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Sunday, August 13, 2017

H.L. Mencken, Donald Trump, and false quotation syndrome

I'm furious about Trump's horrific "both sides" rhetoric in response to the neo-Nazi terror attack in Virginia -- so furious, that I can't write about it right now. If I start "angry writing," I'll end up clobbering the keyboard with my fists.

To avoid having to buy a new keyboard, here's a post cobbled together for use on a slow news day. (Remember when we used to have slow news days?) I'm posting this text here and now because any attempt to express my current feelings could get me into trouble.

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From time to time, previous posts in this humble blog have discussed what I call "false quotation syndrome." Examples:

1. Some people believe that Aleister Crowley said these words: "After I am dead, people will say that I gave birth to the 20th century." Sorry, folks. It's a bogus quote, probably adapted from a fictional work by Alan Moore.

2. The film America: From Freedom to Fascism features a ridiculous quote about the Federal Reserve attributed to Woodrow Wilson -- a quote which reverses his true feelings.

3. Not long ago, we noted a meme in which Josef Goebbels is quoted as saying "Accuse the other side of that which you are guilty." A reader helpfully pointed out that Goebbels did say something similar, though not as a directive: He was criticizing the rhetoric of Germany's opponents during the first World War. (A similar transmogrification beset the infamous Lenin "pie crust" quote.)

4. A few years back, right-wingers attributed a lengthy quotation to Jeb Bush:
The truth is useless. You have to understand this right now. You can't deposit the truth in a bank. You can't buy groceries with the truth. You can't pay rent with the truth...
And so on. Spurious. All of it.

5. Conspiracy buffs and the Urban dictionary have averred that the Bush family uses the term "one fodder unit" to describe the individual American citizen. Although a man named Al Martin claims that the term was widely heard at Republican cocktail parties in the 1980s, we have no proof beyond his word that anyone named Bush has actually used that term. If you ask for proof, people will accuse you of being a "Bush-lover."

6. During the anti-Hillary mania of 2008, the Obots promulgated a false quotation attributed to Bill Clinton's brother Roger (whose drug issues were no secret). Supposedly, Roger Clinton was recorded saying the following: "Gotta get some for my brother. He has a nose like a vacuum cleaner." No such recording has ever surfaced. What began as a 90s-era right-wing fabrication was repurposed as a pro-Obama fabrication.

Often, fake quotes appear in "image memes" distributed via Facebook. Here's an example:

Need I add that Putin never said such words?

And now I'd like to bring to your attention a very subtle example of the genre. This one has been promulgated by opponents of Donald Trump (not all of them on the left).

This bogus quote festoons the internet in various graphic guises. Another example:

As it happens, Mencken did say something like those words -- but not those exact words. As an adopted son of Baltimore, I feel duty-bound to present the actual text, as it appeared in the July 26, 1920 edition of the Baltimore Evening Sun:

Mass communication has evolved since 1920. No-one can deny that Trump won, in large part, by the force of his personality, although he also conveys the impression that that his mind truly is a vacuum when it comes to "book smarts." 

The final paragraph contains two sentences which the internet meme-pushers have excised: "The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men" and "We move toward a lofty ideal." The former can safely go, but the latter, in my opinion, deserves to be retained.

The key change comes at the end: "The White House will be adorned by a downright moron" has become "The White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron."

In 1920, the term "narcissistic" was primarily used by researchers in psychology, the first academic study of narcissism having appeared in 1911. I can find no authentic example of Mencken using that word. That term was inserted into the text for understandable reasons: Trump is so thoroughly self-absorbed that he probably fantasized about masturbation while siring Barron.

As some of you may recall, a more precise version of Mencken's quote received some distribution during the administration of George W. Bush -- who, at the time, seemed the ultimate example of a White House moron.

Those who accuse Trump of being a habitual liar, those who criticize him for repeating memes without any concern for accuracy, would do well if to avoid distributing a false quotation -- even if the quote is only partially false.

How did this particular exercise in falsification begin? Perhaps the original sinner was the creator of this cartoon...

Mencken, and Will Rogers at another extreme, are among those fossil species from the newspapercene epoch before universal air conditioning and TV, when Mort Sahl kept their torches burning.

Andy Warhol never said In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, or any words to that effect, although its origin has been traced to 1966 in Sweden where one of his installations was being photographed (according to Wikipedia). Actually, in 1966 when Medicare began to be administered, he commented on it and said, "In the future everyone will be patients for fifteen minutes."
He did say, however, "In fifteen minutes, everyone will be famous!"
it occurred to me this morning that those who to this day are going on about Hillary's being the "lesser" of two evils and how "hard" it was to vote for her are not allowed to complain about Trump's "all sides" because they are basically doing the same thing he is by saying that.

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