Closing With God in the City of Brotherly Love, or, How To Get A Head on the Pennsylvania Pike

However do senators get so close to God?
How is it that front office men never conspire?
—Nelson Algren.
“The Silver-Colored Yesterday.”
     Chicago: City on the Make (1951).

Sam Hinkie, the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers—a basketball team in the National Basketball Association—resigned from his position this past week, citing the fact that he “no longer [had] the confidence” that he could “make good decisions on behalf of investors in the Sixers.” As writers from ESPN and many other outlets have observed, because the ownership of the Sixers had given him supervisors recently (the father-son duo of the Coangelos: Jerry and the other one), Hinkie had effectively been given a vote of no confidence. But the owners’ disapproval appears to have been more than simply a rejection of Hinkie: it also appears to be a rejection of the theory by which Hinkie conducted operations—a theory that Hinkie called “the Process.” It’s the destiny of this theory that’s concerning: the fate of the man Hinkie is irrelevant, but the fate of his idea is one that concerns all Americans—because the theory of “the Process” is also the theory of America. At least, according to one (former) historian.

To get from basketball to the fate of nations might appear quite a leap, of course—but that “the Process” applies to more than basketball can be demonstrated firstly by showing that it is (or perhaps, was) also more or less Tiger Woods’ theory about golf. As Tiger used to say, as he did for example in the press conferences for his wins at both the 2000 PGA Championship and the 2008 U.S. Open, the key to winning majors is “hanging around.” As the golfer said in 2012, the “thing is to keep putting myself [in contention]” (as Deron Snyder reported for The Root that year), or as he said in 2000, after he won the PGA Championship, “in a major championship you just need to hang around,” and also that “[i]n majors, if you kind of hang around, usually good things happen.” Eight years later, after the 2008 U.S. Open Championship (which he famously won on a broken leg), Woods said that “I was just hanging around, hanging around.” That is, Woods’ theory seems to have seen his task as a golfer to give himself the chance to win by staying near the lead—thereby giving destiny, or luck, or chance, the opportunity to put him over the top with a win.

That’s more or less the philosophy that guided Hinkie’s tenure at the head of the 76ers, though to understand it fully requires first understanding the intricacies of one of the cornerstones of life in the NBA: the annual player draft. Like many sport leagues, the NBA conducts a draft of new players each year, and also like many other leagues, teams select new players roughly in the order of their records in the previous season: i.e., the prior season’s league champion picks last. Conversely, teams that missed the last season’s playoffs participate in what’s become known as the “draft lottery”: all the teams that missed the playoffs are entered into the lottery, with their chances of receiving the first pick in the draft weighted by their win-loss records. (In other words, the worst team in the league has the highest chance of getting the first pick in the next season’s draft—but getting that pick is not guaranteed.) Hinkie’s “Process” was designed to take this reality of NBA life into account, along with the fact that, in today’s NBA, championships are won by “superstar” players: players, that is, that are selected in the “lottery” rounds of the draft.

Although in other sports, like for instance the National Football League, very good players can fall to very low rounds in their drafts, that is not the case in the contemporary NBA. While Tom Brady of the NFL’s New England Patriots was famously not drafted until the sixth round of the 2000 draft, and has since emerged as one of that league’s best players, stories like that simply do not happen in the NBA. As a study by FiveThirtyEight’s Ian Levy has shown, for example, in the NBA “the best teams are indeed almost always driven by the best players”—an idea that seems confirmed by the fact that the NBA is, as several studies have found, the easiest American professional sports league to bet. (As Noah Davis and Michael Lopez observed in 2015, also in FiveThirtyEight, in “hockey and baseball, even the worst teams are generally given a 1 in 4 chance of beating the best teams”—a figure nowhere near the comparable numbers in pro basketball.) In other words, in the NBA the favorite nearly always wins, a fact that would appear to correlate with the idea that NBA wins and losses are nearly always determined simply by the sheer talent of the players rather than, say, such notions as “team chemistry” or the abilities of a given coach.

With those facts in mind, then, the only possible path to an NBA championship—a goal that Hinkie repeatedly says was his—is to sign a transcendent talent to a team’s roster, and since (as experience has shown) it is tremendously difficult to sign an already-established superstar away from another team in the league, the only real path most teams have to such a talent is through the draft. But since such hugely capable players are usually only available as the first pick (though sometimes second, and very occasionally third—as Michael Jordan, often thought of as the best player in the history of the NBA, was drafted in 1984), that implies that the only means to a championship is first to lose a lot of games—and thus become eligible for a “lottery” draft pick. This was Sam Hinkie’s “Process”—a theory that sounded so odd to some that many openly mocked Hinkie’s notions: the website Deadspin for instance called Hinkie’s team a “Godless Abomination” in a headline.

Although surely the term was meant comedically, Deadspin’s headline writer in fact happens to have hit upon something central to both Woods’ and Hinkie’s philosophy: it seems entirely amenable to the great American saying, attributed to obscure writer Coleman Cox, that “I am a great believer in Luck: the harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.” Or to put it another way, “you make your own luck.” As can be seen, all of these notions leave the idea of God or any other supernatural agency to the side: God might exist, they imply, but it’s best to operate as if he doesn’t—a sentiment that might appear contrary to the “family values” often espoused by Republican politicians, as it seems merely a step away from disbelieving in God at all. But in fact, according to arch-conservative former Speaker of the House and sometime-presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, this philosophy simply was the idea of the United States—at least until the 1960s came and wrecked everything. In reality however Gingrich’s idea that until the 1960s the United States was governed by the rules “don’t work, don’t eat” and “your salvation is spiritual” is not only entirely compatible with the philosophies of both Hinkie and Woods—but entirely opposed to the philosophy embodied by the United States Constitution.

To see that point requires seeing the difference between Philadelphia’s “76ers” and the Philadelphians who matter to Americans most today: the “87ers.” Whereas the major document produced in Philadelphia in 1776, in other words, held that “all men are created equal”—a statement that is perhaps most profitably read as a statement about probability, not in the sentimental terms with which it is often read—the major document produced in the same city over a decade later in 1787 is, as Seth Ackerman of the tiny journal Jacobin has pointed out, “a charter for plutocracy.” That is, whereas the cornerstone of the Declaration of Independence appears to be a promise in favor of the well-known principle of “one man, one vote,” the government constructed by the Constitution appears to have been designed according to an opposing principle: in the United States Senate, for instance, a single senator can hold up a bill the rest of the country demands, and “[w]hereas France can change its constitution anytime with a three-fifths vote of its Congress and Britain could recently mandate a referendum on instant runoff voting by a simple parliamentary majority,” as Ackerman says, “the U.S. Constitution requires the consent of no less than thirty-nine different legislatures comprising roughly seventy-eight separately elected chambers” [original emp.]. Pretty obviously, if it takes that much work to change the laws, that will clearly advantage those with pockets deep enough to extend to nearly every corner of the nation—a notion that cruelly ridicules the idea, first advanced in Philadelphia in 1776 and now espoused by Gingrich, Woods, and Hinkie, that with enough hard work “luck” will even out.

Current data, in fact, appear to support Ackerman’s contentions: as Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University and the author of Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It (a book published in 1996) noted online at The Atlantic’s website recently, “average real wages peaked in 1973.” “Median net worth,” Wolff goes on to report, “plummeted by 44 percent between 2007 and 2013 for middle income families, 61 percent for lower middle income families, and by 70 percent for low income families.” This is a pattern, as many social scientists have reported, consistent with the extreme inequality faced in very poor nations: nations usually also notable for their deviation from the “one man, one vote” principle. (Cf. the history of contemporary Russia, and then work backwards.) With that in mind, then, a good start for the United States might be if the entire U.S. Senate resigned—on the grounds that they cannot, any longer, make good decisions on behalf of the investors.

Advertisements

Men of Skill

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill …
Ecclesiastes 9:11

 

“It was a matter of chance,” says Fitzgerald, at the beginning of Gatsby—surely, even now, the Greatest of the Great American Novels—“that I should have rented a house in one of the strangest communities in North America.” The town Fitzgerald calls West Egg is “strange” first of all because it has developed so fast that the “small eyesore” of a house of Gatsby’s middle-class narrator, Nick Carraway, still sits next-door to the “imitation of some Hotel de Ville” of the fabulously wealthy Gatsby. Fitzgerald is also careful to note that the name West Egg is derived from the shape of the town’s geography: an egg-shaped peninsula that juts out into “the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound … like the egg in the Columbus story.” This detail, dropped seemingly so carelessly in the first chapter, appears irrelevant—what Columbus story?—but in fact it is a key to Fitzgerald’s design, for “the Columbus story” is just what Gatsby is: a story about just what is—and what is not—chance. Gatsby is, in other words, just like the new book ostensibly by Steve Williams, the New Zealander who once caddied for Tiger Woods back when the globe’s most famous black golfer did not have access to the nuclear codes.

Matters of chance are also just what this blog is about, in case you didn’t know—and apparently, through some oversight of the committee, many of you don’t know. Over the course of this autumn I’ve gotten some feedback from readers, such as there are any of you: one, a professional writer employed by network television on a show too well-known to be mentioned here (whose comments were relayed through a third party), said that I cover too narrow a territory; the other (a member of an historically-significant golf club in Chicago—my readers may be few, and maybe don’t like me much, but they are not inconsequential) implied that I ought to stick more to golf. Juxtaposed these comments are, to say the least, confusing: the one says I am too narrow and the other too broad. But that is not to say that each does not have a point.

I do after all stray from discussing golf (especially lately), yet it is also true that while I have covered a number of different subjects on this blog—from golf architecture to the Civil War to British elections—what I do discuss I view from a particular vantage point, and that view remains the same whatever the topic under discussion. In my defense then, what I would say is that in all of these cases, whatever the ostensible subject matter the real object is the question of chance, or luck, in human affairs, whether it be batting averages or stock market returns, elections or breaking par. The fact that I have to say this perhaps demonstrates the validity of the criticisms—which is what brings me around to the latest from Steve Williams.

Williams recently “wrote” the book Out of the Rough (golf books in general are seemingly required to be titled by pun—Williams’ title appears to owe something to John Daly’s 2007 memoir, My Life In And Out Of The Rough). The book has become a topic of conversation because of an excerpt published on the New Zealand website Stuff in which Williams complains that—aside from essentially throwing him under the bus after the notorious Thanksgiving weekend escapade through which the world learned that Tiger’s life was not so buttoned-down as it appeared—Tiger also routinely threw his clubs “in the general direction of the bag, expecting me to go over and pick it up.” Any caddie with experience knows what Williams is talking about.

Likely every golf club has a member (or two) who indulges in temper tantrums and views his (these members are always men) caddie as indistinguishable from his golf bag. (For instance, Medinah’s latest entry in this sweepstakes—the previous occupant having been tossed for his club-throwing boorishness—is a local car dealer who, as he is happy to tell anyone in earshot, worked his way up from Gatz-ian poverty, yet appears incapable of empathy to others in similar situations.) Anyone remotely familiar with caddieing in other words knows that throwing clubs, even at the bag, just is not done; that Tiger routinely did so is an argument Williams is aiming at his readers who, since they are interested enough in golf to buy his book, will take Tiger’s club-throwing ways as a sign of Tiger’s jerkishness. This should not exactly be news to anyone who has ever heard of Tiger Woods.

Yet over at the website Deadspin, Williams has become the object of ridicule by both public commenters and the website’s reporter, Patrick Redman. That is because of a further comment the caddie made about Woods’ club throwing habit: it made him, Williams wrote, “uneasy,” because “it was like I was his slave.” It’s a line that has irritated the hell out of Deadspin readers: returning to the subject of titles, for instance, one commenter remarked “Too bad Twelve Years A Slave was already taken,” while as another scoffingly put it: “You had to bend over and pick stuff up for your job? What a bummer.—[signed] Actual Slaves.” By comparing himself to a slaves, in short, Williams revealed himself as, according to another commenter, “a serious asshole,” and according to yet another “a delusional asshole.” It’s precisely this point that raises the stakes of the dispute into something more than simply a matter of men chasing a ball for money—though it’s worth taking a slight detour regarding money before returning to just what irritates people about Williams—and what that has to do with Gatsby, and Columbus.

In his piece, Redman asserts Williams’ complaint is ridiculous first of all because “picking up clubs and putting them into a golf bag was Williams’ job,” and secondly because the Kiwi caddie “was paid handsomely for his services, earning at least 10% … of Woods’ earnings.” Before getting into the racial politics that is the deeper subject of Redman’s ire, it’s worth asking whether his assertions here are true. And in fact, as someone with some experience as a professional caddie, I can say that the idea that Woods’ paid Williams 10% of winnings is ludicrous on its face, because at best, tour caddies earn 10% on wins, not week-to-week earnings; even assuming that Woods paid Williams at that rate on wins, which is questionable (it’s more likely that Williams was paid a—generously extreme—salary, not a percentage) that’s nowhere close to an overall 10% figure on earnings. To put the point in Hollywood’s terms, this is like claiming a character actor (whose credit comes after, and not before, the title) could get a percentage of a film’s gross, not net, revenue. In other words, Redman is not very knowledgeable about either golf or economics—a riposte that, to be sure, doesn’t address the substance of his criticism, but is significant in terms of what Redman’s piece is really about.

The point I think can be illustrated by retelling the story Fitzgerald alludes to in Gatsby: the story of Columbus’ egg. First related by the Italian Girolamo Benzoni in his 1565 bestseller, History of the New World, the story goes that after returning from the Americas, Columbus was at a dinner party when someone said “‘Sir Christopher, even if your lordship had not discovered the Indies … [someone] would have started a similar adventure with the same result.’” In reply, Columbus merely asked that an egg be brought to him, then dared anyone present to make the egg stand on its end unaided. No one could. When they finished trying, Columbus “tapped it gently on the table—breaking it slightly—and, with this, the egg stood on its end.” Benzoni draws the point—nearly literal in this case—of the story thusly: “once the feat is done, anyone knows how to do it.” Columbus was saying, in effect, “hate the game, not the player.”

Like the Spanish nobles, in other words, Steve Williams—by disliking Woods’ habit of club-throwing—was asserting his equality with his boss: just because his story did not happen to develop in precisely the same way as Woods’ story that does not mean that, in principle, Williams deserves any less dignity than Tiger Woods does. But Woods’ defenders, on Deadspin, read Williams’ remarks differently: they view him as not understanding that his circumstances as a white man were, just as much if not more than Tiger’s, fortunate ones. Williams in other words was one of chance’s winners, even if—in Williams’ mind—he is a kind of Columbus, or Gatsby: a self-made man who has gotten where he is despite, not because of, chance.

It’s just here, the astute may have noticed, that matters of golf and chance intersect with politics in general, and in particular the battle between those who assert, as Penn State English professor Michael Berubé has put the point, “that class oppression [is] the most important game in town,” and those who indulge in supposedly “faddish talk of gender and race and sexuality.” Williams’ memoir, in other words, seems to implicitly take the view that (in Berubé’s words) “the real struggle” has “to do with capital and labor,” while on the other hand his detractors seem to take the position that the whole discussion—even down to the very terms of it—is simply an effect of what Berubé calls “tribal identity.” “Class oppression,” they seem to suggest, is a white people problem.

Yet, as I have said before in different ways in this blog, considerations of the role of chance will not, and can not, go away merely by wishing them so: while it may be, as those on Berubé’s side of the aisle maintain, that factors we might consider “social” or “cultural” may play a larger role than we might suspect in the outcomes of our respective voyages to the New World, nevertheless there will also remain some portion of every outcome, however small, that is merely due to chance itself. Or to put it another way—as Berubé does—it is simply true “that anthropogenic climate change is real, that vaccines do not cause autism, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and that Adam and Eve did not ride dinosaurs to church.” For some time, what’s been called the Cultural Left has been busily asserting otherwise, suggesting that what appear to be matters of chance are, somehow, actually within human control. But what that perspective fails to understand is that such is, after all, just what Columbus—and Jay Gatsby—argued. What the story of Tiger Woods tells us, however, is that time and chance happeneth to us all.

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.

A Momentary Lapse

 

The sweets we wish for turn to loathed sours
Even in the moment that we call them ours.
The Rape of Lucrece, by William Shakespeare

“I think caddies are important to performance,” wrote ESPN’s Jason Sobel late Friday night. “But Reed/DJ each put a family member on bag last year with no experience. Didn’t skip a beat.” To me, Sobel’s tweet appeared to question the value of caddies, and so I wrote to Mr. Sobel and put it to him that sure, F. Scott Fitzgerald could write before he met Maxwell Perkins—but without Perkins on Fitzgerald’s bag, no Gatsby. Still, I don’t mention the point simply to crow about what happened: how Dustin Johnson missed a putt to tie Jordan Spieth in regulation, a putt that arguably a professional caddie would have held Johnson from hitting so quickly. What’s important about Spieth’s victory is that it might finally have killed the idea of “staying in the moment”: an un-American idea far too prevalent for the past two decades or more not only in golf, but in American life.

Anyway, it’s been around a while. “Staying in the moment,” as so much in golf does, likely traces at least so far back as Tiger Woods’ victory at Augusta National in 1997. Sportswriters then liked to make a big deal out of Tiger’s Thai heritage: supposedly, his mother’s people, with their Buddhist religion, helped Tiger to focus. It was a thesis that to my mind was more than a little racially suspect—seemed to me that Woods’ won a lot of tournaments because he hit the ball further than anyone else at the time, and it was matched by an amazing short game. That was the story that got retailed then however.

Back in 2000, for instance, Robert Wright of the online magazine Slate was peddling what he called the “the New Age Theory of Golf.” “To be a great golfer,” Wright said, “you have to do what some Eastern religions stress—live in the present and free yourself of aspiration and anxiety.” “You can’t be angry over a previous error or worried about repeating it,” Wright went on to say. You are just supposed to “move forward”—and, you know, forget about the past. Or to put it another way, success is determined by how much you can ignore reality.

Now, some might say that it was precisely this attitude that won the U.S. Open for Team Jordan Spieth. “I always try to stay in the present,” Jordan Spieth’s caddie Michael Greller told The Des Moines Register in 2014, when Greller and Spieth returned to Iowa to defend the title the duo had won in 2013. But a close examination of their behavior on the course, by Shane Ryan of Golf Digest, questions that interpretation.

Spieth, Ryan writes, “kept up a neurotic monologue with Michael Greller all day, constantly seeking and receiving reassurance about the wind, the terrain, the distance, the break, and god knows what else.” To my mind, this hardly counts as the usual view of “staying in the present.” The usual view, I think, was what was going on with their opponents.

During the course of his round, Ryan reports, Johnson “rarely spoke with his brother and caddie Austin.” Johnson’s relative silence appears to me to be much like Wright’s passive, “New Age,” reality-ignoring, ideal. Far more, anyway, than the constant squawking that was going on in Spieth’s camp.

It’s a difference, I realize, that is easy to underestimate—but a crucial one nonetheless. Just how significant that difference is might be best revealed by an anecdote the writer, Gary Brecher, tells about the aftermath of the second Iraq War: about being in the office with a higher-ranking woman who declared her support for George Bush’s war. When Brecher said to her that perhaps these rumors of Saddam’s weapons could be exaggerated—well, let’s read Brecher’s description:

She just stared at me a second—I’ve seen this a lot from Americans who outrank me; they never argue with you, they don’t do arguments, they just wait for you to finish and then repeat what they said in the beginning—she said, “I believe there are WMDs.”

It’s a stunning description. Not only does it sum up what the Bush Administration did in the run-up to the Iraq War, but it’s also something of a fact of life around workplaces and virtually everywhere else in the United States these days: two Americans, especially ones of differing classes, rarely talk to one another these days. But they sure are pretty passive.

Americans however aren’t supposed to think of themselves as being passive—at least, they didn’t use to think of themselves that way. The English writer George Orwell described the American attitude in an essay about the quintessentially American author, Mark Twain: a man who “had his youth and early manhood in the golden age of America … when wealth and opportunity seemed limitless, and human beings felt free, indeed were free, as they had never been before and may not be again for centuries.” In those days, Orwell says, “at least it was NOT the case that a man’s destiny was settled from his birth,” and if “you disliked your job you simply hit the boss in the eye and moved further west.” Those older Americans did not simply accept what happened to them, the way the doctrine of “staying in the present” teaches.

If so, then perhaps Spieth and Greller, despite what they say, are bringing back an old American custom by killing an alien one. In a nation where 400 Americans are worth more than the poorest 150 million Americans, as I learned Sunday night after the Open by watching Robert Reich’s film, Inequality for All, it may not be a moment too soon.

Instruments of Darkness

 

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths …
—William Shakespeare
    The Tragedy of MacBeth
Act I, scene 3 132-3 (1606) 

 

This year’s Masters demonstrated, once again, the truism that nobody watches golf without Tiger Woods: last year’s Masters, played without Tiger, had the lowest ratings since 1957, while the ratings for this year’s Saturday’s round (featuring a charging Woods), were up nearly half again as much. So much is unsurprising; what was surprising, perhaps, was the reappearance of a journalistic fixture from the days of Tiger’s past: the “pre-Masters Tiger hype story.” It’s a reoccurance that suggests Tiger may be taking cues from another ratings monster: the television series Game of Thrones. But if so—with a nod to Ramsey Snow’s famous line in the show—it suggests that Tiger himself doesn’t think his tale will have a happy ending.

The prototype of the “pre-Masters” story was produced in 1997, the year of Tiger’s first Masters win: before that “win for the ages,” it was widely reported how the young phenom had shot a 59 during a practice round at Isleworth Country Club. At the time the story seemed innocuous, but in retrospect there are reasons to interrogate it more deeply—not to say it didn’t happen, exactly, but to question whether it was released as part of a larger design. After all, Tiger’s father Earl—still alive then—would have known just what to do with the story.

Earl, as all golf fans know, created and disseminated the myth of the invincible Tiger to anyone who would listen in the late 1990s: “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,” Gary Smith quoted him saying in the Sports Illustrated story (“The Chosen One”) that, more than any other, sold the Gospel of Woods. There is plenty of reason to suspect that the senior Woods deliberately created this myth as part of a larger campaign: because Earl, as a former member of the U.S. Army’s Green Berets, knew the importance of psychological warfare.

“As a Green Beret,” writes John Lamothe in an academic essay on both Woods, elder and junior, Earl “would have known the effect … psychological warfare could have on both the soldier and the enemy.” As Tiger himself said in a 1996 interview for Orange Coast magazine—before the golfer put up a barrier between himself and the press—“Green Berets know a lot about psychological torture and things like that.” Earl for his part remarked that, while raising Tiger, he “pulled every dirty, nasty trick I could remember from psychological warfare I learned as a Green Beret.” Both Woods described this training as a matter of rattling keys or ripping Velcro at inopportune moments—but it’s difficult not to wonder whether it went deeper.

At the moment of their origin in 1952 after all, the Green Berets, or Special Forces, were a subsection of the Psychological Warfare Staff at the Pentagon: psychological warfare, in other words, was part of their founding mission. And as Lamothe observes, part of the goal of psychological warfare is to create “confidence” in your allies “and doubt in the competitors.” As early as 2000, the sports columnist Thomas Boswell was describing how Tiger “tries to imprint on the mind of every opponent that resistance is useless,” a tactic that Boswell claimed the “military calls … ‘overwhelming force’”—and a tactic that is far older than the game of golf. Consider, for instance, a story from golf’s homeland of Scotland: the tale of the “Douglas Larder.”

It happened at a time of year not unfamiliar to viewers of the Masters: Palm Sunday, in April of 1308. The story goes that Sir James Douglas—an ally of Robert the Bruce, who was in rebellion against the English king Edward I—returned that day to his family’s home, Douglas Castle, which had been seized by the English. Taking advantage of the holiday, Douglas and his men—essentially, a band of guerrillas—slaughtered the English garrison within the church they worshipped in, then beheaded them, ate the Easter feast the Englishmen had no more use for, and subsequently poisoned the castle’s wells and destroyed its supplies (the “Larder” part of the story’s title). Lastly, Douglas set the English soldiers’ bodies afire.

To viewers of the television series Game of Thrones, or readers of the series of books it is based upon (A Song of Ice and Fire), the story might sound vaguely familiar: the “Douglas Larder” is, as popular historian William Rosen has pointed out, one source of the event known from the television series as the “Red Wedding.” Although the television event also borrows from the medieval Scot “Black Dinner” (which is perhaps closer in terms of the setting), and the later incident known as the Massacre at Glencoe, still the “Red Wedding” reproduces the most salient details of the “Douglas Larder.” In both, the attackers take advantage of their prey’s reliance on piety; in both, the bodies of the dead are mutilated in order to increase the monstrous effect.

To a modern reader, such a story is simply a record of barbarism—forgetting that medieval people were, though far less educated, equally as intelligent as nearly anyone alive today. Douglas’ actions were not meant for horror’s sake, but to send a message: the raid on the castle “was meant to leave a lasting impression … not least upon the men who came to replace their dead colleagues.” Acts like his attack on his own castle demonstrate how the “Black Douglas”—“mair fell than wes ony devill in hell” according to a contemporary account—was “an early practitioner of psychological warfare”: he knew how “fear alone could do much of the work of a successful commander.” It seems hardly credible to think Earl Woods—a man who’d been in combat in the guerrilla war of Vietnam—did not know the same lesson. Nor is it credible to think that Earl didn’t tell Tiger about it.

Certainly, Tiger himself has been a kind of Douglas: he won his first Masters by 12 shots, and in the annus mirabilis of 2000 he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15. Displays like that, many have thought, functioned similarly, if less macabrely, as Douglas’ attacks. The effect has even been documented academically: in 2008’s “Dominance, Intimidation, and ‘Choking’ on the PGA Tour,” professors Robert Connolly and Richard Rendleman found that being paired with Tiger cost other tour pros nearly half a shot per round from 1998 to 2001. The “intimidation factor,” that is, has been quantified—so it seems jejune at best to think somebody connected to Tiger, even if he had not been aware of the effect in the past, would not have called his attention to the research.

Releasing a story prior to the Masters, then, can easily be seen as part of an attempt to revive Tiger’s heyday. But what’s interesting about this particular story is its difference from the 1997 version: then, Tiger just threw out a raw score; now, it’s being dressed in a peculiarly complicated costume. As retailed by Golf Digest’s Tim Rosaforte, the story goes like this: on the Tuesday before the tournament Tiger had “recently shot a worst-ball 66 at his home course, Medalist Golf Club.” In Golf Digest, Alex Meyers in turn explained that “a worst-ball 66 … is not to be confused with a best-ball 66 or even a normal 66 for that matter,” because what “worst-ball” means is that “Woods played two balls on each hole, but only played the worst shot each time.” Why not just say, as in 1997, Tiger shot some ridiculously low number?

The answer, I think, can be understood by way of the “Red Wedding”: just as George Martin, in order to write the A Song of Ice and Fire books, has revisited and revised many episodes of medieval history, so too is Tiger attempting to revisit his own past—a conclusion that would be glib were it not for the very make-up of this year’s version of the pre-Masters story itself. After all, to play a “worst-ball” is to time-travel: it is, in effect, to revise—or rewrite—the past. Not only that, but—and in this it is very much like both Scottish history and Game of Thrones—it is also to guarantee a “downer ending.” Maybe Tiger, then, is suggesting to his fans that they ought to pay more attention.

Thought Crimes

 

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
Sherlock Holmes
    The Sign of Four (1890).

 

Whence heavy persecution shall arise
On all, who in the worship persevere
Of spirit and truth; the rest, far greater part,
Will deem in outward rites and specious forms
Religion satisfied; Truth shall retire
Bestuck with slanderous darts, and works of faith
Rarely be found: So shall the world go on …
John Milton
   Paradise Lost
   Book XII 531-37

 

When Tiger Woods, just after four o’clock Eastern time, hit a horrific duck-hook tee shot on Augusta National’s 13th hole during the third round of the Masters tournament Saturday, the golfer sent one of George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” after it, live on air. About an hour later, around a quarter after five, the announcer Ian Baker-Finch caught himself from uttering a taboo phrase: although he began by saying “back,” the Australian quickly corrected himself by saying “second nine.” To the novice Masters viewer the two misuses of language might appear quite different (Finch-Baker’s slip, that is, being far less offensive), but longtime viewers are aware that, had Baker-Finch not saved himself, his error would have been the more serious incident—to the extent, in fact, that he might have lost his job. Just why that is so is difficult to explain to outsiders unfamiliar with Augusta National’s particular vision of decorum; it may, however, perhaps be explained by one of the broadcast’s few commercials; an advert whose tagline connects a golf commentator’s innocent near-mistake to an argument about censorship conducted at the beginning of this year—in Paris, at the business end of a Kalashnikov.

France is a long way from Georgia, however, so let’s begin with how what Ian Baker-Finch almost said would have been far worse than Tiger’s f-bombs. In the first place that is because, as veterans of watching the Masters know, the announcing team is held to very strict standards largely unique to this sporting event. Golf is, in general, far more concerned with “decorum” and etiquette than other sports—it is, as its enthusiasts often remark, the only one where competitors regularly call penalties on themselves—but the Masters tournament examines the language of its broadcasters to an extent unknown even at other golf tournaments.

In 1966, for example, broadcaster Jack Whittaker—as described in the textbook, Sports Media: Planning, Production, and Reporting— “was canned for referring to Masters patrons as a ‘mob,’” while in 1994 Gary McCord joked (as told by Alex Myers in Golf Digest) “that ‘bikini wax’ is used to make Augusta National’s greens so slick”—and was unceremoniously dumped. Announcers at the Masters, in short, are well-aware they walk a fine line.

Hence, while Baker-Finch’s near-miss was by no means comparable to McCord’s attempts at humor, it was serious because it would have broken a known one of the “Augusta Rules,” as John Feinstein called them in Moment of Glory: The Year Underdogs Ruled Golf. “There are no front nine and back nine at Augusta but, rather, a first nine and a second nine,” Feinstein wrote; a rule that, it’s said, developed because the tournament’s founders, the golfer Bobby Jones and the club chairman Clifford Roberts, felt “back nine” sounded too close to “back side.” The Lords of Augusta, as the club’s members are sometimes referred to, will not stand for “vulgarity” from their announcing team—even if the golfers they are watching are sometimes much worse.

Woods, for example (as the Washington Post reported), “followed up a bad miss left off the 13th tee with a curse word that was picked up by an on-course microphone, prompting the CBS announcers to intone, ‘If you heard something offensive at 13, we apologize.’” Yet while even had Baker-Finch uttered the unutterable, he would only have suggested what Woods baldly verbalized, it’s unimaginable that Woods could suffer the same fate as a CBS announcer would, or be penalized in any way. The uproar that would follow if, for instance, the Lords decided to ban Tiger from further tournaments would make all previous golf scandals appear tame.

Undoubtedly, the difference in treatment conceivably could be justified by the fact that Woods is a competitor (and four-time winner) in the tournament while announcers are ancillary to it. In philosophic terms, players are essential while announcers are contingent: players just are the tournament because without them, no golf. That isn’t as possible to say about any particular broadcaster (though, when it comes to Jim Nantz, lead broadcaster since 1986, it might be close). From that perspective then it might make sense that Tiger’s “heat-of-the-moment” f-bombs are not as significant as a slip of the tongue by an announcer trained to speak in public could be.

Such, at least, might be a rationale for the differing treatment accorded golfers and announcers: so far as I am aware, neither the golf club nor CBS has come forward with an explanation regarding the difference. It was while I was turning this over in my mind that one of the tournament broadcast’s few commercials came on—and I realized just why the difference between Tiger’s words and, say, Gary McCord’s in 1994 caught in my brain.

The ad in question consisted of different people reciting, over and over again, a line once spoken by IBM pioneer Thomas Watson in 1915: “All of the problems of the world could be settled easily if men were only willing to think.” Something about this phrase—repeated so often it became quite literally like a mantra, defined as a “sacred utterance, numinous sound” by Wikipedia—rattled something in my head, which ignited a slight Internet investigation: it seems that, for IBM, that last word—think—became a catchword after 1915; the word was plastered on company ephemera like the name of the company magazine and even, in recent times, becoming the basis for the name of such products as the Thinkpad. The sentence, it could be said, is the official philosophy of the company.

As philosophies go it seems inarguable that this is rather a better one than, for instance, one that might demand “silence your enemies wherever possible.” It is, one might say, a hopeful sentence—if only people were willing to use their rationality, the difficult and the intractable could be vanquished. “Think,” in that sense, is a sentiment that seems quite at odds with the notion of censorship: without airing what someone is thinking, it appears impossible to believe that anything could be settled. In order to get people to think, it seems inarguable that they must be allowed to talk.

Such, at least, is one of the strongest pillars of the concept of “free speech,” as the English and law professor Stanley Fish has pointed out. Fish quotes, as an example of the argument, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, James A. Leach, who gave a speech in 2009 claiming that “the cornerstone of democracy is access to knowledge.” In other words, in order to achieve the goal outlined by Watson (solving the world’s problems), it’s necessary to put everyone’s views in the open in order that they might be debated—a notion usually conceptualized, in relation to American law, as the “marketplace of ideas.”

That metaphor traces back to American Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s famous dissent in a case called Abrams v. United States, decided in 1919. “The ultimate good desired,” as Holmes wrote in that case (interestingly, in the light of his theory, against the majority opinion), “is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” That notion, in turn, can (as Fish observes) be followed back to English philosopher John Stuart Mill, and even beyond

“We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion,” Mill wrote in his On Liberty, “and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.” Yet further back,  the thought connects to John Milton’s Areopagitica, where the poet wrote “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” That is, so long as opinions can be freely shared, any problem could in principle be solved—more or less Thomas Watson’s point in 1915.

Let’s be clear, however, what is and what is not being said. That is, the words “in principle” above are important because I do not think that Watson or Mills or Milton or Holmes would deny that there are many practical reasons why it might be impossible to solve problems with a meeting or a series of meetings. No one believes, for instance, that the threat of ISIS could be contained by a summit meeting between ISIS and other parties—the claim that Holmes & Watson (smirk) et al. would make is just that the said threat could be solved if only that organization’s leaders would agree to a meeting. Merely objecting that many times such conceivable meetings are not practical isn’t, in that sense, an strong objection to the idea of the “idea market”—which asserts that in conditions of what could be called “perfect communication” disagreement is (eventually) impossible.

That however is precisely why Fish’s argument against the “market” metaphor is such a strong one: it is Fish’s opinion that the “marketplace” metaphor is just that—a metaphor, not a bedrock description of reality. In an essay entitled “Don’t Blame Relativism,” in fact, Fish apparently denies “the possibility of describing, and thereby evaluating” everything “in a language that all reasonable observers would accept.” That is, he denies the possibility that is imagined by Thomas Watson’s assertion regarding “[a]ll of the problems of the world”: the idea that, were only everyone reasonable, all problems could be solved.

To make the point clearer, while in Watson’s metaphor (which is also Milton’s and Mills’ and Holmes’), in theory everything can be sorted out if only everyone came to the bargaining table, to Fish such a possibility is not only practically impossible, but also theoretically impossible. Fish’s objection to the “market” idea isn’t just that it is difficult, for instance, to find the right translators to speak to different sides of a debate in their own language, but that even were all conditions for perfect communication met, that would not guarantee the end of disagreement.

It’s important to note at this point that this is a claim Fish needs to make in order to stick his argument, because if all he does is advance historically-based arguments to the effect that at no point in human history has the situation described by Watson et al. ever existed, their partisans can counterclaim that just because no one has yet seen perfect communication, that’s no reason to think it might not someday be possible. Such partisans might, for example, quote Alice Calaprice’s The Quotable Einstein, which asserts that Einstein once remarked that “No amount of experimentation can prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” Or, as the writer Nassem Nicholas Taleb has put the same point while asserting that it ultimately traces back through John Stuart Mill to David Hume: “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.” In other words, Fish could be right that no such perfect communication has ever existed, but it would be logically inconsistent to try to claim that such evidence implies that it could never be possible.

To engage his opponents, then, Fish must take to the field of “theory,” not just adduce historical examples. That is why Fish cannot just claim that, historically, even regimes that claim to follow the creed of Watson and Holmes and so on in theory do not actually follow that creed in reality, though he does make that argument. He points out, for instance, that even in the Areopagitica, otherwise a passionate defense of “free speech,” Milton allowed that while “free speech” is all well and good for most people most of the time, he does not mean to imply “tolerated popery” (i.e., Catholics), because as that religion (according to Milton) “extirpates all religious and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate.”

In other words, Milton explains that anything that threatens the idea of “free speech” itself—as Catholicism, in Milton’s day arguably in the throes of the Inquisition, did so threaten—should not be included in the realm of protected speech, since that “which is impious or evil absolutely against faith or manners no law can possibly permit that intends not to unlaw itself.” And while it might be counterclaimed that in Milton’s time “free speech” was imperfectly realized, Fish also demonstrates that while Catholicism no longer constitutes a threat to modern “free speech” regimes, there are still exceptions to what can be said publicly.

As another American Supreme Court justice, Robert Jackson, would put the point centuries later, “the constitutional Bill of Rights”—including, one presumes, the free-speech-protecting First Amendment—is not “a suicide pact.” Or, as Fish himself put the same point, even today the most tolerant governments still ask themselves, regarding speech, “would this form of speech or advocacy, if permitted to flourish, tend to undermine the very purposes for which our society is constituted?” No government, in other words, can allow the kind of speech that threatens to end the practice of free speech itself.

Still, that is not enough to disrupt the “free speech” argument, because even if it has not been exemplified yet on this earth, that does not mean that it could not someday. To make his point, Fish has to go further; which he does in an essay called “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, And It’s A Good Thing Too.”

There, Fish says that he is not merely claiming that “saying something … is a realm whose integrity is sometimes compromised by certain restrictions”—that would be the above argument, where historical evidence is advanced—but rather “that restriction, in the form of an underlying articulation of the world that necessarily (if silently) negates alternatively possible articulations, is constitutive of expression.” The claim Fish wants to make in short—and it is important to see that it is the only argument that can confront the claims of the “marketplace of ideas” thesis—is that restrictions, such as Milton’s against Catholicism, aren’t the sad concessions we must make to an imperfect world, but are in fact what makes communication possible at all.

To those who take what’s known as a “free speech absolutism” position, such a notion might sound deeply subversive, if not heretical: the answer to pernicious opinions, in the view of the free speech absolutist, is not to outlaw them, but to produce more opinions—as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mill, and Milton all advise. The headline of an editorial in Toronto’s Globe and Mail puts the point elegantly: “The lesson of Charlie Hebdo? We need more free speech, not less.” But what Fish is saying could be viewed in the light of the narrative described by the writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb about how he derived his saying regarding “black swans” under the influence of John Stuart Mill and David Hume.

Taleb says that while “Hume had been irked by the fact that science in his day … had experience a swing from scholasticism, entirely based on deductive reasoning” to “an overreaction into naive and unstructured empiricism.” The difficulty, as Hume recognized, “is that, without a proper method”—or, as Fish might say, a proper set of constraints—“empirical observations can lead you astray.” It’s possible, in other words, that amping up production of truths will not—indeed, perhaps can not—produce Truth.

In fact, Taleb argues (in a piece entitled “The Roots of Unfairness: the Black Swan in Arts and Literature”) that in reality, rather than the fantasies of free speech absolutists, the production of very many “truths” may tend to reward a very few examples at the expense of the majority—and that thusly “a large share of the success” of those examples may simply be due to “luck.” The specific market Taleb is examining in this essay is the artistic and literary world, but like many other spheres—such as “economics, sociology, linguistics, networks, the stock market”—that world is subject to “the Winner-Take-All effect.” (Taleb reports Robert H. Frank defined that effect in his article, “Talent and the Winner-Take-All Society,” as “markets in which a handful of top performers walk away with the lion’s share of total rewards.”) The “free speech absolutist” position would define the few survivors of the “truth market” as being, ipso facto, “the Truth”—but Taleb is suggesting that such a position takes a more sanguine view of the market than may be warranted.

The results of Taleb’s investigations imply that such may be the case. “Consider,” he observes, “that, in publishing, less than 1 in 800 books represent half of the total unit sales”—a phenomenon similar to that found by Art De Vany at the cinema in his Hollywood Economics. And while those results might be dismissed as subject to crass reasons, in fact the “academic citation system, itself supposedly free of commercialism, represents an even greater concentration” than that found in commercial publishing, and—perhaps even yet more alarmingly—there is “no meaningful difference between physics and comparative literature”: both display an equal amount of concentration. In all these fields, a very few objects are hugely successful, while the great mass sink like stones into the sea of anonymity.

The replication of these results do not confine themselves simply to artistic or scientific production; they are, in fact, applicable to subjects as diverse as the measurement of the coast of England to the error rates in telephone calls. George Zipf, for example, found that the rule applied to the “distribution of words in the vocabulary,” while Vilfredo Pareto found it applied to the distribution of income in any give society.

“Now,” asks Taleb, “think of waves of one meter tall in relation to waves of 2 meters tall”—there will inevitably be many more one meter waves than two meter waves, and by some magic the ratio between the two will be invariant, just as, according to what linguists call “Zipf’s Law,” “the most frequent word [in a given language] will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word,” and so on. As the Wikipedia entry for Zipf’s Law (from which the foregoing definition is taken) observes, the “same relationship occurs in many other rankings unrelated to language, such as the population ranks of cities in various countries, corporation sizes, income rankings, ranks of number of people watching the same TV channel, and so on.” All of these subjects are determined by what have come to be known as power laws—and according to some researchers, they even apply to subjects as seemingly immune to them as music.

Zipf himself, in order to explain the distribution he discovered among words, proposed that it could be explained by a kind of physical process, rather than discernment on the part of language-users: “people aim at minimizing effort in retrieving words; they are lazy and remember words that they have used in the past, so that the more a word is used, the more likely it is going to be used in the future, causing a snowball effect.” The explanation has an intuitive appeal: it appears difficult to argue that “the” (the most common English word) communicates twice as much information as “be” (the second-most common English word). Still less does such an argument explain why those word distributions should mirror the distributions of American cities, say, or the height of the waves on Hawaii’s North Shore, or the metabolic rates of various mammals. The widespread appearance of such distributions, in fact, suggests that rather than being determined by forces “intrinsic” to each case, the distributions are driven by a natural law that cares nothing for specifics.

So far, it seems, “we have no clue about the underlying process,” as Taleb says. “Nothing can explain why the success of a novelist … bears similarity to the bubbles and informational cascades seen in the financial markets,” much less why both should “resemble the behavior of electricity power grids.” What we can know is that, while according to the “free speech absolutist” position “one would think that a larger size of the population of producers would cause a democratization,” in fact “it does not.” “If anything,” Taleb notes, “it causes even more clustering.” The prediction of the “free speech absolutist” position suggests that the production of more speech results in a closer approximation of the Truth; experiential results, however, suggest that more production results merely in a smaller number of products becoming more successful for reasons that may have nothing to do with their intrinsic merits.

These results suggest that perhaps Stanley Fish has it right about “free speech,” and thus that the Lords of Augusta—like their spiritual brethren who shot up the offices of Charlie Hebdo in early January this year—have it completely right in the tight rein they hold over the announcers that work their golf tournament: Truth could be the result of, not the enemy of, regulation. The irony, of course, is that such also suggests the necessity of regulation in areas aside from commentary about golf and golfers—a result that, one suspects, is not only one not favored by the Lords of the Masters, but puts them in uncomfortable company. Allahu akbar, presumably, sounds peculiar with a Southern accent.

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.