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Escape from the Mountain of Bad Attribution: Quotes Behaving Badly V

(To read the entire “Quotes Behaving Badly” series, click here.)

So we go nearly two years without a “Quotes Behaving Badly” post because we couldn’t find enough quotes. Then, we find enough for three, so expect more quote debunking in the next few weeks. Without further ado, more “Quotes Behaving Badly”:

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a piece of ribbon.” - Napoleon

How has On Violence not tackled this mother of all quotes? I mean, we even used it way back in the day (while cautioning that we thought it was a “Quote Behaving Badly”). So has the Economist, The Marines Corps Gazette and countless other quote generators. Unfortunately, the closest we have seen to a reference is one book which places Napoleon on the H.M.S. Bellerophon on his way to exile. (Though, it doesn’t have a source for any of that. Wikiquote currently has it as unsourced.)

Most likely, Napoleon didn’t say this quote, but it would require a lot more research to find the first instance in popular language. It also captures why we dislike “Quotes Behaving Badly” so much. Sure, soldiers love to get ribbons and recognition. I don’t know an infantryman who doesn’t want a CIB. At the same time, soldiers fight even harder and longer for the men and women on their left and right.        

(We also want to give props to our favorite source for management thinking, Manager-Tools.com, for identifying a “quote behaving badly”. Mark Horstman has spent years quoting Napoleon saying, “Never prohibit that which you cannot prevent.” (This comes from his “Things I Think I Think” newsletter.) However, he rightly pointed out that, “Upon searching, I have discovered that the only [places] Google cites to this quote being from Napoleon relate back to...me. So I might be wrong.”)

“War is much too serious a thing to be left to military men.” - Talleyrand

More precisely, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the foreign minister of France who survived from the Ancien Regime to the Restoration, allegedly said this. I recently heard this in a class where a professor (rightfully) sang Talleyrand’s praises. However, the professor also included this quote, and as I do now whenever I hear any quote, I looked it up. Turns out, the quote comes from another diplomat, Clemenceau from after World War I. And the actual translation should be “to the military” instead of “military men”.

Remember the old Napoleon saying, “Don’t quote that which you can’t verify.” (Not a quote.)   

“Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” - Adolph Hitler

The above quote also goes by the variants “The great masses of people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one. Especially if it is repeated again and again.” and “The bigger/more blatant a lie, the more people will believe it.” Variously attributed to Hitler or Goebbels, this quote is wrong on a number of levels.

First, both sides of the aisle regularly accuse the other party of using the big lie. For example, Glenn Beck, responding to Democrat accusations that Republicans were using the “big lie”, responded by saying that political tactics used by progressives were taken from the Nazi playbook. Awesome.

Second, it’s a misquote, a bastardization of what Hitler actually wrote. Like most quotes behaving badly, the mis-quote simplifies a much more complex thought. Read this full paragraph to understand Hitler’s true meaning:

“But it remained for the Jews, with their unqualified capacity for falsehood, and their fighting comrades, the Marxists, to impute responsibility for the downfall precisely to the man who alone had shown a superhuman will and energy in his effort to prevent the catastrophe which he had foreseen and to save the nation from that hour of complete overthrow and shame. By placing responsibility for the loss of the world war on the shoulders of Ludendorff they took away the weapon of moral right from the only adversary dangerous enough to be likely to succeed in bringing the betrayers of the Fatherland to Justice. All this was inspired by the principle--which is quite true within itself--that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”

To clarify, Hitler is not endorsing the “Big Lie”, as I think most people assume when they read or repeat the quote above. He doesn’t believe that the big lie works; he thinks that the Jews fed Germans a big lie, but he (Hitler) saw through it. He’s not offering a blueprint for dictatorship; he’s justifying his anti-semitism. He’s justifying the mass extermination of the Jews.

Finally, I’m not sure whether this quote reflects reality or not. I mean, we once ran a post on how 40% of Americans believe Saddam didn’t have WMDs, another 30% believe he did and 25% don’t know. 9/11 conspiracy theorists still dominate corners of the internet. Maybe if you repeat something long enough, some people will believe it.

“War does not determine who is right--only who is left.” - Bertrand Russell

At some point, researching an On Violence post, I came across this perfect candidate for a “Quote Behaving Badly”. Instinctively, I knew Russell didn’t say this. He might have, but it just seems too simple a thought for one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers. No war actually kills every single person in a country, at least not since the Middle Ages.

According to Wikiquote--and some light On Violence research-- the accuracy of this quote is in dispute. As Wikiquote writes, “This has often been published as a quotation of Russell, when an author is given (e.g. in Quote Unquote — A HandBook of Quotation, 2005, p. 291), but without any sourced citations, and seems to have circulated as an anonymous proverb as early as 1932.”

Remember, if you can’t cite where or when the author said something, they probably didn’t say it. More importantly, journalism and academia only succeed if we can cite who said what (along with where and when they said it). Using quotations by citing some robo-site that says, “Einstein said it this,” is terrible reportage/scholarship.

What’s more interesting is where I found it, on Anti-war.com’s list of quotes.

This led to a whole rabbit hole we’ll go down next week...

One comment

I love to include quotations in the prefaces of essays and term papers, but such one- or two-sentence quotations deprive speakers of their meaning. A paragraph-long quotation from The Quiet American would better serve a book on the Vietnam War than would one of the above quotations.