Page Two: Quotation Nation

Taking issue with citations

Page Two
"I hate quotation. Tell me what you know."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

As anyone who has ever read this column knows, I don't hate quotations, not at all. There is, however, a number of ways that quotations can be used. Often I feel that they far more eloquently express a point that I'm trying to make or lend more resonance and a richer meaning. Sometimes it just seems like happy, almost coincidental poetry. Many times the distance between how an idea is expressed in a quotation from another source and how it appears in my writing creates an openness about the idea or provides another way of looking at it.

"Well everything dies baby that's a fact

But maybe everything that dies someday comes back

Put your makeup on fix your hair up pretty

And meet me tonight in Atlantic City"

– Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City"

Not infrequently, writers (including letter-writers and forum posters) use quotations as a way to establish an opinion as a fact and to lend authority to the writer and credence to an idea – and those quotations are usually from some well-known person who agrees with whatever point that writer is making. In the same way, some will cite historical records, books, and websites to validate an opinion being expressed.

In the rich, ever-expanding, and more-accessible world of documents and sources, one can almost always find a backing statement supporting an already personally arrived-at point of view.

Still, given the vast extent of philosophical, historical, sociological, ideological, and scientific literature available almost everywhere, it is rare to find the single agreed-upon point. In almost every case, there are different takes; there might be a generally accepted point of view, but there is almost always a range of oppositional positions staked out. Even if one wants to argue that the most broadly accepted point of view represents the near-official, academy take, there are constant and ongoing appearances of revisionist takes, followed by other revisionist takes. In this flow, there are defenses of whatever the orthodoxy under question is and criticism of the revisionist takes.

This is true pretty much across the board.

There are areas of study – say, philosophy – that are based almost solely on human reasoning and thus obviously totally open to differing arguments.

Even such areas as history, anthropology, and sociology – in which there are quantitative studies, artifacts, and established histories – do not house a large body of information regarded by all as accepted truth.

There are some who will accept the above but argue that science is really objective description not informed by opinion and thus incapable of undergoing revisionist reassessments. According to the dictionary, science is "an area of knowledge that is an object of study" and "knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method." The problem with these definitions is that in science, as in medicine and mathematics, there are any number of controversies and disagreements across the whole range of study.

People will cite expert opinion or opinions as though the word "opinion," when coupled with "expert," means fact. Yet there are almost always other experts who disagree, holding very different opinions on the same topics.

"Everything flows. ... You cannot step twice into the same river."

– Heraclitus

In the debate over global warming, there seems to be certainty on all sides. We are assured by the everyone-is-evil-and-everything-is-a-conspiracy folks that only corrupt scientists argue for it. The larger, less specifically ideologically dominated opinion that "most scientists believe it is happening" also misses the point. Whereas there may be areas of common agreement, the world of intellectual opinions almost always follows a bell curve. Rarely, if ever, does a large group of experts agree on every aspect of a controversial topic. Instead, there is usually not only a range of views offered but disagreements about the steps, thoughts, and observations that lead to or support even the generally accepted views.

It is always sweet when one self-anointed expert or another agrees that there is some kind of nearly unanimous agreement on topics wrapped up in discussion or debate. Almost inevitably, this citing of harmonic consistency is barely if at all researched but is based on what the speakers believe they know to be true. They can't imagine disagreement.

"No one can see their reflection in running water.

It is only in still water that we can see."

– Taoist proverb

At times quotations are offered as though simply saying them lends complete authority to the speaker. If one argues that it is important to "speak truth to power," for instance, it doesn't inherently mean that what is being spoken is either true or necessarily a critique or contradiction of dominant ideology. It seems that, more often than not, when a writer urges others to have an "open mind," what he or she is really saying is "stop thinking the way you do and agree with me."

During anti-establishment and/or anti-war movements, one of my favorite chants has long been, "The people united will never be defeated." There is a lovely progressive humanism to that quotation.

Unfortunately, the contradictions inherent in that chant illustrate nicely one of the great conceptual failures of political movements.

The chant indicates a unity that crosses color, economic, religious, social, and geographical boundaries. Still, one can't help but feel certain that those chanting it, whatever movement they represented, figured that their vision of what the people wanted was the one that would be shared by the people united. The problem is that there is often an enormous disconnect between what the people united want and what their cheerleaders want.

I suspect that the latter are demanding economic, social, and political justice, although never as an abstract or cut to suit anyone's sense of those things but their own. Whereas the people can become focused on these as well, in the long run it seems likely that they are more interested in access to a Walmart, being able to afford McDonald's, and a wide-screen TV.

In my late teens, I began reading the works of Ayn Rand and was swept up and carried forward by her ideas. Later, I felt that rather than offering profound philosophical truths, her work was actually a buffet of interesting, powerful, lightweight, and trivial ideas. Rand's insistence on a shared ideology and aesthetic contradicted the ideas of personal responsibility for one's actions and ideas that still resonate.

But in my experience, no one has ever written on money, especially paper money, better than Rand. There is so much hero-parade-down-Fifth-Avenue confetti raining down on any discussion of money that what it really represents gets lost in aggressive ideologies, emotional distortions, and personal flaws that lead to its malevolent misuse. I bring it up here not because Rand's saying it makes it true. Nor do I have a militant ideological allegiance to her ideas overall. I disagree with her far more than I agree, and there are large areas of her philosophy that are no longer even of interest to me. But when she writes about what money can mean in the abstract, not only is she eloquent, but she presents a point of view that is too widely dismissed without thought.

Three separate quotes from Rand:

"So you think that money is the root of all evil? ... Money is a tool of exchange, which can't exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal ...."

"Money is your means of survival. The verdict you pronounce upon the source of your livelihood is the verdict you pronounce upon your life. If the source is corrupt, you have damned your own existence. Did you get your money by fraud? By pandering to men's vices or men's stupidity? By catering to fools, in the hope of getting more than your ability deserves? By lowering your standards? By doing work you despise for purchasers you scorn? If so, then your money will not give you a moment's or a penny's worth of joy. Then all the things you buy will become, not a tribute to you, but a reproach; not an achievement, but a reminder of shame. Then you'll scream that money is evil. Evil, because it would not pinch-hit for your self-respect? Evil, because it would not let you enjoy your depravity? Is this the root of your hatred of money?"

"But money is only a tool. It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver."

Coda

"Now here's what this story's told

If you feel like Mudd you'll end up Gold

If you feel like lost, you'll end up found

So amigo, lay them raises down"

– Townes Van Zandt, "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold"

"It's true that all the men you knew were dealers

who said they were through with dealing

Every time you gave them shelter

I know that kind of man

It's hard to hold the hand of anyone

who is reaching for the sky just to surrender,

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind

you find he did not leave you very much

not even laughter

Like any dealer he was watching for the card

that is so high and wild

he'll never need to deal another"

– Leonard Cohen, "The Stranger Song"

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

quotations, political argument, philosophical debate, Ayn Rand, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bruce Springsteen, Heraclitus, Taoism, Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen

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