Stupid Is As Stupid Was

quotesIt’s generally agreed that we’re living in an age of extraordinary stupidity.  Our role models are celebrities whose careers consist of wardrobe malfunctions, the highest ambitions of our children don’t reach higher than the stars of Reality TV, and our vision of the future is Season 8 of The Walking Dead.  Let’s face it, folks: Einstein, Newton, Archimedes and Copernicus are all spinning in their graves — even though most of us don’t know who the hell those people are!  However, here’s a thought: I don’t actually believe the human race is any stupider now, than it’s ever been. It’s just that, these days, our technology makes us aware of it.  Here are a few quotes from the past which illustrate my point.  First of all:

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”  Charles H Duell, Commissioner of US Office of Patents — 1899

Telephone

“It is impossible to transmit speech electrically. The ‘telephone’ is as mythical as the unicorn.”  Johan Poggendorrf, German physicist — 1860

“This telephone has too any shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.”  Western Union internal memo — 1876

Film

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”  H.W. Warner (Warner Brothers Studio) — 1927

“I have determined that there is no market for talking pictures.”  Thomas Edison — 1926

Television

“Theoretically, television may be feasible, but I consider it an impossibility — a development which we should waste little time dreaming about.” Lee de Forest, inventor of the cathode ray — 1926

“Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” Darryl Zanuck, movie producer — 1946

“Television won’t last. It’s a flash in the pan.”
Mary Somerville, radio personality — 1948

Computers

“There’s no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”  Ken Olson, Digital Equipment Corporation — 1977

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”  Thomas J. Watson, Chairman IBM — 1943

“640K ought to be enough for anybody.”  Bill Gates — 1981

“The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper.” Cliff Stoll, Newsweek — 1995

Flight

“Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible,”  Simon Newcomb, mathematician — 1902 (two weeks before the Wright brothers proved him wrong.)

“Airplanes are interesting toys, but they have no military value.”  Marshal Ferdinand Foch — 1911

Odds and Ends

“It will be years – not in my time – before a woman will become Prime Minister.”  Margaret Thatcher — 1974

“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology — 1872

“No audience will ever be able to take more than ten minutes of animation.”
Walt Disney executive, considering Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — 1930s

“That ‘rainbow’ song is no good. It slows the picture down.” an MGM producer, after first screening of The Wizard of Oz — 1939

But this is my favourite:

“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
Decca Recording Company, rejecting the Beatles — 1962

I rest my case.

A “Real” Top Ten List of One-Liners

top10Apparently, Gyles Brandreth has, after years of research, come up with the 10 Best One-Liners from the Oxford Book of Humourous Quotes.  I beg to differ.  Stick to Scrabble, my friend.  Your quotes are the Tiny Tim of 10 Best Lists.  If your selections were a horse, a good vet would have to shoot it.  Not only didn’t you include Dorothy Parker and Wilson Mizner, but you haven’t even brought the best Mae West, Groucho Marx or Oscar Wilde! However, rather than just carp about it, I’ve decided to produce a Ten Best of my own.  First, Mr. Brandreth’s list.  Then mine.  You be the judge.

10 – “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  (Jane Austen)

9 – (Nancy Astor to Winston Churchill) “If I were your wife, I would put poison in your coffee!”

Churchill: “And if I were your husband, I would drink it.”

8 – “I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception.” (Groucho Marx)

7 – “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before”  (Mae West)

6 – “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”  (Oscar Wilde)

5 – “If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” (P.G. Wodehouse)

4 – “If God had wanted us to bend over, He would have put diamonds on the floor.”  (Joan Rivers)

3 – “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”  (Miles Kington)

2 – “If you lived in Sheffield and were called Sebastian, you had to learn to run fast at a very early stage.”  (Sebastian Coe)

1 – “The email of the species is deadlier than the mail.”  (Stephen Fry)

Now, in no particular order, I give you, W.D. Fyfe’s Ten Best One-Liners.

I’d agree with you if you were right.

Oh, please!  That man has junior college written all over him.

Gay is not a place; you don’t get an accent.

Every woman wants a sensitive man until the son of a bitch shows up.

Copernicus called: you’re not the centre of the universe.

I don’t have enough money to get rich quick.

The news media interviewing the family after a murder is nothing more than Grief Porn.

Facts are not just a litany of stupidity agreed upon by you and your friends.

You’re so fake even Barbie is jealous.

Swiss cheese is only cheese, now and then.

And honourable mention:

Instead of complaining that you have no shoes, you should look at the man with no feet and steal his.

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.