Sunday, April 07, 2013

Pseudepigrapha and the Internet

If a quote on the Internet attributed to a respected historical figure sounds incredibly apt to contemporary politics, it is probably spurious.

Abraham Lincoln
Spurious attribution goes back long before the Internet, so far back that the Greeks had a word for it: Pseudepigrapha. Claiming the mantle of a respected author as your sock puppet is an effective way to get unearned respect for your writing, at least until people figure out that the respected author didn't actually write it. Thus the so called Homeric Hymns.  After their impostures were exposed later writers would refer to the authors pseudo-Appollodorus and pseudo-Eratosthenes, as we should refer to pseudo-Jefferson and pseudo-Lincoln. The prefix can be abbreviated, as in ps-Jefferson.

The miracle of the Internet makes it easier than ever to publish Pseudepigrapha, so train yourself to notice these common signs, so you don't embarrass yourself by reposting them to Facebook. For example:
The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. The mobs should be forced to work and not depend on government for subsistence.

Cicero, 55 BC
1. Attributed to highly respected author. Jeffferson, Franklin, Lincoln and Churchill are other favorites.
2. No citation of the source.
3. Extreme aptness to contemporary politics. This is a warning flag, because past political concerns rarely map so neatly to today. Why was Cicero getting worked up about foreign aid in 55 BC? Roman policy was that foreign countries should aid Rome by being defeated and looted by Rome. Cicero actually saw this as a problem, since it led to a certain amount of hard feelings among Rome's neighbors. Was substantial long term public debt actually an issue for the Roman Republic? Did the banking structure exist to make it possible? (Apparently not)

With these warning signs why not take a few seconds to cut, paste and search for the quotation in Google? That will quickly reveal that it does not appear in Cicero's work,  and its earliest version is from Taylor Caldwell's historical novel, The Pillar of Iron:
Antonius heartily agreed with him [sc. Cicero] that the budget should be balanced, that the Treasury should be refilled, that the public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of the generals should be tempered and controlled, that assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt, that the mobs should be forced to work and not depend on government for subsistence..
Caldwell was writing honest historical fiction (as far as fiction is ever honest), and making suppositions about Cicero's beliefs. She probably did not realize the extent she was projecting her own conservative view of 20th c. political issues onto the Roman Republic.

Now, notice how the passage has been massaged by ps-Cicero. A fictional summary of Cicero's beliefs is transformed into a direct quote. "The arrogance of the generals", while a real problem for Cicero, was not very relevant to 20th c. American politics, where arrogant generals are quite properly sacked, so the "arrogance of officialdom" is substituted. All of this was deliberate deception.

Fortunately, we can identify ps-Cicero as Louisiana Representative Otto Passman (or his speechwriter), who recited the fictional quote into the Congressional Record on April 25, 1968.

P.S. If you encounter something apparently written by the other faction that seems egregiously wrong, I beseech you to consider that it may have been written as satiric parody.

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