At Play In The Fields Of The Lord

Logo for 2015 US Amateur at Olympia Fields Country Club
Logo for 2015 US Amateur at Olympia Fields Country Club

 

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves:
be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
—Matthew 10:16

Now that the professional, Open tournaments are out of the way, the U.S. Amateur approaches. A tournament that has always been a symbol of wealth and discrimination—the Amateur was a tournament invented specifically to keep out the riff-raff of professional golfers—the site of this year’s edition might be considered particularly unfortunate considering that this year the tournament will fall just more than a year after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri: Olympia Fields, in Chicago’s south suburbs, is a relatively wealthy enclave among a swath of exceedingly poor villages and towns very like the terrain of the St. Louis suburbs just a few hundred miles away. Yet there’s a deeper irony at work here that might be missed even by those who’d like to point out that similarity of setting: the format of the tournament, match-play, highlights precisely what the real message of the Brown shooting was. That real message, the one that is actually dangerous to power, wasn’t the one shouted by protestors—that American police departments are “racist.” The really dangerous message is the one echoed by the Amateur: a message that, read properly, tells us that our government’s structure is broken.

The later rounds of U. S. Amateur are played under golf’s match play, rather than stroke play, rules—a difference that will seem arcane to those unfamiliar with the sport, but is a very significant difference nevertheless. In stroke play, competitors play whatever number of holes are required—in professional tournaments, usually 72 holes—and count up however many strokes each took: the player with the fewest strokes wins. Match play however is not the same: in the first place, because in stroke play each golfer is effectively playing against every other player in the field, because all the strokes of every player count. But this is not so in match play.

In the first place, match play consists of, as the name suggests, matches: that is, once the field is cut to the 64 players with the lowest score after an initial two-day stroke play tournament, each of those 64 contestants plays an 18-hole match against one other contestant. The winner of each of these matches then proceeds to move on, until there is a champion—a single-elimination tournament that is exactly like the NCAA basketball tournament held every year in March. The winner of each match in turn, as John Van der Borght says on the website of the United States Golf Association, “is the player who wins the most holes.” That is, what matters on every hole is just whether the golfer has shot a lower score than the opponent for that hole, not overall. Each hole starts the competition again, in other words—like flipping coins, what happened in the past is irrelevant. It’s a format that might sound hopeful, because on each hole whatever screw-ups a player commits are consigned to the dustbin of history. In fact, however, it’s just this element that makes match-play the least egalitarian of formats—and ties it to Ferguson.

Tournaments conducted under match play rules are always subject to a kind of mathematical oddity called a Simpson’s Paradox: such a paradox occurs when, as the definition on Wikipedia says, it “appears that two sets of data separately support a certain hypothesis, but, when considered together, they support the opposite hypothesis.” For example, as I have mentioned in this blog before, in the first round of the PGA Tour’s 2014 Accenture Match Play tournament in Tucson, an unknown named Pedro Larrazabal shot a 68 to Hall-of-Famer Ernie Els’ 75—but because they played different opponents, Larrazabal was out of the tournament and Els was in. Admittedly, even with such an illustration the idea might still sound opaque, but the meaning can be seen by considering, for example, the tennis player Roger Federer’s record versus his rival Rafael Nadal.

Roger Federer has won 17 major championships in men’s tennis, a record—and yet many people argue that he is not the Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T.). The reason those people can argue that is because, as Michael Steinberger pointed in the New York Times not long ago, Federer “has a losing record against Nadal, and a lopsided one at that.” Steinberger then proceeded to argue why that record should be discarded and Federer should be called the “GOAT” anyway. But weirdly, Steinberger didn’t attempt—and neither, so far as I can tell, has anyone else—what an anonymous blogger did in 2009: a feat that demonstrates just what a Simpson’s Paradox is, and how it might apply both to the U.S. Amateur and Ferguson, Missouri.

What that blogger did, on a blog entitled SW19—a reference to the United Kingdom’s postal code for Wimbledon, the great tennis arena—was he counted up the points.

Let me repeat: he counted up the points.

That might sound trivial, of course, but as the writer of the SW19 blog realized, tennis is a game that abounds in Simpson’s Paradoxes: that is, it is a game in which it is possible to score fewer points than your opponent, but still win the match. Many people don’t realize this: it might be expected, for example, that because Nadal has an overwhelmingly-dominant win-loss record versus Federer, he must also have won an equally-dominant number of points from the Swiss champion. But an examination of the points scored in each of the matches between Federer and Nadal demonstrates that in fact the difference between them was miniscule.

The SW19 blogger wrote his post in 2009; at that time Nadal led Federer by 13 matches to 7 matches, a 65 percent winning edge for the Spaniard, Nadal. Of those 20 matches, Nadal won the 2008 French Open—played on Nadal’s best surface, clay—in straight sets, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. In those 20 matches, the two men played 4,394 total points: that is, where one player served and the two volleyed back and forth until one player failed to deliver the ball to the other court according to the rules. If tennis had a straightforward relationship between points and wins—like golf’s stroke play format, in which every “point” (stroke) is simply added to the total and the winner has the fewest points—then it might be expected that Nadal has won about 65 percent of those 4,394 points played, which would be about 2,856 points. In other words, to get a 65 percent edge in total matches, Nadal should have about a 65 percent edge in total points: the point total, as opposed to the match record, between the two ought to be about 2,856 to 1,538.

Yet this, as the SW19 blogger realized, is not the case: the real margin between the two players was Nadal, 2,221, and Federer, 2,173. In other words, even including the epic beating at Roland Garros in 2008, Nadal had only beaten Federer by a total of 48 points over the course of their careers–a total of less than one percent of all the points scored. Not merely that, but if that single match at the 2008 French Open is excluded, then the margin becomes eight points.  The mathematical difference between Nadal and Federer, thus, is the difference between a couple of motes of dust on the edge of a coin while it’s being flipped—if what is measured is the act that is the basis of the sport, the act of scoring points. In terms of points scored, Nadal’s edge is about a half of percentage point—and most of that percentage was generated by a single match. But Nadal had a 65 percent edge in their matches.

How did that happen? The answer is that the structure of tennis scoring is similar to that of match play in golf: the relation between wins and points isn’t direct. In fact, as the SW19 blogger shows, of the twenty matches Nadal and Federer had played to that moment in 2009, Federer had actually scored more points than Nadal in three of them—and still lost the match. If there were a direct relation between points and wins in tennis, that is, the record between Federer and Nadal would actually stand even, at 10-10, instead of what it was in reality, 13-7—a record that would have accurately captured the real point differential between them. But because what matters in tennis isn’t—exactly—the total number of points you score, but instead the numbers of games and sets you win, it is entirely possible to score more points than your opponent in a tennis match—and still lose. (Or, the converse.)

The reason why that is possible, as Florida State University professor Ryan Rodenberg put it in The Atlantic not long ago, is due to “tennis’ decidedly unique scoring system.” (Actually, not unique, because as might be obvious by now match play golf is scored similarly.) In sports like soccer, baseball, or stroke play golf, as sports psychologist Allen Fox once wrote in Tennis magazine, “score is cumulative throughout the contest … and whoever has the most [or, in the case of stroke play golf, least] points at the end wins.” But in tennis things are different: “[i]f you reach game point and win it, you get the entire game while your opponent gets nothing—all the points he or she won in the game are eliminated.” Just in the same way that what matters in tennis is the game, not the point, in match play golf all that matters is the hole, and not the stroke.

Such scoring systems breed Simpson’s Paradoxes: that is, results that don’t reflect the underlying value a scoring system is meant to reflect—we want our games to be won by the better player, not the lucky one—but instead are merely artifacts of the system used to measure. The point (ha!) can be shown by way of an example taken from a blog written by one David Smith, head of marketing for a company called Revolution Analytics, about U.S. median wages. In that 2013 post, Smith reported that the “median US wage has risen about 1%, adjusted for inflation,” since 2000. But was that statistic important—that is, did it measure real value?

Well, what Smith found was that wages for high school dropouts, high school graduates, high school graduates with some college, college graduates, and people with advanced degrees all fell over the same period. Or, as Smith says, “within every educational subgroup, the median wage is now lower than it was in 2000.” But how can it be that “overall wages have risen, but wages within every subgroup have fallen?” The answer is similar to the reason why Rafael had a 65 percent winning margin against Federer: although there are more college graduates now than in 2000, the wages of college graduates haven’t fallen (1.2%) as far as, say, high school dropouts (7.9%). So despite the fact that everyone is poorer—everyone is receiving lower wages, adjusted for inflation—than in 2000, mendacious people can say wages are actually up. Wages are up—if you “compartmentalize” the numbers in just the way that reflects the story you’d like to tell.

Now, while the story about American wages might suggest a connection to Ferguson—and it does—that isn’t the connection between the U.S. Amateur and Ferguson, Missouri, I’d like to discuss. That connection is this one: if the trouble about the U.S. Amateur is that it is conducted under match play—a format that permits Simpson’s Paradox results—and Simpson’s Paradoxes are, at heart, boundary disputes—arguments about whether to divide up the raw data into smaller piles or present them as one big pile—then that suggests the real link to Ferguson because the real issue behind Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown then isn’t racism—or at least, the way to solve it isn’t to talk about racism. Instead, it’s to talk borders.

After Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown last August, the Department of Justice issued a report that was meant, as Zoë Carpenter of The Nation wrote this past March, to “address the roots of the police force’s discriminatory practices.” That report held that those practices were not “simply the result of racist cops,” but instead stemmed “from the way the city preys on residents financially, relying on the fines that accompany even minor offenses to balance its budget.” The report found an email from Ferguson’s finance director to the town’s police chief that, Carpenter reported, said “unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year.” The finance director’s concerns were justified: only slightly less than a quarter of Ferguson’s total budget was generated by traffic tickets and other citations. The continuing operation of the town depends on revenue raised by the police—a need, in turn, that drives the kind of police zealotry that the Department of Justice said contributed to Brown’s death.

All of which might seem quite far from the concerns of the golf fans watching the results of the matches at the U.S. Amateur. Yet consider a town not far from Ferguson: Beverly Hills, Missouri. Like Ferguson, Beverly Hills is located to the northwest of downtown St. Louis, and like Ferguson it is a majority black town. But where Ferguson has over 20,000 residents, Beverly Hills has only around 600 residents—and that size difference is enough to make the connection to the U.S. Amateur’s format of play, match play, crystalline.

Ferguson after all is not alone in depending so highly on police actions for its revenues: Calverton Park, for instance, is another Missouri “municipality that last fiscal year raised a quarter of its revenue from traffic fines,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Yet while Ferguson, like Calverton Park, also raised about a quarter of its budget from police actions, Beverly Hills raised something like half of its municipal budget on traffic and other kinds of citations, as a story in the Washington Post. All these little towns, all dependent on traffic tickets to meet their budgets; “Most of the roughly ninety municipalities in St. Louis County,” Carpenter reports in The Nation, “have their own courts, which … function much like Ferguson’s: for the purpose of balancing budgets.” Without even getting into the issue of the fairness of property taxes or sales taxes as a basis for municipal budgeting, it seems obvious that depending on traffic tickets as a major source of revenue is poor planning at best. Yet without the revenue provided by cops writing tickets—and, as a result of Ferguson, the state of Missouri is considering limiting the percentage of a town’s budget that can be raised by such tickets, as the St. Louis Dispatch article says—many of these towns will simply fail. And that is the connection to the U.S. Amateur.

What these towns are having to consider in other words is, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, an option mentioned by St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger last December: during an interview, the official said that “the consolidation of North County municipalities is what we should be talking about” in response to the threat of cutting back reliance on tickets. Small towns like Beverly Hills may simply be too small: they create too little revenue to support themselves without a huge effort on the part of the police force to find—and thus, in a sense, create—what are essentially taxable crimes. The way to solve the problem of a “racist” police department, in other words, might not be to conduct workshops or seminars in order to “retrain” the officers on the frontline, but instead to redrawn the political boundaries of the greater St. Louis metropolitan area.

That, at least, is a solution that our great-grandparents considered, as an article by writer Kim-Mai Cutler for Tech Crunch this past April remarked. Examining the historical roots of the housing crisis in San Francisco, Cutler discovered that in “1912, a Greater San Francisco movement emerged and the city tried to annex Oakland,” a move Oakland resisted. Yet as a consequence of not creating a Bay-wide government, Cutler says, “the Bay Area’s housing, transit infrastructure and tax system has been haunted by the region’s fragmented governance” ever since: the BART (Bay Area Regional Transit) system, for example, as originally designed “would have run around the entire Bay Area,” Cutler says, “but San Mateo County dropped out in 1961 and then Marin did too.” Many of the problems of that part of Northern California could be solved, Cutler thusly suggests via this and other instances—contra the received wisdom of our day—by bigger, not smaller, government.

“Bigger,” that is, in the sense of “more consolidated”: by the metric of sheer numbers, a government built to a larger scale might not employ as many people as do the scattered suburban governments of America today. But what such a government would do is capture all of the efficiencies of economies of scale available to a larger entity—thus, it might be in a sense smaller than the units it replaced, but definitely would be more powerful. What Missourians and Californians—and possibly others—may be realizing then is that the divisions between their towns are like the divisions tennis makes around its points, or match play golf makes around its strokes: dividing a finite resource, whether points or strokes or tax dollars (or votes), into smaller pools creates what might be called “unnatural,” or “artificial,” results—i.e., results that inadequately reflect the real value of the underlying resource. Just like match play can make Ernie Els’ 75 look better than Pedro Larrazabal’s 68, or tennis’ scoring system can make Rafael Nadal look much better than Federer—when in reality the difference between them is (or was) no more than a sliver of a gnat’s eyelash—dozens of little towns dissipate the real value, economic and otherwise, of the people that inhabit a region.

That’s why when Eric Holder, Attorney General for the United States, said that “the underlying culture” of the police department and court system of Ferguson needs to be reformed, he got it exactly wrong. The problems in St. Louis and San Francisco, the evidence suggests, are created not because government is getting in the way, but because government isn’t structured correctly to channel the real value of the people: scoring systems that leave participants subject to the vagaries of Simpson’s Paradox results might be perfectly fine for games like tennis or golf—where the downsides are minimal—but they shouldn’t be how real life gets scored, and especially not in government. Contra Holder, the problem is not that the members of the Ferguson police department are racists. The problem is that the government structure requires them, like occupying soldiers or cowboys, to view their fellow citizens as a kind of herd. Or, to put the manner in a pithier way: A system that depends on the harvesting of sheep will turn its agents into wolves. Instead of drowning the effects of racism—as a big enough government would through its very size—multiplying struggling towns only encourages racism: instead of diffusing racism, a system broken into little towns focuses it. The real problem of Ferguson then—the real problem of America—is not that Americans are systematically discriminatory: it’s that the systems used by Americans aren’t keeping the score right.

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Bait and Switch

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golfers or not.

This Pitiless Storm

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you,
From seasons such as these?
The Tragedy of King Lear Act III, Scene 4

“Whenever people talk to me about the weather,” the Irish writer Oscar Wilde once remarked, “I always feel quite certain that they mean something else.” As it happens, the weather at this year’s British Open has been delayed by high winds and will not be finished with the regulation 72 holes until Monday at the earliest. Which raises a question: why does the Open need to finish all 72 holes? The answer concerns something called a “Simpson’s Paradox”—an answer that also demonstrates just how talk about the weather at the British Open is in fact talk about something else. Namely, the 2016 American presidential election.

To see how, it’s first necessary to see the difference between the British Open and other professional golf tournaments, which are perfectly fine with shortening themselves. Take for instance the 2005 Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles: Adam Scott won in a playoff against Chad Campbell after the tournament was shortened to 36 holes due to weather. In 2013, the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua in Hawaii was “first cut to 54 holes because of unplayable conditions over the first two days,” according to Reuters, and was under threat of “being further trimmed to 36 holes.” The same story also quoted tour officials as saying “the eventual champion would wind up with an ‘unofficial win’” were the tournament to be shortened to 36 holes. (As things shook out they did end up completing 54 holes, and so Dustin Johnson’s win officially counted.) In a standard PGA tournament then, the “magic number” for an “official” tournament is 54 holes. But if so, then why does the Open need 72?

To answer that, let’s take a closer look at the standard professional golf tournament. Most such tournaments are conducted according to what the Rules of Golf calls “stroke play”: four rounds of golf, or 72 holes, at the end of which the players who have made it that far add up their scores—their number of strokes. The player with the lowest score, it may seem like it goes without saying, wins. But it does need to be said—because that isn’t the only option.

Many amateur tournaments after all, such as the United States Amateur, use the rules format known as “match play.” Under this format, the winner of the contest is not necessarily the player who shoots the lowest overall score, as in stroke play. Instead, as John Van der Borght has put the matter on the website of the United States Golf Association, in match play the “winner is the player who wins the most holes.” It’s a seemingly minor difference—but in fact it creates such a difference that match play is virtually a different sport than stroke play.

Consider, for instance, the Accenture Match Play tournament—the only tournament on the PGA Tour to be held under match play rules. The 2014 edition (held at the Dove Mountain course near Tucson, Arizona), had some results that demonstrate just how different match play is than stroke play, as Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press observed. “Pablo Larrazabal shot a 68 and was on his way back to Spain,” Ferguson noted about the first day’s results, while “Ernie Els shot 75 and has a tee time at Dove Mountain on Thursday.” In other words, Larrazabal lost his match and Els won his, even though Larrazabal was arguably the better player at this tournament—at least, if you consider the “better player” to be the one who puts his ball in the hole most efficiently.

Such a result might seem unfair—but why? It could be argued that while shooting a lower number might be what stroke play golf is, that isn’t what match play golf is. In other words, Larrazabal obviously wasn’t better at whatever it was that this tournament measured: if Larrazabal couldn’t beat his opponent, while Els could, then clearly Els deserved to continue to play while Larrazabal did not. While you might feel that, somehow or other, Larrazabal got jobbed, that’s merely a sentimental reaction to what ought to be a hardhearted calculation: maybe it’s true that under stroke play rules Larrazabal would have won, but that wasn’t the rules of the contest at Dove Mountain. In other words, you could say that golfing ability was, in a sense, socially constructed: what matters isn’t some “ahistorical” ability to golf, but instead how it is measured.

Here’s the $64,000 question a guy named Bill James might ask in response to such an argument, however (couched in terms of baseball players): “If you were trying to win a pennant, how badly would you want this guy?” In other words, based on the evidence presented, what would you conclude about the respective golf ability of Els and Larrazabal? Wouldn’t you conclude that Larrazabal is better at the task of putting his ball in the hole, and that the various rule systems that could be constructed around that task are merely different ways of measuring that ability—an ability that pre-existed those systems of measurement?

“We’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the game,” said Sandy Tatum at the 1974 U.S. Open, the so-called Massacre at Winged Foot: “We’re trying to identify them.” Scoring systems in short should be aimed at revealing, not concealing, ability. I choose Bill James to make the point not just because the question he asks is so pithy, but because he invented an equation that is designed to discover underlying ability: an equation called the Pythagorean Expectation. That equation, in turn, demonstrates just why it is so that match play and stroke play are not just different—yet equally valid—measures of playing ability. In so doing, James also demonstrates just why it is that the Open Championship requires that all 72 holes be played.

So named because it resembles so closely that formula, fundamental to mathematics, called the Pythagorean Theorem, what the Pythagorean Expectation says is that the ratio of a team’s (or player’s) points scored to that team’s (or player’s) points allowed is a better predictor of future success than the team’s (or player’s) ratio of wins to losses. (James used “runs” because he was dealing with baseball.) More or less it works: as Graham MacAree puts it on the website FanGraphs, using James’ formula makes it “relatively easy to predict a team’s win-loss record”—even in sports other than baseball. Yet why is this so—how can a single formula predict future success at any sport? It might be thought, after all, that different sports exercise different muscles, or use different strategies: how can one formula describe underlying value in many different venues—and thus, incidentally, demonstrate that ability can be differentiated from the tools we use to measure it?

The answer to these questions is that adding up the total points scored, rather than the total games won, gives us a better notion of the relative value of a player or a team because it avoids something called the “Simpson’s Paradox”—which is what happens when, according to Wikipedia, it “appears that two sets of data separately support a certain hypothesis, but, when considered together, they support the opposite hypothesis.” Consider what happens for example when we match Ernie Els’ 75 to Pablo Larrazabal’s 68: if we match them according to who won each hole, Els comes out the winner—but if we just compared raw scores, then Larrazabal would. Simpson’s Paradoxes appear, in short, when we draw the boundaries around the raw data differently: the same score looks different depending on what lens is used to view it—an answer that might seem to validate those who think that underlying ability doesn’t exist, but only the means used to measure it. But what Simpson’s Paradox shows isn’t that all boundaries around the data are equal—in fact, it shows just the opposite.

What Simpson’s Paradox shows, in other words, is that drawing boundaries around the data can produce illusions of value if that drawing isn’t done carefully—and most specifically, if the boundaries don’t capture all of the data. That’s why the response golf fans might have to the assertion that Pablo Larrazabal is better than Ernie Els proves, rather than invalidates, the argument so far: people highly familiar with golf might respond, “well, you haven’t considered the total picture—Els, for instance, has won two U.S. Opens, widely considered to be the hardest tournament in the world, and Larrazabal hasn’t won any.” But then consider that what you have done just demonstrates the point made by Simpson’s Paradox: in order to say that Els is better, you have opened up the data set; you have redrawn the boundaries of the data in order to include more information. So what you would have conceded, were you to object to the characterization of Larrazabal as a better golfer than Els on the grounds that Els has a better overall record than Larrazabal, is that the way to determine the better golfer is to cast the net as wide as possible. You have demanded that the sample size be increased.

That then is why a tournament contested over only 36 holes isn’t considered an “official” PGA tournament, while 54 holes isn’t enough to crown the winner of a major tournament like the Open Championship (which is what the British Open is called when it’s at home). It’s all right if a run-of-the-mill tournament be cut to 54 holes, or even 36 (though in that case we don’t want the win to be official). But in the case of a major championship, we want there to be no misunderstandings, no “fluky” situations like the one in which Els wins and Larrazabal doesn’t. The way to do that, we understand, is to maximize chances, to make the data set as wide as possible: in sum, to make a large sample size. We all, I think, understand this intuitively: it’s why baseball has a World Series rather than a World Championship Game. So that is why, in a major championship, it doesn’t matter how long it takes—all the players qualified are going to play all 72 holes.

Here I will, as they say in both golf and baseball, turn for home. What all of this about Simpson’s Paradoxes means, at the end of the day, is that a tournament like the Open Championship is important—as opposed to, say, an American presidential election. In a presidential election as everyone knows, what matters isn’t the total numbers of votes a candidate wins, but how many states. In that sense, American presidential elections are conducted according to what, in golf, would be considered match play instead of stroke play. Now, as Bill James might acknowledge, that begs the question: does that process result in better candidates being elected?

As James might ask in response: would you like to bet?

After the Messiah

There was trouble in the state of Lu, and the reigning monarch called in Confucius to ask for his help. When he arrived at the court, the Master went to a public place and took a seat in the correct way, facing south, and all the trouble disappeared.

—Frances Fitzgerald
    Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam 
  

Speaking to the BBC about the new season before the turn of the year, Rory McIlroy placidly remarked that “trying to make up for ’13 with two in ’14 would be nice.” Rory’s burden is however not as light as was his tone: only 16 men have done the same since 1922. But Rory’s opponents do not just live in the record books: recently, Tiger Woods’ agent more or less told Golf Digest that Tiger needed to win a major this year. Although it’s possible for both men to achieve their goals, it isn’t likely: the smooth 63 McIlroy put on Woods at Dubai, while playing in the same group, served that notice. But because of something called the ”Tiger Woods Effect,” the collateral damage of this war might include other parties—chief among them the FedEx Cup.

The “Tiger Woods Effect” was named in a 2009 paper by an economics professor: Jennifer Brown of Northwestern University. The paper, entitled “Quitters Never Win: The (Adverse) Effects of Competing With Superstars,” examined PGA Tour results during the early years of the twenty-first century; perhaps unsurprisingly, all golfers, even the best, played worse when TW was in the field versus when he wasn’t. The difference was about a stroke worse per tournament, and when Tiger was really “on,” the other players were about two shots worse. After controlling for other possible explanations, Brown argued that what this might mean is that human beings, faced with the near certainty that no matter their effort they are doomed to second place (even if that belief is misplaced), eventually can no longer give their best efforts. This is what the Effect is.

Once we realize we can’t win—or at least, believe that—human beings will not produce extra effort, Brown’s theory claimed: a theory that the mere existence of the FedEx Cup validates nearly single-handedly. Almost certainly, that is, the FedEx Cup was introduced precisely as a response to the “Tiger Woods Effect”—it was first announced in 2005, around the time that Woods was completing the “Tiger Slam” by winning all four majors in a row. The Cup itself has been “tweaked” every year since it began in 2007, but its basic form has remained.

Throughout the “regular season” players accumulate “points”—which are not just the amount of dollars won in each event. In August, the point leaders gather for a series of “playoff tournaments” whose fields grow progressively smaller, so that by the time of the Tour Championship in September there are only thirty players in the field. As things now stand (after the ”tweakings”), because the four playoff events have higher point totals than the regular season events, it’s theoretically possible for even the 30th ranked player to win the $10 million dollar prize that constitutes the FedEx Cup and the title “tour champion.”

For the PGA Tour, the idea is to generate excitement—$10 million, it seems, is cheap for what it buys. As a Grantland piece (“Putting For Dough” 19 Sept. 2013) suggests, however, there’s something odd about the notion, if you think about it: the problem is, if the FedEx Cup is meant to identify the best player in golf, it’s indisputable that, nearly every year, “Tiger Woods has had the best season of anyone.” Woods won five events in 2013 alone, and nearly $8 million in prize money. How can, in other words, someone get more money than Woods just for playing well at the right time of year? “Golf,” as the Grantland piece puts it, “is a cumulative sport”—the FedEx Cup is a glaring exception to that rule.

The FedEx Cup, in sum, is essentially a way to give a big prize to someone not named Woods at the end of the golf season—depending on the mood, it might be called the “Best White Golfer Award” or something equally snarky. It could be thought of as an example of practical racism at work on par with Jim Thorpe having his Olympic medals taken away, or Jack Johnson pursued by the law, or Muhammed Ali being shut out of his sport for years of his athletic prime. Why not just go off the money list? Why all the finagaling about “points?” Why, in a sport filled with conservative ideologues, should this obviously “socialistic” mechanism exist?

“Never was any such event,” wrote the Frenchman de Toqueville, about the French Revolution, “stemming from factors so far back in the past, so inevitable and yet so completely unforeseen.” Or to put it another way, history proceeds by way of ironies—which is perhaps likely what upsets Woods, if he thinks of it at all. In one sense, that is, there is no better exemplar of the kind of Ayn Randian John Galt-type hero in golf than Woods, and yet it seems that golf has gone out of its way to avoid rewarding him properly.

It’s in that way, however, that Woods shares the most with the man Tiger’s father always asserted would be the standard to measure his son by. In the years since Martin Luther King’s assassination, the congruence between one aspect of King’s legacy and a certain capital-friendly American ideology hasn’t escaped the intellectual grasp of some on the right. John Danforth, for instance, was a Republican senator from Missouri when he championed the notion of a holiday to honor Dr. King: to Danforth, King symbolized “the spirit of American freedom and self-determination,” as a recent article in Salon tracing the history of the holiday’s establishment notes. Tiger Woods’ ascension to the world’s most successful pitchman in history, in other words, is likely the result of many factors, deep forces that can only be glimpsed, and not fully understood, by those moved by them.

Woods’ nearly monomaniacal work ethic, for example, doesn’t have its source solely in his father’s service in the United States Army. Almost certainly, even if Woods is unconscious of it, it has roots that go back long before he, or even his father, was born. Just as certainly, it has something to do with the real legacy of the civil rights movement in general and Martin Luther King, Jr. in particular.

“My father,” wrote Hamden Rice recently in the Daily Kos, “told me with a sort of cold fury” just what it was that Dr. King had done for the South when, as a “smart ass home from first year of college,” Rice had dared to question King’s real contribution to the civil rights movement. “‘Dr. King,’” Rice’s father said, “ended the terror of living in the South.’”

What Rice’s father meant was by no means figurative: what he was referring to was the fact that Southern white people “occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them.” What King’s movement had done was ended that—something that usually gets glossed over when MLK Day runs around: the fact that, in America, sometimes some people got randomly murdered with, essentially, the blessing of the state.

The connection between this state-sponsored terrorism and Woods’ career isn’t entirely psychologically implausible if Rice is correct about the effect the terror had. Remembering those days prior to the movement, Rice recalls how his father taught him “many, many humiliating practices in order to prevent the random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people.” His point is that centuries of horror drilled in codes of behavior—ones that, in fact, it was precisely King’s mission to teach Americans (all of us) to unlearn.

Where the codes taught behavior designed to avoid what were, to be euphemistic, poor outcomes, King taught people to confront their fears. Be reprimanded, be fired, go to jail. Be beaten. And, if necessary, die, rather than continue to submit. The civil rights movement taught, as Rice says, “whatever you are most afraid of doing vis a vis white people, go do it.” Or, as we might say, just do it. King’s message was that African-Americans could only achieve their freedom themselves—which, at the end of the day, is just what the civil rights movement was.

Yet, while of course such a kind of attitude is necessary to throw off the yoke of the Bull Connors of the world, it’s also an attitude that might be outdated. No one’s ever questioned Woods’ work ethic, for example—but a viable question to ask about Woods is whether his ferocious ability to put in the time hasn’t actually hurt his career. Woods’ left knee, among other injuries, essentially shattered because of all the pressure put on it over the years—pressure that included endless hours on the range perfecting all of the various swings he has caused to be taught to him.

No golfer in history has had so many swing coaches, nor different swings: Tiger’s won majors with at least three different methods of hitting the golf ball, which might be some kind of record itself. Tiger’s continuing search for the perfect swing is a kind of metonym for his own “search for excellence,” as the management theory books put it—but might it also be a sign of an engine, with nothing else to work on, tearing itself apart? Rather than something praiseworthy, isn’t there something a bit much about tearing down a perfectly functioning machine in the hope of building something fractionally better?

In that sense, then, it’s possible to read the FedEx Cup as not just a lavish reward for the Best Non-Tiger Golfer. It’s possible to read the FedEx Cup not just as an anti-Tiger manifesto, but an argument for a different set of values: the FedEx Cup celebrates the latecomer versus the early-riser, the “brilliant” rather than the “hard-working.” It’s Romantic against Classical; Dionysian versus Apollonian. It, nearly literally, rewards what some might term a certain kind of lackadaisical, nonchalant approach: the kind of behavior that, one suspects, drives Woods himself apoplectic.

The kind of behavior, that is, that might lead a golfer to be late for an important tee time, for example. Rory McIlroy, who arrived for his singles Ryder Cup match in September of 2012 so late that he arrived in a police car, may know something about that.

Ghosts of Mississippi

The Chapel supposedly haunted by the
The Chapel supposedly haunted by the “Bride of Annandale.”
And all times are one time …
All The King’s Men
    Robert Penn Warren (1946)
That’ll be the day I go
Back to Annandale.
—”My Old School”
     Steely Dan
     Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

As the club went by my head I was more surprised than anything else. I didn’t think my player was a thrower for one thing, and for another I hadn’t disagreed with the shot he’d decided to hit—the decision to hit the four iron that (debatably) turned out to be too much club, which led to the little chip from behind the green on the par five that ended up in the hole of a greenside sprinkler head. Either way, he hadn’t asked about the four iron—we hadn’t spoken for about three holes—so I was pretty sure the club wasn’t meant for me. That said, however, not being the intended object of a missile that still hits you is rather like the way that Lawrence Stith, on the 17th of May of 1859, in Mobile, Alabama, did not kill Helen Johnstone’s husband.

Lawrence Stith must have felt that some insults are just too much to bear, which is almost what Bobby Jones said about club-throwing: “Some emotions,” said the great gentleman golfer of the twentieth century “cannot be endured with a golf club in your hands.” Golf has a pretty long tradition of clubs ending up quite far from where they began: “Terrible” Tommy Bolt, a champion thrower, even had advice for would-be club-throwers. (Generally, Bolt observed, you want to toss the club in front of you so you don’t have to walk backwards, which is always tedious and potentially embarrassing. Particularly on television.) But just because there is a history doesn’t mean that it is applauded, or even accepted, by the sport.

Golf is, after all, like tennis, a “gentleman’s game.” And just as, in tennis, there are the people that Stephen Rodrick recently called “tennis ninnies”—the sort of people who, in 2009 at the French Open, objected when Serena Williams offered to make a line judge ingest a ball, and perhaps was not particular about which end would first acquire said ball. Just so, there are in golf people who object to club-throwing; very likely these two groups have a lot of overlap: they are, as Rodrick says, “Veuve-Clicqout-sipping country-club types.”

They are the sort of people used to deciding how other people ought to behave: both more or less descend from the same people who decreed the “no white after Labor Day” rule, for instance. And the point of these rules were, in part, to distinguish between insiders and outsiders; as one writer has put it, with these rules in hand, “if a woman showed up at the opera in a dress that cost more than most Americans made in a year, but it had the wrong sleeve length, other women would know not to give her the time of day.”

That doesn’t mean there ought not be a rule about club-throwing—there’s a pretty obvious motive to prevent people from randomly flinging heavy weapons about—but it’s also true that, while hypothetically nearly anyone could have arrived at that rule, historically speaking it was a certain group that did arrive at that conclusion.

It’s possible, that is, that had another group of people, with perhaps a different experience, been confronted with the possibility of club-throwing, they might have found a different way to regulate it. Maybe, for instance, along the lines that certain wealthy Southerners thought best solved their differences of opinion. As it happens, one such example of that method affected a former resident of the site of the golf course where my player found himself unable to be in the immediate vicinity of his club: the day that Lawrence Stith did not kill Helen Johnstone’s husband.

People have, after all, been asking Southerners, especially rich ones, what they shot a long time before golf ever arrived there. On the night of the seventeenth of May, 1859, for example, a number of people wanted to ask Laurence Stith what—or who—he had shot earlier that day when Stith had not made Helen Johnstone, daughter of the laird of Annandale, a widow. Admittedly, Stith had shot Henry Vick down in Mobile, Alabama, but because the wedding day was the twenty-first of May, Helen had not married before Laurence Stith made Henry dead; thus, Laurence Stith had merely killed her hopes, not her husband.

All of these people were among the aristocracy of the South. Henry’s family had founded the town of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Laurence Stith was related to the Washingtons of Virginia—you might have heard of George. And Helen’s father—who claimed to be related to a Scottish earl—had built the 2,000-acre plantation, Annandale, outside Jackson, Mississippi. At Helen’s request, Vick’s body was brought to the little Chapel of the Cross, on the grounds of Annandale where, according to legend, and especially on hot, moonlit Southern nights, her spirit even now haunts the churchyard as the “Bride of Annandale.”

These days though what gets shot around Annandale is birdies and bogies, not duelists: it’s the site of what’s now called the Sanderson Farms Championship, which used to be called the Southern Farm Bureau. It’s the tournament held the same week as the British Open each year—perhaps by design. After all, the PGA Tour, ever since it was threatened with a lawsuit by the Attorney General of California over its “Caucasian-only” clause, is likely not interested in overly-drawing attention to golf’s Southern connection. But the South haunts American golf: the Sanderson is held on the original grounds of the Johnstone family’s land.

That golf in America should be so connected to the South is perhaps not to be wondered at, even aside from the obvious climactic attraction of the game. Mark Twain noted the link between Scotland and the South in Life on the Mississippi: the bridge, Twain claimed, was the South’s mania for the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott prior to Fort Sumter. “It was Sir Walter,” Twain says for instance, “that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war,” and also created the desire for the flowery types of decoration that, for another example, created steamboats that looked like floating wedding cakes.

It was because of Scott, Twain argues, that created a South where locomotives could coexist with duels, which is how Twain could actually blame, perhaps more than half-seriously, the entire Civil War on Scott’s hold on the Southern imagination. “Sir Walter,” Twain wrote, “had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.” That’s a large statement, to be sure—but according to a history of American dueling produced for the Public Broadcasting Systems’ program on the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr duel, Scott did have one undisputed connection to the South: “In the South,” the program says, “where the chivalrous novels of Walter Scott held sway, dueling [was] the preferred way to defend one’s honor.” Scott’s hold on the South is one way to explain how men were still fighting duels in the late 1850s at all.

Because that’s a curious thing, if you think about it. Take the legend of Annandale, which relates that Henry Vick’s body was carried to his final rest on the New Orleans steamboat that also conveyed the caterers for his wedding. It’s an odd detail—why should anyone add such a curlicue to what’s a pretty stark tale? But it is, perhaps, a detail that tells us something about why this story about a killing rises above the level of gossip.

Steamboats, after all, aren’t really possible among nations ruled by aristocratic codes, like the one that led to Henry Vick’s violent end. Steamboats are built, as Twain remarks, by nations that have “instituted the setting of merit above birth.” Nations, that is, who don’t think that the way things are is the way they always have to be. Being carried to the grave you end up in because you lost a duel on a steamboat, in short, is about as excellent an illustration of why the Civil War was necessary, and the antebellum South’s conception of the world as stupid, as it’s possible to get.

Yet while dueling is, fairly obviously, not the best means of settling disputes about how to treat employees (which, as best as anyone can say now, is what the Vick-Stith duel was about), maybe there’s some reason to suspect that its existence, like that of club-throwing, gets at some kind of truth of human experience. So at least thought some Southerners long after the war: those who, like William Faulkner, conceded the idiocy of slavery but yet thought that there was some alternative to organizing societies entirely around the production of steamships and railroads.

“It is strange, of course,” as the group of literary Southerners known as the Southern Agrarians put it it in their 1930 book, I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, “that a majority of men anywhere could even as with one mind become enamored of industrialism: a system that has so little regard for individual wants.”

That is, to be sure, a conundrum that no one in America has ever been able to thwart successfully; at least not for long. Even that box canyon where many of the Agrarians—like John Crowe Ransom or Allen Tate—eventually holed up in—academia—has, in the mind of at least one denizen of those precincts, become simply another extension of it. “The economic function elite colleges perform,” says Professor Walter Benn Michaels of the University of Illinois at Chicago, “is to separate the few winners from the great mass of losers in American life.” That function has so far penetrated the mission of academia, in fact, that even mechanisms that might appear distant from that mission, like affirmative action, are instead merely extensions of it.

Thus, Michaels says, even if new proposals were followed that would base affirmative action on economic grounds rather than on racial (or any other) grounds, the debate, such as it is, is just about “what color the elite will be and whether or not a few more of them will come from working class families.” In other words, “the function of both racial and economic affirmative action is just to make sure that everyone believes those winners are chosen fairly.” And as long as it’s “fair,” it doesn’t particularly matter just how many people get whacked out of being part of the elite.

Still, perhaps it is as well to remember that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. In the jargon of psycho-analysis, the repressed always returns; but an old Arab tale perhaps illustrates the point more concretely. In the anecdote, a servant sees Death in the Bagdad market. He knows Death is coming for him because of the surprise on Death’s face upon seeing him, so the servant asks his master for a horse to flee to Samarra. Whereupon the master also sees Death in the market, and asks him about the servant’s flight. “Oh,” says Death, “I was surprised to see him here, because my appointment is tomorrow—in Samarra.”

Laurence Stith joined the Confederate Army after the war began. He was killed in service to that criminal enterprise in the summer of 1863.

In Vicksburg, Mississippi.

 

Round and Rounder

 

Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular, and by nature it is interminable, repetitive, and nearly unbearable.
The Third Policeman Flann O’Brien

“Is it about a bicycle?” asks Sergeant Pluck when the unnamed narrator of the Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman first encounters him. The sergeant goes on to explain himself by observing that “you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles”—a ridiculous idea Pluck defends on the basis of the atomic theory: any object placed in conjunction with another will naturally exchange atoms with it, and so consequently people who spend too long on their bicycles are in danger of becoming their bicycles. Pluck doesn’t mention the danger to the bicycles of becoming Irish—though perhaps he ought to have given that there’s been rioting in Belfast since 3 December last year. Still, though Sergeant Pluck hasn’t considered the dangers of becoming Irish, there’s one man who, very publically, is: Rory McIlroy, who must decide by 2016 whether to become Irish—if, that is, all of the bicycles haven’t become Irish by then.

In the next Summer Olympics in 2016, golf will be a medal sport for the first time since 1904, if only on a trial basis. It sounds like a wonderful opportunity for the world’s best golfer, who will be just 27, to win further glory—who knows how many majors McIlroy might win by then—but as terrific as the chance might appear, the Rio Olympics also pose a dilemma for the native of County Down. In order to play, he will have to answer the question all sportsmen and women from Northern Ireland who qualify for the Games must eventually answer whenever the Olympics rolls around.

Earlier this month the golf pro addressed once more that question: which country to play for, the United Kingdom, the nation of his citizenship, or the Republic of Ireland, which traditionally has claimed sovereignty over the whole island? “In Beijing the majority of athletes from Northern Ireland represented Ireland,” noted the Daily Telegraph in 2009, “but it was a close split.” As the reigning PGA Champion said in early January, he has three options: “Play for one side or the other—or not play at all because I may upset too many people.”

Still, nobody much believes that McIlroy would really choose not to play. So the bookies seem to think, anyway—the odds are heavily in favor of McIlroy playing—and the commercial logic of McIlroy’s situation does appear to prove their point. As the world number one has said, the Olympics “spread the game all over the world and make it recognized in different countries, which can only be good”—good for golf’s manufacturers, for instance. And whether McIlroy plays or not is, according to Irishman and fellow tour player and major winner Padraig Harrington, “a very big deal because golf is on a trial period in the Olympics.” Or in other words, without the best player in the world Olympic golf threatens to become merely an exhibition, not a truly competitive event.

Almost certainly then McIlroy will play in the Olympics—for one side or another. Which side, however, is somewhat unsettled, in part because McIlroy has not had to make this kind of choice before. On the island of Ireland golf is governed by a single body, the Golfing Union of Ireland: in international competitions, all Irish golfers, North and South, play for the same team. “It does not matter,” as the Daily Telegraph observed in 2009, “if you hit your wedges in Ulster or Munster, you play amateur golf for Ireland”—as McIlroy did throughout his amateur career.

Thus far in his career then McIlroy has not needed to make a choice—but he’s made his leanings apparent. When golf became approved as an Olympic sport again, in 2009, McIlroy said that he’d “always felt more British than Irish.” When, after McIlroy won the US Open in 2011, a spectator shoved the tricolor of the Republic at McIlroy as the golfer walked off the 18th green, McIlroy ignored it. And his website, until recently, had the Red Hand of Ulster—an “exclusively loyalist symbol, an emblem of raw hostility to Catholics,” Niall Stanage called it in the New York Times in 2011—atop it. To have such a symbol proudly displayed is surprising to many because—though this is relatively unknown—McIlroy is a Catholic.

It’s for that reason that many think McIlroy should choose to represent the Republic in the Olympics. “Representing Britain,” wrote Stanage, would to some be “tantamount to backing a state … regarded as oppressive.” Some might go even further and regard choosing Britain to be a betrayal of his own family: in 1972, at the height of what the Irish call “the Troubles,” McIlroy’s great-uncle, Joseph McIlroy, was shot and killed “for trying to integrate his Catholic family into an overwhelmingly Protestant part of east Belfast,” as Fionola Meredith put it in the Belfast Telegraph. Most in fact believe—no one was ever convicted of the killing—that the 32 year-old father of four, murdered in his own kitchen, was shot by the loyalist Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force.

One of the symbols of the Ulster Volunteer Force is the Red Hand of Ulster.

* * *

For some, such a strange turn could only be explained by psychological means; say, by Pavlov’s “ultra-paradoxical phase,” or what’s known as “Stockholm syndrome.” But going to such lengths may be unnecessary, because by virtually any measure, McIlroy’s decision should not be much of a dilemma—even if his religion were of no account. On the one hand, the choice McIlroy should make appears fairly obvious. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that, by the time McIlroy needs to make it, his hand will be forced by events outside of his control.

Before getting to that though it’s necessary to point out that the angst McIlroy appears to be spending on this issue seems peculiar: the choice between playing for the Kingdom or the Republic seems at best an artificial one. All golfers on the island play, as mentioned, for the Golfing Union of Ireland, which governs golf both North and South. It is, in other words, a body whose existence owes a great deal to what might be accounted the “common sense” view of how to administer the island itself.
“Irish unity makes sense,” recently said Gerry Adams, the leader of the Irish republican Sinn Fein party, by way of reiterating the traditional Irish nationalist argument for a single government to rule the whole island. “Imagine the financial and efficiency benefits if there were one education system, one health service, one energy network and all-island investment practices,” Adams continued.

Adams did not argue on “emotional” grounds; he did not make the argument that Ireland ought to be for Irishmen or something of the sort. Adams instead said it made “political sense” and “economic sense.” His argument was the rational one that two governments over very nearly the same territory—Ireland is so small a place that it might fit inside a good size Wyoming county—are, necessarily, wasteful. If McIlroy were to represent the United Kingdom, in other words, he would be endorsing an arrangement that is needlessly inefficient—or, in sum, irrational.

Of course, nationalism is of necessity not always amenable to rational analysis. It may be that nationalism is the most recent emotion human beings have developed—certainly, it is one of the few emotional states that has a datable history. Only in the past two centuries, as Benedict Anderson pointed out in his Imagined Communities, have we really had nationalism. It’s a history, as a matter of fact, that is revealed by the very name of the kingdom towards which Rory McIlroy’s loyalty leans.
As Anderson pointed out before Berlin’s wall fell, “the Soviet Union share[d] with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland the rare distinction of refusing nationality in its naming.” (If the kingdom’s title did name a nationality, Anderson says, what would it be? “Great Brito-Irish?”) The name of the kingdom, instead, marks it as a survival of those dynastic states that were common throughout the world before 1914—states usually ruled by a monarchy that may or may not have spoken the same language as its subjects, and was indifferent to whether it did or not.

The United Kingdom is one of the last survivors of that kind of state: “there has not,” as Anderson observes, “been an ‘English’ dynasty ruling in London since the eleventh century (if then).”
Which, it’s worth mentioning, makes it odd for McIlroy—or any other subject of the Crown—to have an emotional attachment to the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, it seems that despite pre-dating the modern era of nationalism, the United Kingdom has been able to construct its own version of it even if British people are known for not being as demonstrative in their national affections as, say, Americans or Brazilians. For instance, most government offices in the United Kingdom only fly their national flags—which are actually royal flags—less than twenty times a year, mostly to honor various royal birthdays rather that “national” holidays that (for instance) might mark significant historical events or the like.

How often the national flag gets flown probably isn’t as significant a marker of sentiment, though, as the fact that a sizable chunk of the “nation” not only isn’t particularly nationalistic, but actively wants out of it. If the United Kingdom consists largely of four segments—England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland—then it’s probably notable if two of those segments want, if not out, then at minimum a new arrangement. Scotland and Wales have had that new arrangement since a referendum was passed in 1997; in 1999, a Scottish Parliament sat at Holyrood in Edinburgh for the first time since the Act of Union in 1707. But the current First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond—whom I caddied for at Medinah on the day after McIlroy’s European team won the Ryder Cup from the Americans—wants to put to the Scottish people a further referendum in the autumn of 2014: “Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?” If that referendum should pass—and Alex Salmond says it is likely—then it’s possible that the United Kingdom would not be so united by the time the Olympics roll around again.

In that case, obviously, McIlroy might not be able to play for the United Kingdom because there wouldn’t be any such thing any more. But if there isn’t, it likely wouldn’t be because of the wishes of many of his compatriots. In Belfast, for instance, a Union Jack has flown above City Hall every day since 1906. A portion of the population of Northern Ireland, in other words, is committed to the idea of the United Kingdom in a far more intense fashion than virtually anyone else within it: a commitment illustrated by the events of the past few months.

In March of 2011, the Belfast City Council rejected a proposed plan to fly both the Union Jack and the tricolor of the Republic of Ireland above City Hall. On 5 May of that year, however, the voters returned a city council that, for the first time in Belfast’s history, held a majority of Irish nationalists—the largest number of whom (16 0f 51) were of Sinn Fein, the nationalist republican party. It was a result that reflected the demographic realities of the city—which since at least 2001 has had a majority of Roman Catholics—and the new, republican-controlled council thence commissioned a survey of City Hall visitors in September of 2011 on the flag question.

That survey, perhaps unsurprisingly, found that most Roman Catholics were—unlike Rory McIlroy—either indifferent or felt offended by the Union Jack flag. On the basis of the survey, in June of 2012 the council began a “consultation programme” about whether to continue to fly the flag every day. Most official buildings in the United Kingdom as whole usually fly their flags only 18 times a year (a number of those are royal birthdays). A final vote on the matter was announced for November of 2012, which in the event was pushed back. Hence the council voted on 3 December.
Directly afterwards, a mob attempted to rush City Hall, held off only by police. There were several injuries, but while rioting continued for the next week or so, things did not become serious—at least by Belfast standards—until 10 December.

On that day, a Protestant mob attacked police guarding the home of a Protestant city councilor who backed the nationalist position, and someone in the crowd threw a Molotov cocktail, or “petrol bomb,” into a police car. The policewoman inside did escape—but the event underlined that the flag issue wasn’t going away. The riots have, as of this writing, continued virtually every day since the vote in towns throughout Northern Ireland, and have included violent attacks on Catholic neighborhoods like Belfast’s Short Strand.

McIlroy’s statements in favor of the United Kingdom, therefore, put him at odds with the rest of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland; the difficulty, of course, is why this should be so. Examining McIlroy’s situation, one factor stands out: the rise—in the words of the New York Times—of what, in “the poor Catholic districts along the Falls Road or the working class Protestant quarters of the Shankill, people refer to the city’s more affluent fringe as ‘cloud cuckoo-land.’” McIlroy grew up in the town of Holywood, a place less than half an hour from the surveillance cameras and barbed wire of Belfast but a world away in terms other than geographical.

As William E. Schmidt reported for the Times as long ago as 1991, when Rory McIlroy was two years old—as seen from the Falls Road or the Shankill, Holywood is “as foreign and inaccessible as the far side of the moon.” For those living out in the suburbs of County Down, said the Rev. Eamon O’Brien, “a Catholic priest whose parish of 800 poor and mostly unemployed is in the middle of a Protestant neighborhood in East Belfast”—the same part of town where Joseph McIlroy was shot in his kitchen—the “‘troubles are as far away for some people who live in Northern Ireland as they are for people living in the U.S., and that includes a lot of middle-class Catholics.’” McIlroy, whose father worked multiple jobs to pay for his early golf, might not qualify as middle-class exactly, but his triumphs do nevertheless signal the success of those who turned their backs on the Troubles.

Or, to put it another way, were allowed to so turn their backs. “After years of overt discrimination in the civil service”—which in 1991 accounted for nearly half of all jobs in Northern Ireland, Schmidt reported then—“the percentage of Catholics now employed in Government jobs … is more than 39 percent, nearly equal to their percentage in the overall population, which is about 42 percent.” Though McIlroy’s parents were not employed by the government, it seems clear that he must have benefitted, directly or indirectly, by the end of anti-Catholic discrimination. Almost certainly, it’s what allowed his family to escape the streets of Belfast for the leafy countryside of Holywood and avoid the fate of his great-uncle. It’s that fact that allows an understanding of how McIlroy could become attached to a state that, by all rights, he ought at best be indifferent towards.

* * *

Perhaps the most significant sociological study of Northern Ireland in recent years is one that has little to do with the Troubles, precisely. It’s a study published by Democratic Dialogue, a Belfast think tank, and authored by Patrick McGregor and Patricia McKee. Their study found, very simply, that “the rich in Northern Ireland”—like the rich in a lot of other places—“have indeed become richer” and, in fact, they are “becoming richer more rapidly than the rest of society.” Northern Ireland has been becoming a “winner-take-all” society, like the United Kingdom and the United States have been documented to do since 1980: one in which the richest are capturing an increasing share of society’s total wealth.

Increasing inequality arguably has more significance in Northern Ireland, where nearly a third of the people—and there are less than two millions of them—are under the poverty line, than it might be in the rest of Britain, where only a fifth are. In Northern Ireland, that is, the gap is thusly that much more visible. What one might expect to see in and around Belfast then isn’t protests about flags, but rather protests about unfair economic policies—and those protests would not be divided along sectarian lines, but rather economic ones: poor Protestants and Catholics joining to protest against rich Protestants and Catholics. But that isn’t what’s being observed. Instead, the poor Protestant community—bankers and lawyers aren’t throwing cobblestones—is insisting on its own separateness from the rest of the island. In a way, that is, the flag riots are a plea on cultural, not economic, grounds for what Americans are used to call “diversity” and “multiculturalism.”

This is an odd development because it has traditionally been the Irish nationalists who have made “cultural” kinds of arguments—something that Brian O’Nolan, the man who created Flann O’Brien and wrote the novels he published under that name, knew very well. O’Nolan’s work, in fact, may be read as questioning just that part of the nationalist platform—which is why it is especially ironic to see that his work has been appropriated by academics whose professional commitments are just to the kinds of “cultural politics” that O’Nolan himself spent his career ridiculing.
The Third Policeman, for instance, written between 1939 and 1940, is often discussed among literary people as “one of the earliest—and most exciting—examples of post-modernist fiction,” as the publisher’s blurb for the study Flann O’Brien: Portrait of the Artist As Young Postmodernist has put it. If, for the author of that study—Keith Hopper—one way to define post-modernism is the belief that “the real world is not ‘given’ but constructed”—that we cannot interact with the world other than through the medium of language, or “language games”—then it’s possible to view The Third Policeman as, among other things, an investigation into how science is “a paradigmatic language game.” Or to put it another way, it’s possible to enlist O’Nolan’s work in an argument that would assert the primacy of “culture,” as opposed to any other factor, in our lives.

That may be true in some sense, because almost certainly Sergeant Pluck’s “Atomic Theory” owes something to the arrival in Dublin in October of 1939 of Erwin Schrödinger—the Austrian physicist who created the paradoxical thought experiment known as “Schrödinger’s Cat.” Schrödinger had been invited to direct Ireland’s new Institute of Advanced Studies at the behest of Eamon de Valera, Prime Minister (or, in Irish Gaelic, Taoiseach) of Ireland, who’d been a teacher of mathematics and Irish Gaelic before taking up the struggle for Irish independence. In America, Princeton had set up an Institute of Advanced Studies to capture scientists, like Albert Einstein, fleeing Europe ahead of the Nazis, and de Valera thought he could do something similar for Ireland. In Schrödinger, de Valera had a prize only a little less valuable than Einstein himself: Schrödinger had helped to invent quantum mechanics, for which he’d received the Nobel Prize in 1933.

Schrödinger however is best known among non-scientists for his “cat,” which he described in 1935. It was intended as a reductio ad absurdum of what’s known as the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, under which (to simplify the point) an atom could be both a particle and a wave, in contradistinction to classical physics under which an atom could be either, but not both. The point of Schrödinger’s paradox, without giving a lengthy description, was to say that thinking an atom could be both a particle and a wave was as well as thinking a cat could be both dead and alive.

Or, perhaps, that someone could be a person and a bicycle. Yet while the comedic potential of Schrödinger’s paradox seems just the sort of thing that might have caught Brian O’Nolan’s attention, what perhaps deepened O’Nolan’s interest in Schrödinger’s arrival in Dublin was that de Valera, seizing the opportunity, piggybacked a School for Celtic Studies (a school for the study of Irish Gaelic, in other words) on top of the scientific center. De Valera in that way leveraged Schrödinger’s scientific prestige to enhance the Irish government’s policy of promoting Gaelic as Ireland’s “official” language, which had been enshrined in the Irish Constitution of 1937 along with recognition of the pre-eminence of the Catholic Church, strong censorship laws, and a prohibition of divorce.

O’Nolan certainly would have recognized the hypocrisy—and comedic potential—in de Valera’s use of Schrödinger. The Taoiseach and his government were famously puritanical: later on during World War II, in 1944, the Irish government—on the advice of the Roman Catholic hierarchy—banned that dangerously sexual new product, tampons. (Yes, that really happened.)On the other hand, Schrödinger’s personal life was, to put it mildly, colorful even by today’s standards: the Nobel Prize winner lived with both his wife and his mistress, and the child he’d had by the latter—a fact that, in the small town that Dublin was in the 1940s, could not have escaped attention of anyone not willfully ignoring it.

De Valera’s position was, to be sure, not his alone: it was the culmination of a movement that had spread in Ireland beginning in the nineteenth century, the “Gaelic Revival” that produced, among other things, William Butler Yeats’ poetry and the creation of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884. That latter organization’s first president, T.E. O’Sullivan, gives a sense of what the Revival aimed for when said that the goal of the new athletic league was to “foster a spirit of earnest nationality” and also that it was a method of “saving thousands of young Irishmen from becoming mere West Britons.” (A “West Briton” was something like what an “Uncle Tom” is in America.) The suggestion of religion in these remarks is telling: the use of the words “spirit,” “earnest,” and “saving” indicates the close links between religion and the new movement not only in the sense of the ties between Catholicism and Gaelicism, but also that Gaelicism was itself a kind of religious endeavor. Playing an Irish sport like hurling, according to O’Sullivan, could mean salvation.

James Joyce, as is well-known, had thought that kind of provincialism nonsense; it’s why he had once for instance polemically asserted that “a nation which never advanced so far as a miracle play affords no literary model to the artist, and he must look abroad.” For its part, the de Valera government would return the animosity: when Joyce, who never married his mistress Nora Barnacle, died in 1941 in Switzerland, de Valera inquired whether he had died a Catholic “and being informed to the contrary, had ordered no Irish diplomatic official be present.” Joyce, in turn, was O’Nolan’s literary hero: in 1954, O’Nolan helped organize the first “Bloomsday,” the international commemoration of the day (4 June 1904) Joyce’s Ulysses is set, and in O’Nolan’s later work, The Dalkey Archive—which cannibalized The Third Policeman extensively—Joyce appears as a character.

O’Nolan had by that time made his opposition to de Valera’s Ireland as explicit as seems possible. Another of his books, written under another of his pen names (Myles na gCopaleen, in Irish Gaelic), is entitled—in Irish Gaelic—An Béal Bocht, which means The Poor Mouth. The title refers to the Irish custom of exaggerating one’s difficulties in order to elicit sympathy—either from an attentive stranger or, say, a bill collector—and it’s pretty directly aimed at de Valera’s brand of Irish nationalism. Written in Irish Gaelic, the novel is set in Corca Dhorcha (in English, “Corkadorkey”), a place where “it never stops raining and everyone lives in desperate poverty (and always will) while talking in ‘the learned smooth Gaelic,’” as one review summarized it.

The novel is, in other words, a satire about the kinds of “professional Gael” who were practicing “cultural politics”—as opposed to some other kind—even so early as the nineteenth century. Hence, Corkadorkey is visited “by hordes of Dublin Gaeilgeoiri (Irish language lovers), who explain”—to the locals, who already speak the language—“that not only should one always speak Irish,” but that “every sentence one utters should be about the language question.” The cultural tourists ultimately leave when they finally find the poverty of Corkadorkey, which they initially took as a sign of the area’s Irish authenticity, to be just too depressing.

O’Nolan’s work, in other words, is a send-up of people who think “culture” is somehow the most important thing we do—a lesson that might be as applicable today, when the American academy is full of such people, as it was in de Valera’s Ireland. What’s strange, however, is that today it is the people who would have, and still do, oppose de Valera’s conception of a unified Ireland who appear to be his best students: in Northern Ireland, it is the Protestants who want to talk about “culture”—in the form of the flag—and Sinn Fein that wants to talk about economics and “common sense.” But how did this happen?

* * *

Or to put the point the way one academic literary critic, Walter Benn Michaels (of, most recently, the University of Illinois at Chicago) has, how did “the question of identity—who you are … come to replace … the economic question of what you have?” The answer, one might think, is “slowly,” and the answer to it might thereby be thought to be, correspondingly, difficult to arrive. But that question, it seems, received an answer all the way back in 1999—if, that is, one had been paying attention to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his student Loïc Wacquant.

Way back then, the two argued, the world’s academic community had become dominated by a number of global “commonplaces,” which they defined in terms of “the Aristotelian sense of notions or theses with which one argues but over which there is no argument.” One of these was “the need for the recognition of (cultural) identities.” Just as, in short,

in the nineteenth century, a number of so-called philosophical questions that were debated throughout Europe … originated, as historian Fritz Ringer has demonstrated, in the historical predicaments and conflicts specific to the peculiar world of German universities, so today many topics directly issued from the particularities and particularisms of US society and universities have been imposed upon the whole planet under apparently dehistoricized guises.

According to these two scholars, then, the notion of “cultural identity,” which seems at minimum congruent with Eamon de Valera’s promotion of “Celtic Studies,” for example, is part of the “global vulgate”: a language spoken by the academics, non-governmental and governmental agencies, and foundations of our times.

The “particularism” that Bourdieu and Wacquant allude to, of course, and that Walter Benn Michaels makes explicit, is Jim Crow: the rules and customs of the American South that were designed to oppress Southern African-Americans and that, less explicitly, also applied in the American North. The struggle against Jim Crow was, perhaps more than anything other than perhaps the Cold War, the great event of the last half of the twentieth-century: it was the change that arguably inaugurated every other. What Bourdieu and Wacquant in effect do, and Michaels does a bit more explicitly, is make the charge that—like every establishment ever—left-wing academics and their comrades are nostalgically fighting the last war, rather than the present one. “There is almost a kind of liberal nostalgia,” Michaels says, “for the time in which anti-racism wasn’t so mainstream in American society.”

Now, of course, “no one can imagine themselves to be committed to racism” and still be part of mainstream conversation, as Michaels noted in an interview with the online magazine Jacobin recently—no matter where, on the spectrum of possible responses to economic questions, one happens to fall. Both the Republican Party and Barack Obama are officially against racism, after all. That effective ban has certainly traveled worldwide, at least since the end of apartheid in South Africa.

At the very least, it has traveled to Northern Ireland, where as mentioned even twenty years ago the effects of past discrimination were slowly being lifted. It’s important to note that in many ways the system in place in Northern Ireland was almost precisely congruent to that of Jim Crow: as Chicago newspaper reporter John Conway noted in Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life, a book about the height of the Troubles, in Northern Ireland the Protestant-run government “gerrymandered election districts and altered voting procedures to ensure that Catholics would not be represented in proportion to their numbers.” Even, that is, “in areas where Catholics were the majority population, they were the minority on elected councils,” and since these “councils allocated housing and jobs … the discrimination against Catholics was institutionalized.” That formal system of discrimination is ending, and McIlroy’s success is one visible sign of that.

And that, Michaels might say, is just the trouble: what Protestant loyalists could, and maybe should, dislike about Rory McIlroy isn’t that he is Catholic, it’s rather that his vast success demonstrates not only that the old ways of oppressing Catholics aren’t working anymore—and thus that older avenues of possible advancement are closed to younger Protestants—but instead that his success serves to, in Michaels’ words in a review of Kenneth Warren’s What Was African-American Literature? for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “legitimate inequality.” How? Because—and the analysis works both for the United States and Northern Ireland—while there have been successful individuals of each society’s oppressed groups, the reality for the majority of the society has been one of increasing inequality.

Which, by the way, is also a reason—a reading of Michaels could suggest—why Catholics might dislike McIlroy. Speaking of the African-American experience, but in a manner that’s readily appropriated in the Irish context, Michaels says that “the idea that we should expect poor black people left behind to be gratified by the success of rich ones moving up is about as plausible as the idea that poor whites, contemplating [a successful black person], should think to themselves, ‘Hell yeah—he’s doing it for all of us.’” In other words, the success of a person from a previously-oppressed identity group isn’t necessarily all peaches and rainbows: it also could function as a permission for greater inequality. Tiger Woods’ success doesn’t necessarily mean better times for other African-Americans. It might even mean the opposite—and some would say it has.

* * *

All of that, to be sure, is quite a lot for any person to decipher and digest, which is maybe why a lot of people appear to want to give McIlroy a pass on the Olympics question. “No sportsman,” said Padraig Harrington, the champion Irish golfer, back in early January, “should have to make that decision.” “Let’s not wreck the buzz,” chimed in Matt Cooper of the Irish Examiner, “by foisting national identities onto his personal achievements,” while Kevin Garside, also in the Belfast Telegraph, just directly urged that “Rory McIlroy must learn to keep quiet over Olympic question.” At the same time Fionola Meredith, also in the Belfast Telegraph, claimed that McIlroy is “not a symbol, he’s an individual in his own right and he doesn’t actually belong to us,” and that’s why he should “continue to duck the national flags aimed at him.” Mainstream opinion, that is, appears to think that McIlroy should not have even have to address the question.

Some people just seem to think that professional golfers are not subject to the same kinds of obligations that others face. “Let’s please give the kid a break,” wrote Mark Steinberg, Tiger Woods’ agent, to the New York Times once, in response to the troubles that surrounded his client. Woods was, at the time, married, with two children, and 34 years old—an adult who’d never fulfilled his father’s promise to “bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before.” But Tiger, as we now know, lived a double life—and not just in the tabloid sense we’ve learned about in the last few years.

Tiger, after all, was initially sold as a symbol of the end of racism: the story of how he was “the only black child in his kindergarten class,” and on the first day he was tied to a tree by some older kids and spray-painted with the word “nigger” got told again and again. His own father, Earl Woods, had played baseball for Kansas State University, the first African-American to do that—but on Southern road trips he’d had to stay in black hotels. Tiger’s success therefore meant, according to the narrative sold by his marketers, the end of racism: it’s what Nike meant by the “I Am Tiger Woods” ad, for example—the one that just had many, many people, of all sorts of “diverse” complexions, ages, and genders, repeating the titular mantra, over and over.

It’s worth remembering, though, that once athletes did feel that, even if they played children’s games for a living, that did not make them children. Jackie Robinson, Muhammed Ali, and Arthur Ashe, among many others, did not think of themselves as children—and probably would have threatened anybody who thought they were. Millions of people worldwide make far more difficult decisions every day than the one Rory McIlroy is being asked to make. No matter how young 23 is, McIlroy has passed over that border between childhood and
adulthood.

* * *

“Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age,” wrote Brian O’Nolan’s master, James Joyce, towards the end of “The Dead.” It is the final story of the collection Dubliners, published in June of 1914, just before the beginning of the First World War. In the course of the story the hero, Gabriel, discovers that his wife, Gretta, had not only been loved by him alone: once, long ago, she had been wooed by another.

Michael Furey loved her so much that he had been willing to die for her—whether she loved him or not, though she “was great with him at the time.” And that is something humbling for Gabriel, because he “had never felt like that towards any woman,” not even his wife. In the event, Michael Furey does die, long before Gretta meets her husband, and Gabriel, after learning this, is awestruck by “how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.” All this happened and Gretta never told him, Gabriel, of it. He has, in a sense, never known his own wife.

“One could,” says Marco d’Eramo, the Italian sociologist, in The Pig and the Skyscraper: Chicago: A History of Our Future, “compare amor patrio to the idea of marital fidelity, the bonds of nationality to those of wedlock”—an eerie comment in the context of “The Dead.” In an earlier incident in Joyce’s story, during a dinner party, another guest, Miss Ivors (who wears a “large brooch” that bears “on it an Irish device”), had accused Gabriel of being a “West Briton” because he writes for an English-language newspaper, the Daily Express. Gabriel feels the charge inapposite because he believes that “literature was above politics,” and he sees “nothing political in writing reviews of books.” But Miss Ivors corners him, and asks him “And haven’t you your own land to visit … that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?” To which Gabriel replies: “O, to tell you the truth … I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!” He does not know his country, nor does he love it.

The character of Gabriel thus anticipates that larger-scale resistance that would spring up later in the century to what Wilfred Owen would call “The old Lie”: “Dulce est decorum est/Pro patria mori.” Gabriel is, in that sense, a prototype for all of the slackers and ironists that have come in the wake of Joyce and Owen—those followers of Hemingway’s famous remark, in A Farewell to Arms, that “the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.” They resist what Benedict Anderson calls the “deep, horizontal comradeship … that makes it possible … for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.” The readers of Joyce, Hemingway, Owen, and all of the other writers who, influenced or not by the horrors of the trenches of northern France, rejected patriotism, that “limited imagining,” as a possible belief.

For decades afterwards, and still today, it’s been a mark of a certain kind of intellectual, usually literary in tone, to mimic that rejection of nationalism by the “Lost Generation”—sometimes, though not always, accompanied by an acceptance of the internationalism of Communism or some other radical doctrine. I don’t want to describe all of the consequences of that turning point, though it’s worth considering what the American philosopher Richard Rorty said in a book called Achieving Our Country. “National pride,” Rorty says there, “is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition of self-improvement.” Without it, in Rorty’s argument, there’s no means of making things better—because without the state there is no institution capable of holding its own with larger forces.

Some might even say that the growth of such an intellectual rejection of nationalism was precisely the precondition for the worsening wage conditions within Northern Ireland and elsewhere: correlation is not causation, of course, but it’s notable that the rise of levels of inequality not seen since the previous century has been accompanied by a turn away from nationalism on the part of the “Left.” It’s an arguable point, to be sure, but what I’d like to point out is just that reading Joyce, and maybe Flann O’Brien, as simply, and simplistically, rejecting nationalism is a misreading—“The Dead” is not so unequivocal.

After learning about his wife and Michael Furey, Gabriel looks out of his window. It is winter, and it is snowing. “Yes,” he thinks, “the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland.” And now comes one of the most famous passages in all literature, written in English or not:

It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

What Joyce means by this passage, or indeed the story as a whole, has been argued over by the professionals since it was published. But perhaps there are some features that could be teased out: one is that “Ireland” extends from Dublin west to the “Shannon waves”—i.e., Ireland is the whole of the island. Another is, perhaps, that it is better to decide, to live and die, be one and then the other, than to hang on and be both and (inevitably) neither. And yet a third might that your country is where your dead—your memories—are buried.

If so, then it perhaps could be argued that Joyce did have a sense of patriotism—just one that wasn’t so simple as a rejection of the conception of patriotism possessed by people like Eamon de Valera. In Joyce’s time the island west of Wales was part of what was then called the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” In the ages before that, the island had been divided into separate “kingdoms”—each largely a collection of various villages. Joyce could not have known this at the time he wrote “The Dead,” but after Partition, in 1922, the island would be home to two states, Northern Ireland and the Republic: the Bog of Allen and the Shannon remain where they are, but the names of the states that contain them change.

In “The Dead,” Gretta cannot revive Michael Furey, just as the kingdoms of the island before modernity will not return. But what Joyce’s story recalls is that, no matter the names of the places, there is nonetheless a connection between the living and the dead, and it is to build such a connection that the “nation” exists at all. The nation may be, as the academics say, “socially constructed,” but it isn’t any less real for all that. Joyce did not disagree with Eamon de Valera’s idea of the importance of nationalism itself, just de Valera’s implementation of it. What Joyce—and Brian O’Nolan after him—rejected about de Valera’s brand of nationalism was that it elevated the nation above the people it is meant to protect. Conversely, however, “The Dead” rejects a dismissal of nationalism, as represented by Hemingway or Owen: the story of “The Dead” is the story of Gabriel’s sudden maturation—he now knows something about his wife that is simultaneously something about his country. He learns where Michael Furey is buried.

Joseph McIlroy was buried in Northern Ireland—at least, that is what they called the place where his grave was dug when it was dug. What Joyce’s story recalls is that, no matter the names of the places, there is nonetheless a connection between the living and the dead, and it is to build such a connection that the “nation” exists at all. But the point of that connection, in turn, must necessarily be to protect the living—what happens to Gretta or Gabriel or Miss Ivors is beyond Michael Furey’s care now; the dead are beyond need. Rory McIlroy’s choice of what nation to represent in the Olympics, then, ought to reject facile kinds of nationalistic fervor—but he ought to reject a specious kind of internationalism also. Both wheels, one might say, are necessary to ride anywhere—which is also to say that Sergeant Pluck is right: McIlroy’s choice is a story about a bicycle.

Public Enemy #2

Why Steve Stricker Is Way More Dangerous Than Anyone Can Imagine

Words pay no debts…
Troilus and Cressida III, 2

Dustin Johnson won the Tournament of Champions, the first PGA tournament of the new season (though it won’t be, as we shall see, next season), by beating Steve Stricker in the last round; afterwards, Stricker announced he is going into a “semi-retirement.” Some rather sour people might say that’s a season too late, given Stricker’s disappointing performance at Medinah last fall, but for others the tour loses a man widely regarded as one the good guys: “Stricker is your nice and genuinely down-to-earth Midwesterner” wrote Stephanie Wie of Golf.com. Stricker’s been ranked as high as #2 in the World Rankings, yet nobody would ever confuse him with Tiger Woods: he’s simply not competitive in the way Tiger is. Yet it is, maybe oddly, Steve Stricker who is a bigger threat to golf’s future than Tiger Woods.

Admittedly that’s a strange sentiment: when Tiger’s indiscretions became public a few years ago, a lot of people thought he’d lost huge numbers of fans to the sport, particularly women. Undoubtedly, that fear drove Tiger’s corporate sponsors, like Buick and the rest, to abandon their deals with him by invoking whatever the “moral turpitude” clauses in his contracts were. And in some sense those predictions are right: some casual fans surely did stop watching after Woods’ trouble. But just as surely, the television ratings indicate that such an effect, if it mattered at all, hasn’t mattered much: what those numbers show is that what matters now, as it has since Tiger first turned pro, is whether Woods is playing in the tournament or not. People watch when he is, and they don’t when he isn’t.

Maybe more of them are rooting for Tiger to fail these days—there were always some before the scandal, too—but the numbers say that Tiger is, if anything, a boon to the sport. Not so Stricker: nobody, aside from maybe his family and friends, watches the PGA Tour to see how Stricker is doing unless, as at Medinah last year, they are watching him represent the United States in some team competition or other. Still, that’s not why I say that Stricker represents a threat to the sport: sure, he’s pretty dull, and doesn’t emote anything like Tiger does (at least on the course), but that doesn’t pose any kind of existential crisis. No, what makes Stricker pose a threat to the game isn’t, in fact, his play during this century at all: it’s his play from the beginning of his career, not the end, that is the threat.

That beginning is referred to in John Feinstein’s sequel to A Good Walk Spoiled: that somewhat tedious tome entitled The Majors. Even there, Feinstein only refers to the events in question in passing, either not realizing or downplaying their significance. The crucial paragraph is this:

it had been a U.S. Open qualifier in 1993 that had jump-started his career. He had qualified in Chicago and finished as co-medalist to get into his first Open. he went on to make the cut at Baltusrol, which convinced him he was good enough to play with the big boys. That had led to his solid summer in Canada, which had gotten him an exemption into the Canadian Open. Totally unknown at the time, he led the Canadian for two rounds and ended up finishing fourth. Then he made it through all three stages of Q-School to get his PGA Tour card.

The story this paragraph tells is, at least on the surface, a heartwarming one: the story of a Midwestern kid made, suddenly, good. It makes for excellent copy and reminds us of all those other archetypal American stories. Just as another archetypal American story does, though that one also reminds us of just why we ought not to shut off our critical ears when listening to them.

That story is called The Great Gatsby, Midwesterner-who-made-good F. Scott Fitzgerald’s answer to the “Midwesterner-who-made-good” story. As you’ll recall from high school English, Gatsby is the story of how poor Jimmy Gatz becomes rich Jay Gatsby, and how, no matter how much wealth he piles up, the powers-that-be never will let him into the inner circle of power, which will always escape down another corridor, through another side-door. Still, all that depressing narrative isn’t really why Fitzgerald’s novel is important here: the consequential point, so it seems to me, comes in a single sentence in Chapter One, before things have barely begun at all.

“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures,” wrote Fitzgerald about Gatsby, “then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” It’s a sentence with its own beauty, to be sure: it begins with an obscure generalization, before rushing down to that indelible use of a Richter machine in a simile. But the crucial part of the sentence, for my purposes here, is that first phrase, about the “unbroken series.”

To know why requires reference to yet another book, one I’ve referred to before: Fooled by Randomness, by one Nassim Taleb. In that book, Taleb writes of what he calls the “lucky fool”—a category that, if you aren’t one yourself, ought to be fairly self-explanatory. “It has been shown,” Taleb says (though he doesn’t cite his sources, unfortunately), “that monkeys injected with serotonin”—a neurotransmitter that appears to play a great role with our moods and dispositions—“will rise in the pecking order”—apes being hierarchical creatures—“which in turn causes an increase of the serotonin level in their blood—until the virtuous cycle breaks and starts a vicious one.” The monkey references aside, it’s difficult to think of a more concise description of Steve Stricker’s summer of 1993.

“‘I went from nowhere going into that Open qualifier in ’93 to being on the tour in six months,’” Feinstein reports Stricker saying. It’s a heartwarming tale, speaking to the hope that golf, and perhaps sport in general, can represent. But it also represents something darker: a threat, as I said, to golf itself: “When you have large numbers of teenagers who are successful major league pitchers, isn’t that persuasive evidence that the quality of play is not the same?” wrote the sabermetrician—baseball stat-head—Bill James about the difference between nineteenth-century and twentieth-century baseball. James’ point is that a sport whose most successful practitioners are men in their primes, not the extraordinarily-young or other kinds of outliers, is a sign that the question is actually a sport: a game of skill, not a game of chance.

Stricker’s run to the PGA Tour threatens the notion that golf is a sport because it suggests that golf really is that which a lot of amateurs say golf is: a “head game,” or a game whose major determinating factor is psychological. As Tom Weiskopf once said about Jack Nicklaus: “Jack knew he was going to beat you. You knew Jack was going to beat you. And Jack knew that you knew that he was going to beat you.” To some, of course, such conditions are the essence of sport: we’re used to the usual kinds of athletic blather, usually spouted by football coaches, about the importance of will in sports, and all the rest of that.

The reality though is that a “sport” whose determining factor was the athletes’ respective “willpowers” would be ridiculous. What a combination of Taleb’s suggestion and Weiskopf’s observation about Nicklaus might create would be a picture of a “sport” played by players who had happened—not by their own merit, but simply on the fact that somebody has to win every contest—to win enough, at the right times, to create the serotonin levels sufficient to defeat most others most times. (This is not even to speak of the way in which golf is structured to reward veteran players at the expense at newcomers.) Golf would be, so to speak, a kind of biochemical aristocracy: entry would be determined, essentially, via lottery, not by effort.

There is only one way to counter an allegation like that: to allow the players to display their skill as often as possible, or in other words to make the sample sizes as large as possible. It’s that point that the PGA Tour has addressed by changing the structure of the professional game in a way that will allow Johnson’s win at the first tournament of the 2013 season to make him the defending champ at the sixth tournament of 2014—without changing any dates.

The Fry’s.com Open, at Corde de Valle on October 10th, will start what will be a kind of counterpart to the FedEx Cup: though instead of playing for a ten-million dollar bonus, as the top-ranked players will be, this tournament will be for the bottom dwellers on the PGA Tour. Those low-ranked players from the big tour will play the high-ranked players on the Web.com Tour (the farm system for the big tour, formerly known as the Nationwide Tour) in a battle for access to the big paydays on the PGA Tour.

That method will replace the old Q-School, the finals of which—a six-day tournament usually played somewhere like the tough PGA West Stadium course—used to give away PGA Tour cards. But for some years the Web.com Tour has overtaken Q-School as a means of becoming a PGA Tour player: slowly but surely the numbers of cards available to Q-School grads has fallen, and those for Web.com grads has risen. The reason has been to address just that potential criticism: players from the developmental tour have, presumably, had more opportunity to prove their talents, and thus their success is more likely to be due to their own merit rather than being on the receiving end of a lucky draw.

The trouble is, however, that it isn’t clear that increasing those sample sizes has really done anything to reward actual talent as opposed to luck. “For four years from 2007 through 2010, 34 of 106 (32.1%) players who made it to the PGA Tour via Q-school retained their cards that year,” as Gary Van Sickle pointed out on Golf.com last March, “while 31 of 100 players (31%) who reached the PGA Tour via the Nationwide retained their cards.” In 2011 those numbers remained about the same. In other words, the differences in sample sizes—a whole season versus one week—does not appear to have much effect on determining who advances or does not advance to the big tour. That is, to put it mildly, a bit troubling.

Steve Stricker has earned roughly $35 million on the PGA Tour; it’s the highest figure for anyone who’s never won a major championship. By contrast, the career money leader on the Web.com Tour is Darron Stiles, who’s won just over $1.8 million. It’s an indication of just how skewed the pay structure is between the two tours: roughly speaking, the total purse at a PGA Tour event is roughly ten times what a comparable event on the other tour is. Yet, as mentioned, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two tours’ players’ respective merits. If so, that could mean that the difference in pay isn’t due to what the players put out on the playing field. Huge differences in pay that can’t be easily explained is, of course, cause for concern: one reason why Steve Stricker, resident of a nation where a CEO can be compensated hundreds of times more than workers on the lowest rung of the ladder and congressmen can be elected for decades to districts made safe by gerrymandering, might be a threat to graver matters than golf.