insisted, the Carthaginians did kill their own infant children, burying them with sacrificed animals and ritual inscriptions in special cemeteries to give thanks for favours from the gods, according to a new study.
The Guardian, 21 January 2014.


Just after the last body fell, at three seconds after 9:40 on the morning of 14 December, the debate began: it was about, as it always is, whether Americans ought to follow sensible rules about guns—or whether they ought to be easier to obtain than, say, the right to pull fish out of the nearby Housatonic River. There’s been a lot of words written about the Sandy Hook killings since the day that Adam Lanza—the last body to fall—killed 20 children and six adults at the elementary school he once attended, but few of them have examined the culpability of some of the very last people one might expect with regard to the killings: the denizens of the nation’s universities. After all, it’s difficult to accuse people who themselves are largely in favor of gun control of aiding and abetting the National Rifle Association—Pew Research reported, in 2011, that more than half of people with more than a college degree favored gun control. And yet, over the past several generations a doctrine has gained ground that, I think, has not only allowed academics to absolve themselves of engaging in debate on the subject of gun control, but has actively harmed the possibility of accomplishing it.

Having said that, of course, it is important to acknowledge that virtually all academics—even those who consider themselves “conservative” politically—are in favor of gun control: when for example Texas passed a law legalizing carrying guns on college campus recently Daniel S. Hamermesh, a University of Texas emeritus professor of economics (not exactly a discipline known for its radicalism), resigned his position, citing a fear for his own and his students’ safety. That’s not likely accidental, because not only do many academics oppose guns in their capacities as citizens, but academics have a special concern when it comes to guns: as Firmin DeBrabander, a professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art argued in the pages of Inside Higher Ed last year, against laws similar to Texas’, “guns stand opposed” to the “pedagogical goals of the classroom” because while in the classroom “individuals learn to talk to people of different backgrounds and perspectives,” guns “announce, and transmit, suspicion and hostility.” If anyone has a particular interest in controlling arms, in other words, it’s academics, being as their work is particularly designed to foster what DeBrabander calls “open and transformative exchange” that may air “ideas [that] are offensive.” So to think that academics may in fact be an obstacle towards achieving sensible policies regarding guns might appear ridiculous on the surface.

Yet there’s actually good reason to think that academic liberals bear some responsibility for the United States’ inability to regulate guns like every other industrialized—I nearly said, “civilized”—nation on earth. That’s because changing gun laws would require a specific demands for action, and as political science professor Adolph Reed, Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania put the point not long ago in Harper’s, these days the “left has no particular place it wants to go.” That is, to many on campus and off, making specific demands of the political sphere is itself a kind of concession—or in other words, as journalist Thomas Frank remarked a few years ago about the Occupy Wall Street movement, today’s academic left teaches that “demands [are] a fetish object of literal-minded media types who stupidly crave hierarchy and chains of command.” Demanding changes to gun laws is, after all, a specific demand, and to make specific demands is, from this sophisticated perspective, a kind of “sell out.”

Still, how did the idea of making specific demands become a derided form of politics? After all, the labor movement (the eight-hour day), the suffragette movement (women’s right to vote) or the civil rights movement (an end to Jim Crow) all made specific demands. How then has American politics arrived at the diffuse and essentially inarticulable argument of the Occupy movement—a movement within which, Elizabeth Jacobs claimed in a report for the Brookings Institute while the camp in Zuccotti Park still existed, “the lack of demands is a point of pride?” I’d suggest that one possible way the trick was turned was through a 1967 article written by one Robert Bellah, of Harvard: an article that described American politics, and its political system, as a “civil religion.” By describing American politics in religious rather than secular terms, Bellah opened the way towards what some have termed the “non-politics” of Occupy and other social movements—and incidentally, allow children like Adam Lanza’s victims to die.

In “Civil Religion in America,” Bellah—who received his bachelor’s from Harvard in 1950, and then taught at Harvard until moving to the University of California at Berkeley in 1967, where he continued until the end of his illustrious career—argued that “few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” This “national cult,” as Bellah terms it, has its own holidays: Thanksgiving Day, Bellah says, “serves to integrate the family into the civil religion,” while “Memorial Day has acted to integrate the local community into the national cult.” Bellah also remarks that the “public school system serves as a particularly important context for the cultic celebration of the civil rituals” (a remark that, incidentally, perhaps has played no little role in the attacks on public education over the past several decades). Bellah also argues that various speeches by American presidents like Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy are also examples of this “civil religion” in action: Bellah spends particular time with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which he notes that poet Robert Lowell observed is filled with Christian imagery, and constitutes “a symbolic and sacramental act.” In saying so, Bellah is merely following a longstanding tradition regarding both Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address—a tradition that, however, that does not have the political valence that Bellah, or his literal spiritual followers, might think it does.

“Some think, to this day,” wrote Garry Wills of Northwestern University in his magisterial Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, “that Lincoln did not really have arguments for union, just a kind of mystical attachment to it.” It’s a tradition that Wills says “was the charge of Southerners” against Lincoln at the time: after the war, Wills notes, Alexander Stephens—the only vice president the Confederate States ever had—argued that the “Union, with him [Lincoln], in sentiment rose to the sublimity of a religious mysticism.” Still, it’s also true that others felt similarly: Wills points out that the poet Walt Whitman wrote that “the only thing like passion or infatuation” in Lincoln “was the passion for the Union of these states.” Nevertheless, it’s a dispute that might have fallen by the historical wayside if it weren’t for the work of literary critic Edmund Wilson, who called his essay on Lincoln (collected in a relatively famous book Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War) “The Union as Religious Mysticism.” That book, published in 1962, seems to have at least influenced Lowell—the two were, if not friends, at least part of the same New York City literary scene—and through Lowell Bellah, seems plausible.

Even if there was no direct route from Wilson to Bellah, however, it seems indisputable that the notion—taken from Southerners—concerning the religious nature of Lincoln’s arguments for the American Union became widely transmitted through American culture. Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire—since a longtime columnist for the New York Times—was familiar with Wilson’s ideas: as Mark Neely observed in his The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil Liberties, on two occasions in Safire’s novel Freedom, “characters comment on the curiously ‘mystical’ nature of Lincoln’s attachment to the Union.” In 1964, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr published an essay entitled “The Religion of Abraham Lincoln,” while in 1963 William J. Wolfe of the Episcopal Theological School of Cambridge, Massachusetts claimed that “Lincoln is one of the greatest theologians in America,” in the sense “of seeing the hand of God intimately in the affairs of nations.” Sometime in the early 1960s and afterwards, in other words, the idea took root among some literary intellectuals that the United States was a religious society—not one based on an entirely secular philosophy.

At least when it comes to Lincoln, at any rate, there’s good reason to doubt this story: far from being a religious person, Lincoln has often been described as non-religious or even an atheist. His longtime friend Jesse Fell—so close to Lincoln that it was he who first suggested what became the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates—for instance once remarked that Lincoln “held opinions utterly at variance with what are usually taught in the church,” and Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon—who was an early fan of Charles Darwin’s—said that the president also was “a warm advocate of the new doctrine.” Being committed to the theory of evolution—if Lincoln was—doesn’t mean, of course, that the president was therefore anti-religious, but it does mean that the notion of Lincoln as religious mystic has some accounting to do: if he was, it apparently was in no very simple way.

Still, as mentioned the view of Lincoln as a kind of prophet did achieve at least some success within American letters—but, as Wills argues in Lincoln at Gettysburg, that success has in turn obscured what Lincoln really argued concerning the structure of American politics. As Wills remarks for instance, “Lincoln drew much of his defense of the Union from the speeches of [Daniel] Webster, and few if any have considered Webster a mystic.” Webster’s views, in turn, descend from a line of American thought that goes back to the Revolution itself—though its most significant moment was at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Most especially, to one James Wilson, a Scottish emigrant, delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and later one of the first justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. If Lincoln got his notions of the Union from Webster, then Webster got his from Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story: as Wills notes, Theodore Parker, the Boston abolitionist minister, once remarked that “Mr. Justice Story was the Jupiter Pluvius [Raingod] from whom Mr. Webster often sought to elicit peculiar thunder for his speeches and private rain for his own public tanks of law.” Story, for his part, got his notion from Wilson: as Linda Przybyscewski notes in passing in her book, The Republic According to John Marshall Harlan (a later justice), Wilson was “a source for Joseph Story’s constitutional nationalism.” And Wilson’s arguments concerning the constitution—which he had a strong hand in making—were hardly religious.

At the constitutional convention, one of the most difficult topics to confront the delegates was the issue of representation: one of the motivations for the convention itself, after all, was the fact that under the previous terms of government, the Articles of Confederation, each state, rather than each member of the Continental Congress, possessed a vote. Wilson had already, in 1768, attacked the problem of representation as being one of the foremost reasons for the Revolution itself—the American colonies were supposed, by British law, to be fully as much British subjects as a Londoner or Mancunian, but yet had no representation in Parliament: “Is British freedom,” Wilson therefore asked in his Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, “denominated from the soil, or from the people, of Britain?” That question was very much the predecessor of the question Wilson would ask at the convention: “For whom do we make a constitution? Is it for men, or is it for imaginary beings called states?” To Wilson, the answer was clear: constitutions are for people, not for tracts of land.

Wilson also made an argument that would later be echoed by Lincoln: he drew attention to the disparities of population between the several states. At the time of the convention, Pennsylvania—just as it is today—was a much more populous state than New Jersey was, a difference that made no difference under the Articles of Confederation, under which all states had the same number of votes: one. “Are not the citizens of Pennsylvania,” Wilson therefore asked the Convention, “equal to those of New Jersey? Does it require 150 of the former to balance 50 of the latter?” This argument would later be echoed by Lincoln, who, in order to illustrate the differences between free states and slave states, would—in October of 1854, at Peoria, in the speech that would mark his political comeback—note that

South Carolina has six representatives, and so has Maine; South Carolina has eight presidential electors, and so has Maine. This is precise equality so far; and, of course they are equal in Senators, each having two. Thus in the control of the government, the two States are equals precisely. But how are they in the number of their white people? Maine has 581,813—while South Carolina has 274,567. Maine has twice as many as South Carolina, and 32,679 over. Thus each white man in South Carolina is more than the double of any man in Maine.

The point of attack for both men, in other words, was precisely the same: the matter of representation in terms of what would later be called a “one man, one vote” standard. It’s an argument that hardly appears “mystical” in nature: since the matter turns, if anything, upon ratios of numbers to each other, it seems more aposit to describe the point of view adopted here as, if anything, “scientific”—if it weren’t for the fact that even the word “scientific” seems too dramatic a word for a matter that appears to be far more elemental.

Were Lincoln or Wilson alive today, then, it seems that the first point they might make about the gun control debate is that it is a matter about which the Congress is greatly at variance with public opinion: as Carl Bialik reported for FiveThirtyEight this past January, whenever Americans are polled “at least 70 percent of Americans [say] they favor background checks,” and furthermore that an October 2015 poll by CBS News and the New York Times “found that 92 percent of Americans—including 87 percent of Republicans—favor background checks for all gun buyers.” Yet, as virtually all Americans are aware, it has become essentially impossible to pass any sort of sensible legislation through Congress: a fact dramatized this spring by a “sit-down strike” in Congress by congressmen and congresswomen. What Lincoln and Wilson might further say about the point is that the trouble can’t be solved by such a “religious” approach: instead, what they presumably would recommend is that what needs to change is a system that inadequately represents the people. That isn’t the answer that’s on offer from academics and others on the American left, however. Which is to say that, soon enough, there will be another Adam Lanza to bewail—another of the sacrifices, one presumes, that the American left demands Americans must make to what one can only call their god.

Lawyers, Guns, and Caddies

Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Julius Caesar. Act I, Scene 2.


One of Ryan’s steady golfers—supposedly the youngest man ever to own an American car dealership—likes to call Ryan, one of the better caddies I know at Medinah, his “lawyer-caddie.” Ostensibly, it’s meant as a kind of joke, although it’s not particularly hard to hear it as a complicated slight mixed up with Schadenfreude: the golfer, involved in the tiring process of piling up cash by snookering old ladies with terrible trade-in deals, never bothered to get a college degree—and Ryan has both earned a law degree and passed the Illinois bar, one of the hardest tests in the country. Yet despite his educational accomplishments Ryan still earns the bulk of his income on the golf course, not in the law office. Which, sorry to say, is not surprising these days: as Alexander Eichler wrote for The Huffington Post in 2012, not only are “jobs … hard to come by in recent years” for would-be lawyers, but the jobs that there are come in two flavors—either “something that pays in the modest five figures” (which implies that Ryan might never get out of debt), “or something that pays much better” (the kinds of jobs that are about as likely as playing in the NBA). The legal profession has in other words bifurcated: something that, according to a 2010 article called “Talent Grab” by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, is not isolated to the law. From baseball players to investment bankers, it seems, the cream of nearly every profession has experienced a great rise in recent decades, even as much of the rest of the nation has been largely stuck in place economically: sometime in the 1970s, Gladwell writes, “salaries paid to high-level professionals—‘talent’—started to rise.” There’s at least two possible explanations for that rise: Gladwell’s is that “members of the professional class” have learned “from members of the working class”—that, in other words, “Talent” has learned the atemporal lessons of negotiation. The other, however, is both pretty simple to understand and (perhaps for that reason) might be favored by campus “leftists”: to them, widening inequality might be explained by the same reason that, surprisingly enough, prevented Lord Cornwallis from burning Mount Vernon and raping Martha Washington.

That, of course, will sound shocking to many readers—but in reality, Lord Cornwallis’ forbearance really is unexpected if the American Revolution is compared to some other British colonial military adventures. Like, for instance, the so-called “Mau Mau Uprising”—also known as the “Kenya Emergency”—during the 1950s: although much of the documentation only came out recently, after a long legal battle—which is how we know about this in the detail we do now at all—what happened in Kenya in those years was not an atypical example of British colonial management. In a nutshell: after World War II, many Kenyans, like a lot of other European colonies, demanded independence, and like a lot of other European powers, Britain would not give it to them. (A response with which Americans ought to be familiar through our own history.) Therefore, the two sides fought to demonstrate their sincerity.

Yet unlike the American experience, which largely consisted—nearly anomalously in the history of wars of independence—of set-piece battles that pitted conventionally-organized troops against each other, what makes the Kenyan episode relevant is that it was fought using the doctrines of counterinsurgency: that is, the “best practices” for the purposes of ending an armed independence movement. In Kenya, this meant “slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight, and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes,” as Mark Curtis reported in 2003’s Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World. It also meant gathering, according to Wikipedia, somewhere around half a million Kenyans into concentration camps, while more than a million were held in what were called “enclosed villages.” Those gathered were then “questioned” (i.e., tortured) in order to find those directly involved in the independence movement, and so forth. It’s a catalogue of horror, but what’s more horrifying is that the methods being used in Kenya were also being used, at precisely the same moment, half a world away, by more or less the same people: at the same time as the “Kenya Emergency,” the British Empire was also fighting in what’s called the “Malay Emergency.”

In Malaysia, from 1948 to 1960 the Malayan Communist Party fought a guerrilla war for independence against the British Army—a war that became such a model for counterinsurgency war that one British leader, Sir Robert Thompson, later became a senior advisor to the American effort in Vietnam. (Which itself draws attention to the fact that France was also involved in counterinsurgency wars at the time: not only in Vietnam, but also in Algeria.) And in case you happen to think that all of this is merely an historical coincidence regarding the aftershocks of the Second World War, it’s important to remember that the very word “concentration camp” was first widely used in English during the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. “Best practice” in fighting colonial wars, that is, was pretty standardized: go in, grab the wives and kids, threaten them, and then just follow the trail back to the ringleaders. In other words, Abu Ghraib—but also, the Romans.

It’s perhaps no coincidence, in other words, that the basis of elite education in the Western world for millennia began with Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, usually the first book assigned to beginning students of Latin. Often justified educationally on the basis of its unusually clear rhetoric (the famously deadpan opening line: “Gaul is divided into three parts …”), the Gallic Wars could also be described as a kind of “how to” manual regarding “pacification” campaigns: in this case, the failed rebellion of Vercingetorix in 52 BCE, who, according to Caesar, “urged them to take up arms in order to win liberty for all.” In Gallic Wars, Caesar details such common counterinsurgency techniques as, say, hostage-taking: in negotiations with the Helvetii in Book One, for instance, Caesar makes the offer that “if hostages were to be given by them [the Helvetii] in order that he may be assured these will do what they promise … he [Caesar] will make peace with them.” The book also describes torture in several places throughout (though, to be sure, it is usually described as the work of the Gauls, not the Romans). Hostage-taking and torture was all, in other words, common stuff in elite European education—the British Army did not suddenly create these techniques during the 1950s. And that, in turn, begs the question: if British officers were aware of the standard methods of “counterinsurgency,” why didn’t the British Army use them during the “American Emergency” of the 1770s?

According to Pando Daily columnist “Gary Brecher” (a pseudonym for John Dolan), perhaps the “British took it very, very easy on us” during the Revolution because Americans “were white, English-speaking Protestants like them.” In fact, that leniency may have been the reason the British lost the war—at least, according to Lieutenant Colonel Paul Montanus’ (U.S.M.C.) paper for the U.S. Army War College, “A Failed Counterinsurgency Strategy: The British Southern Campaign, 1780-1781.” To Montanus, the British Army “needed to execute a textbook pacification program”—instead, the actions that army took “actually inflamed the [populace] and pushed them toward the rebel cause.” Montanus, in other words, essentially asks the question: why didn’t the Royal Navy sail up the Potomac and grab Martha Washington? Brecher’s point is pretty valid: there simply aren’t a lot of reasons to explain just why Lord Cornwallis or the other British commanders didn’t do that other than the notion that, when British Army officers looked at Americans, they saw themselves. (Yet, it might be pointed out that just what the British officers saw is still an open question: did they see “cultural Englishmen”—or simply rich men like themselves?)

If Gladwell were telling the story of the American Revolution, however, he might explain American independence as a result simply of the Americans learning to say no—at least, that is what he advances as a possible explanation for the bifurcation Gladwell describes in the professions in American life these days. Take, for instance, the profession with which Gladwell begins: baseball. In the early 1970s, Gladwell tells us, Marvin Miller told the players of the San Francisco Giants that “‘If we can get rid of the system as we now know it, then Bobby Bond’s son, if he makes it to the majors, will make more in one year than Bobby will in his whole career.’” (Even then, when Barry Bonds was around ten years old, people knew that Barry Bonds was a special kind of athlete—though they might not have known he would go on to shatter, as he did in 2001, the single season home run record.) As it happens, Miller wildly understated Barry Bonds’ earning power: Barry Bonds “ended up making more in one year than all the members of his father’s San Francisco Giants team made in their entire careers, combined” (emp. added). Barry Bonds’ success has been mirrored in many other sports: the average player salary in the National Basketball Association, for instance, increased more than 800 percent from the 1984-5 season to the 1998-99 season, according to a 2000 article by the Chicago Tribune’s Paul Sullivan. And so on: it doesn’t take much acuity to know that professional athletes have taken a huge pay jump in recent decades. But as Gladwell says, that increase is not limited just to sportsmen.

Take book publishing, for instance. Gladwell tells an anecdote about the sale of William Safire’s “memoir of his years as a speechwriter in the Nixon Administration to William Morrow & Company”—a book that might seem like the kind of “insider” account that often finds its way to publication. In this case, however, between Safire’s sale to Morrow and final publication Watergate happened—which caused Morrow to rethink publishing a book from a White House insider that didn’t mention Watergate. In those circumstances, Morrow decided not to publish—and could they please have the advance they gave to Safire back?

In book contracts in those days, the publisher had all the cards: Morrow could ask for their money back after the contract was signed because, according to the terms of a standard publishing deal, they could return a book at any time, for more or less any reason—and thus not only void the contract, but demand the return of the book’s advance. Safire’s attorney, however—Mort Janklow, a corporate attorney unfamiliar with the ways of book publishing—thought that was nonsense, and threatened to sue. Janklow told Morrow’s attorney (Maurice Greenbaum, of Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst) that the “acceptability clause” of the then-standard literary contract—which held that a publisher could refuse to publish a book, and thereby reclaim any advance, for essentially any reason—“‘was being fraudulently exercised’” because the reason Morrow wanted to reject Safire’s book wasn’t due to the reason Morrow said they wanted to reject it (the intrinsic value of the content) but simply because an external event—Watergate—had changed Morrow’s calculations. (Janklow discovered documentary evidence of the point.) Hence, if Morrow insisted on taking back the advance, Janklow was going to take them to court—and when faced with the abyss, Morrow crumbled, and standard contracts with authors have become (supposedly) far less weighted towards publishing houses. Today, bestselling authors (like, for instance, Gladwell) now have a great deal of power: they more or less negotiate with publishing houses as equals, rather than (as before) as, effectively, servants. And not just in publishing: Gladwell goes on to tell similar anecdotes about modeling (Lauren Hutton), moviemaking (George Lucas), and investing (Teddy Forstmann). In all of these cases, the “Talent” (Gladwell’s word) eventually triumphs over “Capital.”

As I mentioned, for a variety of reasons—in the first place, the justification for the study of “culture,” which these days means, as political scientist Adolph Reed of the University of Pennsylvania has remarked, “the idea that the mass culture industry and its representational practices constitute a meaningful terrain for struggle to advance egalitarian interests”—to a lot of academic leftists these days that triumph would best be explained by the fact that, say, George Lucas and the head of Twentieth-Century Fox at the time, George Stulberg, shared a common rapport. (Perhaps they gossiped over their common name.) Or to put it another way, that “Talent” has been rewarded by “Capital” because of a shared “culture” between the two (apparent) antagonists—just as in the same way that Britain treated their American subjects different than their Kenyan ones because the British shared something with the Americans that they did not with the Kenyans (and the Malaysians and the Boer …). (Which was either “culture”—or money.) But there’s a problem with this analysis: it doesn’t particularly explain Ryan’s situation. After all, if this hypothesis correct that would appear to imply that—since Ryan shares a great deal “culturally” with the power elite that employs him on the golf course—that Ryan ought to have a smooth path towards becoming a golfer who employs caddies, not a caddie who works for golfers. But that is not, obviously, the case.

Gladwell, on the other hand, does not advance a “cultural” explanation for why some people in a variety of professions have become compensated far beyond that even of their fellows within the profession. Instead, he prefers to explain what happened beginning in the 1970s as being instances of people learning how to use a tool initially widely used by organized labor: the strike.

It’s an explanation that has an initial plausibility about it, in the first place, because of Marvin Miller’s personal history: he began his career working for the United Steelworkers before becoming an employee of the baseball players’ union. (Hence, there is a means of transmission.) But even aside from that, it seems clear that each of the “talents” Gladwell writes about made use of either a kind of one-person strike, or the threat of it, to get their way: Lauren Hutton, for example, “decided she would no longer do piecework, the way every model had always done, and instead demanded that her biggest client, Revlon, sign her to a proper contract”; in 1975 “Hollywood agent Tom Pollock,” demanded “that Twentieth Century Fox grant his client George Lucas full ownership of any potential sequels to Star Wars”; and Mort Janklow … Well, here is what Janklow said to Gladwell regarding how he would negotiate with publishers after dealing with Safire’s book:

“The publisher would say, ‘Send back that contract or there’s no deal,’ […] And I would say, ‘Fine, there’s no deal,’ and hang up. They’d call back in an hour: ‘Whoa, what do you mean?’ The point I was making was that the author was more important than the publisher.”

Each of these instances, I would say, is more or less what happens when a group of industrial workers walk out: Mort Janklow (whose personal political opinions, by the way, are apparently the farthest thing from labor’s), was for instance telling the publishers that he would withhold the labor product until his demands were met, just as the United Autoworkers shut down General Motors’ Flint, Michigan assembly plant in the Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37. And Marvin Miller did take baseball players out on strike: the first baseball strike was in 1972, and lasted all of thirteen days before management crumbled. What all of these people learned, in other words, was to use a common technique or tool—but one that is by no means limited to unions.

In fact, it’s arguable that one of the best examples of it in action is a James Dean movie—while another is the fact the world has not experienced a nuclear explosion delivered in anger since 1945. In the James Dean movie, Rebel Without a Cause, there’s a scene in which James Dean’s character gets involved in what the kids in his town call a “chickie run”—what some Americans know as the game of “Chicken.” In the variant played in the movie, two players each drive a car towards the edge of a cliff—the “winner” of the game is the one who exits his car closest to the edge, thus demonstrating his “courage.” (The other player is, hence, the “chicken,” or coward.) Seems childish enough—until you realize, as the philosopher Bertrand Russell did in a book called Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare, that it was more or less this game that the United States and the Soviet Union were playing throughout the Cold War:

Since the nuclear stalemate became apparent, the Governments of East and West have adopted the policy which Mr. Dulles calls “brinksmanship.” This is a policy adapted from a sport which, I am told, is practised [sic] by some youthful degenerates. This sport is called “Chicken!” …

As many people of less intellectual firepower than Bertrand Russell have noticed, Rebel Without A Cause thusly describes what happened between Moscow and Washington D.C. faced each other in October 1962, the incident later called the Cuban Missile Crisis. (“We’re eyeball to eyeball,” then-U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk said later about those events, “and I think the other fellow just blinked.”) The blink was, metaphorically, the act of jumping out of the car before the cliff of nuclear annihilation: the same blink that Twentieth Century Fox gave when it signed over the rights to sequels to Star Wars to Lucas, or Revlon did when it signed Lauren Hutton to a contract. Each of the people Gladwell describes played “Chicken”—and won.

To those committed to a “cultural” explanation, of course, the notion that all these incidents might instead have to do with a common negotiating technique rather than a shared “culture” is simply question begging: after all, there have been plenty of people, and unions, that have played games of “Chicken”—and lost. So by itself the game of “Chicken,” it might be argued, explains nothing about what led employers to give way. Yet, at two points, the “cultural” explanation also is lacking: in the first place, it doesn’t explain how “rebel” figures like Marvin Miller or Janklow were able to apply essentially the same technique across many industries. If it were a matter of “culture,” in other words, it’s hard to see how the same technique could work no matter what the underlying business was—or, if “culture” is the explanation, it’s difficult to see how that could be distinguished from saying that an all-benevolent sky fairy did it. As an explanation, in other words, “culture” is vacuous: it explains both too much and not enough.

What needs to be explained, in other words, isn’t why a number of people across industries revolted against their masters—just as it likely doesn’t especially need to be explained why Kenyans stopped thinking Britain ought to run their land any more. What needs to explained instead is why these people were successful. In each of these industries, eventually “Capital” gave in to “Talent”: “when Miller pushed back, the owners capitulated,” Gladwell says—so quickly, in fact, that even Miller was surprised. In all of these industries, “Capital” gave in so easily that it’s hard to understand why there was any dispute in the first place.

That’s precisely why the ease of that victory is grounds for being suspicious: surely, if “Capital” really felt threatened by this so-called “talent revolution” they would have fought back. After all, American capital was (and is), historically, tremendously resistant to the labor movement: blacklisting, arrest, and even mass murder were all common techniques capital used against unions prior to World War II: when Wyndham Mortimer arrived in Flint to begin organizing for what would become the Sit-Down Strike, for instance, an anonymous caller phoned him at his hotel within moments of his arrival to tell him to leave town if the labor organizer didn’t “want to be carried out in a wooden box.” Surely, although industries like sports or publishing are probably governed by less hard-eyed people than automakers, neither are they so full of softies that they would surrender on the basis of a shared liking for Shakespeare or the films of Kurosawa, nor even the fact that they shared a common language. On the other hand, however, neither does it seem likely that anyone might concede after a minor threat or two. Still, I’d say that thinking about these events using Gladwell’s terms makes a great deal more sense than the “cultural” explanation—not because of the final answer they provide, but because of the method of thought they suggest.

There is, in short, another possible explanation—one that, however, will mean trudging through yet another industry to explain. This time, that industry is the same one where the “cultural” explanation is so popular: academia, which has in recent decades also experienced an apparent triumph of “Talent” at the expense of “Capital”; in this case, the university system itself. As Christopher Shea wrote in 2014 for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “the academic star system is still going strong: Universities that hope to move up in the graduate-program rankings target top professors and offer them high salaries and other perks.” The “Talent Revolution,” in short, has come to the academy too. Yet, if so, it’s had some curious consequences: if “Talent” were something mysterious, one might suspect that it might come from anywhere—yet academia appears to think that it comes from the same sources.

As Joel Warner of Slate and Aaron Clauset, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado wrote in Slate recently, “18 elite universities produce half of all computer science professors, 16 schools produce half of all business professors, and eight schools account for half of all history professors.” (In fact, when it comes to history, “the top 10 schools produce three times as many future professors as those ranked 11 through 20.”) This, one might say, is curious indeed: why should “Talent” be continually discovered in the same couple of places? It’s as if, because William Wilkerson  discovered Lana Turner at the Top Hat Cafe on Sunset Boulevard  in 1937, every casting director and talent agent in Hollywood had decided to spend the rest of their working lives sitting on a stool at the Top Hat waiting for the next big thing to walk through that door.

“Institutional affiliation,” as Shea puts the point, “has come to function like inherited wealth” within the walls of the academy—a fact that just might explain another curious similarity between the academy and other industries these days. Consider, for example, that while Marvin Miller did have an enormous impact on baseball player salaries, that impact has been limited to major league players, and not their comrades at lower levels of organized baseball. “Since 1976,” Patrick Redford noted in Deadspin recently, major leaguers’ “salaries have risen 2,500 percent while minor league salaries have only gone up 70 percent.” Minor league baseball players can, Redford says, “barely earn a living while playing baseball”—it’s not unheard of, in fact, for ballplayers to go to bed hungry. (Glen Hines, a writer for The Cauldron, has a piece for instance describing his playing days in the Jayhawk League in Kansas: “our per diem,” Hines reports, “was a measly 15 dollars per day.”) And while it might difficult to have much sympathy for minor league baseball players—They get to play baseball!—that’s exactly what makes them so similar to their opposite numbers within academia.

That, in fact, is the argument Major League Baseball uses to deny minor leaguers are subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act: as the author called “the Legal Blitz” wrote for Above the Law: Redline, “Major League Baseball claims that its system [of not paying minimum wage] is legal as it is not bound by the FLSA [Fair Labor Standards Act] due to an exemption for seasonal and recreational employers.” In other words, because baseball is a “game” and not a business, baseball doesn’t have to pay the workers at the low end of the hierarchy—which is precisely what makes minor leaguers like a certain sort of academic.

Like baseball, universities often argue (as Yale’s Peter Brooks told the New York Times when Yale’s Graduate Employees and Student Organization (GESO) went out on strike in the late 1990s) that adjunct faculty are “among the blessed of the earth,” not its downtrodden. As Emily Eakin reported for the now-defunct magazine Lingua Franca during that same strike, in those days Yale’s administration argued “that graduate students can’t possibly be workers, since they are admitted (not hired) and receive stipends (not wages).” But if the pastoral rhetoric—a rhetoric that excludes considerations common to other pursuits, like gambling—surrounding both baseball and the academy is cut away, the position of universities is much the same as Major League Baseball’s, because both academia and baseball (and the law, and a lot of other professions) are similar types of industries at least in one respect: as presently constituted, they’re dependent on small numbers of highly productive people—which is just why “Capital” should have tumbled so easily in the way Gladwell described in the 1970s.

Just as scholars are only very rarely productive early in their careers, in other words, so too are baseball players: as Jim Callis noted for Baseball America (as cited by the paper, “Initial Public Offerings of Baseball Players” by John D. Burger, Richard D. Grayson, and Stephen Walters), “just one of every four first-round picks ultimately makes a non-trivial contribution to a major league team, and a mere one in twenty becomes a star.” Similarly, just as just a few baseball players hit most of the home runs or pitch most of the complete games, most academic production is done by just a few producers, as a number of researchers discovered in the middle of the twentieth century: a verity variously formulated as “Price’s Law,” “Lotka’s Law,” or “Bradford’s Law.” (Or, there’s the notion described as “Sturgeon’s Law”: “90% of everything is crap.”) Hence, rationally enough, universities (and baseball teams) only want to pay for those high-producers, while leaving aside the great mass of others: why pay for a load of .200 hitters, when with the same money you can buy just one superstar?

That might explain just why it is that William Morrow folded when confronted by Mort Janklow, or why Major League Baseball collapsed when confronted by Marvin Miller. They weren’t persuaded by the justice of the case Janklow or Miller brought—rather, they decided that it was in their long-term interests to reward wildly the “superstars” because that bought them the most production at the cheapest rate. Why pay for a ton of guys who hit all of the home runs, you might say—when, for much less, you can buy Barry Bonds? (In 2001, all major leaguers collectively hit over 5000 home runs, for instance—but Barry Bonds hit 73 of them, in a context in which the very best players might hit 20.) In such a situation, it makes sense (seemingly) to overpay Barry Bonds wildly (so that he made more money in a single season than all of his father’s teammates did for their entire careers): given that Barry Bonds is so much more productive than his peers, it’s arguable that, despite his vast salary, he was actually underpaid.

If you assign a value per each home run, that is, Bonds got a lower price per home run than his peers did: despite his high salary he was—in a sense—a bargain. (The way to calculate the point is to take all the home runs hit by all the major leaguers in a given season, and then work out the average price per home run. Although I haven’t actually done the calculation, I would bet that the average price is more than the price per home run received by Barry Bonds—which isn’t even to get into how standard major league rookie contracts deflate the market: as Newsday reported in March, Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals, who was third on the 2015 home run list, was paid only $59,524 per home run—when virtually every other top ten home run hitter in the major leagues made at least a quarter of a million dollars.) Similarly, an academic superstar is also, arguably, underpaid: even though, according to citation studies, a small number of scholars might be responsible for 80 percent of the citations in a given field, there’s no way they can get 80 percent of the total salaries being paid in that field. Hence, by (seemingly) wildly overpaying a few superstars, major league owners (like universities) can pocket the difference between those salaries and what they (wildly underpay) to the (vastly more) non-superstars.

Not only that, but wildly overpaying also has a secondary benefit, as Walter Benn Michaels has observed: by paying “Talent” vastly more money, not only are they actually getting a bargain (because no matter what “Talent” got paid, they simply couldn’t be paid what they were really “worth”), but also “Talent’s” (seemingly vast, but in reality undervalued) salaries enable the system to be performed as  “fair”—if you aren’t getting paid what, say, Barry Bonds or Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker is getting paid, in other words, then that’s because you’re not smart enough or good enough or whatever enough, jack. That is what Michaels is talking about when he discusses how educational “institutions ranging from U.I.C. to Harvard” like to depict themselves as “meritocracies that reward individuals for their own efforts and abilities—as opposed to rewarding them for the advantages of their birth.” Which, as it happens, just might explain why it is that, despite his educational accomplishments, Ryan is working on a golf course as a servant instead of using his talent in a courtroom or boardroom or classroom—as Michaels says, the reality of the United States today is that the “American Dream … now has a better chance of coming true in Sweden than it does in America, and as good a chance of coming true in western Europe (which is to say, not very good) as it does here.” That reality, in turn, is something that American universities, who are supposed to pay attention to events like this, have rapidly turned their heads away from: as Michaels says, “the intellectual left has responded to the increase in economic inequality”—that is, the supposed “Talent Revolution”—“by insisting on the importance of cultural identity.” In other words, “when it comes to class difference” (as Michaels says elsewhere), even though liberal professors “have understood our universities to be part of the solution, they are in fact part of the problem.” Hence, Ryan’s educational accomplishments (remember Ryan? There’s an essay about Ryan) aren’t actually helping him: in reality, they’re precisely what is holding him back. The question that Americans ought to be asking these days, then, is this one: what happens when Ryan realizes that?

It’s enough to make Martha Washington nervous.



If thou art privy to thy country’s fate,
Which happily foreknowing may avoid,
O speak!
Hamlet Act I, Scene One



“In a cruel twist of fate,” wrote Nancy Fraser, a professor of philosophy and political science at the New School in New York City a few years ago for The Guardian, “the movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free market society.” In other words, feminism has become just another means of exploitation, an argument she illustrates by way of the feminist “critique of the ‘family wage’: the ideal of a male breadwinner-female homemaker family that was central to state-organised capitalism.” That criticism, Fraser claims, has opened the way to today’s “flexible” labor market, in which longterm security and a pension have become the merest dream to most Americans. Such an argument, of course, is difficult to demonstrate—it’s hardly likely that the CEOs of the Fortune 500 were, sometime in the 1970s, spending their idle hours reading back copies of Madison, Wisconsin’s own Women’s Action Movement Newsletter. But Fraser’s thought—that feminism may have provided the rationale for, say, the fact that essentially nobody except CEOs and other Wall Street types have gotten a raise since 1973—does open the door to other possible speculations. To wit: was feminism responsible for 9/11? The question is nearly, but not quite, as absurd as it might sound.

“Drama may be more profitable than reality,” wrote former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times a decade ago, in response to an ABC miniseries about the events of 9/11, “but at what cost to our national history?” Although Bodine might appear to be making the standard attack on the distortions of fiction against the heathens of television, in fact her complaint was a bit more personal. In specific, she complained about how the miniseries depicted the professional relationship she had as ambassador with FBI agent John O’Neill, while he was investigating Al Qaeda’s bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen’s chief harbor, Aden, in the autumn of 2000—just less than a year before the fall of the towers of the World Trade Center.

As the PBS documentary series, Frontline, depicts the response to the bombing, there was some question about who would take the lead in the investigation. According to Barry Mawn, who was O’Neill’s boss as the director of the Bureau’s New York City field office where O’Neill was stationed at the time, some people thought that O’Neill had “sharp elbows”—i.e., that his personal demeanor wasn’t the most personable. Yet, eventually the Bureau decided that what it needed on scene in Aden, in Mawn’s words, was “somebody that knows what to do and is going to do it and get it done.” So O’Neill went.

In Aden, O’Neill’s operation ran into problems with his Yemeni counterparts. “It was very difficult to get information out of the Yemeni security forces,” Michael Dorsey of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, also assigned to the case, told Frontline later. According to Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker article about O’Neill, “The Counter-Terrorist” (which would later form part of Wright’s book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11), “Yemen was a particularly difficult place to start a terrorist investigation, as it was filled with active Al Qaeda cells and with sympathizers at very high levels of government.” Compounding their difficulty, the investigators—worried about their own safety in a country that was, after all, Osama bin Laden’s homeland—felt it necessary to travel heavily armed, in convoys. That approach, in turn, “quickly angered the American ambassador, Barbara Bodine, who felt his actions were harming U.S.-Yemeni government relations.” When O’Neill flew home for Thanksgiving, after roughly a month investigating the bombing, Bodine refused to renew O’Neill’s visa to Yemen—the incident depicted in the ABC miniseries.

By refusing to allow O’Neill to return to Yemen, Frontline and other sources conclude, Bodine prevented the FBI agent from connecting several dots that, had they been pursued vigorously, might have led to the conspiracy that would bring down the two towers of the World Trade Center less than a year after the Cole was bombed. Most vitally, a thorough investigation might have turned up evidence of what has been called the “Kuala Lumpur Summit,” a meeting held in January of 2000 in that Malaysian city among several Al Qaeda members meant “to discuss plans for 9/11 and the bombing of the USS Cole,” as Lawrence Wright put it in a 2014 New Yorker article. Had O’Neill discovered that meeting—and, most significantly, found that some of its attendees had already entered the United States and were taking up flying lessons—well, according to his colleague Joe Cantamessa’s account to Frontline, O’Neill had an “aggressive nature … [a] willingness to go forward when it may not [have been] politically correct.” Given that sort of willingness, it is possible that O’Neill might have connected dots that no one else in the American intelligence services did.

It’s exactly that conclusion that Barbara Bodine, who is still alive, wishes to forestall. Although several writers have portrayed her differences with O’Neill as essentially personal—Murray Weiss, for example, wrote in The Man Who Warned America, a biography of the FBI agent, that Bodine “took an immediate and strong dislike to O’Neill”—Bodine has tried to make their differences a matter of their differing roles. “According to the mythmakers,” Bodine wrote for the L.A. Times about her conflict with O’Neill, “a battle ensued between a cop obsessed with tracking down Osama bin Laden [O’Neill] and a bureaucrat more concerned with the feelings of the host government than the fate of Americans and the realities of terrorism”—a depiction Bodine considered “false.” Hence, her piece takes the standard bureaucratic tack of saying she had a higher responsibility: whereas all O’Neill had to do was to investigate the crime, Bodine’s mission was to “maintain the Yemeni-American relationship.” In that sense, the struggle between the diplomat and the investigator could be thought of as the usual conflict between the “soft power” of the State Department and the hard realities of a criminal investigation.

The State Department and the FBI, after all, have two different “cultures,” as the organizational psychologists might say. The personnel of the State Department, as Senator Bob Graham once remarked, might be best described as “white, male, and Yale”—much like their counterparts at the CIA, which (as Julie Post reported in the Yale News in 2004), “has historically proven to be a popular career choice for many Yale graduates.” And as Mark Riebling wrote in his book, Wedge: From Pearl Harbor to 9/11, How the Secret War Between the FBI and the CIA Has Endangered National Security, “Agency people are still perceived by FBI agents as intellectual, Ivy League, wine drinking, pipe smoking, international relations types,” while the “Bureau’s people are regarded by CIA as cigar smoking, beer drinking, door-knocking cops.” If the State Department and the CIA can be taken as possessing roughly equivalent “world views,” then the conflict between O’Neill (a graduate of the American University) and Bodine (a graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara) could be explained in those terms—terms that are, essentially, matters of class, and do not have a particular connection to either party’s gender.

Whether it was this, essentially class-based, difference that led to the conflict between Bodine and O’Neill is difficult to conclude at this distance. Yet, one moment in Frontline’s documentary does provide some insight: at an earlier moment in O’Neill’s career, when he was investigating the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia (in which 19 American soldiers died), he came to suspect that the Saudi government was not fully cooperating—a conclusion that the director of the FBI at the time, Louis Freeh, did not share. During a flight from Saudi Arabia back to the United States O’Neill told the director he was wrong in a particularly graphic way: according to Frontline, “O’Neill uttered an indelicate phrase, telling his boss the Saudis were blowing smoke up a particular portion of the director’s anatomy.” That moment, it seems, led to a great cooling over O’Neill’s career: according to Frontline, the “two flew home in silence for 12 hours.” That incident may have played no little part in Bodine’s ability to keep the agent from returning to Yemen later.

All of which, it might be said, has little to do with feminism. Yet, as Nancy Fraser says, feminism has done a great deal to obscure class analysis within the United States: “In the era of state-organised capitalism,” she wrote in her 2013 Guardian piece, feminists “rightly criticised a constricted political vision that was so tightly focused on class inequality that it could not see such ‘non-economic’ injustices as domestic violence, sexual assault and reproductive oppression.” Although it may not have been the intention of academics, what that criticism has meant practically is a de-emphasis on studies of class within the academy: what Fraser calls “a one-sided focus on ‘gender identity’ at the expense of bread and butter issues.” The literal trillion-dollar question, of course, is whether feminism’s victory over class as an available analytic lens within the academy is what propelled Bodine to dismiss O’Neill from the crime scene in Yemen—and hence prevented the man who Lawrence Wright called the “most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network of terrorists” from doing his job. We’ll never know, of course—but cruel twists of fate are, surely, plentiful these days.

Eat The Elephant

Well, gentlemen. Let’s go home.
Sink the Bismarck! (1960).

Someday someone will die and the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain problems.
—FBI Field Office, New York City, to FBI Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
29 August, 2001.


Simon Pegg, author of the latest entry in the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Beyond, explained the new film’s title in an interview over a year ago: the studio in charge of the franchise, Pegg said, thought that Star Trek was getting “a little too Star Trek-y.” One scene in particular seems to designed to illustrate graphically just how “beyond” Beyond is willing to go: early on, the fabled starship Enterprise is torn apart by (as Michael O’Sullivan of the Washington Post describes it) “a swarm of mini-kamikaze ships called ‘bees.’” The scene is a pretty obvious signal of the new film’s attitude toward the past—but while the destruction of the Enterprise very well might then be read as a kind of meta-reference to the process of filmmaking (say, how movies, which are constructed by teams of people over years of work, can be torn apart by critics in a virtual instant), another way to view the end of the signature starship is in the light of how Star Trek’s original creator, Gene Rodenberry originally pitched Star Trek: as “space-age Captain Horatio Hornblower.” The demise of the Enterprise is, in other words, a perfect illustration of a truth about navies these days: navies today are examples of the punchline of the old joke about how to eat an elephant. (“One bite at a time.”) The payoff for thinking about Beyond in this second way, I would argue, is that it leads to much clearer thinking about things other than stories about aliens, or even stories themselves—like, say, American politics, where the elephant theory has held sway for some time.

“Starfleet,” the fictional organization employing James T. Kirk, Spock, and company has always been framed as a kind of space-going navy—and as Pando Daily’s “War Nerd,” Gary Brecher, pointed out so long ago as 2002, navies are anachronistic in reality. Professionals know, as Brecher wrote fourteen years ago, that “every one of those big fancy aircraft carriers we love”—massive ships much like the fictional Enterprise—“won’t last one single day in combat against a serious enemy.” The reason we know this is not merely because of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, which showed how two Al Qaeda guys in a thousand-dollar speedboat could blow a 250 million dollar-sized hole in a 2 billion dollar warship, but also because—as Brecher points out in his piece—of research conducted by the U.S. military itself: a war game entitled “Millennium Challenge 2002.”

“Millennium Challenge 2002,” which conveniently took place in 2002, pitted an American “Blue” side against a fictional “Red” force (believed to be a representation of Iran). The commander of “Red” was Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K. Riper, who was hired because, in the words of his superiors, he was a “devious sort of guy”—though in the event, he proved to live up to his billing a little too well for the Pentagon’s taste. Taking note of the tactics used against the Cole, Riper attacked Blue’s warships with cruise missiles and a few dozen speedboats loaded with enormous cans of gasoline and driven by gentlemen with an unreasonable belief in the afterlife—a (fictional) attack that sent 19 U.S. Navy vessels to the bottom in perhaps 10 minutes. In doing so, Riper effectively demonstrated the truth also illustrated by the end of the Enterprise in Beyond: that large naval vessels are redundant.

Even warships like the U.S. Navy’s latest supercarrier, the Gerald R. Ford—a floating city capable of completely leveling other cities of the non-floating variety—are nevertheless, as Brecher writes elsewhere, “history’s most expensive floating targets.” That’s because they’re vulnerable to exactly the sort of assault that takes down Enterprise: “a saturation attack by huge numbers of low-value attackers, whether they’re Persians in Cessnas or mass-produced Chinese cruise missiles.” They’re as vulnerable, in other words, as elephants are according to the old joke. Yet, whereas that might be a revolutionary insight in the military, the notion that with enough mice, even an elephant falls is old hat within American political circles.

After all, American politics has, at least since the 1980s, proceeded only by way of “saturation attacks by huge numbers of low-value attackers.” That was the whole point of what are now sometimes called “the culture wars.” During the 1980s and 1990s, as the late American philosopher Richard Rorty put the point before his death, liberals and conservatives conspired together to allow “cultural politics to supplant real politics,” and for “cultural issues” to become “central to public debate.” In those years, it was possible to gain a name for oneself within departments of the humanities by attacking the “intrinsic value” of literature (while ignoring the fact that those arguments were isomorphic with similar ideas being cooked up in economics departments), while conversely, many on the religious right did much the same by attacking (sometimes literally) abortion providers or the teaching of evolution in the schools. To use a phrase of British literary critic Terry Eagleton, in those years “micropolitics seem[ed] the order of the day”—somewhere during that time politics “shift[ed] from the transformative to the subversive.” What allowed that shift to happen, I’d say, was the notion that by addressing seemingly minor-scale points instead of major-scale ones, each might eventually achieve a major-scale victory—or to put it more succinctly, that by taking enough small bites they could eat the elephant.

Just as the Americans and the Soviets refused to send clouds of ICBMs at each other during the Cold War, and instead fought “proxy wars” from the jungles of Vietnam to the mountains of Afghanistan, during the 1980s and 1990s both American liberals and conservatives declined to put their chief warships to sea, and instead held them in port. But right at this point the two storylines—the story of the navy, the story of American politics—begin to converge. That’s because the story of why warships are obsolete is also a story about why that story has no application to politics whatever.

“What does that tell you,” Brecher rhetorically asks, “about the distinguished gentlemen with all the ribbons on their chests who’ve been standing up on … bridges looking like they know what they’re doing for the past 50 years?” Since all naval vessels are simply holes in the water once the shooting really starts, those gentlemen must be, he says, “either stupid or so sleazy they’re willing to make a career commanding ships they goddamn well know are floating coffins for thousands.” Similarly, what does that tell you about an American liberal left that supposedly stands up for the majority of Americans, yet has stood by while, for instance, wages have remained—as innumerable reports confirm—essentially the same for forty years? For while it is all well and good for conservatives to agree to keep their Bismarcks and Nimitzs in port, that sort of agreement does not have the same payout for those on the liberal left—as ought to be obvious to anyone with an ounce of sense.

To see why requires seeing what the two major vessels of American politics are. Named most succinctly by William Jennings Bryan at Chicago in 1896, they concern what Bryan said were the only “two ideas of government”: the first being the idea that, “if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below,” and the “Democratic idea,” the idea “that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.” These are the two arguments that are effectively akin to the Enterprise: arguments at the very largest of scales, capable of surviving voyages to strange new worlds—because they apply as well to the twenty-third century of the Federation as they did to Bryan’s nineteenth. But that’s also what makes them different from any real battleship: unlike the Enterprise, they can’t be taken down no matter how many attack them.

There is, however, another way in which ideas can resemble warships: both molder in port. That’s one reason why, to speak of naval battles, the French lost the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805: as Wikipedia reports, because the “main French ships-of-the-line had been kept in harbour for years by the British blockade,” therefore the “French crews included few experienced sailors and, as most of the crew had to be taught the elements of seamanship on the few occasions when they got to sea, gunnery was neglected.” It’s perfectly alright to stay in port, in other words, if you are merely protecting the status quo—the virtues of wasting time with minor issues is sure enough if keeping things as they are is the goal. But that’s just the danger from the other point of view: the more time in port, the less able in battle—and certainly the history of the past several generations shows that supposed liberal or left-types have been increasingly unwilling to take what Bryan called the “Democratic idea” out for a spin.

Undoubtedly, in other words, American conservatives have relished observing left-wing graduate students in the humanities debate—to use some topics Eagleton suggests—“the insatiability of desire, the inescapability of the metaphysical … [and] the indeterminate effects of political action.” But what might actually affect political change in the United States, assuming anyone is still interested in the outcome and not what it means in terms of career, is a plain, easily-readable description of how that might be accomplished. It’s too bad that the mandarin admirals in charge of liberal politics these days appear to think that such a notion is a place where no one has gone before.