In her hallucination-as-history book, Democracy in Chains, Nancy Maclean writes – with absolutely no evidence – that the late Nobel laureate economist Jim Buchanan, who was born and bred in rural Tennessee, was influenced by the southern agrarian Donald Davidson, who taught at Vanderbilt University. Here’s MacLean on page 34:
When he [Buchanan] left Tennessee for New York to do his military service in 1941, the new graduate seemed to see through lenses wholly crafted by Donald Davidson. New York City was to the Nashville writer a veritable cussword, a synecdoche for all that is wrong with reform-minded America. “I felt I was in enemy territory,” Buchanan said of his first encounter with America’s leading city, surrounded by “strange beings.”
MacLean supplies no footnote to any material that might lend evidentiary support to her purely speculative claim that Buchanan was influenced by Davidson. Again, the reason is that in all of the vast published writings of Buchanan, there is no mention of Davidson. I’ve not gone through all of Buchanan’s unpublished materials, but in those that I’ve seen, I find no mention of Davidson. (Also, to repeat, in the nearly three decades that I knew Jim, I never once heard him mention Davidson, at least not that I recall.) And MacLean – who has gone through some of Buchanan’s unpublished papers – provides no citation to any mention by Buchanan of Davidson. Presumably, had MacLean found any such mention by Buchanan of Davidson, she’d quote it or at least point her readers toward it.
In the above-quoted passage, MacLean leaps from the fact that a young man from rural Tennessee did not like New York City to the conclusion that that young man was under the influence of the southern agrarian Donald Davidson. What other explanation could there possibly be?! Oh, I know, here’s one: It’s very common for young men and women who grew up in small, southern agricultural towns to be overwhelmed by New York City when they first encounter it – so overwhelmed as to find it strange and disagreeable. MacLean, though, must be unaware of this very common negative reaction of rural- and small-town folk to Gotham, for the explanation that she finds most compelling for the young country bumpkin Buchanan’s dislike of NYC is that he must have somehow absorbed the ideas and ideals of Donald Davidson!
Moving on. The words that MacLean quotes above from Buchanan are from his 1992 autobiography, Better Than Plowing. (Hmm… I wonder why a devout Southern Agrarian would describe his life as an academic as being better than a life of toil on the soil. Anyway….) So MacLean, presumably, has read Buchanan’s autobiography. But one wonders how carefully she read it, for as Phil Magness points out on his Facebook page, on page 109 of that same autobiography Buchanan writes the following; it appears in a part of the book where Buchanan relates the fondness he realized relatively late in his life for having a rural homestead and farm (which he had, near Blacksburg, Virginia):
As chapter 2 should have made clear, my early life could scarcely have produced in me some romanticized yearning for the drudgery of the yeoman farmer. And, through the middle decades of my life I felt no yearning to return to the soil, to seek out my roots, to engage with nature directly in some continuing struggle to transform the wild into the fruitful.
Phil proceeds to correctly note that “Buchanan’s interest in rural aesthetics was his late-life retirement project – a rediscovery of something that he self-consciously ran away from in his youth because it had little interest to him at the time. MacLean completely misses that even though he spelled it out for her. It’s hard to see how her doing so was anything other than an attempt to shoehorn Buchanan into the caricature she had already created for him.”
Category: Myths and Fallacies