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All your favourite quotations are a lie (Part 1)

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‘Only the dead have seen the end of war’ – Plato

I BECAME aware of this marvellous quotation – so wise, pithy and dark – on one of my frequent trips to the Imperial War Museum. It’s one of a series inscribed on the wall beside the ramp leading down to the World War I/trench section. Another of my favourites is attributed to Thucydides: ‘There were great numbers of young men who had never been in a war and were consequently far from unwilling to join in this one.’

The Plato quote is so good it has been used many times since, inter alia by General Douglas MacArthur in a speech at West Point in 1962, as an aphorism apparently oft-cited by grunts in the ’Nam, and by Ridley Scott in Black Hawk Down. But the quote is fake. Or at least its attribution is.

In fact it derives not from the Classical Age but from the early 20th century. It was invented by the Madrid-born philosopher, poet and later Harvard professor George Santayana. He clearly had a gift for this sort of thing for he also coined another of those  phrases which you’ve always thought was devised by someone much more famous: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Usually this is attributed, in various forms, to Edmund Burke or Winston Churchill. But the former didn’t say it and the latter – as I suspect he quite often did – plagiarised it.

Fake quotes, whether genuine sayings that have been misattributed or fabrications which have been lent authenticity by putting them in the mouths of someone famous, have been a bugbear of mine for a while. I can probably date this to the time someone called me out on my favourite George Orwell quote: ‘In times of universal deceit, truth-telling becomes a revolutionary act.’

Annoyingly, I had used it a good half dozen times in articles and in internet chats before I learned that Orwell had never said it. I felt cheated and also foolish: surely as an English literature graduate I ought to have known such a thing, in the way that film buffs know that Ingrid Bergman never said ‘Play it again, Sam.’

But these are easy mistakes to make now that fake quotes are everywhere. Probably, this has always been the case but they have definitely proliferated with the advent of the internet, the shortening of attention spans (which make us more susceptible to gnomic verities that appear to sum everything up and obviate the need for further thought) and the corresponding appetite for meme-friendly aphorisms.

Many of these fake quotes, I’ve noticed, are printed over photographs or images of the alleged author. It’s a cheap trick but an effective one. No one ever is going to be fooled by a joke quote like: ‘Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Abraham Lincoln, 1865.’ But shove it on top of a picture of the 16th president with those familiar features – the wart, the chin beard, the lined skin and sunken eyes – and for a fraction of a second, the subconscious is taken in.

Databases like BrainyQuote (‘Originally published in 2001, BrainyQuote is one of the oldest and most established quotation sites on the web’) really don’t help. A professional ‘quote investigator’ interviewed a few years ago by Vice  explained the problem: ‘One reason that things get misquoted is that when people go online and they type in some phrase from a quotation, often near the top of Google or Bing will be one of these major databases, like BrainyQuote. And it turns out that they’re filled with misinformation, but people don’t know to distrust the citations provided by these websites. So they simply repeat them.’

If I’d written this piece a few years ago, I would likely have seen fake quotes as yet another of those irksome things that are a product of our accelerated, glib, attention-deficit culture. Now that I’m wiser to the Great Deception, I understand that it goes much deeper than that. Famous quotations – culturally embedded by quizzes, bestselling compendiums, newspaper articles, websites and memes celebrating those famous quotations – are yet another means of social control.

Take that fake Plato quotation from the beginning. What does it tell us, or purport to tell us, about the nature of the world? Why, it reinforces the notion that war is a natural state of affairs for mankind. The Thucydides one in the same Imperial War Museum corridor does much the same. ‘You think endless peace is something we’re ever going to achieve? Nah, mate. Listen to these classical authors. they knew their stuff, as the classical authors always did. And what they’re telling us (so it must be true) is that endless war is part of human nature.’

Now I’ve been unable to be ascertain whether the Thucydides quote is as fake as the Plato one. But I do know of another, quite similar in meaning, which was made up recently and attributed to Thucydides in order, I suspect, to perform the same cultural brainwashing trick. It was exposed by Exeter University classics professor Neville Morley in an essay titled Thucydiocy 2017. Morley saw it used as a tagline for the 2017 movie Wonder Woman: ‘Peace is only an armistice in an endless war.’

Morley complains, rightly I think, that this is part of an ‘ongoing discourse of the naturalisation of war’,  which he suggests goes at least as far back as Napoleon, or possibly even to Hobbes. The message, as he puts it, is: ‘Don’t be fooled, people, and don’t stop funding the military – peace is a temporary lull at best.’

Are Morley and I making a mountain out of a molehill here? I can see why, if you were of a normie persuasion, you would think that way: ‘C’mon guys, it’s just a movie. It’s what movies do. They make stuff up!’

Sure they do. And that, as those of us who are down the rabbit hole know, is precisely the problem. Hollywood is and always has been primarily a means of social control, of promoting an agenda. Yes, it’s theoretically possible that in this instance the screenwriters responsible (Patty Jenkins and Allan Heinberg) lit on their quote from some Big Bumper Book of Military Quotations. (Or, as some have suggested, they ripped it off from Call of Duty 2. Which if they did opens a whole other can of worms: the video game industry being used in much the same way Hollywood is.) But I think it would be naive to discount the possibility that this is another case of cynical and deliberate messaging. It would certainly fit in with Hollywood’s MO, especially with regard to movie blockbusters, which is where generally its brainwashing is most blatant.

And it’s significant, I think, that the fake Thucydides quote isn’t merely a tagline. The writers have gone to the trouble of embedding it in the script. Here is the relevant dialogue:

General Ludendorff: Enjoying the party?

Wonder Woman: I confess I’m not sure what we’re celebrating tonight.

GL: A German victory, of course.

WW: Victory? When I hear peace is so close?

GL: Peace is only an armistice in an endless war.

WW: Thucydides.

GL: ‘You know your Ancient Greeks. They understood that war is a god. A god that requires human sacrifice.’

I’m reminded here, somewhat, of the introductory talk that Mark Crispin Miller used to give his students when he was still allowed by New York University to conduct his course on Propaganda. I paraphrase – you really should listen to this podcast interview for the full account – but essentially Miller warned his audience: ‘Be prepared to be very upset. You may be shocked to discover how many of the ideas you imagined to be your own are in fact the result of propaganda.’

It would definitely have come as a shock to the younger me. When you’ve had what you consider to be a superb education, steeped in classical literature, you tend to kid yourself that you are just too damn clever, too well-read, to fall for the kind of cheap confidence tricks that fool the unwashed masses.

Which, when you think about it, is what makes the faking of those classical quotes so cunning. They deviously exploit one of one of the cultural assumptions most deeply embedded in both the ‘educated’ and ‘uneducated’ classes alike: this idea that if one of the Ancient Greeks or Romans said it, it must be true because there’s almost nothing about the world that they didn’t know. Another thing they exploit is that the ‘educated’ are rarely as clever as we pretend to be. For example, presented with a vaguely plausible quote with a fancy classical name attached, passing few of us are going to go: ‘Hang on a second. Did he really say that? Let me check . . .’ Instead, we’ll go ‘Ah. The great Thucydides. He was the Greek general who wrote Anabasis. The sea! The sea!’ and congratulate ourselves on what marvellously well-informed people we are.

 But we’re not. Really we’re not. And that is how the Enemy wins.

To be continued.

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James Delingpole
James Delingpole
James Delingpole is host of the Delingpod podcast. The Delingpod: The James Delingpole Podcast (podbean.com)

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