AM I striving to argue that from ‘all the world’s a stage’ and ‘there’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’ to ‘does my bum look big in this?’ and ‘I saw you coming’, every memorable phrase that has ever lodged itself in your head is the result of some organised, sinister psyop to control your mind? Well, no, obviously not. But of course, that would be very much the charge you’d want to lay if, as so many do, you wanted to tar anything that smacked of ‘conspiracy theory’ as the wild, tortured fantasy of hysterical loons. No, I think it’s a bit more complicated and nuanced than that. In the case of some well-known quotations, I’ve no doubt, a cigar is just a cigar; that is, they approximate to something a real person once said and that there was no nefarious purpose involved – it was just an accidental (or even deliberate) burst of wit which ended up recorded for posterity.
But as James Delingpole said – just now, in fact – just because some things aren’t fake doesn’t mean that most things aren’t. My hunch is that the majority of our most oft-quoted phrases do serve an ulterior purpose. They haven’t entered the parlance merely because they are witty or clever or insightful but because they were placed there to serve a particular end.
Quite what these ends are will of course vary almost as widely as there are quotes to serve them. I’m not being slippery here: it’s not always easy to second guess the motives and aims of the people who run the world, not least because, by definition, they think and act very differently from people like you and me. Sometimes, though, you can make a pretty confident conjecture.
In the case, for example, of Neil Armstrong’s ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’, the purpose was to help cement in the public’s imagination the ‘moon landing’ as an event that definitely happened. Ditto the thing that J Robert Oppenheimer claims to have said – or rather thought – as he witnessed the detonation of the first nuclear bomb in July 1945: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ Thanks to repeated citations of this alleged historical moment, we many of us know that this is a quotation from the Bhagavad-Gita (and that Oppenheimer, a Sanskrit scholar, was familiar with it). But knowing what I suspect to be the truth now (see this fascinating podcast by Jerm Warfare) this is a classic case of distraction through seemingly plausible detail.
As well as cementing events of dubious authenticity in the public imagination, ‘famous quotes’ are also often used, I believe, to bolster the credibility and reach of dubious public figures. Albert Einstein, for example.
Most of us have heard of at least one really good Einstein quote because he came up with so many. Among the better-known are ‘Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe’ and ‘Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler’. These are just the sort of things you’d hope a quirky, Nobel-prize winning genius would say. So much so, indeed, that I smell a rat.
If you believe the numbers attributed to him, Einstein wasn’t just a brilliant physicist but a one-man quote machine with a fluency in English truly remarkable for a man who did not arrive in the US from his native Germany until he was in his 30s, and with a wit almost worthy of Mark Twain and S J Perelman. And sometimes not. While one or two of his alleged witticisms are genuinely quotable, many more look as if they were designed to be superimposed on a picture of a misty landscape or a cloudy sky or a cute cat on one of those feel-good posters. ‘Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them’; ‘The only source of knowledge is experience’; ‘Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile’.
Is any of this plausible? I’m not saying it’s impossible. But isn’t it more likely, given the unevenness of these alleged aphorisms, that they are the work of many authors? Does that not then invite the question as to why this might be so? Why would ‘history’ – or rather, the forces that shape our perception of history – be so eager to persuade us that Albert Einstein wasn’t merely a great scientist but our scientist, the crazy, funny, lovable guy who was so much more than E = mc2?
My contention is that for reasons beyond the purview of this essay, The Powers That Be required that the theory of relativity became – as indeed it has subsequently become – the world’s most famous equation. Clearly they were never going to achieve this by appealing to the public’s intellectual appetite for the complexities of theoretical physics. Instead, they achieved it using the shortcut of appealing to something much more relatable: the seductive power of celebrity. Never mind all that complicated E = mc2 caper: that could be taken on trust. Why could it be taken on trust? Because – duh – there’s no way Albert Einstein could have become as famous as he has become if he were a charlatan. After all, all the scientific experts who decide these things would have seen through him.
This, unfortunately, is how the great deception prevails. So much of what we think we know about the world is based on trust. Because we ourselves lack what we consider the necessary expertise to decide on this or that scientific theorem, or economic paradigm, or geopolitical stratagem, we contract out our thinking on these matters to remote authority figures whom we assume have a better grasp of the situation than we do. And whence did these figures gain this authority? Why, by dint of being household names!
Often, I find, when you try pointing this out to people still trapped in the traditional paradigm their response is one of indignant irritation. No one likes being told that everything they believe is based on second-hand opinions which they’ve been too lazy or trusting to check. Still less does anyone like to think of themselves as being so malleable and shallow that they can be entranced to a state of abject swinehood by a few apparently pithy and meaningful one-liners.
‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’, wrote Pope. Yup. And just why it’s so dangerous I was reminded the other day during a podcast I did with a historian who subscribed to the official narrative in every last detail, even to the point of insisting that the Vietnam War was a legitimate containment measure against communism and that JFK was definitely assassinated by a lone gunman called Lee Harvey Oswald.
What I found particularly telling when I pushed him to justify his world view was that he began bombarding me with scattergun aphorisms: handy quotes from the usual designated authority figures whose self-evident truthiness apparently obviated any requirement to reconsider his position because there it all was, stated by acknowledged experts and bracketed by quotation marks.
I’ve been guilty of this myself. Heaven knows how many articles I’ve written deploying something someone famous said some time in order to demonstrate that the entirety of my argument was just and right and sanctioned by time and celebrity prestige. In fact it’s so tempting and time-saving a cheat that I doubt if I’ll stop using it, even after all I’ve said in this piece.
It ought to go without saying that not everything anyone famous has ever said in history is fabricated or worthless or designed to mislead. But I do think that whenever we hear these wise words we ought perhaps to be more mindful of something that someone Roman once said: caveat emptor.