Tag Archives: Plato

The False Attribution: Our Democratic Poetry

5 May

Every two minutes on Twitter, someone tweets, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” and wrongly attributes it to Edmund Burke. Burke never said any such thing. But the myth persists.

I’ve long wanted to write an essay on this phenomenon of wrongly attributed statements. If you dig, you often find that no one famous ever said anything like it. Obviously someone had to say it, at some point, but whoever he or she is, is lost to memory.

I first came across this phenomenon in 2000 when I was writing a piece for Lingua Franca. You know that saying (or some version thereof): Whoever is not a liberal [or a socialist or a progressive] when he is twenty has no heart; whoever is not a conservative when he is thirty has no brain? Everyone always says it was Churchill. It wasn’t. No one said it. Or least, again, no one famous. I even called the editor of Bartlett’s Quotations, whoever it was at the time (Justin Kaplan?), and he had no idea who had said it.

Since then, I’ve stumbled upon many more of these. One of my favorites is “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” General MacArthur cited it in his 1962 address at West Point and said it was from Plato. Nope. But the Imperial War Museum and Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down) also claim Plato said it (the museum actually has the words, with the Plato attribution, carved into one of its facades). Still nope. Something sort of, kind of, like this was once said by Santayana, but not this.

At first, the whole thing annoyed me. You think someone said x, because everyone always says s/he did, and then you look it up just so you can get a citation, only to find that you can’t find the citation. So you look and look, only to find that that someone most definitely did not say x (or at least not that anyone knows of).  So then, if you’re an obsessive like me, you keep looking because at this point you want to know who said the damn thing. Only to find out that no one knows who said it. And then, and only then, do you realize, once again, but as always too late, that you’ve fallen into the rabbit hole of the Wrongly Attributed Statement (WAS).

But the more I’ve thought about the WAS the more charming I’ve found it. Because in many ways the WAS is a tribute to the democratic genius of the crowd. Someone famous says something fine—Burke did write, in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle”—and some forgotten wordsmith, or more likely wordsmiths, through trial and error, refashions it over time into something finer: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Which is really quite fine.

The false attribution: it’s our democratic poetry.

Update (May 6, 9:45 am)

So Santayana did in fact say “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Thanks to commenter Bill for pointing that out. I actually had written that in the footnote of the paper to which I linked above, but for some reason I had forgotten that he in fact said exactly that. In my memory he had said a version of that. I am not immune!

Check out some of the other comments below; they’re terrific. Art Goldhammer has a great example as does Phil Scarr.

Henry Farrell emails me that apparently Robert Merton, as with so many other things, was there first. In his book On the Shoulders of Giants. From the jacket copy:

With playfulness and a large dose of wit, Robert Merton traces the origin of Newton’s aphorism, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Using as a model the discursive and digressive style of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Merton presents a whimsical yet scholarly work which deals with the questions of creativity, tradition, plagiarism, the transmission of knowledge, and the concept of progress.

Update (10:45 am)

On FB, Jeff Shoulson wrote this:

It’s also interesting how the WAS in its democratic form is both different from and related to the renaissance humanist posture of sprezzatura, the fashion of sprinkling your speeches with pseudo-quotations of famous writers that are deliberately inaccurate so as to convince your audience that you hadn’t looked them up the night before to impress them.

Sprezzatura!  Sprezzatura!  Cue Lee Siegel!

Justice Scalia: American Nietzsche

27 Jun

This is Part 2 of my series on Justice Scalia, Diva of Disdain.  Part 1 is here; an introduction to the whole is here.

Like many originalists, Scalia claims that his jurisprudence has nothing to do with his conservatism. “I try mightily to prevent my religious views or my political views or my philosophical views from affecting my interpretation of the laws.” Yet he has also said that he learned from his teachers at Georgetown never to “separate your religious life from your intellectual life. They’re not separate.” Only months before Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1986, he admitted that his legal views were “inevitably affected by moral and theological perceptions.”

And, indeed, in the deep grammar of his opinions lies a conservatism that, if it has little to do with advancing the immediate interests of the Republican Party, has even less to do with averting the threats of judicial tyranny and judicial anarchy. It is a conservatism that would have been recognizable to Social Darwinists of the late nineteenth century, that mixes freely of the premodern and the postmodern, the archaic and the advanced. It is not to be found in the obvious places—Scalia’s opinions about abortion, say, or gay rights—but in a dissenting opinion about that most un-Scaliaesque of places, the golf course.

Casey Martin was a champion golfer (he’s now an ex-golfer) who because of a degenerative disease could no longer walk the eighteen holes of a golf course. After the PGA Tour refused his request to use a golf cart in the final round of one of its qualifying tournaments, a federal court issued an injunction, based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), allowing Martin to use a cart.

Title III of the ADA states that “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation.”

By the time the case reached the Supreme Court in 2001, the legal questions had boiled down to these: Is Martin entitled to the protections of Title III of the ADA? Would allowing Martin to use a cart “fundamentally alter the nature” of the game? Ruling 7–2 in Martin’s favor—with Scalia and Thomas in dissent—the Court said yes to the first and no to the second.

In answering the first question, the Court had to contend with the PGA’s claims that it was operating a “place of exhibition or entertainment” rather than a public accommodation, that only a customer of that entertainment qualified for Title III protections, and that Martin was not a customer but a provider of entertainment. The Court was skeptical of the first two claims. But even if they were true, the Court said, Martin would still be protected by Title III because he was in fact a customer of the PGA: he and the other contestants had to pay $3,000 to try out for the tournament. Some customers paid to watch the tournament, others to compete in it. The PGA could not discriminate against either.

Scalia was incensed. It “seems to me quite incredible,” he began, that the majority would treat Martin as a “‘custome[r]’ of ‘competition’” rather than as a competitor. The PGA sold entertainment, the public paid for it, the golfers provided it; the qualifying rounds were their application for hire. Martin was no more a customer than is an actor who shows up for an open casting call. He was an employee, or potential employee, whose proper recourse, if he had any, was not Title III of the ADA, which covered public accommodations, but Title I, which covered employment. But Martin wouldn’t have that recourse, admitted Scalia, because he was essentially an independent contractor, a category of employee not covered by the ADA. Martin would thus wind up in a legal no man’s land, without any protection from the law.

In the majority’s suggestion that Martin was a customer rather than a competitor, Scalia saw something worse than a wrongly decided opinion. He saw a threat to the status of athletes everywhere, whose talent and excellence would be smothered by the bosomy embrace of the Court, and also a threat to the idea of competition more generally. It was as if the Homeric rivals of ancient Greece were being plucked from their manly games and forced to walk the aisles of a modern boutique.

Games hold a special valence for Scalia: they are the space where inequality rules. “The very nature of competitive sport is the measurement,” he says, “of unevenly distributed excellence.” That inequality is what “determines the winners and losers.” In the noonday sun of competition, we cannot hide our superiority or inferiority, our excellence or inadequacy. Games make our unequal natures plain to the world; they celebrate “the uneven distribution of God-given gifts.”

In the Court’s transposition of competitor into customer, Scalia saw the forced entry of democracy (a “revolution,” actually) into this antique preserve. With “Animal Farm determination”—yes, Scalia goes there—the Court had destroyed our one and only opportunity to see how unequal we truly are, how unfairly God has chosen to bestow his blessings upon us. “The year was 2001,” reads the last sentence of Scalia’s dissent, “and ‘everybody was finally equal.’”

Like the Social Darwinists and Nietzsche, Scalia is too much a modernist, even a postmodernist, to pine for the lost world of feudal fixities. Modernity has seen too much flux to sustain a belief in hereditary status. The watermarks of privilege and privation are no longer visible to the naked eye; they must be identified, again and again, through struggle and contest. Hence the appeal of the game. In sports, unlike law, every day is a new day. Every competition is a fresh opportunity for mixing it up, for throwing our established hierarchies into anarchic relief and allowing a new face of supremacy or abjection to emerge. It thus offers the perfect marriage of the feudal and the fallible, the unequal and the unsettled.

To answer the second question—does riding in a golf cart “fundamentally alter the nature” of golf—the majority undertook a thorough history of the rules of golf. It then formulated a two-part test for determining whether riding in a cart would change the nature of golf. The dutifulness and care, the seriousness with which the majority took its task, both amused and annoyed Scalia.

It has been rendered the solemn duty of the Supreme Court of the United States . . . to decide What Is Golf. I am sure that the Framers of the Constitution, aware of the 1457 edict of King James II of Scotland prohibiting golf because it interfered with the practice of archery, fully expected that sooner or later the paths of golf and government, the law and the links, would once again cross, and that the judges of this august Court would some day have to wrestle with that age-old jurisprudential question, for which their years of study in the law have so well prepared them: Is someone riding around a golf course from shot to shot really a golfer?

Scalia is clearly enjoying himself here, but his mirth is a little mystifying. The ADA defines discrimination as

a failure to make reasonable modifications in the policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities, unless the entity can demonstrate that making such modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations that the entity provides.

Any determination of discrimination requires a prior determination about whether the “reasonable modification” would “fundamentally alter the nature” of the good in question. The language of the statute, in other words, compels the Court to inquire into and decide What is Golf.

But Scalia won’t have any of it. Refusing to be bound by the text, he prefers to meditate on the futility and fatuity of the Court’s inquiry. In seeking to discover the essence of golf, the Court is looking for something that does not exist. “To say that something is ‘essential,’” he writes, “is ordinarily to say that it is necessary to the achievement of a certain object.” But games “have no object except amusement.” Lacking an object, they have no essence. It’s thus impossible to say whether a rule is essential. “All are arbitrary,” he writes of the rules, “none is essential.” What makes a rule a rule is either tradition or, “in more modern times,” the edict of an authoritative body like the PGA.

In an unguarded moment, Scalia entertains the possibility of there being “some point at which the rules of a well-known game are changed to such a degree that no reasonable person would call it the same game.” But he quickly pulls back from his foray into essentialism. No Plato for him; he’s with Nietzsche all the way.

It is difficult to reconcile this almost Rortyesque hostility to the idea of golf’s essence with Scalia’s earlier statements about “the very nature of competitive sport” being the revelation of divinely ordained inequalities. (It’s also difficult to reconcile Scalia’s indifference to the language of the statute with his textualism, but that’s another matter.) Left unresolved, however, the contradiction reveals the twin poles of Scalia’s faith: a belief in rules as arbitrary impositions of power—reflecting nothing (not even the will or standing of their makers) but the flat surface of their locutionary meaning—to which we must nevertheless submit; and a belief in rules, zealously enforced, as the divining rod of our ineradicable inequality. Those who make it past these blank and barren gods are winners; everyone else is a loser.

Tomorrow: How and why Scalia is the real affirmative action baby, and how liberals enable him.


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