So Condoleeza Rice has just been invited to become a member of the Augusta National Golf Club. She – along with a local business-woman also invited – will be the first-ever female members of a club that is infamous for its decades of aggressive and staunchly defended segregation. (They admitted their first-ever black member in 1990*, and fought for years to retain their ban on women in the face of protests centered around the annual PGA Masters tournament.)
Several years ago, Rice attended the Masters at Augusta and published a breathtakingly fatuous article about how much she loved the club, managing to completely avoid any mention of segregation (other than to note that “the faces at Augusta are changing”, without ever mentioning how, or why they hadn’t before, or the fact that she belonged to two categories of people whose presence at the club had been specifically banned for years). I wrote about that at the time:
Just as she did so often as Bush’s beard, Rice makes herself an apology for racist, sexist old white men’s anxieties, and determinedly forces herself not to notice either what’s going on around her or how she herself is contributing. She even goes out of her way to write about the fact that she spent an entire day at Augusta, knows it’s segregated, and hasn’t got anything to say about that.
So it’s impossible not to have mixed feelings about this. Augusta – finally – has agreed to stop their falling-behind-the-times clock at about negative-100 years and maybe try to keep pace from now on. Rice, who earned her groundbreaking membership with a world-class sucking-up job (“the people are very kind”), gets a sweet golfer’s perk and opens the door, presumably, to a few – a carefully-regulated few – more women who don’t happen to be former Secretaries of State. Augusta gets to congratulate itself on its progressivism and also claim that they never backed down: fully 10 years after mass protests at the Masters drew attention to their gender segregation, they’ve chosen to de-segregate “voluntarily”, and even went and got themselves a two-fer – a woman who is also black! So it’s not like those feminists had a point or anything.**
But it’s a welcome change, and more significantly, an inevitable one. So much of conservatism is simply a dedication to being wrong for as long as possible. Eventually they can’t help coming around – on slavery, segregation, voting rights, women’s rights, now gay rights, right-wingers have been forced into acceptance of progress against which they had once declared war (and in every case then claim that defeat as evidence of their own moral superiority). Augusta was founded by a man who blustered that “As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black.” Hootie Johnson, the absurd blowhard who staked his life’s reputation on keeping women out, declared that he would defend segregation “at the point of a bayonet” while simultaneously claiming himself to have been a major supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. Johnson was so wedded to segregation and his own sense of entitlement that he rescinded $10 million in advertising fees in 2002 so he could say the advertisers hadn’t technically honored the boycott of his tournament. His replacement, Bill Payne, brought the Olympics to Atlanta but they rejected allowing an Olympic competition in golf specifically because he wanted to hold it at the segregated club – in his role as Olympics organizing chair, he abandoned golf rather than abandon segregation. On becoming the new club chair, just three years after the segregation protests under Johnson, he announced “Hootie did a wonderful job as chairman, and I will endeavor to maintain the customs and traditions of our club”. Being chair of a club that practices sex segregation doesn’t stand in the way of sexual judgmentalism, however: two years ago, Payne held a press conference to criticize black Masters champion Tiger Woods for having sex that he (Payne) didn’t approve of; two years after that, he was still refusing to publicly discuss the segregation issue.
Now the club has finally done what the club was often asked to do and said it never would, thus establishing a timeline for how long those particular conservatives chose to be wrong (for the club, 79 years; for Billy Payne, 6 years in office; Hootie Johnson, by all accounts, remains an asshole). The club can claim it won by dictating the terms of its own surrender, but there’s no question this is Martha Burke’s day: she pointed out a wrong and started a conversation that never ended until, today, they did what she asked, while all the club managed to do was continue to be wrong for 10 more years. Condoleeza Rice can now claim to be a pioneer for de-segregating a club she didn’t think needed it, but she’s no Jackie Robinson; given how much water she carried for Augusta while it defended discrimination, she ought to be considered its last black caddy.
And so another conservative institution comes unwillingly forward from its place in the past, and demands praise for agreeing not to be wrong after fighting to be so for more than a lifetime. It’s tedious, but it’s the only way they learn, so I guess we should be glad.
UPDATE: Rice has now been quoted, on the occasion of her breaking the 79-year ban on women at Augusta, as saying, I swear to God: ““I have long admired the important role Augusta National has played in the traditions and history of golf.” And the club, predictably, is taking a victory lap: the Chair who, just 4 months ago, refused to extend the traditional invitation to the CEO of IBM (a woman this year, for the first time), and refused to discuss it as well, now declares, on admitting two women after years of agitation, “This is a joyous occasion”. Man, they really don’t listen to themselves, do they?
UPDATE: David Zirin at The Nation goes upside Condi’s head today, refusing to let her role in this segregation farce obscure her history of both war crimes and abandonment of women’s interests. (“In a sane world, Rice would be awaiting trial at the Hague.”) He also digs up this jaw-dropper: the other woman named to the golf club along with Rice, local billionaire Darla Moore, lives on an honest-to-God antebellum plantation, and when her name was raised as a potential member of the club during the first round of segregation protests years ago she stated “I’m as progressive as they come. But some things ought not to be messed with.” She has a reputation as a fierce business negotiator, and claims “I’ve harassed guys all my life” – but she was “too much of a friend” of Hootie Johnson to actually ask him to let women into his guy sanctum. Man, they sure know how to pick ‘em.
* Caddies at August had all been black, by specific club rule, until 1983. They allowed white caddies 7 years before they allowed black players. Here’s an interesting article noting that blacks started to get cut out of caddying when golf purses got so large that caddying became a lucrative job (the caddy gets a percentage of the golfer’s winnings); the field is almost entirely white now. In the same way, most of the female coaches of women’s college basketball teams lost their jobs to men when the NCAA began promoting women’s sports. So for the most segregated sports in the world, de-segregation was just another way to keep blacks and women down.
** “Ever kicked down stairs? Decidedly not; once received a kick at the top of a staircase, and fell down stairs of his own accord.” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)