Don’t quote me on this …

One of the most amazing things about the current political climate is how often people pull out fake quotes to try to prove their point in whatever argument they happen to be in. What used to happen would be that, when the quotes were proven to be bogus, the fake-quote purveyor would admit defeat.

It was the honorable thing to do.

Now? Yeah, that’s not going to happen. Quote conclusively proven false? “Well, that’s what he would have said!”

And, sadly, we’re letting people get away with it.

In my job as a letters editor for a daily newspaper, I run into this a lot, and often letter-writers who are not happy that those fake quotes were cut out claim that I’m censoring them because I can’t handle the truth (cue Jack Nicholson, please).

Two of the most put-upon spurious quoters are Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain.

“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peal...

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805. New-York Historical Society. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thomas Jefferson, right? Nope. Says Monticello.org: “This exact quotation has not been found in any of the writings of Thomas Jefferson. It bears a very vague resemblance to Jefferson’s comment in a prospectus for his translation of Destutt de Tracy’s Treatise on Political Economy: ‘To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, —the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, & the fruits acquired by it.'”

“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain t...

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907. http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/publications/siycfall_05.pdf http://www.twainquotes.com/Bradley/bradley.html See also other photographs of Mark Twain by A. F. Bradley taken in March 1907 in New York on Mark Twain Project Online. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Twain? Not quite. Quote Investigator determined that there’s no evidence in Twain’s papers and speeches that he ever made this remark about San Francisco. The site does note a letter from Twain in which he made a similar jest, but he was unhappy with the weather of Paris, not San Francisco.

It’s not just quotes, either. Several years back, a dead cat managed to create the myth that Richard Nixon proclaimed Presidents’ (President’s, Presidents) Day (yep, I work with the guy whose cat’s wild imagination is to blame). More than a few people have been taken in by that story, including reporters for national publications.

Gun-rights activists pull the trigger on a wide range of bogus quotes (but, yes, they’re not the only ones). When confronted on the provenance of their information, though, they’re not deterred, and, apparently having the power to know the thoughts of our founding fathers, claim that even if they didn’t say those exact words, they would have.

So what does that mean? Simply that the truth is no longer a reliable defense. And, apparently, that those of us who value the truth have to play along. So start making stuff up, folks … they’re way ahead of us.

As Thomas Jefferson said*: “The First Amendment rights of speech and the press are absolute, whether transmitted through ink on paper or through the ether; no one can deny your right to speak that which is true to you.”

*He didn’t really say that. Shame on you if you believed it for even a second.

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