May 14, 2006

Tom Wolfe's Jefferson Lecture:

The great journalist/novelist explains his point of view. An excerpt:

Even before I left graduate school I had come to the conclusion that virtually all people live by what I think of as a "fiction-absolute." Each individual adopts a set of values which, if truly absolute in the world--so ordained by some almighty force--would make not that individual but his group . . . the best of all possible groups, the best of all inner circles. Politicians, the rich, the celebrated, become mere types. Does this apply to "the intellectuals" also? Oh, yes. . . perfectly, all too perfectly.

The human beast's belief in his own fiction-absolute accounts for one of the most puzzling and in many cases irrational phenomena of our time. I first noticed it when I read a book by Samuel Lubell called The Future of American Politics. Lubell was a political scientist and sociologist who had been as surprised as everybody else by the outcome of the 1948 presidential election. That was the election in which the Democratic incumbent, Harry Truman, was a president whose approval rating had fallen as low as 23 percent. Every survey, every poll, every pundit's prediction foresaw him buried by the Republican nominee, Thomas E. Dewey. Instead, Truman triumphed in one of the most startling upsets in American political history. Lubell was determined to find out why, and so he set out across the country. When he reached a small Midwestern town that had been founded before the turn of the 19th century by Germans, he was puzzled to learn that the town had gone solidly for Dewey despite the fact that by every rational turn of logic, every economic motivation, Truman would have been a more logical choice. By and by Lubell discovered that the town was still predominantly German. Nobody had ever gotten over the fact that in 1917, a Democrat, President Woodrow Wilson, had declared war on Germany. That had set off a wave of anti-German feeling, anti-German prejudice, and, in the eyes of the people of this town, besmirched their honor as people of German descent. And now, two World Wars later, their minds were fixed on the year 1917, because like all other human beasts, they tended to champion in an irrational way their own set of values, their own fiction absolute.

The 2004 election came down to one state: the state of Ohio. Whoever won that state in the final hours would win the election. Northern Ohio, the big cities of Cleveland, Toledo on the Great Lakes, were solidly for Kerry. But in southern Ohio, from east to west, and in the west was the city of Cincinnati, Ohio went solidly for George Bush. And the reason? That great swath of territory was largely inhabited by the Scots-Irish. And when the Democrats came out in favor of gun control, the Scots-Irish interpreted this as not merely an attack on the proliferation of weaponry in American life but as a denunciation, a besmirching, of their entire way of life, their entire fiction absolute. Guns were that important in their scheme of things.

More recently, I returned to Washington and Lee for a conference on the subject of Latin American writing in the United States. The conference soon became a general and much hotter discussion of the current immigration dispute. I had arrived believing that, for example, Mexicans who had gone to the trouble of coming to the United States legally, going through all the prescribed steps, would resent the fact that millions of Mexicans were now coming into the United States illegally across the desert border. I couldn't have been more mistaken. I discovered that everyone who thought of himself as Latin, even people who had been in this country for two and three generations, were wholeheartedly in favor of immediate amnesty and immediate citizenship for all Mexicans who happened now to be in the United States. And this feeling had nothing to do with immigration policy itself, nothing to do with law, nothing to do with politics, for that matter. To them, this was not a debate about immigration. The very existence of the debate itself was to them a besmirching of their fiction-absolute, of their conception of themselves as Latins. Somehow the debate, simply as a debate, cast an aspersion upon all Latins, implying doubt about their fitness to be within the border of such a superior nation. [More]

I suspect this this is true most of all of the kind of professional Latinos/as who attend conferences on Latin American writing in the United States. But, they are the most articulate ones, so they can drag lots of others with them.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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