Stormy Weather

They can see no reasons …
—“I Don’t Like Mondays” 
The Boomtown Rats.
The Fine Art of Surfacing. 1979.

 

“Since Tuesday night,” John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker this week, “there has been a lot of handwringing about how the media, with all its fancy analytics, failed to foresee Donald Trump’s victory”: as the New York Times headline had it, “How Data Failed Us in Calling an Election.” The failure of Nate Silver and other statistical analysts in the lead-up to Election Day rehearses, once again, a seemingly-ancient argument between what are now known as the sciences and the humanities—an argument sometimes held to be as old as the moment when Herodotus (the “Father of History”) asserted that his object in telling the story of the Greco-Persian Wars of 2500 years ago was “to set forth the reasons why [the Greeks and Persians] wage war on each other.” In other words, Herodotus thought that, to investigate war, it was necessary to understand the motives of the people who fought it—just as Cassidy says the failure of the press to get it right about this election was, Cassidy says, “a failure of analysis, rather than of observation.” The argument both Herodotus and Cassidy are making is the seemingly unanswerable one that it is the interpretation of the evidence, rather than the evidence itself, that is significant—a position that seems inarguable so long as you aren’t in the Prussian Army, dodging Nazi bombs during the last year of the Second World War, or living in Malibu.

The reason why it seems inarguable, some might say, is because the argument both Herodotus and Cassidy are making is inescapable: obviously, given Herodotus’ participation, it is a very ancient one, and yet new versions are produced all the time. Consider for instance a debate conducted by English literature professor Michael Bérubé and philosopher John Searle some years ago, about a distinction between what Searle called “brute fact” and “social fact.” “Brute facts,” Bérubé wrote later, are “phenomena like Neptune, DNA, and the cosmic background radiation,” while the second kind are “items whose existence and meaning are obviously dependent entirely on human interpretation,” such as “touchdowns and twenty-dollar bills.” Like Searle, most people might like to say that “brute fact” is clearly more significant than “social fact,” in the sense that Neptune doesn’t care what we think about it, whereas touchdowns and twenty dollar bills are just as surely entirely dependent on what we think of them.

Not so fast, said Bérubé: “there’s a compelling sense,” the professor of literature argued, in which social facts are “prior to and even constitutive of” brute facts—if social facts are the means by which we obtain our knowledge of the outside world, then social facts could “be philosophically prior to and certainly more immediately available to us humans than the world of brute fact.” The only way we know about Neptune is because a number of human beings thought it was important enough to discover; Neptune doesn’t give a damn one way or the other.

“Is the distinction between social facts and brute facts,” Bérubé therefore asks, “a social fact or a brute fact?” (Boom! Mic drop.) That is, whatever the brute facts are, we can only interpret them in the light of social facts—which would seem to grant priority to those disciplines dealing with social facts, rather than those disciplines that deal with brute fact; Hillary Clinton, Bérubé might say, would have been better off hiring an English professor, rather than a statistician, to forecast the election. Yet, despite the smugness with which Bérubé delivers what he believes is a coup de grâce, it does not seem to occur to him that traffic between the two realms can also go the other way: while it may be possible to see how “social facts” subtly influence our ability to see “brute facts,” it’s also possible to see how “brute facts” subtly influence our ability to see “social facts.” It’s merely necessary to understand how the nineteenth-century Prussian Army treated its horses.

The book that treats that question about German military horsemanship is called The Law of Small Numbers, which was published in 1898 by one Ladislaus Bortkiewicz: a Pole who lived in the Russian Empire and yet conducted a study on data about the incidence of deaths caused by horse kicks in the nineteenth-century Prussian Army. Apparently, this was a cause of some concern to military leaders: they wanted to know whether, say, if an army corp that experienced several horse kick deaths in a year—an exceptional number of deaths from this category—was using bad techniques, or whether they happened to buy particularly ornery horses. Why, in short, did some corps have what looked like an epidemic of horse kick deaths in a given year, while others might go for years without a single death? What Bortkiewicz found answered those questions—though perhaps not in a fashion the army brass might have liked.

Bortkiewicz began by assembling data about the number of fatal horse kicks in fourteen Prussian army corps over twenty years, which he then combined into “corp years”: the number of years together with the number of corps. What he found—as E.J. Gumbel pus it in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences—was that for “over half the corps-year combinations there were no deaths from horse kicks,” while “for the other combinations the number of deaths ranged up to four.” In most years, in other words, no one was killed in any given corps by a horse kick, while in some years someone was—and in terrible years four were. Deaths by horse kick, then, were uncommon, which meant they were hard to study: given that they happened so rarely, it was difficult to determine what caused them—which was why Bortkiewicz had to assemble so much data about them. By doing so, the Russian Pole hoped to be able to isolate a common factor among these deaths.

In the course of studying these deaths, Bortkiewicz ended up independently re-discovering something that a French mathematician, Simeon Denis Poisson, had already, in 1837, used in connection with discussing the verdicts of juries: an arrangement of data now known as the Poisson distribution. And as the mathematics department at the University of Massachusetts is happy to tell us (https://www.umass.edu/wsp/resources/poisson/), the Poisson distribution applies when four conditions are met: first, “the event is something that can be counted in whole numbers”; second, “occurrences are independent, so that one occurrence neither diminishes nor increases the chance of another”; third, “the average frequency of occurrence for the time period in question is known”; and finally “it is possible to count how many events have occurred.” If these things are known, it seems, the Poisson distribution will tell you how often the event in question will happen in the future—a pretty useful feature for, say, predicting the results of an election. But that what wasn’t was intriguing about Bortkiewicz’ study: what made it important enough to outlast the government that commissioned it was that Bortkiewicz found that the Poisson distribution “may be used in reverse”—a discovery ended up telling us about far more than the care of Prussian horses.

What “Bortkiewicz realized,” as Aatish Bhatia of Wired wrote some years ago, was “that he could use Poisson’s formula to work out how many deaths you could expect to see” if the deaths from horse kicks in the Prussian army were random. The key to the Poisson distribution, in other words, is the second component, “occurrences are independent, so that one occurrence neither diminishes nor increases the chance of another”: a Poisson distribution describes processes that are like the flip of a coin. As everyone knows, each flip of a coin is independent of the one that came before; hence, the record of successive flips is the record of a random process—a process that will leave its mark, Bortkiewicz understood.

A Poisson distribution maps a random process; therefore, if the process in question maps a Poisson distribution, then it must be a random process. A distribution that matches the results a Poisson distribution would predict must also be a process in which each occurrence is independent of those that came before. As the UMass mathematicians say, “if the data are lumpy, we look for what might be causing the lump,” while conversely, if  “the data fit the Poisson expectation closely, then there is no strong reason to believe that something other than random occurrence is at work.” Anything that follows a Poisson distribution is likely the result of a random process; hence, what Bortkiewicz had discovered was a tool to find randomness.

Take, for example, the case of German V-2 rocket attacks on London during the last years of World War II—the background, as it happens, to novelist Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. As Pynchon’s book relates, the flying missiles were falling in a pattern: some parts of London were hit multiple times, while others were spared. Some Londoners argued that this “clustering” demonstrated that the Germans must have discovered a way to guide these missiles—something that would have been highly, highly advanced for mid-twentieth century technology. (Even today, guided missiles are incredibly advanced: much less than ten percent of all the bombs dropped during the 1991 Gulf War, for instance, had “smart bomb” technology.) So what British scientist R. D. Clarke did was to look at the data for all the targets of V-2s that fell on London. What he found was that the results matched a Poisson distribution—the Germans did not possess super-advanced guidance systems. They were just lucky.

Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli psychologist, has a similar story: “‘During the Yom Kippur War, in 1973,’” Kahneman told New Yorker writer Atul Gawande, he was approached by the Israeli Air Force to investigate why, of two squads that took to the skies during the war, “‘one had lost four planes and the other had lost none.’” Kahneman told them not to waste their time, because a “difference of four lost planes could easily have occurred by chance.” Without knowing about Bortkiewicz, that is, the Israeli Air Force “would inevitably find some measurable differences between the squadrons and feel compelled to act on them”—differences that, in reality, mattered not at all. Presumably, Israel’s opponents were bound to hit some of Israel’s warplanes; it just so happened that they were clustered in one squadron and not the other.

Why though, should any of this matter in terms of the distinction between “brute” and “social” facts? Well, consider what Herodotus wrote more than two millennia ago: what matters, when studying war, is the reasons people had for fighting. After all, wars are some of the best examples of a “social fact” anywhere: wars only exist, Herodotus is claiming, because of what people think about them. But what if it could be shown that, actually, there’s a good case to be made for thinking of war as a “brute fact”—something more like DNA or Neptune than like money or a home run? As it happens, at least one person, following in Bortkiewicz’ footsteps, already has.

In November of 1941, the British meteorologist and statistician Lewis Fry Richardson published, in the journal Nature, a curious article entitled “Frequency of Occurrence of Wars and Other Quarrels.” Richardson, it seems, had had enough of the endless theorizing about war’s causes: whether it be due to, say, simple material greed, or religion, or differences between various cultures or races. (Take for instance the American Civil War: according to some Southerners, the war could be ascribed to the racial differences between Southern “Celtics” versus Northern “Anglo-Saxons”; according to William Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, the war was due to the differences in economic systems between the two regions—while to Lincoln himself, perhaps characteristically, it was all due to slavery.) Rather than argue with the historians, Richardson decided to instead gather data: he compiled a list of real wars going back centuries, then attempted to analyze the data he had collected.

What Richardson found was, to say the least, highly damaging to Herodotus: as Brian Hayes puts it in a recent article in American Scientist about Richardson’s work, when Richardson compared a group of wars with similar amounts of casualties to a Poisson distribution, he found that the “match is very close.” The British scientist also “performed a similar analysis of the dates on which wars ended—the ‘outbreaks of peace’—with the same result.” Finally, he checked another data set concerning wars, this one compiled by the University of Chicago’s Quincy Wright—“and again found good agreement.” “Thus,” Hayes writes, “the data offer no reason to believe that wars are anything other than randomly distributed accidents.” Although Herodotus argued that the only way to study wars is to study the motivations of those who fought them, there may in reality be no more “reason” for the existence of war than the existence of a forest fire in Southern California.

Herodotus, to be sure, could not have seen that: the mathematics of his time were nowhere near sophisticated enough to run a Poisson distribution. Therefore, the Greek historian was eminently justified in thinking that wars must have “reasons”: he literally did not have the conceptual tools necessary to think that wars may not have reasons at all. That was an unavailable option. But through the work of Bortkiewizc and his successors, that has now become an option: indeed, the innovation of these statisticians has been to show that our default assumption ought to be what statisticians call the “null hypothesis,” which is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary of Statistics to be “the ‘no difference’ or ‘no association’ hypothesis.” Unlike Herodotus, who presumed that explanations must equal causes, we now assume that we ought to be first sure that there is anything to explain before trying to explain it.

In this case, then, it may be that the “brute fact” of the press’ Herodotian commitment to discovering “reasons” that explains why nobody in the public sphere predicted Donald Trump’s victory: because the press is already committed to the supremacy of analysis over observation, it could not perform the observations necessary to think Trump could win. Or, as Cassidy put it, when a reporter saw the statistical election model of choice “registering the chances of the election going a certain way at ninety per cent, or ninety-five per cent, it’s easy to dismiss the other outcome as a live possibility—particularly if you haven’t been schooled in how to think in probabilistic terms, which many people haven’t.” Just how powerful the assumption of the force of analysis over data can be is demonstrated by the fact that—even despite noting the widespread lack of probabilistic thinking—Cassidy still thinks it possible that “F.B.I. Director James Comey’s intervention ten days before the election,” in which Comey announced his staff was still investigating Clinton’s emails, “may have proved decisive.” In other words, despite knowing something about the impact of probability, Cassidy still thinks it possible that a letter from the F.B.I. director was somehow more important to the outcome of this past election than the evidence of their own lives were to million of Americans—or, say, the effect of a system in which the answer to the question where outweighs that of how many?

Probabilistic reasoning, of course, was unavailable to Herodotus, who lived two millennia before the mathematical tools necessary were even invented—which is to say that, while some like to claim that the war between interpretation and data is eternal, it might not be. Yet John Cassidy—and Michael Bérubé—don’t live before those tools were invented, and yet they persist in writing as if they do. While that’s fine, so far as it is their choice as private citizens, it ought to be quite a different thing insofar as it is their jobs as journalist and teacher, respectively—particularly in the case, as say in the 2016 election, when it is of importance to the continued health of the nation as a whole that there be a clear public understanding of events. Some people appear to think that continuing the quarrels of people whose habits of mind, today, would barely qualify them to teach Sunday school is something noble; in reality, it may just be a measure of how far we have yet to travel.

 

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Double Down

There is a large difference between our view of the US as a net creditor with assets of about 600 billion US dollars and BEA’s view of the US as a net debtor with total net debt of 2.5 trillion. We call the difference between these two equally arbitrary estimates dark matter, because it corresponds to assets that we know exist, since they generate revenue but cannot be seen (or, better said, cannot be properly measured). The name is taken from a term used in physics to account for the fact that the world is more stable than you would think if it were held together only by the gravity emanating from visible matter. In our measure the US owns about 3.1 trillion of unaccounted net foreign assets. [Emp. added]
—Ricardo Hausmann and Frederico Sturzenegger.
“U.S. and Global Imbalances: Can Dark Matter Prevent a Big Bang?”
13 November 2005.

 

Last month Wikileaks, the journalistic-like platform, released a series of emails that included (according to the editorial board of The Washington Post) “purloined emailed excerpts” of Hillary Clinton’s “paid speeches to corporate audiences” from 2013 to 2015—the years in which Clinton withdrew from public life while building a war-chest for her presidential campaign. In one of those speeches, she expressed what the board of the Post calls “her much-maligned view that ‘you need both a public and a private position’”—a position that, the Post harumphs, “is playing as a confession of two-facedness but is actually a clumsy formulation of obvious truth”: namely, that politics cannot operate “unless legislators can deliberate and negotiate candidly, outside the glare of publicity.” To the Post, in other words, thinking that people ought to believe the same things privately as they loudly assert publicly is the sure sign of a näivete verging on imbecility; almost certainly, the Post’s comments draw a dividing line in American life between those who “get” that distinction and those who don’t. Yet, while the Post sees fit to present Clinton’s comments as a sign of her status as “a knowledgeable, balanced political veteran with sound policy instincts and a mature sense of how to sustain a decent, stable democracy,” in point of fact it demonstrates—far more than Donald Trump’s ridiculous campaign—just how far from a “decent, stable democracy” the United States has become: because as those who, nearly a thousand years ago, first set in motion the conceptual revolution that resulted in democracy understood, there is no thought or doctrine more destructive of democracy than the idea that there is a “public” and a “private” truth.

That’s a notion that, likely, is difficult for the Post’s audience to encompass. Presumably educated at the nation’s finest schools, the Post’s audience can see no issue with Clinton’s position because the way towards it has been prepared for decades: it is, in fact, one of the foundational doctrines of current American higher education. Anyone who has attended an American institution of higher learning over the past several decades, in other words, is going to learn a version of Clinton’s belief that truth can come in two (or more) varieties, because that is what intellectuals of both the political left and the political right have asserted for more than half a century.

The African-American novelist James Baldwin asserted, for example, in 1949 that “literature and sociology are not the same,” while in 1958 the conservative political scientist Leo Strauss dismissed “the ‘scientific’ approach to society” as ignoring “the moral distinctions by which we take our bearings as citizens and”—in a now-regrettable choice of words—“as men.” It’s become so unconscious a belief among the educated, in fact, that even some scientists themselves have adopted this view: the biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for instance, towards the end of his life argued that science and religion constituted what he called “non-overlapping magisteria,” while John Carmody, a physician turned writer for The Australian, more prosaically—and seemingly modestly—asserted not long ago that “science and religion, as we understand them, are different.” The motives of those arguing for such a separation are usually thought to be inherently positive: agreeing to such a distinction, in fact, is nearly a requirement for admittance to polite society these days—which is probably why the Post can assert that Clinton’s admissions are a sign of her fitness for the presidency, instead of being disqualifying.

To the Post’s readers, in short, Hillary Clinton’s doubleness is a sign of her “sophistication” and “responsibility.” It’s a sign that she’s “one of us”—she, presumably unlike the trailer trash interested in Donald Trump’s candidacy, understands the point Rashomon! (Though, Kurosawa’s film does not—because logically it cannot—necessarily imply the view of ambiguity it’s often suggested it does: if Rashomon makes the claim that reality is ultimately unknowable, how can we know that?) But those who think thusly betray their own lack of sophistication—because, in the long history of humanity, this isn’t the first time that someone has tried to sell a similar doctrine.

Toward the height of the Middle Ages the works of Aristotle became re-discovered in Europe, in part through contacts with Muslim thinkers like the twelfth-century Andalusian Ibn-Rushd—better known in Europe as “Averroes.” Aristotle’s works were extremely exciting to students used to a steady diet of Plato and the Church Fathers—precisely because at points they contradicted, or at least appeared to contradict, those same Church Fathers. (Which was also, as it happened, what interested Ibn-Rushd about Aristotle—though in his case, the Greek philosopher appeared to contradict Muslim, instead of Christian, sources.) That however left Aristotle enthusiasts with a problem: if they continued to read the Philosopher (Aristotle) and his Commentator (Averroes), they would embark on a collision course with the religious authorities.

In The Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, it seems, Averroes taught that “philosophy and revelation do not contradict each other, and are essentially different means of reaching the same truth”—a doctrine that his later Christian followers turned into what became known as the doctrine of “double truth.” According to a lecturer at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century named Siger of Brabant, for instance, “there existed a ‘double truth’: a factual or ‘hard’ truth that is reached through science and philosophy, and a ‘religious’ truth that is reached through religion.” To Brabant and his crowd, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, “religion and philosophy, as separate sources of knowledge, might arrive at contradictory truths without detriment to either.” (Which was not the same as Averroes’ point, however: the Andalusian scholar “taught that there is only one truth, but reached in two different ways, not two truths.”) Siger of Brabant, in other words, would have been quite familiar with Hillary Clinton’s distinction between the “public” and the “private.”

To some today, of course, that would merely point to how contemporary Siger of Brabant was, and how fuddy-duddy were his opponents—like Stephen Tempier, the bishop of Paris. As if he were some 1950s backwoods Baptist preacher denouncing Elvis or the Beatles, in 1277 Tempier denounced those who “hold that something is true according to philosophy but not according to the Catholic faith, as if there are two contrary truths.” Yet, while some might want to portray Brabant, thusly, as a forerunner to today’s tolerant societies, in reality it was Tempier’s insistence that truth comes in mono, not stereo, that (seemingly paradoxically) led to the relatively open society we at present enjoy.

People who today would make that identification, that is, might be uneasy if they knew that part of the reason Brabant believed his doctrine was his belief in “the superiority of philosophers to the common people,” or that Averroes himself warned “against teaching philosophical methods to the general populace.” Two truths, in other words, easily translated into two different kinds of people—and make no mistake, these doctrines did not imply that these two differing types were “separate but equal.” Instead, they were a means of asserting the superiority of the one type over the other. The doctrine of “double truth,” in other words, was not a forerunner to today’s easygoing societies.

To George Orwell, in fact, it was prerequisite for totalitarianism: Brabant’s theory of “double truth,” in other words, may be the origin of the concept of “doublethink” as used in Orwell’s 1984. In that 1948 novel, “doublethink” is defined as

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself – that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.

It was a point Orwell had been thinking about for some time: in a 1946 essay entitled “Politics and the English Language,” he had denounced “unscrupulous politicians, advertisers, religionists, and other doublespeakers of whatever stripe [who] continue to abuse language for manipulative purposes.” To Orwell, the doctrine of the “double truth” was just a means of sloughing off feelings of guilt or shame naturally produced by human beings engaged in such manipulations—a technique vital to totalitarian regimes.

Many in today’s universities, to be sure, have a deep distrust for Orwell: Louis Menand—who not only teaches at Harvard and writes for The New Yorker, but grew up in a Hudson Valley town named for his own great-grandfather—perhaps summed up the currently fashionable opinion of the English writer when he noted, in a drive-by slur, that Orwell was “a man who believed that to write honestly he needed to publish under a false name.” The British novelist Will Self, in turn, has attacked Orwell as the “Supreme Mediocrity”—and in particular takes issue with Orwell’s stand, in “Politics and the English Language,” in favor of the idea “that anything worth saying in English can be set down with perfect clarity such that it’s comprehensible to all averagely intelligent English readers.” It’s exactly that part of Orwell’s position that most threatens those of Self’s view.

Orwell’s assertion, Self says flatly, is simply “not true”—an assertion that Self explicitly ties to issues of minority representation. “Only homogeneous groups of people all speak and write identically,” Self writes against Orwell; in reality, Self says, “[p]eople from different heritages, ethnicities, classes and regions speak the same language differently, duh!” Orwell’s big argument against “doublethink”—and thusly, totalitarianism—is in other words just “talented dog-whistling calling [us] to chow down on a big bowl of conformity.” Thusly, “underlying” Orwell’s argument “are good old-fashioned prejudices against difference itself.” Orwell, in short, is a racist.

Maybe that’s true—but it may also be worth noting that the sort of “tolerance” advocated by people like Self can also be interpreted, and has been for centuries, as in the first place a direct assault on the principle of rationality, and in the second place an abandonment of millions of people. Such, at least, is how Thomas Aquinas would have received Self’s point. The Angelic Doctor, as the Church calls him, asserted that Averroeists like Brabant could be refuted on their own terms: the Averroeists said they believed, Aquinas remarked, that philosophy taught them that truth must be one, but faith taught them the opposite—a position that would lead those who held it to think “that faith avows what is false and impossible.” According to Aquinas, the doctrine of the “double truth” would imply that belief in religion was as much as admitting that religion was foolish—at which point you have admitted that there is only a single truth, and it isn’t a religious one. Hence, Aquinas’ point was that, despite what Orwell feared in 1984, it simply is not psychologically possible to hold two opposed beliefs in one’s head simultaneously: whenever someone is faced with a choice like that, that person will inevitably choose one side or the other.

In this, Aquinas was merely following his predecessors. To the ancients, this was known as the “law of non-contradiction”—one of the ancient world’s three fundamental laws of thought. “No one can believe that the same thing can (at the same time) be and not be,” as Aristotle himself put that law in the Metaphysics; nobody can (sincerely) believe one thing and its opposite at the same time. As the Persian, Avicenna—demonstrating that this law was hardly limited to Europeans—put it centuries later: “Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.” Or finally, as Arthur Schopenhauer wrote centuries after that in The World as Will and Representation (using the heavy-handed vocabulary of German philosophers), “every two concept-spheres must be thought of as either united or as separated, but never as both at once; and therefore, although words are joined together which express the latter, these words assert a process of thought which cannot be carried out” (emp. added). If anyone says the contrary, these philosophers implied,  somebody’s selling something.

The point that Aristotle, Aquinas, Avicenna, and Orwell were making, in other words, is that the law of non-contradiction is essentially identical to rationality itself: a nearly foolproof method of performing the most basic of intellectual tasks—above all, telling honest and rational people from dishonest and duplicitous ones. And that, in turn, would lead to their second refutation of Self’s argument: by abandoning the law of non-contradiction, people like Brabant (or Self) were also effectively setting themselves above ordinary people. As one commenter on Aquinas writes, the Good Doctor’s insisted that if something is true, then “it must make sense and it must make sense in terms which are related to the ordinary, untheological ways in which human beings try to make sense of things”—as Orwell saw, that position is related to the law of noncontradiction, and both are related to the notion of democratic government, because telling which candidate is the better one is exactly the very foundation of that form of government. When Will Self attacks George Orwell for being in favor of comprehensibility, in other words, he isn’t attacking Orwell alone: he’s actually attacking Thomas Aquinas—and ultimately the very possibility of self-governance.

While the supporters of Hillary Clinton like to describe her opponent as a threat to democratic government, in other words, Donald Trump’s minor campaign arguably poses far less threat to American freedoms than hers does: from one point of view, Clinton’s accession to power actually threatens the basic conceptual apparatus without which there can be no democracy. Of course, given that during this presidential campaign virtually no attention has been paid, say, to the findings of social scientists (like Ricardo Hausmann and Federico Sturzenegger) and journalists (like those who reported on The Panama Papers) that while many conservatives bemoan such deficits as the U.S. budget or trade imbalances, in fact there is good reason to suspect that such gaps are actually the result of billions (or trillions) of dollars being hidden by wealthy Americans and corporations beyond the reach of the Internal Revenue Service (an agency whose budget has been gutted in recent decades by conservatives)—well, let’s just say that there’s good reason to suspect that Hillary Clinton’s campaign may not be what it appears to be.

After all—she said so.

Lawyers, Guns, and Caddies

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s enough to make Martha Washington nervous.

 

To Hell Or Connacht

And I looked, and behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death,
and Hell followed with him.
Revelations 6:8. 

In republics, it is a fundamental principle, that the majority govern, and that the minority comply with the general voice.
—Oliver Ellsworth.

In all Republics the voice of a majority must prevail.
—Andrew Jackson.

 

“They are at the present eating, or have already eaten, their seed potatoes and seed corn, to preserve life,” goes the sentence from the Proceedings of the Mansion House Committee for the Relief of Distress in Ireland During the Months of January and February, 1880. Not many are aware, but the Great Hunger of 1845-52 (or, in Gaelic, an Gorta Mór) was not the last Irish potato famine; by the autumn of 1879, the crop had failed and starvation loomed for thousands—especially in the west of the country, in Connacht. (Where, Oliver Cromwell had said two centuries before, was one choice for Irish Catholics to go if they did not wish to be murdered by Cromwell’s New Model Army—the other being Hell.) But this sentence records the worst fear: it was because the Irish had been driven to eat their seed potatoes in the winter of 1846 that the famine that had been brewing since 1845 became the Great Hunger in the year known as “Black ’47”: although what was planted in the spring of 1847 largely survived to harvest, there hadn’t been enough seeds to plant in the first place. Hence, everyone who heard that sentence from the Mansion House Committee in 1880 knew what it meant: the coming of that rider on a pale horse spoken of in Revelations. It’s a history lesson I bring up to suggest that “eating your seed corn” also explains the coming of another specter that many American intellectuals may have assumed lay in the past: Donald Trump.

There are two hypotheses about the rise of Donald Trump to the presumptive candidacy of the Republican Party. The first—that of many Hillary Clinton Democrats—is that Trump is tapping into a reservoir of racism that is simply endemic to the United States: in this view, “’murika” is simply a giant cesspool of hate waiting to break out at any time. But that theory is an ahistorical one: why should a Trump-like candidate—that is, one sustained by racism—only become the presumptive nominee of a major party now? “Since the 1970s support for public and political forms of discrimination has shrunk significantly” says one voice on the subject (Anna Maria Barry-Jester’s, surveying many sociological studies for FiveThirtyEight). If the studies Barry-Jester highlights are correct, and yet levels of racism remain precisely the same as in the past, then that must mean that the American public is not getting less racist—but instead merely getting better at hiding it. That then raises the question: if the level of racism still remains as high as in the past, why wasn’t it enough to propel, say, former Alabama governor George Wallace to a major party nomination in 1968 or 1972? In other words, why Trump now, rather than George Wallace then? Explaining Trump’s rise as due to racism has a timing problem: it’s difficult to think that, somehow, racism has become more acceptable today than it was forty or more years ago.

Yet, if not racism, then what is fueling Trump? Journalist and gadfly Thomas Frank suggests an answer: the rise of Donald Trump is not the result of racism, but of efforts to fight racism—or rather, the American Left’s focus on racism at the expense of economics. To wildly overgeneralize: Trump is not former Republican political operative Karl Rove’s fault, but rather Fannie Lou Hamer’s.

Although little known today, Fannie Lou Hamer was once famous as a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s delegation to the 1964 Democratic Party Convention. On arrival Hamer addressed the convention’s Credentials Committee to protest the seating of Mississippi’s “regular” Democratic delegation on the grounds that Mississippi’s official delegation, an all-white slate of delegates, had only become the “official” delegation by suppressing the votes of the state’s 400,000 black people—which had the disadvantageous quality, from the national party’s perspective, of being true. What’s worse, when the “practical men” sent to negotiate with her—especially Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota—asked her to step down her challenge on the pragmatic grounds that her protest risked losing the entire South for President Lyndon Johnson in the upcoming general election, Hamer refused: “Senator Humphrey,” Hamer rebuked him; “I’m going to pray to Jesus for you.” With that, Hamer rejected the hardheaded, practical calculus that informed Humphrey’s logic; in doing so, she set a example that many on the American Left have followed since—an example that, to follow Frank’s argument, has provoked the rise of Trump.

Trump’s success, Frank explains, is not the result of cynical Republican electoral exploitation, but instead because of policy choices made by Democrats: choices that not only suggest that cynical Republican choices can be matched by cynical Democratic ones, but that Democrats have abandoned the key philosophical tenet of their party’s very existence. First, though, the specific policy choices: one of them is the “austerity diet” Jimmy Carter (and Carter’s “hand-picked” Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker), chose for the nation’s economic policy at the end of the 1970s. In his latest book, Listen, Liberal: or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?, Frank says that policy “was spectacularly punishing to the ordinary working people who had once made up the Democratic base”—an assertion Frank is hardly alone in repeating, because as noted not-radical Fortune magazine has observed, “Volcker’s policies … helped push the country into recession in 1980, and the unemployment rate jumped from 6% in August 1979, the month of Volcker’s appointment, to 7.8% in 1980 (and peaked at 10.8 % in 1982).” And Carter was hardly the last Democratic president who made economic choices contrary to the interests of what might appear to be the Democratic Party’s constituency.

The next Democratic president, Bill Clinton, after all put the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress: an agreement that had the effect (as the Economic Policy Institute has observed) of “undercut[ing] the bargaining power of American workers” because it established “the principle that U.S. corporations could relocate production elsewhere and sell back into the United States.” Hence, “[a]s soon as NAFTA became law,” the EPI’s Jeff Faux wrote in 2013, “corporate managers began telling their workers that their companies intended to move to Mexico unless the workers lowered the cost of their labor.” (The agreement also allowed companies to extort tax breaks from state and municipal coffers by threatening to move, with the attendant long-term costs—including an inability to fight for workers.) In this way, Frank says, NAFTA “ensure[d] that labor would be too weak to organize workers from that point forward”—and NAFTA has also become the basis for other trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership backed by another Democratic administration: Barack Obama’s.

That these economic policies have had the effects described is, perhaps, debatable; what is not debatable, however, is that economic inequality has grown in the United States. As the Pew Research Center reports, “in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago,” and as Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post reported last year, “the fact that the top 20 percent of earners rake in over 50 percent of the total earnings in any given year” has become something of a cliché in policy circles. Ingraham also reports that “the wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. households have captured a whopping 76 percent of all the wealth in America”—a “number [that] is considerably higher than in other rich nations.” These figures could be multiplied; they represent a reality that even Republican candidates other than Trump—who for the most part was the only candidate other than Bernie Sanders to address these issues—began to respond to during the primary season over the past year.

“Today,” said Senator and then-presidential candidate Ted Cruz in January—repeating the findings of University of California, Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez—“the top 1 percent earn a higher share of our national income than any year since 1928.” While the cause of these realities are still argued over—Cruz for instance sought to blame, absurdly, Obamacare—it’s nevertheless inarguable that the country has become radically remade economically over recent decades.

That reformation has troubling potential consequences, if they have not already themselves become real. One of them has been adequately described by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz: “as more money becomes concentrated at the top, aggregate demand goes into a decline.” What Stiglitz means is this: say you’re Mitt Romney, who had a 2010 income of $21.7 million. “Even if Romney chose to live a much more indulgent lifestyle” than he actually does, Stiglitz says, “he would only spend a fraction of that sum in a typical year to support himself and his wife in their several homes.” “But take the same amount of money and divide it among 500 people,” Stiglitz continues, “say, in the form of jobs paying $43,400 apiece—and you’ll find that almost all of the money gets spent.” That expenditure represents economic activity: as should surely, but apparently isn’t to many people, be self-evident, a lot more will happen economically if 500 people split twenty million dollars than if one person has all of it.

Stiglitz, of course, did not invent this argument: it used to be bedrock for Democrats. As Frank points out, the same theory was advanced by the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee—in 1896. As expressed by William Jennings Bryan at the 1896 Democratic Convention, the Democratic idea is, or used to be, this one:

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.

To many, if not most, members of the Democratic Party today, this argument is simply assumed to fit squarely with Fannie Lou Hamer’s claim for representation at the 1964 Democratic Convention: on the one hand, economic justice for working people; on the other, political justice for those oppressed on account of their race. But there are good reasons to think that Hamer’s claim for political representation at the 1964 convention puts Bryan’s (and Stiglitz’) argument in favor of a broadly-based economic policy in grave doubt—which might explain just why so many of today’s campus activists against racism, sexism, or homophobia look askance at any suggestion that they demonstrate, as well, against neoliberal economic policies, and hence perhaps why the United States has become more and more unequal in recent decades.

After all, the focus of much of the Democratic Party has been on Fannie Lou Hamer’s question about minority representation, rather than majority representation. A story told recently by Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker in a review of a book entitled Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, by David Daley, demonstrates the point. In 1990, it seems, Lee Atwater—famous as the mastermind behind George H.W. Bush’s presidential victory in 1988 and then-chairman of the Republican National Committee—made an offer to the Congressional Black Caucus, as a result of which the “R.N.C. [Republican National Committee] and the Congressional Black Caucus joined forces for the creation of more majority-black districts”—that is, districts “drawn so as to concentrate, or ‘pack,’ African-American voters.” The bargain had an effect: Kolbert mentions the state of Georgia, which in 1990 had nine Democratic congressmen—eight of whom were white. “In 1994,” however, Kolbert notes, “the state sent three African-Americans to Congress”—while “only one white Democrat got elected.” 1994 was, of course, also the year of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” and the great wave of Republican congressmen—the year Democrats lost control of the House for the first time since 1952.

The deal made by the Congressional Black Caucus in other words, implicitly allowed by the Democratic Party’s leadership, enacted what Fannie Lou Hamer demanded in 1964: a demand that was also a rejection of a political principle known as “majoritarianism”—the right of majorities to rule. It’s a point that’s been noticed by those who follow such things: recently, some academics have begun to argue against the very idea of “majority rule.” Stephen Macedo—perhaps significantly, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Politics and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University—recently wrote, for instance, that majoritarianism “lacks legitimacy if majorities oppress minorities and flaunt their rights.” Hence, Macedo argues, “we should stop talking about ‘majoritarianism’ as a plausible characterization of a political system that we would recommend” on the grounds that “the basic principle of democracy” is not that it protects the interests of the majority but instead something he calls “political equality.” In other words, Macedo asks: “why should we regard majority rule as morally special?” Why should it matter, in other words, if one candidate should get more votes than another? Some academics, in short, have begun to wonder publicly about why we should even bother holding elections.

What is so odd about Macedo’s arguments to a student of American history, of course, is that he is merely echoing certain older arguments—like this one, from the nineteenth century: “It is not an uncommon impression, that the government of the United States is a government based simply on population; that numbers are its only element, and a numerical majority its only controlling power,” this authority says. But that idea is false, the writer goes on to say: “No opinion can be more erroneous.” The United States is, instead, “a government of the concurrent majority,” and “population, mere numbers,” are, “strictly speaking, excluded.” It’s an argument that, as it is spieled out, might sound plausible; after all, the structure of the government of the United States does have a number of features that are, “strictly speaking,” not determined solely by population: the Senate and the Supreme Court, for example, are pieces of the federal government that are, in conception and execution, nearly entirely opposed to the notion of “numerical majority.” (“By reference to the one person, one vote standard,” Francis E. Lee and Bruce I. Oppenheimer observe for instance in Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation, “the Senate is the most malapportioned legislature in the world.”) In that sense, then, one could easily imagine Macedo having written the above, or these ideas being articulated by Fannie Lou Hamer or the Congressional Black Caucus.

Except, of course, for one thing: the quotes in the above paragraph were taken from the writings of John Calhoun, the former Senator, Secretary of War, and Vice President of the United States—which, in one sense, might seem to give the weight of authority to Macedo’s argument against majoritarianism. At least, it might if not for a couple of other facts about Calhoun: not only did he personally own dozens of slaves (at his plantation, Fort Hill; now the site of Clemson University), he is also well-known as the most formidable intellectual defender of slavery in American history. His most cunning arguments after all—laid out in such works as the Fort Hill Address and the Disquisition on Government—are against majoritarianism and in favor of slavery; indeed, to Calhoun they are much the same: anti-majoritarianism is more or less the same as being pro-slavery. (A point that historians like Paul Finkelman of the University of Tulsa have argued is true: the anti-majoritarian features of the U.S. Constitution, these historians say, were originally designed to protect slavery—a point that might sound outré except for the fact that it was made at the time of the Constitutional Convention itself by none other than James Madison.) And that is to say that Stephen Macedo and Fannie Lou Hamer are choosing a very odd intellectual partner—while the deal between the RNC and the Congressional Black Caucus demonstrates that those arguments are having very real effects.

What’s really significant, in short, about Macedo’s “insights” about majoritarianism is that, as a possessor of a named chair at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, his work shows just how a concern, real or feigned, for minority rights can be used as a means of undermining the very idea of democracy itself. It’s in this way that activists against racism, sexism, homophobia and other pet campus causes can effectively function as what Lenin called “useful idiots”: by dismantling the agreements that have underwritten the existence of a large and prosperous proportion of the population for nearly a century, “intellectuals” like Macedo may be helping to dismantle economically the American middle class. If the opinion of the majority of the people does not matter politically, after all, it’s hard to think that their opinion could matter in any other way—which is to say that arguments like Macedo’s are thusly a kind of intellectual strip-mining operation: they consume the intellectual resources of the past in order to provide a short-term gain for a small number of operators.

They are, in sum, eating their seed-corn.

In that sense, despite the puzzled brows of many of the country’s talking heads, the Trump phenomenon makes a certain kind of potted sense—even if it appears utterly irrational to the elite. Although they might not express themselves in terms that those with elite educations find palatable—in a fashion that, significantly, suggests a return to those Victorian codes of “breeding” and “politesse” that elites have always used against what used to be called the “lower classes”—there really may be an ideological link between a Democratic Party governed by those with elite educations and the current economic reality faced by the majority of Americans. That reality may be the result of the elites’ loss of faith in what even Calhoun called the “fundamental principle, the great cardinal maxim” of democratic government: “that the people are the source of all power.” So, while the organs of elite opinion like The New York Times or other outlets might continue to crank out stories decrying the “irrationality” of Donald Trump’s supporters, it may be that Trumps’ fans (Trumpettes?) are in fact in possession of a deeper rationality than that of those criticizing them. What their votes for Trump may signal is a recognition that, if the Republican Party has become the party of the truly rich, “the 1%,” the Democratic Party has ceased to be the party of the majority and has instead become the party of the professional class: the “10%.” Or, as Frank says, in swapping Republicans and Democrats the nation “merely exchange[s] one elite for another: a cadre of business types for a collection of high-achieving professionals.” Both, after all, disbelieve in the virtues of democracy; what may (or may not) be surprising, while also deeply terrifying, is that supposed “intellectuals” have apparently come to accept that there is no difference between Connacht—and the Other Place.

 

 

**Update: In the hours since I first posted this, I’ve come across two different recent articles in magazines with “New York” in their titles: in one, for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore—a professor of history at Harvard in her day job—argues that “more democracy is very often less,” while the other, written by Andrew Sullivan for New York magazine, is entitled “Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic.” Draw conclusions where you will.

Our Game

truck with battle flag and bumper stickers
Pick-up truck with Confederate battle flag.

 

[Baseball] is our game: the American game … [it] belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.
—Walt Whitman. April, 1889.

The 2015 Chicago Cubs are now a memory, yet while they lived nearly all of Chicago was enthralled—not least because of the supposed prophesy of a movie starring a noted Canadian. For this White Sox fan, the enterprise reeked of the phony nostalgia baseball has become enveloped by, of the sort sportswriters like to invoke whenever they, for instance, quote Walt Whitman’s remark that baseball “is our game: the American game.” Yet even while, to their fans, this year’s Cubs were a time machine to what many envisioned as a simpler, and perhaps better, America—much as the truck pictured may be such a kind of DeLorean to its driver—in point of fact the team’s success was built upon precisely the kind of hatred of tradition that was the reason why Whitman thought baseball was “America’s game”: baseball, Whitman said, had “the snap, go, fling of the American character.” It’s for that reason, perhaps, that the 2015 Chicago Cubs may yet prove a watershed edition of the Lovable Losers: they might prove not only the return of the Cubs to the elite of the National League, but also the resurgence of a type of thinking that was of the vanguard in Whitman’s time and—like World Series appearances for the North Siders—of rare vintage since. It’s a resurgence that may, in a year of Donald Trump, prove far more important than the victories of baseball teams, no matter how lovable.

That, to say the least, is an ambitious thesis: the rise of the Cubs signifies little but that their new owners possess a lot of money, some might reply. But the Cubs’ return to importance was undoubtedly caused by the team’s adherence, led by former Boston general manager Theo Epstein, to the principles of what’s been called the “analytical revolution.” It’s a distinction that was made clear during the divisional series against the hated St. Louis Cardinals: whereas, for example, St. Louis manager Matt Matheny asserted, regarding how baseball managers ought to handle their pitching staff,  that managers “first and foremost have to trust our gut,” the Cubs’ Joe Maddon (as I wrote about in a previous post) spent his entire season doing such things as batting his pitcher eighth, on the grounds that statistical analysis showed that by doing so his team gained a nearly-infinitesimal edge. (Cf. “Why Joe Maddon bats the pitcher eighth” ESPN.com)

Since the Cubs hired former Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, few franchises in baseball have been as devoted to what is known as the “sabermetric” approach. When the Cubs hired him, Epstein was well-known for “using statistical evidence”—as the New Yorker’s Ben McGrath put it a year before Epstein’s previous team, the Boston Red Sox, overcame their own near-century of futility in 2004—rather than relying upon what Epstein’s hero, the storied Bill James, has called “baseball’s Kilimanjaro of repeated legend and legerdemain”—the sort embodied by the Cardinals’ Matheny apparent reliance on seat-of-the-pants judgement.

Yet, while Bill James’ sort of thinking may be astonishingly new to baseball’s old guard, it would have been old hat to Whitman, who had the example of another Bill James directly in front of him. To follow the sabermetric approach after all requires believing (as the American philosopher William James did according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), “that every event is caused and that the world as a whole is rationally intelligible”—an approach that not only would Whitman have understood, but applauded.

Such at least was the argument of the late American philosopher Richard Rorty, whose lifework was devoted to preserving the legacy of late nineteenth and early twentieth century writers like Whitman and James. To Rorty, both of those earlier men subscribed to a kind of belief in America rarely seen today: both implicitly believed in what James’ follower John Dewey would call “the philosophy of democracy,” in which “both pragmatism and America are expressions of a hopeful, melioristic, experimental frame of mind.” It’s in that sense, Rorty argued, that William James’ famous assertion that “the true is only the expedient in our way of thinking” ought to be understood: what James meant by lines like this was that what we call “truth” ought to be tested against reality in the same way that scientists test their ideas about the world via experiments instead of relying upon “guts.”

Such a frame of mind however has been out of fashion in academia since at least the 1940s, Rorty often noted: for example, as early as the 1940s Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago were reviling the philosophy of Dewey and James as “vulgar, ‘relativistic,’ and self-refuting.” To say, as James did say, “that truth is what works” was—according to thinkers like Hutchins and Adler—“to reduce the quest for truth to the quest for power.” To put it another way, Hutchins and Adler provided the Ur Example of what’s become known as Godwin’s Law: the idea that, sooner or later, every debater will eventually claim that the opponent’s position logically ends up at Nazism.

Such thinking is by no means extinct in academia: indeed, in many ways Rorty’s work at the end of his life was involved in demonstrating how the sorts of arguments Hutchins and Adler enlisted for their conservative politics had become the very lifeblood of those supposedly opposed to the conservative position. That’s why, to those whom Rorty called the “Unpatriotic Academy,” the above picture—taken at a gas station just over the Ohio River in southern Indiana—will be confirmation of the view of the United States held by those who “find pride in American citizenship impossible,” and “associate American patriotism with an endorsement of atrocities”: to such people, America and science are more or less the same thing as the kind of nearly-explicit racism demonstrated in the photograph of the truck.

The problem with those sorts of arguments, Rorty wanted to claim in return, was that it is all-too willing to take the views of some conservative Americans at face value: the view that, for instance, “America is a Christian country.” That sentence is remarkable precisely because it is not taken from the rantings of some Southern fundamentalist preacher or Republican candidate, but rather is the opening sentence of an article by the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson in, of all places, the New York Review of Books. That it could appear so, I think Rorty would have said, shows just how much today’s academia really shares the views of its supposed opponents.

Yet, as Rorty was always arguing, the ideas held by the pragmatists are not so easily characterized as mere American jingoism as the many critics of Dewey and James and the rest would like to portray them as—nor is “America” so easily conflated with simple racism. That is because the arguments of the American pragmatists were (arguably) simply a restatement of a set of ideas held by a man who lived long before North America was even added to the world’s geography: a man known to history as Ibn Khaldun, who was born in Tunis on Africa’s Mediterranean coastline in the year 1332 of the Western calendar.

Khaldun’s views of history, as set out by his book Muqaddimah (“Introduction,” often known by its Greek title, Prolegemena), can be seen as the forerunners of the ideas of John Dewey and William James, as well as the ideas of Bill James and the front office of the Chicago Cubs. According to a short one-page biography of the Arab thinker by one “Dr. A. Zahoor,” for example, Khaldun believed that writing history required such things as “relating events to each other through cause and effect”—much as both men named William James believe[d] that baseball events are not inexplicable. As Khaldun himself wrote:

The rule for distinguishing what is true from what is false in history is based on its possibility or impossibility: That is to say, we must examine human society and discriminate between the characteristics which are essential and inherent in its nature and those which are accidental and need not be taken into account, recognizing further those which cannot possibly belong to it. If we do this, we have a rule for separating historical truth from error by means of demonstrative methods that admits of no doubt.

This statement is, I think, hardly distinguishable from what the pragmatists or the sabermetricians are after: the discovery of what Khaldun calls “those phenomena [that] were not the outcome of chance, but were controlled by laws of their own.” In just the same way that Bill James and his followers wish to discover things like when, if ever, it is permissible or even advisable to attempt to steal a base, or lay down a bunt (both, he says, are more often inadvisable strategies, precisely on the grounds that employing them leaves too much to chance), Khaldun wishes to discover ways to identify ideal strategies in a wider realm.

Assuming then that we could say that Dewey and James were right to claim that such ideas ought to be one and the same as the idea of “America,” then we could say that Ibn Khaldun, if not the first, was certainly one of the first Americans—that is, one of the first to believe in those ideas we would later come to call “America.” That Khaldun was entirely ignorant of such places as southern Indiana should, by these lights, no more count against his Americanness than Donald Trump’s ignorance of more than geography ought to count against his. Indeed, conducted according to this scale, it should be no contest as to which—between Donald Trump, Marilynn Robinson, and Ibn Khaldun—is the the more likely to be a baseball fan. Nor, need it be added, which the better American.

Miracles Alone

They say miracles are past; and we have our
philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless.
All’s Well That Ends Well Act II, scene 3  

“If academic writing is to become expansive again,” wrote Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker a year ago, in one of the more Marxist sentences to appear in a mainstream publication lately, “academia will probably have to expand first.” What Rothman is referring to was the minor controversy set off by a piece by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times entitled “Professors, We Need You!”—a rant attacking the “unintelligibility” of contemporary academic writing blah blah blah. Rothman’s take on the business—as a former graduate student himself—is that the increasing obscurity of the superstructure of academic writing is the result of an ever-smaller base: “the audience for academic work has been shrinking,” he says, and so building “a successful academic career” requires “serially impress[ing] very small groups of people,” like journal editors, hiring committees, etc. So, to Rothman, turning academic writing around would mean an expanding university system: that is, one in which it wasn’t terribly difficult to get a job. To put it another way, it’s to say that in order to make academics visible to the people, it would probably help to allow the people to become academics.

To very many current academics, however, that’s precisely off the table, because their work involves questioning the assumption necessary to power Rothman’s whole proposal: to write for large numbers of people requires the writing not to need some enormous amount of training in order to be read. A lot of academics in today’s humanities departments would “historicize” that assumption by saying that it only came into being with the Protestant Reformation at the beginning of the modern era, which held that the Bible could be read, and understood, by anyone—not just a carefully chosen set of acolytes capable of translating the holy mysteries to the laity, as in Roman Catholic practice. Academics of this sort might then make reference, as Benedict Anderson did in his Imagined Communities, to “print capitalism”—how the growth of newspapers and other printed materials demonstrated how writing untethered from a clerical caste could generate huge profits. And so on.

The defenses of obscure and difficult writing offered by such academics as Judith Butler, however, do not always take that turn: very often, difficult writing is defended on the grounds that such esoteric kinds of efforts “can help point the way to a more socially just world,” because “language plays an important role in shaping and altering our common or ‘natural’ understanding of social and political realities.” That, one supposes, might be true—and it’s certainly true that what’s known as the “cultural left” has, as the philosopher Richard Rorty once remarked, made all of us more sensitive to the peculiar ways in which language can influence the ways in which people perceive other people. But it’s also true that such a kind of thinking fails to think through the entire meaning of standing against intelligibility.

Most obviously, though this point is often obscured, it means standing against the idea of what is known as the doctrine of “naturalism,” a notion defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “asserting that reality has no place for ‘supernatural’ or other ‘spooky’ kinds of entity.” At least since Mark Twain adopted naturalism to literature by saying that “the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone,” a baseline belief in naturalism has been what created the kind of widely literate public Kristof’s piece requires. Mysteries, that is, can only be understood by someone initiated into them: hence, to proceed without initiates requires outlawing mystery.

As should be obvious but apparently isn’t, it’s only absent a belief in mystery that anyone could, in Richard Rorty’s words, “think of American citizenship as an opportunity for action”—rather than, as Rorty laments so much of this so-called “cultural left” has become, possessed by the “spirit of detached spectatorship.” Difficult writing, in other words, might be able to do something for small groups, but it cannot, by definition, help larger ones—which is to say that it is probably no accident that Judith Butler should have left just what she meant by “socially just” undefined, because by the logic of her argument it almost certainly does not include the vast majority of America’s, or the world’s, people.

“In the early decades of” the twentieth century, Richard Rorty once wrote, “when an intellectual stepped back from his or her country’s history and looked at it through skeptical eyes, the chances were that he or she was about to propose a new political initiative.” That tradition is, it seems, nearly lost: today’s “academic Left,” Rorty wrote then, “has no projects to propose to America, no vision of a country to be achieve by building a consensus on the need for specific reforms.” For Rorty, however, that seems blamable on the intellectuals themselves—a kind of “blaming the victim” or traison des clercs that is itself a betrayal of the insights of naturalism: according to those notions, it’s no more possible that large numbers of smart people should have inexplicably given up on their political efforts completely than a flaming shrubbery could talk.

It’s that possibility that the British literary critic Terry Eagleton appears to have considered when, in his The Illusions of Postmodernism, he suggests that the gesture of denying that “there is any significant distinction between discourse and reality”—a denial specifically aimed at naturalism’s attempt to rule out the mysterious—may owe more to “the deadlocked political situation of a highly specific corner of the globe” than it does to the failures of the intellectuals. What I presume Eagleton is talking about is what Eric Alterman, writing in The Atlantic, called “the conundrum of a system that, as currently constructed, gives the minority party no strategic stake in sensible governance.” Very many of the features of today’s American government, that is, are designed not to produce good government, but rather to enable a minority to obstruct the doings of the majority—the famous “checks and balances.”

While American civic discourse often celebrates those supposed features, as I’ve written before the work of historians like Manisha Sinha and Leonard Richards shows that in fact they are due, not to the foresight of the Founding Fathers, but instead in order to protect the richest minority of the then-newborn republic: the slaveowners. It isn’t any accident that, as Alterman says, it “has become easier and easier for a determined minority to throw sand in the gears of the legislative process”: the very structure of the Senate, for example, allows “the forty Republican senators … [who] represent barely a third of the US population” to block any legislation, even excluding the more obscure senatorial tools, like the filibuster and the hold. These devices, as the work of historians shows, were originally developed in order to protect slavery; as Lawrence Goldstone put the point in the New Republic recently, during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, “slaveholders won a series of concessions,” among them “the makeup of the Senate” and the method of electing a president. These hangovers linger on, defending interests perhaps less obviously evil than the owners of slaves, but interests by and large not identical with those of the average citizen: today, those features are all check and no balance.

Such an explanation, I think, is more likely than Rorty’s stance of casting blame on people like Judith Butler, as odious as her beliefs really are. It might explain better how for instance, as the writer Seymour Krim described in his essay, “The American Novel Made Me,” intellectuals began “in the mid 50s [1950s] to regard the novel as a used-up medium,” so that the “same apocalyptic sense of possibility that we once felt in the U.S. novel now went into its examination”: what Krim calls “the game” of “literary criticism.” In that game, what matters isn’t the description of reality itself, but rather the methods of description by which “reality” is recorded: in line with Rorty’s idea of the intellectual turn against reality, not so much the photograph so much as the inner workings of the camera. Yet while that pursuit might appear to  some as a ridiculous and objectively harmful pursuit, blaming people, even smart people, for having become involved in such efforts because you have blocked their real path to advancement is like blaming butter for melting in the sun.

What all of this may show, in other words, is that for academic writing to become expansive again, as Joshua Rothman wishes, it may require far more than just academia to expand, though almost certainly that may be part of it. What it will also require is a new band of writers and politicians, recommitted to the tenets of naturalism and determined, as Krim said about “the American realistic novel of the mid to late 1930s,” to be “‘truthful’ in recreating American life.” To Kristof or Rothman, that’s a task unlikely even to be undertaken in our lifetimes, much less accomplished. Yet it ought to be acknowledged that Kristof and Rothman’s own efforts imply that a hunger exists that may not know its name—that a wanderer is abroad, holding aloft a lantern flickering not because of a rising darkness, but an onrushing dawn.

 

Joe Maddon and the Fateful Lightning 

All things are an interchange for fire, and fire for all things,
just like goods for gold and gold for goods.
—Heraclitus

Chicago Cubs logo
Chicago Cubs Logo

Last month, one of the big stories about presidential candidate and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was his plan not only to cut the state’s education budget, but also to change state law in order to allow, according to The New Republic, “tenured faculty to be laid off at the discretion of the chancellors and Board of Regents.” Given that Wisconsin was the scene of the Ely case of 1894—which ended with the board of trustees of the University of Wisconsin issuing the ringing declaration: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone truth can be found”—Walker’s attempt is a threat to the entire system of tenure. Yet it may be that American academia in general, if not Wisconsin academics in particular, are not entirely blameless—not because, as American academics might smugly like to think, because they are so totally radical, dude, but on the contrary because they have not been radical enough: to the point that, as I will show, probably the most dangerous, subversive and radical thinker on the North American continent at present is not an academic, nor even a writer, at all. His name is Joe Maddon, and he is the manager of the Chicago Cubs.

First though, what is Scott Walker attempting to do, and why is it a big deal? Specifically, Walker wants to change Section 39 of the relevant Wisconsin statute so that Wisconsin’s Board of Regents could, “with appropriate notice, terminate any faculty or academic staff appointment when such an action is deemed necessary … instead of when a financial emergency exists as under current law.” In other words, Walker’s proposal would more or less allow Wisconsin’s Board of Regents to fire anyone virtually at will, which is why the American Association of University Professors “has already declared that the proposed law would represent the loss of a viable tenure system,” as reported by TNR.

The rationale given for the change is the usual one of allowing for more “flexibility” on the part of campus leaders: by doing so, supposedly, Wisconsin’s university system can better react to the fast-paced changes of the global economy … feel free to insert your own clichés of corporate speak here. The seriousness with which Walker takes the university’s mission as a searcher for truth might perhaps be discerned by the fact that he appointed the son of his campaign chairman to the Board of Regents—nepotism apparently being, in Walker’s view, a sure sign of intellectual probity.

The tenure system was established, of course, exactly to prevent political appointee yahoos from having anything to say about the production of truth—a principle that, one might think, ought to be sacrosanct, especially in the United States, where every American essentially exists right now, today, on the back of intellectual production usually conducted in a university lab. (For starters, it was the University of Chicago that gave us what conservatives seem to like to think of as the holy shield of the atomic bomb.) But it’s difficult to blame “conservatives” for doing what’s in, as the scorpion said to the frog, their nature: what’s more significant is that academics ever allowed this to happen in the first place—and while it is surely the case that all victims everywhere wish to hold themselves entirely blameless for whatever happens to them, it’s also true that no one is surprised when somebody hits a car driving the wrong way.

A clue toward how American academia has been driving the wrong way can be found in a New Yorker story from last October, where Maria Konnikova described a talk moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt gave to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. The thesis of the talk? That psychology, as a field, had “a lack of political diversity that was every bit as dangerous as a lack of, say, racial or religious or gender diversity.” In other words, the whole field was inhabited by people who were at least liberal, and many who were radicals, on the ideological spectrum, and very few conservatives.

To Haidt, this was a problem because it “introduced bias into research questions [and] methodology,” particularly concerning “politicized notions, like race, gender, stereotyping, and power and inequality.” Yet a follow-up study surveying 800 social psychologists found something interesting: actually, these psychologists were only markedly left-of-center compared to the general population when it came to something called “the social-issues scale.” Whereas in economic matters or foreign affairs, these professors tilted left at about a sixty to seventy percent clip, when it came to what sometimes are called “culture war” issues the tilt was in the ninety percent range. It’s the gap between those measures, I think, that Scott Walker is able to exploit.

In other words, while it ought to be born in mind that this is merely one study of a narrow range of professors, the study doesn’t disprove Professor Walter Benn Michaels’ generalized assertion that American academia has largely become the “human resources department of the right”: that is, the figures seem to say that, sure, economic inequality sorta bothers some of these smart guys and gals—but really to wind them up you’d best start talking about racism or abortion, buster. And what that might mean is that the rise of so-called “tenured radicals” since the 1960s hasn’t really been the fearsome beast the conservative press likes to make it out to be: in fact, it might be so that—like some predator/prey model from ecological study—the more left the professoriate turns, the more conservative the nation becomes.

That’s why it’s Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs, rather than any American academic, who is the most radical man in America right now. Why? Because Joe Maddon is doing something interesting in these days of American indifference to reality: he is paying attention to what the world is telling him, and doing something about it in a manner that many, if not most, academics could profit by examining.

What Joe Maddon is doing is batting the pitcher eighth.

That might, obviously, sound like small beer when the most transgressive of American academics are plumbing the atomic secrets of the universe, or questioning the existence of the biological sexes, or any of the other surely fascinating topics the American academy are currently investigating. In fact, however, there is at present no more important philosophical topic of debate anywhere in America, from the literary salons of New York City to the programming pits of Northern California, than the one that has been ongoing throughout this mildest of summers on the North Side of the city of Chicago.

Batting the pitcher eighth is a strategy that has been tried before in the history of American baseball: in 861 games since 1914. But twenty percent of those games, reports Grantland, “have come in 2015,” this season, and of those games, 112 and counting, have been those played by the Chicago Cubs—because in every single game the Cubs have played in this year, the pitcher has batted in the eighth spot. That’s something that no major league baseball team has ever done—and the reasons Joe Maddon has for tossing aside baseball orthodoxy like so many spit cups of tobacco juice is the reason why, eggheads and corporate lackeys aside, Joe Maddon is at present the most screamingly dangerous man in America.

Joe Maddon is dangerous because he saw something in a peculiarity in the rule of baseball, something that most fans are so inured to they have become unconscious to its meaning. That peculiarity is this: baseball has history. It’s a phrase that might sound vague and sentimental, but that’s not the point at all: what it refers to is that, with every new inning, a baseball lineup does not begin again at the beginning, but instead jumps to the next player after the last batter of the previous inning. This is important because, traditionally, pitchers bat in the ninth spot in a given lineup because they are usually the weakest batters on any team by a wide margin, which means that by batting them last, a manager usually ensures that they do not bat until at least the second, or even third, inning at the earliest. Batting the pitcher ninth enables a manager to hide his weaknesses and emphasize his strengths.

That has been orthodox doctrine since the beginnings of the sport: the tradition is so strong that when Babe Ruth, who first played in the major leagues as a pitcher, came to Boston he initially batted in the ninth spot. But what Maddon saw was that while the orthodox theory does minimize the numbers of plate appearances on the part of the pitcher, that does not in itself necessarily maximize the overall efficiency of the offense—because, as Russell Carleton put it for FoxSports, “in baseball, a lot of scoring depends on stringing a couple of hits together consecutively before the out clock runs out.” In other words, while batting the pitcher ninth does hide that weakness as much as possible, that strategy also involves giving up an opportunity: in the words of Ben Lindbergh of Grantland, by “hitting a position player in the 9-hole as a sort of second leadoff man,” a manager could “increase the chances of his best hitter(s) batting with as many runners on base as possible.” Because baseball lineups do not start at the beginning with every new inning, batting the weakest hitter last means that a lineup’s best players—usually the one through three spots—do not have as many runners on base as they might otherwise.

Now, the value of this move of putting the pitcher eighth is debated by baseball statisticians: “Study after study,” says Ben Lindbergh of Grantland, “has shown that the tactic offers at best an infinitesimal edge: two or three runs per season in the right lineup, or none in the wrong one.” In other words, Maddon may very well be chasing a will-o’-the-wisp, a perhaps-illusionary advantage: as Lindbergh says, “it almost certainly isn’t going to make or break the season.” Yet, in an age in which runs are much scarcer than they were in the juiced-up steroid era of the 1990s, and simultaneously the best teams in the National League (the American League, which does not allow pitchers to bat, is immune to the problem) are separated in the standings by only a few games, a couple of runs over the course of a season may be exactly what allows one team to make the playoffs and, conversely, prevents another from doing the same: “when there’s so little daylight separating the top teams in the standings,” as Lindbergh also remarked, “it’s more likely that a few runs—which, once in a while, will add an extra win—could actually account for the different between making and missing the playoffs.” Joe Maddon, in other words, is attempting to squeeze every last run he can from his players with every means at his disposal—even if it means taking on a doctrine that has been part of baseball nearly since its beginnings.

Yet, why should that matter at all, much less make Joe Maddon perhaps the greatest threat to the tranquility of the Republic since John Brown? The answer is that Joe Maddon is relentlessly focused on the central meaningful event of his business: the act of scoring. Joe Maddon’s job is to make sure that his team scores as many runs as possible, and he is willing to do what it takes in order to make that happen. The reason that he is so dangerous—and why the academics of America may just deserve the thrashing the Scott Walkers of the nation appear so willing to give them—is that American democracy is not so singlemindedly devoted to getting the maximum value out of its central meaningful event: the act of voting.

Like the baseball insiders who scoff at Joe Maddon for scuttling after a spare run or two over the course of 162 games—like the major league assistant general quoted by Lindbergh who dismissed the concept by saying “the benefit of batting the pitcher eighth is tiny if it exists at all”—American political insiders believe that a system that profligately disregards the value of votes doesn’t really matter over the course of a political season—or century. And it is indisputable that the American political system is profligate with the value of American votes. The value of a single elector in the Electoral College, for example, can differ by hundreds of thousands of votes cast by voters each Election Day, depending on the state; while through “the device of geographic—rather than population-based—representation in the Senate, [the system] substantially dilutes the voice and voting power of the majority of Americans who live in urban and metropolitan areas in favor of those living in rural areas,” as one Princeton political scientist has put the point. Or to put it more directly, as Dylan Matthews put it for the Washington Post two years ago, if “senators representing 17.82 percent of the population agree, they can get a majority”—while on the other hand “11.27 percent of the U.S. population,” as represented by the smallest 20 states, “can successfully filibuster legislation.” Perhaps most significantly, as Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer have shown in their Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation, “less populous states consistently receive more federal funding than states with more people.” As presently constructed, in other words, the American political system is designed to waste votes, not to seek all of their potential value.

American academia, however, does not discuss such matters. Indeed, the disciplines usually thought of as the most politically “radical”—usually those in the humanities—are more or less expressly designed to rule out the style of thought (naturalistic, realistic) taken on here: one reason, perhaps, explaining the split in psychology professors between their opinions on economic matters and “cultural” ones observed by Maria Konnikova. Yet just because an opinion is not registered in academia does not mean it does not exist: imbalances are inevitably corrected, which undoubtedly will occur in this matter of the relative value of an American vote. The problem of course is that such “price corrections,” when it comes to issues like this, are not particularly known for being calm or smooth. Perhaps there is one possible upside however: when that happens—and there is no doubt that the day of what the song calls “the fateful lightning” will arrive, be it tomorrow or in the coming generations—Joe Maddon may receive his due as not just a battler in the frontlines of sport, but a warrior for justice. That, at least, might not be entirely surprising to his fellow Chicagoans—who remember that it was not the flamboyant tactics of busting up liquor stills that ultimately got Capone, but instead the slow and patient work of tax accountants and auditors.

You know, the people who counted.