W. Joseph Campbell

Apocryphal, but still quotable

In Debunking, Media myths, Quotes on December 24, 2011 at 7:24 am

Apocryphal, but still quotable.

That’s the takeaway from a commentary posted yesterday at the online site of the Nation. The commentary invoked Zhou Enlai’s misinterpreted comment about the upshot of the French Revolution.

Zhou supposedly said in 1972 that it was “too early to say” what the effects would be. But Zhou was speaking about the political turmoil in France in 1968, not the years-long upheaval that began in 1789.

The Nation’s commentary, “The Soviet Union’s Afterlife,” tried to have it both ways with Zhou’s remark; the opening paragraph asserted:

“Asked to evaluate the French Revolution nearly 200 years later, the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was famously reported to have replied, ‘Too early to say.’ Though apocryphal, the long perspective attributed to Zhou is better informed than the certitudes of American commentators about the causes and consequences of the end of the Soviet Union only twenty years ago.”

If it’s apocryphal, then why invoke it? To do is to distort and confuse and even mislead.

The temptation to invoke telling quotes of dubious derivation can be too powerful to avoid. As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.”

Craig Silverman, author of Regret The Error and a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review, has likened dubious quotes to “little gems that supposedly tell a story in just a few words. They lodge themselves in our culture and consciousness.”

So it is with Zhou’s remark, which was made during President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in February 1972.

The conventional interpretation — which the Nation commentary invoked — is that the comment stands as evidence of the sage and far-sighted ways of Chinese leaders.

But we know from a retired U.S. diplomat, Charles W. (Chas) Freeman, that Zhou in his talks with Nixon in 1972 was taking a decidedly shorter and more immediate view of turmoil in France.

Freeman was Nixon’s interpreter during the trip and was present when Zhou made the “too early” comment.

Freeman has said that Zhou’s remark came during a discussion about revolutions that had succeeded and failed. The revolutions cited, Freeman said, included the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, both of which the Soviet Union crushed.

Freeman said it was clear from the context that in saying it was “too early to say,” Zhou was speaking about the events in France in May 1968.

How Zhou’s “too early” remark came to be so badly misinterpreted, Freeman was unable to say.

“I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype (as usual with all stereotypes, partly perceptive) about Chinese statesmen as far-sighted individuals who think in longer terms than their Western counterparts,” he said, adding:

“It was what people wanted to hear and believe, so it took” hold.

First to report Freeman’s debunking was Richard McGregor, a journalist and China expert writing for London’s Financial Times.

As I’ve pointed out, the appeal and tenacity of Zhou’s misinterpreted remark is reminiscent of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

Hearst’s reputed vow  supposedly was made in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, who was on assignment in Cuba for Hearst’s New York Journal.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, it “would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to ‘furnish the war’ because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.”

“Like many media-driven myths,” I further note, the purported Hearstian vow “is succinct, savory, and easily remembered.

“It is almost too good not to be true.”

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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