Swans Commentary » swans.com August 27, 2007  



Check Your Sources
The Real Story Behind Swans Masthead Citation


by Gilles d'Aymery





"Trade liberty for safety or money and you'll end up with neither. Liberty, like a grain of salt, easily dissolves. The power of questioning -- not simply believing -- has no friends. Yet liberty depends on it."
—Gilles d'Aymery (coined sometime in the fall of 1997)


(Swans - August 27, 2007)  To the possible chagrin of quotation aficionados I regret to inform that the aphorism that graces the masthead of Swans and is cited above was neither coined by Thomas Jefferson nor Benjamin Franklin. It's my own creation and it's about time that the story of its origin be told before it keeps being misattributed to these two memorable "founding fathers" of the United States of America (there were no "mothers" in those august times) and it becomes an urban legend.

In the February 19 & 26, 2007, issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand reviewed two books in "Notable Quotables" (pp. 186-189): Yale Book of Quotations, edited by Fred Shapiro, and The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes. Reading Menand's review, one could find out that Ingrid Bergman never said "Play it again, Sam" in the movie Casablanca. Yet, most of us would swear she did, but she indeed did not. She said, "Play it, Sam." Menand elaborates on what they actually said and what they did not say. From Patrick Henry to Leo Durocher, from Michael Douglas to Charles Boyer, from Muhammad Ali to Yogi Berra, from Winston Churchill to Herman Goring, they did not say what they are credited for allegedly having said. What do people actually say? What do the grapevines allege and spread all over the Internet (Web-wise), that is not for real -- a world of make-believe? Anonymous homo ignoramus create new reality. Think about this, for a moment.

De fils en aiguilles, as the French expression goes, it reminded me of a letter I received in July 2006. In that e-mail, an irate reader was accusing me of a non-attribution sin -- un pêché mignon, or was it one of lese-majesty? She wrote:

This is a quotation by Thomas Jefferson. Seems funny that you would quote Thomas Jefferson, and not Karl Marx. You are obviously an America-hating, capitalism-bashing, pro-communism bunch of great thinkers.

I guess you're ashamed to be quoting Jefferson, that's why you left off the attribution. That way people will assume a great mind like Marx actually originated it.

Well, at least for once, I was not accused of being French, a favorite scapegoat of l'Amérique profonde; usually, and most often, a word associated with an expletive, "the f***ing French." Only, "an America-hating, capitalism-bashing, pro-communism bunch of great thinkers..." I took the accusations in stride. I'm used to it. Almost 25 years of living in the midst of this baloney...enough time to become immune to idiocy and hatred. One has to move on. One ought to. We are poorly-configured ants at best. No one knows any longer (with tiny exception). No one thinks any longer (with tiny exception). We are back to beliefs and tribalism. Theology politics carries the day. (I fervently hope to be proven incorrect.)

In addition to all those friendly epithets thrown at me, most often behind the comfortable anonymity of the Internet, by people who've never met me, I've been accused of many ills over the years. I've been charged, and I guess indicted, of being stubborn, of being an idiot, a whiner, a loser, a dead-ender, an imbecile (I confess that this one is not far from the horrible reality), a coward, a bourgeois, of not being scholarly enough (this from a professor who could not spell the word "scholarly" properly), of erupting into Gallic temper tantrums, and whatnot. But, I've never been blamed for intellectual dishonesty, at least not yet.

Jefferson said it, affirms the lady. Where, when, did he say it? The lady sends me to an Indymedia Web page filled with quotations (or misquotations). Do a search on the word "grain" -- You'll find the citation toward the end of the page (about 80 percent down)

Since it's there, posted on an anonymous Web page, it must be correct, right?

You can also find the citation attributed to Jefferson on this Web page hosted on a site in the Netherlands. The citation is starting to do the rounds. Perhaps Bin Laden will utter it some day... "As your great president, Thomas Jefferson, once said .... Praise Allah."

A more perceptive and prolific blogger, Big Gav, attributed the citation to Benjamin Franklin. In a January 23, 2007, post, "Immanentizing the Eschaton," after excerpting parts of my article "Oil, The Elites, And The Commons," Big Gav added (about one third down -- again do a search on "grain"):

Swans have a few good quotes in their masthead and "About" page - first Albert Einstein - "The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all of our lives."

Next Buddha - "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your common sense."

And finally Benjamin Franklin - "Trade liberty for safety or money and you'll end up with neither. Liberty, like a grain of salt, easily dissolves. The power of questioning -- not simply believing -- has no friends. Yet liberty depends on it."

Sorry, Big Gav, Ben Franklin said, among many famous words and inventions: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." And you know what, dear Big Gav, I wish Louis Menand could confirm that Franklin actually said or wrote it, because at this point, even though FDR used that quote in his famous January 6, 1941, Four Freedoms address to Congress, it seems to me that one should doubt any attribution till it can be read openly in the Library of Congress -- and I am not even sure that this great repository of knowledge is not infected by the many viruses that roam over the Internet (check Wikipedia).

Now, understand me well. I am deeply honored that my words have been attributed to such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. It's a company one would gladly keep. But don't you think that such association does a disservice to their eminence? After all, you, friends and foes, are relating, albeit unknowingly, a commoner with towering historical figures, thus casting shade on their greatness.

Here is the true story behind the coinage of that aphorism.

In the closing years before we joyfully built the bridge to the next century made of happy times in Iraq and Minneapolis, to cite only two stars of our newly revised happiness, I was involved in the Israeli-Palestinian so-called peace process. I had traveled to this forsaken land where folks kill for the privilege of ownership to naively help what is a lost cause -- those guys, on both sides of the divide, will bring their own doom upon themselves (hopefully not upon us, but I doubt it). On my way back from that quixotic endeavor, I met a few Palestinians and Arabs in the San Francisco Bay Area. (I've lost contact with all of them, as water keeps running under the bridges of human destructive behaviors.) One of these people was Amal Dalati, the daughter of a Syrian father and an American mother. She worked at the Hoover Institution and was not afraid of expressing her conservative opinions about the state of the world. She once mentioned to me an old Arabic proverb: "It was like a pebble of salt and it dissolved" -- which means that unimportant matters simply do not perdure.

Then, on or about that time, I read Franklin's quote. Actually, in my little notebook that I've kept since the mid-1970s, Benjamin's follows Amal's Arabic proverb on the next page. Here's a snapshot of that notebook:

Pic: Gilles d'Aymery's quotations notebook - © 2007 Gilles d'Aymery - Size: 98k
The author's quotations notebook

I integrated them within my own thinking. I built upon the past to offer the present, to which future generations will build upon to hopefully keep the human experiment going. I built upon knowledge and thoughtfulness to bring knowledge and thoughtfulness onward. That is, in my humble opinion, the model of intellectual integrity. We are each of us a pebble of salt and we do dissolve within a few decades. People too often do put money and safety before liberty. History amply proves this. There may be comfort in beliefs, but little friendliness. Only the power of questioning will do, assuming we have the wisdom to offer solutions to our ongoing challenges. This is an ever-lasting endeavor. Today, if I could rewrite what I wrote then, I would incorporate a message of non-violence. But, I do not change what I have done or written. It may fool a few but it would never fool me. We all need to journey through the less-traveled road. Many have and will, as I do.

My name is Gilles d'Aymery and I carry it with honor and responsibility.

Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin did not write this aphorism.

I did.

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About the Author

Gilles d'Aymery on Swans (with bio). He is Swans' publisher and co-editor.



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This Edition's Internal Links

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Letters to the Editor

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art13/ga237.html
Published August 27, 2007