Saturday, 31 October 2015

Henry Ford, idiot, traitor

The following is an excerpt from the book "American Tycoon", by Steven Watts. I will post a Tamil translation soon.

The words "idiot" and "traitor" in the title refer to the phrases used by Chicago Tribune.

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The newspaper Chicago Tribune published an article describing Henry Ford as "an ignorant idealist...  an anarchist enemy of the nation" when he opposed President Wilson's use of National Guard to patrol the Mexican border against raids from Pancho Villa's guerrillas. An outraged Ford sued the paper.

The jury found abundant evidence of ignorance but none proving anarchism. Why?

During cross examination by the attorney Ford exhibited an astonishing lack of knowledge. He asserted that the American Revolution had occurred in 1812. He described chili con carne as a "large mobile army". He couldn't identify basic principles of American government. As listened cringed, Ford fumbled question after question, like a negligent schoolboy, finally respondign to one, "I admit I am ignorant about most things." The Defense Attorney asked him if he would read a book passage, or wished to leave the impression that he may be illiterate. "Yes, you can leave it that way," replied Ford calmly, "I'm not a fast reader, I have hay fever and I might botch it."

The jury awarded six cents in damages. Newspapers and magazines largely ignored the verdict and legal issues, and chortled about the crudeness and shallowness of this American hero.

Two unexpected things became apparent.

First Henry Ford seemed perfectly content to appear the provincial rube whose provocative endeavors left little time for book learning. When pressed on his lack of knowledge, he confessed that regarding newspapers, "I rarely read anything except the headlines." Also "I don't like to read books, they mess up my mind"

Second, common people, rather than being scandalized by Ford's predicament, seemed to appreciate it. They indulged his lack of learning and were amused by his answers. Asked what the United States had been originally, he replied, "Land, I guess."

The public applauded him for his refreshing lack of pretension and sympathized with his frank admission that he was too focused on work to get much formal education. Ministers around the country offered prayers for Henry Ford's deliverance from his snobby oppressors. Small town newspapers urged busy farmers, laborers and merchants to sympathetic letters of support to the car maker. Thousands did. To the shock and consternation of highbrows, Ford emerged from a seemingly embarrassing debacle, an even greater American folk hero than he had been before.

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Related Links

Interview with author Steven Watts
Tom Wolfe on Intellectuals
On Mario Varghas Llosa - and writers
The Limits of Science - Peter Medawar
The Art and Aesthetic of Driving
Indians are such wonderful Drivers
Diesel Benz and Agriculture
எமீல் லெவஸார் - கார் படைத்த தச்சன்


  1. I can guess the motivator for this blog.Atleast the word "idiot" I can't forget.

  2. RVNATHAN: I have simply used the word "idiot" in the title of the blog as a pithy equivalent of "ignorant idealist", which were the words used by the Chicago Tribune