THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: QUOTE, UNQUOTE (in 2 parts)

PART 1 (July, 2011)

“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 been 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

PART 2 (August, 2011)

First, let’s check our quiz answers from last month, shall we?

Here’s the actual quote from President George H. W. Bush, from his State of the Union Address for 1992: “The opponents of this measure [cutting the capital gains tax] and those who’ve authored various so-called ‘soak-the-rich’ bills that are floating around this chamber should be reminded of something: When they aim at the big guy, they usually hit the little guy. And maybe it’s time that stopped.”

(Does George give away the game here? He seems to be admitting that the “big guys” hide behind the “little guys”… but that’s something for another column.)

I made up the “Rousseau” and “Will Rogers” quotes myself. (Did you like them? Did you believe them, or at least think they were plausible?) But anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist really did say this: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

(If that makes you think of Michael Douglas dunking Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” I think that is exactly the image Grover had in mind…. but that is also something for another column.)

By the way, I don’t want to seem to be picking on conservatives here. There are probably more than a few spurious quotes floating around that serve liberal narratives as well. (If you know any, send them to me.) However, I do think that conservatives give greater weight and credence to historical “authority” than liberals, and this may lead them to be more susceptible to believing, and therefore passing along, these sorts of quotations.

Anyway: I have to admit, I brought up this whole subject of spurious quotes just because this one bugs me so much:

“That government is best that governs least.”

This quote, a great favorite of modern conservatives and libertarians, is sometimes attributed to Thomas Jefferson, sometimes Thomas Paine. But it actually enters the literature in the writings of Henry David Thoreau (of all people) in his essay “On Civil Disobedience” – and it wasn’t even original with him. The original was the motto of a journal called “The United States Magazine and Democratic Review,” edited by one John O’Sullivan. (See http://facweb.furman.edu/~benson/docs/demrev.htm for the full text of O’Sullivan’s manifesto, which puts this sentiment in context.)

The appeal of this quote is obvious. It’s facile, and catchy. It seems to justify the Republicans’ present attempts to dismantle all the regulatory apparatus that keep the market from consuming everything in sight. But it’s also paradoxical – would we say, “That police department is best that polices least”? “That nurse is best that nurses least”? “That teacher is best that teaches least”? “Those prisons are best that imprison the least”? “That army is best that fights the least”? (Hmm… I may have to think about the implications of that last one a bit.)

Let me offer what seems to me a more accurate alternative. Feel free to pass it along – who knows, maybe at some point it’ll be accepted as part of the historical canon as well…

“That nation is best, which is least in need of governance.”

No, wait – that’s not really enough, is it? We need a larger context. I’ll even couch it in antiqued language, to give it a bit more cachet:

“Therefore, let us not say ‘That government is best that governs least’ – for would that not be the fondest wish of the brigand and the highwayman, that government itself should dissolve, and the rule of law disappear? Rather, let us declare that nation the best, which is least in need of governance.”

Ascribe this to “Anonymous,” if you like. Or maybe Ben Franklin.


PS. When looking into the past, it can be hard to sort out truth from fantasy. Fortunately, some folks have devoted themselves to unraveling such historical conundrums. Besides the ever-useful www.snopes.com, you can also check sites like the following:

and see books like Paul Boller and John George’s compendium, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions (Oxord University Press, 1990).

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