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.

Advertisements

Green Jackets ’n’ Blackfaces

But if you close your eyes,
Does it almost feel like
Nothing’s changed all?
—“Pompeii”
    Bastille (2013)

 

 

Some bore will undoubtedly claim, this April week, that the Masters is unique among golf’s major tournaments because it is the only one held at the same course every year—a claim not only about as fresh as a pimento cheese sandwich but refuted by the architectural website Golf Club Atlas. “Augusta National,” the entry for the course goes on their website, “has gone through more changes since its inception than any of the world’s twenty or so greatest courses.” But the club’s jive by no means stops there; just as the club—and the journalists who cover the tournament—likes to pretend its course is timeless, so too does the club—what with the sepia photos of Bobby Jones, the talk of mint juleps, the bright azaleas, the “limited commercial interruptions” and the old-timey piano music of the tournament broadcast—like to pretend it is an island of “the South” in a Yankee sea. The performance is worthy of one of the club’s former members: Freeman Gosden, who became a member of Augusta National as a result of the riches and fame thrown off by the radio show he created in 1928 Chicago—Amos ’n’ Andy.

Gosden played Amos; his partner, Charles Correll, played Andy. The two actors had met in Durham, North Carolina in 1920, and began performing together in Chicago soon afterwards. According to Wikipedia, both were “familiar with minstrel traditions”: the uniquely American art form  in which white performers would sing and tell jokes and stories while pretending to be black, usually while wearing “blackpaint”—that is, covering their faces with black makeup. The show they created, about two black cab drivers, translated those minstrel traditions to radioand became the most successful minstrel show in American history. Amos ’n’ Andy lasted 32 years on the radio—the last performance came in 1960—and while it only lasted a few years on television in the early 1950s, the last rerun played on American air as late as 1966.

The successful show made Gosden and Correll made so rich, in fact, that by the early 1950s Gosden had joined the Augusta National Golf Club, and sometime thereafter the actor had become so accepted that he joined the group known as “the Gang.” This was a troop of seven golfers that formed around General Dwight Eisenhower—who had led the amphibious Allied invasion of France on the beaches of Normandy in 1944—after the former war hero was invited to join the club in 1948. Gosden had, in other words, arrived: there was, it seems, something inherently entertaining about a white men pretending to be something he wasn’t.

Gosden was however arguably not the only minstrel performer associated with Augusta National: the golf architecture website Golf Club Atlas claims that the course itself performs a kind of minstrelry. Originally, Augusta’s golf course was designed by famed golf architect Alister MacKenzie, who also designed such courses as Cypress Point in California and Crystal Downs in Michigan, in consultation with Bobby Jones, the great player who won 13 major championships. As a headline from The Augusta Chronicle, the town’s local newspaper, once proclaimed, “MacKenzie Made Jones’ Dream Of Strategic Course Into Reality.” But in the years since, the course has been far from timeless: as Golf Club Atlas points out, in fact it has gone through “a slew of changes from at least 15 different ‘architects.’” As it now stands, the course is merely pretending to be a MacKenzie.

Nearly every year since the Masters began in 1934, the course has undergone some tweak or another: whereas, once “Augusta National could have been considered amongst the two or three most innovative designs ever,” it has now been so altered—according to the Golf Club Atlas article—that to “call it a MacKenzie course is false advertising as his features are essentially long gone.” To say that course Tiger Woods won on is the same as the one that Jack Nicklaus or Ben Hogan won on, thus, is to make a mockery of history.

The primary reason the Atlas can make that claim stick is because the golf club has flouted Jones’ and MacKenzie’s original intent, which was to build a course like one they both revered: the Old Course at St. Andrews. Jones loved the Old Course so much that, famously, he was later made an honorary citizen of the town, while for his part MacKenzie wrote a book—not published until decades after his death in 1995—called The Spirit of St. Andrews. And as anyone familiar with golf architecture knows, the Old Course is distinguished by the “ground game”: where the golfer does better to keep his ball rolling along the ground, following its contours, rather than flying it through the air.

As Golf Club Atlas observes, “Jones and MacKenzie both shared a passion for the Old Course at St. Andrews, and its influence is readily apparent in the initial design” because “the ground game was meant to be the key at Augusta National.” That intent, however, has been lost; in a mordant twist of history, the reason for that loss is arguably due to the success of the Masters tournament itself.

“Ironically, hosting the Masters has ruined one of MacKenzie’s most significant designs,” says the Atlas, because “much of the money that the club receives from the Invitational is plowed back into making changes to the course in a misguided effort to protect par.” Largely, “protecting par” has been interpreted by the leadership of the golf club to mean “to minimize the opportunity for the ground game.” As Rex Hoggard—repeating a line heard about the course for decades—wrote in an article for the Golf Channel’s website in 2011, it’s “important to hit the ball high at Augusta National”—a notion that would be nonsensical if Jones and MacKenzie’s purpose had been kept in view.

In short, the Atlas understands—perhaps shockingly—that “an invitation to play Augusta National remains golf’s most sought-after experience,” it thus also believes that “fans of Alister MacKenzie would be better served to look elsewhere for a game.” Though the golf club, and the television coverage, might work to present the course as a static beauty, in fact that effect is achieved through endless surgeries that have effectively made the course other than it was. The Augusta National golf course, thus, is a kind of minstrel.

Similarly, the presentation of the golf club as a specifically Southern institution—perhaps above all, by ensuring that the chairman of the club, the only member who regularly speaks to the media, possesses a Georgia drawl (as recent chairmen Hootie Johnson and Billy Payne have)—is belied by the club’s history. Consider, in that light, a story from the beginnings of the club itself, a story ably told in Curt Sampson’s The Masters: Golf, Money, and Power in Augusta, Georgia.

In January of 1933—the depths of the Great Depression—a New York investment banker named Clifford Roberts approached the Southern Railroad System with a proposal: “comfortable conveyance for one hundred New Yorkers to and from Augusta, Georgia”—at a discount. “Business was so bad,” Roberts himself would later write in his history of the golf club, “that the railroad promised not only a special low rate, but all new Pullman equipment with two club cars for card players and two dining cars.” In this way, Sampson writes, “the grand opening of the Augusta National Golf Club began in a railroad station in New York City.”

Most golf fans, if they are aware of the club that holds the tournament at all, only know that it was founded by Bobby Jones when he retired from competitive golf following the annus mirabilis of 1930, when Jones won the Grand Slam of all four major tournaments in the same year. But, as Sampson’s story demonstrates, it was Clifford Roberts that made Jones’ vision a reality by raising the money to build it—and that money came largely from New York, not the South.

Sixty of the 100 men Roberts recruited to join the club before it opened were from New York City: the Augusta National Golf Club would be, as Sampson puts it, “a private enclave for rich Yankees in the heart of the South, just sixty-eight years after the Civil War.” Sampson calls the idea “bizarre”—but in fact, it only is if one has a particularly narrow idea of “the South.” Augusta National’s status as a club designed to allow Yankees to masquerade as Southerners only seems ridiculous if it’s assumed that the very idea of “the South” itself is not a kind of minstrelry—as, in fact, it arguably is.

Links between New York finance and the South, that is, long predated the first golf shot at the new course. It’s often forgotten, for instance, that—as historians Charles and John Lockwood pointed out in the New York Times in 2011—after South Carolina declared it would secede in December of 1860, “the next call for secession would not come from a Southern state, but from a Northern city—New York.”

On 7 January of the bleak “Secession Winter” of ’61, the two historians note, New York’s mayor, Fernando Wood, spoke to the city council to urge that it follow the Southern state and secede. The mayor was merely articulating the “pro-Southern and pro-independence sentiment” of the city’s financiers and traders—a class buoyed up by the fact that “the city’s merchants took 40 cents of every dollar that Europeans paid for Southern cotton.” The Southern staple (and the slaves whose labor grew that crop), had in other words “helped build the new marble-fronted mercantile buildings in lower Manhattan, fill Broadway hotels and stores with customers, and build block after block of fashionable brownstones north of 14th Street.” Secession of the South put all those millions of dollars at risk: to protect its investments, thus Mayor Wood was proposing, New York might have to follow the South out of the Union.

Such a move would have had disastrous consequences. The city was the site of the vast Brooklyn Navy Yard, which in the months after the fall of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor would assemble the fleet that not only would blockade the Southern coast, but would, in November of ’61, land an army at Hilton Head, South Carolina, the heart of secessionism—a fleet only exceeded by the armada General Eisenhower would gather against Normandy in the late winter and spring of 1944. But even more importantly, in that time the taxes collected by the New York Customs House virtually paid the entire federal government’s budget each year.

“In 1860,” as the Lockwoods write, “tariffs on imported goods collected at ports … provided $56 million of the $64.6 million of federal revenue, and more than two-thirds of imports by value passed through New York.” If New York seceded, in other words, the administration of president-elect Abraham Lincoln would be bankrupt before it took office: the city, as it were, held the nation’s government by a golden leash.

But New York City did not follow the South out of the Union: when the cannons fired at Fort Sumter that April, New York joined the rest of the nation in confirming the sentiments of Daniel Webster’s Second Reply to Hayne: “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable!” Over a hundred thousand would turn out to the “Great Sumter Rally” at (the appropriately-named) Union Square in the city on 20 April, after the fall of the federal fort in Charleston Harbor. It was, perhaps, the largest expression of New York’s patriotism before the fall of the towers overlooking the city at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Mayor Wood himself spoke at that rally to affirm his support for “the Union, the government, the laws and the flag”—reversing his course from mere months before, a turn that perhaps has served to obscure how close the city’s ties were to a region, and economic system, that had turned away from all of those institutions. But just because it was politically expedient to deny them did not conjure them away. Indeed, the very existence of the Augusta National Golf Club is testament to just how enduring those ties between New York and the Deep South may be.

Still, of course, none of these acts of minstrelry—the golf course’s masquerade as the work of a designer whose work barely survives, the golf club’s disguise as a Southern institution when in fact it has been largely the work of Yankee financiers, or even the South’s own pretense—could be said to matter, really, now. Except for one detail: those links, some might say, extend into the present: perhaps the biggest story in American political history over the past century is how the party that would win the Civil War, the party of Lincoln, has become the defender, instead of the antagonist, of that vision of the South portrayed every year by the Masters tournament. It’s an act of minstrelry that lies at the heart of American political life today.

In 1962, wrote Ian Haney-Lopez (John H. Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley) for Salon in 2013, “when asked which party ‘is more likely to see that Negroes get fair treatment in jobs and housing,’ 22.7 percent of the public said Democrats and 21.3 percent said Republicans, while over half could perceive no difference between the two.” The masks of the two parties were, on this issue, interchangeable.

Yet, by the summer of 1963, conservative journalist Robert Novak could report from the Republican National Committee’s meeting in Denver that a “good many, perhaps a majority of the party’s leadership, envision political gold to be mined in the racial crisis by becoming in fact, though not in name, the White Man’s Party.” It was a harvest that would first be reaped the following year: running against Lyndon Johnson, who had—against long odds—passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, would outright win five states of the Deep South: Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina. It was the first time a Republican nominee for president had won in those states, at least since the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow.

Still, those states—and electoral votes—were not enough to carry Goldwater to the White House. But they formed the prelude to the election that did make those votes count: 1968, won by Richard Nixon. According to one of Nixon’s political strategists that year, Kevin Phillips, that election demonstrated the truth of the thesis Phillips would lay out in his 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority: “The Negro problem, having become a national rather than a local one, is the principal cause of the breakup of the New Deal coalition”—the coalition that had delivered landslides for Franklin Roosevelt and, in 1964, for Johnson. Phillips predicted that a counter-coalition would emerge that would be “white and middle class,” would be “concentrated in the South, the West, and suburbia,” and would be driven by reaction to “the immense midcentury impact of Negro enfranchisement and integration.” That realignment would become called Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.”

The “Southern Strategy,” as Nixon’s opponent in 1972, George McGovern, would later remark, “says to the South:”

Let the poor stay poor, let your economy trail the nation, forget about decent homes and medical care for all your people, choose officials who will oppose every effort to benefit the many at the expense of the few—and in return, we will try to overlook the rights of the black man, appoint a few southerners to high office, and lift your spirits by attacking the “eastern establishment” whose bank accounts we are filling with your labor and your industry.

Haney-Lopez argues, in the book from which this excerpt is taken—entitled Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, published by Oxford University Press—that it is the wreckage from Nixon’s course that surrounds us today: economic attacks on the majority enabled by nearly transparent racial coding. He may or may not be right—but what might be of interest to future historians is the role, large or small, that the Augusta National Golf Club may have played in that drama.

Certainly, after all, the golf club played an outsize role in the Eisenhower administration: according to the Augusta Chronicle, Eisenhower made 45 trips to the golf club during his life: “five before he became president, 29 while president and 11 after his last term.” And just as certainly the club provided more than recreation for the general and president.

One Augusta member (Pete Jones) would, according to Sampson and other sources, “offer Ike $1 million for his 1952 campaign for president.” (“When Pete Jones died in a plane crash in 1962,” Sampson reports, “he had $60,000 in his wallet.”) Even before that, Clifford Roberts had arranged for one Augusta member, a publisher, to buy the general’s memoirs; the money made Eisenhower financially secure for the first time in his life.

It was members of the golf club in short who provided the former Supreme Commander of the West with both the advice and the financial muscle to reach for the Republican nomination for president in 1952. His friends while in Augusta, as Sampson notes, included such figures as Robert Woodruff of Coca-Cola, “Bud (washing machines) Maytag, Albert (General Motors) Bradley, Alfred S. (Singer Sewing Machines) Bourne” and other captains of industry. Another member of the golf club was Ralph Reed, president of American Express, who would later find a job for the general’s driver during the war, Kay Summersby.

All of which is, to be sure, a long way from connecting the club directly to Nixon and the “Southern Strategy.” There’s a great deal of testimony, in fact, that would appear to demonstrate the contrary. According to Golf Digest, for example, Nixon “once told Clifford Roberts”—the storied golf club’s sometimes-malevolent dictator—“that he wouldn’t mind being a member of Augusta National, and Roberts, who didn’t like him any better than Eisenhower did, said “I didn’t know you were that interested in golf.” “And that,” goes the story, “was the end of that.” Sampson’s work tends to confirm the point: a few of Ike’s cronies at the club, Sampson reports, “even urged Ike to dump Dick in 1956,” the year the general ran for re-election.

Still, the provable is not the same as the unimaginable. Take, for instance, the testimony of Charlie Sifford, the man Lee Trevino called the “Jackie Robinson” of golf—he broke the game’s color barrier in 1961, after the attorney general of California threatened to sue the PGA of America for its “whites only” clause. Sifford fought for years to be invited to play in the Masters tournament, only to be denied despite winning two tournaments on the PGA Tour. (The 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open.) In his autobiography, Just Let Me Play, Sifford quoted Clifford Roberts as saying, “As long as I live, there will be nothing at the Masters besides black caddies and white players.”

Sampson for one discounts this as implausible—for what it’s worth, he thinks it unlikely that Roberts would have actually said such a thing, not that Roberts was incapable of thinking it. Nevertheless, golfers in the Masters tournament were required to take “local” (i.e., black) caddies until 1983, six years after Roberts shot himself in the head beside Ike’s Pond on the grounds of the club, in late September, 1977. (The chairman, it’s said, took a drop.) Of course, the facts of the golf club’s caddie policy means nothing, nor even would Clifford Roberts’ private thoughts regarding race. But the links between the club, the South, and the world of money and power remain, and whatever the future course of the club, or the nation, those forged in the past—no matter the acts of minstrelry designed to obscure them—remain.

Now, and forever.