On Monday afternoon, a Martin Luther King quotation appeared on Twitter, and swiftly went viral. It was soon being posted en masse on every social networking site. Those who felt disquiet at the jubilant response to Bin Laden’s death could now express their emotions with a cast-iron quote: ‘I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy’. There was only one problem – King didn’t say it.
In fact, the quote originated with a 24-year-old woman called Jessica Dovey, who teaches English in Japan. She posted it on Facebook, alongside a quote from King. Then the magician Penn Jillette (the one from Penn and Teller who speaks), cut and pasted her quote and the King one together, and somehow, they became mangled into one. He put it on Twitter, and soon Martin Luther King’s quote-that-wasn’t was being read and repeated across the globe. No-one thought to ask who King’s enemy might have been, or whose death might have prompted this remark, because it was just too neat.
It’s the latest in a long line of fake quotes which gain real currency because they’re used in apposite circumstances. In the autumn of 2008, when the financial crisis was at its nadir, a quote from Cicero started doing the rounds, which seemed to suggest that everyone’s favourite pompous orator had somehow predicted the correct response to over-reaching banks, more than two thousand years after his death: ‘The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt.’ It took a history professor, John H Collins, to point out that the quote came from a novel about Cicero written in 1965, and not from Cicero at all.
And it isn’t just an internet invention, either: Voltaire has long been credited with promising that he might disapprove of what you say, but he’d defend to the death your right to say it. And perhaps he would have done. But he didn’t ever say so: the quote came from Evelyn Beatrice Hall, paraphrasing in her book, The Friends of Voltaire. And while you can blame the internet for a lot, it wasn’t around in 1906, so its conscience is clear on this one.
The oldest misquote I can think of must be Julius Caesar’s last words. Everyone knows they were, ‘Et tu, Brute’, right? That’s what he says in Shakespeare, and Shakespeare must have been quoting because it’s Latin, and that’s what Caesar spoke. But actually, Caesar’s last words were in Greek: ‘kai su, teknon? – even you, my child?’ His final words were full of Oedipal overtones (he was much older than Brutus, and had been having an affair with the latter’s mother for some time), which have been entirely lost behind the Shakespeare version.So, if even Shakespeare made up or misattributed quotes, why shouldn’t the rest of us? It used to be the case that we simply assumed that pretty much everything witty was said by Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker, that everything touching was said by Dr King or Ghandi, and that everything else was said by Winston Churchill. Now, we’re rather more inventive: by yesterday afternoon, the Twitterverse was crediting King with having said all kinds of things, including a belief that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. He didn’t say that, either, though. They are, of course, the wise words of the tiresome muppet, Yoda.
If you have been to Paris in recent years, you might have thought that what it was missing from the whole experience – once you’d got past the Eiffel Tower and the Arc De Triomphe and that pyramid that has something to do with Dan Brown at the Louvre – was some really good, mind-altering green booze. How is a person supposed to channel their inner Toulouse-Lautrec when they have neither the talent, the tiny legs nor a glass of wormwood-distilled absinthe? Well, worry no longer, because the French government has finally voted to legalise the green fairy, and the 100-year-old ban will be over-turned any day now.
I am no expert on absinthe, having drunk it only once at the behest of a retired children’s television presenter (it’s always the quiet ones. The quiet ones that can make things out of cardboard and sticky tape). But I think this can only be a good thing. For too long, we have decried the behaviour of young people and their alcopops, even though absinthe has been on sale in the rest of Europe since the 80s. It turns out that they were being positively restrained. Time for some proper, 70% proof alcohol, entirely designed for artists, writers, and those who consider sanity (or in Van Gogh’s case, an ear) optional.
At what point does being a film fan morph into being someone who hates the very films you theoretically love? This question arose last week, when a stolen copy of the script of next year’s summer blockbuster, The Avengers, went on sale on the net. Several pages of the script appeared online, to prove that the script was genuine. The rumour-mill went wild: the film had shut down filming for re-writes, the stolen scenes had been cut from the movie, and so on.
There wouldn’t be a reason to steal these scripts and offer them for sale if people weren’t willing to buy them in order to read them. But there’s a lot more to a film than its script, so who in their right mind would want to read a script before they saw the film? Only someone who values knowing what happens in a movie more than the experience of actually seeing it, which is a lot like not being a film fan at all.