Luck in America

By Jackson Lears

Penguin. 392 pp. $27.95

Are you a compulsive gambler looking for a cure? Or a concerned citizen worried about the effects of legalized gambling? Then this is not the book for you. Neither public policy nor self-help is the aim of Jackson Lears's study of "luck in America." Lears has much bigger fish to fry, a fact to which we are alerted by the early reference to the "culture of control" and the "culture of chance."

If you have any experience with this sort of scholarship, you will know that the culture of control is the bad guys -- associated (no surprise here) with Protestantism, the mastery of nature, and capitalism. The culture of chance, by contrast, is associated with spontaneity, play, the yearning for grace in a world of routine, and The Other (the downtrodden and marginalized, in this case immigrants from Catholic Europe, Africa, Asia and South America).

What Lears has given us is less a history than a kind of postmodern morality play in which gambling "loosens the keystone of the dominant culture of control" and "life itself still seems dependent on the mysterious power of luck." Gambling subverts the dominant paradigm. Since subverting the dominant paradigm is the dominant paradigm in our most fashionable centers of learning these days, Lears's book is likely to be widely read (or at least widely assigned). All the more unfortunate, then, that its discussion, for all its technical sophistication, seems so formulaic.

The problem is not that Lears has chosen to avoid self-help or policy analysis. That is his right as an author. The problem is that he is more interested in the morality play than in the very fascinating subject he has chosen to explore. Instead of treating gambling and the belief in luck as revelatory of the human condition, Lears chooses to treat gambling "as a port of entry into a broader territory of contending cosmologies." This broader territory is occupied not by gamblers alone, but by all sorts of folk who wrestle with the problem of accident, chance, fate and luck -- a world of "fortune-tellers, fabulists, philosophers and theologians," as well as voodoo priests, confidence men and professional gamblers. These are the standard-bearers of the culture of chance, locked in battle with the culture of control, which seeks to banish the random from human consciousness, causing the "disenchantment" of the world.

Lears ranges very widely in his survey of contending cosmologies. He talks about African healing charms and the philosophy of William James and the implications of Darwin's "The Origin of Species." We learn about the invention of the slot machine, the Puritan opposition to lotteries, and the survival of voodoo. Rather than follow this fascinating material where it will lead, however -- exploring the problem with the aid of the material -- Lears is determined to beat it all into the framework of contending cosmologies. So, having revealed both the plot and the villain in the first chapter, what Lears has to say in the rest of the book becomes predictable and somewhat artificial.

It's also a bit dubious. Lears's evocation of the culture of chance as an alternate reality flies in the face of a century of scholarship demonstrating exactly the opposite. Magic charms do not reflect an embrace of randomness; they are an ancient way of overcoming randomness, forcing the hand of whatever controls the universe. Thus, the people who use mojo to remove warts (Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, in Lears's example) are only trying to do what the drug companies do better. Moreover, the people who play with this sort of "magic" are the same people who live in the boring world of self-control and planning: not two cultures but one, undivided but ambivalent, and more than a little gullible.

Magic, rather than occupying a distinctly different realm, is merely a pre-scientific effort to control the natural world, for essentially the same end that Bacon ascribed to science: "the relief of man's estate." Lears is aware that anthropologists have long made this claim, but he dismisses their arguments without bothering to refute them. Why deny what Malinowski and so many others would seem to have demonstrated so convincingly? Because without positing an autonomous "culture of chance" as an alternative to the "culture of control" -- a kind of parallel universe where the suits don't rule -- there would be no morality play, only a story of human progress, possibly even a providential tale in which the human species gradually learns to control more of its environment, changing what can be changed (warts), accepting what cannot (death).

But this would rob the story of the particular postmodern frisson that Lears requires, and it would put him in the very difficult position of appearing to endorse one form of reality over another. For scholars of the postmodern sensibility, this may actually be illegal.

Which raises the question of what sort of scholar Lears, a professor of history at Rutgers, really is. In other contexts, he has offered a critical assessment of postmodernism -- see his review of James Cook's "The Arts of Deception" in the Nov. 12, 2001, issue of the New Republic. But in that review, Lears denies that "postmodernism" constitutes a particular school of scholarship, insisting that it has been with us since the early 19th century: "A relativizing tendency has long been embedded in our psyche as a consequence of our commerce." This view is less a criticism than an effort to "universalize" and "normalize" the postmodern sensibility -- making it the background of our everyday lives, and in the process finding another stick with which to beat capitalism, the Great Satan of modern liberalism.

Whatever its origin, postmodernism requires that all moral hierarchies be undermined and flattened out -- especially those that appear to put America in a favored position, an effort that involves Lears in some notably fatuous judgments. He repeats, for example, the tired old canard that there is little ethical difference between gambling and investing in the stock market, a familiar refrain of anti-business reformers for more than a century, and the kind of partial truth so favored by college sophomores. But are we really to pretend that there is no difference between buying Microsoft in 1985 and hitting the jackpot at a Las Vegas slot machine?

Yes, we are -- that is, if we want to join in the great enterprise of deconstructing America by undermining the "master narrative" of liberal capitalist democracy, with its faith in markets, reason and providence. This, I suspect, is Lears's true subject all along. And this is a pity, because the problem of chance is one of the oldest objects of human speculation. It needs, however, a more open-minded -- and less preordained -- treatment than Lears has managed to give it.

Jabari Asim is on vacation. His reviews will resume next week.