What Mark Twain Never Said

We live in an age of lies and misinformation. Everyone always has, of course, but modern mass communications are potent enablers.

I recently quoted Mark Twain’s famous remark that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. A reader of this blog asked me where he said that. Good question, so I looked it up. Turned out he never said it. The earliest such quote that fact checkers can find is from 1987 by Anthony Wittreich in “Feminist Milton.” Not a Twain in sight.

I learned about the misattribution on the internet, but that’s probably where I learned it was Twain that said it in the first place. Long before the internet Will Rogers warned us that “a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on.”

Except I am now worried about quoting anything from memory, so I looked that up too. Turns out Winston Churchill said it. No wait, Mark Twain said it. No turns out it’s often attributed to those quotable fellows who may have quoted it, but it seems actually to have originated in a sermon delivered by London preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon in 1855, before either of them was saying anything quotable. And Spurgeon attributed it to an old proverb. Which just goes to show,” there’s nothing new under the sun?“ Ecclesiastes 1:4-11.

Whoever said it, the fact that misinformation, lies, slanders and gossip spread like kudzu and are as ineradicable should be no surprise in an age where the middle name of genius investor Bernie Madoff turned out to be Ponzi, museum walls are hung with forged Van Goghs and Rembrandts and the President of the United States is a Kenyan communist mole sent here to create death panels to kill senior citizens.

Hitler may have been a pioneer of the media-amplified Big Lie but it is now practice day and night by talk radio demagogues and Rupert Murdock employees, But as far back as the Greeks and Romans the danger of falsity in public life was apparent. Indeed, democracy is at risk if the public isn’t on its guard against being willfully mislead. I am pretty sure Will Rogers really did say, “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so”

To guard against this threat, the ancients expected every educated person to be schooled in rhetoric, the art of arguing a case persuasively. A big part of the study was learning to spot tricks useful in bamboozling the listeners, like the ad hominem, tu quoque, and post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacies. What are they? Well, though the internet is rife with practitioners of rhetorical chicanery, it also provides the opportunity to learn about the methods they employ. Here, for instance: http://www.csun.edu/~dgw61315/fallacies.html.

More than ever schools should be arming citizens with the ability to analyze the pitches made daily by politicians seeking their votes, special interests seeking to distract from their predations, advertisers seeking to make their dross appear to be gold. In a world awash in zealots, charlatans, frauds and con men, the ability to separate hard truth from pleasant fiction is essential. If we don’t possess it and fall for the fool’s gold unscrupulous people are peddling, shame on us for abetting them in our own destruction.

It is easy to claim we are at the mercy of evildoers, but it’s our responsibility to raise a skeptical eyebrow at the nonsense we are told and to check a fact occasionally. If we are too easily misled, ”the fault, dear Brutus,” as Shakespeare said, “is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Really. You could look it up. Julius Caesar: Act I scene ii, lines 140-141. Unless it was Francis Bacon who wrote the plays. And anyway, Cassius says it, and you can’t believe a word he says.

About Hayden Keith Monroe

I was born and raised in northern Ohio and have spent most of the rest of my days in North Carolina. I have studied literature, written advertising copy and spent almost twenty years writing editorials and columns for daily newspapers.

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