THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: QUOTE, UNQUOTE (part 1)

(Here’s my River Reporter column for July, posted here a bit late…)

“The problem with quotes on the Internet is that you can’t always be sure of their authenticity.” ~ Teddy Roosevelt

Have you ever heard any of the following quotes?

  • “That government is best that governs least.” – Thomas Jefferson
  • “You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.” – Abraham Lincoln
  • “Wear sunscreen.” – Kurt Vonnegut

These are just three out of the blizzard of quotes that show up in emails forwarded by your cousin in Arizona, or pepper Web pages across the Internet, or that pop up in conversations around barstools and water fountains. People use quotes like these to amuse each other, to show their erudition, or to reinforce their political arguments.

The problem, of course, is that they’re spurious. The people to whom they are attributed never said or wrote any such things.

The last one, for example, supposedly came from a commencement speech given at MIT by author Kurt Vonnegut – actually, the “speech” was an essay by a Chicago columnist named Mary Schmich. But with Vonnegut’s name attached, the text spread quickly. You may have seen commentaries supposedly penned by other celebrities – George Carlin and Bill Cosby are among the most common names used. (You can find plenty of examples at snopes.com.)

Such misattributions are mostly harmless. But the second quote – not so much. That comes from a set of dicta called the “Ten Cannots,” attributed to Abraham Lincoln, that includes items like “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong” and “You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.” Apparently, they were written by a Presbyterian minister Rev. William John Henry Boetcker in 1916 or so, one assumes in response to the rise of Marxist thought and labor activism. (Hence the bit about “class hatred” – a concept that I’m not sure Lincoln would have ben familiar with.) Somewhere along the line, possibly because of a printer’s error, Lincoln’s name got associated with the list, and it stuck. Ronald Reagan – or rather, his speechwriters – saw fit to include some of these items, complete with the misattribution to Lincoln, in a speech he gave to the Republican National Convention in 1992. Since then, this erroneous information has been repeated thousands of times – creating an impression of Lincoln that is unfounded and false. I’m willing to bet that in our current discussion of whether or not the wealthy should pay more taxes, those words will be cited more than once, loaded with the weight of both Reagan’s and Lincoln’s reputations.

By the way, I don’t think that Reagan did this maliciously – he and his speechwriters probably believed the Lincoln attribution themselves, and didn’t see the need to do any fact-checking. Why do folks take such things for granted, and fail to question them? Clearly, part of the reason has to do with whether or not the quote reinforces one’s “preferred narrative.” To see that a celebrity or historical figure saw things the way you do – that’s powerful stuff, and awfully appetizing. It provides strong ammunition; you might not agree with me, by golly, but you’re not going to argue with Ben Franklin or Mark Twain.

I’ll talk more about this, and about that first quote, in next month’s column – but in the meantime, here, let me throw a few into the mix. What do you think: real, or spurious?

  •  “When the foxes cry for the chickens to be freed from their bondage, believe me, it ain’t because they have the welfare of the chickens at heart.” – Will Rogers
  • “I want to shrink government until it is small enough to drown in a bathtub.” – Grover Norquist
  • “If we knew the true costs of things, we would realize that ‘profit’ is an illusion – there is only balance or imbalance.” – Rousseau
  • “When you aim at the big guy, you hit the little guy.” – George H. W. Bush

(FOLLOW-UP: If my column of a couple of months ago called “Nasrudin’s Donkey” struck a chord with you, then you should check out the recent set of articles from Mother Jones on “The Great Speedup” – see http://motherjones.com/special-reports/2011/06/speedup.)

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