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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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—perhaps paradoxically—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 one of their tracts (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.

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