Wednesday, 19 September 2012

"Prince of fools" - fake "quote of the century"

The following e-mail doing the rounds in South Africa, aside from circulating among expats and having an irritatingly unlikely headline, rang the urban legend alarm bells because of its unlikely source:


Some  people have the vocabulary to sum up things in a way you can understand them. This quote came from the Czech Republic.  Someone over there has it figured out.

"The  danger to  South Africa  is  not Jacob Zuma but a citizenry capable of entrusting a man like him with the Presidency. It will be far easier to limit and undo the follies of a Zuma presidency than to restore the necessary common sense and good judgment to a depraved electorate willing to have such a man for their president. The problem is much deeper and far more serious than Mr. Zuma, who is a mere symptom of what ails South Africa.  Blaming the prince of the fools should not blind anyone to the vast confederacy of fools that made him their prince. The Republic can survive a Jacob Zuma, who is, after all, merely a fool. It is less likely to survive a multitude of fools such as those who made him their President."

The reality is, you could apply this to any country. Merely change the names. It is usually used by American right-wingers with reference to Barack Obama. The most common Obama version also claims it to be from a Czech newspaper, even though that is also clearly a fake origin. Here is a typical example.

It has been commonly adapted to local politics around the world, and I suspect we'll find the origin is decades or even centuries old.

It's used with local amendments in a left-wing New Zealand blog attacking the Key government, in the comments on an Australian blog entry on carbon tax, castigating the Labor government, and in the Northern Mariana Islands , on what ails their Commonwealth.

It is used without acknowledging the amendments in the comments section of a Nigerian news report, and even in comments on a Lesotho news report,

The quote is given life because it is so easy adapt it to any nation in the throes of political struggle and upheaval, and to any leader who inspires vehement opposition. The ease with which it is justified as usable by critics who acknowledge its potential lack of veracity is summed up in this letter to the editor of the Daily Tribune News in Georgia. "I cannot verify its authenticity but if no one can be found to claim authorship, I will volunteer to do so!!" writes one Elvis D Rush.

Everyone likes a good quote, and everyone repeats a good quote that both reinforces prejudices and declares those prejudices to the world.

The subtext of the South African version is similar to the Obama versions, since it tends to repeat the Czech origin: that even continents away, the follies of our leadership are an embarrassment, and make us the laughing stock of the world. The truth of the matter is that, even in those distant countries, the citizenry tends to be more concerned with the quality of their own leaders than of those ruling over foreign lands.

The beauty of the quote is that it works even without having to invoke foreign sources. This is what makes it so popular in the furthest reaches of the world.

As it is transformed into local variants,  it takes on more and more of the character of an urban legend: its origins become more and more shrouded, and those passing it on argue that, regardless of origin, it remains valid because it is so applicable. However, arguing that a questionable source can be excused by the supposed "truth" of a statement defies logic as well as honesty.

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