February 28, 2007

Googlelessness at the Gray Lady

OK, here's a logic puzzle for you. How should we assign historical illiteracy and carelessness to various writers and editors in order to create the situation described in the following four notes?

1. Michael Wines, "Song Wakens Injured Pride of Afrikaners", NYT 2/27/2007:

The Sunday Independent, perhaps South Africa's most renowned newspaper, says the song "answers a deep sadness" in Afrikaners' souls, a feeling that they have not merely fallen from power but have been marginalized in South African society — tossed into history's dustbin, as Ronald Reagan once said of the Soviets.

2. The version of the same story from the IHT ("Anthem to Afrikaner general raises questions about pride", 2/27/2007),which leaves out the attribution to Reagan speaking about the Soviets:

The Sunday Independent, perhaps South Africa's most renowned newspaper, says the song "answers a deep sadness" in Afrikaners' souls, a feeling that they have not merely fallen from power but have been marginalized in South African society — tossed into history's dustbin.

3. The (original?) source of the "history's dustbin / dustbin of history" phrase: on Nov. 7, 1917, at the Second Congress of Soviets, when the Mensheviks and the center and right wings of the Socialist Revolutionaries walked out, leaving the Bolsheviks in control, Leon Trotsky supposedly said (in Russian, of course): "You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on — into the dustbin of history!"

4. Ronald Reagan's use of the phrase (according to an essay at The Conservative Voice, " Emulating the Gipper", 2/2/2006):

In a sobering remark made on September 10, 1974 that would certainly pertain to today, Reagan said, "The dustbin of history is littered with the remains of those countries that relied on diplomacy to secure their freedom. We must never forget…in the final analysis…that it is our military, industrial and economic strength that offers the best guarantee of peace for America in times of danger."

Two other variants -- I have no idea whether any of these Reagan quotations are really authentic:

“Someone once said that every form of government has one characteristic peculiar to it and if that characteristic is lost, the government will fall. In a monarchy, it is affection and respect for the royal family. If that is lost the monarch is lost. In a dictatorship, it is fear. If the people stop fearing the dictator he'll lose power. In a representative government such as ours, it is virtue. If virtue goes, the government fails. Are we choosing paths that are politically expedient and morally questionable? Are we in truth losing our virtue? . . . If so, we may be nearer the dustbin of history than we realize.”

"We know that we are paying a high price in dollars for imported oil—how much are we paying in loss of independence and self- respect?... Are we choosing paths that are politically expedient and morally questionable ... Are we as Americans so thirsty for oil that we'll forget the traditions upon which our country is founded and let our foreign policy be dictated by anyone who has oil for sale? If so we may be nearer the dustbin of history than we realize" (Reagan in His Own Hand, 2001, p. 16).

So, to sum up, Trotsky used the "dustbin of history" phrase on the Mensheviks and their allies; and Ronald Reagan seems to have used it several times to warn about the future of the United States. Perhaps Ron did use it somewhere in reference to the Soviets, but if so, I haven't been able to find the quote. (The quote was found -- it was "ash-heap", not dustbin -- see below.)

The particular kind of carelessness that the Gray Lady's writers and editors exhibited? Failure to use simple web search to check a fact. Should we call it googlelessness?

The NYT article now has two corrections appended:

Correction: February 28, 2007

A front-page article yesterday about an identity crisis among Afrikaners, who invented the apartheid system that ended about a dozen years ago, misstated the colors of South Africa’s old apartheid flag. It is orange, blue and white, not orange and green. The article also referred incompletely to the name of a soccer stadium where an Afrikaner pride song was temporarily banned, and misstated the stadium’s location. It is Loftus Versfeld Stadium, not Loftus Stadium, and it is in Pretoria, not Johannesburg.

The article also misstated the location of Mpumalanga, a province that recently decertified an Afrikaans-language school that had refused to teach courses in English. While it is indeed in the eastern side of the country, it does not border the Indian Ocean. And the article misspelled the given name of an Afrikaner legislator who expressed concern that the government is excising Afrikaner history from official textbooks. He is Carel Boshoff, not Corel.

These corrections remind me of the old Radio Yerevan jokes.

In any case, the apparent misattribution of the "dustbin of history" quote is still there. My own guesses about the puzzle's solution: either Wines put in the misattribution, and a savvy editor at the IHT in Paris took it out, but the editor in New York was asleep at the switch; or else Wines had no attribution for the phrase, and an ignorant editor in New York stuck it in.

Of course, it's always possible that Google has failed me, and Reagan really did use the phrase prominently in reference to the Soviets.

[Update -- Frederick Vultee has drawn my attention to the fact that William Safire wrote about a closely related question back on Oct. 16, 1983 ("On Language: Dust Heaps of History"):

''Those who encroached on the integrity of our state,'' thundered Soviet leader Yuri Andropov a few weeks ago, ''. . . found themselves on the garbage heap of history.'' That was the official Tass translation: garbage heap .

Speaking in London more than a year before, President Ronald Reagan blazed forth with his belief that ''the march of freedom and democracy . . . will leave Marxist Leninism on the ash heap of history.'' That was the official White House text: ash heap .

Well, gentlemen, which is it? What kind of heap does history offer?

The phrase was popularized by Leon Trotsky, who told the Mensheviks departing from the 1917 Congress of Soviets, ''Go to the place where you belong from now on - the dustbin of history!'' That was the way his phrase, transliterated as musornyi yashchik , was translated in the English edition of Trotsky's autobiography; in reviews of the movie ''Reds,'' Trotsky was quoted as saying of the faction opposing the Bolsheviks, ''They are just so much refuse which will be swept into the garbage heap of history.''

A third translation is trash heap , which rhymes with ash heap and compounds the confusion. ''The transliteration for trash heap . . . is closer to trash can ,'' says Prof. Carl Linden of the George Washington University's Institute of Sino-Soviet Studies. ''In old Russia - and probably still - there would be a courtyard . . . with a big box for all the tenement trash.'' That was probably the trash can, ashcan, ash heap, dustbin, dust heap or garbage heap Trotsky meant.

The most accurate translation would be dust heap . That is what the original English phrase was, stolen by Trotsky in its metaphoric form. In 1887, the English essayist Augustine Birrell coined the term in his series of essays, ''Obiter Dicta'': ''that great dust heap called 'history.' ''
I will returneth to dust in a minute, but first to the meaning of ashes when they appear in a heap : An ash heap , which is written as two words because of the adjacent h 's, was a collection of household refuse, including but not limited to the contents of stoves. The present-day definition would be garbage , which is rooted in the Middle English word for chicken's innards. (Where is this taking me?) In the Bible, when Job announced he would ''repent in dust and ashes,'' according to the 1611 King James translation, he meant he would sit ignominiously amidst the refuse. In British usage, dust retains its secondary meaning of garbage: A dustbin is what Americans would call a garbage pail, and a dustman - immortalized in Shaw's ''Pygmalion'' in the character of Alfred Doolittle - was until recently a garbage collector , when he became a sanitation worker .

Thus, while the translation offered by Tass - ''garbage heap of history'' - is accurate and up-to-date, it loses its historical evocation of Trotsky. Mr. Reagan's choice of words - ''ash heap of history'' - is close, but does not win the cigar. I would go with Birrell's original dust heap , until this phrase winds up in the waste-disposal unit of oratory.

The 1982 speech in question was Reagan's "Address to Members of the British Parliment [sic]" -- I've linked to a copy on the Heritage Foundation web site. He seems to have been extraordinarily fond of this metaphor, and to have used one version or another many times with respect to various countries, groups, or systems -- including "leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history", which is close enough to "tossed into history's dustbin, as Ronald Reagan once said of the Soviets" to get the NYT reporter or editor off the hook. Still, it seems to me that the IHT's choice to leave the phrase unattributed was better.

Google is great to find a quote, but not as easy to use to find a paraphrase. ]

[And as it happens, Language Hat had a great post on "The dustbin of history" just a few weeks ago -- including Trotsky's quotation in the original Russian. Nothing on Reagan, though.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 28, 2007 11:38 AM