Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Quotes or Paraphrases? Tomahto, Potaito?

Sometimes things come back to haunt me. Well, sort of.

A long time ago, 2+ years, I used George Orwell's dictum "We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.", as the title of a blog. Yesterday someone posted a comment, stating that it wasn't Orwell but Churchill, who said that. Further checking up on Wikpedia revealed, as much as Wikipedia may be considered authoritative in that regard, that the quote, insofar as we refer to the version I used, has also been attributed to Churchill. Indeed, Orwell wrote something that stated exactly the same thing, and in a much more cogent and probably less manipulatively-intended context than Churchill, namely an essay on Nationalism; which, by the way, I highly recommend to everybody's reading, because it also contains a very important analysis of the terms 'nationalism' and 'patriotism', two concepts that are habitually conflated in everyday and also academic discourse, resulting in an unjustified tarring-by-conflation of the latter by the former.

The Wikipedia page of misquotations is a small treasure of examples of how things get muddled up, and how little time and degrees of separation it takes to get them muddled up. Maybe the most interesting example is another one of my favorites "Only the dead have seen the end of war," which I also always attributed to Socrates, and even Ridley Scott did when he quoted it in the lead in to Black Hawk Down. It seems—that's according to Wikipedia—that it wasn't Socrates but the Spaniard (claimed also by the US) George Santayana, who wrote these words in his The Life of Reason.

That'll learn me!

On the other hand, does it matter?

Well, yes and no.

It may matter for two possible reasons:
  • Pedantry. Some people can't bear attributive inaccuracies and think they matter. That's fine. If it's your job to be a stickler for historical accuracy, fine. Otherwise...

  • Motivation of the originator. Things are said for different reasons by different people. Anything said by politicians, priests, lawyers, salesmen, ideologues, critics, etc. is immediately suspect by association. Guilty until proven innocent beyond reasonable doubt. Churchill making any pronouncement is a completely different thing, and has completely different implications and associations, than Orwell doing it.
On the other hand, such sayings can be disembodied, disconnected from their originators. Forget about who said it, but look at what is expressed in the statement and see if it resonates with one's own perception of what's what; if it triggers an insight into something that had been elusive until then; whether it brings disparate and hitherto apparently unconnected strands of 'fact'together; whether it stimulates new thoughts that may lead to new insights...

It's difficult to say which is the 'correct' way of looking at this, or whether there is a 'correct way'; which, I suspect there isn't. As usual it's context and the individual in question.

As for me, I don't give a rat's ass whether it was Edmund Burke who said/wrote "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." It contains a profound truth that should trouble all who hear this and have the courage to think about it. And maybe I should add that it is symptomatic of the deficiencies of Wikipedia that the section about this particular saying completely misrepresents what it tries to express--in the form and wording which has become popularly known. If really it was derived from the Edmund Burke passage "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle." then the person who rephrased it saw something in it that goes far beyond anything political. For the way we know it now, the aphorism says nothing at all about 'association', but about the issue of what a 'good' man is; how he reacts to the presence of evil; what sacrifices he's willing to bring to his life and his 'goodness' alike; whether he uses his goodness as a cause for denial of the need for action or even the acknowledgment of the existence of evil; and so on.

Bottom line: a quote should be attributed if possible, but if it's a case of "I don't really know who said it but..." then that's fine, too. Sometimes ignoring the origin isn't only OK, but better, because it defocuses attention from the 'authority', or lack thereof, of the one who originated the statement. That's usually a good thing, because ultimately there is no real authority in such matters but oneself.

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