Just Say No

Siger wished to remain a professing Catholic, and to safeguard his faith he had recourse to the celebrated theory of the two truths: what is true in philosophy may be false in religion, and vice versa.
—“Siger of Brabant” New Catholic Encyclopedia. 1914. 
If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices.
—Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles
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“The Triumph of Thomas Aquinas Over Averroës”  Benozzo Gozzoli        (1420-1497)

Let no one,” read the sign over Plato’s Academy, the famed school of ancient Athens, “ignorant of mathematics enter here.” To Plato, understanding mathematics was prerequisite to the discussion of other topics, including politics. During the 1880s, however, some professors in the German university system (like Wilhelm Windelband and Wilhelm Dilthey) divided knowledge into what they called “geisteswissenschaften” (“human sciences”) and “naturwissenschaften” (“natural sciences”), so that where Plato viewed mathematics as a necessary substrate in a vertical, hierarchical relation with other fields, the Germans thought of that relation horizontally, as if they were co-equals. Today, that German conception is best exemplified by what’s known as “science studies”: the “institutional goal of” which, as Mark Bauerlein of Emory University observed some years ago, is “to delimit the sciences to one knowledge domain, to show that they speak not for reality, but for certain constructions of reality.” (Or, as one of the founders of “science studies”—Andrew Ross—began a book on the matter back in the early 1990s: “This book is dedicated to all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.”) Yet, while it may be that the German horizontal conception (to use Plato’s famous metaphor) “carves nature at the joint” better than Plato’s vertical one, the trouble with thinking of the mathematical, scientific world as one thing and the world of the human, including the political, as something else is that, among other costs, it makes it very difficult to tell—as exemplified by two different accounts of this same historical event—the story of George Washington’s first veto. Although many people appear to think of the “humanities” as just the ticket to escape America’s troubled political history … well, maybe not.

The first account I’ll mention is a chapter entitled “The First Veto,” contained in a book published in 2002 called Political Numeracy: Mathematical Perspectives on Our Chaotic Constitution. Written by law professor Michael Meyerson of the University of Baltimore, Meyerson’s book is deeply influenced by the German, horizontal view: he begins his book by observing that, when he began law school, his torts teacher sneered to his class that if any of them “were any good in math, you’d all be in medical school,” and goes on to observe that the “concept of mathematics can be relevant to the study of law seems foreign to many modern legal minds”—presumably, due to the German influence. Meyerson writes his book, then, as an argument against the German horizontal concept—and hence, implicitly, in favor of the Platonic, Greek one. Yet Meyerson’s work is subtly damaged by contact with the German view: it is not as good a treatment of the first presidential veto as another depiction of that same event—one written long before the German distinction came to be dominant in the United States.

That account was written by political scientist Edward James of the University of Chicago, and is entitled The First Apportionment of Federal Representatives in the United States: A Study in American Politics. Published in 1896, or more than a century before Meyerson’s account, it is nevertheless wholly superior: in the first place because of its level of detail, but in the second because—despite being composed in what might appear to contemporary readers as a wholly-benighted time—it’s actually far more sophisticated than Meyerson on precisely the subject that the unwary might suppose him to be weakest on. But before taking up that matter, it might be best to explain just what the first presidential veto was about.

George Washington only issued two vetoes during his two terms as president of the United States, which isn’t a record—several presidents have issued zero vetoes, including George W. Bush in his first term. But two is a pretty low number of vetoes: the all-time record holder, Franklin Roosevelt, issued 635 vetoes over his twelve years in office, and two others have issued more than a hundred. Yet while Washington’s second veto, concerning the War Department, appears fairly inconsequential today, his first veto has had repercussions that still echo in the United States. That’s because it concerned what’s of tremendous political importance to all Americans even now: the architecture of the national legislature, Congress. But it also (in a fashion that may explain just why Washington’s veto does not receive the attention it might) concerned that basic mathematical operation: division.

The structure of the Congress is detailed in Article One of the U.S. Constitution, whose first section vests the legislative power of the national government in Congress and then divides that Congress into two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Section Two of Article One describes the House of Representatives, and Clause Three of Section Two describes, among other things, just how members of the House should be distributed around the nation: the members should, the clause says, “not exceed one for every thirty Thousand” inhabitants. But it also says that “each state shall have at Least one Representative”—and that causes all the trouble.

“At the heart of the dispute,” as Meyerson remarks, is a necessarily small matter: “fractions.” Or, as James puts it in what I think of as his admirably direct fashion:

There will always be remainders after dividing the population of the state by the number of people entitled to a representative, and so long as this is true, an exact division on numerical basis is impossible, if state lines must be observed in the process of apportionment.

It isn’t possible, in other words, to have one-sixth of a congressman (no matter what we might think of her cognitive abilities), nor is it likely that state populations will be an easily-dividable number. If it were possible to ignore state lines it would also be possible to divide up the country by population readily: as James remarks, without having to take into account state boundaries the job would be “a mere matter of arithmetic.” But because state boundaries have to be taken into account, it isn’t.

The original bill—the one that Washington vetoed—tackled this problem in two steps: in the first place, it simply divided the country, whose population the 1790 Census revealed to be (on Census Day, 2 August 1790) 3,929,214, and divided by 33,000 (which does not exceed one per 30,000), which of course gives a product just shy of 120 (119.067090909, to be precise). So that was to be the total number of seats in the House of Representatives.

The second step then was to distribute them, which Congress solved by giving—according to the “The Washington Papers” at the University of Virginia—“an additional member to the eight states with the largest fraction left over after dividing.” But doing so meant that, effectively, some states’ population was being divided by 30,000 while others were being divided by some other number: as James describes, while Congress determined the total number of congressmen by dividing the nation’s total population by 33,000, when it came time to determine which states got those congressmen the legislature used a different divisor. The bill applied a 30,000 ratio to “Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia,” while applying “one of 27,770 to the other eight states.” Hence, as Washington would complain in his note to Congress explaining his veto, there was “no one proportion or divisor”—a fact that Edmund Randolph, Washington’s Attorney General (and, significantly as we’ll see, a Virginian), would say was “repugnant to the spirit of the constitution.” That opinion Washington’s Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson (also a Virginian) shared.

Because the original bill used different divisors, Jefferson said that meant that it did not contain “any principle at all”—and hence would allow future Congresses to manipulate census results for political purposes “according to any … crochet which ingenuity may invent.” Jefferson thought, instead, that every state’s population ought to be divided by the same number: a “common divisor.” On the one hand, of course, that appears perfectly fair: using a single divisor gave the appearance of transparency and prevented the kinds of manipulations Jefferson envisioned. But it did not prevent what is arguably another manipulation: under Jefferson’s plan, which had largely the same results as the original plan, two seats were taken away from Delaware and New Hampshire and given to Pennsylvania—and Virginia.

Did I mention that Jefferson (and Randolph and Washington) was a Virginian? All three were, and at the time Virginia was, as Meyerson to his credit points out, “the largest state in the Union” by population. Yet while Meyerson does correctly note “that the Jefferson plan is an extraordinarily effective machine for allocating extra seats to large states,” he fails to notice something else about Virginia—something that James does notice (as we shall see). Virginia in the 1790s was not just the most populous state, but also a state with a very large, very wealthy, and very particular local industry.

That industry was, of course, slavery, and as James wrote (need I remind you) in 1896, it did not escape sharp people at the time of Washington’s veto that, in the first place, “the vote for and against the bill was perfectly geographical, a Northern against a Southern vote,” and secondly that Jefferson’s plan had the effect of “diminish[ing] the fractions in the Northern and Eastern states and increase them in the Southern”—a pattern that implied to some that “the real reason for the adoption” of Jefferson’s plan “was not that it secured a greater degree of fairness in the distribution, but that it secured for the controlling element in the Senate”—i.e., the slaveowners—“an additional power.” “It is noticeable,” James drily remarks, “that Virginia had been picked out especially as a state which profited” by Jefferson’s plan, and that “it was […] Virginians who persuaded the President” to veto the original bill. In other words, it’s James, in 1896, who is capable of discussing the political effects of the mathematics involved in terms of race—not Meyerson, despite the fact that the law professor (because he graduated from high school in 1976) had the benefit of, among other advantages, having witnessed at least the tail end of the American civil rights movement.

All that said, I don’t know just why, of course, Meyerson feels it possible to ignore the relation between George Washington’s first, and nearly only, veto and slavery: he might for instance argue that his focus is on the relation between mathematics and politics, and that bringing race into the discussion would muddy his argument. But that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? Meyerson’s reason for excluding slavery from his discussion of Washington’s first veto is, I suspect at any rate, driven precisely by his sense that race is a matter of geisteswissenschaften. 

After all, what else could it be? As Walter Benn Michaels of the University of Illinois at Chicago has put the point, despite the fact that “we don’t any longer believe in race as a biological entity, we still treat people as if they belonged to races”—which means that we must (still) think that race exists somehow. And since the biologists assure us that there is no way—biologically speaking—to link people from various parts of, say, Africa more than people from Asia or Europe (or as Michaels says, “there is no biological fact of the matter about what race you belong to”), we must thusly be treating race as a “social” or “cultural” fact rather than a natural one—which of course implies that we must think there is (still) a distinction to be made between the “natural sciences” and the “human sciences.” Hence, Meyerson excludes race from his analysis of Washington’s first veto because he (still) thinks of race as part of the “human sciences”: even Meyerson, it seems, cannot escape the gravity well of the German concept. Yet, since there isn’t any such thing as race, that necessarily raises the question of just why we think that there are two kinds of “science.” Perhaps there is little to puzzle over about just why some Americans might like the idea of race, but one might think that it is something of a mystery just why soi-disant “intellectuals” like that idea.

Or maybe not.

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Size Matters

That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance.
Catch-22.
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Things refuse to be mismanaged long.
—“Of Justice and the Conscience.

 

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The Casino at Monte Carlo

 

 

Once, wrote the baseball statistician Bill James, there was “a time when Americans” were such “an honest, trusting people” that they actually had “an unhealthy faith in the validity of statistical evidence”–but by the time James wrote in 1985, things had gone so far the other way that “the intellectually lazy [had] adopted the position that so long as something was stated as a statistic it was probably false.” Today, in no small part because of James’ work, that is likely no longer as true as it once was, but nevertheless the news has not spread to many portions of academia: as University of Virginia historian Sophia Rosenfeld remarked in 2012, in many departments it’s still fairly common to hear it asserted—for example—that all “universal notions are actually forms of ideology,” and that “there is no such thing as universal common sense.” Usually such assertions are followed by a claim for their political utility—but in reality widespread ignorance of statistical effects is what allowed Donald Trump to be elected, because although the media spent much of the presidential campaign focused on questions like the size of Donald Trump’s … hands, the size that actually mattered in determining the election was a statistical concept called sample size.

First mentioned by the mathematician Jacob Bernoulli made in his 1713 book, Ars Conjectandi, sample size is the idea that “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.” Admittedly, it might not appear like much of an observation: as Bernoulli himself acknowledged, even “the most stupid person, all by himself and without any preliminary instruction,” knows that “the more such observations are taken into account, the less is the danger of straying from the goal.” But Bernoulli’s remark is the very basis of science: as an article in the journal Nature put the point in 2013, “a study with low statistical power”—that is, few observations—“has a reduced chance of detecting a true effect.” Sample sizes need to be large enough to be able to eliminate chance as a possible factor.

If that isn’t known it’s possible to go seriously astray: consider an example drawn from the work of Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky (MacArthur “genius” grant winner) and (Nobel Prize-winning) Daniel Kahneman—a study “of two toys infants will prefer.” Let’s say that in the course of research our investigator finds that, of “the first five infants studied, four have shown a preference for the same toy.” To most psychologists, the two say, this would be enough for the researcher to conclude that she’s on to something—but in fact, the two write, a “quick computation” shows that “the probability of a result as extreme as the one obtained” being due simply to chance “is as high as 3/8.” The scientist might be inclined to think, in other words, that she has learned something—but in fact her result has a 37.5 percent chance of being due to nothing at all.

Yet when we turn from science to politics, what we find is that an American presidential election is like a study that draws grand conclusions from five babies. Instead of being one big sample—as a direct popular national election would be—presidential elections are broken up into fifty state-level elections: the Electoral College system. What that means is that American presidential elections maximize the role of chance, not minimize it.

The laws of statistics, in other words, predict that chance will play a large role in presidential elections—and as it happens, Tim Meko, Denise Lu and Lazaro Gamio reported for The Washington Post three days after the election that “Trump won the presidency with razor-thin margins in swing states.” “This election was effectively decided,” the trio went on to say, “by 107,000 people”—in an election in which more than 120 million votes were cast, that means that election was decided by less than a tenth of one percent of the total votes. Trump won Pennsylvania by less than 70,000 votes of nearly 6 million, Wisconsin by less than 30,000 of just less than three million, and finally Michigan by less than 11,000 out of 4.5 million: the first two by just more than one percent of the total vote each—and Michigan by a whopping .2 percent! Just to give you an idea of how insignificant these numbers are by comparison with the total vote cast, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation it’s possible that a thousand people in the five largest counties were involved in car crashes—which isn’t even to mention people who just decided to stay home because they couldn’t find a babysitter.

Trump owes his election, in short, to a system that is vulnerable to chance because it is constructed to turn a large sample (the total number of American voters) into small samples (the fifty states). Science tells us that small sample sizes increase the risk of random chance playing a role, American presidential elections use a smaller sample size than they could, and like several other presidential elections, the 2016 election did not go as predicted. Donald Trump could, in other words, be called “His Accidency” with even greater justice than John Tyler—the first vice-president to be promoted due to the death of his boss in office—was. Yet, why isn’t that point being made more publicly?

According to John Cassidy of The New Yorker, it’s because Americans haven’t “been schooled in how to think in probabilistic terms.” But just why that’s true—and he’s essentially making the same point Bill James did in 1985, though more delicately—is, I think, highly damaging to many of Clinton’s biggest fans: the answer is, because they’ve made it that way. It’s the disciplines where many of Clinton’s most vocal supporters make their home, in other words, that are most directly opposed to the type of probabilistic thinking that’s required to see the flaws in the Electoral College system.

As Stanford literary scholar Franco Moretti once observed, the “United States is the country of close reading”: the disciplines dealing with matters of politics, history, and the law within the American system have, in fact, more or less been explicitly constructed to prevent importing knowledge of the laws of chance into them. Law schools, for example, use what’s called the “case method,” in which a single case is used to stand in for an entire body of law: a point indicated by the first textbook to use this method, Christopher Langdell’s A Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts. Other disciplines, such as history, are similar: as Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein has written, many such disciplines depend for their very livelihood upon “affirming that an incisive reading of a single text or event is sufficient to illustrate a theoretical or historical generality.” In other words, it’s the very basis of the humanities to reject the concept of sample size.

What’s particularly disturbing about this point is that, as Joe Pinsker documented in The Atlantic last year, the humanities attract a wealthier student pool than other disciplines—which is to say that the humanities tend to be populated by students and faculty with a direct interest in maintaining obscurity around the interaction between the laws of chance and the Electoral College. That doesn’t mean that there’s a connection between the architecture of presidential elections and the fact that—as Geoffrey Harpham, former president and director of the National Humanities Center, has observed—“the modern concept of the humanities” (that is, as a set of disciplines distinct from the sciences) “is truly native only to the United States, where the term acquired a meaning and a peculiar cultural force that it does not have elsewhere.” But it does perhaps explain just why many in the national media have been silent regarding that design in the month after the election.

Still, as many in the humanities like to say, it is possible to think that the current American university and political structure is “socially constructed,” or in other words could be constructed differently. The American division between the sciences and the humanities is not the only way to organize knowledge: as the editors of the massive volumes of The Literary and Cultural Reception of Darwin in Europe pointed out in 2014, “one has to bear in mind that the opposition of natural sciences … and humanities … does not apply to the nineteenth century.” If that opposition that we today find so omnipresent wasn’t then, it might not be necessary now. Hence, if the choice of the American people is between whether they ought to get a real say in the affairs of government (and there’s very good reason to think they don’t), or whether a bunch of rich yahoos spend time in their early twenties getting drunk, reading The Great Gatsby, and talking about their terrible childhoods …well, I know which side I’m on. But perhaps more significantly, although I would not expect that it happens tomorrow, still, given the laws of sample size and the prospect of eternity, I know how I’d bet.

Or, as another sharp operator who’d read his Bernoulli once put the point:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

 

All Even

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or a skyscraper, on a cloudless September one.

Lions For Lambs

And the remnant of Jacob shall be among the Gentiles in the midst of many people as a lion among the beasts of the forest, as a young lion among the flocks of sheep …
Micah 5:8

Micah was the first prophet to predict the downfall of Jerusalem. According to him, the city was doomed because its beautification was financed by dishonest business practices, which impoverished the city’s citizens. He also called to account the prophets of his day, whom he accused of accepting money for their oracles.
“Micah.” Wikipedia.

 

“Before long I’ll be dead, and you and your brother and your sister and all of her children, all of us dead, all of us rotting underground,” says the villainous patriarch of the aristocratic Lannister clan, Tywin, to his son Jaime in a conversation during the first season of the hit HBO show, Game of Thrones. “It’s the family name that lives on,” Tywin continues—a sentence that not only does much to explain the popularity of the show, but also overturns the usual explanation for that interest: the narrative uncertainty, or the way in which, at least in the first several seasons, it was never obvious which characters were the heroes, and so would survive to the end of the tale. But if Tywin is right, the attraction of the show isn’t that it is so unpredictable. It’s rather that the show’s uncertainty about the various characters’ fates is balanced by a matching certainty that they are in peril: either from the political machinations that end up destroying many of the characters the show had led us to think were protagonists (Ned and his son Robb Stark in particular)—or from the horror that, the opening minutes of the show’s very first episode display, has awakened in the frozen north of Thrones’ fictional world. Hence, the uncertainty about what is going to happen is mirrored by a certainty that something will happen—a certainty signified by the motto of the family to which many fan-favorite characters belong, House Stark: “Winter is Coming.” It’s that motto, I think, that furnishes much of the show’s power—because it is such a direct riposte to much of today’s conventional wisdom, a dogma that unites the supposed “radical left” of the contemporary university with their seeming ideological opposites: the financial elite of Wall Street.

To put it plainly, the relevant division in America today is not between Republicans and Democrats, but instead between those who (still) think the notion encapsulated by the phrase “Winter Is Coming” matters—and those who don’t. For the idea contained within the phrase “Winter Is Coming,” after all, is much older than George Martin’s series of fantasy novels. It is, for example, much the same as an idea expressed by the English writer George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, in 1946:

… we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.

What Orwell expresses here, I’d say, is the Stark idea—the idea that, sooner or later, one’s beliefs run up against reality, whether that reality comes in the form of the weather or war or something else. It’s the notion that, sooner or later, things converge towards reality: a notion that many contemporary intellectuals have abandoned. To them, the view expressed by Orwell and the Starks is what’s known as “foundationalism”: something that all recent students in the humanities have been trained, over the past several generations, to boo and hiss.

“Foundationalism,” according to Pennsylvania State University literature professor Michael Bérubé, for example—a person I often refer to because, unlike the work of a lot others, he at least expresses what he’s saying clearly, and also because he represents a university well-known for its commitment to openness and transparency and occasionally less-than-enthusiastic opposition to child abuse—is the notion that there is a “principle that is independent of all human minds.” That is opposed, for people who think about this sort of thing, to “antifoundationalism”: the idea that a lot of stuff (maybe everything) is simply a matter of “human deliberation and consensus.” Also known as “social constructionism,” it’s an idea that Orwell, or the Starks, would have looked at slant-eyed: winter, for instance, doesn’t particularly care what people think about it, and while war is like both a seminar and a hurricane, the things that happen in war—like, say, having the technology to turn an entire city into a fireball—are not appreciably different from the impact of a tsunami.

Within the humanities however the “anti-foundationalist” or “social constructionist” idea has largely taken the field. “Notwithstanding,” as literature professor Mark Bauerlein of Emory University has remarked, “the diversity trumpeted by humanities departments these days, when it comes to conceptions of knowledge, one standpoint reigns supreme: social constructionism.” To those who hold it, it is a belief that straightforwardly powers what Bauerlein calls “a moral obligation to social justice”: in this view, either you are on the side of antifoundationalism, or you are a yahoo who thinks that the problem with the world is that there isn’t enough Donald Trump in it. Yet antifoundationalism, or the idea that everything is a matter of human discussion, is not necessarily so obviously on the side of good and not evil as the professors of the nation’s universities appear to believe.

In fact, while Bauerlein says that this dogma is “a party line, a tribal glue distinguishing humanities professors from their colleagues in the business school, the laboratory, the chapel, and the computing center, most of whom believe that at least some knowledge is independent of social conditions,” there’s actually good reason to think that a disbelief in an underlying reality isn’t all that unfamiliar to the business school. Arguably, there’s no portion of the university that pays more homage to the dogma of “social construction” than the business school.

Take, for instance, the idea Eugene Fama has built his career upon: the “random walk” theory of the stock market, also known as the “efficient market hypothesis.” Today, Fama is a Nobel Prize-laureate (well, winner of the Swedish National Bank’s Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, a prize not established by Alfred Nobel in his 1895 will), a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and the so-called “Father of Finance, ” but in 1965 he was an obscure graduate student—at least, until he wrote the paper that established him within his profession that year, “The Behavior of Stock-Market Prices.” In that paper, Fama argued that “the future path of the price level of a security is no more predictable than the path of a series of cumulated random numbers,” which had the consequence that “the series of price changes has no memory.” (Which is what stock prospectuses mean when they say that “past performance cannot predict future performance.”) What Fama meant was that, no matter how many times he went back over the data, he could find no means by which to predict the future path of a particular stock. Hence he concluded that, when it comes to the market, “the past cannot be used to predict the future in any meaningful way”—an idea with some notably anti-foundationalist consequences.

Those consequences can be be viewed in such papers as Fama’s 2010 study with colleague Kenneth French: “Luck versus Skill in the Cross-Section of Mutual Fund Returns”—a study that set out to examine whether it was true that the managers of mutual funds can actually do what they claim they can do, and outperform the stock market. In “Luck versus Skill,” Fama and French say that the evidence shows those managers can’t: “For fund investors the … results are disheartening,” because “few active funds produce … returns that cover their costs.” Maybe there are really intelligent people out there who are smarter than the market, Fama is suggesting—but if there are, he can’t find them.

Now, so far Fama’s idea might sound pretty unexceptional: to readers of this blog, it might even sound like common sense. It’s a fairly close idea to the one explored, for instance, by psychologist Amos Tversky and his co-authors in the paper, “The Hot Hand in Basketball,” which was about how what appeared to be a “hot,” or “clutch,” basketball shooter was simply an effect of randomness: if your skill level is such that you expect to make a certain percentage of your shots, then—simply through the laws of probability—it is likely that you will make a certain number of baskets in a row. Similarly, if there are enough mutual funds in the market, some number of them will have gaudy track records to report: “Given the multitude of funds,” as Fama writes, “many have extreme returns by chance.” If there’s enough participants in any competition, some will be winners—or to put it another way, if a monkey throws enough shit at a wall, some of it will stick.

That, Fama might say, doesn’t mean that the monkey has somehow gotten in touch with Reality: if no one person can outperform the market, then there is nothing anyone can know that would help them to become a better stock-picker. What that must mean in turn is (as the Wikipedia article on the subject notes) that “market prices reflect all available information,” or that “stocks always trade at their fair value”—which is right about where that the work of seemingly-conservative professors in economics departments and business schools, and their seeming-liberal opponents in departments of the humanities begins to converge.

Fama, after all, denies the existence of what are known as “bubbles”: “speculative bubbles, market bubbles, price bubbles, financial bubbles, speculative manias or balloons” as Wikipedia terms them. “Bubbles” describe situations in which a given asset—like, I don’t know, a house—is traded “at a price or price range that strongly deviates from the corresponding asset’s intrinsic value.” The classic example is the Dutch tulip craze of the seventeenth century, during which a single tulip bulb might have sold for ten times the yearly wage of a workman. (Other instances might be closer to the reader’s mind than that.) But according to Fama there can be no such thing as a “bubble”: when John Cassidy of The New Yorker said to Fama in an interview that the chief problem during the financial crisis of 2008 was that “there was a credit bubble that inflated and ultimately burst,” Fama replied by saying, “I don’t know what a credit bubble means. I don’t even know what a bubble means. These words have become popular. I don’t think they have any meaning.” Although a careful reader might note that what Fama is saying here is something like that there is a bubble in the concept of bubbles, what he intends is to deny that there are bubbles, and thus that there is any “intrinsic value” to a given asset.

It’s at this point, I think, that the connection between Eugene Fama’s contention about the “efficient market hypothesis” and the doctrine in the humanities known as “antifoundationalism” becomes clear: both are denials of the Starks’ “Winter Is Coming” motto. After all, a bubble only makes sense if there is some kind of “intrinsic,” or “foundational,” value to something; similarly, a “foundationalist” thinks that there is some nonhuman reality. But why does this obscure and esoteric doctrinal dispute among a few intellectuals matter, aside from being the latest turn of the wheel of fashion within the walls of the academy?

Well, it matters because what they are really discussing—the real meaning of “intrinsic value”—is whether to allow ordinary people to have any say about the future of their lives.

Many liberals, for instance, have warned about the Republican assault on the right to vote in such matters as the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County vs. Holder, which essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or the passage of “voter ID laws” in many states—sold as “protections” but in reality a means of preventing voting. What’s far less-often discussed, however, is that intellectuals of the supposed academic left have begun—quietly, to be sure—to question the very idea of voting.

Oxford don Mary Beard, for example—a scholar of the ancient world and avowed feminist—recently wrote a column for the London Review of Books concerning the “Brexit” referendum, in which the people of Great Britain decided whether to stay in the European Union or not. Beard’s sort—educated, with “progressive” opinions—thought that Britain ought to remain in the Union; when the results came in, however, the nation had decided to leave, or “Brexit.” “Handing us a referendum,” Beard wrote in response, “is not a way to reach a responsible decision”—“for God’s sake,” one can almost hear Beard lecturing, “how can you let an important decision be up to the [insert condescending adjective here] voters?” But while that might sound like a one-time response to a very particular situation, in fact many smart people who share Beard’s general views also share her distrust of elections.

What is an election, anyway, but an event analogous to a battle, or a hurricane? To people inclined to dismiss the significance of real events, it’s easy enough to dismiss the notion of elections. “Importantly”— wrote Princeton University’s Lawrance S. Rockefeller Professor of Politics, Stephen Macedo, recently—“majority rule is not a fundamental principle of either democracy or fairness, nor is it required by any basic principle of democracy or fairness.” According to Macedo, “the basic principle of democracy” isn’t elections, but instead “political equality,” or a “respect [for] minority rights and … fair and inclusive deliberation.” In other words, so long as “minority rights” are respected and there is “fair and inclusive deliberation,” it doesn’t matter if anyone votes or not—which is to say that to very many smart, and supposedly “liberal” or “leftist” people, the very notion that voting has any kind of “intrinsic value” to it at all has become irrelevant.

That, more or less, is what the characters on Game of Thrones think too. After all, as Tywin says to Jaime at one point during the conversation I began this essay with, a “lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinion of a sheep.” Which, one supposes, is not a very surprising sentiment on a show that, while it sometimes depicts depicts dragons and magic, mostly concerns the doings of a handful of aristocrats in a feudal age. What might be pretty surprising, however—depending on your level of distrust—is that, today, a great many of the people entrusted to be society’s shepherds appear to agree with them.