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Quotes Behaving Badly: Anti-War.com Edition

(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.

three comments

I wrote that Samuel Johnson is not very quotable. I should clarify: for most people. I’m English major, so obviously I love him. I just don’t think the whole world does.


Throwing around quotes, usually from some dead white guy, seems to be a crutch for those who want to distill an idea to bumper-sticker length without going through the effort of crafting a vision statement.

As you note repeatedly, even when a quote is correctly attributed it’s still usually taken out of context, so is seldom actually appropriate to the situation in which it’s being used.

But really we (the public writ large) are to blame for instinctively deferring to some old dead person rather than looking for and appreciating original thought. Which raises this question: why do we bestow esteem on those separated from us by time (the dead), space (those whose words we read) or status (politicians or heads of institutes etc)? As wise as those people may be (or were), I bet they also cringe(d) when thinking about some of the things they said and did. Which raises another, somewhat tangential question: why do we treat old philosophical and political documents with such reverence, as though they were written by the inhabitants of Atlantis? They were written to address problems in a particular time and circumstance, by people no wiser or more enlightened than we are today, and yet we are loathe to treat so many of these documents as living documents and adapt them or replace them to meet current circumstances.


I would love to see more of these quotations in action.