Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

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All omissions are not created equal

Jerry Stratton, December 13, 2005

Corporal Jeff Starr died, last April, on his third tour of duty in Iraq. Anticipating the possibility of death, he did what many people think about but don’t do. He wrote a letter to be delivered after his death. In this letter, he wrote:

Obviously if you are reading this then I have died in Iraq. I kind of predicted this, that is why I’m writing this in November. A third time just seemed like I’m pushing my chances. I don’t regret going, everybody dies but few get to do it for something as important as freedom. It may seem confusing why we are in Iraq, it’s not to me. I’m here helping these people, so that they can live the way we live. Not have to worry about tyrants or vicious dictators. To do what they want with their lives. To me that is why I died. Others have died for my freedom, now this is my mark.

It’s a powerful statement about one man’s reasons for choosing to fight in Iraq.

On October 26th, James Dao wrote in the New York Times about the “grim mark” of 2,000 dead soldiers, and quoted Corporal Starr:

Corporal Starr believed strongly in the war, his father said, but was tired of the harsh life and nearness of death in Iraq. So he enrolled at Everett Community College near his parents’ home in Snohomish, Wash., planning to study psychology after his enlistment ended in August.

But he died in a firefight in Ramadi on April 30 during his third tour in Iraq. He was 22.

Sifting through Corporal Starr’s laptop computer after his death, his father found a letter to be delivered to the marine’s girlfriend. “I kind of predicted this,” Corporal Starr wrote of his own death. “A third time just seemed like I’m pushing my chances.”

And that was the end of their quote.

Starr’s family and girlfriend complained that this omission changed the meaning of his last message. It clearly does: it turns hope into despair. And according to Dao, his version of the quote was in fact meant to “express the fatalism that many soldiers and marines seem to feel about multiple tours.”

The problem is that Jeff Starr didn’t express fatalism. He expressed hope. He expressed a certainty of why he was there and what he was doing. He knew that he might be dying for those reasons, and he wanted his family to know that he did so without regret. “Few get to do it for something as important as freedom.”

Dao wrote to one reader who complained about the omission, and how it changed the meaning of what Starr wrote, with “what right do you have to object when papers like the New York Times try to describe that anxiety and fear”?

What that reader saw but Dao didn’t understand is that while describing anxiety and fear is reasonable, creating it where it doesn’t exist is not. They severely distorted Jeff Starr’s last message, and as an author I’m acutely sensitive to that crime. The article was all the more misleading because it quoted Corporal Starr’s father about his son’s belief in the war, as if the son himself hadn’t written anything about it. Rather than letting the son speak directly from the email, they quoted only the preamble of the son’s message. This seems like a deliberate omission.

However, if it was just a matter of the New York Times selectively quoting a soldier’s letter to change its meaning, the story would probably have ended there. Some bloggers noted the discrepancy, Dao responded angrily questioning who had the right to object when the Times creates fear and anxiety, and it passed so quickly that I didn’t even see it in November.

New life for a powerful message

But Jeff Starr’s letter was a powerful one in context, and several weeks later George Bush quoted it, too. On November 30 he said:

One of those fallen heroes is a Marine Corporal named Jeff Starr, who was killed fighting the terrorists in Ramadi earlier this year. After he died, a letter was found on his laptop computer. Here’s what he wrote, he said, “[I]f you’re reading this, then I’ve died in Iraq. I don’t regret going. Everybody dies, but few get to do it for something as important as freedom. It may seem confusing why we are in Iraq, it’s not to me. I’m here helping these people, so they can live the way we live. Not [to] have to worry about tyrants or vicious dictators. Others have died for my freedom, now this is my mark."

Suddenly some commenters jumped on this as payback for the criticism that the New York Times had received. Saying that the president should have left the “fatalistic” part in, and calling on the bloggers who had complained about the New York Times’s omission to also complain about the president’s.

Danny Westneat wrote in the Seattle Times that:

Then Wednesday, President Bush quoted Starr in his Iraq speech. Bush read most of the passage--only he skipped over the dark, foreboding part about how Starr was on his third tour and suspected he would die.

Except that... there was no dark, foreboding part. The first sentence is only dark and foreboding when taken out of the context of what Corporal Starr wrote. In the New York Times it was dark and foreboding, sure. That’s because the New York Times left out the hope, resulting in a twisted message.

A Daily Kos poster wrote that:

Bush’s “selective editing,” on the other hand, was a blatant attempt to eliminate any negativity or doubt that our soldiers might harbor about their mission. In my opinion, Bush’s omission is a much more egregious misrepresentation of Starr’s true feelings than Dao’s.

In context, though, Starr’s statement was neither negative nor doubtful. Leaving that first section out didn’t change the meaning of what Starr wrote, unless you had already bought into the incorrect reading presented by Dao in the Times.

The part the president left out was only fatalistic when taken out of context. Not all omissions change the meaning of a text. Even if Bush’s omission changed the meaning of the soldier’s statement, though, that does not absolve the New York Times for also making an egregious change. But it seems obvious to me that Bush’s omission did not change the meaning of what Starr wrote, and that’s most likely why Starr’s family isn’t mad at Bush as they were at the Times.

Speeches are not Legos

A respect for original meaning does not mean that we can’t quote people. Only that we shouldn’t do so and deliberately change what they meant. The quote that the Times used meant something different in context than how they presented it; the quote that the president used did not change the meaning of what was written.

Speeches and statements should not be taken apart like building blocks and put back together to get a desired new meaning. They already have a meaning. Readers expect--as they should--that what a person says will not have its meaning changed when quoted.

But from Michael Moore making a living out of misrepresentations such as the cutting and pasting of two Charlton Heston speeches into a new one with new meaning, to Slate’s Bushism of the Day, on one side; to misquoting Al Gore with misquoted Dan Quayle quotes on the other; deliberately misquoting political opponents has become a national pasttime. It makes money in our theaters and it fills our inboxes.

In some cases, these misquotes aren’t even quotes. They’re completely made-up. During the first Bush presidency, many Dan Quayle quotes were passed around the early Internet. Some were justifiably silly, some were out of context, and some had been completely made up for satirical news articles and then taken out of that context. But in 2000, the same list of quotes gained a new life, now attributed to Al Gore. It even included a clueless quote about the environment, something that environmental activist Gore would obviously never say (and, as it turned out, that Dan Quayle didn’t say either).

I’m still getting searches for Laura Bush talking about underprivileged victims of Hurricane Katrina--something the first lady never said, and which was taken out of the context of what the real speaker actually said. Worse, the New York Times actually “paraphrased” what had been said to add new meaning to it. The Times might call this a “clarification” but it’s a clarification whose meaning does not appear in the original audio interview.

This is no longer a world where deliberate misquotes go uncorrected; we have the Internet and blogs to thank for that. But that doesn’t mean such things are harmless. Even when corrected, deliberate misquotes foster an acrimonious political climate. Partisans on both sides deliberately embrace known misquotes as long as those misquotes attack a political enemy--at the same time as they decry misquotes that attack their own “side”.

As technology advances we also will see more doctored photographs and, eventually, video. The trend is inevitable, not because we put up with it, but because we embrace it. The problem isn’t just that news sources or that bloggers create misquotes, but that otherwise intelligent people pass them on without thinking; or, worse, knowing that the quotes are wrong but viewing them as useful to further a cause. Good causes cannot be furthered by lies.

Too many people complain about bias when misquotes are debunked. When an obvious misrepresentation is pointed out, the response is that only a biased person would debunk a misleading or completely twisted quote.

Claiming a moral equivalence between misquotes such as the Times Starr quote and normal quotes such as the president’s quote of the same source is an attempt to whitewash this real problem. Deliberately twisting a speaker’s meaning is not the same as quoting them. Some edits are far worse than others.

What will happen is that some political leaders will choose to not say anything; and some people caught up in current events, such as Jeff Starr’s girlfriend, will in the future choose not to share their part of history with us.

We must be able to quote political leaders and writers, and our understanding of our times is enriched when private writings are willingly shared. Deliberate misquotes lessen our political debate and our understanding of current events. The debate goes not to the issues, and not to examining the issues, but instead becomes a yelling match about who said what and whether anything was said at all. Too often, it turns out that nothing is.

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