When the Legend Becomes Fact

One of my favorite movie lines comes from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

Ransom Stoddard: "You're not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?"

Scott: "No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

With all due respect to Mr. Scott, "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend" is not a phenomenon peculiar to the West, it is a practice that at times undergirds public discourse, creating arrested development.

I recently witnessed two examples of how Scott's theory is applied.

Reading the letters to the editor, I came across an individual bemoaning Donald Trump's popularity among a segment of Republican voters.

The individual opined: "Ross Perot, who was inept as a politician, defeated George H.W. Bush and elected Bill Clinton."

This is a popular ruse that has gone largely unchallenged. As a result, it is believed to be true. Hence, the legend has become fact.

I certainly understand how this canard could be accepted as true, Perot was seen as cyphering votes from Bush, which ostensibly gave Clinton the election.

The use of myth can provide significance to a culture seeking to address fundamental and difficult questions. Such is not the case with the 1992 presidential election.

According to the Gallup Poll, beginning in September Clinton held a 54-39 advantage over Bush. At the time, Perot had dropped out of the race.
Throughout September Clinton polled above 50 percent with Bush rising once above 40 percent.

When Perot reentered the race in October the numbers did indeed change. But not as the legend would suggest. Perot pulled from Clinton's majority.

While Bush stayed largely flat, there is a direct correlation between Perot's rise and Clinton falling below 50 percent. Clinton won the election with 43 percent followed by Bush and Perot with 37.5 and 18.5 percent respectfully. From September to Election Day Bush lost 1.5 percentage points while Clinton lost 11percentage points after Perot's reentry.

The other example of the legend becoming fact was a recent conversation when an individual who made the point to me there was a direct link from the current Black Lives Matter movement back to the infamous Willie Lynch speech of 1712.

The individual took umbrage when I stated the Willie Lynch speech was a hoax.

The speech has been published largely in black periodicals and newspapers since 1970, it gained wider notoriety when the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan cited it during the Million Man March in 1995.

The speech is an alleged verbatim account by Lynch (a slave owner), telling other slave masters his "secret" to controlling slaves by setting them against one another.

The Lynch myth also seeks to address a fundamental question about black culture and its inability to unite. But it only requires cursory examination in order to place this document along side other urban legends.

Lynch begins by offering that he runs a "modest plantation" in the British West Indies. Where specifically? Which island?

The practice of lynching black people from trees, as the speech references, did not begin in earnest until the mid-1800s and was not a method used in 1712. Moreover, in 1712 there was no such region as the South. Regional distinctions became prominent after the Revolutionary War, which ended in 1783.

The speech contains phrases such as "refueling" and "fool proof" which were not in use until the early 20th century. There is not a single noted historian who has defended the authenticity of the speech.

Though the speech is comforting to some in that it answers an age-old question, it remains an unhealthy reliance on a hoax.

Sometimes such fables work because they provide an oversimplified answer (as in the case of the 1992 presidential election) when honest evaluation may dictate something more difficult. Or, as the case of the Willie Lynch speech, it falsely fills in the blank.

These examples do nothing to move the discourse forward. They provide no course of action. They cannot uplift, only pacify.

What we can glean is that anyone who relies on such folklore hasn't taken the time nor possessed the curiosity to find out what is true. Opting instead to be intellectually coddled by Scott's observation, guilelessly looking to the West -the place where the legend becomes fact.