If I am in their presence in a face to face discussion, I will politely smile and say, “Well, that does seem rather compelling” and slowly back away. I don’t want to continue a discussion that could quite possibly be built on a foundation of fake facts.
When I find a spare half hour I go to my computer and do a little research. I’ll put the information they shared into a search engine to find the original source and then dig deeper into that source. I’ll check quotes, weigh the facts with other sources, use some sites like FactCheck.org and I’ll Google variations. More often than not, my suspicions prove to have been valid.
One of the most common misappropriations in our modern age of internet information is the use of great, historical figures to support positions by using their legendary quotes.
The two that stand at the top of the Pyramid of Political Wisdom are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. It seems that their street cred superceeds all others and is of such indisputable relevance that anything they are quoted as having said is Political Gospel and can validate any ideological position.
Let me be clear right off the bat, this manipulative use of quotes is not the sole domain of either side of the aisle; both right and left politicos and pundits look to websites that share their views and pull down from a menu of Founding Father (plus Lincoln) short order specials.
A left leaning website that was looking to rally support for labor used this classic Lincoln quote: “All that loves labor serves the nation. All that harms labor is treason to America.”
Perfect! Except that Lincoln never said it.
Here’s a Lincoln quote that I’ve used myself: “If this nation is to be destroyed, it will be destroyed from within; if it is not destroyed from within, it will live for all time to come.”
That one works for the right, the left and for Libertarians. It is a call for balance, civility, and justice. Except, that Lincoln never said that either. Research by Paul F. Boller who wrote, “They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions,” and historian Matthew Pinkser, supports that many famous Lincoln quotes, even ones used by historians, do not exist in any of his writings, letters, speeches or in his official biography, but were simply drawn from the winds of rhetoric and repeated so often that they became truth.
Lincoln, however, may no longer be the champion of Faux Quotes. Lately, it seems, George Washington has replaced the Great Emancipator as the noblest voice of true American ideals. In this case, the Right, in particular, seems to feel a need to have the preeminent founding father on their side, in order to make their case that America was a Christian nation from its inception.
Today on Facebook I saw this Washington chestnut: “Religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society.”
I don’t have a problem with that quote, per se, but I happened to know that it wasn’t quite right. I’m a history buff and I had a recollection of reading Washington’s Farewell Address long ago (but long after the actual address!). What he actually said was, “Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports.”
There is a difference. Washington was speaking of the dispositions that he saw as crucial if one is to be successful in politics and what is required, in his view, for politics, in general, to serve the people. Where the quote gets bent is in the interpretation of “religion.” Religion to Washington (and many of our founders) was a rational moral discipline, a humble piety and respect for Providence. Washington was a registered member at a number of churches, but did not attend regularly and his writings rarely elaborated on his specific religious beliefs.
My point here is not to diminish his Christian influences or respect, but to clarify what “religion” meant in the late 18th century. It was an understanding of and respect for morality that was held accountable by a Higher Power; not specifically Christian, or even necessarily church, related.
The Washington myth continues, however, and the most famous of all Washington quotes, with regard to Christianity, is: “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”
That, he simply did not say.
What he said (wrote, actually) was this: “It is impossible to reason without arriving at a Supreme Being. Religion is as necessary to reason, as reason is to religion. The one cannot exist without the other. A reasoning being would lose his reason, in attempting to account for the great phenomena of nature, had he not a Supreme Being to refer to.”
A testimonial in support of religion and it embraces non-Christian doctrines, as well. No reason to change a word of it, except fundamentalists feel that by making Washington a Christian-specific sage they can further an expansionist agenda of religious exclusion.
A new sporting goods store opened in my town and in front of the store are beautiful, brass sculptures of Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson. Beside each figure is a brass document with individual quotes. There is at least one false quote on each of those documents.
Ladies and gentlemen, if you feel that your ideology, whether political, social or religious, needs the support of these legendarily wise, credible and patriotic figures, and you are compelled to make up perfect words to put in their mouths to show that support….then you may need to reconsider your original premise.
And if you find a perfect quote on a website…do a little research before you post it.
In the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
Except that he didn’t actually say that.