Aug 26

A few years ago, I stopped listening to the PRI show Studio 360 because it just wasn’t fair. In particular, it held America to absurd standards that it didn’t hold the rest of the world to.

They used an editor taking the N-word out of Huckleberry Finn as an example of censorship one week, then in a later episode, discussing Iranian censorship, Kurt Andersen said, “Again, it is wonderful for me to see that the ambiguities that are so rife throughout this situation...it’s an authoritarian regime, yes, but they have to allow this, then they find they have to allow this...I adore when things are not as black and white as they are portrayed in the media.” In short, Iran’s censorship isn’t so bad.

Tell that to Jahar Panafi.

I bring this up, because, in the last few weeks, you could accuse us of doing the same thing. We’ve been pointing out dozens of examples of American hate speech against Islamic people without providing examples of Islamic hate speech. So let’s be clear: American hate speech has nothing on the hate speech of much of the Islamic world.

It took a lot of searching to find mainstream examples of anti-Muslim hate speech, mainly because Americans reject hate speech. To find examples, I had to search the fringes of society. (Not surprisingly, I found most of the examples on conservative milblogs. Take that for what you will.) But I can find examples of Islamic hate speech from just watching The Daily Show. Or say, listening to a speech by the former President of Iran.

Islamic extremists use one word above all others to express their hatred of the Westerners and the west: infidel, or “Kafir”.

Islamic extremists use this term to dehumanize their enemies. From Christopher Hitchens, “But in practice, Islamic fanatics operate a fascistic concept of the ‘pure’ and the ‘exclusive’ over the unclean and the kufir or profane.” Extremists use this term to separate one group (Muslims) from another (non-Muslims or “infidels”). (Though we aren’t Arabic scholars, we know that kufir has religious meanings that extremists often distort.) One would only use this phrase if they wanted to permanently cut themselves off from another group. Terms like these keep conflicts going, preventing dialogue and peace.

Except for hateful extremists, who else would use this term?

Oh yeah, soldiers.

Don Gomez of Carrying the Gun has covered this topic pretty extensively. In short, in an ironic reclaiming of the word, soldiers have embraced the term kafur and its English translation “infidel” through brands like Major League Infidel or Infidel Strong. Gomez neatly summarizes the problem with this “reclaiming”:

“My problem with this phenomenon is twofold: 1) whether people mean it or not, the word casts a conflict in religious terms, which is what we don’t want, and 2) the brand is worn to be antagonistic, not simply factual.”

(Don later wrote a second and third post on this term.)

We have three more thoughts on soldiers embracing the word “infidel”:

1. In English, infidel actually means “Not a Christian”. Seriously, we looked it up. From Wikipedia, in August of 2014:

The word originally denoted a person of a religion other than one's own, specifically a Christian to a Muslim, a Muslim to a Christian, or a Gentile to a Jew. Later meanings in the 15th century include "unbelieving", "a non-Christian" and "one who does not believe in religion" (1527).

Actually, let’s just go to Merriam Websters’ definition. The first expanded definition: “one who is not a Christian or who opposes Christianity”.

So anyone wearing the word “infidel” is actually defining themselves as “not a Christian”. Oops.

2. This blog is aimed at Americans and American soldiers. Yeah, I wrote a whole introduction about how we were going to focus on Islamic hate speech this week, but that doesn’t make a ton of sense, does it? Islamic extremists don’t read our blog; soldiers do. We’re writing this blog to improve the U.S. military and U.S. foreign policy.

3. Embracing the term infidel doesn’t help us win the wars we were fighting. From the original Military.com article that inspired Don:

“Sulayman, a Lebanese American who commanded a Marine infantry platoon in Iraq’s Anbar Province in 2008, said he had one Marine who made Kill Hadji stickers.

‘When your Iraqi interpreter sees that, what does he think? Your partners in the Iraqi army -- when they see that, what are they going to think?’ he would ask his Marines. ‘You wouldn't walk up to sergeant so-and-so and drop the N word on him.’

"...Sulayman said he doesn't think the companies that market infidel products to troops mean any harm. He also said he's certain that Florida pastor Terry Jones didn't mean any harm when he oversaw a public burning of a Quran last year because he believed it promotes violence.

"It’s his right, Sulayman said. But is it really helpful?"

No, it isn’t. This is the single biggest argument against soldiers embracing or co-opting this term. They are actually preventing peace and reconciliation.

It doesn’t matter if Muslims use hate speech, because we can be better than our enemies. We can be the bigger person. We can apologize when we make mistakes; we can turn the other cheek; we can treat others the way we wish we were treated; we can be the change we want to see in the world. Yeah, those are all touchy-feely idealistic (and mostly Christian) ideas…

But they also work.

Aug 18

Everyone knows the easiest, most annoying way to win an argument on the internet: compare your opponent to Hitler. (Also known as Godwin’s Law, here are two shining examples from pop culture: Troy in my favorite monologue from the third season of Community, “I use comparisons to Hitler to win arguments on the internet at the drop of a hat.” Next, Emily Nussbaum writing about Veep, “The show has more Hitler comparisons than an Internet flame war.”)

Over the last few weeks, we pointed out examples of people--mainstream and not--demonizing America’s extremist enemies with terms like “barbarian”, “savage”, and “primitive”. But those examples explicitly denigrate and demonize our enemies. Another term has the same effect, only more subtly and with a veneer of intellectual rigor:

Islamo-fascism

“Islamofascism” (and its close relative “Islamism”) compares extremist Muslims to Hitler. All in a single word. It’s a one word example of Godwin’s Law.

To start, let’s break the terms down. And they need to be broken down, because as words, “Islamofascism” and “Islamism” make no sense.

We’ll begin with the proponents of the phrase trying to defend these terms. Christopher Hitchens advocated for the term here, writing that both fascism and Islamism love empire, oppose intellectualism, and display anti-modern, anti-gay, anti-women and anti-semitic tendencies. Except that, as Hitchens writes, “There isn't a perfect congruence. Historically, fascism laid great emphasis on glorifying the nation-state and the corporate structure.”

In other words, the most important part of fascism--the importance of the state over all else--is also the biggest difference between it and so-called Islamofascism--which is based on a love of religion over all else. Fascism is, primarily, a form of government, an authoritarian/totalitarian dictatorship. Islamofascism most commonly refers to a group of non-state actors--al Qaeda--which just seems especially silly. Though al Qaeda dreams of a caliphate (a Sunni Caliphate), they don’t actually represent a state...yet.

Of course, in the last few months, Islamic extremists, for the first time, took over and maintained parts of Iraq and Syria, but the term Islamo-facism existed well before Islamic extremists started their first, completely unrecognized and fragile nation-state. And those extremists clearly value religion over the idea of a nation.

As On V fave Geoffrey Nunberg wrote, this particularly didn’t apply to Iraq:

Actually, the term "Islamo-fascism," if taken literally, doesn't make sense. The "fascist" part might fit Saddam Hussein's Iraq, with its militaristic nationalism, its secret police and its silly peaked officers' hats. But there was nothing "Islamo" about the regime; Iraq's Baathists tried to make the state the real object of the people's devotion.”

The next problem with Islamofascism is that it exaggerates the threat posed by Islamic extremists. Hitler and Nazi Germany actually did threaten millions and millions of people. They threatened all of Europe, if not the globe. As Paul Krugman’s sarcastically wrote about this comparison, “Yep, a bunch of lightly armed terrorists and a fourth-rate military power — which aren’t even allies — pose a greater danger than Hitler’s panzers or the Soviet nuclear arsenal ever did.”

Which brings us to the third problem: this term lumps way too many people together under one umbrella term. Katha Pollitt of The Nation explains:

"Islamo-fascism" conflates a wide variety of disparate states, movements and organizations as if, like the fascists, they all want similar things and are working together to achieve them. Neocons have called Saddam Hussein and the Baathists of Syria Islamo-fascists, but these relatively secular nationalist tyrants have nothing in common with shadowy, stateless, fundamentalist Al Qaeda--as even Bush now acknowledges--or with the Taliban, who want to return Afghanistan to the seventh century; and the Taliban aren't much like Iran, which is different from (and somewhat less repressive than) Saudi Arabia--whoops, our big ally in the Middle East! Who are the "Islamo-fascists" in Saudi Arabia--the current regime or its religious-fanatical opponents? It was under the actually existing US-supported government that female students were forced back into their burning school rather than be allowed to escape unveiled.

Which brings us to the fourth problem, “the Saudi Arabia problem”. If one country represents both Islamic theology and dictatorship, it’s Saudi Arabia. Why does Saudi Arabia take the crown from Iran? Because Iran has a working parliamentary system with elections. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have anything close to that, and oppresses women and minorities way more than Iran.

They’re also one of America’s closest allies.   

Some pundits--like Christopher Hitchens above--fear a pan-Islamic front. They believe that all Islamic nations could rise up together to oppose, and possibly destroy, the Western world. Except that Muslims aren’t uniting; they’re dividing. Dexter Filkins, on the New Yorker’s “Political Scene” podcast, (somewhat accurately) predicted an all out Sunni/Shiite civil war. Instead of the world facing a unified front, America’s greater concern would be a multi-state religious war...between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Which just goes to the point of the whole thing. If there is a giant Sunni/Shiite rift in the religion of Islam--even if there isn’t a gigantic pan-national intra-Islamic war--it doesn’t make sense to use one term to bunch all extremist Muslims together. Unless you want to dehumanize and demonize them.

America has enemies. Some of them are Islamic, but we can’t group them under one umbrella term. Especially an umbrella with overt references to America’s number one historical enemy, Hitler--who superseded the British for Northerners and Abraham Lincoln for formerly confederate states--as America’s number one enemy. It prevents any sort of dialogue or bridge building.

Instead of “Islamo-fascism” we should use what we always have: Islamic extremists. This phrase does two things: 1. Identifies a group (or groups) that uses violence to achieve a myriad of political goals. 2. Separates the extremists from the rest of the Muslim world.

Which is much more accurate.

Jun 30

(To read the rest of our posts on language and war--our “Getting Orwellian” series--please click here.)   

In our ongoing quest to “Get Orwellian” on the uses of language in war, for the next few weeks, we’re writing about hate speech. Since we try to limit the length of posts, consider this post “Exhibit 1” of using language to dehumanize one’s enemy.

In this short post, we provide examples of mainstream ] sources demonizing the Islamic world and Muslims:

“I think that the Islamists, whether elected or not, whether violent or not, Islamists of any sort whatsoever are barbarians, are totalitarians, are far worse than dictators.”

- Daniel Pipes, Intelligence Squared US, “Better elected Islamists than dictators

“In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

- Pamela Geller and American Freedom Defense Initiative’s subway ad

“To meet these guys in these remote Pashtun villages only made the conundrum more difficult. Because right here we’re talking about Primitive with a big P. Adobe huts made out of sun-dried clay bricks with dirt floors and awful smell of urine and mule dung. downstairs they have goats and chickens living in the house. And yet here, in these caveman conditions, they planned and then carried out the most shocking atrocity on a twenty-first-century city.”

- Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson

“What people are not dealing with is the fact that we’re going up against a culture that finds it acceptable to do things that the rest of the world left behind with the barbarians in the 6th century. I’m a little tired of people worrying about being polite. We are fighting in the face of fascists.”

- Frank Miller, Los Angeles Times interview.

“Like Alexandria, like Bamiyan, Timbuktu's priceless manuscript heritage destroyed by Islamic barbarians.”

- Richard Dawkins, via Twitter

“To all the Operators here today I give you this charge: Rid the world of those savages.  I’ll say it again, RID THE WORLD OF THOSE SAVAGES!”

- Dorothy Woods, originally quoted on Blackfive.

“It’s hard to keep track of all the barbaric behavior emanating from that part of the world.”

- Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit.com (H/T Glenn Greenwald)

“The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers soldier was killed whilst off duty near Woolwich Barracks in South-East London in May. Islamist barbarians, Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, are accused of the 25-year-old’s murder.”

- Andrew Sullivan

Jun 24

We’ve been writing about language for years here at On Violence. If I, Eric C, have a bigger obsession than lying in memoirs, it’s using words properly. (The military is an easy target.) But we’ve never collected all of our language posts in one place before, so consider this an “On V Link Drop” to our language posts, finally collected in one place.

We first “got Orwellian” analyzing “Al Qaeda in Iraq”, “Contractors, Mercenaries, Private Security and Terrorists”, and “Military Intelligence and Interrogation”. We also briefly discussed “heroes” in this link drop. We might as well have called our post “What You Should(n't) Be Afraid Of” “Getting Orwellian: Existential Threat” instead. In August, we added a new addition to the series in “Getting Orwellian: Navy SEALs”.

I pointed out how writers can say more with less in my post on post-9/11 war novels, “The Humvee Flew Over The Mountain: Jargon, Lingo and Military Writing”.

Two years ago, we discussed whether it was “Eye-Rack, Ee-Rack or Ur-Ahk?” and made an argument for how “How Lexicography Can Create World Peace”.

Last year, going a bit weirder, we wrote about “Language Behaving Badly: Strategic Reachbacks, Service Members and Operation Nude On”, “Army Words for Regular Things” and our “Readers Nominate More "Language Behaving Badly".

This year, we got Orwellian on “The Legal Dodge: Getting Orwellian on the NSA's Most Popular Defense” and “We're All Ordinary Americans: Getting Orwellian on the NSA”.

More "Getting Orwellian" posts:

- Demonizing Your Enemy, Exhibit 1: Mainstream Media

- Demonizing Your Enemy, Exhibit 2: Milblog Edition

- Islamo-Nazi-Facists: Getting Orwellian on Islamofascism

- Infidel Strong: Getting Orwellian on the Military’s Favorite Brand

- Dictators Can’t Use Our Word! Getting Orwellian on Fake “Terrorists”

- Haters Gonna Hate, Hate, Hate: Getting Orwellian on Hate Speech

- The Most Confused Term in IR Theory: Getting Orwellian on "Realism"

Demonizing Your Enemy, Exhibit 1: Mainstream Media-

Getting Orwellian on Orwell

We choose the title “Getting Orwellian” for our series on language because George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language” is probably the most famous essay on writing in the last century.   

But if I’m being intellectually honest, too many writers and thinkers overrate this essay’s importance, and insight.

First, if you’ve read any of our guest posts on writing at Write to Done, you know that I hate rules about writing. No one rule can govern all writing. Orwell loves rules, but he doesn’t like following his own advice. From the brilliant Language Log blog:

“Orwell wrote (apparently without irony, Nunberg noted) that in the evasive kind of writing he disapproves of, "the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active".

Just to clarify: in the very sentence where Orwell tells writers to not use the passive voice, he uses the passive voice. Oh, he also uses the passive voice in his opening sentence. Find other examples of Orwell breaking his own rules in this second Language Log blog post on the essay, including using long or foreign words and outdated metaphors. Geoffrey Pullum points out other inconsistencies in two articles at the Chronicle of Higher Education, including Orwell’s use of metaphors and the “not un-” rhetorical technique.

More important than the style advice is the overall message. On Violence fav, Geoffrey Nunberg, criticized the overall message in his book Talking Right:

“Objections to jargon and euphemism are well taken, but they tend to leave you with the impression that the ‘plain’ or ‘common’ words that people defend are unproblematic. Yet in political language, it’s the common words that work the most mischief, precisely because they’re the ones that people are unlikely to examine for their hidden assumptions...

...Those ‘plain words’ work on us far more deeply and unconsciously than any others, and they can persist for long periods of time without becoming frayed or yellowed they way euphemisms tend to do.”

This passage turns Orwell’s argument on its head, in the most logical way possible: average people don’t like complex words. They stop paying attention to them. So what words will politicians use and manipulate? The plain, little ones.

We use the phrase “Getting Orwellian” because it neatly sums up what we’re doing with our language posts: questioning the standard uses of language. Orwell’s essay does just that. But don’t think he had all of the answers; he didn’t.

Jun 11

Yeah, we beat up on Peter Berg and Marcus Luttrell a lot on this blog. Mainly, it comes from wanting to correct the record on Navy SEALs. For instance, on The Q and A with Jeff Goldsmith, Peter Berg said:

“Navy SEALs are the least political people I’ve ever met...To talk to Navy SEALs about politics is an exercise in pointlessness.”

Berg repeated this claim in dozens of interviews; so did members of the media. In our research on SEALs, though, we’ve come across quite another beast from Berg’s archetype of a SEAL:

The political Navy SEAL.

As a group, SEALs have an incredibly powerful (and positive) public image, and some of them use that image for political purposes. In fairness, the vast majority of SEALs go through their service and post-service lives without using their time in uniform as a platform to express political views. Most SEALs. Some, though, can’t get out of the spotlight. These uber-vocal SEALs give the lie to the myth peddled by Berg and others that SEALs eschew politics to simply do their job, especially since Navy SEALs, when they do go public with a political message, get a lot of press.

We’ve found quite a few Navy SEALs who are very political. A few examples:

- Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund. First up, we have a series of Political Action Committees. There is nothing more political than a political action committee lobbying the government, most of whom have obscure sources of funding. The biggest and most political SEAL of them all is Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, who founded this group. He and his organization briefly made waves in the last Presidential election with political ads against President Obama. Taylor also ran for a Congressional seat in Virginia. (They also have an accuracy problem.)

- Special Operations Speaks. Special Operations Speaks’ website demands “accountability” for President Obama’s response to Benghazi and its masthead features at least one former SEAL demanding action.   

- SEAL Benjamin Smith. Another founder of Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund, Ben Smith deserves his own section because of his role in circulating an email in conservative circles that had so many errors that Snopes debunked it. Read about it here.   

- SOF for America. This is yet another PAC and website using their military experience to lobby and campaign for conservative causes. Founded by a former Navy SEAL, this group explicitly backs Republican politicians to “take back control of the Senate”.

- Former Navy SEAL Christopher Mark Heben. He went on Fox News to denounce critics of Marcus Luttrell’s film Lone Survivor. Along the way he said, “Nobody who wears a trident...is a fan of Obama or Hillary.” That sounds political to us. And, according to Heben, it means that all SEALs are political.

- Former Navy SEAL Don Raso. In this NRA “Patriot Profile” as a part of the NRA’s “Life of Duty” series, former Navy SEALs describe their love of the NRA and how it helped them protect America. In this feature, former Navy SEAL Don Raso uses his personal experience at war to criticize Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

- Books. At least five books about or by Navy SEALs repeat the false claim that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, as we wrote about here.

- SEAL Gabriel Gomez. While not involved in the current war on terror, Gomez was a former SEAL who left active duty in 1996, but he ran for John Kerry’s vacant Senate seat in Massachusetts in 2014. He has been associated with the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund group described above, which specifically campaigns against President Obama.

- Father of sailor Michael Strange. The father of a sailor who conducted electronic intercept intelligence for the U.S. Navy--and frequently assigned to Navy SEAL teams--he sued the Secretary of Defense and blamed President Obama for killing his son. His son died in the Chinook helicopter crash in 2011 that killed 33 troops, the single largest loss of life in Afghanistan. You probably didn’t hear about this, but it made the rounds through the conservative blogosphere.

(Why didn’t we call Michael Strange a SEAL? Because frankly, we can’t tell if he is. Though his father repeatedly uses the phrase “SEAL” and let reporters/bloggers write that his son was a SEAL, multiple other reports don’t mention that he was a SEAL, and specifically do not classify him as a SEAL. We can’t tell what is the truth.)

- Navy SEALS Against Obama. This now defunct blog has a self-explanatory title.

- “The Shooter” in Esquire. This anonymous former SEAL has lobbied Congress for increased benefits and funding for special operations, using his veteran status to bolster his position.

- Of course, we’ll end with Marcus Luttrell’s memoir Lone Survivor. At its worst, the memoir Lone Survivor actually blames liberals for the deaths of SEALs during Operation Red Wings. If accusing a political party of killing soldiers isn’t politics, we don’t know what is. Marcus Luttrell semi-regularly appears on Glenn Beck’s show, recently attacking Obama for negotiating with the Taliban to free Bowe Bergdahl. (Luttrell also misuses the term “terrorist” which we wrote about here.)   

We don’t want anyone to think we are denying SEALs the right to engage in politics. Navy SEALs--especially retired SEALs no longer bound by decorum or UCMJ--can make their political viewpoints known. However, we don’t want SEALs describes themselves as “apolitical” when many SEALs are as vehemently political as any conservative radio host.

A better description of SEALs is that they engage with politics with the same gusto as most Americans. Some eschew politics; some love to talk it. What we can say, with certainty, is that among those vocal SEALs, they tend towards conservative or very, very conservative.

(Finally, why pick on SEALs and not Green Berets, Rangers or especially Delta Force? Because examples of uberly-vocal political Green Berets and D-boys are much, much harder to find. And they don’t describe themselves as apolitical either.)

May 13

(To read the entire “Quotes Behaving Badly” series, click here.)

Our readers could (somewhat fairly) accuse us of picking on conservatives on this blog. Many people--looking at our tagline of a veteran and a pacifist--assume we’re a conservative and a liberal, when we’re actually a moderate and socialist-liberal. We try not to espouse knee jerk liberal politics, but if we do talk politics, usually we debunk conservative rhetoric as it relates to the military.

But today we’re taking on the left wing of the political spectrum. Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on misusing quotes; liberals may abuse quotes more. While I was researching a Bertrand Russell misquote last week, I found Antiwar.com’s “Quote Page

And it’s a big ‘ol mess, the ultimate example of “Quotes Behaving Badly”.

If you know of any knee jerk anti-war quotes, they’re probably there. Want some examples?

Wisdom is better than weapons of war.” - Ecclesiastes 9:18.

The actual quote is “Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner can destroy much that is good.” They literally cut off half of the quote. And the quote comes from a passage about a poor, wise man failing to save a city from an attacking conquerer. Very disingenuous use of a quote. It literally means the opposite of what they quoted. Another example:

The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” - Albert Einstein.

Three problems with this one. First, it is a paraphrase of this actual quote, “the world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it." Second, Einstein said it referencing the thoughts of Pablo Casal, from whom he got the idea. The entire quote reads “He [Cassal] perceives very clearly that the world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.” Finally, we’ve debunked this sentiment before.

Nothing good ever comes of violence.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Google says Martin Luther said it (You know the ex-Catholic priest who founded Lutheranism. Don’t feel bad; they get confused all the time.) instead of Martin Luther King Jr. Wikiquote has neither saying it.

After victory, you have more enemies.” - Cicero.

We couldn’t find a source for it anywhere...which makes us think it doesn’t exist.

Remember that a government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take away everything you have.” - Davy Crockett

Actually, Gerald Ford said this, though according to Wikiquote, similar things were said by Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. And if Davy Crockett has said this, at the time, he’d probably be opposing a standing (permanent) military, not business regulations.

When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it. After my experience, I have come to hate war.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower

War settles nothing.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower

Both of these quotes are a bastardization of a much longer, nuanced response Eisenhower made at a news conference, simplified to the point of absurdity. This also personally offends Michael C because he idolizes General/President Eisenhower’s nuanced and persuasive view of national security.

I could do this all day. But I’ll close with these two:

In war, truth is the first casualty.” - Aeschylus

The first casualty when war comes is the truth.” - Sen. Hiram Johnson

As we wrote here, this quote is all wrong. “The actual award goes to Sherwood Eddy and Kirby Page in The Abolition of War (1924). Second place goes to Samuel Johnson, who wrote “Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.” This phrasing is not very quotable; neither is Samuel Johnson.

But more amazingly, they misquoted and misattributed the same quote on the same page twice. Twice! Twice! How is that even possible? And it’s a quote about truth! They literally misquoted a quote about truth twice on the same page. Gathering hundreds of anti-war quotes together on one page created a critical mass of inaccuracy.

This site illustrates the problem with collecting quotes as “proof” of something. They confirm knee jerk opinions that we already maintain. I read a few years ago about a study that said, answering the question of whether the internet is making people smarter or dumber, is that the answer is both. Some people are getting smarter, by researching, fact checking and visiting a variety of websites. Others are getting dumber, only looking for views that confirm what they already believe. Ideologists won’t fact check something they agree with.

Especially quotes.

May 09

(To read the entire “Quotes Behaving Badly” series, click here.)

So we go nearly two years without a “Quotes Behaving Badly” post because we couldn’t find enough quotes. Then, we find enough for three, so expect more quote debunking in the next few weeks. Without further ado, more “Quotes Behaving Badly”:

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a piece of ribbon.” - Napoleon

How has On Violence not tackled this mother of all quotes? I mean, we even used it way back in the day (while cautioning that we thought it was a “Quote Behaving Badly”). So has the Economist, The Marines Corps Gazette and countless other quote generators. Unfortunately, the closest we have seen to a reference is one book which places Napoleon on the H.M.S. Bellerophon on his way to exile. (Though, it doesn’t have a source for any of that. Wikiquote currently has it as unsourced.)

Most likely, Napoleon didn’t say this quote, but it would require a lot more research to find the first instance in popular language. It also captures why we dislike “Quotes Behaving Badly” so much. Sure, soldiers love to get ribbons and recognition. I don’t know an infantryman who doesn’t want a CIB. At the same time, soldiers fight even harder and longer for the men and women on their left and right.        

(We also want to give props to our favorite source for management thinking, Manager-Tools.com, for identifying a “quote behaving badly”. Mark Horstman has spent years quoting Napoleon saying, “Never prohibit that which you cannot prevent.” (This comes from his “Things I Think I Think” newsletter.) However, he rightly pointed out that, “Upon searching, I have discovered that the only [places] Google cites to this quote being from Napoleon relate back to...me. So I might be wrong.”)

“War is much too serious a thing to be left to military men.” - Talleyrand

More precisely, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the foreign minister of France who survived from the Ancien Regime to the Restoration, allegedly said this. I recently heard this in a class where a professor (rightfully) sang Talleyrand’s praises. However, the professor also included this quote, and as I do now whenever I hear any quote, I looked it up. Turns out, the quote comes from another diplomat, Clemenceau from after World War I. And the actual translation should be “to the military” instead of “military men”.

Remember the old Napoleon saying, “Don’t quote that which you can’t verify.” (Not a quote.)   

“Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” - Adolph Hitler

The above quote also goes by the variants “The great masses of people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one. Especially if it is repeated again and again.” and “The bigger/more blatant a lie, the more people will believe it.” Variously attributed to Hitler or Goebbels, this quote is wrong on a number of levels.

First, both sides of the aisle regularly accuse the other party of using the big lie. For example, Glenn Beck, responding to Democrat accusations that Republicans were using the “big lie”, responded by saying that political tactics used by progressives were taken from the Nazi playbook. Awesome.

Second, it’s a misquote, a bastardization of what Hitler actually wrote. Like most quotes behaving badly, the mis-quote simplifies a much more complex thought. Read this full paragraph to understand Hitler’s true meaning:

“But it remained for the Jews, with their unqualified capacity for falsehood, and their fighting comrades, the Marxists, to impute responsibility for the downfall precisely to the man who alone had shown a superhuman will and energy in his effort to prevent the catastrophe which he had foreseen and to save the nation from that hour of complete overthrow and shame. By placing responsibility for the loss of the world war on the shoulders of Ludendorff they took away the weapon of moral right from the only adversary dangerous enough to be likely to succeed in bringing the betrayers of the Fatherland to Justice. All this was inspired by the principle--which is quite true within itself--that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”

To clarify, Hitler is not endorsing the “Big Lie”, as I think most people assume when they read or repeat the quote above. He doesn’t believe that the big lie works; he thinks that the Jews fed Germans a big lie, but he (Hitler) saw through it. He’s not offering a blueprint for dictatorship; he’s justifying his anti-semitism. He’s justifying the mass extermination of the Jews.

Finally, I’m not sure whether this quote reflects reality or not. I mean, we once ran a post on how 40% of Americans believe Saddam didn’t have WMDs, another 30% believe he did and 25% don’t know. 9/11 conspiracy theorists still dominate corners of the internet. Maybe if you repeat something long enough, some people will believe it.

“War does not determine who is right--only who is left.” - Bertrand Russell

At some point, researching an On Violence post, I came across this perfect candidate for a “Quote Behaving Badly”. Instinctively, I knew Russell didn’t say this. He might have, but it just seems too simple a thought for one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers. No war actually kills every single person in a country, at least not since the Middle Ages.

According to Wikiquote--and some light On Violence research-- the accuracy of this quote is in dispute. As Wikiquote writes, “This has often been published as a quotation of Russell, when an author is given (e.g. in Quote Unquote — A HandBook of Quotation, 2005, p. 291), but without any sourced citations, and seems to have circulated as an anonymous proverb as early as 1932.”

Remember, if you can’t cite where or when the author said something, they probably didn’t say it. More importantly, journalism and academia only succeed if we can cite who said what (along with where and when they said it). Using quotations by citing some robo-site that says, “Einstein said it this,” is terrible reportage/scholarship.

What’s more interesting is where I found it, on Anti-war.com’s list of quotes.

This led to a whole rabbit hole we’ll go down next week...

Apr 25

Today, I’m going to defend Donald Rumsfeld.

Not as a politician, Secretary of Defense, or one of his many other job titles he has held since the 1970’s. Rumsfeld failed as a Secretary of Defense. If he were a Democrat, Republicans would have launched million Benghazi-type congressional hearings investigating how he mismanaged two wars and the military.

Instead, I’d like to defend a philosophical notion he thrust into the public sphere, the most (in)famous thing Rumsfeld ever said. On 12 February, 2002, Rumsfeld, answering a question at a Department of Defense news briefing, said…

“Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

And cue the media, particularly liberals, using this quote as a talking-point-punchline. For the next couple of years, this became one of those far-left liberal memes, an example of the corruption and stupidity of the Bush administration. At the time, I was well-connected to liberal anti-war activists at my college, and I heard people mock this quote often.

Not that Rumsfeld ran from it. He titled his memoir Known and Unknown: A Memoir. Errol Morris, who I really respect as a documentarian, just released The Unknown Known, a documentary about Rumsfeld. I’m sure the documentary itself is terrific and informative, but Errol Morris, on the Colbert Report, had this exchange with Stephen Colbert:   

Colbert: “Your new film is called The Unknown Known, about former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. What the hell does that mean? The unknown known? What is that?

Errol Morris: “Can I be completely honest with you?”

Colbert: “I hope you will”

Errol Morris: “I don’t know”

Really?

It’s not a simple thought, I’ll grant you that. But it is a true one. Trying to re-explain it, I can’t really shorten it any better than Rumsfeld did, except for maybe adding examples. So…

- “...there are known knowns; there are things we know we know.” For example, most Americans know that America holds prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

- “We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.” For example, we know America used torture, but until the Senate report comes out, we really don’t know how far America or its allies went, or what concrete information it gave us. Another example: until last year, we knew the Intelligence Community had a budget; we just didn’t know the specific numbers.

- “But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know.” Until last year, most Americans were completely unaware about most of the NSA activities, like spying on heads of state in foreign countries (including allies) and collecting meta-data on telephone and internet usage.

Makes sense? Especially for liberals and small government activists, the last point illustrates this concept perfectly, and why it matters: we didn’t know what we didn’t know about the NSA and its massive surveillance of Americans. But because it was Rumsfeld (mistakenly) arguing for Iraq’s connection to terrorists, this concept--not the argument itself--got the blame.

Errol Morris should have been able to answer Colbert’s question; he wrote a whole essay on the topic for the The New York Times in June 2010:

“I found myself still puzzled by the unknown unknowns. Finally, I came up with an explanation.  Using the expressions “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” is just a fancy — even pretentious — way of talking about questions and answers. A “known unknown” is a known question with an unknown answer.  I can ask the question: what is the melting point of beryllium?  I may not know the answer, but I can look it up. I can do some research. It may even be a question which no one knows the answer to. With an “unknown unknown,” I don’t even know what questions to ask, let alone how to answer those questions.”

Clearly, he’s thought a lot about it. (And the title to his film isn’t actually something Rumsfeld said; it’s something Morris made up.)

There’s a larger problem, an inconsistency in what the general public wants from our politicians versus what happens when they get that thing. We want politicians to be more honest, less guarded and, frankly, more intelligent. We want them to be more human. But if they do something human, like Scott Brown, on the podium during his victory speech, telling the crowd his daughters were single, the other side of the political spectrum calls it creepy. If they do something interesting, like going on Between Two Ferns to talk about healthcare, it’s not presidential. And if they say something intelligent, like Rumsfeld did, it’s mocked.

So we end up with politicians hiding behind rote, memorized talking points, saying nothing unique, original, authentic or insightful. And we only have ourselves to blame.