Considering Signaling Mechanisms

If you are a white American male who grew up in the Eisenhower fifties you understood golf was a game for Republican businessmen. That’s just the way it was. There were country clubs of various levels of exclusivity all over, and oddly dressed managers and insurance salesmen and bankers, and sometimes an architect or lawyer, would hit those little white balls with sticks, in order to get those little white balls to drop into little holes in the ground. Of course it was absurd, but no more absurd than any other sport. After all, curling involves brooms, and none of us has even been able to figure out what is going on in cricket. And the French take grown men riding bicycles quite seriously. So golf was fine – and the wives at the time, with their big hair fixed firm with massive amounts of odd-smelling sticky hairspray, would be in the clubhouse playing Bridge or something, and happily sipping “grasshoppers” – that vile pale-green concoction of mint, cream and crème de menthe, and sometimes vermouth, so inexplicably popular at the time. Maybe you had to be there.

But this is where business got done. Things were decided on the links, or at those card tables – big things that mattered in the community. And those who didn’t get into the country club – because they were the wrong type of people – black or Jewish or whatever (this was before troublesome gay people were even invented) – or because they really just couldn’t afford the massive initiation fee and hefty monthly dues – knew that they were worthless second-stringers in life. They weren’t in on the big things being decided. Their kids could work as caddies, lugging around the banker’s heavy leather golf bag in the days before those nifty electric carts. That’s as close as they could get.

America does not have a class system – we have no Lords or Ladies or titles of lesser nobility, with everyone else being a mere commoner – and we don’t have a caste system with Untouchables and all that, so no one gets the appropriate dot on the forehead – but for a time we had golf. It served the same function. The right people made the decisions, not the riff-raff. That is how things worked in the suburbs with local issues like zoning, and how it worked in all the major cities with issues like major development or appointments, and finally that is how things worked at the national level. Eisenhower played golf – with the right people. And that was a signal. Maybe nothing big would be decided, but that wasn’t the point. You see, things would be okay – the right sort of people would be out there on the fairway or putting green, getting along fine. The rest of us could relax.

This was powerful signaling mechanism back then – to calm down a worried nation. Joe McCarthy ranted and raved about Communists under every bed, and Eisenhower played golf. And people knew what happens on the golf course, and it’s not the game. It’s symbolic – of the right sort of people prevailing, for the good of us all.

And golf is still a powerful signaling mechanism – about class and power and the right sort of people taking care of things for us so we don’t have to worry and fret. All presidents since then have played golf, including all the Democratic presidents, and made sure the nation saw that they were playing golf. It’s what you must do – an important part of the job. Send the implicit signal. Mere commoners will NOT be screwing things up.

Of course this is odd with Obama. He’s a basketball guy. You know – a game of Horse with his buddies out back, with all the trash-talk and slick moves. Yes, it’s great fun. But it’s urban and downscale. It’s street stuff. And it certainly sends the wrong signal about class and power and social stability in hard times. That’s not a game where you can stroll about and chat about this and that.

That won’t do, so now, to everyone’s surprise, and no one’s surprise, Obama plays golf – “The long-awaited golf showdown between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner is underway: The pair, along with Vice President Joe Biden and GOP Ohio Gov. John Kasich, hit the links around 10 a.m. Saturday at Joint Base Andrews.”

Yes, these guys seem to rather hate each other, if you listen to what they repeatedly say about how stupid and dishonest the other side is being. But they’re playing golf. Yes, the photo at the link shows John Boehner in absurdly large white Bermuda shorts – and that’s a hoot, but that is also part of the signaling going on. This is 1953 all over again. And yes, nothing will come of it. But the four were sending a message to the nation – don’t worry. And it was a class-based message. The right people, the power people, can get along, so everyone else can just shut the hell up. Only certain people can join the country club, after all.

And of course a large part of the president’s job has little to do with actually doing things. The nation must sense that things are not spinning out of control. Golf helps with that. So playing golf is sort of in the job description – one of the key duties. It’s shorthand for a lot of things, and has been for a long time.

But golf is also a sport. People do follow it, now dismayed that Tiger Woods, once just amazing, has now lost it all – with knee and ankle problems. But before that there were the messy domestic issues – his wife had at him, and at his Escalade, smashing away with one of his golf clubs for his messing around with far too many women. Enthusiastic serial adultery was the issue and Woods was sexually supercharged, and none too careful with his cell phone. And the divorce was messy. After that everything fell apart.

This is another side of golf, of course. Things have changed since the fifties. Tiger Woods has a black father and a Thai mother so he’d never get into a country club back in those days. And no one was talking zoning for the new mall or who should be appointed police chief on the links as he played.

Still, you can use golf for messaging. You might remember Brit Hume’s comments on Fox News Sunday in 2010 – Tiger Woods should forget Buddhism and find Christ – which had the feel of 1953 all over again. Were there Buddhists back then, other than Alan Watts?

The message is about returning things to normal – or what was normal once. And this is interesting:

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) has faced a tidal wave of criticism, pundit-driven psychoanalysis, and calls to resign over the revelation that he sent lewd pictures and messages to women over the Internet. Now, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., a preacher with the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky is adding his thoughts to the mix.

In a message last Saturday on his Twitter feed, Mohler condemned the news that Weiner planned to check himself into a treatment center. Mohler sneered that there is “no effective ‘treatment’ for sin.” Rather, Mohler suggested Weiner – a practicing Jew – should convert to Christianity for atonement:

“Dear Congressman Weiner: There is no effective ‘treatment’ for sin. Only atonement, found only in Jesus Christ.”

Well, Jews didn’t get into those country clubs either, at least in the fifties. But this guy does miss those days:

This isn’t the first time Mohler has landed himself in hot water over rhetoric toward the Jewish community. During a debate on MSNBC in 2002, Mohler told host Phil Donohue that all Jews must accept Christ for salvation, and that a Nazi prison guard would find salvation before any Jewish person who does not accept Christ as their savior.

Should someone schedule a round of golf for Mohler and Weiner? Probably not – you can only stretch that sport so far.

And you don’t really need golf to send the right signals. There is an upcoming event called The Response – Texas Governor Rick Perry will host a day of prayer and fasting on behalf of our troubled nation – on Augusts 6 in a Houston stadium. Yes, the man does have presidential ambitions, and here we have an elected official leading an evangelical Christian revival. Now THAT is sending signals.

And Steve Benen comments:

But that’s really just scratching the surface. The Response became even more controversial when Perry partnered with the radical American Family Association to help sponsor, organize, and run the event. The gathering’s website explains that The Response has adopted the American Family Association statement of faith, including “the infallibility of the Bible, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the eternal damnation that awaits nonbelievers.”

In other words, it certainly appears that Rick Perry will lead a Christians-only event.

But the organizers say that is not so, and officials behind The Response said non-Christians are welcome, but they really do hope they will be convinced to convert to Christianity:

On Monday, Eric Bearse, the event’s spokesman, who formerly worked as Mr. Perry’s communications director, gave a longer explanation in an interview on American Family Radio, a network run by the family association:

“A lot of people want to criticize what we’re doing, as if we’re somehow being exclusive of other faiths. But anyone who comes to this solemn assembly, regardless of their faith tradition or background, will feel the love, grace, and warmth of Jesus Christ in that assembly hall, in that arena. And that’s what we want to convey, that there’s acceptance and that there’s love and that there’s hope if people will seek out the living Christ.”

The liberal group People for the American Way first reported Mr. Bearse’s comments and added its objections to those already voiced by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Interfaith Alliance and others. In Texas and elsewhere, the event is perhaps drawing further scrutiny as Mr. Perry considers a run for the Republican presidential nomination.

“Gov. Perry has every right to practice his own faith, but he has no right to use his official position to try to convert others,” said Michael Keenan, president of People for the American Way, in a statement on Monday.

But back in 1953, at the country club, there would not have been a question at all about any of this.

And Perry may well be the Republican nominee:

As speculation mounts about his presidential ambitions, Texas Gov. Rick Perry delivered a rousing and unapologetic defense of conservative principles on Saturday at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans.

Perry repeatedly brought an audience of hundreds of Republican activists to their feet with a small government message reminiscent of the one that helped him win an unprecedented third term as governor last November.

Perry said there is “too much spending, too much interfering and too much apologizing” in Washington.

“Stand up!” Perry thundered. “Let’s speak with pride about our morals and our values and redouble our effort to elect more conservative Republicans. Let’s stop this American downward spiral!”

It was a speech at the country club, this one called the Republican Leadership Conference. But Ed Kilgore does note the governor’s weak spots here:

While Perry has become a Tea Party favorite, he has done so in part by making inflammatory statements that may trouble even a healthy number of Republican primary voters, the most famous of which was his suggestion that secession might be on the table for Texas. In addition, he’s also made threats to withdraw the state from the Medicaid program – with only the vaguest suggestion of how or whether poor families would receive medical treatment – and even sought the power to opt Texas out of Social Security, a rather egregious stomping on the third rail of politics.

These guys do need work on their signaling mechanisms, of course. And this didn’t help:

A President Obama impersonator was pulled off the stage Saturday at the Republican Leadership Conference, after telling a string of racially themed jokes about the president.

The impersonator, Reggie Brown, took the stage at the annual presidential cattle call to the Bruce Springsteen song “Born in the USA” – an apparent allusion to the birther controversy. He proceeded to tell a series of off-color jokes poking fun at Obama’s biracial heritage and a gay member of Congress.

The details of what he said are at the link – not nice stuff but not all that clever – and the chairman of the Republican Leadership Conference stepped in. This stuff was cheered – the audience loved it all – but you cannot be THAT overt. These guys really do need work on their signaling mechanisms. And there was this:

The jokes came after speakers including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal made pleas for Republicans to be civil in their criticism of Obama. The two men spoke on the topic Friday.

They should have suggested a round of golf with Obama. That always works.

And no one knows what to make of the Tea Party summer camp in Tampa – not a camp really, just a week-long Bible-school kind of session called “Tampa Liberty” – for eight to twelve. School is out and they need something to do. And they’ll be told to learn and live the basic principles – 1) America is good, and 2) I believe in God, and 3) I work hard for what I have and I will share it only with who I want to – government cannot force me to be charitable.

And Benen comments on this too:

I’d be inclined to run away from 8-year-old children who go around saying, “Government cannot force me to be charitable,” but perhaps that’s just me.

In any case, this project has been organized by conservative writer Jeff Lukens and is staffed by volunteers from the 912 Project, a Glenn Beck initiative. Lukens explained that his messages are important for young people because public school curricula “have a lot of political correctness,” though he conceded he’s not familiar with any actual school curriculum.

And here is what Jeff Lukens has in mind:

Tampa Liberty is modeled after vacation Bible schools, which use fun, hands-on activities to deliver Christian messages.

One example at Liberty: Children will win hard, wrapped candies to use as currency for a store, symbolizing the gold standard. On the second day, the “banker” will issue paper money instead. Over time, students will realize their paper money buys less and less, while the candies retain their value.

“Some of the kids will fall for it,” Lukens said. “Others kids will wise up.”

Another example: Starting in an austere room where they are made to sit quietly, symbolizing Europe, the children will pass through an obstacle course to arrive at a brightly decorated party room (the New World).

Red-white-and-blue confetti will be thrown. But afterward the kids will have to clean up the confetti, learning that with freedom comes responsibility.

Still another example: Children will blow bubbles from a single container of soapy solution, and then pop each other’s bubbles with squirt guns in an arrangement that mimics socialism. They are to count how many bubbles they pop. Then they will work with individual bottles of solution and pop their own bubbles.

“What they will find out is that you can do a lot more with individual freedom,” Lukens said.


As best as I can tell, none of this is a parody. The report comes from The St. Petersburg Times, arguably the best newspaper in Florida, not from The Onion. What’s more, Lukens apparently wasn’t kidding.

This sort of thing does make you long for the Eisenhower fifties and the country clubs, when golf was a game for moderately rich white Republican businessmen, who were all Christians, but not all that serious about it, as most of them were no doubt bland and harmless Episcopalians or dour Lutherans. There are worse things than a severe class system where the self-proclaimed right people make the decisions, not the riff-raff – and things don’t feel like they’re spinning out of control.

Yes, Obama may think golf is insufferable boring, and John Boehner may think Obama is a socialist monster out to destroy America and everything that is decent and right and good – but we saw them playing golf. Yes, that means nothing, really. But it was oddly comforting – like watching Eisenhower on the links all those years ago. Sometimes signals matter as much as substance.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Class in America, Political Discourse, Political Shorthand, Political Symbolism, The Fifties and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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