WASHINGTON – To be immortal is to be misquoted. Repeatedly, and often at length. It is to have words stuffed into your mouth by total strangers. It is to be parodied and caricatured and have your face shoved onto T-shirts and your name bandied about and slapped on street signs.
It is to be taken out of context. It is to trend on Twitter for hours before everyone realizes you didn’t say what they thought you said. It is to show up in Chevy commercials for no reason at all. When you are immortal, people sit down with you on imaginary panels and try to conjure up your thoughts on contemporary issues. They draw inept pastel portraits of you.
“The words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living,” W. H. Auden wrote on the death of Yeats.
These days, everyone says a great deal, but not much of it is memorable. Twitter exists, words writ in hot water. We have to shout to be heard above the tumult, and it is difficult to shout beautifully. In a peculiar way we are more dependent on the Great Sayers than we ever were.
Like Twain and Lincoln, other behemoths of American letters, Martin Luther King Jr. is always a first recourse for quotation, everywhere from cynical name-dropping in SAT essays — “In the immortal words of Dr. King” — to showing up to add vital grace to political speech.
We misquote because we love. We misquote because we have stopped memorizing things.
Moments before our speeches, we can’t, as King could, unearth vast stores of biblical and literary treasures from the rich storehouses of our memories. We misquote because we have the vague idea that at some point, someone said something great, and the first thing that came up when we Googled it seemed about right.
Do important people still say beautiful things? Barack Obama did, once, at the Democratic convention. But dozens of subsequent speeches blur and run together.
King has made headlines most recently for a series of high-profile misquotations. When you’re taken out of context on your own monument, this seems a bit much — as my colleague Rachel Manteuffel noted. “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter,” mutated, in the carver’s hands, to “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.”
This was the misquotation for which everyone else was blamed — there was not enough room on the marble, or the committee approved something else, or — a whole concatenation of fingerpointing. Now it might be changed, though not soon enough.
Still, misquotation is a form of flattery. We seek King out for words because he was one of the rare people privileged to say and do great things. Few can manage one of the two.
Besides, one of the conditions of a statue is abiding the pigeons.
The only thing worse than being misquoted is not being quoted at all, to misquote Oscar Wilde.
Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.
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