Monday, June 25, 2012

In honor of Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell): "the runaway train of misattribution"

Eric Arthur Blair -- who wrote as George Orwell, and whose birthday is today -- would have found a special chapter in 1984 for the antics of the current presidential season, filled as it is with a heightened level of prevarication, after-the-fact denial, and endless, "clarifying" media spin.  As one famous actor-turned-president once quipped, "Facts are stupid things." 

In a presidential campaign, facts have even less to do with the truth than with the appearance of truth, and in a media-saturated age, appearance is reality. These days political reality is carefully rearranged in every twenty-four hour news cycle. On the internet, of course, mendacity has a way of seeming endlessly appealing and repeated endlessly until it has the appearance of truth: this disingenuous flyer, above, has been making the internet rounds for some time, and is now being posted on Facebook and elsewhere as something Abraham Lincoln actually said or wrote. The facts are otherwise: they are actually the ideas of William J. H. Boetcker, a Presbyterian minister, in a pamphlet titled “Lincoln On Limitations" published in 1916. 

Over time Boetcker's appealing list -- "you cannot help the poor by destroying the rich" is certainly a thought that has its own logic of compassionate conservatism in business life, contemplating generosity with the bonus of financial gain -- was passed on in many forms: it was called an "Industrial Decalogue" and an "American Charter," as well as a list of "Ten Things You Cannot Do," marking  Boetcker as one of those uniquely American self-inventions: he was an early prosperity minister, proselytizing morals and success in an alluring (and profit-making) path of businessman's righteousness. 

By 1944, when the pamphlet above was printed, the Presbyterian minister and part-time  businessman had passed to his own Heavenly accounting department, and his name had disappeared as the author of the "Ten Cannots." The nation hadn't forgotten the name of Abraham Lincoln, exactly -- Abe's name had an "honest" ring to it -- and it was a bigger selling point than that of a forgotten Presbyterian minister. The Lincoln name on both sides doubtless sold more copies. 

Currently, the "Ten Cannots" are being passed around the web as Lincoln's thoughts, on Facebook and elsewhere, by Tea Party conservatives and others who devoutly wish the GOP would hurry up and find someone -- anyone -- besides Mitt Romney, painted into a corner as a Massachusetts liberal, as their Presidential candidate. Someone as bold and clear-eyed, say, as Ronald Reagan, who had this to say at the Republican convention in 1992:
I heard those speakers at that other convention saying, "we won the Cold War" -- and I couldn't help wondering, just who exactly do they mean by "we"? And to top it off, they even tried to portray themselves as sharing the same fundamental values of our party! What they truly don't understand is the principle so eloquently stated by Abraham Lincoln: "You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves." If we ever hear the Democrats quoting that passage by Lincoln and acting like they mean it, then, my friends, we will know that the opposition has really changed.
It's hard to stop the runaway train of misattribution, as Jane and Michael Stern write on their fact-or-fiction debunking site The pamphlet did include an actual Lincoln quote on the reverse, and is eminently suited to partisans of either party without either one claiming righteousness as its own property:

Mr. Orwell (1903-1950) would probably find the current state of American political campaigning a fit subject, if he hadn't already described the unsettling results of Newspeak so eloquently more than sixty years ago.


Anonymous said...

Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World. Orwell wrote 1984 and Animal Farm.

M Bromberg said...

Cheers, Anonymous. That was an ironic slip-up on my part considering the topic, was it not? Duly noted, and corrected, with thanks.