Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Mystery Quote, Several Dubious Quotes, More Boring Quotes, and One Very Bad Conclusion

NOTE: I noticed when I started looking for reproductions of some old posts critical of Wikipedia, as well as some essays on the persistence of internet myths, that a number of old posts had not yet been reposted. Thus I am posting these essays, so that they can be cited in my next essay.

I have written several times about "mystery quotes", in "Mystery Quotes","Wikipedia Absurdities", and "They're Here! Mystery Quotes Revisited". "Mystery quotes" is my term for quotes, usually shocking, attributed to famous individuals, frequently cited, but for which no one can find a primary source. The best example is probably the quote attributed to George Bush, that the Constitution is just a "damn piece of paper", or the Jerry Falwell quote that "gays will kill you as soon as look at you". Both appear often in debate, are widely cited on the internet, yet it is impossible to find an article which provides a precise time, date and location for either quote, or even a named witness. The closest I have come is the statement that three unnamed sources claiming they heard George Bush utter the words in the White House, but with no time, date or context provided. Though, I have to say, for a mystery quote that is better support than most provide.

Recently I discovered a list which should be a treasure trove of mystery quotes, a page describing itself as quotes form "The American Taliban". It is an interesting site, clearly the type that liberals love to mine for quotes to use in argument. It contains endless quotes form celebrities such as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, a well as Politicians such as both George Bushes and Bob Dornan*.  What makes it interesting are two things. First, the lack of mystery quotes, excepting Bob Dornan's quote, all the quotes actually do have known sources, some a bit suspect, but at least there is someone vouching for the quote's authenticity. Second, the quotes themselves, at least the ones form mainstream figures, are, for the most part, not all that shocking. I am sure to the die hard atheist any of these quotes will cause a case of the vapors, but to a well adjusted individual, the quotes, at least the ones I don''t think were written by someone other than the nominal source, are just not all that offensive.

Before I start describing the mystery quotes, let me say a little something about the site. Clearly they have an agenda, to attempt to prove that America is teetering on the brink of theocracy. It is an absurd proposition, as I have pointed out many times before, but there is no doubt that is what they are trying to prove. However, the way they attempt to do it is bizarre. By mixing mainstream conservative pundits, Republican politicians, and fringe figures from the white supremacist movement, along with a mix of mainstream and fringe Christian leaders, they rather strongly undercut their point. If they have to turn to such outlying extremists, who are denounced by many of the other individuals on the same site, it really seems to prove their claim is baseless.

Let me give an example. If I were to try to prove the Democrats are communists, I would do best by providing a page full of quotes from very prominent Democrat politicians, liberal thinkers, and liberal pundits. If I had to dilute that page with quotes from members of the American communist party, professors from community colleges, labor organizers, community activists and Hugo Chavez it would actually show that I was unable to find enough Democrat quotes to make my point. In other words, it would make the case against me.

And that is precisely what this page does. Rather than prove an inevitable theocratic putsch, it makes it clear that the best they can do to prove their argument is a handful of quotes, and rather weak ones for the most part, from major figures, bolstered by a heap of extreme statements form fringe believers.

So, having said that, let us turn to the quotes.

This list differ from the far more suspect  Rush Limbaugh list I examined earlier, by opening with a well known and clearly valid quote. In this case an excerpt from the Ann Coulter column which caused her such grief, when she proposed converting all Moslems by force. Of course, quoting a satirist as proof of anything is a bad idea. By the same method I could prove Voltaire a glowing optimist or Swift a cannibal. Of course many others have fallen into the same trap, after all Coulter's headaches were all caused by those who forgot that she cannot be taken seriously at all times, but still, you would think proof of a coming theocracy would have a stronger start than an inflammatory quote from a satirical writer.

The next quote of interest is the Dornan quote which brought me here. "Don't use the word 'gay' unless it is an acronym for 'Got AIDS Yet'." It is cited repeatedly, even in Wikiquote, yet I can't find any attribution.You would think something that inflammatory would be cited with a time and date. That is the case, for example, with Al Gore's claims about the internet, or Obama's quote about a citizen defense force. Both are always cited with time, date and venue. Yet this simply appears with Dornan's name, a sure sign of a dubious quote.

The next interesting quote is much farther down (after strange inclusions such as Fred Phelps, hardly in the Republican or conservative mainstream), comes from President George H W Bush, incorrectly identified as "George Bush Sr." (as his son does not have the same middle names, there is no junior or senior). This quote is the infamous "I don't know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." Now, after a little digging I did discover a site which attributes it to an interview with "a photographer" in 1987, which is more than these mystery quotes usually get.  Another site actually attributes it to an atheist interviewer, Robert Sherman, so this is not actually a mystery quote. I may dispute the veracity of the report, but by providing a source at least it makes such debate possible.

Let us break here, as this provides the perfect example of why mystery quotes are so harmful.

The quote above, even if you suspect Mr. Sherman may have embellished it, or even invented it, at least provides a source. We can then discuss the reliability of Mr. Sherman, his past behavior, his own political biases, and so on. Even an outright lie, if properly cited, is better than a mystery quote. Mystery quotes, because they are so often mentioned, can appear to be valid. For example, the Bush "damn piece of paper" quote is mentioned hundreds of thousands of times. So if I used it, I could provide literally hundreds of citations, giving it the appearance of truth. However, if anyone troubles to track down my sources, not one will be a primary source, nor will their sources be primarys ources. And so on. We cannto debate the truth or falsehood of the report, as we don't know where the report originated. It is simply a quote which appeared one day and suited the political agenda of enough people that it spread across the internet. We cannot argue about how reliable the report is, as there is no original report. 

But let us return to the quotes.

Following "George Bush Sr." are some quotes from the correctly designated George W. Bush. The first, "I don't think that witchcraft is a religion. I wish the military would rethink this decision.", is so innocuous, I did not bother to track it down. Whether true or not, I doubt many outside of the perpetually aggrieved will be disturbed. A personal opinion that "Wicca" is not a real religion hardly seems the stuff of theocracy. A belief that most of America would share, provided they bothered to think of "Wicca" at all, is hardly an extreme example of intolerance.

The next quote is also not a mystery quote. ("God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did...") Though the site on which I found a citation attributes it to Mammoud Abbas, who hardly seems an impartial source. I also have to question whether he would be privy to information about George W. Bush which the rest of the world does not know. 

The third quote ("Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists"), though often cited by the liberals, is again one which often strikes me as innocuous. Had FDR said "either you are with the Allies or with the Axis", or better yet Churchill, it would have been seen as bold rhetoric, a clear statement that men of goodwill cannot stand by and do nothing, but must side with the right or else they are tacitly helping the enemy. However, when Bush said it about cowardly terrorists who attack by stealth and kill women and children, somehow it is delusional and extreme. I don't get it.

And the final quote ("This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while"), again, is one which is well noted, but, except for those who walk on eggshells lest they offend anyone, I don't know many who find it disturbing. Consider that the left is constantly declaring war on things, on cancer, on poverty and so on. Do we think they are insane for "attacking" poverty? Then why is it horrible to use crusade metaphorically to describe a devoted undertaking to root out terrorism? Except that it might offend some Moslems, I hardly see a problem with it. It is not exactly the "smoking gun" which prove George Bush secretly wants to become the theocratic ruler of an evangelical totalitarian state.

The rest are the usual suspects (Falwell, Robertson, Ray Moore, Reagan,. Ashcroft, etc), though mixed with a number of strange individuals, such as white supremacists and rather minor individuals who make me wonder why they were included at, unless to add bulk to the list. Almost all the quotes are ones I heard before or at least quotes that seem well within the realm of possibility. Of course, to anyone not looking for signs of a coming theocracy, they also sound more like statements of devout believers than signs of horrifying secret motives. Still, it is nice to see such a site with only one true mystery quote.

So, in the end, it really is rather a flop as a leftist agitation site. It probably plays well to those who are already true believers, but to the rest of us, those of us who believe in G-d, even Jews such as myself, or those who are uncertain, in other words to anyone but militant atheists, it really doesn't paint that clear a picture of an "American Taliban". Granted the fringe group members sound nutty, but when we come to the mainstream figures, what they say, except in a few pretty dubious quotes, sounds remarkably inoffensive. Yes, they do make clear people who believe in G-d often find that belief becomes a part of how they look at the world. But again, except for militant atheists, does anyone find that disturbing, or even surprising?

Of course, there are those few dubious quotes, and the one mystery quote, and those are certainly the ones leftists will pick up to throw out on sites such as Townhall. And the citation will add to the number of Google hits anyone gets when they search for that Dornan quote, making it, in the eyes of some, much more "true". But other than that, this site really does little more than prove that militant atheist really do worry far too much about theocracy.

And that the left really has no idea what life under a real theocracy, such as the Taliban, would be like. Rather like a teenager comparing his parents to Hitler, their comparison of Ashcroft to the Taliban just makes them look immature.

* I discovered it while trying to track down a primary source for a dubious Dornan mystery quote. Needless to say, I have yet to find a primary source or anything close.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/11/20.

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