COLUMN

The tangled web of fabled words

Allan Fotheringham June 6 1983
COLUMN

The tangled web of fabled words

Allan Fotheringham June 6 1983

The tangled web of fabled words

COLUMN

Allan Fotheringham

One of the more hilarious aspects of the week was England’s Lord Dacre, who used to be (i.e. several weeks ago) that land’s most respected historian, explaining to a Montreal panel why he was made to look like a gormless rube over the Hitler diaries hoax. The good lord, perhaps because he was a director of the London Sunday Times that bought the phoney diaries, had spent only one short afternoon examining a few documents before attesting to their authenticity. Now he’s had to reverse himself, confessing that he forgot the one thing a historian is supposed to be famous for: take your time and be patient. There are a lot of traps out there—Pierre Elliott Himself, as explained therein, being the victim of one of them.

Churchill, the school failure who became one of the great masters of the English language, stirred the world with his famous 1946 speech in Fulton, Mo., in which he “coined” his celebrated Iron Curtain phrase: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” As a matter of fact, he first used the phrase a year earlier in a top secret telegram to President Truman. If you must know, I’ll have to reveal that the great man was as big a thief as the rest of us. As you learn early in the academic world, if you steal from one person it’s plagiarism; if you steal from several it’s called research. In 1915 one George W. Crile wrote, in A Mechanistic View of War and Peace, page 69: “France .. .a nation of 40 millions with a deep-rooted grievance and an iron curtain at its frontier.” And on Feb. 23,1945 (three months before Winnie’s wire to Harry), a Reuters dispatch told us that Dr. Joseph Goebbels warned: “If the German people lay down their arms the whole of eastern and southern Europe, together with the Reich, will come under Russian occupation. Behind an iron curtain mass butcheries of people would begin.” That’s the way it goes, chaps— Churchill becoming celebrated for a

Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.

phrase he lifted from Hitler’s propaganda chief. It fits right in with the mushy background of so many revered quotations. There ain’t that much new under the sun, son.

The Duke of Wellington did not say, if you insist on pressing me, “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”—which has become the justification of the jock. Hate to do this to you, but the seventh Duke of Wellington, after offering a reward for the historical facts about the saying, found that the first duke on a visit to the classrooms— not the playing fields—of Eton, had

said, “It is here that the battle of Waterloo was won.” Voltaire did not say, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” A biographer invented the quote in 1906 in a rather flowery attempt to paraphrase Voltaire’s somewhat prosaic advice, “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.”

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Everybody credits that to Franklin Roosevelt, of course, in his 1933 inaugural. F.D.R., in fact, did a lot of reading. It is suspected that he lifted it from Henry David Thoreau, who in 1851, wrote, “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear,” who got it from Francis Bacon, who in 1623 was credited with, “Nothing is to be feared but fear.” I don’t want to pursue it further.

I happen to know these things because my mind is an absolute gold mine of useless trivia, sort of like a garbage truck full of used bottle caps. Who was Wally Stanowski’s defence partner? Who was captain of the Flying Enter-

prise? The name, please, of Lou Boudreau’s co-conspirator in that famous Cleveland Indians pickoff play in the 1948 World Serious? What was the Green Hornet’s real name? I warn you, don’t toy with me late at night when other minds are fuzzy and meandering. I play for money.

There’s never any way of stopping these myths once they get galloping, because people believe what they want to believe. C.D. Howe never did say, “What’s a million?” What he did say, in the Commons on June 14,1951, was: “So I hope the Honorable Member will agree that to operate a department with 1,100 people for a year, $3 million is not exorbitant. Will he go that far with me?” Innocuous enough, but John Diefenbaker on a Prairie platform a few days later, with his infamous imagination, improved the quote. It sounds like something C.D. Howe would say and so it’s in the folklore. Engine Charlie Wilson, head of General Motors, never did say, “What’s good for General Motors is good for Ameriz ca,” but it doesn’t matter £ now—his ghost is stuck t with it. Right-wing Re5 publicans for years circulated a quote attributed to Abe Lincoln: “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.” It was exposed in 1954 as a hoax and traced to a 1942 leaflet distributed by Edward R. Rumely, who had served time as a German agent.

One of the funnier phoneys is the much quoted Desiderata, that print of platitudes that hung in the bathroom of every card-carrying female rebel in the 1960s. It was quoted so approvingly on national television by Mr. Trudeau on election night in 1972, “no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

The Desiderata became the theme song for the counterculture types, partially because of the fact that its genesis was supposed to be a parchment found in Old Saint Paul’s Church in Baltimore in 1692. In fact, it was written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann, an Indiana businessman who was sort of a human version of the Hallmark greeting card. Sorry about that, prime minister. I know you’re the forgiving type.