Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fake Tocqueville Quotes Never Die

Here is one of the more persistent ones. As a translator of Tocqueville, I frequently receive queries about this or that remark that Tocqueville is alleged to have made. By now I can recognize the common forgeries, which are frequently found posted on conservative Web sites, because they enlist Tocqueville's authority on the conservative side in some contemporary policy controversy. Tocqueville, don't you know, opposed Obamacare, tax increases on the wealthy, regulation of financial markets, what have you. Except he didn't. The forgeries usually contrive to dress up the reactionary wisdom of the moment in some sonorous verbiage intended to make the reader think that some supposedly imminent danger to the Republic was long ago foreseen by the French sage.

It's more difficult when I'm asked about a passage that I don't immediately recognize as one of the standard forgeries. Although I've translated a lot of Tocqueville, more than 3,000 pages altogether, I haven't translated let alone read or memorized all twenty-some volumes of his collected works. And it's hard to prove a negative. Tocqueville held many views on many subjects and sometimes contradicted himself, so it's perfectly possible that he said some things that may appeal to this or that contemporary political observer even if they aren't consistent with the main thrust of his thought, because he wasn't always consistent with himself. But be forewarned: if you see a Tocqueville quote which does not come with a specific reference to chapter and verse, don't count on its reliability.

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