Water to the Sea

Yet lives our pilot still. Is’t meet that he
Should leave the helm and like a fearful lad
With tearful eyes add water to the sea
And give more strength to that which hath too much,
Whiles, in his moan, the ship splits on the rock,
Which industry and courage might have saved?
Henry VI, Part III. Act V, scene iv.

Those who make many species are the ‘splitters,’ and those who make few are the ‘lumpers,’” remarked Charles Darwin in an 1857 letter to botanist J.D. Hooker; the title of University of Chicago professor Kenneth Warren’s most recent book, What Was African-American Literature?, announces him as a “lumper.” The chief argument of Warren’s book is that the claim that something called “African-American literature” is “different from the rest of American lit[ature]”—a claim that many of Warren’s colleagues, perhaps no one more so than Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr., have based their careers upon—is, in reality, a claim that, historically, many writers with large amounts of melanin would have rejected. Take the fact, Warren says, that “literary societies … among free blacks in the antebellum north were not workshops for the production of a distinct black literature but salons for producing works of literary distinction”: these were not people looking to split off—or secede—from the state of literature. Warren’s work is, thereby, aimed against those who, like so many Lears, have divided and subdivided literature by attaching so many different adjectives to literature’s noun—an attack Warren says he makes because “a literature insisting that the problem of the 21st century remains the problem of the color line paradoxically obscures the economic and political problems facing many black Americans, unless those problems can be attributed to racial discrimination.” What Warren sees, I think, is that far too much attention is being paid to the adjective in “African-American literature”—though what he may not see is that the real issue concerns the noun.

The noun being, of course, the word “literature”: Warren’s account worries the “African-American” part of “African-American literature” instead of the “literature” part. Specifically, in Warren’s view what links the adjective to the noun—or “what made African American literature a literature”—was the regime of “constitutionally-sanctioned state-enforced segregation” known as Jim Crow, which made “black literary achievement … count, almost automatically, as an effort on behalf of the ‘race’ as a whole.” Without that institutional circumstance there are writers who are black—but no “black writers.” To Warren, it’s the distinct social structure of Jim Crow, hardening in the 1890s, that creates “black literature,” instead of merely examples of writing produced by people whose skin is darker-colored than that of other writers.

Warren’s argument thereby takes the familiar form of the typical “social construction” argument, as outlined by Ian Hacking in his book, The Social Construction of What? Such arguments begin, Hacking says, when “X is taken for granted,” and “appears to be inevitable”; in the present moment, African-American literature can certainly be said—for some people—to appear to be inevitable: Harvard’s Gates, for instance, has long claimed that “calls for the creation of a [specifically “black”] tradition occurred long before the Jim Crow era.” But it’s just at such moments, Hacking says, that someone will observe that in fact the said X is “the contingent product of the social world.” Which is just what Warren does.

Warren points out that although those who argue for an ahistorical vision of an African-American literature would claim that all black writers were attempting to produce a specifically black literature, Warren notes that the historical evidence points, merely, to an attempt to produce literature: i.e., a member of the noun class without a modifying adjective. At least, until the advent of the Jim Crow system at the end of the nineteenth century: it’s only after that time, Warren says, that “literary work by black writers came to be discussed in terms of how well it served (or failed to serve) as an instrument in the fight against Jim Crow.” In the familiar terms of the hallowed social constructionism argument, Warren is claiming that the adjective is added to the noun later, as a result of specific social forces.

Warren’s is an argument, of course, with a number of detractors, and not simply Gates. In The Postethnic Literary: Reading Paratexts and Transpositions Around 2000, Florian Sedlmeier charged Warren with reducing “African American identity to a legal policy category,” and furthermore that Warren’s account “relegates the functions of authorship and literature to the economic subsystem.” It’s a familiar version of the“reductionist” charge often cited by “postmoderns” against Marxists—an accusation tiresome at best in these days.

More creatively, in a symposium of responses to Warren in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Erica Edwards attempted to one-up Warren by saying that Warren fails to recognize that perhaps the true “invention” of African-American literature was not during the Jim Crow era of legalized segregation, but instead “with the post-Jim Crow creation of black literature classrooms.” Whereas Gates, in short, wishes to locate the origin of African-American literature in Africa prior to (or concurrently with) slavery itself, and Warren instead locates it in the 1890s during the invention of Jim Crow, Edwards wants to locate it in the 1970s, when African-American professors began to construct their own classes and syllabi. Edwards’ argument, at the least, has a certain empirical force: the term “African-American” itself is a product of the civil rights movement and afterwards; that is, the era of the end of Jim Crow, not its beginnings.

Edwards’ argument thereby leads nearly seamlessly into Aldon Lynn Nielsen’s objections, published as part of the same symposium. Nielsen begins by observing that Warren’s claims are not particularly new: Thomas Jefferson, he notes, “held that while Phillis Wheatley [the eighteenth-century black poet] wrote poems, she did not write literature,” while George Schuyler, the black novelist, wrote for The Nation in 1926 that “there was not and never had been an African American literature”—for the perhaps-surprising reason that there was no such thing as an African-American. Schuyler instead felt that the “Negro”—his term—“was no more than a ‘lampblacked Anglo-Saxon.’” In that sense, Schuyler’s argument was even more committed to the notion of “social construction” than Warren is: whereas Warren questions the timelessness of the category of a particular sort of literature, Schuyler questioned the existence of a particular category of person. Warren, that is, merely questions why “African-American literature” should be distinguished—or split from—“American literature”; Schuyler—an even more incorrigible lumper than Warren—questioned why “African-Americans” ought to be distinguished from “Americans.”

Yet, if even the term “African-American,” considered as a noun itself rather than as the adjective it is in the phrase “African-American literature,” can be destabilized, then surely that ought to raise the question, for these sharp-minded intellectuals, of the status of the noun “literature.” For it is precisely the catechism of many today that it is the “liberating” features of literature—that is, exactly, literature’s supposed capacity to produce the sort of argument delineated and catalogued by Hacking, the sort of argument in which it is argued that “X need not have existed”—that will produce, and has produced, whatever “social progress” we currently observe about the world.

That is the idea that “social progress” is the product of an increasing awareness of Nietzsche’s description of language as a “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms”—or, to use the late American philosopher Richard Rorty’s terminology, to recognize that “social progress” is a matter of redescription by what he called, following literary critic Harold Bloom, “strong poets.” Some version of such a theory is held by what Rorty, following University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom, called “‘the Nietzscheanized left’”: one that takes seriously the late Belgian literature professor Paul de Man’s odd suggestion that “‘one can approach … the problems of politics only on the basis of critical-linguistic analysis,’” or the late French historian Michel Foucault’s insistence that he would not propose a positive program, because “‘to imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system.’” But such sentiments have hardly been limited to European scholars.

In America, for instance, former Duke University professor of literature Jane Tompkins echoed Foucault’s position in her essay “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History.” There, Tompkins approvingly cited novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s belief, as expressed in Uncle Tom, that the “political and economic measures that constitute effective action for us, she regards as superficial, mere extensions of the worldly policies that produced the slave system in the first place.’” In the view of people like Tompkins, apparently, “political measures” will somehow sprout out of the ground of their own accord—or at least, by means of the transformative redescriptive powers of “literature.”

Yet if literature is simply a matter of redescription then it must be possible to redescribe “literature” itself: which in this paragraph will be in terms of a growing scientific “literature” (!) that, since the 1930s, has examined the differences between animals and human beings in terms of what are known as “probability guessing experiment[s].” In the classic example of this research—as cited in a 2000 paper called “The Left Hemisphere’s Role in Hypothesis Formation”—if a light is flashed with a ratio of 70% red light to 30% green, animals will tend always to guess red, while human beings will attempt to anticipate which light will be flashed next: in other words, animals will “tend to maximize or always choose the option that has occurred most frequently in the past”—whereas human beings will “tend to match the frequency of previous occurrences in their guesses.” Animals will simply always guess the same answer, while human beings will attempt to divine the pattern: that is, they will make their guesses based on the assumption that the previous series of flashes were meaningful. If the previous three flashes were “red, red, green,” a human being will tend to guess that the next flash will be red, whereas an animal will simply always guess red.

That in turn implies that, since in this specific example there is in fact no pattern and merely a probabilistic ratio of green to red, animals will always outperform human beings in this sort of test: as the authors of the paper write, “choosing the most frequent option all of the time, yields more correct guesses than matching as long as p ≠ 0.5.” Or, as they also note, “if the red light occurs with a frequency of 70% and a green light occurs with a frequency of 30%, overall accuracy will be highest if the subject predicts red all the time.” It’s true, in other words, that attempting to match a pattern will result in being correct 100% of the time—if the pattern is successfully matched. That result has, arguably, consequences for the liberationist claims of social constructionist arguments in general and literature in specific.

I trust that, without much in the way of detail—which I think could be elucidated at tiresome length—it can be stipulated that, more or less, the entire liberatory project of “literature” described above, as held by such luminaries as Foucault or Tompkins, can be said to be an attempt at elaborating rules for “pattern recognition.” Hence, it’s possible to understand how training in literature might be helpful towards fighting discrimination, which after all is obviously about constructing patterns: racists are not racist towards merely 65% of all black people, or are only racist 37% of the time. Racism—and other forms of discrimination—are not probabilistic, they are deterministic: they are rules used by discriminators that are directed at everyone within the class. (It’s true that the phenomenon of “passing” raises questions about classes, but the whole point of “passing” is that individual discriminators are unaware of the class’ “true” boundaries.) So it’s easy to see how pattern-recognition might be a useful skill with which to combat racial or other forms of discrimination.

Matching a pattern, however, suffers from one difficulty: it requires the existence of a pattern to be matched. Yet, in the example discussed in “The Left Hemisphere’s Role in Hypothesis Formation”—as in everything influenced by probability—there is no pattern: there is merely a larger chance of the light being red rather than green in each instance. Attempting then to match a pattern in a situation ruled instead by probability is not only unhelpful, but positively harmful: because there is no pattern, “guessing” simply cannot perform as well as simply maintaining the same choice every time. (Which in this case would at least result in being correct 70% of the time.) In probabilistic situations, in other words, where there is merely a certain probability of a given result rather than a certain pattern, both empirical evidence and mathematics itself demonstrates that the animal procedure of always guessing the same will be more successful than the human attempt at pattern recognition.

Hence, it follows that although training in recognizing patterns—the basis of schooling in literature, it might be said—might be valuable in combatting racism, such training will not be helpful in facing other sorts of problems: as the scientific literature demonstrates, pattern recognition as a strategy only works if there is a pattern. That in turn means that literary training can only be useful in a deterministic, and not probabilistic, world—and therefore, then, the project of “literature,” so-called, can only be “liberatory” in the sense meant by its partisans if the obstacles from which human beings need liberation are pattern-based. And that’s a conclusion, it seems to me, that is questionable at best.

Take, for example, the matter of American health care. Unlike all other industrialized nations, the United States does not have a single, government-run healthcare system, despite the fact that—as Malcolm Gladwell has noted that the American labor movement knew as early as the 1940s— “the safest and most efficient way to provide insurance against ill health or old age [is] to spread the costs and risks of benefits over the biggest and most diverse group possible.”  In other words, insurance works best by lumping, not splitting. The reason why may perhaps be the same as the reason that, as the authors of “The Left Hemisphere’s Role in Hypothesis Formation” point out, it can be said that “humans choose a less optimal strategy than rats” when it comes to probabilistic situations. Contrary to the theories of those in the humanities, in other words, the reality  is that human beings in general—and Americans when it comes to health care—appear to have a basic unfamiliarity with the facts of probability.

One sign of that ignorance is, after all, the growth of casino gambling in the United States even as health care remains a hodgepodge of differing systems—despite the fact that both insurance and casinos run on precisely the same principle. As statistician and trader Nassim Taleb has pointed out, casinos “never (if they do things right) lose money”—so long as they are not run by Donald Trump—because they “simply do not let one gambler make a massive bet” and instead prefer “to have plenty of gamblers make a series of bets of limited size.” In other words, it is not possible for some high roller to bet, say, a Las Vegas casino the entire worth of the casino on a single hand of blackjack, or any other game; casinos just simply limit the stakes to something small enough that the continued existence of the business is not at risk on any one particular event, and then make sure that there are enough bets being made to allow the laws of probability in every game (which are tilted toward the casino) to ensure the continued health of the business. Insurance, as Gladwell observed above, works precisely the same way: the more people paying premiums—and the more widely dispersed they are—the less likely it is that any one catastrophic event can wipe out the insurance fund. Both insurance and casinos are lumpers, not splitters: that, after all, is precisely why all other industrialized nations have put their health care systems on a national basis rather than maintaining the various subsystems that Americans—apparently inveterate splitters—still have.

Health care, of course, is but one of the many issues of American life that, although influenced by, ultimately have little to do with, racial or other kinds of discrimination: what matters about health care, in other words, is that too few Americans are getting it, not merely that too few African-Americans are. The same is true, for instance, about incarceration: although such works as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow have argued that the fantastically-high rate of incarceration in the United States constitutes a new “racial caste system,” University of Pennsylvania professor of political science Marie Gottschalk has pointed out that “[e]ven if you released every African American from US prisons and jails today, we’d still have a mass incarceration crisis in this country.” The problem with American prisons, in other words, is that there are too many Americans in them, not (just) too many African-Americans—or any other sort of American.

Viewing politics through a literary lens, in sum—as a matter of flashes of insight and redescription, instantiated by Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit figure and so on—ultimately has costs: costs that have been witnessed again and again in recent American history, from the War on Drugs to the War on Terror. As Warren recognizes, viewing such issues as health care or prisons through a literary, or more specifically racial, lens is ultimately an attempt to fit a square peg through a round hole—or, perhaps even more appositively, to bring a knife to a gun fight. Warren, in short, may as well have cited UCLA philosophy professor Abraham Kaplan’s observation, sometimes called Kaplan’s Law of the Instrument: “Give a boy a hammer and everything he meets has to be pounded.” (Or, as Kaplan put the point more delicately, it ought not to be surprising “to discover that a scientist formulates problems in a way which requires for their solution just those techniques in which he himself is especially skilled.”) Much of the American “left,” in other words, views all problems as matters of redescription and so on—a belief not far from common American exhortations to “think positively” and the like. Certainly, America is far from the post-racial utopia some would like it to be. But curing the disease is not—contrary to the beliefs of many Americans today—the same as diagnosing it.

Like it—or lump it.

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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.

Left Behind

Banks and credit companies are, strictly speaking, the direct source of their illusory “income.” But considered more abstractly, it is their bosses who are lending them money. Most households are net debtors, while only the very richest are net creditors. In an overall sense, in other words, the working classes are forever borrowing from their employers. Lending replaces decent wages, masking income disparities even while aggravating them through staggering interest rates.
Kim Phillips-Fein “Chapters of Eleven”
    The Baffler No. 11, 1998


Note: Since I began this blog by writing about golf, I originally wrote a short paragraph tying what follows to the FIFA scandal, on the perhaps-tenuous connection that the Clinton Foundation had accepted money from FIFA and Bill had been the chairman of the U.S. bid for the 2022 World Cup. But I think the piece works better without it.

“Why is it that women still get paid less than men for doing the same work?” presidential candidate Hillary Clinton asked recently in, of all places, Michigan. But the more natural question in the Wolverine State might seem to be the question a lot of economists are asking these days: “Why is everyone getting paid less?” Economists like Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, who says that “U.S. income inequality has been steadily increasing since the 1970s, and now has reached levels not seen since 1928.” Or Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, who says that even the wages of “highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.” But while it’s not difficult to imagine that Clinton  asks the question she asks in a cynical fashion—in other words, to think that she is a kind of Manchurian candidate for Wall Street—it’s at least possible to think she asks it innocently. All Americans, says scholar Walter Benn Michaels, have been the victims of a “trick” over the last generation: the trick of responding to “economic inequality by insisting on the importance of … identity.” But how was the trick done?

The dominant pedagogy of the American university suggests one way: if it’s true that, as the professors say, reality is a function of the conceptual tools available, then maybe Hillary Clinton cannot see reality because she doesn’t have the necessary tools. As well she might not: in Clinton’s case, one might as well ask why a goldfish can’t see water. Raised in a wealthy Chicago suburb, on to Ivy League colleges; then the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas and the White House; followed by Westchester County, then back to D.C. It’s true of course that Clinton did write a college thesis about Saul Alinsky’s community organizing tactics, so she cannot possibly be unfamiliar with the question of economic inequality. But it’s also easy to see how economics is easily obscured in such places.

What’s perhaps stranger though is that economics, as a subject, should have become more obscure, not less, since Clinton left New Haven—and even if Clinton should have been wholly ignorant of the subject, that doesn’t explain how she could then become a national candidate for president of the party. Yet at about the same time that Clinton was at Yale, another young woman with bright academic credentials was living practically just down the road in Hartford, Connecticut—and the work she did has helped to ensure that, as Michaels says, “for the last 30 years, while the gap between the rich and the poor has grown larger, we’ve been urged to respect people’s identities.” That doesn’t mean of course that the story I am going to tell explains everything about why Hillary asked the question she asked in Michigan, instead of the one she should have asked, but it is, I think, illustrative—by telling this one story in depth, it becomes possible to understand how what Michaels calls the “trick” was pulled.

“In 1969,” Jane Tompkins tells us in “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” she “lived in the basement of a house on Forest Street in Hartford, Connecticut, which had belonged to Isabella Beecher Hooker—Harriet Beecher Stowe’s half-sister.” Living where she did sent Tompkins off on an intellectual journey that eventually led to the essay “Sentimental Power”—an essay that took up the question of why, as Randall Fuller observed not long ago in the magazine Humanities, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was seen by most literary professionals as a cultural embarrassment.” Her conclusion was that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was squelched by a “male-dominated scholarly tradition that controls both the canon of American literature … and the critical perspective that interprets the canon for society.” To Tompkins, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “repressed” on the basis of “identity”: Stowe’s work was called “trash”—as the Times of London did at the time it was published—because it was written by a woman.

To make her argument, however, required Tompkins to make several moves that go some way towards explaining why Hillary Clinton asks the question she asks, rather than the one she should ask. Most significant is Tompkins’ argument against the view she ascribes to her opponents: that “sentimental novels written by women in the nineteenth century”—like Uncle Tom’s Cabin—“were responsible for a series of cultural evils whose regrets still plague us,” among them the “rationalization of an unjust economic order.” Already, Tompkins is telling her readers that she is going to argue against those critics who used Uncle Tom’s Cabin to discuss the economy; already, we are not far from Hillary Clinton’s question.

Next, Tompkins takes her critical predecessors to task for ignoring the novel’s “enormous popular success”: it was, as Tompkins points out, the first novel to sell “over a million copies.” So part of her argument is not only the bigotry, but also the snobbishness of her opponents—an argument familiar enough to anyone who listens to right-wing talk radio. The distance from Tompkins’ argument to those who “argue” that quality is guaranteed by popularity, and vice versa—the old “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich” line—is about as far from the last letter in this sentence to its period. So Tompkins deprecates the idea that value can be independent of “success”—the idea that there can be slippage between an economic system and reality.

Yet perhaps the largest step Tompkins takes on the road to Hillary’s question simply concerns how she ascribes criticisms of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to sexism, or Stowe’s status as a woman—despite the fact that perhaps the best-known critical text on the novel, James Baldwin’s 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” was not only written by a gay black man, but Baldwin’s based his criticism of Stowe’s novel on rules originally applied to a white male author: James Fenimore Cooper, the object of Mark Twain’s scathing 1895 essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” That essay, with which Twain sought to bury Cooper, furnished the critical precepts Baldwin uses to attempt to bury Stowe.

Stowe’s work, Baldwin says, is “a very bad novel” for two reasons: first, it is full of “excessive and spurious emotion.” Secondly, the novel “is activated by what might be called a theological terror,” so that “the spirit that breathes in this book … is not different from that spirit of medieval times which sought to exorcise evil by burning witches.” Both of these reasons derive from principles propounded by Twain in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

“Eschew surplusage” is number fourteen of Twain’s rules, so when Baldwin says Stowe’s writing is “excessive,” he is implicitly accusing Stowe of breaking this rule. Even Tompkins admits that Uncle Tom’s Cabin breaks this rule when she says that Stowe’s novel possesses “a needless proliferation of incident.” Then, number nine on Twain’s list is “that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone”—the rule that Baldwin invokes when he criticizes Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its “theological terror.” When burning witches, after all, it is necessary to have a belief in miracles—i.e., the supernatural—and certainly Stowe, who not only famously claimed that “God wrote” her novel but also suffused her novel with supernatural events, believed in the supernatural. So, if Baldwin—who remember was both black and homosexual—is condemning Stowe on the basis of rules originally used against a white male writer, it’s difficult to see how Stowe is being unfairly singled out on the basis of her sex. But that is what Tompkins says.

I take such time on these points because ultimately Twain’s rules go back much further than Twain himself—and it’s ultimately these roots that are both Tompkin’s object and, I suspect, the reason why Hillary asks the question she asks instead of the one she should. Twain’s ninth rule, concerning miracles, is more or less a restatement of what philosophers call naturalism: the belief “that reality has no place for ‘supernatural’ or other ‘spooky’ kinds of entity” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. And the roots of that idea trace back to the original version of Twain’s fourteenth rule (“Eschew surplusage.”): Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, gave one example of it when wrote that if “a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do by several.” (In a marvelous economy, in other words, Twain reduced Aquinas’ rule—sometimes known as “Occam’s Razor,” to two words.) So it’s possible to say that Baldwin’s criticisms of Stowe are actually the same criticism: that “excessive” writing leads to, or perhaps more worrisomely just is, a belief in the supernatural.

It’s this point that Tompkins ultimately wants to address—she calls Uncle Tom’s Cabin “the Summa Theologica of nineteenth-century America’s religion of domesticity,” after all. Also, Tompkins doesn’t try to defend Stowe against Baldwin on the same grounds that two other critics tried to defend Cooper against Twain. In an essay named “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defenses,” Lance Schachterle and Kent Ljungquist argue that Twain doesn’t do justice to Cooper because he doesn’t take into account the different literary climate of Cooper’s time. While “Twain valued economy of style,” they write, “such concision simply was not a characteristic of many early nineteenth-century novelists’ work.” They’re willing to allow, in other words, the merits of Twain’s rules—they’re just arguing that it isn’t fair to apply those rules to writers who could not have been aware of them. Tompkins however takes a different tack: she says that in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “it is the spirit alone that is finally real.” According to Tompkins, the novel is not just unaware of naturalism: Uncle Tom’s Cabin actively rejects naturalism.

To Tompkins, Stowe’s anti-naturalism is somehow a virtue. Stowe’s rejection of naturalism leads her to recommend, Tompkins says, “not specific alterations in the current political and economic arrangements but rather a change of heart … as the necessary precondition for sweeping social change.” To Stowe, attempts to “alter the anti-abolitionist majority in the Senate,” for instance, are absurdities: “Reality, in Stowe’s view, cannot be changed by manipulating the physical environment.” Apparently, this is a point in Stowe’s favor.

Without naturalism and its corollaries—basic intellectual tools—it’s difficult to think a number of things: that all people are people, first of all. That is, members of a species that has had, more or less, the same cognitive abilities for at least the last 100,000 years or so, which implies that most people’s cognitive abilities aren’t much different than anyone else’s—nor are they much different from anyone in history’s. Which, one might say, is prerequisite to running a democratic state—as opposed to, say, a monarchy or aristocracy, in which one person is better than another by blood right. But if naturalism is dead, then the growth of “identity” politics is perhaps easy to understand: without the conceptual category of “human being” available, other categories have to be substituted.

Without grouping votes on some basis, how could they be gathered into large enough clumps to make a difference? Hillary Clinton must ask for votes on the basis of some commonality between voters large enough to ensure her election. Assuming that she does, in fact, wish to be elected, it’s enlightening to observe that Clinton is appealing for votes on the basis of the next largest category after “human being”—“woman,” the category of 51 percent of the population according to most figures. That alone might explain why Hillary Clinton should ask “Why are women paid less” rather than “Why is everyone paid less?”

Yet the effects of Tompkins’ argument, as I suspect will be drearily apparent to the reader by now, are readily observable in many more places than Hillary Clinton’s campaign in today’s world. Think of it this way: what else are contemporary phenomena like unpaid internships, “doing it for the exposure,” or just trying to live on a minimum wage or public assistance, but attempts to live without material substance—that is, attempts to live as a “spirit?” Or for that matter, what is credit card debt, which Kim Phillips-Fein was explaining in The Baffler so long ago as 1998 as what happened when “people began to borrow to make up for stagnant wages.” These are all matters in which what matters isn’t matter—i.e., the material—but the “spirit.”

In the same way, what else was the “long-time” Occupy Wall Street camper named “Ketchup” doing when she said, to Josh Harkinson at Mother Jones, that the “‘whole big desire for demands is something people want to use to co-opt us’” but, as Tompkins would put it, refusing to delineate “specific alterations in the current political and economic arrangements?” That’s why Occupy, as Thomas Frank memorably wrote in his essay, “To the Precinct Station,” “seems to have had no intention of doing anything except building ‘communities’ in public spaces and inspiring mankind with its noble refusal to have leaders.” The values described by Tompkins’ essay are, specifically, anti-naturalist: Occupy Wall Street, and its many, many sympathizers, was an anti-naturalist—a religious—movement.

It may, to be sure, be little wonder that feminists like Tompkins should look to intellectual traditions explicitly opposed to the intellectual project of naturalism—most texts written by women have been written by religious women. So have most texts written by most people everywhere—to study a “minority” group virtually requires studying texts written by people who believed in a supernatural being. It’s wholly understandable, then, that anti-naturalism should have become the default mode of people who claim to be on the “left.” But while it’s understandable, it’s no way to, say, raise wages. Whatever Jane Tompkins says about her male literary opponents, Harriet Beecher Stowe didn’t free anybody. Abraham Lincoln—by all accounts an atheist—did.

Which is Hillary Clinton’s model?