All Even

George, I am an old man, and most people hate me.
But I don’t like them either so that makes it all even.

—Mr. Potter. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946).

 

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Because someone I love had never seen it, I rewatched Frank Capra’s 1946 It’s A Wonderful Life the other night. To most people, the film is the story of how one George Bailey comes to perceive the value of helping “a few people get outta [the] slums” of the “scurvy little spider” of the film, the wealthy banker Mr. Potter—but to some viewers, what’s important about the inhabitants of Bedford Falls isn’t that they are poor by comparison to Potter, but instead that some of them are black: the man who plays the piano in the background of one scene, for instance, or Annie, the Bailey family’s maid. To Vincent Nobile, a professor of history at Rancho Cucamonga’s Chaffey College, the casting of these supporting roles not only demonstrates that “Capra showed no indication he could perceive blacks in roles outside the servant class,” but also that Potter is the story’s villain not because he is a slumlord, but because he calls the people Bailey helps “garlic eaters” (http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/1846). What makes Potter evil, in other words, isn’t his “cold monetary self-interest,” but because he’s “bigoted”: to this historian, Capra’s film isn’t the heartwarming story of how Americans banded together to stop a minority (rich people) from wrecking things, but instead the horrifying tragedy of how Americans banded together to stop a minority (black people) from wrecking things. Unfortunately, there’s two problems with that view—problems that can be summarized by referring to the program for a football game that took place five years before the release of Capra’s classic: the Army-Navy game of 29 November, 1941.

Played at Philadelphia’s Franklin Memorial Stadium (once home of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and still the home of the Penn Relays, one of track and field’s premier events), Navy won the contest 14-6; according to Vintage College Football Programs & Collectibles (collectable.wordpress.com [sic]), the program for that game contains 212 pages. On page 180 of that program there is a remarkable photograph. It is of the USS Arizona, the second and last of the American “Pennsylvania” class of super-dreadnought battleships—a ship meant to be, according to the New York Times of 13 July 1913, “the world’s biggest and most powerful, both offensively and defensively, superdreadnought ever constructed.” The last line of the photograph’s caption reads thusly:

It is significant that despite the claims of air enthusiasts, no battleship has yet been sunk by bombs.”

Slightly more than a week later, of course, on a clear bright Sunday morning just after 8:06 Hawaiian time, the hull of the great ship would rest on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, along with the bodies of nearly 1200 of her crew—struck down by the “air enthusiasts” of the Empire of the Sun. The lesson taught that morning, by aircraft directed by former Harvard student Isoroku Yamamoto, was a simple one: that “a saturation attack by huge numbers of low-value attackers”—as Pando Daily’s “War Nerd” columnist, Gary Brecher, has referred to this type of attack—can bring down nearly any target, no matter how powerful (http://exiledonline.com/the-war-nerd-this-is-how-the-carriers-will-die/all/1/). (A lesson that the U.S. Navy has received more than once: in 2002, for instance, when during the wargame “Millennium Challenge 2002” Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K. Riper (fictionally) sent 16 ships to the bottom of the Persian Gulf with the creative use of, essentially, a bunch of cruise missiles and several dozen speedboats loaded with cans of gasoline driven by gentlemen with, shall we say, a cavalier approach to mortality.) It’s the lesson that the cheap and shoddy can overcome quality—or in other words that, as the song says, the bigger they come, the harder they fall.

It’s a lesson that applies to more than merely the physical plane, as the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift knew: “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after,” the author of Gulliver’s Travels wrote in 1710. What Swift refers to is how saturation attacks can work on the intellectual as well as physical plane—as Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein (who, unfortunately for the warmth of my argument’s reception, endorsed Donald Trump in this past election) argued, in Partisan Review in 2001, American academia has over the past several generations essentially become flooded with the mental equivalents of Al Qaeda speedboats. “Clear-sighted professors,” Bauerlein wrote then, understanding the conditions of academic research, “avoid empirical methods, aware that it takes too much time to verify propositions about culture, to corroborate facts with multiple sources, to consult primary documents, and to compile evidence adequate to inductive conclusions” (http://www.bu.edu/partisanreview/books/PR2001V68N2/HTML/files/assets/basic-html/index.html#226). Discussing It’s A Wonderful Life in terms of, say, the economic differences between banks like the one owned by Potter and the savings-and-loan run by George Bailey—and the political consequences therein—is, in other words, hugely expensive in terms of time and effort invested: it’s much more profitable to discuss the film in terms of its hidden racism. By “profitable,” in other words, I mean not merely because it’s intrinsically easier, but also because such a claim is much more likely to upset people, and thus attract attention to its author: the crass stunt once called épater le bourgeois.

The current reward system of the humanities, in other words, favors those philosopher Isaiah Berlin called “foxes” (who know a great many things) rather than “hedgehogs” (who know one important thing). To the present defenders of the humanities, of course, such is the point: that’s the pro-speedboat argument noted feminist literary scholar Jane Tompkins made so long ago as 1981, in her essay “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of American Literary History.” There, Tompkins suggested that the “political and economic measures”—i.e., the battleships of American political discourse—“that constitute effective action for us” are, in reality, merely “superficial”: instead, what’s necessary are “not specific alterations in the current political and economic arrangements, but rather a change of heart” (http://engl651-jackson.wikispaces.umb.edu/file/view/Sentimental+Power.pdf). To those who think like Tompkins—or apparently, Nobile—discussing It’s A Wonderful Life in terms of economics is to have missed the point entirely: what matters, according to them, isn’t the dreadnought clash of, for example, the unit banking system of the antebellum North (speedboats) versus the branch banking system of the antebellum South (battleships) within the sea of the American economy. (A contest that, incidentally, not only did branch banking largely win in 1994, during Bill Clinton’s administration, but a victory that in turn—because it helped to create the enormous “too big to fail” interstate banks of today—arguably played no small role in the crash of 2008). Instead, what’s important is the seemingly-minor attack of a community college teacher upon a Titanic of American culture. Or, to put the point in terms popularized by Silicon Valley: the sheer BS quality of Vincent Nobile’s argument about It’s A Wonderful Life isn’t a bug—it’s a feature.

There is, however, one problem with such tactics—the same problem described by Rear Admiral Chuichi (“King Kong”) Hara of the Imperial Japanese Navy after the Japanese surrender in September 1945: “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor—and thereby lost the war.” Although, as the late American philosopher Richard Rorty commented before his death in his Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America, “[l]eftists in the academy” have, in collaboration with “the Right,” succeeded in “making cultural issues central to public debate,” that hasn’t necessarily resulted in a victory for leftists, or even liberals (https://www.amazon.com/Achieving-Our-Country-Leftist-Twentieth-Century/dp/0674003128). Indeed, there’s some reason to suppose that, by discouraging certain forms of thought within left-leaning circles, academic leftists in the humanities have obscured what Elizabeth Drew, in the New York Review of Books, has called “unglamorous structural questions” in a fashion ultimately detrimental not merely to minority communities, but ultimately all Americans (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/08/18/american-democracy-betrayed/).

What Drew was referring to this past August was such matters as how—in the wake of the 2010 Census and the redistricting it entailed in every state in the Union—the Democrats ended up, in the 2012 election cycle, winning the popular vote for Congress “by 1.2 per cent, but still remained in the minority, with two hundred and one seats to the G.O.P.’s two hundred and thirty-four.” In other words, Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives got, as Katie Sanders noted in Politifact in 2013, “50.59 percent of the two-party vote” that November, but “won just 46.21 percent of seats”: only “the second time in 70 years that a party won the majority of the vote but didn’t win a majority of the House seats” (http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2013/feb/19/steny-hoyer/steny-hoyer-house-democrats-won-majority-2012-popu/). The Republican advantage didn’t end there: as Rob Richie reported for The Nation in 2014, in that year’s congressional races Republicans won “about 52 percent of votes”—but ended “up with 57 percent of seats” (https://www.thenation.com/article/republicans-only-got-52-percent-vote-house-races/). And this year, the numbers suggest, the Republicans received less than half the popular vote—but will end up with fifty-five percent (241) of the total seats (435). These losses, Drew suggests, are ultimately due to the fact that “the Democrats simply weren’t as interested in such dry and detailed stuff as state legislatures and redistricting”—or, to put it less delicately, because potentially-Democratic schemers have been put to work constructing re-readings of old movies instead of building arguments that are actually politically useful.

To put this even less delicately, many people on the liberal or left-wing side of the political aisle have, for the past several generations, spent their college educations learning, as Mark Bauerlein wrote back in 2001, how to “scoff[…] at empirical notions, chastising them as ‘näive positivism.’” At the same time, a tiny minority among them—those destined to “relax their scruples and select a critical practice that fosters their own professional survival”—have learned, and are learning, to swim the dark seas of academia, taught by their masters how to live by feeding upon the minds of essentially defenseless undergraduates. The lucky ones, like Vince Nobile, manage—by the right mix of bowing and scraping—to land some kind of job security at some far-flung outpost of academia’s empire, where they make a living entertaining the yokels; the less-successful, of course, write deeply ironic blogs.

Be that as it may, while there isn’t necessarily a connection between the humanistic academy’s flight from what Bauerlein calls “the canons of logic” and the fact that it was so easy—as John Cassidy of The New Yorker observed after this past presidential election—for so many in the American media and elsewhere “to dismiss the other outcome [i.e., Trump’s victory] as a live possibility” before the election, Cassidy at least ascribed the ease with which so many predicted a Clinton victory then to the fact that many “haven’t been schooled in how to think in probabilistic terms” (http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/media-culpa-the-press-and-the-election-result). That lack of education, which extends from the impact of mathematics upon elections to the philosophical basis for holding elections at all (which extends far beyond the usual seventeenth-century suspects rounded up in even the most erudite of college classes to medieval thinkers like Nicholas of Cusa, who argued in 1434’s Catholic Concordance that the “greater the agreement, the more infallible the judgment”—or in other words that speedboats are more trustworthy than battleships), most assuredly has had political consequences (http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/politics-international-relations/texts-political-thought/nicholas-cusa-catholic-concordance?format=PB&isbn=9780521567732). While the ever-more abstruse academic turf wars between the sciences and the humanities might be good for the ever-dwindling numbers of tenured college professors, in other words, it’s arguably disastrous, not only for Democrats and the populations they serve, but for the country as a whole. Although Clarence, angel second class, says to George Bailey, “we don’t use money in Heaven”—suggesting the way in which American academics swear off knowledge of the sciences upon entering their secular priesthood—George replies, “it comes in real handy down here, bub.” What It’s A Wonderful Life wants to tell us is that a nation whose leadership balances so precariously upon such a narrow educational foundation is, no matter what the program says, as vulnerable as a battleship on a bright Pacific morning.

Or a skyscraper, on a cloudless September one.

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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.

 

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.

A Momentary Lapse

 

The sweets we wish for turn to loathed sours
Even in the moment that we call them ours.
The Rape of Lucrece, by William Shakespeare

“I think caddies are important to performance,” wrote ESPN’s Jason Sobel late Friday night. “But Reed/DJ each put a family member on bag last year with no experience. Didn’t skip a beat.” To me, Sobel’s tweet appeared to question the value of caddies, and so I wrote to Mr. Sobel and put it to him that sure, F. Scott Fitzgerald could write before he met Maxwell Perkins—but without Perkins on Fitzgerald’s bag, no Gatsby. Still, I don’t mention the point simply to crow about what happened: how Dustin Johnson missed a putt to tie Jordan Spieth in regulation, a putt that arguably a professional caddie would have held Johnson from hitting so quickly. What’s important about Spieth’s victory is that it might finally have killed the idea of “staying in the moment”: an un-American idea far too prevalent for the past two decades or more not only in golf, but in American life.

Anyway, it’s been around a while. “Staying in the moment,” as so much in golf does, likely traces at least so far back as Tiger Woods’ victory at Augusta National in 1997. Sportswriters then liked to make a big deal out of Tiger’s Thai heritage: supposedly, his mother’s people, with their Buddhist religion, helped Tiger to focus. It was a thesis that to my mind was more than a little racially suspect—seemed to me that Woods’ won a lot of tournaments because he hit the ball further than anyone else at the time, and it was matched by an amazing short game. That was the story that got retailed then however.

Back in 2000, for instance, Robert Wright of the online magazine Slate was peddling what he called the “the New Age Theory of Golf.” “To be a great golfer,” Wright said, “you have to do what some Eastern religions stress—live in the present and free yourself of aspiration and anxiety.” “You can’t be angry over a previous error or worried about repeating it,” Wright went on to say. You are just supposed to “move forward”—and, you know, forget about the past. Or to put it another way, success is determined by how much you can ignore reality.

Now, some might say that it was precisely this attitude that won the U.S. Open for Team Jordan Spieth. “I always try to stay in the present,” Jordan Spieth’s caddie Michael Greller told The Des Moines Register in 2014, when Greller and Spieth returned to Iowa to defend the title the duo had won in 2013. But a close examination of their behavior on the course, by Shane Ryan of Golf Digest, questions that interpretation.

Spieth, Ryan writes, “kept up a neurotic monologue with Michael Greller all day, constantly seeking and receiving reassurance about the wind, the terrain, the distance, the break, and god knows what else.” To my mind, this hardly counts as the usual view of “staying in the present.” The usual view, I think, was what was going on with their opponents.

During the course of his round, Ryan reports, Johnson “rarely spoke with his brother and caddie Austin.” Johnson’s relative silence appears to me to be much like Wright’s passive, “New Age,” reality-ignoring, ideal. Far more, anyway, than the constant squawking that was going on in Spieth’s camp.

It’s a difference, I realize, that is easy to underestimate—but a crucial one nonetheless. Just how significant that difference is might be best revealed by an anecdote the writer, Gary Brecher, tells about the aftermath of the second Iraq War: about being in the office with a higher-ranking woman who declared her support for George Bush’s war. When Brecher said to her that perhaps these rumors of Saddam’s weapons could be exaggerated—well, let’s read Brecher’s description:

She just stared at me a second—I’ve seen this a lot from Americans who outrank me; they never argue with you, they don’t do arguments, they just wait for you to finish and then repeat what they said in the beginning—she said, “I believe there are WMDs.”

It’s a stunning description. Not only does it sum up what the Bush Administration did in the run-up to the Iraq War, but it’s also something of a fact of life around workplaces and virtually everywhere else in the United States these days: two Americans, especially ones of differing classes, rarely talk to one another these days. But they sure are pretty passive.

Americans however aren’t supposed to think of themselves as being passive—at least, they didn’t use to think of themselves that way. The English writer George Orwell described the American attitude in an essay about the quintessentially American author, Mark Twain: a man who “had his youth and early manhood in the golden age of America … when wealth and opportunity seemed limitless, and human beings felt free, indeed were free, as they had never been before and may not be again for centuries.” In those days, Orwell says, “at least it was NOT the case that a man’s destiny was settled from his birth,” and if “you disliked your job you simply hit the boss in the eye and moved further west.” Those older Americans did not simply accept what happened to them, the way the doctrine of “staying in the present” teaches.

If so, then perhaps Spieth and Greller, despite what they say, are bringing back an old American custom by killing an alien one. In a nation where 400 Americans are worth more than the poorest 150 million Americans, as I learned Sunday night after the Open by watching Robert Reich’s film, Inequality for All, it may not be a moment too soon.