Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Enough with the quotations already!

Listen to enough political speeches, and you might wonder if the speechwriters for political candidates only own one book: a book of quotations.

The presidential candidates have their standard speech, with recitations of the many sins of the opponent, dire warnings about the future of America if the opponent is elected, promises of a golden future if they are elected, and the inevitable quotes. Sometimes they even quote someone of the other party, so they can sound “bipartisan.”

Me, I’m sick to death of quotes, and there’s one in particular that enrages me every time I hear it.

You know it, you’ve heard it countless times, and the oft-misquoted sentence is applied to just about any situation from failing to clean the cat litter box to national defense to, well, anything.

The man’s name is George Santayana. Now, I know I’m being a hypocrite by quoting someone in a piece against quoting people, but here’s what he wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” My first source for this, by the way, was Wikipedia, and I checked other sites, too. Wikipedia’s quote has a mistake because a comma was inserted between “past” and “are.”

In any case, it’s from his book “The Life of Reason, Volume 1,” published in 1905.

The quote became infamous because in 1978, most of the followers of Jim Jones at his settlement in Guyana committed mass suicide by drinking poisonous liquids. On stage was a poster with the quote.

Today, almost no one can say anything on TV, the radio or in print without trying to repeat that Santayana, and usually mangling it, just as no political candidate can resist quoting – or misquoting – some statesman (also known as a dead politician), even when the quote is irrelevant.

I still remember from my days in the Postal Service a film about a meeting the then-Postmaster General Marvin Runyon had at a postal facility somewhere. We were showed the film because that facility had just won an award for having the highest productivity in the whole Postal Service. (A couple of months later, it was revealed that the facility had cheated on its mail volume numbers, driving them way up, and the award was quietly taken away. No film was made of that event.)

A female employee, a postal supervisor by the looks of her, rose during the film and quoted Marshall McCluhan’s famous The medium is the message” statement, but then asked a question that was totally irrelevant. I guess she wanted to show off. Maybe that’s why politicians quote people, to show how erudite they are.

While it’s not technically plagiarism to quote someone – so long as you attribute the quote (that means you, Sen. Joe Biden!) – it is intellectually lazy in my opinion. Indeed, I tend to view excessive quoting, even with attribution, as “plagiarism lite.”

If you want to say something, just say it. Don’t try to impress people with anything but your eloquence and understanding of the subject.

The embarrassing thing for politicians and other speakers is when they misquote someone, or take the quote out of context. Were I a speechwriter for a political candidate, there would be no quotes at all in the speeches, just ideas, concepts and calls to action.

Maybe that’s why I’m not a speechwriter for a political candidate – yet.

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October 6, 2008 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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