Familiar Contextomies

Introduction: A contextomy is a quote that has been taken out of context in such a way as to create a misleading impression of its meaning. A "familiar contextomy" is a contextomy that finds its way repeatedly into print or conversation, usually to support a particular point.

You will not find the following types of misleading quotes here:

What you will find are accurate quotes that give a false impression when removed from their context, together with that context. Moreover, each example has been used to advance some argument, thus committing the fallacy of quoting out of context. If you know of any familiar contextomies that should be included, wonder whether some quote is in fact a contextomy, or have any comments or questions about this feature, please let me know.

Index
Adams, John Cheney, Richard Gates, Bill Hecht, Ben
Holmes, Oliver Wendell Jefferson, Thomas Kennan, George Lee, Robert E.
Madison, James McIntyre, Jamie Rice, Condoleezza Walter, Mike
Wilson, Charles

John Adams

Contextomy:

This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!

Exposition: This quote is sometimes cited by people who argue against religion and want to appeal to Adams' authority, or who use the quote as evidence that the Founding Fathers were opposed to religion.

Context:

Twenty times, in the course of my late Reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it"!!! But in this exclamati[on] I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly [Adams' boyhood parish priest and Latin school master]. Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell.

Exposure: The contextomy is in quotation marks in Adams' letter, which is an important part of the context, since it shows that Adams is not endorsing that sentiment, but in fact rejecting it.

Sources:

Resources:

Examples:

Acknowledgment: Thanks to José Gabriel Pedroso Rosa for pointing out a mistake in the Context.


Richard Cheney

Contextomy:

We believe he [Saddam Hussein] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.

Exposition: This quote has been used repeatedly by people who opposed the invasion of Iraq, and who use it as evidence that the Bush administration had justified that invasion on the basis of Iraq possessing nuclear weapons.

Context:

Tim Russert: What do you think is the most important rationale for going to war with Iraq?

Cheney: Well, I think I've just given it, Tim, in terms of the combination of his development and use of chemical weapons, his development of biological weapons, his pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Russert: And even though the International Atomic Energy Agency said he does not have a nuclear program, we disagree?

Cheney: I disagree, yes. … Let's talk about the nuclear proposition for a minute. … In the late '70s, Saddam Hussein acquired nuclear reactors from the French. 1981, the Israelis took out the Osirak reactor and stopped his nuclear weapons development at the time. Throughout the '80s, he mounted a new effort. I was told when I was defense secretary before the Gulf War that he was eight to 10 years away from a nuclear weapon. And we found out after the Gulf War that he was within one or two years of having a nuclear weapon because he had a massive effort under way that involved four or five different technologies for enriching uranium to produce fissile material. We know that based on intelligence that he has been very, very good at hiding these kinds of efforts. He's had years to get good at it and we know he has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.

Exposure: The context makes it clear that Cheney was claiming―probably falsely―that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program, not that it had acquired actual nuclear weapons. Most contextomies get passed around among advocates of a position to the point that their original source is obscured. This is a rare contextomy whose source is known, namely, an article by Dana Milbank that appeared the day after the interview from which the quote was contextomized. Milbank later used the quote in the "Verbatim" feature of his column, and a correction from Cheney's office was soon appended, but it was too late. The contextomy had metastasized, spreading so rapidly among critics of the war in Iraq that it was impossible to stop, no matter how often or publicly it was corrected.

Sources:

Resources:

Example: Timothy Noah, "Whopper of the Week: Donald Rumsfeld", Slate, 5/23/2003

Reader Response:

I understand the subtle nuance of shifting from the prior statement that referred to the program and the quotes used to discredit him were made clear by the context that he really meant the program. What I am having a problem rectifying is who is really guilty of what.

The context could be linked to the programs, which as you aptly point out was most likely a false claim by Cheney, but the way it is written he could have very well been using the same contextomy rather than the people spinning what he had said.

Mr. Cheney seems to be rather well versed in contextomies as evident in even his everyday speech but especially in a political forum. You pointed out that his people were quick to "append" his comment, but as I see it that could have been required more because the people misunderstood what he said to be actually what he was trying to convey with his statement. As I read the statement, it suggests to me that he is suggesting exactly that Saddam had indeed acquired nuclear weapons by some method, possibly by reconstituting them.

I am not sure if my explanation is exactly clear as if this is a double (or maybe triple with the appended statement) contextomy, let me give you an example of one that seems to parallel what I am trying to say. If you are a tourist around Jackson Square, you may very well be approached and challenged with this statement, "I bet you a dollar that I can tell you where you got them shoes" as he points to the shoes you are wearing. Of course, since there is no way for this stranger to know where you are from or where you actually bought your shoes, you take the bet. Well, you will lose as the response after the challenge is accepted is, "You got your shoes on your feet." The challenger is setting you up to fall into the contextomy. The mark assumes that he is talking about the context of where you purchased your shoes but the bet is lost because the mark did not realize that he was being set up with a misleading question.

In this example, Cheney is trying to suggest that Saddam has nuclear weapons but not be caught in a direct lie, so he offers a contextomy to protect himself. He was, however, so clever in his statement that his statement taken exactly as he said it does indeed fit either position. He could be meaning that he has nuclear weapons or he could be saying that he has a reconstituted nuclear weapons program, which would have been enough to scare the public into giving him support. But since he walked too much on that slippery slope, he was caught in his own contextomy and had to append his statement.

Now, I realize that this is a very fine point, but I would like to know if I am understanding this example correctly or if I am mistaken in the way I see this example being only half of what I consider an obvious example of some sort of double spin by a master in political spinning that was just not perfect enough to get by. I think that he said exactly what he meant to convey. I think that his only problem was that when he accidentally said exactly what he wanted people to think, he had to append it to have a way to claim not to have outright lied to bring us into the war that ensued at least partially because of this contextomy. We are still paying for it both in our economy and in the lives of the victims and their families.―Lemuel Schenck

First of all, a technical point: The sucker bet example is amusing but not really a contextomy. Rather, the con artist is equivocating on the word "got", which can mean either "bought" or "physically located". The "mark" interprets the bet as a challenge to guess where the shoes were purchased, which is a good bet for the mark; whereas, the con artist intends the challenge to be to guess where the shoes are physically located, which is a sure thing. However, I take your point to be that Cheney was using an ambiguous statement to trick people into thinking that Saddam Hussein had acquired nuclear weapons.

Now, not only did Cheney's office issue a clarification the next day of what he said, but Cheney himself later claimed that he misspoke (see the Resource, above, for 9/14/2003). I suppose if Cheney came out and admitted that he intentionally dropped the word "program" in an attempt to mislead the American people into war with Iraq, that you would believe him. However, I can't see what would constitute evidence that he misspoke that you wouldn't reject. When Cheney says that he misspoke, you think that is a lie. So, it's hard for me to imagine what kind of evidence―in addition to what I've already given above, or is available in the Resources that I linked to―you would accept. In other words, it seems that your position is: heads you win, tails I lose. That's confirmation bias on steroids!

The only thing that I can think to add is that the claim that he intended to mislead people into thinking that Iraq had already acquired nuclear weapons is implausible. If the goal was supposed to be to convince people that a war with Iraq was a good idea, such a claim could easily backfire. If Iraq actually possessed an atomic bomb, it could've inflicted massive casualties upon allied soldiers, an American city, or perhaps an Israeli city. Such a prospect, if taken seriously, would've been enough to turn many people against the invasion. That said, since your claim seems to be unfalsifiable, it's a sucker bet to try to falsify it.

My primary purpose here was not to defend Cheney, but to point out that this was a quote taken misleadingly out of context. I can't read Cheney's mind now, let alone several years ago, so the only thing I know about his intentions is what he says and what seems plausible. However, whatever Cheney's intentions, the way in which the quote was used was still a contextomy, since it was frequently quoted without any of the context of the interview or of Cheney's later clarifications (see the Resources, above, for multiple examples). Secondarily, I wanted to point out that adopting a position that is unfalsifiable, while perhaps not a fallacy, is at least a questionable procedure in argument. You can't reasonably expect people to argue with you if you reject any evidence against your position as a lie.


Bill Gates

Contextomy:

The world today has 6.8 billion people. That’s headed up to about 9 billion. Now if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that by perhaps 10 or 15 percent.

Exposition: This quote has been used by some―including some anti-vaccine activists―to suggest that Gates was advocating somehow killing a billion people with "new vaccines, health care, [and] reproductive health services". I won't link to any webpages that use this quote out of context to make outrageously false accusations, because I don't want to send traffic to those who are either dishonest or recklessly indifferent to the truth. However, if you don't believe me, you can simply do a websearch on the truncated quote, which should bring up many examples.

Context:

CO2 is warming the planet, and the equation on CO2 is actually a very straightforward one. … Now, we put out a lot of carbon dioxide every year…. And, somehow, we have to make changes that will bring that down to zero. It's been constantly going up. … This equation has four factors, a little bit of multiplication: So, you've got a thing on the left, CO2, that you want to get to zero, and that's going to be based on the number of people, the services each person's using on average, the energy on average for each service, and the CO2 being put out per unit of energy. So, let's look at each one of these and see how we can get this down to zero. Probably, one of these numbers is going to have to get pretty near to zero. Now that's back from high school algebra, but let's take a look. First, we've got population. The world today has 6.8 billion people. That's headed up to about nine billion. Now, if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that by, perhaps, 10 or 15 percent, but there we see an increase of about 1.3. The second factor is the services we use. … In the rich world, perhaps the top one billion, we probably could cut back and use less, but every year, this number, on average, is going to go up, and so, over all, that will more than double the services delivered per person. … Now, efficiency, E, the energy for each service, here finally we have some good news. We have something that's not going up. … So let's look at this fourth factor―this is going to be a key one―and this is the amount of CO2 put out per each unit of energy. And so the question is: Can you actually get that to zero?
Source: Bill Gates, "Bill Gates: Innovating to zero!", TED, 2/2010

Exposure: The notion that Gates is advocating reducing the population of the planet by a billion people comes from taking 15% of 6.8 billion, which is a little over a billion. However, it's clear from the full context of the quote that Gates is not talking about reducing the size of the population at all, but reducing its growth, which is why he finishes the sentence with "but there we see an increase of about 1.3 [billion]". In other words, if the amount of population increase were lower by 10%, the world's population would stabilize at around 8.1 billion instead of 9 billion. That is, 90% of 9 billion is 8.1 billion―which is lower by 10%―but 8.1=6.8 + 1.3, so that is the current population together with an additional 1.3 billion. That's where the 1.3 comes from!

Now, Gates was not as clear as he should have been, so that some of those who misinterpreted his remarks may have been genuinely confused. However, others have twisted his words to claim that he was advocating a billion decrease in population, when he's actually talking about over a billion increase.

Another source of confusion in this quote is Gates' reference to vaccination. It's obvious how reproductive health care can contribute to lower population growth, but how does health care in general or vaccination specifically do so? If anything, one would think that improved health care and increased vaccination would lead to larger population growth, and indeed they have done so in the past. Thankfully, Gates himself explained elsewhere his thinking on the matter:

When Melinda and I first started our giving, in the late 1990s, our focus was on reproductive health rather than childhood deaths. We felt that giving mothers the tools to limit their family size to what they wanted would have a catalytic effect by reducing population growth and making it easier to feed, educate, and provide jobs for the children who were born. … A surprising but critical fact we learned was that reducing the number of deaths actually reduces population growth. … Contrary to the Malthusian view that population will grow to the limit of however many kids can be fed, in fact parents choose to have enough kids to give them a high chance that several will survive to support them as they grow old. As the number of kids who survive to adulthood goes up, parents can achieve this goal without having as many children. … This was a huge revelation for Melinda and me. It is why we expanded our focus from reproductive health to all of the major infectious diseases.

So, no, Bill Gates didn't just happen to blurt out on a video that you can view for yourself above that he wants a billion people to die. Nor did he accidentally reveal in that same public video that vaccines actually kill people instead of saving lives. Rather, the people who make such claims are either liars or just can't be bothered to find out the truth before accusing someone of wanting to be the greatest mass murderer in human history.

Sources:


Ben Hecht

Contextomy:

One of the finest things ever done by the mob was the crucifixion of Christ. Intellectually it was a splendid gesture. But trust the mob to bungle. If I had charge of executing Christ, I would have handled it differently. You see what I would have done was had him shipped to Rome and fed to the lions. They never could have made a savior out of mince meat.

Context:

The context of the quote is a novel in which it is spoken by a fictional character. There is no more reason to think that it represents the views of Ben Hecht than there is to think that the words of Iago represent the opinions of Shakespeare.

Exposure: Boller and George trace the use of this quote back to a 1964 antisemitic leaflet, and the quote continues to be used today by Christian antisemites to whip up anger at Jews among Christians. The quote can be found on many antisemitic sites on the web.

Source:

Paul F. Boller, Jr. & John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, & Misleading Attributions, pp. 44-45.


Oliver Wendell Holmes

Contextomy:

Truth is the majority vote of that nation that could lick all others.

Exposition:

This quote is usually used as evidence that Supreme Court Justice Holmes was advocating a "might makes right" view of truth that supposedly has badly affected subsequent jurisprudence.

Context:

I used to say when I was young, that truth was the majority vote of that nation that could lick all others. …I think that the statement was correct insofar as it implied that our test of truth is a reference to either a present or an imagined future majority in favor of our view.

Exposure:

One part of the context that is usually omitted from this quote is that it comes not from a court decision, but from a law review article. Moreover, in that article Holmes is not asserting the comment, but quoting and correcting his younger self. One may well disagree with Holmes' view of truth, but it is not the straw man that is usually attacked when this contextomy makes an appearance.

Source: Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Natural Law", The Harvard Law Review (1918)

Example: C. Everett Koop & Francis A. Schaeffer, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (Revised Edition, 1986), p. 6.


Thomas Jefferson

Contextomy:

Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man.

Exposition:

This contextomy appears onscreen in comedian Bill Maher's documentary Religulous (2008) during a scene discussing the Founding Fathers and religion with Ray Suarez. Maher asks Suarez:

How did this country get to be a Christian nation? I've read a lot of quotes from all the Founding Fathers. There are a lot of quotes that explicitly say we're not a Christian nation.

At this point, three quotes appear on the screen, including the Adams one (see above) and this one.

Context:

Those who live by mystery & charlatanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy,―the most sublime & benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man,―endeavored to crush your well-earnt & well-deserved fame.

Exposure:

Even taken out of context, Jefferson's quote does not support Maher's claim that the United States is not a christian nation according to the Founding Fathers. At best, the quote seems to show hostility on the part of Jefferson toward christianity.

However, the quote is taken from a letter to Joseph Priestley, who is best remembered today as a scientist, but was also a minister and author of An History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782). It may be this book that Jefferson alludes to in his compliment to Priestley for "simplifying the Christian philosophy", which while "the most sublime and benevolent" is also the "most perverted system that ever shone on man". Jefferson here uses the word "perverted" in its sense of turned away from the right course, which is similar in sense to Priestley's use of the word "corruption".

Both Jefferson and Priestley believed that christianity had been corrupted and perverted from its original, simpler form. Jefferson was, indeed, hostile to this corrupt form of christianity, but he simultaneously believed that the philosophy of Jesus was "the most sublime and benevolent…system that ever shone on man." In a letter to Benjamin Rush, he explained:

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.

A letter to John Adams makes the same point as that in the letter to Priestley:

The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. … But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.

Sources:


George Kennan

Contextomy:

[W]e have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population…. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives…. We should cease to talk about vague and…unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

Exposition: This quote is usually used to argue that Kennan was advocating American imperialism or domination over the rest of the world without regard to moral concerns. It at least makes his "realism" about foreign policy sound callously cynical.

Context:

My main impression with regard to the position of this Government with regard to the Far East is that we are greatly over-extended in our whole thinking about what we can accomplish, and should try to accomplish, in that area. …

It is urgently necessary that we recognize our own limitations as a moral and ideological force among the Asiatic peoples.

Our political philosophy and our patterns for living have very little applicability to masses of people in Asia. They may be all right for us, with our highly developed political traditions running back into the centuries and with our peculiarly favorable geographic position; but they are simply not practical or helpful, today, for most of the people in Asia.

This being the case, we must be very careful when we speak of exercising "leadership" in Asia. We are deceiving ourselves and others when we pretend to have the answers to the problems which agitate many of these Asiatic peoples.

Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.

For these reasons, we must observe great restraint in our attitude toward the Far Eastern areas. The peoples of Asia and of the Pacific area are going to go ahead, whatever we do, with the development of their political forms and mutual interrelationships in their own way. … All of the Asiatic peoples are faced with the necessity for evolving new forms of life to conform to the impact of modern technology. This process of adaptation will also be long and violent. It is not only possible, but probable, that in the course of this process many peoples will fall, for varying periods, under the influence of Moscow, whose ideology has a greater lure for such peoples, and probably greater reality, than anything we could oppose to it. All this, too, is probably unavoidable; and we could not hope to combat it without the diversion of a far greater portion of our national effort than our people would ever willingly concede to such a purpose.

In the face of this situation we would be better off to dispense now with a number of the concepts which have underlined our thinking with regard to the Far East. We should dispense with the aspiration to "be liked" or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers' keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and―for the Far East―unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

Exposure: In context, Kennan's position was almost the exact opposite of the way it is portrayed by this contextomy. For one thing, the quote comes from a discussion of American policy towards Asia. Moreover, Kennan was arguing that the United States had limited power in Asia, and should not overestimate its ability to advance idealistic objectives, such as democratization. Therefore, Kennan suggests that the U.S. not attempt to impose its own political ideals on Asian countries, for whom such ideals are "unreal". The most misleading ellipsis in the passage is the final one, omitting the phrase "for the Far East", which indicates that Kennan is not saying that the objectives of human rights, rising living standards, and democratization are "unreal" for him, or for the U.S., but "for the Far East". One may well disagree with this claim, but it is a far different one from that suggested by those who use this contextomy.

Source:

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948 (1976), Volume 1, Part 2, pp. 523-525.

Example:

Anatol Rapoport, "Conceptions of World Order: Building Peace in the Third Millennium" (1997), p. 10 (PDF).


Robert E. Lee

Contextomy:

There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.

Exposition: This quote from Lee is used as evidence that Lee opposed slavery, which is sometimes part of an argument that he was not attempting to defend slavery by fighting against the Union.

Context:

There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the colored race. While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more deeply engaged for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence. … While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers, let us leave the progress as well as the results in the hands of Him who sees the end, who chooses to work by slow influences, and with whom a thousand years are but as a single day.

Exposure: The context of the quote shows that Lee's attitude toward slavery was not as simple as opposition. While he did consider it "a moral and political evil", he seems to have viewed it as a necessary evil, at least for the foreseeable future, for the benefit of the slaves themselves.

Source: Robert E. Lee, Memoirs of Robert E. Lee (1886), pp. 83-84.

Example: Richard Poe, "The Lessons of Robert E. Lee", Front Page Magazine, 11/8/2001


James Madison

Contextomy:

…James Madison…leaned toward deism…. He spoke of the "almost fifteen centuries" during which Christianity had been on trial: "What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution."

Source: Brooke Allen, "Our Godless Constitution", The Nation, 2/3/2005

Exposition: This quote is used as evidence that Madison, a "founding father" of the United States and one of the authors of its constitution, was not a Christian, but was critical of that religion.

Context:

…[E]xperience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.

Source: James Madison, "Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments", 6/20/1785

Exposure: The contextomy leaves out the crucial part of the sentence which shows that Madison was not arguing against Christianity per se, but against its legal establishment, or the establishment of any religion. Moreover, given that he was writing in 1785, the Christian religion had been "on trial" for almost eighteen, as opposed to fifteen, centuries. Madison was presumably dating the legal establishment of Christianity to the reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, in the early fourth century, that is, "almost fifteen centuries" earlier. Madison's words were taken from a lengthy argument against a specific bill in Virginia's legislature which would have levied a tax in order to financially support the teaching of Christianity, and he argued against such a tax on the grounds that past legal support of Christianity had led to its corruption.

Example: Kenneth J. Kahn, "Letters: Founding Fathers?", The New York Times Magazine, 2/28/2010. A recent sighting of the contextomy, obviously taken from the Nation article.

Source: Ann Althouse, "The Nation, not helping the argument for separating Church and State", Althouse, 2/4/2005.


Contextomy:

Religion is the foundation of government.

Or, sometimes:

Religion is the basis and foundation of government.

Sometimes ellipses are inserted between "religion" and the rest of the quote to indicate that something has been omitted; also, sometimes the word "is" is in brackets, indicating that it has been editorially inserted, though the word occurs more than once in the source of the quote (see the Context, below).

Exposition: This contextomy has the opposite purpose of the preceding one: instead of portraying Madison as an opponent of religion, it makes it appear that he believed religion to be a vital support to government. As a result, the quote is used mostly by those who wish to argue against the separation of church and state, though the quote appears in at least one online dictionary of quotations.

Context:

…“[T]he equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his Religion according to the dictates of conscience” is held by the same tenure with all our other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consult the “Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of Government,” it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis.

Exposure: Interestingly, this quote has the same source as the previous one, thus showing that it's possible with careful pruning of context to make the same document written by the same person seem to say opposite things. Another unusual thing about this contextomy is that, with the exception of "is", the words quoted are not actually the words of Madison, as is indicated by their being enclosed within quotation marks. They appear to come from Virginia's Declaration of Rights (see the Source, below), which was a forerunner of the Bill of Rights, and which was written in large part by George Mason. The first part seems to be paraphrased from the last section of that declaration, where freedom of religion "is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis" among the other rights listed in the declaration. The last part is a paraphrase of the declaration's opening sentence, and functions in the quote as a name for that document.

As noted in the previous entry, Madison is here arguing against a bill in the General Assembly of Virginia to spend state money to pay for the teaching of christianity. In this section, he is arguing that the bill would violate Virginia's declaration of rights in which freedom of religion is a right "held by the same tenure with all our other rights", and which "cannot be less dear to us" than those other rights. "The basis and foundation of Government"―specifically, the government of Virginia rather than government in general―refers not to religion, but to the rights enumerated in the declaration, including the right to free exercise of religion. This is part of a legal argument against a specific bill, rather than a philosophical discussion of the foundations of government, but it is consistent with Madison's support for separation of church and state.

Example: "James Madison", The Conservative Christian Resource Center

Sources:


Jamie McIntyre

Contextomy:

From my close-up inspection, there's no evidence of a plane having crashed anywhere near the Pentagon.

Exposition: This quote comes from an interview with CNN reporter McIntyre at the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001, after a hijacked American Airlines plane had struck the building. The quote is used by conspiracy theorists as evidence that no plane hit the Pentagon.

Context:

Judy Woodruff: Jamie, Aaron was talking earlier―or one of our correspondents was talking earlier―I think, actually, it was Bob Franken―with an eyewitness who said it appeared that that Boeing 757, the American jet, American Airline jet, landed short of the Pentagon. Can you give us any better idea of how much of the plane actually impacted the building?

McIntyre: You know, it might have appeared that way, but from my close-up inspection, there's no evidence of a plane having crashed anywhere near the Pentagon. The only site is the actual site of the building that's crashed in, and as I said, the only pieces left that you can see are small enough that you can pick up in your hand. There are no large tail sections, wing sections, fuselage, nothing like that anywhere around, which would indicate that the entire plane crashed into the side of the Pentagon and then caused the side to collapse.

Exposure:

It's clear from the full context that McIntyre was answering a specific question from CNN anchor Judy Woodruff as to whether the plane had crashed short of the Pentagon. His mention of the lack of large pieces of debris refers to the area around the Pentagon, as opposed to inside the building itself. His denial of evidence that a plane crashed "near" the Pentagon is not a denial that one hit it.

This contextomy also includes a rare example of what logician Morris Engel called "the fallacy of accent", that is, a misleading change of emphasis. In the audio of the interview, McIntyre clearly emphasizes the word "near": "there's no evidence of a plane having crashed anywhere near the Pentagon", as opposed to having crashed into the Pentagon, for which there was plenty of evidence. When the quote is printed, this emphasis is usually left out, which changes McIntyre's meaning.

In a later interview, McIntyre confirmed that his statement had been quoted out of context, and that he had not denied that a plane had hit the Pentagon:

The Web sites often take statements out of context, such as this exchange from CNN in which I, myself, appear to be questioning whether a plane really hit the building…. In fact, I was answering a question based on an eyewitness account who thought the American Airlines plane landed short of the Pentagon. I was―indicated there was no crash site near the Pentagon, only at the Pentagon.

Sources:


Condoleezza Rice

Contextomy:

There is a tie between Iraq and what happened on 9/11.

Source: Michael Moore, The Official Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader (2004), pp. 129-130.

Exposition: This quote occurs in a clip near the end of Michael Moore's movie Fahrenheit 9/11, along with a few other short clips of George W. Bush and other officials in his administration. The series of clips occurs immediately after Moore's narration says:

…[A]ll [American soldiers] ask for in return is that we never send them into harm's way unless it's absolutely necessary. Will they ever trust us again?

The final clip in the movie is former President Bush producing a "Bushism":

There's an old saying in Tennessee, I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee, that says: Fool me once, shame on―shame on you―fool me―you can't get fooled again.

Then Moore, as narrator, says:

For once, we agreed.

Clearly, Moore is suggesting that Rice's comment, along with the other quotes shown, had fooled people into thinking that the war in Iraq was necessary when it was not. This must be because Rice is claiming, falsely, that there is a connection between Iraq and the events of September 11th, 2001.

Context:

Oh, indeed there is a tie between Iraq and what happened on 9/11. It’s not that Saddam Hussein was somehow himself and his regime involved in 9/11, but, if you think about what caused 9/11, it is the rise of ideologies of hatred that lead people to drive airplanes into buildings in New York. This is a great terrorist, international terrorist network that is determined to defeat freedom. It has perverted Islam from a peaceful religion into one in which they call on it for violence. And they're all linked. And Iraq is a central front because, if and when, and we will, we change the nature of Iraq to a place that is peaceful and democratic and prosperous in the heart of the Middle East, you will begin to change the Middle East.…

Exposure: A further point about Rice's statement is that it was made during an interview in November of 2003, and thus could not have been an attempt to "fool" the public into supporting an unnecessary invasion that had already occurred in March of the same year. In addition to taking Rice's sentence out of the context of her complete comment, Moore's movie also gives no indication of when the comment was made, thereby removing it from its context in time. The movie is, therefore, likely to give the viewer the impression that Rice claimed prior to the invasion that Iraq was behind 9/11, when she had actually denied after the invasion any such direct tie.

Source: Dave Kopel, "Fifty-nine Deceits in Fahrenheit 9/11", 2004


Mike Walter

Contextomy:

It was like a cruise missile with wings. It went right there and slammed right into the Pentagon.

Exposition: This contextomy comes from a CNN interview with Mike Walter, a reporter for USA Today, who was an eyewitness to the crash of an American Airlines 757 into the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001. The quote is used by conspiracy theorists who claim that a missile struck the Pentagon rather than the airliner.

Context:

I was sitting in the northbound on 27 and the traffic was, you know, typical rush-hour―it had ground to a standstill. I looked out my window and I saw this plane, this jet, an American Airlines jet, coming. And I thought, "This doesn't add up, it's really low." And I saw it. I mean it was like a cruise missile with wings. It went right there and slammed right into the Pentagon.

Exposure:

Unlike many others who are contextomized, Walter is still alive to explain what he meant and how it feels to be quoted out of context:

Referring to the American Airlines jet metaphorically as a weapon, I'd described it as being like "a cruise missile with wings." It's tough being in journalism and seeing your own words being used to persuade people to believe something that simply isn't true. Anyone who has seen the full text of that interview knows that I was clearly talking about the American Airlines jet. Because that's what I saw.

Sources:


Charles Wilson

Contextomy:

What's good for General Motors is good for the country.

Exposition: This quote is used to suggest that large corporations and those who lead them take the unpatriotic attitude of putting the interests of their corporation before the national interest.

Context:

…[F]or years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.

Exposure: Wilson was not reporting what he currently thought, but what he formerly thought. In fact, the quote as usually phrased turns his words around, since he did not say "what's good for G.M. is good for the country" but the reverse, though the substance of the quote is contained in the two words "vice versa".

Source: Paul F. Boller, Jr. & John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, & Misleading Attributions, p. 131.

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