Special report: Quoting King!
PART 1—A MAJOR SURPRISE: Rachel Manteuffel works for the Washington Post.
Before you judge her on that basis, let’s note that Manteuffel is still quite young—somewhere in her mid-twenties.
Perhaps for this reason, Manteuffel still notices things in the wider world. Later, she may conduct some research. She may even look some things up!
A few weeks ago, these unusual traits came into play when Manteuffel visited the site of the new King memorial.
As Manteuffel toured the site, she was puzzled by something she saw—by one of the memorial’s featured quotations. In response, she did a highly unusual thing—she went home and looked the quote up! No experienced Washington journalist would ever behave in such an odd way. But on August 26, Manteuffel told the whole tale in a Washington Post op-ed column.
Good lord! Manteuffel looked up a famous sermon by Dr. King—and she discovered that Dr. King had perhaps been misquoted:
MANTEUFFEL (8/26/11): “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”For our money, Manteuffel should have toned it down a bit about the silly hats; drum majors have never been “silly” in southern black culture. But Manteuffel’s ear told her something was odd about that quotation at the memorial. And omigod! Because she isn’t fully experienced, she went home and did a strange thing. Manteuffel looked the quote up!
That's what it says on the right side of King's enormous monument. At first it struck me as odd that this man, whose many other quotes on the same monument are beautifully worded and biblically informed, would refer to himself as a drum major. To me, silly hats and King just did not compute.
Then I saw the larger problem. This quote is awfully self-aggrandizing for a man who so often symbolized the strength in humility…
When I looked up the King quote, I found that the sin was actually worse than simply shoe-horning in an uncharacteristically immodest statement. The quote carved into the memorial on the Mall is not what Martin Luther King Jr. said.
Just who is this meddlesome child, with these peculiar instincts?
Whatever! Manteuffel’s column touched off a debate which may result in a change to the King memorial. Last Friday, the Washington Post editorial board said a change should be made in that featured quotation. Maya Angelou has also weighed in, demanding a change in the bungled quote. And Angelou actually sat on the board which selected the featured quotations!
(If you want to review the facts of the case, we’ll recommend this report by Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post.)
For ourselves, we think Manteuffel and Angelou are basically right in their judgment. We think it would be better if the selected “quotation” was amended. Like them, we think Dr. King has basically been misquoted—or at best, he has been paraphrased poorly.
We agree with Manteuffel and Angelou. But as we’ve followed this flap, we’ve been especially struck by one thing: We’ve been struck by the nuanced judgment, indeed the intellectual skill, shown by the Washington Post’s editorial board. Who knew? Who had any idea?
Alas! In the last twenty years, our political history has been driven by various acts of misquotation and ludicrous paraphrase. During these highly significant episodes, our press elites have rarely shown the skill required to judge such critical matters. In various episodes, our “journalists” have adopted absurd accounts of various things major pols have said. In these episodes, they have rarely tried to conduct themselves in a serious journalistic manner.
Tremendous changes in recent history have turned on their clownish journalistic behavior, in which major politicians were flatly misquoted or were paraphrased wildly.
Now, along comes a bright young scribe—and suddenly, we learn a startling new fact: Journalists at the Washington Post do know how to judge such natters! The editorial board of the Washington Post does know how to spot a bad quote.
They do know how to see that an excerpt has been yanked out of context.
They do know how to see that a paraphrase is misleading, bogus, unfair!
For ourselves, we think Manteuffel and Angelou are right in their basic judgment. We think the editors got it right in last Friday’s editorial. But after all these years, what a surprise! To see that our highest-ranking journalists really do understand such matters!
Dr. King is an enormously important figure—the moral giant of the last century. In a separate sphere, the recent history which turned on those bogus quotations was deeply important too. For these reasons, we thought we might take a few days to review the background of this new debate.
Tomorrow, let’s do ourselves a favor. Let’s review some things Dr. King really said in the sermon Manteuffel looked up.
Tomorrow—part 2: “Everybody can serve”