4 Famous Expressions Everyone is Using Wrong
Communication is hard. People can barely say what they mean, let alone make it sound clever. That’s why we all borrow the words of the smart people who came before us. But the problem with grabbing isolated quotes out of the mists of time is that they can shed context until the meaning has changed beyond all recognition, so let’s remember that …
A “City On A Hill” Is Supposed To Be Judged, Not Mindlessly Praised
If you’re a columnist who needs to opine on the state of America, calling it a “shining city on a hill” gives you instant credibility. Here’s an editorial about how America is still a shining city thanks to its welcoming of Afghan refugees, here’s one on how it lost its shine thanks to something Joe Biden did, and this one says most of the world will stop viewing America as that shining city if those communist Democrats pass their relief bill.
Not a day goes by without someone at the Fartsville Star-Tribune-Post-Herald busting “shining city” out. It’s especially popular among Republicans insisting that America is uniquely awesome because, while many presidents used the expression, Reagan bought it an apartment and paid its bills. In his farewell speech he said he pictured the city as “a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans.”
So this columnist says that, because America is a “shining city on a hill,” it can and must dominate the global economy. Mike Pompeo said America’s special shininess means those commies in Beijing and terrorists in Tehran are doomed. Even when a piece is warning that America’s ideals are failing, the implication is usually “If we keep this up, the rest of the world will no longer be amazed by us.”
The phrase is popular because it goes all the way back to the founding of America, right? In 1630, before colonists departed to settle Massachusetts Bay, Puritan lawyer John Winthrop told his fellows that the community they were about to found would be “as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people upon us.” That’s practically a prophecy about how awesome America would be, right?
But wait, where’d the “shining” go? Is it later in the speech? Winthrop kept going to say, uh, “So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.”
Oh. Yeah, Winthrop’s speech wasn’t a prediction that America was destined for unbridled greatness; it was a warning that they’d be criticized if they failed to live up to the high standards they’d set for themselves. The city isn’t shining, it’s exposed.
The full lecture, dubbed “A Model of Christian Charity,” goes on to spout hippie business like “We must love one another with a pure heart fervently, we must bear one another’s burdens,” “We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities,” “we must be knit together, in this work, as one man,” and “There is a time when a Christian must sell all and give to the poor. Likewise, community of perils calls for extraordinary liberality.” Funny how those parts don’t make it into many newspaper columns.
Historian Daniel T. Rodgers, who wrote a whole book about Winthrop’s speech, called it “a radical exhortation to love and fellow-feeling, a plea to lay aside self-interest when the social good demanded it.” No wonder it lingered in obscurity until the Cold War, when it was dug up and eventually stripped of all that complicated love crap so jingoists could insist that the rest of the world thought a shiny America kicked absolutely all the ass.
The Only Thing Necessary For “The Triumph Of Evil” Was Alcohol
Whether you’re fighting Nazis or the local school board’s attempt to rebrand the War of Northern Aggression, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” is an instant winner. Not only have you claimed team good guy for yourself, but you’ve made fighting evil sound pretty easy. What gutless Yankee would dare stand against you after you bust out Edmund Burke’s timeless quote?
First, if you want a bit of sport, try challenging the speaker to explain who Edmund Burke is. But the larger problem is that he never said it.
The closest Burke got was “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle” which, while true, could also be applied to a street brawl or your game of Civ 6 with the boys. John Stuart Mill offered the similar but less catchy “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing,” while Jefferson’s been falsely attributed with another twist on the sentiment. And yes, you can get it on a patriotic shirt.
Curious quoteologists aren’t sure who said the exact words, and the quote immediately loses a lot of its punch when you have to attribute it to “I dunno, some guy.” But what’s more important is that, while Kennedy was famous for busting out a garbled version, the quote was initially popularized by prohibitionists.
Papers from the '10s and '20s reported on speeches by Reverend Charles F. Aked where the evil powers who want good men to do nothing were “the people in the liquor traffic.” Aked never claimed the quote was original, although he sometimes got credit for it when railing against alcohol. By 1921 it was becoming associated with Burke, as another prominent temperance man stood up and declared “Burke once said: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.’ Leave the Drink Trade alone and it will throttle all that is good in a nation’s life.”
If you asked someone waving those words on a sign to picture “evil,” they’re probably not going to envision summer patio beers. And that’s the problem, really; one person’s evil is another’s mundanity. To Aked, evil won pretty handily. You have to make the case for what the evil is instead of just quoting a dead smart guy and calling it a day.
Regardless Of What Jerks Tell You, The Ends Don’t Justify The Means
Whether you’re trying to justify torture and war crimes or just a real dick move in a board game, nothing makes an asshole sound sage than “The ends justify the means.” Sure, it’s a bleak worldview, but famous conniving smartie Machiavelli said it. Are you smarter than Machiavelli? Of course not, so accept your Settlers of Catan defeat with good grace.
But, as you probably guessed, the Big M never wrote those words. And while his famous book everyone knows – The Golden Ass, of course – does have that vibe, it’s considerably more complicated than the nihilistic scarecrow that the pithier quote implies.
It’s understandable that the philosophy’s been dumbed down; you can’t exactly blurt out “Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result” when your roommate calls you out for grabbing the last beer. But the argument is more about how power tends to self-perpetuate and justify itself.
The only real end in The Prince is the Prince staying in power. That doesn’t mean “just do whatever you want,” because being or at least appearing just is an important part of staying in power. But the irony is that when someone defends the abuses of a powerful government or person, they’re mindlessly falling for the exact trick that Machiavelli said they would: “Wherefore if a Prince succeeds in establishing and maintaining his authority, the means will always be judged honourable and be approved by every one.”
The Prince is a complicated work that clashes with Machiavelli’s other, more Republican, writings, but that’s for the nerds to debate. Where do we get “the ends justify the means” from? A probable source is the poet Ovid, who wrote “exitus acta probat,” or “the outcome is the test of the act.” But that subtle difference has the opposite point; the end you arrive at proves whether the means were good or not. Win by cheating and you’re left with a bad outcome, because you pissed everyone off with a dubious victory. Also, Ovid was writing poems about scorned lovers, which probably isn’t the end everyone is thinking about when they bust this quote out.
All of this is open to philosophical quibbling, but the point is that when someone says “The ends justify the means” you can counter with “Read a book, ya jabroni.”
“Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged” Doesn’t Mean We Should Throw All Judgment Out The Window
It’s three in the morning and you’re vomiting half-digested Jell-O shots in the vague direction of the toilet. As a loved one helps you get more regurgitated vodka in the bowl and less on the cat, they encourage you to dial back your wild Tuesday nights. “Judge not lest ye be judged,” you slur, ready to call them out on their bad eating habits before you pass out on the bathroom tile.
This one comes from some fellow named Jesus. It sounds simple enough, the Biblical version of “live and let live.” Whether you’re religious or not, surely you can agree with his call to not be a dick. And whenever people are slamming you for cheating or lying, just bust this sucker out to make them slink away in shame and think about their own failures.
Many, many quotes are misunderstood because they were popularized without context, which is why so many people think “a few bad apples” are no big deal. So how did Jesus’ sermon continue? “Now that that’s settled, let’s go knock back some wine on me”? Actually, it’s …
“And with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.”
Judgment is fine; it’s hypocrisy that’s the problem. We’ll be judged by the measure we use to judge, but that’s fine if you’re sober and your pal is a raging alcoholic. But, if you also have a problem, you need to fix yourself before you start judging others for the same flaw.
That’s what the mote and beam metaphor is about. Not only is a problem in your life more important (to you) than a problem in someone else’s life, but people tend to be the most judgmental when they’re calling out a flaw they struggle with. Adulterers worry they’re being cheated on, alcoholics justify their drinking by looking down on people who drink even more, people with anger issues think everyone they meet is a jerk.
So we can’t judge if our judgment is flawed. But if our judgment isn’t flawed then hell yeah, judge away! Not only is whipping out an isolated “judge not” at every opportunity ironic, since you’re hypocritically judging everyone who judges you regardless of context, but we have to make judgments in order to tell good from bad. If we never judge anyone, then we’re implicitly condoning their actions.
So get your judgment on, everyone! Of course, judging should generally lead to helping, not mic drops, but letting bad people mindlessly drown out criticism with “don’t judge” misses the point entirely. Thankfully, this is the only time that Jesus’ words have ever been misinterpreted.