I mentioned in a previous blog post how commonplace it was for people to misquote Emerson’s quip about “foolish consistency.” I got to thinking about that, as well as other (and more gross) forms of “lying by editing” – the cut-and-paste method of taking words out of context and making it appear that the person is saying the opposite of what they actually said. Right-wing ideologues with their authoritarian mind-set are especially prominent these days at such thinly disguised efforts at bald-faced lying, in no small part because their base, having abandoned any pretense at rational thought or even basic decency, will swallow any lie that is spoon fed to them, on no other account than that the spoon comes from the sources they’ve decided to believe without question, upon which they will swallow those lies without even a first, much less a second thought.
Thus, the professional liar James O’Keefe fabricated a story that destroyed the organization ACORN with a highly edited tape that grossly misrepresented an interview with one of the group’s employees. But once the tape was made public, the facts no longer mattered: a lie will go halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on. The same vicious stunt was attempted against Planned Parenthood, but the hoax was uncovered with greater speed (spurred, perhaps, by the fraudulent accusations against ACORN). But there are lesser lies floating around out there which, while never as “compelling” as a video – people are more likely to react emotionally to videos, whereas reading activates more cognitive processes – they are nevertheless worth addressing. The habit (and it IS a habit) of dealing skeptically and intelligently with little lies, translates into something of a prophylactic against the really big lies. So let us look at a few of the lesser canards that are floating around in the great “out there.”
I’ll start with an easy one, one that carries no political baggage: Emerson and his essay “Self Reliance.” Emerson’s argument is often mutilated into the out-of-context quip that, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I spoke about consistency previously, and even took the title of my essay from what Emerson actually said: he was speaking about foolish consistency, not consistency in general. Here is the full paragraph in which that phrase appears (my emphasis):
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — `Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
Emerson is not even addressing himself to logical consistency. Rather, he is talking about the willingness to change one’s mind in the face of new ideas, evidence, and arguments. All of this is lost in the throw away line. But the people who just cut-and-paste other people’s words are not interested in accurately reflecting what those other people were actually saying.
Let’s up the ante. There is a meme that circulates on social media claiming (I refuse to degrade myself by looking for it or linking to it) that the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King was a Republican, supported conservative values, and was (after all) a Baptist minister. The latter is the only one that is true, but it is presented in a context that is so misleading that, functionally, it is every bit as much a bald-faced lie as the other two claims.
First off, of course King was a baptist minister, but given how the baptist church has evolved over the last few decades (in no small part, driven by the desire to guarantee that no one like King would ever again occupy a pulpit), making hay out that fact is akin to claiming that because Herr Drumpf is a Republican, he’s just like Abraham Lincoln. In King’s day, it was still possible to be a baptist minister and be a vocal advocate for justice, and an opponent of the viciously racist White power structure that so many of today’s baptists are so singularly devoted to advancing. As for voting Republican, this is nothing more than a childish lie; but as importantly, it is also irrelevant. In King’s day the Southern Democrats were among the most appallingly racist politicians in existence. So King might, on occasion, have chosen not to vote for one of them. The thing to notice is where those “Dixiecrats” went after the Voting- and Civil Rights-acts were passed: They all joined the Republican party. As for supporting conservative “values” – for crying out loud, King was a bloody (Democratic) Socialist, well to the political left of Bernie Sanders. Anyone capable of reading at a remedial 6th grade level could see as much for themselves, were they ever to trouble themselves to actually READ what the man said!
Finally, Margaret Sanger: feminist, birth control advocate, and one of the founders of Planned Parenthood. Sanger “came up” at a time when people took it for granted that you thought, wrote, and argued in entire paragraphs, rather than 10-second sound bites. Consequently, for persons of a conservative and authoritarian mindset, who have an attention span somewhat shorter than that of a nano-pulse laser beam, it is easy to get confused about what she actually said, and what she actually meant. One fairly nauseating compendium of such lies can be found HERE. It is sufficient for my purposes to glance at the first three of the seven “quotes” presented; in so far as they are not outright fabrications, they are deliberate manipulations that misrepresent what Sanger actually said.
The first quote illustrates the kind of shabby dishonesty of many in the “pro-life” movement. A single sentence, taken out of context, is presented as saying that Sanger wants to exterminate the Black population, when in fact (as anyone capable of reading at even a sixth grade level can see for herself) this is precisely the lie she is battling against. (The link to the letter from which the quotes are taken is broken. A working link (as of this writing) can be found HERE. This link also highlights the FULL context of Sanger’s remarks.) The second point is even more easily disposed of: yes, Margaret Sanger did speak to a ladies meeting of the KKK. (But no, there is no photograph of that event.) Even women in the Klan have the right to understand birth control. And it is ironic that when a Klan leader gives a speech at a college that is protested, or when the Butthurt Baby Elect (Russia’s own president, Donald Trump) is denounced for openly embracing white supremacists and racists, the denunciations are themselves denounced as an infringement on freedom of speech, by the very people who would have you be shocked that Sanger spoke to a few women of the Klan about birth control.
Number 3 is the worst of the bunch, since the author actually cites the work that is supposedly being quoted from, evidently confident that the readers will be to lazy too look it up themselves, and/or too stupid to understand what they are reading. The work cited is Pivot of Civilization, and it is completely text searchable. The authors regurgitate the childish canard about Sanger referring to some people as “human weeds” (I repeat, the document is searchable. Nowhere does such a phrase ever appear.) They also quote a sentence of two of Sanger’s (out of context, of course) in which it seems like she is denouncing organized charity, when – AGAIN – all one needs to do is read the full context of the remark to see that Sanger is denouncing the social conditions that require such charity, and which such charity is incapable of addressing. The author of this piece, having repeatedly demonstrated her disregard for basic honesty and an utter inability to read at even a 7th grade level, it is clear that further wallowing in this fatuous twaddle is pointless.
Fake news, and our whole “post-truth” social debacle, are driven by such people, who refuse to learn the most elementary of facts, even as those facts are manifestly right in front of their eyes.