Nunc Dimittis

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.
—“The Canticle of Simeon.”
What appeared obvious was therefore rendered problematical and the question remains: why do most … species contain approximately equal numbers of males and females?
—Stephen Jay Gould. “Death Before Birth, or a Mite’s Nunc dimittis.”
    The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. 1980.

Since last year the attention of most American liberals has been focused on the shenanigans of President Trump—but the Trump Show has hardly been the focus of the American right. Just a few days ago, John Nichols of The Nation observed that ALEC—the business-funded American Legislative Exchange Council that has functioned as a clearinghouse for conservative proposals for state laws—“is considering whether to adopt a new piece of ‘model legislation’ that proposes to do away with an elected Senate.” In other words, ALEC is thinking of throwing its weight behind the (heretofore) fringe idea of overturning the Seventeenth Amendment, and returning the right to elect U.S. Senators to state legislatures: the status quo of 1913. Yet, why would Americans wish to return to a period widely known to be—as the most recent reputable academic history, Wendy Schiller and Charles Stewart’s Electing the Senate: Indirect Democracy Before the Seventeenth Amendment has put the point—“plagued by significant corruption to a point that undermined the very legitimacy of the election process and the U.S. Senators who were elected by it?” The answer, I suggest, might be found in a history of the German higher educational system prior to the year 1933.

“To what extent”—asked Fritz K. Ringer in 1969’s The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933—“were the German mandarins to blame for the terrible form of their own demise, for the catastrophe of National Socialism?” Such a question might sound ridiculous to American ears, to be sure: as Ezra Klein wrote in the inaugural issue of Vox, in 2014, there’s “a simple theory underlying much of American politics,” which is “that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings” that can be solved with more information, or education. To blame German professors, then, for the triumph of the Nazi Party sounds paradoxical to such ears: it sounds like blaming an increase in rats on a radio station. From that view, then, the Nazis must have succeeded because the German people were too poorly-educated to be able to resist Hitler’s siren song.

As one appraisal of Ringer’s work in the decades since Decline has pointed out, however, the pioneering researcher went on to compare biographical dictionaries between Germany, France, England and the United States—and found “that 44 percent of German entries were academics, compared to 20 percent or less elsewhere”; another comparison of such dictionaries found that a much-higher percentage of Germans (82%) profiled in such books had exposure to university classes than those of other nations. Meanwhile, Ringer also found that “the real surprise” of delving into the records of “late nineteenth-century German secondary education” is that it “was really rather progressive for its time”: a higher percentage of Germans found their way to a high school education than did their peers in France or England during the same period. It wasn’t, in other words, for lack of education that Germany fell under the sway of the Nazis.

All that research, however, came after Decline, which dared to ask the question, “Did the work of German academics help the Nazis?” To be sure, there were a number of German academics, like philosopher Martin Heidegger and legal theorist Carl Schmitt, who not only joined the party, but actively cheered the Nazis on in public. (Heidegger’s connections to Hitler have been explored by Victor Farias and Emannuel Faye; Schmitt has been called “the crown jurist of the Third Reich.”) But that question, as interesting as it is, is not Ringer’s; he isn’t interested in the culpability of academics in direct support of the Nazis, perhaps the culpability of elevator repairmen could as well be interrogated. Instead, what makes Ringer’s argument compelling is that he connects particular intellectual beliefs to a particular historical outcome.

While most examinations of intellectuals, in other words, bewail a general lack of sympathy and understanding on the part of the public regarding the significance of intellectual labor, Ringer’s book is refreshing insofar as it takes the opposite tack: instead of upbraiding the public for not paying attention to the intellectuals, it upbraids the intellectuals for not understanding just how much attention they were actually getting. The usual story about intellectual work and such, after all, is about just how terrible intellectuals have it—how many first novels, after all, are about young writers and their struggles? But Ringer’s research suggests, as mentioned, the opposite: an investigation of Germany prior to 1933 shows that intellectuals were more highly thought of there than virtually anywhere in the world. Indeed, for much of its history before the Holocaust Germany was thought of as a land of poets and thinkers, not the grim nation portrayed in World War II movies. In that sense, Ringer has documented just how good intellectuals can have it—and how dangerous that can be.

All of that said, what are the particular beliefs that, Ringer thinks, may have led to the installation of the Fürher in 1933? The “characteristic mental habits and semantic preferences” Ringer documents in his book include such items as “the underlying vision of learning as an empathetic and unique interaction with venerated texts,” as well as a “consistent repudiation of instrumental or ‘utilitarian’ knowledge.” Such beliefs are, to be sure, seemingly required of the departments of what are now—but weren’t then—thought of, at least in the United States, as “the humanities”: without something like such foundational assumptions, subjects like philosophy or literature could not remain part of the curriculum. But, while perhaps necessary for intellectual projects to leave the ground, they may also have some costs—costs like, say, forgetting why the Seventeenth Amendment was passed.

That might sound surprising to some—after all, aren’t humanities departments hotbeds of leftism? Defenders of “the humanities”—like Gregory Harpham, once Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities—sometimes go even further and make the claim—as Harpham did in his 2011 book, The Humanities and the Dream of America—that “the capacity to sympathize, empathize, or otherwise inhabit the experience of others … is clearly essential to democratic society,” and that this “kind of capacity … is developed by an education that includes the humanities.” Such views, however, make a nonsense of history: traditionally, after all, it’s been the sciences that have been “clearly essential to democratic society,” not “the humanities.” And, if anyone thinks about it closely, the very notion of democracy itself depends on an idea that, at base, is “scientific” in nature—and one that is opposed to the notion of “the humanities.”

That idea is called, in scientific circles, “the Law of Large Numbers”—a concept first written down formally two centuries ago by mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, but easily illustrated in the words of journalist Michael Lewis’ most recent book. “If you flipped a coin a thousand times,” Lewis writes in The Undoing Project, “you were more likely to end up with heads or tails roughly half the time than if you flipped it ten times.” Or as Bernoulli put it in 1713’s Ars Conjectandi, “it is not enough to take one or another observation for such a reasoning about an event, but that a large number of them are needed.” It is a restatement of the commonsensical notion that the more times a result is repeated, the more trustworthy it is—an idea hugely applicable to human life.

For example, the Law of Large Numbers is why, as publisher Nate Silver recently put it, if “you want to predict a pitcher’s win-loss record, looking at the number of strikeouts he recorded and the number of walks he yielded is more informative than looking at his W’s and L’s from the previous season.” It’s why, when financial analyst John Bogle examined the stock market, he decided that, instead of trying to chase the latest-and-greatest stock, “people would be better off just investing their money in the entire stock market for a very cheap price”—and thereby invented the index fund. It’s why, Malcolm Gladwell has noted, the labor movement has always endorsed a national health care system: because they “believed that the safest and most efficient way to provide insurance against ill health or old age was to spread the costs and risks of benefits over the biggest and most diverse group possible.” It’s why casinos have limits on the amounts bettors can wager. In all these fields, as well as more “properly” scientific ones, it’s better to amass large quantities of results, rather than depend on small numbers of them.

What is voting, after all, but an act of sampling of the opinion of the voters, an act thereby necessarily engaged with the Law of Large Numbers? So, at least, thought the eighteenth-century mathematician and political theorist the Marquis de Condorcet—who called the result “the miracle of aggregation.” Summarizing a great deal of contemporary research, Sean Richey of Georgia State University has noted that Condorcet’s idea was that (as one of Richey’s sources puts the point) “[m]ajorities are more likely to select the ‘correct’ alternative than any single individual when there is uncertainty about which alternative is in fact the best.” Or, as Richey describes how Condorcet’s process actually works more concretely puts it, the notion is that “if ten out of twelve jurors make random errors, they should split five and five, and the outcome will be decided by the two who vote correctly.” Just as, in sum, a “betting line” demarks the boundary of opinion between gamblers, Condorcet provides the justification for voting: Condorcet’s theory was that “the law of large numbers shows that this as-if rational outcome will be almost certain in any large election if the errors are randomly distributed.” Condorcet, thereby, proposed elections as a machine for producing truth—and, arguably, democratic governments have demonstrated that fact ever since.

Key to the functioning of Condorcet’s machine, in turn, is large numbers of voters: the marquis’ whole idea, in fact, is that—as David Austen-Smith and Jeffrey S. Banks put the French mathematician’s point in 1996—“the probability that a majority votes for the better alternative … approaches 1 [100%] as n [the number of voters] goes to infinity.” In other words, the point is that the more voters, the more likely an election is to reach the correct decision. The Seventeenth Amendment is, then, just such a machine: its entire rationale is that the (extremely large) pool of voters of a state is more likely to reach a correct decision than an (extremely small) pool voters consisting of the state legislature alone.

Yet the very thought that anyone could even know what truth is, of course—much less build a machine for producing it—is anathema to people in humanities departments: as I’ve mentioned before, Bruce Robbins of Columbia University has reminded everyone that such departments were “founded on … the critique of Enlightenment rationality.” Such departments have, perhaps, been at the forefront of the gradual change in Americans from what the baseball writer Bill James has called “an honest, trusting people with a heavy streak of rationalism and an instinctive trust of science,” with the consequence that they had “an unhealthy faith in the validity of statistical evidence,” to adopting “the position that so long as something was stated as a statistic it was probably false and they were entitled to ignore it and believe whatever they wanted to [believe].” At any rate, any comparison of the “trusting” 1950s America described by James by comparison to what he thought of as the statistically-skeptical 1970s (and beyond) needs to reckon with the increasingly-large bulge of people educated in such departments: as a report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities has pointed out, “the percentage of college-age Americans holding degrees in the humanities has increased fairly steadily over the last half-century, from little over 1 percent in 1950 to about 2.5 percent today.” That might appear to be a fairly low percentage—but as Joe Pinsker’s headline writer put the point of Pinsker’s article in The Atlantic, “Rich Kids Major in English.” Or as a study cited by Pinsker in that article noted, “elite students were much more likely to study classics, English, and history, and much less likely to study computer science and economics.” Humanities students are a small percentage of graduates, in other words—but historically they have been (and given the increasingly-documented decreasing social mobility of American life, are increasingly likely to be) the people calling the shots later.

Or, as the infamous Northwestern University chant had it: “That‘s alright, that’s okay—you’ll be working for us someday!” By building up humanities departments, the professoriate has perhaps performed useful labor by clearing the ideological ground for nothing less than the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment—an amendment whose argumentative success, even today, depends upon an audience familiar not only with Condorcet’s specific proposals, but also with the mathematical ideas that underlay them. That would be no surprise, perhaps, to Fritz Ringer, who described how the German intellectual class of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth constructed an “a defense of the freedom of learning and teaching, a defense which is primarily designed to combat the ruler’s meddling in favor of a narrowly useful education.” To them, the “spirit flourishes only in freedom … and its achievements, though not immediately felt, are actually the lifeblood of the nation.” Such an argument is reproduced by such “academic superstar” professors of humanities as Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at (where else?) the University of California, Berkeley, who has argued that the “contemporary tradition”—what?—“of critical theory in the academy … has shown how language plays an important role in shaping and altering our common or ‘natural’ understanding of social and political realities.”

Can’t put it better.

Lex Majoris

The first principle of republicanism is that the lex majoris partis is the fundamental law of every society of individuals of equal rights; to consider the will of the society enounced by the majority of a single vote, as sacred as if unanimous, is the first of all lessons in importance, yet the last which is thoroughly learnt. This law once disregarded, there is no other but that of force, which ends necessarily in military despotism.
—Thomas Jefferson. Letter to Baron von Humboldt. 13 June 1817.

Since Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 American presidential election, many of her supporters have been quick to cry “racism” on the part of voters for her opponent, Donald Trump. According to Vox’s Jenée Desmond-Harris, for instance, Trump won the election “not despite but because he expressed unfiltered disdain toward racial and religious minorities in the country.” Aside from being the easier interpretation, because it allows Clinton voters to ignore the role their own economic choices may have played in the broad support Trump received throughout the country, such accusations are counterproductive even on their own terms because—only seemingly paradoxically—they reinforce many of the supports racism still receives in the United States: above all, because they weaken the intellectual argument for a national direct election for the presidency. By shouting “racism,” in other words, Hillary Clinton’s supporters may end up helping to continue racism’s institutional support.

That institutional support begins with the method by which Americans elect their president: the Electoral College—a method that, as many have noted, is not used in any other industrialized democracy. Although many scholars and others have advanced arguments for the existence of the college through the centuries, most of these “explanations” are, in fact, intellectually incoherent: while the most common of the traditional “explanations” concerns the differences between the “large states” and the “small,” for instance, in the actual United States—as James Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution,” noted at the time—there had not then, and has not ever been since, a situation in American history that involved a conflict between larger-population and smaller-population states. Meanwhile, the other “explanations” for the Electoral College do not even rise to this level of incoherence.

In reality there is only one explanation for the existence of the college, and that explanation has been most forcefully and clearly made by law professor Paul Finkelman, now serving as a Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania after spending much of his career at obscure law schools like the University of Tulsa College of Law, the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, and the Albany Law School. As Finkelman has been arguing for decades (his first papers on the subject were written in the 1980s), the Electoral College was originally invented by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in order to protect slavery. That such was the purpose of the College can be known, most obviously, because the delegates to the convention said so.

When the means of electing a president were first debated, it’s important to remember that the convention had already decided, for the purposes of representation in the newly-created House of Representatives, to count black slaves by the means of the infamous three-fifths ratio. That ratio, in turn, had its effect when discussing the means of electing a president: delegates like James Madison argued, as Finkelman notes, that the existence of such a college—whose composition would be based on each state’s representation in the House of Representatives—would “guarantee that the nonvoting slaves could nevertheless influence the presidential election.” Or as Hugh Williamson, a delegate from North Carolina, observed during the convention, if American presidents were elected by direct national vote the South would be shut out of electing a national executive because “her slaves will have no suffrage”—that is, because in a direct vote all that would matter is the number of voters, the Southern states would lose the advantage the three-fifths ratio gave them in the House. Hence, the existence of the Electoral College is directly tied to the prior decision to grant Southern slave states an advantage in Congress, and so the Electoral College is another in a string of institutional decisions made by convention delegates to protect domestic slavery.

Yet, assuming that Finkelman’s case for the racism of the Electoral College is true, how can decrying the racism of the American voter somehow inflict harm on the case for abolishing the Electoral College? The answer goes back to the very justifications of, not only presidential elections, but elections in general—the gradual discovery, during the eighteenth century Enlightenment, of what is today known as the Law of Large Numbers.

Putting the law in capital letters, I admit, tends to mystify it, but anyone who buys insurance already understands the substance of the concept. As New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell once explained insurance, “the safest and most efficient way to provide insurance” is “to spread the costs and risks of benefits over the biggest and most diverse group possible.” In other words, the more people participating in an insurance plan, the greater the possibility that the plan’s members will be protected. The Law of Large Numbers explains why that is.

That reason is the same as the reason that, as Peter Bernstein remarks in Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, if we toss a coin enough times that “will correspondingly increase the probability that the ratio of heads thrown to total throws” will decrease. Or, the reason that—as physicist Leonard Mlodinow has pointed out—in order really to tell which baseball team is better than another a World Series would have to be at least 23 games long (if one team were much better than the other), and possibly as long as 269 games (between two closely-matched opponents). Only by playing so many games can random chance be confidently excluded: as Carl Bialik of FiveThirtyEight once pointed out, usually “in sports, the longer the contest, the greater the chance that the favorite prevails.” Or, as Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky put the point in 1971, “the law of large numbers guarantees that very large samples will indeed be representative”: it’s what scientists rely upon to know that, if they have performed enough experiments or poured over enough data, they know enough to exclude idiosyncratic results. The Law of Large Numbers asserts, in short, that the more times we repeat something, the closer we will approach its true value.

It’s for just that reason that many have noted the connection between science and democratic government: “Science and democracy are powerful partners,” as the website for the Union of Concerned Scientists has put it. What makes these two objects such “powerful” partners is that the Law of Large Numbers is what underlies the act of holding elections: as James Surowiecki put the point in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, the theory of democracy is that “the larger the group, the more reliable its judgment will be.” Just as scientists think that, by replicating an experiment, they can more readily trust in its results, so too does a democratic government implicitly think that, by including more people in the decision-making process, the government can the more readily arrive at the “correct” solution: as James Madison put it in The Federalist No. 10, if you “take in a greater variety of parties and interests,” then “you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive for invading the rights of other citizens.” Without such a belief, after all, there would be no reason not to trust, say, a ruling caste to make decisions for society—or even a single, perhaps orange-toned, individual. Without some concept of the Law of Large Numbers—some belief that increasing the numbers of trials, or increasing the number of inputs, will make for better results—there is no reason for democratic government at all.

That’s why, when people criticize the Electoral College, they are implicitly invoking the Law of Large Numbers. The Electoral College divides the pool of American voters into fifty smaller pools, but a national popular vote would collect all Americans into a single lump—a point that some defenders of the College sometimes seek to make into a virtue, instead of the vice it is. In the wake of the 2000 election, for example, Senator Mitch McConnell wrote that the “Electoral College served to center the post-election battles in Florida,” preventing the “vote recounts and court battles in nearly every state of the Union” that, McConnell assures us, would have occurred in the college’s absence. But as Timothy Noah pointed out in The New Republic in 2012, what McConnell’s argument “fails to realize is that when you’re assembling one big count rather than a lot of little ones it’s a lot less clear what’s to be gained from rigging any of the little ones.” If what matters is the popular vote, what happens in any one location doesn’t matter so much; hence, stealing votes in downstate Illinois won’t allow you to steal the entire state—just as, with enough samples or experiments run, the fact that the lab assistant was drowsy at the time she recorded one set of results won’t matter so much. Or why deliberately losing a single game in July hardly matters so much as tanking a game of the World Series.

Put in such a way, it’s hard to see how anyone without a vested stake in the construction of the present system could defend the Electoral College—yet, as I suspect we are about to see, the very people now ascribing Donald Trump’s victory to the racism of the American voter will soon be doing just that. The reason will be precisely the same reason that such advocates want to blame racism, rather than the ongoing thievery of economic elites, for the rejection of Clinton: because racism is a “cultural” phenomenon, and most left-wing critics of the United States now obtain credentials in “cultural,” rather than scientific, disciplines.

If, in other words, Donald Trump’s victory was due to a complex series of renegotiations of the global contract between capital and labor, then that would require experts in economic and other, similar, disciplines to explain it; if his victory was due to racism, however—racism being considered a cultural phenomenon—then that will call forth experts in “cultural” fields. Because those with “liberal” or “leftist” political leanings now tend to gather in “cultural” fields, those with those political leanings will (indeed, must) now attempt to shift the battleground towards their areas of expertise. That shift, I would wager, will in turn lead those who argue for “cultural” explanations for the rise of Trump against arguments for the elimination of the Electoral College.

The reason is not difficult to understand: it isn’t too much to say, in fact, that one way to define the study of the humanities is to say it comprises the disciplines that largely ignore, or even oppose, the Law of Large Numbers both as a practical matter and as a philosophic one. As literary scholar Franco Moretti, now of Stanford, observed in his Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900, just as “silver fork novels”—a genre published in England between the 1820s and the 1840s—do not “show ‘London,’ but only a small, monochrome portion of it,” so too does the average student of literature not really study her ostensible subject matter. “I work on west European narrative between 1790 and 1930, and already feel like a charlatan outside of Britain and France,” Moretti confesses in an essay entitled “Distant Reading”—and even then, he only works “on its canonical fraction, which is not even 1 percent of published literature.” As Joshua Rothman put the point in a New Yorker profile of Moretti a few years ago, Moretti instead insists that “if you really want to understand literature, you can’t just read a few books or poems over and over,” but instead “you have to work with hundreds or even thousands of texts at a time”—that is, he insists on the significance of the Law of Large Numbers in his field, an insistence whose very novelty demonstrates how literary study is a field that has historically resisted precisely that recognition.

In order to proceed, in other words, disciplines like literary study or art history—or even history itself—must argue for the representativeness of a given body of work: usually termed, at least in literary study, “the Canon.” Such disciplines are already, simply by their very nature, committed to the idea that it is not necessary to read all of what Moretti says is the “thirty thousand nineteenth-century British novels out there” in order to arrive at conclusions about the nineteenth-century British novel: in the first place, “no one really knows” how many there really are (there could easily be twice as many), and in the second “no one has read them [all], [and] no one ever will.” In order to get off the ground, such disciplines must necessarily deny the Law of Large Numbers: as Moretti says, “you invest so much in individual texts only if you think that very few of them really matter”—a belief with an obvious political corollary. Rejection of the Law of Large Numbers is thusly, as Moretti also observes, “an unconscious and invisible premiss” for most who study such fields—which is to say that although students of the humanities often make claims for the political utility of their work, they sometimes forget that the enabling presuppositions of their fields are inherently those of the pre-Enlightenment ancien régime.

Perhaps that’s why—as Joe Pinsker observed in a fascinating, but short, article for The Atlantic several years ago—studies of college students find that those “from lower-income families tend toward ‘useful’ majors, such as computer science, math, and physics,” while students “whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and the performing arts”: the baseline assumptions of those disciplines are, no matter the particular predilections of a given instructor, essentially aristocratic, not democratic. To put it most baldly, the disciplines of the humanities must reject the premise of the Law of Large Numbers, which says that as more examples are added, the closer we approach to the truth—a point that can be directly witnessed when, for instance, English professor Michael Bérubé of Pennsylvania State University observes that the “humanists at [his] end of the [academic] hallway roundly dismissed” Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson’s book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge for arguing that “all human knowledge can and eventually will be unified under the rubric of the natural sciences.” Rejecting the Law of Large Numbers is foundational to the very operation of the humanities: without making that rejection, they cannot exist.

In recent decades, of course, presumably Franco Moretti has not been the only professor of the humanities to realize that their disciplines stood on a collision course with the Law of Large Numbers—it may perhaps explain why disciplines like literature and others have, for years, been actively recruiting among members of minority groups. The institutional motivations of such hiring, in other words, ought to be readily apparent: by making such hires, departments of the humanities could insulate themselves from charges from the political left—while at the same time continuing the practices that, without such cover, might have appeared increasingly anachronistic in a democratic age. Minority hiring, that is, may not be so politically “progressive” as its defenders sometimes argue: it may, in fact, have prevented the intellectual reforms within the humanities urged by people like Franco Moretti for a generation or more. Of course, by joining such departments, members of minority groups also may have, consciously or not, tied their own fortunes to a philosophic rejection of concepts like the Law of Large Numbers—as African-American sportswriter Michael Wilbon, of ESPN fame, wrote this past May, black people supposedly have some kind of allergy to statistical analysis: “in ‘BlackWorld,’” Wilbon solemnly intoned, “never is heard an advanced analytical word.” I suspect then that many who claim to be on the political left will soon come out to defend the Electoral College. If that happens, then in one last cruel historical irony the final defenders of American slavery may end up being precisely those slavery meant to oppress.

Lawyers, Guns, and Caddies

Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Julius Caesar. Act I, Scene 2.


One of Ryan’s steady golfers—supposedly the youngest man ever to own an American car dealership—likes to call Ryan, one of the better caddies I know at Medinah, his “lawyer-caddie.” Ostensibly, it’s meant as a kind of joke, although it’s not particularly hard to hear it as a complicated slight mixed up with Schadenfreude: the golfer, involved in the tiring process of piling up cash by snookering old ladies with terrible trade-in deals, never bothered to get a college degree—and Ryan has both earned a law degree and passed the Illinois bar, one of the hardest tests in the country. Yet despite his educational accomplishments Ryan still earns the bulk of his income on the golf course, not in the law office. Which, sorry to say, is not surprising these days: as Alexander Eichler wrote for The Huffington Post in 2012, not only are “jobs … hard to come by in recent years” for would-be lawyers, but the jobs that there are come in two flavors—either “something that pays in the modest five figures” (which implies that Ryan might never get out of debt), “or something that pays much better” (the kinds of jobs that are about as likely as playing in the NBA). The legal profession has in other words bifurcated: something that, according to a 2010 article called “Talent Grab” by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, is not isolated to the law. From baseball players to investment bankers, it seems, the cream of nearly every profession has experienced a great rise in recent decades, even as much of the rest of the nation has been largely stuck in place economically: sometime in the 1970s, Gladwell writes, “salaries paid to high-level professionals—‘talent’—started to rise.” There’s at least two possible explanations for that rise: Gladwell’s is that “members of the professional class” have learned “from members of the working class”—that, in other words, “Talent” has learned the atemporal lessons of negotiation. The other, however, is both pretty simple to understand and (perhaps for that reason) might be favored by campus “leftists”: to them, widening inequality might be explained by the same reason that, surprisingly enough, prevented Lord Cornwallis from burning Mount Vernon and raping Martha Washington.

That, of course, will sound shocking to many readers—but in reality, Lord Cornwallis’ forbearance really is unexpected if the American Revolution is compared to some other British colonial military adventures. Like, for instance, the so-called “Mau Mau Uprising”—also known as the “Kenya Emergency”—during the 1950s: although much of the documentation only came out recently, after a long legal battle—which is how we know about this in the detail we do now at all—what happened in Kenya in those years was not an atypical example of British colonial management. In a nutshell: after World War II, many Kenyans, like a lot of other European colonies, demanded independence, and like a lot of other European powers, Britain would not give it to them. (A response with which Americans ought to be familiar through our own history.) Therefore, the two sides fought to demonstrate their sincerity.

Yet unlike the American experience, which largely consisted—nearly anomalously in the history of wars of independence—of set-piece battles that pitted conventionally-organized troops against each other, what makes the Kenyan episode relevant is that it was fought using the doctrines of counterinsurgency: that is, the “best practices” for the purposes of ending an armed independence movement. In Kenya, this meant “slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight, and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes,” as Mark Curtis reported in 2003’s Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World. It also meant gathering, according to Wikipedia, somewhere around half a million Kenyans into concentration camps, while more than a million were held in what were called “enclosed villages.” Those gathered were then “questioned” (i.e., tortured) in order to find those directly involved in the independence movement, and so forth. It’s a catalogue of horror, but what’s more horrifying is that the methods being used in Kenya were also being used, at precisely the same moment, half a world away, by more or less the same people: at the same time as the “Kenya Emergency,” the British Empire was also fighting in what’s called the “Malay Emergency.”

In Malaysia, from 1948 to 1960 the Malayan Communist Party fought a guerrilla war for independence against the British Army—a war that became such a model for counterinsurgency war that one British leader, Sir Robert Thompson, later became a senior advisor to the American effort in Vietnam. (Which itself draws attention to the fact that France was also involved in counterinsurgency wars at the time: not only in Vietnam, but also in Algeria.) And in case you happen to think that all of this is merely an historical coincidence regarding the aftershocks of the Second World War, it’s important to remember that the very word “concentration camp” was first widely used in English during the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. “Best practice” in fighting colonial wars, that is, was pretty standardized: go in, grab the wives and kids, threaten them, and then just follow the trail back to the ringleaders. In other words, Abu Ghraib—but also, the Romans.

It’s perhaps no coincidence, in other words, that the basis of elite education in the Western world for millennia began with Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, usually the first book assigned to beginning students of Latin. Often justified educationally on the basis of its unusually clear rhetoric (the famously deadpan opening line: “Gaul is divided into three parts …”), the Gallic Wars could also be described as a kind of “how to” manual regarding “pacification” campaigns: in this case, the failed rebellion of Vercingetorix in 52 BCE, who, according to Caesar, “urged them to take up arms in order to win liberty for all.” In Gallic Wars, Caesar details such common counterinsurgency techniques as, say, hostage-taking: in negotiations with the Helvetii in Book One, for instance, Caesar makes the offer that “if hostages were to be given by them [the Helvetii] in order that he may be assured these will do what they promise … he [Caesar] will make peace with them.” The book also describes torture in several places throughout (though, to be sure, it is usually described as the work of the Gauls, not the Romans). Hostage-taking and torture was all, in other words, common stuff in elite European education—the British Army did not suddenly create these techniques during the 1950s. And that, in turn, begs the question: if British officers were aware of the standard methods of “counterinsurgency,” why didn’t the British Army use them during the “American Emergency” of the 1770s?

According to Pando Daily columnist “Gary Brecher” (a pseudonym for John Dolan), perhaps the “British took it very, very easy on us” during the Revolution because Americans “were white, English-speaking Protestants like them.” In fact, that leniency may have been the reason the British lost the war—at least, according to Lieutenant Colonel Paul Montanus’ (U.S.M.C.) paper for the U.S. Army War College, “A Failed Counterinsurgency Strategy: The British Southern Campaign, 1780-1781.” To Montanus, the British Army “needed to execute a textbook pacification program”—instead, the actions that army took “actually inflamed the [populace] and pushed them toward the rebel cause.” Montanus, in other words, essentially asks the question: why didn’t the Royal Navy sail up the Potomac and grab Martha Washington? Brecher’s point is pretty valid: there simply aren’t a lot of reasons to explain just why Lord Cornwallis or the other British commanders didn’t do that other than the notion that, when British Army officers looked at Americans, they saw themselves. (Yet, it might be pointed out that just what the British officers saw is still an open question: did they see “cultural Englishmen”—or simply rich men like themselves?)

If Gladwell were telling the story of the American Revolution, however, he might explain American independence as a result simply of the Americans learning to say no—at least, that is what he advances as a possible explanation for the bifurcation Gladwell describes in the professions in American life these days. Take, for instance, the profession with which Gladwell begins: baseball. In the early 1970s, Gladwell tells us, Marvin Miller told the players of the San Francisco Giants that “‘If we can get rid of the system as we now know it, then Bobby Bond’s son, if he makes it to the majors, will make more in one year than Bobby will in his whole career.’” (Even then, when Barry Bonds was around ten years old, people knew that Barry Bonds was a special kind of athlete—though they might not have known he would go on to shatter, as he did in 2001, the single season home run record.) As it happens, Miller wildly understated Barry Bonds’ earning power: Barry Bonds “ended up making more in one year than all the members of his father’s San Francisco Giants team made in their entire careers, combined” (emp. added). Barry Bonds’ success has been mirrored in many other sports: the average player salary in the National Basketball Association, for instance, increased more than 800 percent from the 1984-5 season to the 1998-99 season, according to a 2000 article by the Chicago Tribune’s Paul Sullivan. And so on: it doesn’t take much acuity to know that professional athletes have taken a huge pay jump in recent decades. But as Gladwell says, that increase is not limited just to sportsmen.

Take book publishing, for instance. Gladwell tells an anecdote about the sale of William Safire’s “memoir of his years as a speechwriter in the Nixon Administration to William Morrow & Company”—a book that might seem like the kind of “insider” account that often finds its way to publication. In this case, however, between Safire’s sale to Morrow and final publication Watergate happened—which caused Morrow to rethink publishing a book from a White House insider that didn’t mention Watergate. In those circumstances, Morrow decided not to publish—and could they please have the advance they gave to Safire back?

In book contracts in those days, the publisher had all the cards: Morrow could ask for their money back after the contract was signed because, according to the terms of a standard publishing deal, they could return a book at any time, for more or less any reason—and thus not only void the contract, but demand the return of the book’s advance. Safire’s attorney, however—Mort Janklow, a corporate attorney unfamiliar with the ways of book publishing—thought that was nonsense, and threatened to sue. Janklow told Morrow’s attorney (Maurice Greenbaum, of Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst) that the “acceptability clause” of the then-standard literary contract—which held that a publisher could refuse to publish a book, and thereby reclaim any advance, for essentially any reason—“‘was being fraudulently exercised’” because the reason Morrow wanted to reject Safire’s book wasn’t due to the reason Morrow said they wanted to reject it (the intrinsic value of the content) but simply because an external event—Watergate—had changed Morrow’s calculations. (Janklow discovered documentary evidence of the point.) Hence, if Morrow insisted on taking back the advance, Janklow was going to take them to court—and when faced with the abyss, Morrow crumbled, and standard contracts with authors have become (supposedly) far less weighted towards publishing houses. Today, bestselling authors (like, for instance, Gladwell) now have a great deal of power: they more or less negotiate with publishing houses as equals, rather than (as before) as, effectively, servants. And not just in publishing: Gladwell goes on to tell similar anecdotes about modeling (Lauren Hutton), moviemaking (George Lucas), and investing (Teddy Forstmann). In all of these cases, the “Talent” (Gladwell’s word) eventually triumphs over “Capital.”

As I mentioned, for a variety of reasons—in the first place, the justification for the study of “culture,” which these days means, as political scientist Adolph Reed of the University of Pennsylvania has remarked, “the idea that the mass culture industry and its representational practices constitute a meaningful terrain for struggle to advance egalitarian interests”—to a lot of academic leftists these days that triumph would best be explained by the fact that, say, George Lucas and the head of Twentieth-Century Fox at the time, George Stulberg, shared a common rapport. (Perhaps they gossiped over their common name.) Or to put it another way, that “Talent” has been rewarded by “Capital” because of a shared “culture” between the two (apparent) antagonists—just as in the same way that Britain treated their American subjects different than their Kenyan ones because the British shared something with the Americans that they did not with the Kenyans (and the Malaysians and the Boer …). (Which was either “culture”—or money.) But there’s a problem with this analysis: it doesn’t particularly explain Ryan’s situation. After all, if this hypothesis correct that would appear to imply that—since Ryan shares a great deal “culturally” with the power elite that employs him on the golf course—that Ryan ought to have a smooth path towards becoming a golfer who employs caddies, not a caddie who works for golfers. But that is not, obviously, the case.

Gladwell, on the other hand, does not advance a “cultural” explanation for why some people in a variety of professions have become compensated far beyond that even of their fellows within the profession. Instead, he prefers to explain what happened beginning in the 1970s as being instances of people learning how to use a tool initially widely used by organized labor: the strike.

It’s an explanation that has an initial plausibility about it, in the first place, because of Marvin Miller’s personal history: he began his career working for the United Steelworkers before becoming an employee of the baseball players’ union. (Hence, there is a means of transmission.) But even aside from that, it seems clear that each of the “talents” Gladwell writes about made use of either a kind of one-person strike, or the threat of it, to get their way: Lauren Hutton, for example, “decided she would no longer do piecework, the way every model had always done, and instead demanded that her biggest client, Revlon, sign her to a proper contract”; in 1975 “Hollywood agent Tom Pollock,” demanded “that Twentieth Century Fox grant his client George Lucas full ownership of any potential sequels to Star Wars”; and Mort Janklow … Well, here is what Janklow said to Gladwell regarding how he would negotiate with publishers after dealing with Safire’s book:

“The publisher would say, ‘Send back that contract or there’s no deal,’ […] And I would say, ‘Fine, there’s no deal,’ and hang up. They’d call back in an hour: ‘Whoa, what do you mean?’ The point I was making was that the author was more important than the publisher.”

Each of these instances, I would say, is more or less what happens when a group of industrial workers walk out: Mort Janklow (whose personal political opinions, by the way, are apparently the farthest thing from labor’s), was for instance telling the publishers that he would withhold the labor product until his demands were met, just as the United Autoworkers shut down General Motors’ Flint, Michigan assembly plant in the Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37. And Marvin Miller did take baseball players out on strike: the first baseball strike was in 1972, and lasted all of thirteen days before management crumbled. What all of these people learned, in other words, was to use a common technique or tool—but one that is by no means limited to unions.

In fact, it’s arguable that one of the best examples of it in action is a James Dean movie—while another is the fact the world has not experienced a nuclear explosion delivered in anger since 1945. In the James Dean movie, Rebel Without a Cause, there’s a scene in which James Dean’s character gets involved in what the kids in his town call a “chickie run”—what some Americans know as the game of “Chicken.” In the variant played in the movie, two players each drive a car towards the edge of a cliff—the “winner” of the game is the one who exits his car closest to the edge, thus demonstrating his “courage.” (The other player is, hence, the “chicken,” or coward.) Seems childish enough—until you realize, as the philosopher Bertrand Russell did in a book called Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare, that it was more or less this game that the United States and the Soviet Union were playing throughout the Cold War:

Since the nuclear stalemate became apparent, the Governments of East and West have adopted the policy which Mr. Dulles calls “brinksmanship.” This is a policy adapted from a sport which, I am told, is practised [sic] by some youthful degenerates. This sport is called “Chicken!” …

As many people of less intellectual firepower than Bertrand Russell have noticed, Rebel Without A Cause thusly describes what happened between Moscow and Washington D.C. faced each other in October 1962, the incident later called the Cuban Missile Crisis. (“We’re eyeball to eyeball,” then-U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk said later about those events, “and I think the other fellow just blinked.”) The blink was, metaphorically, the act of jumping out of the car before the cliff of nuclear annihilation: the same blink that Twentieth Century Fox gave when it signed over the rights to sequels to Star Wars to Lucas, or Revlon did when it signed Lauren Hutton to a contract. Each of the people Gladwell describes played “Chicken”—and won.

To those committed to a “cultural” explanation, of course, the notion that all these incidents might instead have to do with a common negotiating technique rather than a shared “culture” is simply question begging: after all, there have been plenty of people, and unions, that have played games of “Chicken”—and lost. So by itself the game of “Chicken,” it might be argued, explains nothing about what led employers to give way. Yet, at two points, the “cultural” explanation also is lacking: in the first place, it doesn’t explain how “rebel” figures like Marvin Miller or Janklow were able to apply essentially the same technique across many industries. If it were a matter of “culture,” in other words, it’s hard to see how the same technique could work no matter what the underlying business was—or, if “culture” is the explanation, it’s difficult to see how that could be distinguished from saying that an all-benevolent sky fairy did it. As an explanation, in other words, “culture” is vacuous: it explains both too much and not enough.

What needs to be explained, in other words, isn’t why a number of people across industries revolted against their masters—just as it likely doesn’t especially need to be explained why Kenyans stopped thinking Britain ought to run their land any more. What needs to explained instead is why these people were successful. In each of these industries, eventually “Capital” gave in to “Talent”: “when Miller pushed back, the owners capitulated,” Gladwell says—so quickly, in fact, that even Miller was surprised. In all of these industries, “Capital” gave in so easily that it’s hard to understand why there was any dispute in the first place.

That’s precisely why the ease of that victory is grounds for being suspicious: surely, if “Capital” really felt threatened by this so-called “talent revolution” they would have fought back. After all, American capital was (and is), historically, tremendously resistant to the labor movement: blacklisting, arrest, and even mass murder were all common techniques capital used against unions prior to World War II: when Wyndham Mortimer arrived in Flint to begin organizing for what would become the Sit-Down Strike, for instance, an anonymous caller phoned him at his hotel within moments of his arrival to tell him to leave town if the labor organizer didn’t “want to be carried out in a wooden box.” Surely, although industries like sports or publishing are probably governed by less hard-eyed people than automakers, neither are they so full of softies that they would surrender on the basis of a shared liking for Shakespeare or the films of Kurosawa, nor even the fact that they shared a common language. On the other hand, however, neither does it seem likely that anyone might concede after a minor threat or two. Still, I’d say that thinking about these events using Gladwell’s terms makes a great deal more sense than the “cultural” explanation—not because of the final answer they provide, but because of the method of thought they suggest.

There is, in short, another possible explanation—one that, however, will mean trudging through yet another industry to explain. This time, that industry is the same one where the “cultural” explanation is so popular: academia, which has in recent decades also experienced an apparent triumph of “Talent” at the expense of “Capital”; in this case, the university system itself. As Christopher Shea wrote in 2014 for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “the academic star system is still going strong: Universities that hope to move up in the graduate-program rankings target top professors and offer them high salaries and other perks.” The “Talent Revolution,” in short, has come to the academy too. Yet, if so, it’s had some curious consequences: if “Talent” were something mysterious, one might suspect that it might come from anywhere—yet academia appears to think that it comes from the same sources.

As Joel Warner of Slate and Aaron Clauset, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado wrote in Slate recently, “18 elite universities produce half of all computer science professors, 16 schools produce half of all business professors, and eight schools account for half of all history professors.” (In fact, when it comes to history, “the top 10 schools produce three times as many future professors as those ranked 11 through 20.”) This, one might say, is curious indeed: why should “Talent” be continually discovered in the same couple of places? It’s as if, because William Wilkerson  discovered Lana Turner at the Top Hat Cafe on Sunset Boulevard  in 1937, every casting director and talent agent in Hollywood had decided to spend the rest of their working lives sitting on a stool at the Top Hat waiting for the next big thing to walk through that door.

“Institutional affiliation,” as Shea puts the point, “has come to function like inherited wealth” within the walls of the academy—a fact that just might explain another curious similarity between the academy and other industries these days. Consider, for example, that while Marvin Miller did have an enormous impact on baseball player salaries, that impact has been limited to major league players, and not their comrades at lower levels of organized baseball. “Since 1976,” Patrick Redford noted in Deadspin recently, major leaguers’ “salaries have risen 2,500 percent while minor league salaries have only gone up 70 percent.” Minor league baseball players can, Redford says, “barely earn a living while playing baseball”—it’s not unheard of, in fact, for ballplayers to go to bed hungry. (Glen Hines, a writer for The Cauldron, has a piece for instance describing his playing days in the Jayhawk League in Kansas: “our per diem,” Hines reports, “was a measly 15 dollars per day.”) And while it might difficult to have much sympathy for minor league baseball players—They get to play baseball!—that’s exactly what makes them so similar to their opposite numbers within academia.

That, in fact, is the argument Major League Baseball uses to deny minor leaguers are subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act: as the author called “the Legal Blitz” wrote for Above the Law: Redline, “Major League Baseball claims that its system [of not paying minimum wage] is legal as it is not bound by the FLSA [Fair Labor Standards Act] due to an exemption for seasonal and recreational employers.” In other words, because baseball is a “game” and not a business, baseball doesn’t have to pay the workers at the low end of the hierarchy—which is precisely what makes minor leaguers like a certain sort of academic.

Like baseball, universities often argue (as Yale’s Peter Brooks told the New York Times when Yale’s Graduate Employees and Student Organization (GESO) went out on strike in the late 1990s) that adjunct faculty are “among the blessed of the earth,” not its downtrodden. As Emily Eakin reported for the now-defunct magazine Lingua Franca during that same strike, in those days Yale’s administration argued “that graduate students can’t possibly be workers, since they are admitted (not hired) and receive stipends (not wages).” But if the pastoral rhetoric—a rhetoric that excludes considerations common to other pursuits, like gambling—surrounding both baseball and the academy is cut away, the position of universities is much the same as Major League Baseball’s, because both academia and baseball (and the law, and a lot of other professions) are similar types of industries at least in one respect: as presently constituted, they’re dependent on small numbers of highly productive people—which is just why “Capital” should have tumbled so easily in the way Gladwell described in the 1970s.

Just as scholars are only very rarely productive early in their careers, in other words, so too are baseball players: as Jim Callis noted for Baseball America (as cited by the paper, “Initial Public Offerings of Baseball Players” by John D. Burger, Richard D. Grayson, and Stephen Walters), “just one of every four first-round picks ultimately makes a non-trivial contribution to a major league team, and a mere one in twenty becomes a star.” Similarly, just as just a few baseball players hit most of the home runs or pitch most of the complete games, most academic production is done by just a few producers, as a number of researchers discovered in the middle of the twentieth century: a verity variously formulated as “Price’s Law,” “Lotka’s Law,” or “Bradford’s Law.” (Or, there’s the notion described as “Sturgeon’s Law”: “90% of everything is crap.”) Hence, rationally enough, universities (and baseball teams) only want to pay for those high-producers, while leaving aside the great mass of others: why pay for a load of .200 hitters, when with the same money you can buy just one superstar?

That might explain just why it is that William Morrow folded when confronted by Mort Janklow, or why Major League Baseball collapsed when confronted by Marvin Miller. They weren’t persuaded by the justice of the case Janklow or Miller brought—rather, they decided that it was in their long-term interests to reward wildly the “superstars” because that bought them the most production at the cheapest rate. Why pay for a ton of guys who hit all of the home runs, you might say—when, for much less, you can buy Barry Bonds? (In 2001, all major leaguers collectively hit over 5000 home runs, for instance—but Barry Bonds hit 73 of them, in a context in which the very best players might hit 20.) In such a situation, it makes sense (seemingly) to overpay Barry Bonds wildly (so that he made more money in a single season than all of his father’s teammates did for their entire careers): given that Barry Bonds is so much more productive than his peers, it’s arguable that, despite his vast salary, he was actually underpaid.

If you assign a value per each home run, that is, Bonds got a lower price per home run than his peers did: despite his high salary he was—in a sense—a bargain. (The way to calculate the point is to take all the home runs hit by all the major leaguers in a given season, and then work out the average price per home run. Although I haven’t actually done the calculation, I would bet that the average price is more than the price per home run received by Barry Bonds—which isn’t even to get into how standard major league rookie contracts deflate the market: as Newsday reported in March, Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals, who was third on the 2015 home run list, was paid only $59,524 per home run—when virtually every other top ten home run hitter in the major leagues made at least a quarter of a million dollars.) Similarly, an academic superstar is also, arguably, underpaid: even though, according to citation studies, a small number of scholars might be responsible for 80 percent of the citations in a given field, there’s no way they can get 80 percent of the total salaries being paid in that field. Hence, by (seemingly) wildly overpaying a few superstars, major league owners (like universities) can pocket the difference between those salaries and what they (wildly underpay) to the (vastly more) non-superstars.

Not only that, but wildly overpaying also has a secondary benefit, as Walter Benn Michaels has observed: by paying “Talent” vastly more money, not only are they actually getting a bargain (because no matter what “Talent” got paid, they simply couldn’t be paid what they were really “worth”), but also “Talent’s” (seemingly vast, but in reality undervalued) salaries enable the system to be performed as  “fair”—if you aren’t getting paid what, say, Barry Bonds or Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker is getting paid, in other words, then that’s because you’re not smart enough or good enough or whatever enough, jack. That is what Michaels is talking about when he discusses how educational “institutions ranging from U.I.C. to Harvard” like to depict themselves as “meritocracies that reward individuals for their own efforts and abilities—as opposed to rewarding them for the advantages of their birth.” Which, as it happens, just might explain why it is that, despite his educational accomplishments, Ryan is working on a golf course as a servant instead of using his talent in a courtroom or boardroom or classroom—as Michaels says, the reality of the United States today is that the “American Dream … now has a better chance of coming true in Sweden than it does in America, and as good a chance of coming true in western Europe (which is to say, not very good) as it does here.” That reality, in turn, is something that American universities, who are supposed to pay attention to events like this, have rapidly turned their heads away from: as Michaels says, “the intellectual left has responded to the increase in economic inequality”—that is, the supposed “Talent Revolution”—“by insisting on the importance of cultural identity.” In other words, “when it comes to class difference” (as Michaels says elsewhere), even though liberal professors “have understood our universities to be part of the solution, they are in fact part of the problem.” Hence, Ryan’s educational accomplishments (remember Ryan? There’s an essay about Ryan) aren’t actually helping him: in reality, they’re precisely what is holding him back. The question that Americans ought to be asking these days, then, is this one: what happens when Ryan realizes that?

It’s enough to make Martha Washington nervous.


Striking Out

When a man’s verses cannot be understood … it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.
As You Like It. III, iii.


There’s a story sometimes told by the literary critic Stanley Fish about baseball, and specifically the legendary early twentieth-century umpire Bill Klem. According to the story, Klem is working behind the plate one day. The pitcher throws a pitch; the ball comes into the plate, the batter doesn’t swing, and the catcher catches it. Klem doesn’t say anything. The batter turns around and says (Fish tells us),

“O.K., so what was it, a ball or a strike?” And Klem says, “Sonny, it ain’t nothing ’till I call it.” What the batter is assuming is that balls and strikes are facts in the world and that the umpire’s job is to accurately say which one each pitch is. But in fact balls and strikes come into being only on the call of an umpire.

Fish is expressing here what is now the standard view of American departments of the humanities: the dogma (a word precisely used) known as “social constructionism.” As Fish says elsewhere, under this dogma, “what is and is not a reason will always be a matter of faith, that is of the assumptions that are bedrock within a discursive system which because it rests upon them cannot (without self-destructing) call them into question.” To many within the academy, this view is inherently liberating: the notion that truth isn’t “out there” but rather “in here” is thought to be a sub rosa method of aiding the political change that, many have thought, has long been due in the United States. Yet, while joining the “social construction” bandwagon is certainly the way towards success in the American academy, it isn’t entirely obvious that it’s an especially good way to practice American politics: specifically, because the academy’s focus on the doctrines of “social constructionism” as a means of political change has obscured another possible approach—an approach also suggested by baseball. Or, to be more precise, suggested by the World Series of 1904 that didn’t happen.

“He’d have to give them,” wrote Will Hively, in Discover magazine in 1996, “a mathematical explanation of why we need the electoral college.” The article describes how one Alan Natapoff, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became involved in the question of the Electoral College: the group, assembled once every four years, that actually elects an American president. (For those who have forgotten their high school civics lessons, the way an American presidential election works is that each American state elects a number of “electors” equal in number to that state’s representation  in Congress; i.e., the number of congresspeople each state is entitled to by population, plus two senators. Those electors then meet to cast their votes in what is the actual election.) The Electoral College has been derided for years: the House of Representatives introduced a constitutional amendment to abolish it in 1969, for instance, while at about the same time the American Bar Association called the college “archaic, undemocratic, complex, ambiguous, indirect, and dangerous.” Such criticisms have a point: as has been seen a number times in American history (most recently in 2000), the Electoral College makes it possible to elect a president without a majority of the votes. But to Natapoff, such criticisms fundamentally miss the point because, according to him, they misunderstood the math.

The example Natapoff turned to in order to support his argument for the Electoral College was drawn from baseball. As Anthony Ramirez wrote in a New York Times article about Natapoff and his argument, also from 1996, the physicist’s favorite analogy is to the World Series—a contest in which, as Natapoff says, “the team that scores the most runs overall is like a candidate who gets the most popular votes.” But scoring more runs than your opponent is not enough to win the World Series, as Natapoff goes on to say: in order to become the champion baseball team of the year, “that team needs to win the most games.” And scoring runs is not the same as winning games.

Take, for instance, the 1960 World Series: in that contest, as Lively says in Discover, “the New York Yankees, with the awesome slugging combination of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Bill ‘Moose’ Skowron, scored more than twice as many total runs as the Pittsburgh Pirates, 55 to 27.” Despite that difference in production, the Pirates won the last game of the series (in perhaps the most exciting game in Series history—the only one that has ever ended with a ninth-inning, walk-off home run) and thusly won the series, four games to three. Nobody would dispute, Natapoff’s argument runs, that the Pirates deserved to win the series—and so, similarly, nobody should dispute the legitimacy of the Electoral College.

Why? Because if, as Lively writes, in the World Series “[r]uns must be grouped in a way that wins games,” in the Electoral College “votes must be grouped in a way that wins states.” Take, for instance, the election of 1888—a famous case for political scientists studying the Electoral College. In that election, Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland gained over 5.5 million votes to Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison’s 5.4 million votes. But Harrison not only won more states than Cleveland, but also won states with more electoral votes: including New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois, each of whom had at least six more electoral votes than the most populous state Cleveland won, Missouri. In this fashion, Natapoff argues that Harrison is like the Pirates: although he did not win more votes than Cleveland (just as the Pirates did not score more runs than the Yankees), still he deserved to win—on the grounds that the total numbers of popular votes do not matter, but rather how those votes are spread around the country.

In this argument, then, games are to states just as runs are to votes. It’s an analogy that has an easy appeal to it: everyone feels they understand the World Series (just as everyone feels they understand Stanley Fish’s umpire analogy) and so that understanding appears to transfer easily to the matter of presidential elections. Yet, while clever, in fact most people do not understand the purpose of the World Series: although people think it is the task of the Series to identify the best baseball team in the major leagues, that is not what it is designed to do. It is not the purpose of the World Series to discover the best team in baseball, but instead to put on an exhibition that will draw a large audience, and thus make a great deal of money. Or so said the New York Giants, in 1904.

As many people do not know, there was no World Series in 1904. A World Series, as baseball fans do know, is a competition between the champions of the National League and the American League—which, because the American League was only founded in 1901, meant that the first World Series was held in 1903, between the Boston Americans (soon to become the Red Sox) and the same Pittsburgh Pirates also involved in Natapoff’s example. But that series was merely a private agreement between the two clubs; it created no binding precedent. Hence, when in 1904 the Americans again won their league and the New York Giants won the National League—each achieving that distinction by winning more games than any other team over the course of the season—there was no requirement that the two teams had to play each other. And the Giants saw no reason to do so.

As legendary Giants manager, John McGraw, said at the time, the Giants were the champions of the “only real major league”: that is, the Giants’ title came against tougher competition than the Boston team faced. So, as The Scrapbook History of Baseball notes, the Giants, “who had won the National League by a wide margin, stuck to … their plan, refusing to play any American League club … in the proposed ‘exhibition’ series (as they considered it).” The Giants, sensibly enough, felt that they could not gain much by playing Boston—they would be expected to beat the team from the younger league—and, conversely, they could lose a great deal. And mathematically speaking, they were right: there was no reason to put their prestige on the line by facing an inferior opponent that stood a real chance to win a series that, for that very reason, could not possibly answer the question of which was the better team.

“That there is,” writes Nate Silver and Dayn Perry in Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong, “a great deal of luck involved in the playoffs is an incontrovertible mathematical fact.” But just how much luck is involved is something that the average fan hasn’t considered—though former Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow has. In Mlodinow’s book, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, the scientist writes that—just by virtue of doing the math—it can be concluded that “in a 7-game series there is a sizable chance that the inferior team will be crowned champion”:

For instance, if one team is good enough to warrant beating another in 55 percent of its games, the weaker team will nevertheless win a 7-game series about 4 times out of 10. And if the superior team could be expected to beat its opponent, on average, 2 out of each 3 times they meet, the inferior team will still win a 7-game series about once every 5 matchups.

What Mlodinow means is this: let’s say that, for every game, we roll a one-hundred sided die to determine whether the team with the 55 percent edge wins or not. If we do that four times, there’s still a good chance that the inferior team is still in the series: that is, that the superior team has not won all the games. In fact, there’s a real possibility that the inferior team might turn the tables, and instead sweep the superior team. Seven games, in short, is just not enough games to demonstrate conclusively that one team is better than another.

In fact, in order to eliminate randomness as much as possible—that is, make it as likely as possible for the better team to win—the World Series would have to be much longer than it currently is: “In the lopsided 2/3-probability case,” Mlodinow says, “you’d have to play a series consisting of at minimum the best of 23 games to determine the winner with what is called statistical significance, meaning the weaker team would be crowned champion 5 percent or less of the time.” In other words, even in a case where one team has a two-thirds likelihood of winning a game, it would still take 23 games to make the chance of the weaker team winning the series less than 5 percent—and even then, there would still be a chance that the weaker team could still win the series. Mathematically then, winning a seven-game series is meaningless—there have been just too few games to eliminate the potential for a lesser team to beat a better team.

Just how mathematically meaningless a seven-game series is can be demonstrated by the case of a team that is only five percent better than another team: “in the case of one team’s having only a 55-45 edge,” Mlodinow goes on to say, “the shortest statistically significant ‘world series’ would be the best of 269 games” (emp. added). “So,” Mlodinow writes, “sports playoff series can be fun and exciting, but being crowned ‘world champion’ is not a very reliable indication that a team is actually the best one.” Which, as a matter of fact about the history of the World Series, is simply a point that true baseball professionals have always acknowledged: the World Series is not a competition, but an exhibition.

What the New York Giants were saying in 1904 then—and Mlodinow more recently—is that establishing the real worth of something requires a lot of trials: many, many different repetitions. That’s something that, all of us, ought to know from experience: to learn anything, for instance, requires a lot of practice. (Even if the famous “10,000 hour rule” New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell concocted for this book, Outliers: The Story of Success, has been complicated by those who did the original research Gladwell based his research upon.) More formally, scientists and mathematicians call this the “Law of Large Numbers.”

What that law means, as the Encyclopedia of Mathematics defines it, is that “the frequency of occurence of a random event tends to become equal to its probability as the number of trials increases.” Or, to use the more natural language of Wikipedia, “the average of the results obtained from a large number of trials should be close to the expected value, and will tend to become closer as more trials are performed.” What the Law of Large Numbers implies is that Natapoff’s analogy between the Electoral College and the World Series just might be correct—though for the opposite reason Natapoff brought it up. Namely, if the Electoral College is like the World Series, and the World Series is not designed to find the best team in baseball but instead be merely an exhibition, then that implies that the Electoral College is not a serious attempt to find the best president—because what the Law would appear to advise is that, in order to obtain a better result, it is better to gather more voters.

Yet the currently-fashionable dogma of the academy, it would seem, is expressly-designed to dismiss that possibility: if, as Fish says, “balls and strikes” (or just things in general) are the creations of the “umpire” (also known as a “discursive system”), then it is very difficult to confront the wrongheadedness of Natapoff’s defense of the Electoral College—or, for that matter, the wrongheadedness of the Electoral College itself. After all, what does an individual run matter—isn’t what’s important the game in which it is scored? Or, to put it another way, isn’t it more important where (to Natapoff, in which state; to Fish, less geographically inclined, in which “discursive system”) a vote is cast, rather than whether it was cast? The answer in favor of the former at the expense of the latter to many, if not most, literary-type intellectuals is clear—but as any statistician will tell you, it’s possible for any run of luck to continue for quite a bit longer than the average person might expect. (That’s one reason why it takes at least 23 games to minimize the randomness between two closely-matched baseball teams.) Even so, it remains difficult to believe—as it would seem that many today, both within and without the academy, do—that the umpire can continue to call every pitch a strike.


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.

A Part of the Main

… every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine
—John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

The “natural selection pressures that drive evolution can flip-flop faster than previously thought,” reported the Kansas City Star, six years ago, on a study of Bahamanian lizards. The details are, as always, not nearly as interesting as the newspaper writers make them appear: they involve percentages of as little as two and three percent. But the scientists found them significant, and the larger point remains: Darwin “thought that evolution must occur slowly and gradually,” but actual observed nature doesn’t demonstrate that. Which is to say that change, when it comes, can come suddenly and unexpectedly—something that may hold as equally well for sports, say, as lizards. Like golf, perhaps.

If I were to tell you, for instance, that while seven percent of all white people earning less than $50,000 dollars a year participated in a particular something in 2009, nineteen percent of all white people earning more than $125,000 a year did, one plausible suspect for the role of the particular something might be the Republican Party. After all, Mitt Romney’s strategy to win the presidency this November involved capturing 61 percent of the white vote, according to an unnamed source quoted in the National Journal this past August. But that guess would be wrong: the “particular something” is a round of golf.

Surely it takes no great seer to tell us that if one partner in this twosome is in trouble, the other ought to be looking for a lawyer. Golf has found its numbers to be relatively static: back in 2008, the New York Times ran a story on the “disappearance of golfers.” One expert quoted in the story said that while the “man on the street will tell you that golf is booming because he sees Tiger Woods on TV … the reality is, while we haven’t exactly tanked, the numbers have been disappointing for some time.” Golfers are overwhelmingly whiter and wealthier than their fellow Americans just as Republican voters are, which is to say that, like the Republican party, golf needs to ask whether being whiter and wealthier (and, though I haven’t mentioned it, older) are necessary—or contingent—parts of their identities.

The answer to that question will likely determine the survival of each. “If demographics is destiny, the Republican party has a rendezvous with irrelevance” coming, as one journalist has put the point—and golf, one assumes, faces much the same issue. Still, it seems likely that golf has at least, if not a better, chance of survival than the Republican party: it was already long in existence when the Republican party was born.

I’m actually being facetious there—obviously, anything so important as golf will outlive a mere political party, the transient accumulations of various interests. The question thusly isn’t so much the end, but rather the means: the path whereby golf might succeed. And there, it may be, lies a tale.

The roots of that tale might lie with the work of a doctor named Ann McKee. She works at the Veteran’s Hospital in Bedford, Massachussetts, and it has become part of her job over the past decade to examine the brains of dead football players and other people who may have been exposed to repeated concussions over the course of their lives. She’s become expert in diagnosing—after death, which is the only time it can be diagnosed—a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. What’s she’s found, however, is that there are more dangerous things than concussions.

What Dr. McKee’s work has shown, that is, is that while concussions are horrible injuries it’s really the repeated, low-level jarrings that an activity like football can cause the brain that seems to cause C.T.E., a disease that mimics Alzheimer’s in many ways, including a final descent into dementia. And what it’s meant, at least for the doctor, is that she’s found an answer to this question: if her son “had a chance to join the NFL,” Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker asked her, “what would she advise him?” And here is what the doctor said: “‘Don’t. Not if you want to have a life after football.’”

“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls,” wrote John Donne four centuries ago: “It tolls for thee.” Dr. McKee’s reply to Gladwell’s question may be just such a church bell tolling in the night: at the least, it is the link between the NFL and those lizards sunning themselves in the Bahamas. For when the mothers of America begin to hear it, and what it might mean for their sons (and possibly their daughters), it may provoke something of a sea change among the behavior of Americans. Like the change in the lizards, it may come suddenly, and not gradually. One day, there just won’t be anybody at the stadium any more.

If that does happen, it seems absurd to think that Americans will abandon sport entirely. Baseball, one expects, would see a huge surge in popularity that would overtake even that wave during the steriod era. Basketball, obviously, would become even more popular than it already is. And, perhaps, just a bit of interest would run over golf’s way. Golf, in other words, unlike the Republican Party, may be on the cusp of a new boom. What seems improbable, in short, can quickly come to seem inevitable.

And so, since it may be that entire societies can, at times, be swept by vast tides that completely overcome that which came before, so too can obscure blog posts in the wilderness called the Internet be swung suddenly from what might appear to be their ostensible subjects. Which might be of some comfort to those who observe the completely evitable tragedies like the one last week in Connecticut, and wonder if, or ever, the United States will decide to do something about its ridiculous gun laws.