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!


3 responses to “And You Can Quote Me On That…

  1. OK as long as we are quoting “sources” one of my favorites is George Bernard Shaw, ‘the single problem with communication is illusion that it has taken place.” (but I don’t know for sure where that thought came from)

    Happy to see you are reading history, even polemic academicians like Loewen have a role in teaching history. I agree that much of what we learned about our cultural history reflects the evolution of our country. i.e. the more diverse we have become since we revolted from England the more diverse our interpretations of that past has are becoming i.e. Much of what I learned in American History was written by post WWII white American males and designed to portray our history as patriotically as possible.

    Where I depart from Loewen’s interpretation is that I do not see it as bad or as lies, but rather just a cultural aberration manifested from the blood and treasury spilled to make the telling possible. I would also opine that it is the living that writes history about the dead, not just the victors. For example much of what we knew for the immediate 100 years following the civil war was written by southerners {the losers not the victors) and because they desperately needed to believe in “the cause” , that history was severely flawed. Try as they might to convince the world that the Civil War was fought over many things, the truth is that it was over slavery, all else is hyperbole.

    Newly researched history is more and more reflecting the often harsh realities that have forged this experiment of Republican Government that is America.

    More and more emerging historians are taking the approach of researching how the Founding Fathers got to be such, and what they thought and why. Not so much focused on quotes but who they read that helped formulate the thoughts and how those thoughts were received by others, and how they were used to justify manifest destiny.

    I would severely question anyone who asserts that anyone was the originator of a quote, most everyone read or heard something in the past that helped give birth to a thought or phrase. Asserting that no one else in the history of the world ever said the same thing necessitates having read or heard everything ever said.

    Your link is highly polemic and not solid in it’s historical foundations. It is often inaccurate to look back at history through the lens of modernity, and make judgments. i.e. much of what Jefferson thought and wrote was shaped by his studies of Latin and Greek, and of European Enlightenment scholars. SO when they say “Jefferson never said that” by definition they would have had to read everything Jefferson wrote or that someone said that he wrote or spoke…I have no knowledge of such a one.

    • > Where I depart from Loewen’s interpretation… as > bad or as lies

      The title is obviously for marketing.

      And it’s not like the US is doing something most other countries do not. Some do it in a far more egregious way, such as Japan with regard to WW2, where the rape of Nanking didn’t really happen or is exaggerated by other countries.

      So I assume you enjoyed the Notre Dame game? If all football games were like that, I’d watch more regularly.

      But I know some folks’ heart can’t take it. Even I, usually dispassionate, let out an “Oh s**t!” when it appeared ND scored a TD in the last few seconds.

      Ever read “On the Wrong Side: My Life in the KGB” by Stanislav Levchenko, who defected? I bought it a few weeks ago. then learned I already had it. I can send it to you if you’re interested.

  2. “The title is obviously for marketing.”

    Perhaps, but even so he is more of a polemicist than a historian and as such one has to take his commentary with a grain of salt.

    “Ever read “On the Wrong Side: My Life in the KGB” by Stanislav Levchenko, who defected? I bought it a few weeks ago. then learned I already had it. I can send it to you if you’re interested.”

    You must really like the book having bought it twice. Thanks but my reading cue is overwhelmed with early american history and my already way to large “must read” authors.

    This years FSU football team has the distinct misfortune of having to immediately follow last years, which was a team for the ages;best team I have seen here in 50 years. But the Notre Dame game was an adrenal contest that had us all ready to retreat to our tailgates and anesthetize. If Brian Kelly (NDs coach) hadn’t taken the Willie Sutton approach to stealing a score, he could have won it fare and square. Guess he just wanted to make sure, and it cost him big time.

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