This Doubtful Strife

Let me be umpire in this doubtful strife.
Henry VI. Act IV, Scene 1.

 

“Mike Carey is out as CBS’s NFL rules analyst,” wrote Claire McNear recently for (former ESPN writer and Grantland founder) Bill Simmons’ new website, The Ringer, “and we are one step closer to having robot referees.” McNear is referring to Carey and CBS’s “mutual agreement” to part last week: the former NFL referee, with 24 years of on-field experience, was not able to translate those years into an ability to convey rules decisions to CBS’s audience. McNear goes on to argue that Carey’s firing/resignation is simply another milestone on the path to computerized refereeing—a march that, she says, reached another milestone just days earlier, when the NBA released “Last Two Minute reports, which detail the officiating crew’s internal review of game calls.” About that release, it seems, the National Basketball Referees Association said it encourages “the idea that perfection in officiating is possible,” a standard that the association went on to say “is neither possible nor desirable” because “if every possible infraction were to be called, the game would be unwatchable.” It’s an argument that will appear familiar for many with experience in the humanities: at least since William Blake’s “dark satanic mills,” writers and artists have opposed the impact of science and technology—usually for reasons advertised as “political.” Yet, at least with regard to the recent history of the United States, that’s a pretty contestable proposition: it’s more than questionable, in other words, whether the humanities’ opposition to the sciences hasn’t had pernicious rather than beneficial effects. The work of the humanities, that is, by undermining the role of science, may not be helping to create the better society its proponents often say will result. Instead, the humanities may actually be helping to create a more unequal society.

That the humanities, that supposed bastion of “political correctness” and radical leftism, could in reality function as the chief support of the status quo might sound surprising at first, of course—according to any number of right-wing publications, departments of the humanities are strongholds of radicalism. But any real look around campus shouldn’t find it that confounding to think of the humanities as, in reality, something else : as Joe Pinsker reported for The Atlantic last year, data from the National Center for Education Statistics demonstrates that “the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies.” That is, while kids “from lower-income families tend toward ‘useful’ majors, such as computer science, math, and physics,” those “whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and the performing arts.” It’s a result that should not be that astonishing: as Pinsker observes, not only is it so that “the priciest, top-tier schools don’t offer Law Enforcement as a major,” it’s a point that cuts across national boundaries; Pinsker also reports that Greg Clark of the University of California found recently that students with “rare, elite surnames” at Great Britain’s Cambridge University “were much more likely to study classics, English, and history, and much less likely to study computer science and economics.” Far from being the hotbeds of far-left thought they are often portrayed as, in other words, departments of the humanities are much more likely to house the most elite, most privileged student body on campus.

It’s in those terms that the success of many of the more fashionable doctrines on American college campuses over the past several decades might best be examined: although deconstruction and many more recent schools of thought have long been thought of as radical political movements, they could also be thought of as intellectual weapons designed in the first place—long before they are put to any wider use—to keep the sciences at bay. That might explain just why, far from being the potent tools for social justice they are often said to be, these anti-scientific doctrines often produce among their students—as philosopher Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago remarked some two decades ago—a “virtually complete turning from the material side of life, toward a type of verbal and symbolic politics.” Instead of an engagement with the realities of American political life, in other words, many (if not all) students in the humanities prefer to practice politics by using “words in a subversive way, in academic publications of lofty obscurity and disdainful abstractness.” In this way, “one need not engage with messy things such as legislatures and movements in order to act daringly.” Even better, it is only in this fashion, it is said, that the conceptual traps of the past can be escaped.

One of the justifications for this entire practice, as it happens, was once laid out by the literary critic, Stanley Fish. The story goes that Bill Klem, a legendary umpire, was once behind the plate plying his trade:

The pitcher winds up, throws the ball. The pitch comes. The batter doesn’t swing. Klem for an instant says nothing. The batter turns around and says “O.K., so what was it, a ball or a strike?” And Klem says, “Sonny, it ain’t nothing ’till I call it.”

The story, Fish says, is illustrative of the notion that “of course the world is real and independent of our observations but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc.” It’s by these means, in other words, that academic pursuits like “cultural studies” and the like have come into being: means by which sociologists of science, for example, show how the productions of science may be the result not merely of objects in the world, but also the predilections of scientists to look in one direction and not another. Cancer or the planet Saturn, in other words, are not merely objects, but also exist—perhaps chiefly—by their place within the languages with which people describe them: an argument that has the great advantage of preserving the humanities against the tide of the sciences.

But, isn’t that for the best? Aren’t the humanities preserving an aspect of ourselves incapable of being captured by the net of the sciences? Or, as the union of professional basketball referees put it in their statement, don’t they protect, at the very least, that which “would cease to exist as a form of entertainment in this country” by their ministrations? Perhaps. Yet, as ought to be apparent, if the critics of science can demonstrate that scientists have their blind spots, then so too do the humanists—for one thing, an education devoted entirely to reading leaves out a rather simple lesson in economics.

Correlation is not causation, of course, but it is true that as the theories of academic humanists became politically wilder, the gulf between haves and have-nots in America became greater. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz observed a few years ago, “inequality in America has been widening for decades”; to take one of Stiglitz’s examples, “the six heirs to the Walmart empire”—an empire that only began in the early 1960s—now “possess a combined wealth of some $90 billion, which is equivalent to the wealth of the entire bottom 30 percent of U.S. society.” To put the facts another way—as Christopher Ingraham pointed out in the Washington Post last year—“the wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. households have captured a whopping 76 percent of all the wealth in America.” At the same time, as University of Illinois at Chicago literary critic Walter Benn Michaels has noted, “social mobility” in the United States is now “lower than in both France and Germany”—so much so, in fact, that “[a]nyone born poor in Chicago has a better chance of achieving the American Dream by learning German and moving to Berlin.” (A point perhaps highlighted by the fact that Germany has made its universities free to any who wish to attend them.) In any case, it’s a development made all the more infuriating by the fact that diagnosing the harm of it involves merely the most remedial forms of mathematics.

“When too much money is concentrated at the top of society,” Stiglitz continued not long ago, “spending by the average American is necessarily reduced.” Although—in the sense that it is a creation of human society—what Stiglitz is referring to is “socially constructed,” it is also simply a fact of nature that would exist whether the economy in question involved Aztecs or ants. In whatever underlying substrate, it is simply the case that those at the top of a pyramid will spend less than those near the bottom. “Consider someone like Mitt Romney”—Stiglitz asks—“whose income in 2010 was $21.7 million.” Even were Romney to become even more flamboyant than Donald Trump, “he would spend only a fraction of that sum in a typical year to support himself and his wife in their several homes.” “But,” Stiglitz continues, “take the same amount of money and divide it among 500 people—say, in the form of jobs paying $43,400 apiece—and you’ll find that almost all of the money gets spent.” In other words, by dividing the money more equally, more economic activity is generated—and hence the more equal society is also the more prosperous society.

Still, to understand Stiglitz’ point requires understanding a sequence of connected, ideas—among them a basic understanding of mathematics, a form of thinking that does not care who thinks it. In that sense, then, the humanities’ opposition to scientific, mathematical thought takes on rather a different sense than it is often cracked up to be. By training its students to ignore the evidence—and more significantly, the manner of argument—of mathematics and the sciences, the humanities are raising up a generation (or several) to ignore the evidence of impoverishment that is all around us here in 21st century America. Even worse, it fails to give students a means of combatting that impoverishment: an education without an understanding of mathematics cannot cope with, for instance, the difference between $10,000 and $10 billion—and why that difference might have a greater significance than simply being “unfair.” Hence, to ignore the failures of today’s humanities is also to ignore just how close the United States is … to striking out.

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Bait and Switch

Golf, Race, and Class: Robert Todd Lincoln, Oldest Son of President Abraham Lincoln, and President of the Chicago Golf Club
Golf, Race, and Class: Robert Todd Lincoln, Oldest Son of President Abraham Lincoln, and President of the Chicago Golf Club

But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.
A Fighting Chance
    Senator Elizabeth Warren.

… cast out first the beam out of thine own eye …
Matthew 7:5

 

“Where are all the black golfers?” Golf magazine’s Michael Bamberger asked back in 2013: Tiger Wood’s 1997 victory at the Masters, Bamberger says, was supposed to open “the floodgates … to minority golfers in general and black golfers in particular.” But nearly two decades later Tiger is the only player on the PGA Tour to claim to be African-American. It’s a question likely to loom larger as time passes: Woods missed the cut at last week’s British Open, the first time in his career he has missed a cut in back-to-back majors, and FiveThirtyEight.com’s line from April about Woods (“What once seemed to be destiny—Woods’ overtaking of Nicklaus as the winningest major champion ever—now looks like a fool’s notion”) seems more prophetic than ever. As Woods’ chase for Nicklaus fades, almost certainly the question of Woods’ legacy will turn to the renaissance in participation Woods was supposedly going to unleash—a renaissance that never happened. But where will the blame fall? Once we exclude Woods’ from responsibility for playing Moses, is the explanation for why are there no black golfers, as Bamberger seems to suggest, because golf is racist? Or is it, as Bamberger’s own reporting shows, more likely due to the economy? And further, if we can’t blame Woods for not creating more golfers in his image, can we blame Bamberger for giving Americans the story they want instead of the story they need?

Consider, for instance, Bamberger’s mention of the “Tour caddie yard, once a beautiful example of integration”—and now, he writes, “so white it looks like Little Rock Central High School, circa 1955.” Or his description of how, in “Division I men’s collegiate golf … the golfers, overwhelmingly, are white kids from country-club backgrounds with easy access to range balls.” Surely, although Bamberger omits the direct reference, the rise of the lily-white caddie yard is likely not due to a racist desire to bust up the beautifully diverse caddie tableau Bamberger describes, just as it seems more likely that the presence of the young white golfers at the highest level of collegiate golf owes more to their long-term access to range balls than it does to the color of their skin. Surely the mysterious disappearance of the black professional golfer is more likely due—as the title of a story by Forbes contributor Bob Cook has it—to “How A Declining Middle Class Is Killing Golf” than golf’s racism. An ebbing tide lowers all boats.

“Golf’s high cost to entry and association with an older, moneyed elite has resulted in young people sending it to the same golden scrap heap as [many] formerly mass activities,” as Cook wrote in Forbes—and so, as “people [have] had less disposable income and time to play,” golf has declined among all Americans and not just black ones. But then, maybe that shouldn’t be surprising when, as Scientific American reported in March, the “top 20% of US households own more than 84% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% combine for a paltry 0.3%,” or when, as Time said two years ago, “the wages of median workers have remained essentially the same” for the past thirty years. So it seems likelier that the non-existent black golfer can be found at the bottom of the same hole to which many other once-real and now-imaginary Americans—like a unionized, skilled, and educated working-class—have been consigned.

The conjuring trick however whereby the disappearance of black professional golfers becomes a profound mystery, rather than a thoroughly understandable consequence of the well-documented overall decline in wages for all Americans over the past two generations, would be no surprise to Walter Benn Michaels of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “In 1947,” Michaels has pointed out for instance, repeating all the statistics, “the bottom fifth of wage-earners got 5 per cent of total income,” while “today it gets 3.4 per cent.” But the literature professor is aware not only that inequality is rising, but also that it’s long been a standard American alchemy to turn economic matters into racial ones.

Americans, Michaels has written, “love thinking that the differences that divide us are not the differences between those of us who have money and those who don’t but are instead the differences between those of us who are black and those who are white or Asian or Latino or whatever.” Why? Because if the differences between us are due to money, and the lack of it, then there’s a “need to get rid of inequality or to justify it”—while on the other hand, if those differences are racial, then there’s a simple solution: “appreciating our diversity.” In sum, if the problem is due to racism, then we can solve it with workshops and such—but if the problem is due to, say, an historic loss of the structures of middle-class life, then a seminar during lunch probably won’t cut it.

Still, it’s hard to blame Bamberger for refusing to see what’s right in front of him: Americans have been turning economic issues into racial ones for some time. Consider the argument advanced by the Southern Literary Messenger (the South’s most important prewar magazine) in 1862: the war, the magazine said, was due to “the history of racial strife” between “a supposedly superior race” that had unwisely married its fortune “with one it considered inferior, and with whom co-existence on terms of political equality was impossible.” According to this journal, the Civil War was due to racial differences, and not from any kind of clash between two different economic interests—one of which was getting incredibly wealthy by the simple expedient of refusing to pay their workers and then protecting their investment by making secret and large-scale purchases of government officials while being protected by bought-and-paid-for judges. (You know, not like today.)

Yet despite how ridiculous it sounds—because it is—the theory does have a certain kind of loopy logic. According to these Southern, and some Northern, minds, the two races were so widely divergent politically and socially that their deep, historical differences were the obvious explanation for the conflict between the two sections of the country—instead of that conflict being the natural result of allowing a pack of lying, thieving criminals to prey upon decent people. The identity of these two races—as surely you have already guessed, since the evidence is so readily apparent—were, as historian Christopher Hanlon graciously informs us: “the Norman and Saxon races.”

Duh.

Admittedly, the theory does sound pretty out there—though I suspect it sounds a lot more absurd now that you know what races these writers were talking about, rather than the ones I suspect you thought they were talking about. Still, it’s worth knowing something of the details if only to understand how these could have been considered rational arguments: to understand, in other words, how people can come to think of economic matters as racial, or cultural, ones.

In the “Normans vs. Saxons” version of this operation, the theory comes in two flavors. According to University of Georgia historian James Cobb, the Southern flavor of this racial theory held that Southerners were “descended from the Norman barons who conquered England in the 11th century and populated the upper classes of English society,” and were thus naturally equipped for leadership. Northern versions held much the same, but flipped the script: as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the 1850s, the Normans were “greedy and ferocious dragoons, sons of greedy and ferocious pirates” who had, as Conlon says, “imposed serfdom on their Saxon underlings.” To both sides then the great racial conflagration, the racial apocalypse, destined to set the continent alight would be fought between Southern white people … and Northern white people.

All of which is to say that Americans have historically liked to make their economic conflicts about race, and they haven’t always been particular about which ones—which might seem like downer news. But there is, perhaps, a bright spot to all this: whereas the Civil War-era writers treated “race” as a real description of a natural kind—as if their descriptions of “Norman” or “Saxon” had as much validity as a description of a great horned toad or Fraser’s eagle owl—nowadays Americans like to “dress race up as culture,” as Michaels says. This current orthodoxy holds that “the significant differences between us are cultural, that such differences should be respected, that our cultural heritages should be perpetuated, [and] that there’s a value in making sure that different cultures survive.” Nobody mentions that substituting “race” and “racial” for “culture” and “cultural” doesn’t change the sentence’s meaning in any important respects.

Still, it certainly has had an effect on current discourse: it’s what caused Bamberger to write that Tiger Woods “seems about as culturally black as John Boehner.” The phrase “culturally black” is arresting, because it implies that “race” may not be a biological category, as it was for the “Normans vs. Saxons” theorists. And certainly, that’s a measure of progress: just a generation or two ago it was possible to refer unselfconsciously to race in an explicitly biological way. So in that sense, it might be possible to think that because a Golf writer feels it necessary to clarify that “blackness” is a cultural, and not a biological, category, that constitutes a victory.

The credit for that victory surely goes to what the “heirs of the New Left and the Sixties have created, within the academy” as Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty wrote before his death—“a cultural Left.” The victories of that Left have certainly been laudable—they’ve even gotten a Golf magazine writer to talk about a “cultural,” instead of biological, version of whatever “blackness” is! But there’s also a cost, as Rorty also wrote: this “cultural Left,” he said, “thinks more about stigma than money, more about deep and hidden psychosexual motivations than about shallow and evident greed.” Seconding Rorty’s point, University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written that academia today is characterized by “the virtually complete turning away from the material side of life, toward a type of verbal and symbolic politics”—a “cultural Left” that thinks “the way to do … politics is to use words in a subversive way, in academic publications of lofty obscurity and disdainful abstractness,” and that “instructs its members that there is little room for large-scale social change, and maybe no room at all.” So, while it might be slightly better that mainstream publications now think of race in cultural, instead biological, terms, this might not be the triumph it’s sometimes said to be given the real facts of economic life in the United States.

Yet the advice of the American academy is that what the United States needs is more talk about culture, rather than a serious discussion about political economy. Their argument is a simple one, summarized by the recently deceased historical novelist E.L. Doctorow in an essay called “Notes on the History of Fiction”: there, the novelist argues that while there is a Richard III Society in England attempting to “recover the reputation of their man from the damage done to it by the calumnies of Shakespeare’s play,” all their efforts are useless—“there is a greater truth for the self-reflection of all mankind in the Shakespearean vision of his life than any simple set of facts can summon.” What matters, Doctorow is arguing, isn’t the real Richard III—coincidentally, the man apparently recently dug up in an English parking lot—but rather Shakespeare’s approximation of him, just in the same way that some Civil War-era writers argued that what mattered was “race” instead of the economics of slavery, or how Michael Bamberger fails to realize that the presence of the real white golfers that are in front of him explains the absence of the imaginary black golfers that aren’t fairly easily. What Doctorow then is really saying, and thus by extension what the “cultural Left” is really saying, is that the specific answer to the question of where the black golfers are is irrelevant, because dead words matter more than live people—an idea, however, that seems difficult to square with the notion that, as the slogan has it, black lives matter.

Golfers or not.

Fine Points

 

Whenever asked a question, [John Lewis] ignored the fine points of whatever theory was being put forward and said simply, “We’re gonna march tonight.”
—Taylor Branch.
   Parting the Waters: America in the King Years Vol. 1 

 

 

“Is this how you build a mass movement?” asked social critic Thomas Frank in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement: “By persistently choosing the opposite of plain speech?” To many in the American academy, the debate is over—and plain speech lost. More than fifteen years ago articles like philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s 1999 criticism of professor Judith Butler, “The Professor of Parody,” or political scientist James Miller’s late 1999 piece “Is Bad Writing Necessary?” got published—and both articles sank like pianos. Since then it’s seemed settled that (as Nussbaum wrote at the time) the way “to do … politics is to use words in a subversive way.” Yet at a minimum this pedagogy diverts attention from, as Nussbaum says, “the material condition of others”—and at worst, as professor Walter Benn Michaels suggests, it turns the the academy into “the human resources department of the right, concerned that the women [and other minorities] of the upper middle class have the same privileges as the men.” Supposing then that bad writers are not simply playing their part in class war, what is their intention? I’d suggest that subversive writing is best understood as a parody of a tactic used, but not invented, by the civil rights movement: packing the jails.

“If the officials threaten to arrest us for standing up for our rights,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a January 1960 speech in Durham, North Carolina, “we must answer by saying that we are willing and prepared to fill up the jails of the South.” King’s speech was written directly towards the movement’s pressing problem: bailing out protestors cost money. In response, Thomas Gaither, a field secretary for the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), devised a solution: he called it “Jail No Bail.” Taylor Branch, the historian, explained the concept in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63: the “obvious advantage of ‘jail, no bail’ was that it reversed the financial burden of protest, costing the demonstrators no cash while obligating the white authorities to pay for jail space and food.” All protestors had to do was: get arrested, serve the time—and thereby cost the state their room and board.

Yet Gaither did not invent the strategy. “Packing the jails” as a strategy began, so far as I can tell, in October of 1909; so reports the Minnesotan, Harvey O’Connor, in his 1964 autobiography Revolution in Seattle: A Memoir. All that summer, the International Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) had been engaged in a struggle against “job sharks”: companies that claimed to procure jobs for their clients after the payment of a fee—and then failed to deliver. (“It was customary,” O’Connor wrote, “for the employment agencies … to promote a rapid turnover”: the companies would take the money and either not produce the job, or the company that “hired” the newly-employed would fire them shortly afterwards.) In the summer of 1909 those companies succeeded in banning public assemblies and speaking on the part of the Wobblies, and legal challenges proved impossible. So in the October of that year the Wobblies “sent out a call” in the labor organization’s newspaper, the Industrial Worker: “Wanted: Men To Fill The Jails of Spokane.”

Five days later, the Wobblies held a “Free Speech Day” rally, and managed to get 103 men arrested. By “the end of November 500 Wobblies were in jail.” Through the “get arrested” strategy, the laborers filled the city’s jail “to bursting and then a school was used for the overflow, and when that filled up the Army obligingly placed a barracks at the city’s command.” And so the Wobblies’ strategy was working: the “jail expenses threatened to bankrupt the treasuries of cities even as large as Spokane.” As American writer and teacher Archie Binns had put the same point in 1942: it “was costing thousands of dollars every week to feed” the prisoners, and so the city was becoming “one big jail.” In this way, the protestors threatened to “eat the capitalistic city out of house and home”—and so the “city fathers” of Spokane backed down, instituting a permitting system for public marches and assemblies. “Packing the jails” won.

What, however, has this history to do with the dispute between plain-speakers and bad writers? In the first place it demonstrates how our present-day academy would much rather talk about Martin Luther King, Jr. and CORE than Harvey O’Connor and the Wobblies. Writing ruefully about left-wing professors like himself, Walter Benn Michaels writes “We would much rather get rid of racism than get rid of poverty”; elsewhere he says, “American liberals … carry on about racism and sexism in order to avoid doing so about capitalism.” Despite the fact that, historically, the civil rights movement borrowed a lot from the labor movement, today’s left doesn’t have much to say about that—nor much about today’s inequality. So connecting the tactics of the Wobblies to those of the civil rights movement is important because it demonstrates continuity where today’s academy wants to see, just as much as any billionaire, a sudden break.

That isn’t the only point of bringing up the “packing the jails” tactic however—the real point is that writers like Butler are making use of a version of this argument without publicly acknowledging it. As laid out by Nussbaum and others, the unsaid argument or theory or idea or concept (whatever name you’d have for it) behind “bad” writing is a version of “packing the jails.” To be plain: that by filling enough academic seats (with the right sort of person) political change will somehow automatically follow, through a kind of osmosis.

Admittedly, no search of the writings of America’s professors, Judith Butler or otherwise, will discover a “smoking gun” regarding that idea—if there is one, presumably it’s buried in an email or in a footnote in a back issue of Diacritics from 1978. The thesis can only to be discovered in the nods and understandings of the “professionals.” On what warrant, then, can I claim that it is their theory? If that’s the plan, how do I know?

My warrant extends from a man who knew, as Garry Wills of Northwestern says,  something about “the plain style”: Abraham Lincoln. To Lincoln, the only possible method of interpretation is a judgment of intent: as Lincoln said in his speech at Peoria in 1858, “when we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places by different workmen,” and “we see these timbers joined together, and see they exactly make the frame of a house or a mill,” why, “in such a case we find it impossible not to believe” that everyone involved “all understood each other from the beginning.” Or as Walter Benn Michaels has put the same point: “you can’t do textual interpretation without some appeal to authorial intention.” In other words, when we see a lot of people acting in similar ways, we should be able to make a guess about what they’re trying to do.

In the case of Butlerian feminists—and, presumably, other kinds of bad writers—bad writing allows them to “do politics in [the] safety of their campuses,” as Nussbaum says, by “making subversive gestures through speech.” Instead of “packing the jails” this pedagogy, this bad writing, teaches “packing the academy”: the theory presumably being that, just as Spokane could only jail so many people, the academy can only hold so many professors. (Itself an issue, because there are a lot fewer professorships available these days, and only liable to be fewer.) Since, as Abraham Lincoln said about what he saw in the late 1850s, we can only make a guess—but we must make a guess—about what those intentions are, I’d hazard that my guess is more or less what these bad writers have in mind.

Unfortunately, in the hands of Butler and others, bad writing is only a parody—it only mimics the very real differences between the act of going to jail and that of attempting to become the, say, Coca-Cola Professor of Rhetoric at Wherever State. A black person willing to go to jail in the South in 1960 was a person with a great deal of courage—and still would be today. But it’s also true that it’s unlikely the courageous civil rights volunteers would have conceived of, much less carried out, the act of attempting to “pack the jails” without the example of the Wobblies prior to them—just as it might be argued that, without the sense of being of the same race and gender as their oppressors, the Wobblies might not have had the courage to pack the jails of Spokane. So it certainly could be argued that the work of the “bad writers” is precisely to make those connections—and so create the preconditions for similar movements in the future.

Yet, as George Orwell might have asked, “where’s the omelette?” Where are the people in jail—and where are the decent pay and equal rights that might follow them? Butler and other “radical” critics don’t produce either: I am not reliably informed of Judith Butler’s arrest record, but I’d suspect it’s not much. So Nussbaum’s observation that while Butler’s pedagogy “instructs people that they can, right now, without compromising their security, do something bold” [emp. added] she wasn’t entirely snide then, and her words look increasingly prescient now. That’s what Nussbaum means when she says that “Butlerian feminism is in many ways easier than the old feminism”: it is a path that demonstrates to middle-class white people, women especially, just how they can “dissent” without giving up their status or power. Nussbaum thus implies that feminism or any other kind of “leftism” practiced along Butler’s lines is not only, quite literally, physically cowardly—but perhaps more importantly suggests just why the “left,” such as it is, is losing.

For surely the “Left” is losing: as many, many people besides Walter Benn Michaels have written, economic inequality has risen, and is rising, even as the sentences and jargon of today’s academics have become more complex—and the academy’s own power slowly dissolves into a mire of adjunct professorships and cut-rate labor policies. Emmanuel Saez of the University of California says that “U.S. income inequality has been steadily increasing since the 1970s, and now has reached levels not seen since 1928,” and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman says that even the wages of “highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.” We witness the rise of plutocrats on a scale never seen before, perhaps at least since the fall of the Bourbons—or even the Antonines.

That is not to suggest, to be sure, that individual “bad writers” are or are not cowards: merely to be a black person or a woman requires levels of courage many people will never be aware of in their lifetimes. Yet, Walter Benn Michaels is surely correct when he says that as things now stand, the academic left in the United States today is largely “a police force for, than an alternative to, the right,” insofar as it “would much rather get rid of racism [or sexism] than get rid of poverty.” Fighting “power” by means of a program of bad, rather than good, writing—writing designed to appeal to great numbers of people—is so obviously stupid it could only have been invented by smart people.

The objection is that giving up the program of Butlerian bad writing requires giving up the program of “liberation” her prose suggests: what Nussbaum calls Butler’s “radical libertarian” dream of the “sadomasochistic rituals of parody.” Yet as Thomas Frank has suggested, it’s just that kind of libertarian dream that led the United States into this mess in the first place: America’s recent troubles have, Frank says, resulted from “the political power of money”—a political power that was achieved courtesy of “a philosophy of liberation as anarchic in its rhetoric as Occupy [Wall Street] was in reality” [emp. Frank’s]. By rejecting that dream, American academics might obtain “food, schools, votes” and (possibly) less rape and violence for both women and men alike. But how?

Well, I have a few ideas—but you’d have to read some plain language.

Outrageous Fashion

 

In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous.
—Elsa Schiaparelli.

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The kid “wearing a bolo tie, a regular tie, Native American beads, a suit coat worn under a flannel shirt, and socks but no shoes,” as Mother Jones described one protestor’s outfit, wasn’t the worst of Occupy Wall Street’s stylistic offenses against civilization—for Thomas Frank, founder of the small magazine The Baffler, the stylistic issues of the protests went much deeper than sartorial choice. To Frank, the real crime of the movement was that it used “high-powered academic disputation as a model for social protest”: Occupy, he argues, chose “elevated jargonese” over actual achievements. To some, such criticisms might sound ridiculous—how can anyone dispute matters of style when serious issues are at stake? But in fact matters of style are the only thing at stake: the stylistic choices of Occupy, and movements like it, ultimately only fuel precisely the kinds of exploitation Occupy is supposedly meant to protest. There are real goals—chief of which being a reorganization of the American government on more democratic lines—an American left could conceivably achieve in the United States today. If only, that is, were these movements to sacrifice their style.

To say such things is, of course, super-uncool. In order to contrast itself against such unhipness, the style of Occupy takes two forms: the first being the kind of academese Frank castigates. Here is one sentence Frank cites, from an Occupier objecting to someone else complaining about how none of the Occupiers would claim to speak for the whole movement: “I would agree, an individualism that our society has definitely had inscribed upon it and continues to inscribe upon itself, ‘I can only speak for myself,’ the “only” is operative there, and of course these spaces are being opened up …” And so on. It should be recognized that this is actually a comparatively understandable sentence against some produced by the Occupiers.

The other rhetorical style practiced by the Occupiers is a virtually sub-verbal kind of soup. Here for instance is the first sentence of an article entitled “How Occupy Wall Street Began,” on the website occupytheory.org: “One of the protests that have been practiced in different countries is the Occupy Wall Street Movement.” This is not, as any competent speaker would recognize, even English, much less effective writing designed to persuade a national audience. The counterargument, of course, is that it gives the writer—who is not named—something to do, and appeals to other sub-literates. But while those goals are perhaps worthy enough, they are both incredibly myopic and hyperopic at once.

They are nearsighted in the sense that while creating jobs is nearly always laudable, one might imagine that telling the story of the movement’s origins is a task important enough to delegate to someone capable of telling it. They are farsighted—in this case, not a compliment—in the sense that while being “inclusive” is to be sure important, people who are at best para-literate are not likely to be people in positions of authority, and hence capable of making decisions in the here-and-now. Perhaps someday, many years from now, such things might matter. But as the economist John Maynard Keynes remarked, in the long-run we are all dead—which is to say that none of this would matter had Occupy achieved any results.

“There are no tangible results from the Occupy movement,” the “social entrepreneur” Tom Watson ruefully concluded in Forbes magazine a year after the end of the Zuccotti Park occupation—no legislation, no new leaders, no new national organization. By contrast, Frank notes that in the same timespan the Tea Party—often thought of as a populist movement like Occupy, only with opposite goals—managed to elect a majority in Congress, and even got Paul Ryan, the archconservative congressman who seems to misunderstand basic mathematics, on the 2012 presidential ticket. The Tea Party, in other words, chose to make real inroads to power—a point that, presumably, Occupiers might counter by observing that the Tea Party is an organization, at least in part, funded by wealthy interests. It never seems to occur to Occupiers that such interests are funding those efforts precisely because the Tea Party does serve their interests—that is, that the Tea Party takes a clear position that funding A will have political result B.

For the Occupiers and their sympathies, however, “the ‘changes’ that Occupy failed to secure” are “not really part of the story,” says Frank. “What matters” to the Occupiers, he writes, “is the carnival—all the democratic and nonhierarchical things that went on in Zuccotti Park.” Should anyone object that—shockingly—sitting in a park for two months does not appear to have done anything tangible for anybody, you’ve just exposed yourself as a part of the problem, man—not to mention been unveiled as incredibly uncool.

As Frank points out, however, “here we come to the basic contradiction of the campaign”: to “protest Wall Street in 2011” was to protest “deregulation and tax-cutting—by a philosophy of liberation as anarchic in its rhetoric as Occupy was in reality.” Want anarchy and anti-hierarchy? That’s just what corporate America wants, too. Nothing, I’m sure, delighted the boardrooms of Goldman Sachs or Chase more than to see, or read about, the characters of Zuccotti Park refusing to allow what Frank calls the “humorless, doctrinaire adults … back in charge” by refusing to produce demands.

Frank’s charge thereby echoes an argument that’s been ongoing in American academia for some time: “Something more insidious than provincialism has come to prominence in the American academy,” the prominent philosopher Martha Nussbaum charged some time ago—“the virtually complete turning from the material side of life, toward a type of verbal and symbolic politics.” Nussbaum was complaining about trends she saw in feminist scholarship; James Miller, a political scientist, more broadly described years ago how many “radical professors distrust the demand for ‘linguistic transparency,’ charging that it cripples one’s ability ‘to think the world more radically.’” The other side claims, alternately, “that plain talk is politically perfidious—reinforcing, rather than radically challenging, the cultural status quo.” Hence, the need for complex, difficult sentences—a stylistic thesis wholly believed in, it seems, by the Occupiers.

Yet, what are the consequences of such stylistic choices? I’d suggest that one of them is that certain academic arguments that might have a chance of breaking through to the mainstream, and then making a real difference to actual American lives, are being overlooked in the name of what Frank calls “a gluey swamp of academic talk and pointless antihierarchical posturing.” One of these arguments is the one that is being carefully constructed by historians Manisha Sinha and Leonard Richards at the University of Massachusetts in books like Richards’ The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination 1780-1860 and Sinha’s The Counter-revolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina. Such books enable a naturalistic, commonsense explanation for much of the political structure of American life—and thus enable something to be done about it.

Richards’ book makes clear how “the slaveholders of the South” ran the United States before the Civil War by virtue of anti-majoritarian features built into the Constitution; Manisha Sinha’s account demonstrates how those features could have been imported into the Constitution by way of features already part of the structure of the government of South Carolina. Prior to the Civil War, for instance, Sinha notes how one South Carolinian described how the “government of South Carolina was an ‘oligarchy’ modeled after the ‘rotten borough system’ of England”—and placed next to accounts of the writing of the Constitution, Sinha’s detailed description of South Carolina’s government calls into question the prominence South Carolinian leaders during the debates in Philadelphia during the Constitution Summer of 1787.

South Carolinians like the younger and elder Charles Pinckneys and Major Pierce Butler had an overwhelming influence over the writing of the Constitution: as David O. Stewart remarks in his history of the writing of the Constitution, The Summer of 1787, “the [South] Carolinians came to Philadelphia with an appetite for work, and they would exercise an outsized influence.” It’s impossible of course in a paragraph or even an essay to summarize the details of such books, or the story they tell—the point is I shouldn’t have to: they are being ignored despite the fact that they could overwhelmingly do far more good to more Americans than a dozen occupations of Zuccotti Park.

Books like these can do so because, as Abraham Lincoln knew how to do, they tell a comprehensible story—and thus provide a means by which to restructure the American government more democratically. That was Lincoln’s technique in his speech of June 16, 1858: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending,” he said, “we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” The speech is a model of rhetorical efficiency: it tells the audience—the people—what Lincoln is going to do in his speech;  it shows that he will begin at the beginning and proceed to the end; and above all, that he will do so transparently, directly in front of the audience. The speech may be known to you: it is usually called “House Divided.”

Lincoln, undoubtedly, wore a plain Brooks Brothers suit.