The Commanding Heights

The enemy increaseth every day; 
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
Julius Caesar. Act IV, Scene 3.

 

“It’s Toasted”: the two words that began the television series Mad Men. The television show’s protagonist, Don Draper, comes up with them in a flash of inspiration during a meeting with the head of Draper’s advertising firm’s chief client, cigarette brand Lucky Strikes: like all cigarette companies, Luckies have to come up with a new campaign in the wake of a warning from the Surgeon General regarding the health risks of smoking. Don’s solution is elegant: by simply describing the manufacturing process of making Luckies—a process that is essentially the same as all other cigarettes—the brand does not have to make any kind of claim about smokers’ health at all, and thusly can bypass any consideration of scientific evidence. It’s a great way to introduce a show about the advertising business, as well as one of the great conflicts of that business: the opposition between reality, as represented by the Surgeon General’s report, and rhetoric, as represented by Draper’s inspirational flash. It’s also what makes Mad Men a work of historical fiction: in the first place, as documented by Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, there really was, during the 1950s and 60s, a conflict in the advertising industry between those who trusted in a “scientific” approach to advertising and those who, in Frank’s words, “deplored conformity, distrusted routine, and encouraged resistance to established power.” But that conflict also enveloped more than the advertising field: in those years many rebelled against a “scientism” that was thought confining—a rebellion that in many ways is with us still. Yet, though that rebellion may have been liberating in some senses, it may also have had certain measurable costs to the United States. Among those costs, it seems, might be height.

Height, or a person’s stature, of course is a thing that most people regard as something that is akin to the color of the sky or the fact of gravity: a baseline foundation to the world incapable of change. In the past, such results that lead one person to tower over others—or look up to them in turn—might have been ascribed to God; today some might view height as the inescapable result of genetics. In one sense, this is true: as Burkhard Bilger says in the New Yorker story that inspired my writing here, the work of historians, demographers and dietitians have shown that with regard to height, “variations within a population are largely genetic.” But while height differences within a population are, in effect, a matter of genetic chance, that is not so when it comes to comparing different populations to each other.

“Height,” says Bilger, “is a kind of biological shorthand: a composite code for all the factors that make up a society’s well-being.” In other words, while you might be a certain height, and your neighbor down the street might be taller or shorter, both of you will tend to be taller or shorter than people from a different country—and the degree of shortness or tallness can be predicted by what sort of country you live in. That doesn’t mean that height is independent of genetics, to be sure: all human bodies are genetically fixed to grow at only three different stages in our lives—infancy, between the ages of six and eight, and as adolescents. But as Bilger notes, “take away any one of forty-five or fifty essential nutrients”—at any of these stages—“and the body stops growing.” (Like iodine, which can also have an effect on mental development.) What that means is that when large enough populations are examined, it can be seen whether a population as a whole is getting access to those nutrients—which in turn means it’s possible to get a sense of whether a given society is distributing resources widely … or not.

One story Bilger tells, about Guatemala’s two main ethnic groups, illustrates the point: one of them, the Ladinos, who claim descent from the Spanish colonizers of Central America, were averagely tall. But the other group, the Maya, who are descended from indigenous people, “were so short that some scholars called them the pygmies of Central America: the men averaged only five feet two, the women four feet eight.” Since the two groups shared the same (small) country, with essentially the same climate and natural resources, researchers initially assumed that the difference between them was genetic. But that assumption turned out to be false: when anthropologist Barry Bogin measured Mayans who had emigrated to the United States, he found that they were “about as tall as Guatemalan Ladinos.” The difference between the two ethnicities was not genetic: “The Ladinos,” Bilger writes, “who controlled the government, had systematically forced the Maya into poverty”—and poverty, because it can limit access to the nutrients essential during growth spurts, is systemically related to height.

It’s in that sense that height can literally be a measurement of the degree of freedom a given society enjoys: historically, Guatemala has been a hugely stratified country, with a small number of landowners presiding over a great number of peasants. (Throughout the twentieth century, in fact, the political class was engaged in a symbiotic relationship with the United Fruit Company, an American company that possessed large-scale banana plantations in the country—hence the term “banana republic.”) Short people are, for the most part, oppressed people; tall people, conversely, are mostly free people: it’s not an accident that as citizens of one of the freest countries in the world, the Netherlands, Dutch people are also the tallest.

Americans, at one time, were the tallest people in the world: in the eighteenth century, Bilger reports, Americans were “a full three inches taller than the average European.” Even so late as the First World War, he also says, “the average American soldier was still two inches taller than the average German.” Yet, a little more than a generation later, that relation began to change: “sometime around 1955 the situation began to reverse.” Since then all Europeans have been growing, as have Asians: today “even the Japanese—once the shortest industrialized people on earth—have nearly caught up with us, and Northern Europeans are three inches taller and rising.” Meanwhile, American men are “less than an inch taller than the average soldier during the Revolutionary War.” And that difference, it seems, is not due to the obvious source: immigration.

The people that work in this area are obviously aware that, because the United States is a nation of immigrants, that might skew the height data: clearly, if someone grows up in, say, Guatemala and then moves to the United States, that could conceivably warp the results. But the researchers Bilger consulted have considered the point: one only includes native-born, English-speaking Americans in his studies, for example, while another says that, because of the changes to immigration law during the twentieth century, the United States now takes in far too few immigrants to bias the figures. But if not immigration, then what?

For my own part, I find the coincidence of 1955 too much to ignore: it’s around the mid-1950s that Americans began to question a previous view of the sciences that had grown up a few generations previously. In 1898, for example, the American philosopher John Dewey could reject “the idea of a dualism between the cosmic and the ethical,” and suggested that “the spiritual life … [gets] its surest and most ample guarantees when it is learned that the laws and conditions of righteousness are implicated in the working processes of the universe.” Even so late as 1941, intellectual magazine The New Republic could publish an obituary of the famed novelist James Joyce—author of what many people feel is the finest novel in the history of the English language, Ulysses—that proclaimed Joyce “the great research scientist of letters, handling words with the same freedom and originality that Einstein handles mathematical symbols.” “Literature as pure art,” the magazine then said, “approaches the nature of pure science”—suggesting, as Dewey said, that reality and its study did not need to be opposed to some other force, whether that be considered to be religion and morality or art and beauty. But just a few years later, elite opinion began to change.

In 1949, for instance, the novelist James Baldwin would insist, against the idea of The New Republic’s obituary, that “literature and sociology are not the same,” while a few years later, in 1958, the philosopher and political scientist Leo Strauss would urge that the “indispensable condition of ‘scientific’ analysis is then moral obtuseness”—an obtuseness that, Strauss would go on to say, “is not identical with depravity, but […] is bound to strengthen the forces of depravity.” “By the middle of the 1950s,” as Thomas Frank says, “talk of conformity, of consumerism, and of the banality of mass-produced culture were routine elements of middle-class American life”—so that “the failings of capitalism were not so much exploitation and deprivation as they were materialism, wastefulness, and soul-deadening conformity”: a sense that Frank argues provided fuel for the cultural fires of the 1960s that were to come, and that the television show Mad Men documents. In other words, during the 1950s and afterwards, Americans abandoned a scientific outlook, and meanwhile, Americans also have grown shorter—at least relative to the rest of the world. Correlation, as any scientist will tell you, does not imply causation, but it does imply that Lucky Strikes might not be unique any more—though as any ad man would tell you, “America: It’s Toast!” is not a winning slogan.

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Par For The Course: Memorial Day, 2016

 

For you took what’s before me and what’s behind me
You took east and west when you would not mind me
Sun, moon and stars from me you have taken
And Christ likewise if I’m not mistaken.
“Dónal Óg.” Traditional.

 

None of us were sure. After two very good shots—a drive off the tee, and a three- or four-wood second—both ladies found themselves short of the green by more than forty yards. Two chips later, neither of which were close, both had made fives—scores that either were pars or bogies. But we did not know which scores they were; that is, we didn’t know what par was on the hole, the eighth on Medinah’s Course One. That was important because, while in normal play, the difference would hardly have mattered, it did matter in this case because our foursome was playing as part of a larger tournament, and the method of scoring of this tournament was what is called a “modified Stableford” format. In “modified Stableford,” points are assigned for each score: instead of the total number of strokes being added up or the number of holes being added up, in other words, as in stroke and match play scoring formats, under a modified Stableford format players receive zero points for a par, but lose a point for bogey. To know what the ladies had scored, then, it was important to know what the par was—and since Course One had only just reopened last year after a renovation, none of us knew if the par for ladies had changed with it. The tournament scorecard was no help—we needed a regular scorecard to check against, which we could only get when we returned towards the clubhouse after the ninth hole. When we did, we learned what we needed to know—and I learned just how much today’s women golfers still have in common with both French women, circa 1919, and the nation of France, today.

The eighth hole on Medinah Country Club’s Course One is, for men, a very long par four, measuring 461 yards from the back tee. For the most part it is straight, though with a slight curve from left to right along its length. Along with length, the hole is also defended with a devilish green that is highly sloped from the high side on the left to a low side on the right. It is an extremely difficult hole, ranked as the fifth-hardest hole on the golf course. And though the ladies do not play from the back tees, the eighth is still nearly 400 yards for them, which even for very good women players is quite long; it is not unusual to find ladies’ par fives at that distance. Hence, we had good reason to at least wish to question whether the tournament scorecard was printed in error.

Returning to the clubhouse, we went by the first tee where all the scorecards for Course One are kept. Picking one up, I quickly scanned it and found that, indeed, the par for the eighth hole was four for the ladies, as the tournament scorecard said. At that instant, one of the assistant pros happened by, and I asked him about it: “Well,” he said, “if the par’s the same for everyone it hardly matters—par’s just a number, anyway.” In a sense, of course, he was right: par really is, in one way, completely arbitrary. A golfer scores what she scores: whether that is “par” or not really makes little difference—par is just a name, it might be said. Except that in this case the name of the thing really did matter, because it had a direct effect on the scoring for the tournament as a whole … I could feel my brain slowly sinking into a mental abyss, as I tried to work out the possible consequences of what might appear to be merely an inconsequential name change.

What I immediately realized, at least, was that making the hole a par four greatly amplified the efforts of a long-hitting woman: being able to reach that green in two gave any woman even more of a huge advantage over her fellow competitors than she already had simply by hitting the ball further. Making the hole a par four made such a woman an electric guitar against everyone else’s acoustic: she would just drown everyone out. Furthermore, that advantage would multiply the more rounds the tournament played: the interest, in other words, would compound.

It’s in that sense that, researching another topic, I became interested in the fate of Frenchwomen in the year 1919—the year after the end of the Great War, or World War I. That war, as everyone knows, virtually wiped out an entire generation of young men: Britain, for example, lost nearly a million young men in battle, while France lost nearly one and half millions. (Germany, by comparison, lost nearly two millions.) Yet, although occasionally the point comes up during Veterans Day observations in America—what the Europeans call “Armistice Day” is, with good reason, a much bigger deal—or classroom discussions about writers of the 1920s in English classes (like Fitzgerald or Hemingway, the “Lost Generation”), the fact is treated sentimentally: we are supposed to be sad about those many, many deaths. But what we do not do is think about the long-term effect of losing so many young men (and, though less so, women) in their youth.

We do not, that is, consider the fact that, as writer Fraser Cameron observed in 2014, in France in “1919, the year after the war was over in France, there were 15 women for every man between the ages of 18 and 30.” We do not think about, as Cameron continues, “all of the lost potential, all of the writers, artists, teachers, inventors, and leaders that were killed.” Cameron neglects to consider all of the janitors that were killed also, but his larger point is solid: the fact of the Great War has had a measurable effect on France’s destiny as a nation, because all of those missing young men would have contributed to France’s total productivity, would have paid taxes, would have paid into pensions—and perhaps above all, would have had babies who would have done the same. And those missing French (and British and German and Russian and Italian …) babies still matter—and probably will forever.

“In the past two decades,” says Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker, in an article from a few years ago entitled, “The Risk Pool,” “Ireland has gone from being one of the most economically backward countries in Western Europe to being one of the strongest: its growth rate has been roughly double that of the rest of Europe.” Many explanations have been advanced for that growth, Gladwell says—but the most convincing explanation, he also says, may have been advanced by two Harvard economists, David Bloom and David Canning: “In 1979, restrictions on contraception that had been in place since Ireland’s founding”—itself a consequence, by the bye, of the millions of deaths on the Western Front—“were lifted, and the birth rate began to fall.” What had been an average of nearly four children per woman in the late 1960s became, by the mid-nineteen-nineties, less than two. And so Ireland, in those years, “was suddenly free of the enormous social cost of supporting and educating and caring for a large dependent population”—which, as it happens, coincides with the years when the Irish economy exploded. Bloom and Canning argue that this is not a coincidence.

It might then be thought, were you to take a somewhat dark view, that France in 1919 was thusly handed a kind of blessing: the French children that were born in 1919 would be analogous to Irish children in 1969, a tiny cohort easily supported by the rest of the nation. But actually, of course, the situation is rather the opposite: when French children of 1919 came of age, that meant there were many fewer of them to support the rest of the nation—and, as we know, Frenchmen born in 1919 were doubly the victims of fate: the year they turned twenty was the year Hitler invaded Poland. Hence, the losses first realized during the Great War were doubled down—not only was the 1919 generation many times less than there would have been had there been no general European war in the first decades of the twentieth-century, but now there would be many fewer of their grandchildren, too. And so it went: if you are ever at a loss for something to do, there is always the exercise of thinking about all of those millions of missing French (and Italian and English and Russian …) people down through the decades, and the consequences of their loss.

That’s an exercise that, for the most part, people do not do: although nearly everyone in virtually every nation on earth memorializes their war dead on some holiday or another, it’s very difficult to think of the ramifying, compounding costs of those dead. In that sense, the dead of war are a kind of “hidden” cost, for although they are remembered on each nation’s version of Memorial Day or Armistice Day or Veterans Day, they are remembered sentimentally, emotionally. But while that is, to be sure, an important ritual to be performed—because rituals are performed for the living, not the dead—it seems to me also important to remember just what it is that wars really mean: they are a kind of tax on the living and on the future, a tax that represents choices that can never be made and roads that may never be traveled. The dead are debt that can never be repaid and whose effects become greater, rather than less, with time—a compound interest of horror that goes on working like one of Blake’s “dark satanic mills” through all time.

Hidden costs, of course, are all around us, all of the time; very few of us have the luxury of wondering about how far a bullet fired during, say, the summer of 1916 or the winter of 1863 can really travel. For all of the bullets that ever found their mark, fired in all of the wars that were ever fought, are, and always will be, still in flight, onwards through the generations. Which, come to think of it, may have been what James Joyce meant at the end of what has been called “the finest short story in the English language”—a story entitled, simply, “The Dead.” It’s a story that, like the bullets of the Great War, still travels forward through history; it ends as the story’s hero, Gabriel Conroy, stands at the window during a winter’s night, having just heard from his wife—for the first time ever—the story of her youthful romance with a local boy, Michael Fury, long before she ever met Gabriel. At the window, he considers how Fury’s early death of tuberculosis affected his wife’s life, and thusly his own: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and, faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” As Joyce saw, all the snowflakes are still falling, all the bullets are still flying, and we will never, ever, really know what par is.