Posted by: ushistoryfiles | July 19, 2012

Context Please

I caught the above video on YouTube the other day.  The bit is funny (to me at least) because Conan takes snippets from various Obama and Romney speeches out of context – and they are obviously not meant to be campaign slogans.

I’ve also noted that quotes from iconic historical figures are treated much the same way.  These “quotes” are often used to support a particular political position, as if the founder quoted owned a crystal ball and was commenting on today’s politics from ages past.  Worse yet, there are cases where the “quotes” are not taken out of context at all – they are simply made up, or even borrowed from contemporaries but attributed to a revered historical figure.  In addition, we often take a quote that applies to one situation and try to misapply it to another.  (As an example I’ll point you to Benjamin Wittes’ blog post on Ben Franklin’s Liberty & Safety quote here.)

The truth is that any book, speech, or letter can contain a quote that can be taken out of context thus perverting the true meaning of the author or speaker.  Bible quotations are a perfect example.  You can pretty much pick any (I did qualify this with “pretty much”) position and find a Bible quote to support it.

What is the lesson here?  Be careful when you see these quotes pop up on facebook, etc…  Yes, the Founding Fathers provided us with great overall ideas and thoughts about freedom and liberty and the political process, and…and…and.  But remember that they were not clairvoyant.  Understand the context of their writings.  A statement made about a specific situation or a specific time period does not always apply to every situation and every time.  And, please, please, make sure that the quote is accurate before using.  Quote carefully and make sure there is a good source.

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