Tuesday Talk*: Reimagining Quotes

When I wrote about the ACLU’s attempt to twist the meaning of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s words, I avoided addressing the elephant in the quote. It has since become a “big deal,” forcing ACLU’s reimaginative executive director Anthony Romero to apologize.

Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Monday that he regretted that a tweet sent out recently by his organization altered the words of a well-known quote by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“We won’t be altering people’s quotes,” Mr. Romero said in an interview on Monday evening. “It was a mistake among the digital team. Changing quotes is not something we ever did.”

But, of course, they did exactly that, the thing they never did, except that they did.

While my concern was more about the substance than the shenanigans, which struck me as sufficiently obvious as to not require noting, Michelle Goldberg seized upon it.

This was a mistake for two reasons, one that’s easy to talk about, and one that’s hard.

The easy one is this: It’s somewhat Orwellian to rewrite historical utterances to conform to modern sensitivities. No one that I’m aware of used gender-neutral language to talk about pregnancy and abortion in 1993; it wasn’t until 2008 that Thomas Beatie became famous as what headlines sometimes called the “First Pregnant Man.” There’s a difference between substituting the phrase “pregnant people” for “pregnant women” now, and pretending that we have always spoken of “pregnant people.”

It’s easy, but is that what the ACLU was doing, pretending that progressive heroes always used “inclusive language”? If they hadn’t put the changed words in brackets, then yes, but they did. They made it clear that they changed the words, and that these were not the words Ginsburg used. They made it clear that these were the changes they made, the words the ACLU used to substitute for Ginsburg’s.

What’s more difficult to discuss is how making Ginsburg’s words gender-neutral alters their meaning. That requires coming to terms with a contentious shift in how progressives think and talk about sex and reproduction. Changing Ginsburg’s words treats what was once a core feminist insight — that women are oppressed on the basis of their reproductive capacity — as an embarrassing anachronism. The question then becomes: Is it?

Goldberg’s point is stronger here, since Ginsburg was speaking very specifically about women and addressing a core feminist issue. But had Ginsburg uttered these words today, would she have been more circumspect, more “inclusive” so that the experience of trans men, persons with vaginas, birthing persons, been included within the scope of her concern?

Plenty of activists, especially young ones, find gender-neutral language for reproduction, and the conceptual revolution it represents, liberating. The utopian goal of many feminists, after all, is a society that’s not built around the gender binary, a type of society that, as far as I know, exists nowhere on earth (though many cultures make room for a small number of people who exist outside the male/female dichotomy).

Much as they have put RBG on their pedestal, would she want to be their “person with vagina” hero? It’s highly unlikely, both given Ginsburg’s focus and the fact that she didn’t really care much for the mush-minded lingual nonsense pushed by progressives. The ACLU didn’t really care when it changed the words. It wasn’t really about Ginsburg but about the ACLU.

On Monday, Anthony Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U., told me he regrets the R.B.G. tweet, and that in the future the organization won’t substantively alter anyone’s quotes. Still, he said, “Having spent time with Justice Ginsburg, I would like to believe that if she were alive today, she would encourage us to evolve our language to encompass a broader vision of gender, identity and sexuality.”

Romero “would like to believe,” as would every person who wants to believe that their now-deceased cultural or religious icons would have been in complete agreement with something they never agreed with when they were alive. What if the Notorious RBG would have called bullshit on this childish indulgence, as she did on the Title IX survivor attacks on due process?

What the ACLU did her wasn’t so much put words in Ginsburg’s mouth, but reimagine Ginsburg as a supporter of its woke vision, something she never did and never was. Do they get to do that? Does anyone? Do the believers get to reimagine their preferred historical figures in their own image?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply.

28 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Reimagining Quotes

  1. Will J. Richardson

    Mr. Greenfield,

    I’ve been reading your blog daily for quite a while, yet I have not been able to infer the meaning of “Tuesday Talk Rules”. I’m just curious.

    Regards,

    WJR

    Reply
  2. Guitardave

    “Do the believers get to reimagine their preferred historical figures in their own image?”

    The answer to that is so obvious, it almost doesn’t need to be asked.
    When a one’s personality is constructed on a foundation of negative reinforcement and entitlement, the need to destroy or revise anything that doesn’t feed your warm and fuzzies becomes paramount.

    Now where did I leave my log chain?….gotta take my tractor over to monument park…

    Reply
  3. Jake

    Do they get to do that? Not if they want to remain a credible source of facts.
    Does anyone? Same answer.
    Do the believers get to reimagine their preferred historical figures in their own image? This is America, man. We can imagine or reimagine whatever we want.

    Reply
    1. PseudonymousKid

      I appreciate that you listened. I’m following along with you on 1 and 2, and then you just gave up on point 3. So these believers aren’t a credible source of facts because they want to believe RBG would have agreed with them, but they get to do that because America? What does that mean?

      You already know I’ll want to take whatever you say to the extreme to test it out. I don’t have to do much work when you say everyone gets to reimagine everything all of the time. Do you see any problems with letting everyone’s imagination run wild? Is that really the America you want?

      Reply
      1. Jake

        There is nothing I would like more than to look for the subtextual ideas lying in our dear host’s language, but today, to use a common misinterpretation of one my favorite philosopher’s ideas: “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte”. In other words, my interpretation of the third question is literal.

        Do I see problems, with letting everyone’s imagination run wild? Sure. But unless we’re going to start policing thoughts, I don’t know what the alternative is beyond persuasion. Unfortunately, in a world where we cannot agree on basic facts, I’m cynical about how far that’s going to take us.

        Reply
          1. Drew Conlin

            …. you might refer yourself to an Oscar Wilde quote on Mr. Greenfields twitter. … you’ll know it when you see it.

            Reply
          2. PseudonymousKid

            He’s resisting answering question 3 in the negative because he thinks he can’t tell other people they are wrong or else he’ll be policing their thoughts. Am I starting to get fluent in Jake? I’m terrified about what that means.

            Reply
        1. PseudonymousKid

          It’s ok to tell people that they are wrong when they are wrong, Jake. You can just say it’s not ok that the ACLU reimagined RBG as a crusader for its cause of the moment. I promise nothing bad will happen.

          Reply
          1. Jake

            I think you are moving the goalposts. The third question wasn’t “Should we tell the ACLU it’s wrong to print a reimagined quote?” If it was, my answer would be: Yes. The ACLU should know that if they prefer to be viewed as an intellectually honest purveyor of facts, they should not print reimagined quotes.

            Reply
  4. Bruce Coulson

    In a word; no. Or rather, they CAN do it; but it’s wrong. Back dating language (and beliefs) in an attempt to make past figures more ‘in tune’ with modern beliefs alters the original statements and changes the person’s statements without any factual basis that ‘this is what they would have said’.

    The truth is, we don’t know what RBG would have thought about the current ‘woke culture’, or what she would have said. We only have what she DID say. Changing history is a dark path. Allow it, and anyone can be said to support anything. It may start as a genuine effort to make historical figures more likable; but it ends with people who may have said what are now questionable things erased from history.

    Reply
  5. B. McLeod

    A mistake among the digital team? It seems unlikely that their digital team would be tasked with editing substantive content. It looks more like they got caught doing something stupid and are now trying to lie their way out of the scrap they got themselves into.

    Reply
  6. Hunting Guy

    It’s only a short step from rewriting someone’s words to removing them from the official history.

    Alexander Malchenko or Nikolai Antipov, anyone?

    Reply
    1. David Meyer-Lindenberg

      [This is exactly the take Charlie Cooke had at NRO. And I think it misses] the [mark. RBG’s message hasn’t been suppressed, or edited out of history, or made in any way less available. The ACLU even clearly marked where it made its changes. What it did was dishonest – I’d whip out a red pen if someone tried this in a paper I was grading – and pandering, and is a great example of any good historian’s cardinal sin, presentism. But it isn’t memory-holing or censorship.]

      –Abraham Lincoln

      Reply
  7. Scarlet Pimpernel

    I am surprised that more people aren’t offended that the ACLU refused to use “they” in its singular form. Keeping with the singular nature of the original statement, a more accurate alteration would be.

    “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a [person’s] life, to [their] well-being and dignity… When the government controls that decision for [them], [they] is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for [their] own choices.”

    Reply
  8. Sonetka

    They shouldn’t, but they will. A lot of bad historical fiction is written on the premise that the people one admires from the past were really just like us, but didn’t dare to say so — though the urge is perhaps stronger now that we seem to be demanding anachronistic perfection from anyone whose name is mentioned admiringly for anything. If the ACLU were to turn to writing bodice-rippers they would do much less harm and provide better entertainment. But “if they were alive now” is a fool’s game. Would Louis XIV say “L’état, c’est moi” if he were alive now? Of course not, because if he were alive now he would be a different person. Nobody escapes their own time.

    In this case it’s extremely disingenuous because RBG died so recently and seems to have been engaged and compos mentis to the end. She must have been aware of the shift to “pregnant people” etc. If she didn’t use those terms or expand on what she had written earlier to include them, we must assume that she chose not to for reasons of her own.

    Reply
  9. RTM

    What strikes me as the principal error with this particular alteration, by the ACLU no less, is that it shifts focus from the real issue: a woman’s right to choose. I assume Justice Ginsberg meant exactly what she said. Altering the quote waters down her message. As Alice Cooper observed, only women bleed.

    Reply
    1. Rengit

      Justice Ginsburg’s favored approach to the right to choose was the Equal Protection Clause, rather than the substantive due process privacy-based approach of Roe, because the burdens of pregnancy overwhelmingly fall on women, and the prohibition on abortion would ban certain medical procedures for a condition that directly affects only a woman’s body. As such, banning abortion diminished women’s equality.

      If “woman” is not equivalent, though, to “person with a vagina and ovaries”, then the rationale for her favored jurisprudential approach falls apart. To reference one of her most famous opinions, would she have found it to satisfy equal protection for the Virginia Military Institute to allow “men” and “women”, but not “people with vaginas”? I doubt it, because she repeatedly focused, like most 70s/80s feminists, on women’s biology as a key reason as to why women were discriminated against by men.

      Reply
  10. Kirk A Taylor

    “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all individuals are created equal.”
    Because I would like to believe our founding fathers weren’t sexist and racist (by modern standards)
    Now I have fixed everything.

    Reply

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