Self-Congratulation at Its Worst
I post on a sports-related message board that allows user to set signatures for their posts. One particular board member had a signature that betrayed her politics as well as her own desire to be considered legitimately patriotic. Perhaps you have seen this quote, which is widely used by opponents of the Iraq war in particular or the Bush Administration in general.
“Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” —Thomas Jefferson
It had been there for awhile, that quote at the bottom of each one of her posts. But for some reason, it got under my skin about a month ago. So one day, at the end of a post about something completely different, I decided to gently correct her.
P.S. XXXX – re: your sig – that wasn’t Thomas Jefferson.
Keeping in mind that the site I linked to contains a direct link to the official web site of Monticello (Jefferson’s home) on which quote is said to not be Jefferson’s, you can understand how surpirsed I was when my friend replied thus:
I’ll keep it there until I do a little research of my own. It’s still a great quote.
(Edit: I decided not to depend upon the Urban Legend site as the bearer of fact and emailed the http://www.monticello.org site and asked them.)
By then, I was becoming annoyed. Obviously she hadn’t read the site I directed her to. If she had, she would have seen the reference to a page at monticello.org, where Jefferson historians debunk the quote. Did she think they would suddenly change their minds upon receiving an inquiry from her? I couldn’t help lobbing this back:
If they reply to your e-mail, don’t be surprised if they refer you to this page on their own web site:
There are a number of quotes that we do not find in Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence or other writings; in such cases, Jefferson should not be cited as the source. They include the following:
“Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
We see this one fairly frequently. We are not sure where it originated, although some speculate that Howard Zinn introduced it as recently as 2002 (see urbanlegends.about.com/b/a/146858.htm). As evidence that Jefferson probably would not have expressed such a sentiment, we offer the following (genuine) quote:
“Political dissension is doubtless a less evil than the lethargy of despotism: but still it is a great evil, and it would be as worthy the efforts of the patriot as of the philosopher, to exclude it’s influence if possible, from social life. The good are rare enough at best. There is no reason to subdivide them by artificial lines. But whether we shall ever be able so far to perfect the principles of society as that political opinions shall, in it’s intercourse, be as inoffensive as those of philosophy, mechanics, or any other, may well be doubted.” TJ to Thomas Pinckney, 29 May 1797
It’s possible, of course, that Zinn isn’t the author of the quote either, though the actual published interview in which he said it doesn’t have him attributing it to Jefferson or anyone else. It seems likely that it was Zinn’s own quote, his way of elevating his own sense of patriotism without really thinking too much about the wider implications. I doubt, for example, that he would consider white supremacist “dissenters” or someone like the Unabomber as being particularly patriotic. What he probably means is, “Dissent that I agree with is the highest form of patriotism.”
P.S. I’m not picking on you personally, XXXX. It’s just that I go nuts when I see miscredited quotes. Those essays going around by e-mail attributed to George Carlin or Andy Rooney especially get under my skin. If you had one of those as your sig, I’d have to go on a homicidal rampage. <smiley>
Are you seeing the humor yet? The Monticello site not only debunks the attribution of the quote to Jefferson, but also refers to the urban legends site I mentioned in the first place to clarify who actually did say it. I’m good, huh?
Coolness. They responded quickly. Here is the response:
Thanks for your e-mail (and your diligence in checking this out). That particular quote has its own entry in our “Spurious Quotes” page where we have a detailed explanation of how we think it and inaccurate quotes originated.
(with the link [the Den Mother] gave)
What is it that made someone credit this quote to Thomas Jefferson in the first place? Probably the motivation to legitimize it, thereby lending to those who agree with the sentiment a sense of self-importance. If Thomas Jefferson, of all people, said it, then obviously it’s a sentiment worth holding, right? Patriotism is the couture of choice among those on the far left end of the idealogical spectrum, ever since they figured out that most Americans are patriotic and look with suspicion on people who aren’t. It’s a shrewd move, rooted in the political reality that what a public figure believes isn’t nearly as important as what s/he can get people to think s/he believes. We’re seeing that now in Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who painted himself a liberal when he ran against Ted Kennedy in 1994 here in liberal Massachusetts but presents himself as a conservative now that he is courting conservative primary voters.
As for why so many people perpetuate the Jefferson misquote, chalk it up to a persistent naivete that believes that if they see it in pixels on their computer screen, it’s gospel. This is the same reason why so many people fall for those Nigerian unclaimed money scams or buy “herbal Viagra” or think their online banking account really was compromised and they have to log on to confirm their security information. People are gullible.
Oh, and they also crave legitimacy.