'The Roaring Lion,' a portrait by Yousuf Karsh at the Canadian Parliament, December 1941. The wartime British leader has been immortalized by his sayings, some of which he probably didn't say. Image: Wikipedia

“To know who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” When Australian politician Cory Bernardi tweeted this back in 2015 he thought he was quoting the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Instead, it turned out that this observation originated from an American neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier, Kevin Strom, and rather than hailing from the 18th century it came from an essay published in 1993.

Recently stumbling across this mistake, I was left feeling a little uneasy; while it’s not the most revelatory of quotations, I remember once using it during a university debate and (fortunately I now see) decided to cut it from an op-ed I wrote last year about free speech in Southeast Asia.

In both instances I was also mistaken in believing it derived from Voltaire. But should I have been uneasy? I still think the observation to be true and somewhat insightful, but should a quotation be regarded as any less prescient if it was first uttered by someone whose views are reprehensible? Does it even matter who first said a quotation? 

The answer to both questions intuitively seems to be yes. Imagine, for example, you click open an opinion article to find on your screens the following opener:

Months-long protests continue in Thailand as demonstrators call for changes to the law that make speaking critically of the monarchy and the military government punishable by up to 15 years in prison. “To know who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize,” once said the American neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier Kevin Strom.

First, I presume, you would squint and re-read the passage, making sure you actually read what you just read. Second, you’d assume the rest of the article is nonsense. Third, you would look for the byline and consciously decide never to read an article from that author again, judging that he thought it wise to quote a neo-Nazi. Maybe you’d add to these steps by feeling the need to tweet at some point.

Now, consider your reactions to opening the same opinion story and being met by the following:

Months-long protests continue in Thailand as demonstrators call for changes to the law that make speaking critically of the monarchy and the military government punishable by up to 15 years in prison. “To know who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize,” once said the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire.

I have some level of trust that you, dear reader, would have reacted very differently this around. Yet it is worth asking the question why. After all, the sentiment of the quote hasn’t changed, nor its significance and implication. Wouldn’t the logic of the statement be as true if first said by either Voltaire or a neo-Nazi?

One might riposte that the quote would initially have had a markedly different context if uttered by a neo-Nazi rather than a praised French philosopher; the query of “who rules over you” and who one isn’t allowed to criticize takes on a far more unsavory meaning when delivered by a proud racist.

Yet all quotes are by definition removed from their context. And the reason aphorisms are so widely used is that the best of them are universal, applicable outside the context they were first used in.

Winston Churchill’s witticism that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all others” is as true for England as for any country around the world, and as true in the interwar period as today. Martin Luther King’s words do not only apply to the American civil-rights movement and the 1960s in particular.

Moreover, divorcing the author from a work is something we do all the time. I, among others, for instance, have enjoyed Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night knowing full well about his later conversion to Nazism. One of the most loved poets in Britain – and my own personal favorite – is Phillip Larkin, despite his own reactionary views.

I would happily read to my nephews a Roald Dahl book despite how unsavory the author seemed to be in his personal life, just as I would enjoy a Roman Polanski film despite the director’s alleged crimes.

There is, indeed, a tacit acceptance that an artist’s work should be divorced from the artist’s political views or personal life. Yet the same doesn’t apply to the crafter of quotations or sayings. Perhaps the reason is that the apparent originator of the quote really does seem to be the motivating factor in deciding whether it’s prescient or not, which goes to explain why we so often misattribute quotations to the most famous and respected of thinkers.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is another saying often attributed to Voltaire but it’s generally accepted that he never uttered those words. If Mark Twain is cited as having said something, he most likely didn’t. The same goes for Oscar Wilde’s apparent witticisms and Winston Churchill’s cocktail of politics and humor.

We have a word for all this: Churchillian drift. And we do know that it was Nigel Rees, a British writer and broadcaster, who came up with that term. (Another factoid to lump in here is that the formal name of a quotations expert is “gnomologist.”)

Catchy quotations are ascribed to well-known individuals, usually Churchill, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and the like, Rees suggests, because someone hasn’t spent the time finding out who originally said them or, more commonly, because they think that attributing it to a well-known and lauded creator adds gravitas.

Rees notes that in his documentary Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore intoned that “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it is what you know for sure just ain’t so.” Gore says it came from Mark Twain. It turns out that it was from a late-19th-century book of proverbs by Josh Billing. Josh Billing, anyone? Me neither, and that’s probably why Gore went with Twain instead for this so-so observation.

Such constant misattribution must stem from the fact an aphorism isn’t considered good enough unless it is also claimed to have been first said by someone who is respected or at least publicly known. Indeed, the heft of the quotation is judged upon the reputation of its apparent author, not the quality of the actual sentiment being expressed.

“People will accept your ideas much more readily if you tell them Benjamin Franklin said it first,” was an observation apparently said by David H Comins – again, I don’t know who that is either, and I say apparently as there’s some chance this might also be a widely mistaken attribution, too.

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno