Sunday, September 16, 2012

Let Them Eat Misquotes

Misquoting is all great fun
until someone loses a head.

Pop Quiz: Who said, "Let them eat cake." ?

Take your time.

If you said Marie Antoinette, you'd be wrong. Oh, she's reputed to have said it at the beginning of the French Revolution as a dismissive, patronizing quip about the plight of the starving poor. But she never said it. Probably never said anything even remotely close to it. She was personally involved in several charities and both she and her husband, Louis XVI, were both sympathetic to the sufferings of their subjects and the social reforms of the Enlightenment. It just wasn't her.

No, the person who said it was a yellow journalist, possibly an 18th century Sean Hannity, plagiarizing Jean Jacques Rousseau from 25 years before (who himself was quoting some unnamed Austrian monarch before him) and then attributed it to Marie Antoinette to inflame the populace about the callousness of the monarchy. So she never said it. Never thought it. But was beheaded for it just the same.

Yellow Journalism

This yellow journalism in the service of politics hasn't changed in two centuries. Last year, during the early days of the interminable primary, Mitt Romney was quoted with the now-infamous phrase, "Corporations are people, my friend." The left wing part of the media and the Obama campaign glommed onto that sentence and ran like bats out of hell with it. The actual quote in its entirety (you can see the entire exchange he had with a rude heckler at the Iowa State Fair) went on to explain that the profits of corporations flow out to shareholders and executives and employees--in short, people. What he was trying to say, in his admittedly awkward way, was that corporations, like any organization, are composed of people. True enough. But in the wake of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, it was perhaps a tone deaf thing to say, and certainly easily misunderstood or perverted to have him saying something he didn't intend. He is seen, in the video, trying to have a respectful exchange with someone in the audience,--someone only there to shout him down, not have a respectful exchange. He lays out his case, and invites people to disagree with him. But the yellow journalists Antoinetted him and picked up only the juicy five words at the beginning of that exchange. The "my friend" part was the cherry on top.

Of course, Romney, bless his heart, isn't the most suave public speaker. And not a week goes by when he isn't quoted out of context by the left, or the Daily Show, with some delicious sound byte. As Jon Stewart said of him, "He's a comedy gold mine." (That, too, is a misquote; he was actually saying it of The Donald). It's been said that in today's 24/7 Internet environment, no politician has a chance. But they didn't have the Internet in 1789, and no politician (or sitting head of state) had a chance then either.

Everybody Does It, So Why Shouldn't We?

Both sides are guilty of this Antoinetting. Today there is a quote circulating among the right wing part of the media that Obama said the outrageous thing, "...if you have a business, you didn't build that."  They are getting great mileage out of it to demonstrate his sinister socialist agenda  and Marie Antoinette callousness to hard-workin' entrepreneurs. Blustering billboards are popping up next to Interstates (ironically) all over the redder parts of the country, virtually sputtering with indignant typography, "I did, too, build my business!"

But though Obama did literally say it, it was, like Romney's quote, taken out of context and carefully Xacto-bladed out of a full sentence, changing the meaning entirely. The "if" in his statement is not the beginning of that sentence (beware of ellipses); it's definitely lowercase and follows a comma. And the "that" is clearly in reference to the collectively built infrastructure referenced before the comma, not the business.

What the complete sentence said was, "Somebody else invested in roads and bridges, if you've got a business, you didn't build that, somebody else did." I.e., "that" being the "roads and bridges" you've posted your indignant billboard alongside. Admittedly, the sentence is as awkwardly put as the "my friend" in Romney's quote and he should have been more attentive to pronoun-antecedent agreement ("those" instead of "that")--something that happens when you wing it without a teleprompter. But if you watch the actual video of the speech (which, thanks to the Internet, yet another part of the government-built infrastructure, you can do easily), you see that he is making a broad gesture with his arm about all those other things--the Internet, the roads and highways and bridges, the laws, the energy grid, educational assistance, low-interest loans. But the yellow journalists, in the interests of rousing a rabble, just leapt on that sentence fragment like cats on a couch and tore it to ribbons. They made of it something that wasn't there. Or even remotely intended. Like Marie Antoinette reputedly dissing the poor.

Wait, Wait, Wait! You're Misquoting!

We may think we're seeing this more and more in politics. But it's always been there (even from before the French Revolution). If a candidate says "Good morning" to some guy in a doughnut shop, the punditocracy immediately jumps on it with "What's he got against the afternoon?" And then, the fiery, animated title at the bottom of the screen, "So-in-so's War on the Post Meridian". When the First Lady makes some innocuous and well-intentioned remark about how we ought to encourage our kids to eat more healthy foods, the other side turns this deceptively wholesome advice into a sinister plot to control what we eat. Next thing you know, they'll be outlawing Big Gulps in New York City...oh, that slippery slope! If some candidate fails to mention the word "freedom" in his speech, he's against freedom. If they don't say "Merry Christmas" in their holiday greeting card, they're making War on Christmas. It's all great fun, though.

Imagine doing that to the Bible, in order to make it say what you want it to say. Didn't Jesus say, for instance, that it's easy for a rich man to get into heaven? Didn't he egg on the rabble to cast the first stone on that adulteress? Didn't he tell us to make the little children suffer? Didn't he tell us to pay more taxes ("Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's")? I can easily find (with some deft, Xacto-blade editing) precisely those quotes in the Bible and post them on my website. In fact, I just did.

Now you would protest, rightly, "Wait, wait, wait! You're taking it all out of context! That's not what he said at all!" But I'd say right back to you that you're just an apologist for Jesus. You hear what you want to hear and nothing more. You make up your mind, and then look for confirmation in quote fragments or downright misquotes. And anyone who sees or hears it differently, well, they're unbelievers.

Of course, I'll go to hell for misquoting the Lord & Savior. So I take it back. I really don't know what he actually said, I wasn't there. I only read it from a second-hand source who also wasn't there, translated from Aramaic into Greek into King James English. So maybe everybody along the line misquoted.