Outrageous Fashion

 

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

images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lincoln, undoubtedly, wore a plain Brooks Brothers suit.

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Left Behind

Banks and credit companies are, strictly speaking, the direct source of their illusory “income.” But considered more abstractly, it is their bosses who are lending them money. Most households are net debtors, while only the very richest are net creditors. In an overall sense, in other words, the working classes are forever borrowing from their employers. Lending replaces decent wages, masking income disparities even while aggravating them through staggering interest rates.
Kim Phillips-Fein “Chapters of Eleven”
    The Baffler No. 11, 1998


Note: Since I began this blog by writing about golf, I originally wrote a short paragraph tying what follows to the FIFA scandal, on the perhaps-tenuous connection that the Clinton Foundation had accepted money from FIFA and Bill had been the chairman of the U.S. bid for the 2022 World Cup. But I think the piece works better without it.

“Why is it that women still get paid less than men for doing the same work?” presidential candidate Hillary Clinton asked recently in, of all places, Michigan. But the more natural question in the Wolverine State might seem to be the question a lot of economists are asking these days: “Why is everyone getting paid less?” Economists like Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, who says that “U.S. income inequality has been steadily increasing since the 1970s, and now has reached levels not seen since 1928.” Or Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, who says that even the wages of “highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.” But while it’s not difficult to imagine that Clinton  asks the question she asks in a cynical fashion—in other words, to think that she is a kind of Manchurian candidate for Wall Street—it’s at least possible to think she asks it innocently. All Americans, says scholar Walter Benn Michaels, have been the victims of a “trick” over the last generation: the trick of responding to “economic inequality by insisting on the importance of … identity.” But how was the trick done?

The dominant pedagogy of the American university suggests one way: if it’s true that, as the professors say, reality is a function of the conceptual tools available, then maybe Hillary Clinton cannot see reality because she doesn’t have the necessary tools. As well she might not: in Clinton’s case, one might as well ask why a goldfish can’t see water. Raised in a wealthy Chicago suburb, on to Ivy League colleges; then the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas and the White House; followed by Westchester County, then back to D.C. It’s true of course that Clinton did write a college thesis about Saul Alinsky’s community organizing tactics, so she cannot possibly be unfamiliar with the question of economic inequality. But it’s also easy to see how economics is easily obscured in such places.

What’s perhaps stranger though is that economics, as a subject, should have become more obscure, not less, since Clinton left New Haven—and even if Clinton should have been wholly ignorant of the subject, that doesn’t explain how she could then become a national candidate for president of the party. Yet at about the same time that Clinton was at Yale, another young woman with bright academic credentials was living practically just down the road in Hartford, Connecticut—and the work she did has helped to ensure that, as Michaels says, “for the last 30 years, while the gap between the rich and the poor has grown larger, we’ve been urged to respect people’s identities.” That doesn’t mean of course that the story I am going to tell explains everything about why Hillary asked the question she asked in Michigan, instead of the one she should have asked, but it is, I think, illustrative—by telling this one story in depth, it becomes possible to understand how what Michaels calls the “trick” was pulled.

“In 1969,” Jane Tompkins tells us in “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” she “lived in the basement of a house on Forest Street in Hartford, Connecticut, which had belonged to Isabella Beecher Hooker—Harriet Beecher Stowe’s half-sister.” Living where she did sent Tompkins off on an intellectual journey that eventually led to the essay “Sentimental Power”—an essay that took up the question of why, as Randall Fuller observed not long ago in the magazine Humanities, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was seen by most literary professionals as a cultural embarrassment.” Her conclusion was that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was squelched by a “male-dominated scholarly tradition that controls both the canon of American literature … and the critical perspective that interprets the canon for society.” To Tompkins, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “repressed” on the basis of “identity”: Stowe’s work was called “trash”—as the Times of London did at the time it was published—because it was written by a woman.

To make her argument, however, required Tompkins to make several moves that go some way towards explaining why Hillary Clinton asks the question she asks, rather than the one she should ask. Most significant is Tompkins’ argument against the view she ascribes to her opponents: that “sentimental novels written by women in the nineteenth century”—like Uncle Tom’s Cabin—“were responsible for a series of cultural evils whose regrets still plague us,” among them the “rationalization of an unjust economic order.” Already, Tompkins is telling her readers that she is going to argue against those critics who used Uncle Tom’s Cabin to discuss the economy; already, we are not far from Hillary Clinton’s question.

Next, Tompkins takes her critical predecessors to task for ignoring the novel’s “enormous popular success”: it was, as Tompkins points out, the first novel to sell “over a million copies.” So part of her argument is not only the bigotry, but also the snobbishness of her opponents—an argument familiar enough to anyone who listens to right-wing talk radio. The distance from Tompkins’ argument to those who “argue” that quality is guaranteed by popularity, and vice versa—the old “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich” line—is about as far from the last letter in this sentence to its period. So Tompkins deprecates the idea that value can be independent of “success”—the idea that there can be slippage between an economic system and reality.

Yet perhaps the largest step Tompkins takes on the road to Hillary’s question simply concerns how she ascribes criticisms of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to sexism, or Stowe’s status as a woman—despite the fact that perhaps the best-known critical text on the novel, James Baldwin’s 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” was not only written by a gay black man, but Baldwin’s based his criticism of Stowe’s novel on rules originally applied to a white male author: James Fenimore Cooper, the object of Mark Twain’s scathing 1895 essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” That essay, with which Twain sought to bury Cooper, furnished the critical precepts Baldwin uses to attempt to bury Stowe.

Stowe’s work, Baldwin says, is “a very bad novel” for two reasons: first, it is full of “excessive and spurious emotion.” Secondly, the novel “is activated by what might be called a theological terror,” so that “the spirit that breathes in this book … is not different from that spirit of medieval times which sought to exorcise evil by burning witches.” Both of these reasons derive from principles propounded by Twain in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

“Eschew surplusage” is number fourteen of Twain’s rules, so when Baldwin says Stowe’s writing is “excessive,” he is implicitly accusing Stowe of breaking this rule. Even Tompkins admits that Uncle Tom’s Cabin breaks this rule when she says that Stowe’s novel possesses “a needless proliferation of incident.” Then, number nine on Twain’s list is “that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone”—the rule that Baldwin invokes when he criticizes Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its “theological terror.” When burning witches, after all, it is necessary to have a belief in miracles—i.e., the supernatural—and certainly Stowe, who not only famously claimed that “God wrote” her novel but also suffused her novel with supernatural events, believed in the supernatural. So, if Baldwin—who remember was both black and homosexual—is condemning Stowe on the basis of rules originally used against a white male writer, it’s difficult to see how Stowe is being unfairly singled out on the basis of her sex. But that is what Tompkins says.

I take such time on these points because ultimately Twain’s rules go back much further than Twain himself—and it’s ultimately these roots that are both Tompkin’s object and, I suspect, the reason why Hillary asks the question she asks instead of the one she should. Twain’s ninth rule, concerning miracles, is more or less a restatement of what philosophers call naturalism: the belief “that reality has no place for ‘supernatural’ or other ‘spooky’ kinds of entity” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. And the roots of that idea trace back to the original version of Twain’s fourteenth rule (“Eschew surplusage.”): Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, gave one example of it when wrote that if “a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do by several.” (In a marvelous economy, in other words, Twain reduced Aquinas’ rule—sometimes known as “Occam’s Razor,” to two words.) So it’s possible to say that Baldwin’s criticisms of Stowe are actually the same criticism: that “excessive” writing leads to, or perhaps more worrisomely just is, a belief in the supernatural.

It’s this point that Tompkins ultimately wants to address—she calls Uncle Tom’s Cabin “the Summa Theologica of nineteenth-century America’s religion of domesticity,” after all. Also, Tompkins doesn’t try to defend Stowe against Baldwin on the same grounds that two other critics tried to defend Cooper against Twain. In an essay named “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defenses,” Lance Schachterle and Kent Ljungquist argue that Twain doesn’t do justice to Cooper because he doesn’t take into account the different literary climate of Cooper’s time. While “Twain valued economy of style,” they write, “such concision simply was not a characteristic of many early nineteenth-century novelists’ work.” They’re willing to allow, in other words, the merits of Twain’s rules—they’re just arguing that it isn’t fair to apply those rules to writers who could not have been aware of them. Tompkins however takes a different tack: she says that in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “it is the spirit alone that is finally real.” According to Tompkins, the novel is not just unaware of naturalism: Uncle Tom’s Cabin actively rejects naturalism.

To Tompkins, Stowe’s anti-naturalism is somehow a virtue. Stowe’s rejection of naturalism leads her to recommend, Tompkins says, “not specific alterations in the current political and economic arrangements but rather a change of heart … as the necessary precondition for sweeping social change.” To Stowe, attempts to “alter the anti-abolitionist majority in the Senate,” for instance, are absurdities: “Reality, in Stowe’s view, cannot be changed by manipulating the physical environment.” Apparently, this is a point in Stowe’s favor.

Without naturalism and its corollaries—basic intellectual tools—it’s difficult to think a number of things: that all people are people, first of all. That is, members of a species that has had, more or less, the same cognitive abilities for at least the last 100,000 years or so, which implies that most people’s cognitive abilities aren’t much different than anyone else’s—nor are they much different from anyone in history’s. Which, one might say, is prerequisite to running a democratic state—as opposed to, say, a monarchy or aristocracy, in which one person is better than another by blood right. But if naturalism is dead, then the growth of “identity” politics is perhaps easy to understand: without the conceptual category of “human being” available, other categories have to be substituted.

Without grouping votes on some basis, how could they be gathered into large enough clumps to make a difference? Hillary Clinton must ask for votes on the basis of some commonality between voters large enough to ensure her election. Assuming that she does, in fact, wish to be elected, it’s enlightening to observe that Clinton is appealing for votes on the basis of the next largest category after “human being”—“woman,” the category of 51 percent of the population according to most figures. That alone might explain why Hillary Clinton should ask “Why are women paid less” rather than “Why is everyone paid less?”

Yet the effects of Tompkins’ argument, as I suspect will be drearily apparent to the reader by now, are readily observable in many more places than Hillary Clinton’s campaign in today’s world. Think of it this way: what else are contemporary phenomena like unpaid internships, “doing it for the exposure,” or just trying to live on a minimum wage or public assistance, but attempts to live without material substance—that is, attempts to live as a “spirit?” Or for that matter, what is credit card debt, which Kim Phillips-Fein was explaining in The Baffler so long ago as 1998 as what happened when “people began to borrow to make up for stagnant wages.” These are all matters in which what matters isn’t matter—i.e., the material—but the “spirit.”

In the same way, what else was the “long-time” Occupy Wall Street camper named “Ketchup” doing when she said, to Josh Harkinson at Mother Jones, that the “‘whole big desire for demands is something people want to use to co-opt us’” but, as Tompkins would put it, refusing to delineate “specific alterations in the current political and economic arrangements?” That’s why Occupy, as Thomas Frank memorably wrote in his essay, “To the Precinct Station,” “seems to have had no intention of doing anything except building ‘communities’ in public spaces and inspiring mankind with its noble refusal to have leaders.” The values described by Tompkins’ essay are, specifically, anti-naturalist: Occupy Wall Street, and its many, many sympathizers, was an anti-naturalist—a religious—movement.

It may, to be sure, be little wonder that feminists like Tompkins should look to intellectual traditions explicitly opposed to the intellectual project of naturalism—most texts written by women have been written by religious women. So have most texts written by most people everywhere—to study a “minority” group virtually requires studying texts written by people who believed in a supernatural being. It’s wholly understandable, then, that anti-naturalism should have become the default mode of people who claim to be on the “left.” But while it’s understandable, it’s no way to, say, raise wages. Whatever Jane Tompkins says about her male literary opponents, Harriet Beecher Stowe didn’t free anybody. Abraham Lincoln—by all accounts an atheist—did.

Which is Hillary Clinton’s model?

Excellent Foppery

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That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in the storm
King Lear II.iv

 

We’d been in the badly-lit cart barn for over an hour, as the storm came ashore from the Gulf of Mexico, when my fellow caddie Pistol discovered the scorecard that had been resting on the steering wheel of the cart he was in. The card recorded the events of the first two holes played by a foursome on Streamsong’s Red course, and told a tale of much woe: the foursome had played the first hole in an eye-gouging fourteen over par. Five of those over-par strokes came from one poor wretch’s nine. “The fact,” Pistol laconically observed, “that the guy wrote down the nine means it probably wasn’t his first this month.” Still, he’d written down the nine, for some mysterious reason—but why? Something I had read recently suggested not only existential despair, but also that the answer might have to do with slot machines and Australian beards.

According to a recent study of styles of men’s facial hair—as revealed by newspaper photographs going back more than a century by two researchers from the University of New South Wales—there is no one “right”method of wearing facial hair. Instead, what’s fashionable in beard styles is simply something they call “negative frequency dependence,” which just means that whatever the desirable style of the day is will simply be determined by what’s rare, not because of something internal to the style itself. “Patterns of facial hair enjoy greater attractiveness when rare than when they’re common,” the researchers found. Which, I’d grant you, hardly seems earthshaking, nor does it appear to have much to do with golf.

Bear with me though, as we try to answer the question of why anyone would habitually write down their nines. “True” golfers, of course, will harumph at the question itself. “Golf is like solitaire,” Tony Lema once said: “When you cheat, you only cheat yourself.” Yet given the scores of the other players in the foursome, nines were not unfamiliar to the group—in that case, however, why continue to play? Why not either improve or … just cease to keep score? Continuing, year after year, decade after decade, to play golf poorly seems like one of those mysteries of the human race that alien archeologists will one day wonder over.

As Bill Pennington of the New York Times reported in 2005, the “average 18-hole score for the average golfer remains at about 100, as it has for decades, according to the National Golf Foundation.” This, despite the millions spent on game improvement technology like titanium woods and over-engineered golf balls; technology often researched by (former) rocket scientists who’ve left the NASA or the defense industry in order to find an extra four yards from your seven-iron. Yet, despite the money spent, the fact that this quest has largely been fruitless is just accepted: “Maybe we’re all supposed to stink at this,” says the revered commentator David Feherty in Pennington’s story.

Yet Feherty’s line explains nothing, just as—the American philosopher Richard Rorty liked to point out—the doctor in the Moliere play’s claim that opium put people to sleep because it had a “dormitive power” explained nothing. Recently however I came across an article that just might explain something about this gap between the billions spent and the apparent lack of result: a piece by one Professor Ian Bogost, of Georgia Tech, in The Baffler about a seemingly unrelated subject—the rise of “social media” games like FarmVille or Candy Crush. What Bogost suggests is that such games have a lot to do with that perennial stalwart of the Las Vegas economy: slot machines.

Citing the work of psychologists Geoffrey and Elizabeth Loftus, Bogost tells us that slot machines exploit “a type of operant conditioning that provides a reward intermittently,” or “partial reinforcement.” In other words, precisely the mechanism that B.F. Skinner explored in his behaviorist experiments with rats: so long as, once in what can be a very great while, a reward gets doled out, there’s virtually no end to which mammals will not go. As the subject of the recent short film, Lapse: Confessions of a Slot Machine Junkie, says about his time in front of the machines, slot machine zombies that sit in front of their spinning fruit in the casinos that have sprung up across America in recent decades are “Irrational, stupid, like a little rat in a wheel.” But slot machine junkies continue on with their behavior even though many of them realize how absurd their behavior is.

For Bogost, that explains the appeal of video games like FarmVille: they “normalize corrupt business practices in the guise of entertainment.” Games like these are called “free-to-play,” which means that they’re free to begin to play: the real point of them, however, is to “give users opportunities to purchase virtual items or add-ons like clothing, hairstyles, or pets for their in-game characters.” Or simply the opportunity to continue to play: like their forebears in the video arcades, these games are often designed so that at a certain point a player must either wait some time before playing again, or send out “invites” to the social media friends, or simply throw down some amount of money to continue to play right then and there. As Bogost puts it, “FarmVille users might have been having fun in the moment, but before long, they would look up to discover they owed their souls to the company store.”

What that would seem to say is that the man taking a nine—and not thinking it extraordinary—is playing golf for the few moments of pleasure the game affords him, and ignoring the rest: remembering the fifty-foot putt that dropped, and not the seven shots that preceded it. Or the solid nine-iron from the fairway that somehow stopped next to the cup—and not the sliced drive into the woods, followed by the three chip shots that restored him to the fairway, that led to the moment. It would be a species of what’s often called “selective memory,” which is something that we all think we are familiar with on a conversational level these days. But the more sobering idea to arise from Bogust’s piece isn’t that people ignore evidence that doesn’t suit them—but that golf exists, not in spite of, but because of the intermittent rewards it spits out.

What the idea of “partial reinforcement” suggests is that—seemingly paradoxically—if the casinos rejiggered the slots to pay out more often, that would lead to less play rather than more. The slot machine zombies aren’t there for the payoff, but—it could be said—for the long stretches between payoffs. In the same way, it may be that the golfer isn’t there for the brilliant shots, but for the series of shots between the fantastic ones: if golfers were better, in other words, the game would not have as much appeal. Just as the slot machine player, deep down, doesn’t want to win—or rather, wants to win just enough times to maintain the illusion that he’s playing to win—so the golfer doesn’t want to get better. In that sense, then, what all the money spent on researching the latest hot ball or driver is being spent on is creating that illusion for the golfer: the illusion that he really does want to get better—when in fact he does not.

It’s about here—in the midst of a rather dark picture not merely of golf, but human beings generally—where the beards come back in. What the foregoing suggests, after all, is that the reason people continue to play golf badly is precisely because of the rarity of good shots—just as people, according to the Australians, are attracted to certain beard styles because of their rarity, not because of anything intrinsic to the styles themselves. The appeal of the idea, at least when it comes to golf, is that it explains just why people would rather spend money on expensive golf clubs, rather than something that would actually improve their games in a lasting way: namely, lessons from a certified professional golfer. So long, in other words, as a person is able to hit the occasional good shot—which, strictly in terms of chance, he or she is bound to do once in a while—it does not particularly matter that all the rest of the time he or she is hitting terrible ones.

Purchasing expensive equipment then could be thought of in two different ways: the first is that it’s the same kind of shortcut as, say, taking speed can temporarily help with weight loss. Just as practice is the only real way to get better, so is diet and exercise the only real way to improve your body. But just as a “magic” pill can cause a temporary weight loss without effort (even if it’s all gained back later), so can a new driver or irons cause a minor improvement from your older clubs. Since getting a new club requires only money, whereas lessons and practice requires time, it’s easy to see why people would go for that kind of fix.

Yet, that’s not the only possible interpretation here: there’s a darker one suggested by the investigation into beards. Remember, no kind of beard is intrinsically better than any other kind—which is to say, there’s no way to investigate beards rationally and discover a single “best” kind. If golf is more like that, rather than the kind of thing that can be worked at, then buying a new golf club is, in this scenario, not so much a means of improvement (even if it’s known to be the same kind of shortcut as, say, taking speed can temporarily help with weight loss) but instead a kind of offering to the gods of rationality itself. That is, buying a golf club is like burning a goat (or, say, your daughter if you have a pressing need to get to Troy and the winds are not cooperating): it’s a way to simultaneously a recognition that golf is largely a matter of change (at least in your own case) and also an attempt to influence that hand of fate. What is disturbing about this, to be sure, is the whiff of primitivism about it—the suggestion that the Enlightenment is merely a passing moment in the history of humanity, and that the return of the Dark is merely just beneath the surface, or a turn around the corner.

****

The storm outside our cartbarn continued. The crowd within it slowly dwindled, as the golfers, slowly and then at once, gave up hope of completing their rounds. Their caddies followed. As they day drew drearily on, and the moisture from the Gulf of Mexico syncopated upon the just and the unjust alike, there were only a few of us left. Pistol remained. “What else,” he remarked in the midst of a long silence that was only broken by the occasional crash of thunder, “have I to do?”
“Grow a beard?” said a voice somewhere in the echoing darkness.
The course closed for the day shortly thereafter.

Bend Sinister

The rebs say that I am a traitor to my country. Why tis this[?] [B]ecause I am for a majority ruling, and for keeping the power in the people[?]
—Jesse Dobbins
Yadkin County, North Carolina
Federal pension application
Adjutant General’s Office
United States Department of War
3 July 1883.

Golf and (the theory of) capitalism were born in the same small country (Scotland) at the same historical moment, but while golf is entwined within the corporate world these days there’s actually a profound difference between the two: for capitalism everything is relative, but the value of a golf shot is absolute. Every shot is strictly as valuable as every other. The difference can be found in the concept of arbitrage—which conventional dictionaries define as taking advantage of a price difference between two markets. It’s at the heart of the financial kind of capitalism we live with these days—it’s why everything is relative under the regime of capitalism—but it’s completely antithetical to golf: you can’t trade golf shots. Still, the concept of arbitrage does explain one thing about golf: how a golf club in South Carolina, in the Low Country—the angry furnace of the Confederacy—could come to be composed of Northern financial types and be named “Secession,” in a manner that suggested its members believed, if only half-jokingly, that the firebrands of 1860 might have not been all wrong.

That, however, gets ahead of starting another golf tournament on the tenth tee. Historically, as some readers may remember, I haven’t done well starting on the tenth hole. To recap: twice I’ve started loops for professional golfers in tournaments on the tenth tee, and each time my pro has blown the first shot of the day out of bounds. So when I saw where we were starting at Oldfield Country Club just outside of Hilton Head in South Carolina, site of an eGolf tournament, my stomach dropped as if I were driving over one of the arched bridges across the housing development’s canals.

Both of those tenth holes were also, coincidentally or not, dog-leg rights; holes that begin at the tee, or upper left so to speak, and move towards the green in a more-or-less curved arc that ends, figuratively, on the lower right. In heraldry, a stripe in such a fashion is called a “bend sinister”: as Vladimir Nabokov put it in explaining the title of his novel by that name, “a bar drawn from the upper left to the lower right on a coat of arms.” My player was, naturally, assigned to start at the tenth tee. My history with such starts went unmentioned.

Superstitious nonsense aside, however, there’s likely reasons why my pros should have had a hard time of a dog-leg right. Very often on a dogleg right trees close off the right side quickly: there’s no room on the right to start the ball there in order to draw it back onto the fairway; which is to say, golfers who draw the ball are at a disadvantage. As this is the typical flight of your better player—while it might be so that the very longest players very often play a “power fade”—it’s perhaps not accidental that marginal players (the only type I, as an unproven commodity, might hope to obtain) ought to be drawers of the ball.

Had I known what I found out later, I might have been more anxious: my golfer had “scrapped … Operation Left to Right”—a project designed to enable him to hit a fade on command—all the way back in 2011, as detailed in a series of Golf Channel articles about him and his struggles in golf’s minor leagues. (“The Minors” golfchannel.com) His favorite ball shape was a draw, a right-to-left shot, which is just about the worst kind of shot you can have on a dogleg-right hole. The tenth at Oldfield had, of course, just that kind of shape.

Already, the sky was threatening, and the air had a chill to it: the kind of chill that can cause the muscles in your hand to be less supple, which can make it just that much harder to “release” the clubhead—which can cause a slice, a left-to-right movement of the ball. Later on my player actually would lose several tee shots to the right, all of them push-fades, including a tough-to-take water ball on the twelfth (our third) hole, a drivable par four.
Eventually the rain would become so bad that the next day the final round would be canceled, which left me at loose ends.

Up past Beaufort there’s a golf club called Secession—a reference to South Carolina’s pride of place with regard to the events leading up to the Civil War: it was the first state to secede, in late December of 1860, and actually helped persuade the other Southern states to secede with it by sending encouraging emissaries to those states. Yet while that name might appear deeply Southern, the membership is probably anything but: Secession, the golf club, is an extremely private course that has become what Augusta began as: a club for the financial guys of New York and Chicago to go to and gamble large sums on golf. Or, to put it another way, the spiritual descendants of the guys who financed Abraham Lincoln’s war.

You might think, of course, that such a place would be somewhat affected by the events of the past five years or so: in fact not, as on the day I stopped in every tee box seemed filled with foursomes, with quite a few filled by loopers carrying doubles. Perhaps I should have known better, since as Chris Lehmann at The Baffler has noted, the “top 1 percent of income earners have taken in fully 93 percent of the economic gains since the Great Recession.” In any case, my errand was unsuccessful: I found out, essentially, that I would need some kind of clout. So, rather than finding my way back directly, I spent a pleasant afternoon in Beaufort. While there, I learned the story of one Robert Smalls, namesake of a number of the town’s landmarks.

“I thought the Planter,” said Robert Smalls when he reached the deck of the USS Onward outside of Charleston Harbor in the late spring of 1862, “might be of some use to Uncle Abe.” Smalls, the pilot, had, along with his crew, stolen the Confederate ship Planter right out from under the Confederate guns by mimicking the Planter’s captain—Smalls knew what the usual signals to leave the harbor were, and by the half-light of dawn he looked sufficiently enough like that officer to secure permission from the sentries at Sumter. (He also knew enough to avoid the minefields, since he’d helped to lay them.) Upon reaching the Union blockade ships on the open Atlantic, Smalls surrendered his vessel to the United States officer in command.

After the war—and a number of rather exciting exploits—Smalls came back to Beaufort, where he bought his former master’s house—a man named McKee—with the bounty money he got for stealing the Planter, and got elected to both the South Carolina House of Representatives and the South Carolina Senate, founding the Republican Party in South Carolina along the way. In office he wrote legislation that provided for South Carolina to have the first statewide public school system in the history of the United States, and then he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he became the last Republican congressman from his district until 2010.

Historical tourism in Beaufort thusly means confronting the fact that the entire of the Lowcountry, as it’s called down here, was the center of secessionism. That’s in part why, in a lot of South Carolina, the war ended much earlier than in most of the South, because the Union invaded by sea in late 1861: 80 years before Normandy, in a fleet whose size would not be rivaled until after Pearl Harbor. That’s also why, as the British owner of a bar in the town I’m staying in, Bluffton, notes, the first thing the Yankees did when they arrived in Bluffton was burn in down. It was in order to make a statement similar to the larger point Sherman would later make during his celebrated visit to Atlanta.

The reason for such vindictiveness was because the slaveowners of the Lowcountry were at what their longtime Senator, John Calhoun, had long before called the “furthest outpost” of slavery’s empire. They not only wanted to continue slavery, they wanted to expand its reach—it’s the moral, in fact, of the curious tale of the yacht Wanderer, funded by a South Carolinian. It’s one of those incidents that happened just before the war, one of those incidents whose meaning would only become clear after the passage of time—and Sherman.

The Wanderer was built in 1857 on Long Island, New York, as a pleasure yacht. Her first owner, Col. John Johnson, sailed her down the Atlantic coast to New Orleans, then sailed her back to New York where a William Corrie, of Charleston, South Carolina, bought her. Corrie made some odd alterations to the ship—adding, for instance, a 15,000 gallon water tank. The work attracted the attention of federal officers aboard the steam revenue cutter USS Harriet Lane, who seized the ship when she attempted to leave New York harbor on 9 June 1858—as a suspected slave ship. But there was no other evidence of the intentions of her owner other than the basic alterations, and so the Wanderer was released. She arrived in Charleston on 25 June, completed her fitting out as a slave ship and, after a stop in Port of Spain, Trinidad, sailed for the Congo on 27 July. The Wanderer returned to the United States on 28 November, at Jekyll Island in Georgia, still in the Lowcountry.

The ship bore a human cargo.

Why, though, would William Corrie—and his partners, including the prominent Savannah businessman Charles Lamar, a member of a family that “included the second president of the Republic of Texas, a U.S. Supreme Court justice, and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb”—have taken so desperate a measure as to have attempted to smuggle slaves into the United States? The slave trade had been banned in the United States since 1808, as per the United States Constitution, which is to say that importing human beings for the purpose of slavery was a federal crime. The punishment was death by hanging.

Ultimately, Corrie and his partners evaded conviction—there were three trials, all held in Savannah, all of which ended with a Savannah jury refusing to convict their local grandees. Oncoming events would, to be sure, soon make the whole episode beside the point. Still, Corrie and Lamar could not have known that, and on the whole the desperate crime seems rather a long chance to take. But the syndicate, led by Lamar, had two motives: one economic, and the other ideological.

The first motive was grasped by Thomas Jefferson, of all people, as early as 1792. Jefferson memorialized his thought, according to the Smithsonian magazine, “in a barely legible, scribbled note in the middle of a page, enclosed in brackets.” The earth-shaking, terrible thought was this: “he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children.” In other words, like the land which his slaves worked, every year brought an increase to the value of Jefferson’s human capital. The value of slaves would, with time, become almost incredible: “In 1860,” historian David Brion Davis has noted, “the value of Southern slaves was about three times the amount invested in manufacturing or railroads nationwide.” And that value was only increased by the ban on the slave trade.

First, then, the voyage of the Wanderer was an act of economic arbitrage, which sought to exploit the price difference between slaves in Africa and those in the United States. But it was also an act of provocation—much like John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry less than a year after the Wanderer landed in Georgia. Like the more celebrated case, the sailing of the Wanderer was meant to demonstrate that slave smuggling could be done—it was meant to inspire further acts of resistance to the Slave Importation Act.

Lamar was after all a Southern “firebrand,” common in the Lowcountry and represented in print by the Charleston Mercury. The firebrands advocated resuming the African slave trade: essentially, the members of this group believed that government shouldn’t interfere with the “natural” process of the market. Southerners like Lamar and Corrie, thusly, were the ancestors to those who today believe that, in the words of Italian sociologist Marco d’Eramo, “things would surely improve if only we left them to the free play of market forces.”
The voyage of the Wanderer was, in that sense, meant to demonstrate the thesis that, as Thomas Frank observed about how the ideological descendants of these forebears put it, that “it is the nature of government enterprises to fail.” The mission of the slave ship, that is, could be viewed as on a par with what Frank calls conservative cautions “against bringing top-notch talent into government service” or piling up “an Everest of debt in order to force the government into crisis.” The notion that the yacht’s trip was wholly contrived must have been lost on the Wanderer’s sponsors.

Surely, then, it isn’t difficult to explain the reasoning behind the appeal of a certain kind of South Carolinian thought and that of wealthy people today. What’s interesting about the whole episode, at least from today’s standpoint, is how it was ultimately defeated: by what, at least from one perspective, appears to be another case of arbitrage. In this case, the arbitrageur was named Abraham Lincoln, and he laid out what he was going to arbitrage long before the voyage of the Wanderer. It was in a speech in Peoria in the autumn of 1854, the speech that marked Lincoln’s return to politics after his defeat in the late 1840s after his opposition to the Mexican War. In that speech, Lincoln laid the groundwork for the defeat of slavery by describing how slavery had artificially interfered with a market—the one whose currency is votes.

The crucial passage of the Peoria speech begins when Lincoln begins to compare two states: South Carolina being one, likely not so coincidentally, and Maine being the other. Both states, Lincoln observes, are equally represented in Congress: “South Carolina has six representatives, and so has Maine; South Carolina has eight presidential electors, and so has Maine.” “Thus in the control of the government,” Lincoln concludes, “the two States are equals precisely.” But, Lincoln goes on to note, observe the numbers of their free people: “Maine has 581,813—while South Carolina has 274,567.” Somehow, then, the Southern voter “is more than double of any one of us in this crowd” in terms of control of the federal government: “it is an absolute truth, without an exception,” Lincoln said, “that there is no voter in any slave State, but who has more legal power in the government than any voter in any free State.” There was, in sum, a discrepancy in value—or what economists might call an “inefficiency.”

The reason for that discrepancy was, as Lincoln also observed, “in the Constitution”—by which he referred to what’s become known as the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” or Article One, Section 2, Paragraph 3: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States … according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons … [and] three fifths of all other Persons.” By this means, Southern states received representation in the federal government in excess of the number of their free inhabitants: in addition to the increase in wealth obtained by the reproduction of their slaves, then, slaveowners also benefitted politically.

In an article for the New York Times’ series Disunion (“The Census of Doom”), which is blogging the Civil War as it happened, Adam Goodheart observes that over the decade between the 1850 United States Census, however, as and the 1860 edition of same, the population of the North had exploded by 41 percent, while that of the South had only grown by 27 percent. (By comparison, Goodheart points out, between 2000 and 2010 the United States population grew by just 9.7 percent.) To take one state as an example, in less than 25 years one Northern state—Wisconsin—had grown by nearly 6400 (sic) percent. Wisconsin would, of course, go heavily for Lincoln in the presidential election—Lincoln would be the first president ever elected without the support of a single Southern state. (He wasn’t even on the ballot in most.) One Northern newspaper editor, Goodheart notes, smugly observed that “The difference in the relative standing of the slave states and the free, between 1850 and 1860, inevitably shows where the future greatness of our country is to be.” Lincoln’s election confirmed the fact that the political power held by the Southern states since the nation’s founding, with the help of an electoral concession, had been broken by a wash of new Northern voters.

If read in that light, then, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which ended both slavery and the Three Fifths Clause, could be understood as a kind of price correction: the two amendments effectively ended the premium that the Constitution had until then placed on Southern votes. Lincoln becomes a version of Brad Pitt’s character in the movie of Michael Lewis’ most famous book—Billy Beane in Moneyball. Just as Billy Beane saw—or was persuaded to see—that batting average was overvalued and on-base percentage was undervalued, thus creating an arbitrage possibility for players who walked a lot, Lincoln saw that Southern votes were too highly valued and Northern ones too undervalued, and that (sooner or later) the two had to converge towards what economists would call “fundamental value.”

That concept is something that golf teaches well. In golf, there are no differences in value to exploit: each shot has just the same fundamental value. On our first tee that day, which was the tenth hole at Oldfield Country Club, my golfer actually didn’t blow his first shot out-of-bounds—though I had fully expected that to happen. He did come pretty close though: it flew directly into the trees, a slicing, left-to-right block. I took off after everyone had teed off: clearly the old guy who was marshaling the hole wasn’t going to be of much help. But I found the ball easily enough, and my player pitched out and ended up making a great par save. The punch-out shot from the trees counted just the same as an approach shot might have, or as a second putt.

Understanding that notion of fundamental value taught by golf—among other possible human acts—allows the further understanding that the “price correction” undertaken by Lincoln wasn’t simply a one-time act: the value of an American vote still, today, varies across the nation. According to the organization FairVote, as of 2003 a vote in Wyoming was more than three times more valuable than, say, my vote as a resident of the state of Illinois. Even today—as the Senate’s own website notes—“senators from the twenty-six smallest states, who (according to the 2000 census) represent 17.8% of the nation’s population, constitute a majority of the Senate.” It’s a fact that the men of the Secession Golf Club might just as well people ignored—because it just may be why 93 percent of the wealth since the Great Recession has gone to the wealthy.

To take a small example of how the two points might be connected, a recent New Yorker piece has pointed out that “in the fifth year of his Presidency, Obama has failed to place even a single judge on the D.C. Circuit, considered the second most important court in the nation” because the Senate has refused to confirm any of his nominees. This despite the fact that there are now four vacancies out of eleven seats. Why? Because the Senate’s rules allow a minority of Senators—or even just one, in the case of what’s known as the “hold”—to interfere with the will of the majority: an advantage Republican senators have not hesitated to seize.

Nearly twenty years after the publication of Bend Sinister, Nabokov chose to write an introduction in which he endeavored to explain the novel’s name. “This choice of title,” he wrote, “was an attempt to suggest an outline broken by refraction, a distortion in the mirror of being, a wrong turn taken by life, a sinistral and sinister world.” If there are wrong turns, of course, that would suggest that there are right ones; if there are “distortions,” then there are clarities: that is, there is an order to which events will (eventually, sooner or later) return. It’s a suggestion that is not fashionable these days: Nabokov himself isn’t read much today for his own beliefs so much as for the confirmation his novels can provide for one or another thesis. But if he is right—if golf’s belief in “fundamental value” is right—then there must necessarily come some correction to this ongoing problem of the value of a vote.

The location of the new Fort Sumter, however, remains unknown.