Friday, February 24, 2006

Misleading shorthand

There are some quotations that seem to sum up an entire viewpoint so effectively that they are used as a shorthand. Yet the use of them is almost always either incorrect or misleading.

In 1977 Ian Smith, the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, made a statement that came to represent all the stale, hopeless racism of his state. It is always, always, cited as having been

"I don't believe in Black majority rule in Rhodesia. Not in a thousand years."

The reference to Hitler's thousand-year Reich are obvious, and have been made much of. Yet what Smith actually said was:

"I don't believe in Black majority rule in Rhodesia. Not in a thousand years. I believe in black and white working together. I believe that if one day we have White rule, and the next we have Black rule we will have failed, and that will be a disaster for Rhodesia."

The message is clear - Smith was not vaingloriously denying the possibility of Black rule, he was stating his preference for a mixed-franchise. But the look of the line is so good, and portrays an image of the man and the regime so close to what many commentators believe, that it is used as an abbreviation for what the writer believes Rhodesia stood for.

The other, and more famous one, is the infamous comment made by Mrs Thatcher.

There is no such thing as society.

Once again, the actual quotation was longer, and contained a key qualification.

There is no such thing as society. There are individuals and there are families.

The message is that no abstract notion of community will help, cries for 'society' to do something are shouting at an empty address. Yet the impression - that Thatcher was heartless and selfish - is too good for such an irrelevance to be considered. Today for example, in the Guardian (sorry), a comment about schooling states that school reform must:

Prove that Thatcher was wrong that there is no such thing as society

These reforms must, therefore, be based on:

family, kin and community.

In other words, precisely what Thatcher was defining as society. But citing Lady Thatcher as the prime influence for ideal educational reform might leave you excluded from the comment pages of the Guardian.

Incidentally, Tim has a piece that deconstructs the economic aspects of this piece - I just couldn't face it.


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