Beware “The Quote”

Hang around a conversation long enough and you will eventually come face to face with The QuoteThe Quote is always thrown in there, somewhere between illustrating the point and ending the argument.   It can come from anyone quotable, as long as they’re dead — or close to it (except, of course, the Bible which is seen as déclassé these days.)  Unfortunately, most of the contemporary chattering class would rather get caught kicking kittens than quoting the Bible, one of the cornerstones of Western Civilization.  Go figure.  It really doesn’t matter, though, because The Quote is seldom attributed anyway.  The rationale being: we’re all smart here.  The reality being: the speaker doesn’t actually know where it comes from.  The Quote can run from sweet and smarmy: “You can learn something from every person you meet.”  (Utter nonsense!) to instructional: “Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die tomorrow.” (James Dean, dead at 24)  The Quote can also be just an ordinary maxim, aphorism or homily, like “A penny saved is a penny earned” although these don’t carry the same intellectual punch that the One-A-Day calendar quotes do.  They’re so-o-o common.  Regardless, the most important thing about The Quote is it must be delivered with a God-gilt air of authority.  Otherwise it just comes off as what it is: a sham.

In reality, the quote is a lazy person’s way of saving their ass from getting verbally overwhelmed.  It’s used as a show-stopper when the argument’s going badly and isn’t time for name calling yet.  People whip out the quote like it’s a 45 and think it deserves that kind of respect.  It doesn’t.  Let me illustrate.

Everybody knows Lord Acton’s famously misquoted “Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  (Actually, what Acton wrote was “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” but I’m not going to quibble.)  This is one of the biggies.  We learn it in sixth grade, when we’re not that smart, and remember it forever after.  Everybody just naturally believes it.  The problem is, that right or wrong, the connotation is that every powerful person, from the president to your landlord, is somewhat suspect.  They are, by definition, corrupt.  Why?  Because Lord What’s-his-name wrote it with a quill pen, back in the days when most people were still peeing outside.  He didn’t support it with any evidence.  He didn’t suggest there was a minimum level of power that triggered corruption.  He didn’t even specify what power corrupted: the soul? the body politic? the drainage system?  No, none of the above!  He just said power corrupts, and ever since then, we’ve believed it.  For all we know, he might have been drunk that night sitting around with his mistress, having a few grins after dinner.  (No sin by the way.)

I’ve got nothing against Lord Acton, but in actual fact, he didn’t know enough about power to fill a mouse’s ear.  He was an independently wealthy Lord who spent his time hanging out with scholars, being smart, and collecting books.  His closest brush with power was being pals with William Gladstone, Queen Victoria’s most on again/off again Prime Minister, and that’s no primo recommendation.  During Gladstone’s time in and out of office, he managed to back the Confederacy in the America Civil War (on Acton’s advice) get General Gordon and a few thousand Sudanese massacred in Khartoum, and, in his dotage dither the Irish Question so badly it drove him out of office and divided Ireland so thoroughly they’re still having trouble with it today.  But I digress.

This is the problem with the quote.  People tend to think it’s etched-in-stone true and beyond question.  Nobody bothers to find out who said the thing in the first place or whether they even knew what they were talking about.  What happens is the quote just gets passed around for a generation or two, until people quit saying, “Hey, wait a minute!  Where’d ya hear that crap?” And then it suddenly becomes words to live by.  “Strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet” wouldn’t carry so much weight if it was Emily Dickenson waxing lyrical now, would it?

Don’t be fooled by the quotables that inhabit our conversation.  Mainly, they’re just dead guys, spouting off.  There’s only one that demands any respect.  In Henry IV (Part 2) Act IV, Scene II, William Shakespeare wrote: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Now, those are words to live by.

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