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MAY 5, 2011 8:28AM

A Close Approximation of an Almost True Fact

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In the wake of the news about Osama bin Laden’s death, I found myself in a messy swamp of emotions.  As impressed as I was with the operation itself, from those who planned the mission to those who carried it out, I had no sense of euphoria.  I was puzzled by the images of people chanting “USA!” in the streets.  I experienced a rekindled sorrow about the losses of 9/11, and I was relieved that the villain behind it was no longer a threat.  Like many, I was in a state of disbelief (did I read that right?  He’s gone?) that caused me to stay up too late to hear the news straight from the President’s mouth. In a word, it was surreal.


It was astonishing how quickly we were forced to process this information, and how quickly the narrative has changed--not just the official one, but the virtual water cooler discussion that was raging by Monday morning.  Still sorting through my ambivalence, I had resolved to stay out of any such virtual opining.  But then I saw a sentiment on Twitter that perfectly summed up how I felt at the time:  “I have never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.”  It was attributed to Mark Twain.  Perfect.  It was English teacherly, a little wry, and telegraphed my relief and ambivalence without playing into the weird pseudo-patriotic fist-pumping that I was seeing everywhere.  I couldn’t resist, so I copied and pasted it into my Facebook status.  Besides, it was “tweeted” by a novelist, so it never occurred to me to question its authenticity.  


Apparently it didn’t occur to anyone to check the authenticity of the other oft-repeated quote that made the rounds on Monday either, this one attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and questioning the ethics of justifying violence.  When my husband saw it, he immediately went to Google to find its source, only to discover that Dr. King had never said exactly that.  It was a rough paraphrase, spliced onto a real quote.  By Tuesday, the Atlantic and half a dozen other publications had written about the phenomenon of the propagation of the fake internet meme.  The articles I read did not mention the Twain quote, but suddenly paranoid, I fished around.  Sure enough, the only exact matches were from the past day or two--and none prior to May 2.  Buried underneath page after page of recent posts on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, I finally found a rough approximation of the quote:  “I have never killed a man, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.”  Its author was Clarence Darrow.


So, I had committed the cardinal sin, the one I preach to my students about:  the hasty, careless, cut-and-paste plagiarism I see in their writing all the time.  The “I saw it on the internet so it must be a legitimate source” trap I thought I was immune to.  The willingness to trust the accuracy of a quote because it “sounded” about right and was said (and then re-said) by a writer (and another writer) that I like.  And so, the teacher was schooled.


I have a hard time getting across to my students how important it is that they become critical readers and savvy consumers of information.  I trot out a corny metaphor about the internet being like a garage sale--there are treasures, but you have to know what you’re looking for if you’re going to wind up on Antiques Roadshow learning that the vase you paid five bucks for will fund your retirement.  That doesn’t happen by luck.  It happens because the people buying that vase can read the marks on the bottom, and because they have seen enough fakes to know the real thing when they see it.  But with information, this is getting harder and harder to do.  In my haste to find the right sentiment (which has changed at least half a dozen times since then), I grabbed something that said it for me, and I was fooled by a clever imitation.  


In hindsight, I can blame the aforementioned swamp of emotions, the odd pressure to say something pithy and to say it in a timely manner. But then, that’s not much different from what I have my students do every day.  I force them to grapple with subject matter that is difficult.  I require them to articulate their ideas succinctly, and I make them do it under some time pressure.  I won’t excuse them, in the future, for sloppy attributions or rough paraphrases.  But I will better understand what made them do it.


The narrative has changed again.  Now it’s about the White House’s decision not to release photos of bin Laden’s corpse (thank God).  But more than the ethical issues of whether or not the pictures should be seen, and whether or not we should appear to be, in the President’s words, “spiking the football,” is the issue of the photos’ authenticity.  There is already a quite disturbingly convincing photo making the rounds.  It is Photoshopped, of course.  But only people who know a whole lot about Photoshop can discern the real thing from a close approximation.


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Excellent piece about politics, tragedy, ethics and plagiarism. All in one well written, provocative ball of thoughtful reasosning.
If Twain didn't say it, he should have.

I have totally changed my mind since the original news, and have decided the public reaction is more nuanced and a more accurate narrative than the more partisan politically based reactions.

That is, we won, its over -- time to bring em home, wear our shoes in airports, and declare a peace dividend. And stop being so hard on ourselves.
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Nice cautionary tale. You should use it in your class as an example of how easily one can fall into that trap. The fact that it sounds like something Twain might have said illustrates how inadvertent errors can crop up.
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Plus, you are being a little hard on yourself. Misattribution isn't plagiarism. I noticed several versions of the Darrow quote. And don't be so sure that Darrow didn't borrow it from Twain.

Darrow's 'Story of My Life', page 86 has the line, "I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituaries with great satisfaction."

My favorite version is, "....[Darrow] once said that while he himself was not a murderer at heart, he read certain obituary notices with a great deal of avidity and some pleasure."

The quotes seem to vary from 'killed a man' to 'murdered' and from 'many' to 'some' to 'certain'.

This is mostly from 'snippet view' but I don't think that people were ever particularly fussy with attribution.

I once tried to trace a quote from Nelson Algren and found his most famous piece of advice was cobbled from ancient southern quips.


It is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong. Frequently used and attributed to Warren Buffett.
Brave revelations. BUT, a prof should not be pulling quotes from the internet. Ever.
Although it's likely many of the quotes mentioned were badly attributed, the quotes may gain a bit of impact from a presumed source but their main force is through a clever twist of concept and that stands whatever the source.
No one's perfect! A really good website is The Quote Investigator. I use it often.
Well written and very honest piece. I saw the "MLK" quote at first and considered tweeting it, but something seemed off about it.

The "Twain" quote I really liked, and your description fits it well: It was English teacherly, a little wry, and telegraphed my relief and ambivalence without playing into the weird pseudo-patriotic fist-pumping that I was seeing everywhere.

In fact, I think I like your description. Maybe I'll tweet that. With proper attribution, of course.
"OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet"

(I posted a link to this article on Facebook, after carefully checking that Kate actually wrote it)
Kate: When I posted this on Facebook, my friend Anna Pelton Flanigan said "I know her!"
Great that you saw a lesson in this for students. I often tell my own students that information is so abundant in our culture now that critical thinking is imperative. Your piece is timely and well taken.
"The problem with internet quotes is they are hard to verify." -- Abraham Lincoln