Quote of the moment: Education is knowing what you know, and what you don’t

March 31, 2014

Commenter Robert Lopresti mentioned a book assembled at the Library of Congress, to assist Members of Congress in creating speeches on important issues, with accurate quotes in accurate context: Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations.

One might wonder if anyone in Congress even knows the book exists.

You can buy the book, at Amazon, or from the Library of Congress Gift Shop, and Bartleby has it online (public domain already?).

My first use of the online version, I looked for education, and found this from William Feather (1889-1981), describing  just what “an education” is:

An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t. It’s knowing where to go to find out what you need to know; and it’s knowing how to use the information you get.

When and where did Feather say that?  Things get murky — according to the list at the Library of Congress:

Publisher and writer William Feather, photo by William Feather III

Publisher and writer William Feather, photo by William Feather III. Can we trust a bon mot attributed to such a jovial and scholarly looking fellow?

Attributed to WILLIAM FEATHER.—August Kerber, Quotable Quotes on Education, p. 17 (1968). Unverified.

An honest assessment that we don’t know for certain that Feather said exactly that. This book could be a valuable resource!

Who the heck was William Feather?

William A. Feather (August 25, 1889 – January 7, 1981) was an American publisher and author, based in Cleveland, Ohio.

Born in Jamestown, New York, Feather relocated with his family to Cleveland in 1903. After earning a degree from Western Reserve University in 1910, he began working as a reporter for the Cleveland Press. In 1916, he established the William Feather Magazine.[1] In addition to writing for and publishing that magazine, and writing for other magazines as H.L. Mencken‘s The American Mercury, he ran a successful printing business, and wrote several books.[2]

Feather’s definition appeals to me.  Educated people know where to find the facts they need, and they know when it’s important to search for those facts, rather than stand on ignorance.

Compare it with the Hubbard/Rogers advice, that it’s what we know “that ain’t so” that gets us into trouble.

How could any test, ever test for that?


Smoking out the bogus: Martin Porter’s “Four Principles of a Quotation”

March 25, 2014

Commenter SBH put me on to this interesting set of principles from a mathematician, on bogus quotes, and how to determine that they are bogus, and most important, how to avoid creating a bogus quote by stripping context or altering the text.

‘After all, a study I once read said something like 86% of all statistics cited in speeches are made up on the spot.’*

I looked up Martin Porter.  What are his principles of quotations?  Who is he, and why should we listen to him?

Mathematician Martin Porter, in the 21st century.

Mathematician Martin Porter, in the 21st century. Self portrait.

Turns out he’s a mathematician who works in algorithms to study language, and a founder of Grapeshot.  Along the way, he grew intrigued with trying to source a very famous quotation attributed to Edmund Burke (confess, you don’t really know enough about Burke to describe who he was, or why that quote might not be his, right? See Porter’s last principle).

Porter wrote an interesting essay about the experience, and about the wide abuse of the real Burke quote and what he’d learned.

At the end of the essay, he posed principles for quotations, two involving how we might hold the necessary skepticism that helps smoke out quotes that are bogus for one reason or another.

The other two, I confess, sometimes are difficult to follow.  One of my favorite statements from George Santayana, in the upper right corner of this blog, stands out of context (he wasn’t writing about history, really), nor have I read the entire book.  Porter proposes very high standards indeed: It’s not enough that the quote be accurately phrased and attributed appropriately to its creator; Porter wants the quote to be used in a similar context.  In his essay on the Burke quote, he notes Burke was talking of factions, but when Ronald Reagan used it, even getting the phrasing right, Reagan used it to talk about arming nations.  Porter suggests such a usage can lead us awry.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher, who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party. No, not the same Whig Party that produced Millard Fillmore in America.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher, who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party. No, not the same Whig Party that produced Millard Fillmore in America.

Porter is right, of course.

2014 is a federal election year.  Here in Texas we also have municipal elections in May — a lot of opportunities, to vote, a lot of campaigning, and a in that campaigning a stunning wealth of opportunities for people to misattribute quotes, or to invent whole new inappropriate contexts, twists, and diversions to accurate understanding.

We should heed Martin Porter better, perhaps.

Martin Porter’s four Principles for Quotations:

I therefore formulate and offer to the world the following Principles for Quotations, two for quoters and two for readers, which, if universally followed, would make an immense improvement to the reliability of the information available on the world wide web.

Principle 1 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with an author but no source assume that it is probably bogus.
Principle 2 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with a full source assume that it is probably being misused, unless you find good evidence that the quoter has read it in the source.
Principle 3 (for quoters)
Whenever you make a quotation, give the exact source.
Principle 4 (for quoters)
Only quote from works that you have read.

* You knew that one was bogus. Right?

More:


Insta-Millard: GOP lied? Not 5 million losing insurance to cancellations, but 10 thousand.

January 2, 2014

Hey, the numbers are off only by a factor of 500.

Gotta give credit to the GOP propaganda machine to have gotten so many Americans so soundly disinformed and het up about such a small number, smaller than anyone expected.

Should this qualify as a hoax?  If Obama had screwed up a number by 500, what would the headlines be?

Parody of James Montgomery Flagg's World War I recruiting poster, suggesting that Uncle Same wants people to have access to health care, affordably.  New reports suggest it's going to happen, and that reports of massive health insurance cancellations are inaccurate.

Parody of James Montgomery Flagg’s World War I recruiting poster, suggesting that Uncle Same wants people to have access to health care, affordably. New reports suggest it’s going to happen, and that reports of massive health insurance cancellations are inaccurate.

More:


Quote of the moment: Useless men a Congress? Not John Adams, but Peter Stone who said it

October 1, 2013

It’s a great line, an almost-Mark Twain-ism that makes people of all political strips smile.  It’s attributed to John Adams:

I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm; and that three or more become a Congress!

There’s a problem: John Adams didn’t say it.

It’s a line from the 1969 Broadway musical comedy 1776!

The character John Adams in the play said it.  It’s art in pursuit of history, but it’s not really history.

Playwright Peter Stone, Theatrical Rights image

Playwright Peter Stone wrote the witticism attributed to John Adams.  Theatrical Rights image

We should more accurately attribute it to the play’s book’s author, Peter Stone.  What John Adams did not say about Congress, Peter Stone wrote.  Such wit deserves proper attribution.

Especially on a day when the U.S. Congress appears to be not only a collection of useless people, men and women, but useless people bent on destruction of our national institutions.  Congress has fallen down on the job, failing to play its vital, Constitutional role of appropriating money to run the government.

Stone’s mention of “law firms” gives away the quote’s origins being much later than Adams — Adams died, as you know, on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.   “Law firms” is 20th century language.

In an era of law firms so big the people in them cannot comprehend their size, such a statement might emerge.  The distaste with lawyers in the Stone quote also doesn’t ring to the times of the American Revolution.  Good lawyer jokes probably existed then, but they didn’t really rise until the lawyerly pettifogging of the 19th century — see Dickens’ Mr. Bumble in Chapter 51 of Oliver Twistor the entire text of Bleak House, for examples.  Law firms in 1776 simply did not exist as large corporations, but more often as an office of an individual lawyer, or two or three.  Mark Twain joked about Congress, but a joke about both Congress and lawyers probably was rare before 1910.  (I am willing to be disabused of this idea, if I am wrong . . . comments are open.)

Wikiquote’s rapid improvement provides us with a good check on whether Adams said it — Wikiquote points us clearly to Peter Stone instead.

Stone died in 2003, much underappreciated if you ask me.  Stone might be said to be among the greatest ghost speechwriters in history based on 1776! alone,  creating lines for John Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson — three of the greatest authors and (sometimes reluctant) speakers of their day, and of all history.  Stone’s plays include Titanic and Two by Two, his screenplays include Charade, Arabesque, Mirage, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Father Goose.  (The first two of those movies favorites of mine solely for the scores by Henry Mancini.)

1776! plays in revival in California’s Bay Area, at A.C.T. (see reviews from both the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle, linked below).  One might wish Congressmen today would see the play.  In 1776 the colonies in rebellion were unsure what to do next; the Declaration of Independence was not a foregone conclusion.  The amazing collection of men — unfortunately no women — who populated the Second Continental Congress were predisposed to find ways around their differences, to make wise policies, and to keep things functioning.  Rather than shut government down, they carefully instructed individual governments in the states to make preparations to operate without infusions of cash or policy direction from the Crown, even before deciding independence made sense.  In short, they were dedicated to making things work.

Ironic that so many remember Peter Stone’s slam of Congress as incompetent, when the rest of his play book demonstrates that particular congress of men took quite an opposite view of life, and created a model for leadership we marvel at today.

More:

This is an edited encore post, sadly made salient today by Congress’s inaction on required spending bills.

Photo from the San Francisco Chronicle: Jarrod Zimmerman, as Edward Rutledge, makes a passionate appeal to delegates of the Second Continental Congress in the Tony Award-winning musical

Useless men? Funny quip, but the Second Continental Congress was far from a group of useless men thrown together. Photo from the San Francisco Chronicle: Jarrod Zimmerman, as Edward Rutledge, makes a passionate appeal to delegates of the Second Continental Congress in the Tony Award-winning musical “1776,” coming to ACT. Photo: Juan Davila

 


Another hoax suckering conservatives? No, the Washington Navy yard shooter was not identified as a registered Democrat

September 30, 2013

As if it mattered.

Some poor minion, in thrall to the RWNJ Machine, Tweeted me today that all mass shooters have been Democrats. I know the family of one, who happened to be Republican.  The odds of all of them over the years (and we have about one mass shooting each week) being registered Democrats just defies statistical probability.  The Columbine shooters were not old enough to vote; the New Town shooter probably was not active politically in any way . . .

Masthead to National Report. C'mon would these guys lie to you?

Masthead to National Report. C’mon would these guys lie to you?

Oh, yeah, and the Hemingway™ Brand Solid Gold, Shock-proof Sh** Detector started clanging away.

I challenged him for a citation; he offered none, but kept tweeting badgering posts all afternoon . . . finally he named Aaron Alexis.  Well, if that were so, that would be one, not “all mass shooters.”  I suggested others who would not be Democrats . . .

Then, after I’d cooked, after I’d fed the critters, washed some dishes and sat down, I thought about.  Where’d he get the crazy idea that Aaron Alexis was politically involved at all?  Nothing in the Fort Worth or Dallas papers (he lived in Fort Worth for many months).  So I Googled it.  “Aaron Alexis Democrat.”

Here’s the story, at our increasingly least favorite site, National Report.  Out of nowhere, the National Report story claims Alexis was a Democrat.

NBC News has identified the suspect in the Washington D.C. Navy Yard shooting as Registered Democract Aaron Alexis, 34, originally of Ft. Worth, Texas (click here for report circulating on Twitter regarding the shooter). Alexis, allegedly a Muslim (possibly gay), was a civilian contractor who reportedly used the ID of a former employee to gain access into the facility. At this time, 13 people are reported dead and several others wounded.

None of the links in the story make any reference to voter registration or any other way of identifying the shooter as a Democrat.  Veering off into bizarre, tasteless parody, National Report said:

National Report has attempted to contact Darrell Issa’s office for information regarding an investigation into Obama’s involvement with this tragedy. Alex Jones has information regarding the attack that suggests this was a false flag operation to deter attention from Syria.

National Report extends its warmest wishes to the family and friends of those involved in this horrific attack.

These phrases are red flags for bad information:  “Alex Jones has information” and “false flag operation,” favorite phrases of unhinged conspiracy aficionados.  “Warmest wishes” seems a particularly inept and tasteless line.

Why would any reporter think the president was involved in any way, and unless the reporter had information California Rep. Darrell Issa was involved himself, why would he contact Issa’s Congressional office?  Congress would have no role whatsoever in any investigation at such an early phase.

“National Report” avatar for “Chase Logan.” A man running from the scene of a hoax?

The reporter is identified as “Chase Logan,” which is probably a pseudonym, a mashup  of “Chevy Chase-Logan Circle,” two neighborhoods in northern DC and Maryland.  Alleged to be a graduate of Georgetown Law, Chase Logan’s bio as a reporter looks like fiction.   This alleged reporter is also the wit who wrote the National Report story parody on a new “boobs” merit badge for Boy Scouts.

Taste, accuracy and information, are not in these people.

The claim that the Washington Navy Yard shooter was a Democrat is based in no report deeper than this horrible National Report story, and is a hoax.  Bogus claims from an established hoaxing site should not be given the respect and circulation this report got.  No other credible source makes the same claim.

When one spots “National Report” as a source, one may well bet that the information sourced there is false, aimed at the truly gullible.

More:

Twitter Wall of Shame, the Truly Gullible:

  • File these under “anatomy of the spread of a hoax infection”

This next guy was even told it was a hoax site he got the information from; he chose to dismiss the warnings.

Update:  Missed this one.

Joemel921 came back for another duping:

This guy figured it out, but his whistle-blowing was too subtle:

Original hoaxsters back for another round:

Hoaxsters push deeper into the desert sands:

I don’t see that MSNBC offered the information this guy claimed:

Real crazies start to crawl out, now:

Update January 11, 2014:  Good heavens, is this hoax still finding ill-informed, unthinking suckers?  Take a look at some of the other debunkers.


Yes, DDT is deadly to humans, as suicides demonstrate

September 16, 2013

One of the anti-environmental, anti-green false myths kicking around is that DDT is not harmful to humans, and therefore it probably shouldn’t have been banned, “and Rachel Carson was wrong.”

This poster from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service illustrates bioaccumulation, theprocess by which larger animals can be killed by acute DDT poisoning.

This poster from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service illustrates bioaccumulation, theprocess by which larger animals can be killed by acute DDT poisoning.

Reality is that DDT is a poison, but acute poisoning of large animals tends to take a lot.  Insectivorous animals or their predators can get those fatal amounts, but humans generally don’t.  DDT as a toxin kills mammals and birds and amphibians and reptiles and fish with equal alacrity, slowed only by the size of the organism and whether the organism’s diet consists of other things that consume and accumulate DDT.

Often that misperception is coupled with a claim that DDT does not cause cancer, and so should have its ban lifted.

But, the facts:

  • DDT is a neurotoxin; in accumulates in fat, and if enough of it courses through the blood of an animal at a given point, it kills off parts of the neurosystem including the brain.
  • DDT kills mammals (humans are mammals); in fact the U.S. Army argued to keep DDT on the market to use against bats that infested barracks in training camps (bats are mammals, too).  Death depends on the dose, which depends on body size.  Takes a fair amount to kill off a large mammal, quickly.  DDT is implicated in the near extinction of different species of migratory free-tail bats in the Southwest.
  • DDT is carcinogenic.  Fortunately for humans, it’s a weak carcinogen for most cancers, though research points to a troubling link to some cancers (breast, reproductive organs) that appear very late relative to exposure, especially if exposure to DDT occurs in utero, or in infancy.
  • DDT was not banned as a hazard to human health; it was banned as a hazard to wildlife.  DDT in almost all concentrations becomes an indiscriminate killer of wildlife when used outdoors.
  • DDT can kill humans with acute poisoning.

That last point isn’t easy to document in the U.S.  During the go-go DDT years there was one case of a young girl who drank from a prepared DDT solution, and died a short time later.  The incident was a tragedy, but not unique for the 1950s and 1960s.  It was written off to lax safety standards, and because it occurred long before the origin of on-line databases, essentially it has fallen out of history.  Just try to find a reference to the death today.

Partly, this lack of information on human toxicity is due to the fact that DDT use was slowing dramatically by the late 1960s (it was becoming ineffective), and after the ban in 1972, there were few cases in the U.S. where humans were exposed to the stuff, except in emissions from DDT manufacturing plants.  EPA’s order banning DDT in the U.S. applied only to agricultural use, and the chief agricultural use remaining was on cotton.  Manufacturing was not banned, however, which meant U.S. DDT makers could continue to pump the stuff out and sell it overseas, in Africa, and Asia.  This continued right up to that day in 1984 that U.S. companies became subject to damage for the poisons they make under the Superfund law — almost every DDT maker declared bankruptcy to escape liability in the weeks before the Superfund became effective, saddling taxpayers with a few dozen Superfund sites to be cleaned up on the taxpayer’s dime.

DDT has never been banned in Africa or Asia, however.  And there we find a badly-documented history of people poisoning themselves with DDT, usually in suicides.

Whatever other pathologies these cases may exhibit, they reveal that DDT does, indeed, kill humans.

Like this recent case, from Ghana; yes, that’s the illustration used in the newspaper; from the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation:

Sep 11, 2013 at 11:52am
Man commits suicide over wife’s confession

Benjamin Kwaku Owusu, a 40-year-old former Manager of Unity Oil Filling Station in Suhum, has committed suicide by drinking DDT Gamullio 20 insecticide.

A family spokesperson who spoke to the Ghana News Agency on condition of anonymity said Owusu and his wife lived at Suhum and had been married for five years but never had a child.

He said the situation often developed into misunderstanding between them but later the wife got pregnant and left for her home town.

According to the spokesperson, whiles Owusu was preparing for the wife to deliver, he had a shocking message from the wife that the pregnancy belonged to another man and not him.

He said Owusu, who had a shock, rushed into his room and drunk the DDT Insecticide and fell unconscious.

“Owusu was rushed to the hospital but died soon after he was admitted,” he said.

When the police at Suhum was contacted, they confirmed the story and said the body of the deceased had since been buried after post mortem examination at the Suhum Government Hospital.

GNA

Not sure what “Gamullio 20″ means, but it seems to be the brand name of the poison used.

More:


Just stay quiet: Poster hoax about the Pledge of Allegiance

September 15, 2013

Anybody send this to you on Facebook (100 times, maybe?)

Hoax claims about the Pledge of Allegiance, found on Facebook and innumerable e-mails

Hoax claims about the Pledge of Allegiance, found on Facebook and innumerable e-mails

Clever, eh?  It repeats the McCarthy-era editing of the Pledge of Allegiance, and then comes up with this whopper:

. . . My generation grew up reciting this every morning in school, with my hand on my heart.  They no longer do that for fear of offending someone!

Let’s see how many Americans will re-post and not care about offending someone!

Not quite so long-lived as the Millard Fillmore Bathtub Hoax — which started in 1917 — but a lot more common these days.

Just as false.  Maybe more perniciously so.

Consider:

  1. Actually, 45 of our 50 states require the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.  The five exceptions:  Iowa, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Vermont and Wyoming.  See any pattern there?
  2. None of the five states previously required the Pledge, and then stopped.
  3. None of the five states claim to not require the pledge in order to avoid offending anyone.  Oklahoma would be happy to offend people on such issues, most of the time.
  4. Reposting historically inaccurate claims, without fear of offending anyone, is no virtue.  It’s just silly.

The creator of that poster is probably well under the age of 50, and may have grown up with the hand-over-heart salute used after World War II.  That was not the original salute, and I’d imagine the author is wholly ignorant of the original and why it was changed.

Students pledging to the flag, 1899, 8th Division, Washington, D.C. Part of the Frances Benjamin Johnston 1890 - 1900 Washington, D.C., school survey.

Wikipedia image and caption: Students pledging to the flag, 1899, 8th Division, Washington, D.C. Part of the Frances Benjamin Johnston 1890 – 1900 Washington, D.C., school survey.

Wikipedia gives a concise history of the salute:

Swearing of the Pledge is accompanied by a salute. An early version of the salute, adopted in 1892, was known as the Bellamy salute. It started with the hand outstretched toward the flag, palm down, and ended with the palm up. Because of the similarity between the Bellamy salute and the Nazi salute, developed later, the United States Congress instituted the hand-over-the-heart gesture as the salute to be rendered by civilians during the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem in the United States, instead of the Bellamy salute. Removal of the Bellamy salute occurred on December 22, 1942, when Congress amended the Flag Code language first passed into law on June 22, 1942.

Students in an unnamed school in 1941, offering the Bellamy Salute for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Students in an unnamed school in 1941, offering the Bellamy Salute for the Pledge of Allegiance. Wikipedia image.

One might understand why the Bellamy Salute was changed, during war with Nazi Germany.

Arrogance and ignorance combine to form many different kinds of prejudices, all of them ugly.  The arrogant assumption that only “our generation” learned patriotism and that whatever goes on in schools today is not as good as it was “in our day,” regardless how many decades it’s been since the speaker was in a public school, compounds the ignorance of the fact that since 1980, forced patriotic exercises in schools have increased, not decreased.

Like much about our nation’s troubles, assumptions based on ignorance often are incorrect assumptions.  Consequently, they give rise to what is today clinically known as the Dunning Kruger Effect (or syndrome), so elegantly summed by by Bertrand Russell in the 1930s:

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.

Humorously summed up by “Kin” Hubbard:

It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.

Ignorance is a terrible disease, but one easily cured, by reading.  We can hope.

More:


Quote of the moment: Mark Twain, “death was an exaggeration”

September 3, 2013

Words of encouragement in tough times, from Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain:

” . . . the report of my death was an exaggeration.” Mark Twain

The note was published in the New York Journal, June 2, 1897.  While it’s true that Twain wrote this, most popular citations have added and rearranged words.

Text of the note:

James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now.  The report of my illness grew out of his illness, the report of my death was an exaggeration.

Mark Twain with kitten, in 1907 - Wikipedia image

Mark Twain with kitten, in 1907 – Wikipedia image


Even when he’s almost correct, David Barton doctors his accounts of history to make them false: Misquoting John Adams

July 5, 2013

Here’s David Barton‘s screw-up of a John Adams letter:

David Barton cuts John Adams's words off

David Barton’s “Wallbuilders” website featured John Adams’s description of July 2 — but conveniently edited out Adams’s own words, to make it appear as something else. Barton misses the history! What sort of anti-American cuts the words of John Adams when Adams defends liberty’s heritage?

“The . . . day of July, 1776?”  What day?

Faithful readers, and good students of history know that John Adams thought, in 1776, that July 2 would be celebrated as Independence Day.  Why?  July 2, 1776, was the day the 2nd Continental Congress voted to declare the colonies independent of Britain, and no longer under the rule of the Crown or Parliament.

The Declaration of Independence — the press release explaining Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence — sat ready to be discussed.  The Congress did not adopt the Declaration until two days later, on July 4.

Our Independence Day celebration falls on the date of the adoption of the Declaration, not the date of the actual resolution declaring independence.

This is a point of great humor among historians.  Even John Adams, more prescient than most soothsayers, could not predict accurately when Americans would celebrate independence.  Here at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, we often make a post on or about July 2, noting that humorous discrepancy.

That’s interesting.  It’s inspiring to know these august figures, near-gods in the American pantheon of the 21st century, got things wrong.  It’s humorous.  It’s good history.

What in the hell was David Barton thinking?

What evil purpose is he trying to serve by hiding real history, in such a bizarrely petty way?  Why create a hoax when the words themselves support the point you’re wishing to make, that John Adams thought Americans should celebrate independence?

Screenshot of David Barton's webpage, showing his bizarre butchery of Adams's words.

Screenshot of David Barton’s webpage, showing his bizarre butchery of Adams’s words.

Sheesh! He comes so close to getting something accurate, but he can’t resist monkeying with the words of the Founders.  David Barton reminds me of the guy who cheated at golf so much that, one day when he hit a hole-in-one, he wrote “0!” on the scorecard.  A man who will lie to us about one of the most famous letters in American history will lie about anything, for fun.

More:

John Adams, ca 1816, by Samuel F.B. Morse (Bro...

‘David Barton said what?’ By the time this portrait was painted, Adams knew Americans would celebrate the 4th, and not the 2nd; he seems to be glaring right at David Barton, to tell Barton to quit jerking around with history – John Adams, ca 1816, by Samuel F.B. Morse (Brooklyn Museum) Wikipedia image


If you don’t at least check Snopes.com first . . .

June 24, 2013

checking snopes.com before forwarding dumb e-mails.

Definition of “gullible” in a dictionary. Profile photo on Facebook for “checking snopes.com before forwarding dumb e-mails.”

Hannum said there’s a sucker born every minute (and suckers credit it to Barnum).  Do you think it’s that seldom, with the internet?


May 23, 1926: Mencken confessed the Millard Fillmore bathtub hoax, “any facts . . . got there accidentally”

May 23, 2013

Reasons for my annual observance of a moment of silence, here on May 23, for the failed confession of Mr. Mencken should be obvious to even a sleepy reader.  Alas, annually the need grows to call attention to the dangers of hoaxing, as hoaxes particularly in the political life of the U.S. grow in number, in viciousness, and in the numbers of gullibles suckered.  Here, again, is our annual reading of the confession with a few photographs and new links thrown in for easy learning:

May 23, 1926, H. L. Mencken‘s newspaper column confessed his hoax of nine years earlier — he had made up whole cloth the story of Millard Fillmore‘s only accomplishment being the installation of a plumbed bathtub in the White House (in the 1850s known as the Executive Mansion).

Alas, the hoax cat was out of the bag, and the hoax information still pollutes the pool of history today.

Text of the confession, from the Museum of Hoaxes:

Melancholy Reflections

On Dec. 28, 1917, I printed in the New York Evening Mail, a paper now extinct, an article purporting to give the history of the bathtub. This article, I may say at once, was a tissue of absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious…

This article, as I say, was planned as a piece of spoofing to relieve the strain of war days, and I confess that I regarded it, when it came out, with considerable satisfaction. It was reprinted by various great organs of the enlightenment, and after a while the usual letters began to reach me from readers. Then, suddenly, my satisfaction turned to consternation. For these readers, it appeared, all took my idle jocosities with complete seriousness. Some of them, of antiquarian tastes, asked for further light on this or that phase of the subject. Others actually offered me corroboration!

But the worst was to come. Pretty soon I began to encounter my preposterous “facts” in the writings of other men. They began to be used by chiropractors and other such quacks as evidence of the stupidity of medical men. They began to be cited by medical men as proof of the progress of public hygiene. They got into learned journals. They were alluded to on the floor of congress. They crossed the ocean, and were discussed solemnly in England and on the continent. Finally, I began to find them in standard works of reference. Today, I believe, they are accepted as gospel everywhere on earth. To question them becomes as hazardous as to question the Norman invasion.

* * *

And as rare. This is the first time, indeed, that they have ever been questioned, and I confess at once that even I myself, their author, feel a certain hesitancy about doing it. Once more, I suppose, I’ll be accused of taking the wrong side for the mere pleasure of standing in opposition. The Cincinnati boomers, who have made much of the boast that the bathtub industry, now running to $200,000,000 a year, was started in their town, will charge me with spreading lies against them. The chiropractors will damn me for blowing up their ammunition. The medical gents, having swallowed my quackery, will now denounce me as a quack for exposing them. And in the end, no doubt, the thing will simmer down to a general feeling that I have once more committed some vague and sinister crime against the United States, and there will be a renewal of the demand that I be deported to Russia.

I recite this history, not because it is singular, but because it is typical. It is out of just such frauds, I believe, that most of the so-called knowledge of humanity flows. What begins as a guess — or, perhaps, not infrequently, as a downright and deliberate lie — ends as a fact and is embalmed in the history books. One recalls the gaudy days of 1914-1918. How much that was then devoured by the newspaper readers of the world was actually true? Probably not 1 per cent. Ever since the war ended learned and laborious men have been at work examining and exposing its fictions. But every one of these fictions retains full faith and credit today. To question even the most palpably absurd of them, in most parts of the United States, is to invite denunciation as a bolshevik.

So with all other wars. For example, the revolution. For years past American historians have been investigating the orthodox legends. Almost all of them turn out to be blowsy nonsense. Yet they remain in the school history books and every effort to get them out causes a dreadful row, and those who make it are accused of all sorts of treasons and spoils. The truth, indeed, is something that mankind, for some mysterious reason, instinctively dislikes. Every man who tries to tell it is unpopular, and even when, by the sheer strength of his case, he prevails, he is put down as a scoundrel.

* * *

As a practicing journalist for many years, I have often had close contact with history in the making. I can recall no time or place when what actually occurred was afterward generally known and believed. Sometimes a part of the truth got out, but never all. And what actually got out was seldom clearly understood. Consider, for example, the legends that follow every national convention. A thousand newspaper correspondents are on the scene, all of them theoretically competent to see accurately and report honestly, but it is seldom that two of them agree perfectly, and after a month after the convention adjourns the accepted version of what occurred usually differs from the accounts of all of them.

Political boss Harry M. Daugherty (later Attor...

Political boss Harry M. Daugherty (later Attorney General of the United States), left, with Senator Warren G. Harding (later President of the United States) at Harding’s home in Marion, Ohio during the 1920 presidential campaign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I point to the Republican convention of 1920, which nominated the eminent and lamented Harding. A week after the delegates adjourned the whole country believed that Harding had been put through by Col. George Harvey: Harvey himself admitted it. Then other claimants to the honor arose, and after a year or two it was generally held that the trick had been turned by the distinguished Harry M. Daugherty, by that time a salient light of the Harding cabinet. The story began to acquire corroborative detail. Delegates and correspondents began to remember things that they had not noticed on the spot. What the orthodox tale is today with Daugherty in eclipse, I don’t know, but you may be sure that it is full of mysterious intrigue and bold adventure.

Ambassador Myron T. Herrick was part of the U....

Ambassador Myron T. Herrick was part of the U.S. delegation to the International Chamber of Commerce which sailed on Kroonland in 1920. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are the facts? The facts are that Harvey had little more to do with the nomination of Harding than I did, and that Daugherty was immensely surprised when good Warren won. The nomination was really due to the intense heat, and to that alone. The delegates, torn by the savage three cornered fight between Lowden, Johnson, and Wood, came to Saturday morning in despair. The temperature in the convention hall was at least 120 degrees. They were eager to get home. When it became apparent that the leaders could not break the deadlock they ran amuck and nominated Harding, as the one aspirant who had no enemies. If any individual managed the business it was not Harvey or Daugherty, but Myron T. Herrick. But so far as I know Herrick’s hand in it has never been mentioned.

* * *

English: Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier i...

Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier in arena before fight at Boyle’s Thirty Acres. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I turn to a more pleasant field — that of sport in the grand manner. On July 2, 1921, in the great bowl at Jersey City, the Hon. Jack Dempsey met M. Carpentier, the gallant frog. The sympathy of the crowd was overwhelmingly with M. Carpentier and every time he struck a blow he got a round of applause, even if it didn’t land. I had an excellent seat, very near the ring, and saw every move of the two men. From the first moment Dr. Dempsey had it all his own way. He could have knocked out M. Carpentier in the first half of the first round. After that first half he simply waited his chance to do it politely and humanely.

Yet certain great newspapers reported the next morning that M. Carpentier had delivered an appalling wallop in the second round and that Dr. Dempsey had narrowly escaped going out. Others told the truth, but what chance had the truth against that romantic lie? It is believed in to this day by at least 99.99 per cent of all the boxing fans in Christendom. Carpentier himself, when he recovered from his beating, admitted categorically that it was nonsense, but even Carpentier could make no headway against the almost universal human tendency to cherish what is not true. A thousand years hence schoolboys will be taught that the frog had Dempsey going. It may become in time a religious dogma, like the doctrine that Jonah swallowed the whale. Scoffers who doubt it will be damned to hell.

The moral, if any, I leave to psycho-pathologists, if competent ones can be found. All I care to do today is to reiterate, in the most solemn and awful terms, that my history of the bathtub, printed on Dec. 28, 1917, was pure buncombe. If there were any facts in it they got there accidentally and against my design. But today the tale is in the encyclopedias. History, said a great American soothsayer, is bunk.

Mencken’s confession gets much less attention than it deserves.  In a just world, this essay would be part of every AP U.S. history text, and would be available for printing for students to read individually in class and to discuss, debate and ponder.  Quite to the contrary, state legislatures today debate whether to require teaching of the hoax that disastrous climate change is not occurring, only 45% of Americans claim to know better for certain; more legislatures work hard to devise ways to insert hoaxes against biology (evolution and human reproduction, notably), astronomy and physics (Big Bang), history and even education (Islam is a root of socialist thought, President Obama is not Christian, weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, teachers are socialists).

In 2013, the governing body of the Boy Scouts of America votes today on whether to allow homosexual boys to be Scouts — as if an 8-year-old kid joining Cub Scouts knows enough about sex and love, and sex predation, to threaten the Constitution of the U.S. if we allow him to learn how to put alphabet macaroni onto a board spelling out “Mom,” or to learn how to carve an automobile out of a block of wood and race it on a closed-course track.  The so-called Family Research Council (FRC) has conducted a campaign of vicious hoaxes against the measure, even going so far as to purloin official logos of the Boy Scouts to suggest they speak for BSA.  The hoax has millions of victims, they claim.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., GOP Members of Congress call for investigations into wrongdoing evidenced in e-mails between the White House and State Department and CIA, over the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens.  To hear the GOP describe it, you’d never know that the GOP opposed President Obama’s actions to save the city of Benghazi from destruction by dictator Muammar Gadhafy a few months before, that the GOP slashed the security budget for all U.S. diplomatic missions, leaving Ambassador Stevens underprotected, that the GOP was opposed to much of the work of Ambassador Stevens, or that the incriminating e-mails were hoaxed up by GOP Congressional staff.

If you see pale faces among the GOP Congressional staff or the FRC this morning, it may be because the ghost of H. L. Mencken appeared to them last night to give them hell.  We could hope.

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Nope, Patrick Henry didn’t say that

April 8, 2013

More misquoting of “the Founders”:

For America misquotes Patrick Henry

For America’s poster featuring a quote falsely claimed to be from Patrick Henry.  The racial right wingers won’t tell you, but the painting is a portrait by George Bagby Matthews c. 1891, after an original by Thomas Sully.

It’s baseball season.  I love a pitch into the wheelhouse.

The radical right-wing political group For America — a sort of latter-day Redneck Panther group — invented this one, and pasted it up on their Facebook site this morning.

You know where this is going, of course.  Patrick Henry didn’t say that.  The poster is a hoax.

Your Hemingway [Excrement] Detector probably clanged as soon as you pulled the poster up.  Patrick Henry was a powerful opponent to the Constitution.

Opposed to the Constitution?  Oh, yes.  It helps to know a bit of history.

Henry was at best suspicious of the drive to get a working, central government after the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution. While George Washington needed an interstate authority, at least to resolve disputes between the states, in order to create a commercial entity to build a path into the Ohio Valley, Henry was opposed.  To be sure, Washington was scheming a bit, with his dreaming:  Washington held title to more than 15,000 acres of land in the Ohio Valley, his fee for having surveyed the land for Lord Fairfax many years earlier.  Washington stood to get wealthy from the sale of the land — if a path into and out of the Ohio could be devised.  Washington struggled for years to get a canal through — seen today in the remains of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from Washington, D.C., up along the Potomac River.

Henry was so opposed to the states’ working together that he refused to notify Virginia’s commissioners appointed to a commission to settle the fishing and title dispute to the Chesapeake Bay, between Maryland and Virginia especially, and including Delaware.  When Maryland’s commissioners showed up in Fairfax for the first round of negotiations, they could not find the Virginia commissioners at all.  So they called on Gen. Washington at his Mt. Vernon estate (as about a thousand people a year did in those years).  Washington recognized immediately how this collaboration could aid getting a path through Maryland to the Ohio.

Perplexed at the abject failure of Virginia’s government, Washington dispatched messages to the Virginia commissioners, including a young man Washington did not know, James Madison.  Washington was shocked and disappointed to learn the Virginians did not know they had been appointed.  He suggested the Marylanders return home, and immediately began working with Madison to make the commission work.  When this group settled the Chesapeake Bay boundaries and fishing issues, and Washington’s war aide Alexander Hamilton was entangled in a separate but similar dispute between New York and New Jersey over New York Harbor, Washington introduced Hamilton and Madison to each other, and suggested they broaden their work.  Ultimately this effort produced the Annapolis Convention among five colonies, which called for a convention to amend the Articles of Confederation.  The Second Continental Congress agreed to the proposal.

When the delegates met at Philadelphia, they determined the Articles of Confederation irreparably flawed.  Instead, they wrote what we now know as the Constitution.

Patrick Henry opposed each step.  Appointed delegate to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, he refused to serve.  Instead, he was elected Governor of Virginia, and proceeded to organize opposition to ratification of the Constitution.  Madison’s unique ratification process, sending the Constitution to conventions of the people in each state, instead of to the state legislatures, was designed to get around Henry’s having locked up opposition to ratification in the Virginia Assembly.

Henry led opposition to ratification at the Virginia convention.  Outflanked by Madison, Henry was enraged by Virginia’s ratification.  Virginia had called for the addition of a bill of rights to the document, and the ratification campaign was carried partly on Madison’s promise that he would propose a bill of rights as amendments, as soon as the new federal government got up and running.  Henry sought to thwart Madison, blocking Madison’s appointment as U.S. senator, in the state legislature.  When Madison fell back to run for the House of Representatives, Henry found the best candidate to oppose Madison in the Tidewater area and threw all his support behind that candidate. (James Monroe was that candidate; in one of the more fitting ironies of history, during the campaign Monroe was persuaded to Madison’s side; Madison won the election, and the lifelong friendship and help of Monroe.)

When the new federal government organized, Henry refused George Washington’s invitation to join it in any capacity.  Henry continued to oppose the Constitution and its government to his death.

Consequently, it is extremely unlikely Henry would have ever suggested that the Constitution was a useful tool in any way, especially as a defense of freedom; Henry saw the Constitution as a threat to freedom.

There are good records of some of the things Henry really did say about the Constitution.  Henry regarded the Constitution as tyranny, and said exactly that in his speech against the Constitution on June 5, 1788:

It is said eight states have adopted this plan. I declare that if twelve states and a half had adopted it, I would, with manly firmness, and in spite of an erring world, reject it. You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.

In the same speech, Henry challenged the right of the people even to consider creating  a Constitution:

The assent of the people, in their collective capacity, is not necessary to the formation of a federal government. The people have no right to enter into leagues, alliances, or confederations; they are not the proper agents for this purpose. States and foreign powers are the only proper agents for this kind of government.

Probably diving into hyperbole, Henry portrayed the Constitution itself as a threat to liberty, not a protection from government:

When I thus profess myself an advocate for the liberty of the people, I shall be told I am a designing man, that I am to be a great man, that I am to be a demagogue; and many similar illiberal insinuations will be thrown out: but, sir, conscious rectitude outweighs those things with me.

I see great jeopardy in this new government. I see none from our present one. I hope some gentleman or other will bring forth, in full array, those dangers, if there be any, that we may see and touch them.

Anyone familiar with the history, with the story of Patrick Henry and the conflicting, often perpendicular story of the creation of the Constitution, would be alarmed at a quote in which Henry appears to claim the Constitution a protector of rights of citizens — it’s absolutely contrary to almost everything he ever said.

Perhaps most ironic, for our right-wing friends:  The quote on the poster above was invented as a defense against abuses of the Constitution by the right.  Wikiquote tracked it back to its invention:

The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government — lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.

  • As quoted in The Best Liberal Quotes Ever : Why the Left is Right (2004) by William P. Martin. Though widely attributed to Henry, this statement has not been sourced to any document before the 1990s and appears to be at odds with his beliefs as a strong opponent of the adoption of the US Constitution.

“History?” For America might say. “We don’t got no history. We don’t NEED NO STINKIN’ HISTORY!”

And so they trip merrily down the path to authoritarian dictatorship, denying their direction every step of the way to their ultimate end.

The rest of us can study history, and discover the truth.

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White House Easter Egg Roll tickets go to kids of military

March 20, 2013

Not big news — they do this almost every year — but I want to put down the anchor on this story.

"EASTER EGG ROLLING, WHITE HOUSE" &q...

A photo from the distant, but indefinite past: “EASTER EGG ROLLING, WHITE HOUSE” “1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do I want to anchor it?  In about three days, if tradition holds, I’ll get an e-mail from some vet madder than hell that Obama shut out the kids of military veterans from the Easter Egg Roll; the story he sends will probably claim Obama changed it to a Ramadan Relleno Roll, or something.

I post it here so I can find it quickly, then.  Obama H8ers will distort every piece of good news.  You can see the drumbeat start in the “More” section below.  A Continuing Resolution passed the Senate today, and is expected to win approval in the House tomorrow, providing funds to continue the Easter Egg roll on April 13, as well as the rest of the government through the end of the Fiscal Year.

President Barack Obama cheers on children part...

President Barack Obama cheers on children participating in rolling eggs across the South Lawn Monday, April 13, 2009, during the White House Easter Egg Roll. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Update:  Turns out that Fox News had already slammed Obama, falsely, for keeping the Egg Roll on the calendar.  As Mediaite reported, Fox News’s Megyn Kelly charged it was all politics, prompting White House press guy Jay Carney to explain the event is paid for out of donations, not out of the budget.


Millard Fillmore: Still dead, still misquoted, 139 years later

March 8, 2013

Millard Fillmore wax head

A wax likeness of Millard Fillmore’s head, appearing to be for sale for $950.00 back in 2007. Did anyone ever buy it? Yes, it does bear an unusual resemblance to Tom Peters.

March 8, 2013, is the 139th anniversary of Millard Fillmore’s death.  Famous lore claims Fillmore’s last words were, “The nourishment is palatable.”

What a crock!

Manus reprints the text from the New York Times obituary that appeared on March 9:

Buffalo, N.Y., March 8 — 12 o’clock, midnight. — Ex-President Millard Fillmore died at his residence in this city at 11:10 to-night. He was conscious up to the time. At 8 o’clock, in reply to a question by his physician, he said the nourishment was palatable; these were his last words. His death was painless.

First, I wonder how the devil the writer could possibly know whether Fillmore’s death was painless?

And second, accuracy obsessed as I am, I wonder whether this is the source of the often-attributed to Fillmore quote, “The nourishment is palatable.” Several sources that one might hope would be more careful attribute the quote to Fillmore as accurate — none with any citation that I can find. Thinkexist charges ahead full speed; Brainyquote removed the quote after I complained in 2007. Wikipedia lists it. Snopes.com says the quote is “alleged,” in a discussion thread.

I’ll wager no one can offer a citation for the quote. I’ll wager Fillmore didn’t say it.

Let’s be more stolid:  The quote alleged to be Fillmore’s last words, isn’t.  No one says “palatable” when they’re dying, not even the man about whom it is claimed that Queen Victoria pronounced him the hansomest man she ever met (just try tracking that one down), and whose strongest legacy is a hoax about a bathtub, started 43 years after he died.  No one calls soup “sustenance.”

The alleged quote, the misquote, the distortion of history, was stolen from the obituary in the New York Times.  Millard Fillmore did not say, “The sustenance is palatable.”

What were Millard Fillmore’s last words?  They may be buried in the notebook of one of his doctors.  They may be recorded in some odd notebook held in the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, or in the Library of SUNY Buffalo, or in the New York State Library‘s dusty archives.

But the dying President Fillmore did not say, “The sustenance is palatable.”

Millard Fillmore: We’d protect his legacy, if only anyone could figure out what it is.

This is partly an encore post, based on a post from 2007.

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Quote of the Moment: Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech (encore)

March 5, 2013

March 5, 2013, is the 67th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s speech in Fulton, Missouri. He called the speech “Sinews of Peace,” but it is better known as the speech in which Churchill first used the phrase Iron Curtain to describe events in Eastern Europe after World War II.

Churchill delivering Fulton speech - Czech radio

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.”

Sir Winston S. Churchill, in a speech at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, titled “The Sinews of Peace.”

Some historians mark the beginning of the Cold War from this speech, in which a respected world leader first spelled out the enormous stakes at issue, and also pointed out that Russian, communist totalitarian governments were replacing more democratic governments in nations only recently freed from the spectre of Nazi rule, in World War II.

Last June son James and I stopped off in Fulton, on the way back from James’s graduation from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.  We were treated royally by the people at the Churchill Centre, and got a chance to spend time in what is really a first rate museum.  More people should make Fulton a destination, or pause in their summer travels, for the sake of the kids.

This is an encore post; with a bit of time free, I may post more photographs of our trip.

Oh, why not: Below the fold is the speech in its entirety, from the transcript at the Churchill Centre. Read the rest of this entry »


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