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The Return of...Quotes Behaving Badly

(Check out our past post, "Quotes Behaving Badly" here.)

My goal was simple. To celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr Day, I would post his words, and let them speak for themselves.

So I went looking for quotes and found this gem, “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” Beautiful and inspiring. You can even buy a button or a t-shirt!

There was a mix-up, though. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t say that nice phrase, his namesake, Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther, did. (Wikiquotes flip-flops on this issue; one page attributes this quote to Martin Luther, another says it can’t attribute this quote to him. Neither attributes it to King.)

Since I couldn’t use that quote by Martin Luther in good faith, I checked Martin Luther’s Wikiquotes page to see if he had a good quote for the website, being the namesake of MLK Jr. and all. Wikiquotes has this gem, “Nothing good ever comes of violence.” Perfect. Very topical. Except that no one can find where he actually said this. It’s attributed to him, but not to any specific speech or piece of writing.

Dang it.

Back to MLK Jr. then. I found this gem, encouraging fence sitters to pick a side, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” falsely attributed to Martin Luther King Jr., though it was actually said in a speech by John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy, to his credit, acknowledges that he paraphrased Dante. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that Dante wasn’t writing about “times of great moral crisis”, he was writing about the relationship of man and God, referring to those people who neither accept God, nor outright rebel against him.

Three quotes, three strikes, and we’re out. That means it’s time for another round of “Quotes Behaving Badly”. Like last time, I’ll give the false quote and false attribution, where we found it, and then the problems with the quote. On Wednesday, we are going to post the quotes I were given or found on twitter-sphere. (Heads up: let’s try to get the #quotebehavingbadly hash tag going on twitter. If you see a misattributed quote, RT it with the hashtag. Twitter is already flooded as is with quotes, we might as well fact check them.)

1. “If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” - John Wayne

Regular commenter Harrison added this to our post, “Fighting! Killing! Death! Destruction! War is War, isn't it?”. So everyone knows I’m not picking on Harrison, this following quote could have been the thesis of my Infantry Lieutenant training I heard it so often.

I’m not sure who actually said this. Wikiquotes variously attributes it to Franklin Roosevelt, John Wayne, or Gen. MacArthur. In the film All The President’s Men, Harry Rosenfeld describes a cartoon on Charles Colson’s wall, “The caption reads, "When you've got 'em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." But this cartoon and the saying weren’t in the book.

Whoever said it, it sums up the thinking of the “war-is-war” crowd precisely. And that’s a bad thing.

2. I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. - Voltaire

This could be my favorite of the day. At the bottom of a past post, I wanted to cite Voltaire’s most famous quote, so I dropped it in. Eric C asked where I got it from. I said I didn’t know. One trip to Wikiquotes and I couldn’t stop laughing: this was never said by Voltaire. True, it encapsulates a lot of his thinking, but he didn’t say this quote. Evelyn Beatrice Hall did, in The Friends of Voltaire (1906), fake-quoting him.

3. Kill them all and let God sort them out. - Anonymous

This quote is particularly brutal and ugly, specifically and explicitly promoting the indiscriminate killing of civilians. It probably doesn’t matter that the quote is “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius (Kill them all. For the Lord knoweth them that are His)”, but it does matter that its alleged speaker, Arnaud Amalric, led a genocidal campaign that killed 20,000 people, all for the crime of not forcibly converting to Catholicism. (Eric C: Wait, I thought Islam was the only violent religion?)

People, soldiers, pundits, occasionally dash off quotes like this casually--like this guy endorsing it, or this site here, or you can buy a t-shirt! This quote endorses genocide. Don’t repeat it.

4. In war, truth is the first casualty. - Aeschylus

Eric C first found this quote in Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory on page xxiii, attributed to Aeschylus. I found the same quote and citation in Call of Duty. (How, or why, it got attributed to Aeschylus, I have no idea. I couldn’t even guess.)

The Guardian has this schizophrenic post attributing it Hiram Johnson, Rudyard Kipling, Athur Ponsonby, Michael Herr and Boate Carter. None of these are correct. The actual award goes to Sherwood Eddy and Kirby Page in The Abolition of War (1924). Second place goes to Samuel Johnson, who wrote “Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.” This phrasing is not very quoteable; neither is Samuel Johnson.

5. Si vis pacem, para bellum or: Let him who desires peace prepare for war - Flavius Vegetius Renatus

What do Eric Harris, Marcus Luttrell, the 24th Marine Regiment and the Royal Navy have in common? They all like this quote. I first read it in Lone Survivor, which correctly attributes the quote to Renatus. (That’s right, I just complimented Lone Survivor. Take that, haters.) Wikipedia, meanwhile, had it wrong and unsourced, as of Jan 12, 2011. (Don’t worry, Eric C fixed it.)

Accuracy aside, this quote makes my head hurt. As Andrew Bacevich said, deploring the strategy, "belief in the efficacy of military power almost inevitably breeds the temptation to put that power to work. 'Peace through strength' easily enough becomes 'peace through war.'" I agree. or put another way, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” Not sure who said that one, though.

6. Whoever would overthrow a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech. - Ben Franklin.

I came across this gem on the banner for thefreepatriots.com (wrong as of Jan 12, 2011) researching for “The ‘Have You Been There?’ Argument”.

The quote sounds good and authoritative coming from Mr. Franklin, but wouldn’t be used nearly as often if it cited John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, the actual authors. They wrote under the pen name “Cato” in the London Journal, and had huge influence in the colonies. Ben Franklin did reprint the passage, but he didn’t say it.

7. Principle is OK up to a certain point, but principle doesn't do any good if you lose. - Dick Cheney

You’ll find this gem in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, but I don’t have a link to it on the blogosphere. I was also going to use this in a “war-is-war” post, until Eric C asked me where it is from.

I assumed, since it came from Call of Duty, it had to refer to our current wars. I was wrong. Former Vice President Cheney didn’t say this is in the 2000s, he said it in 1976. Then he was referring to presidential elections and the extent certain sides would go to win. (You may recall one of the political parties broke into the other party’s campaign office and such.) So this quote--which I still find wrong on its face--is not about war or warfare or the “global war on terror”.

ten comments

Side note/pet peeve: people constantly say that you can’t trust what you read on Wikipedia. Not true. You can’t trust unsourced information. This is basic literacy though; anything you read or hear—whether it was published, online, told to you, whatever—should have a source backing it up. Wikipedia probably more nakedly reveals this process than any other medium.

Also, if you see a mistake, change it. That’s what I did for the Wiki page on “Si vis pacem, para bellum”

Now, there are some mil related sites we need to edit—*cough Lone Survivor*cough—but I’d need to get at least three editors together before I worked on that.


I love the Call of Duty quotes. And I mean, besides the nonsensical dialogue in the game. Every time you die you either get something inspirational about war or a crazy pacifist quote. I mean, those are the two extremes, but in Call of Duty?


Regarding Dante: In Inferno, we see that the ninth, and bottom-most layer of hell was reserved solely for the betrayers Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. It seems that JFK was wrong and Captain Jack Sparrow was actually right.


Though, on the other hand, the bottom-most layer of hell in Inferno is actually ice-cold.


True. A good point is that CPT (or CAPT?) Jack Sparrow is referencing the fact and not quoting Dante, which is smart on his part. The coldest part in hell I believe specifically references mutineers, something Sailors particularly abhor.

And for Dante “violence” is the seventh circle, only above fraud and traitors.


I love these posts because they only help to justify my annoyance of the use of quotes in arguments. So often a quote is dropped as the last word as if because sOmeone intelligent or famous said it, the point is proven true.


Another awsome collections. Props.

@ Matty P – I have to disagree. I tend to judge a quote on the basis of the quality of its contents, not the author or supposed author. Plenty of intelligent people have said some pretty stupid things and vice versa. A lof of quotes can have multiple meanings, depending on the listener’s own values.

The quote from Flavius Renatus is a great example. The value of the phrase depends on your own perception of the meaning of preparing for war. While I agree that military power is a dangerous and capricious tool of statecraft, my own interpretation of the phrase tends towards the affirmation of the importance of self-defense, though in a measured and cautious manner. I feel that a sovereign nation should maintain a modicum of self-defense capability and military knowledge. The danger lies in maintaining a large standing army and the potential for disconnect between a professional military class and an ignorant citizenry. That concept has been a source of consistent hand-wringing in the US since the move to an all volunteer force.

The Cheney quote is another example. While I might snicker over the fact that it’s the ex-VP being, well, Dick Cheney, my argument is with the idea contained in the quote. If you aren’t willing to stick to your principles in the face of defeat, then they’re meaningless in the first place.


“Do you have blacks, too?” —George W. Bush to Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso, Washington, D.C., Nov. 8, 2001. Need I say more?


@ Nick – I think we’re in agreement, but allow me to claify. It’s my opinion that quotes are used in arguments too often because attributing a statement to a historic figure is done with the intention of adding weight to the argument. It as if the arguer is resorting to someone elses words because they were unable to form a cogent point of view themselves. I don’t feel quoting is necessary unless refuting someone directly or citing imperical data. Paraphrasing and elaboration can do the same thing without borrowing on another’s authority and credibility. For example, the Flavius Renatus quote can simply be noted as a commonly stated
aphorism or motto of a particular point of view.


Just found this book, The First Casaulty attributing the quote to Hiram Johnson. http://books.google.com/books?id=DXu6XL4..