And You Can Quote Me On That…

A book on American history I’m reading (Lies My Teacher Told Me) begins each chapter with a few quotes. One quote, attributed to William F. Buckley, Jr., caught my attention:  “History is the polemics of the victor.” That is a variant of a quote most of us are familiar with:  “History is written by the victors.” I wondered why the author did not use the “original” quote.

I am aware that the Internet is full of fabricated quotes from folks seeking to promote a particular viewpoint. Since Buckley is a conservative, and the book I’m reading is on the opposite end of the political spectrum, it did not seem to me that this “history” quote is promoting a political ideology. Was there perhaps some other issue with the “original”?

Also, I wasn’t aware of who is credited with the “original.” So I decided to do some research.

Turns out that the quote is often attributed to Winston Churchill but it cannot be verified he in fact said that. So rather than use an unattributable quote, the author decided to use a variant for which he could cite a source.

During my research, I found it…interesting…that the quote also has been attributed to Machiavelli. And while it does sound like an opinion Machiavelli would share, it is not worded in his style. But since brevity is the soul of wit, it is not unusual that thoughts are paraphrased rather than directly quoted.

Most folks have heard: “It is better to be feared than loved.” That is based on Machiavelli’s writing in The Prince but those are not his words.

Machiavelli’s words are: “…it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.” Is there not a significant distinction between “better” and “safer”? And there’s that qualifying “if” as well. Perhaps some folks can be both. So the quote we are familiar with misrepresents what Machiavelli actually said.

For this reason, I never accept a quote that does not cite the primary source.  If the primary source is not cited, I try to find it and verify that the quote has not been paraphrased.  If I cannot find the primary source, I do not accept the quote.

What I find…interesting… is that apparently some folks believe that if a “respected” person said something then that thought deserves more weight than if an “ordinary” person said it. Why is that?

Should thoughts not be judged on their own value? Does it make any difference whether or not it was Churchill who said “history is written by the victor?” I do not think so.

So now we come full circle. If it does not matter who said something, then why bother to verify if the cited source is accurate? Well, accuracy is one reason.

Perhaps, as with the Machiavelli “feared” quote, the quote misrepresents what the author said. Misrepresentation is just as pernicious as fabrication.

As for fabrication, if someone is willing to fabricate a quote to promote a viewpoint, perhaps the viewpoint itself has a fundamental weakness which its promoter hopes will be overlooked because it purportedly originates from a “respected” source. Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the United States are often used this way. This link has examples of that:

I’ve also seen “quotes” that make fun of folks for their apparent inability to realize the importance of new technologies. For example, after the Wright brothers ushered in the aviation age, a U.S. general is purported to have said that the only military use he could foresee for airplanes was in a reconnaissance role. I don’t know if that is true or not.

But I do know that during the Japanese invasion of Malaya, the British assembled Task Force Z to disrupt the Japanese landing fleet. The commanding admiral declined air cover, partially because he wanted to maintain radio silence. He also was not convinced of the supremacy of air power because it was one thing for an airplane to sink a ship at anchor (Pearl Harbor) but quite another thing to sink a moving ship taking evasive actions.  (Other than an obsolete biplane torpedo bomber scoring a lucky hit on Bismarck’s steering mechanism and crippling it for the British fleet to finish off, there was no historical precedent for air power against a combat fleet.)  The rest was, as they say, history…

Task Force Z failed to find the invasion fleet and was decimated by Japanese planes, which sunk the battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse. (These two capital ships were the backbone of British naval power in Southeast Asia.) From then on it was axiomatic that no fleet could enter waters where enemy airplanes were operating unless the fleet had its own air cover for protection. (Maybe I’ll fabricate a quote from that event: “Air cover? I don’t need no stinkin’ air cover!”)

And you can quote me on that!