Coffee mugs, bumper stickers and posters displayed at political rallies nationwide bear the clumsy distortions of remarks made by thoughtful people throughout the ages. The question of their popularity and endurance has been the subject of a number of recent essays.

Writing in Harper’s Magazine last April about phrases dubiously credited to America’s founders, journalist and author Thomas Frank suggested that people often find simple slogans crammed into the mouths of beloved mythical figures more satisfying than complex descriptions of reality — especially when they confirm popular prejudice. Additionally, such quotes are seized upon by demagogues looking to promote themselves and their agenda by exploiting common misunderstanding.

Below, Brian Morton, author and director of Sarah Lawrence College’s graduate program in fiction, reviews sayings widely attributed to Thoreau, Gandhi and Mandela and comes to a similar conclusion.

In all cases, we are witnessing the trivialization of past genius. –ARK

Brian Morton at The New York Times:

Thoreau, Gandhi, Mandela — it’s easy to see why their words and ideas have been massaged into gauzy slogans. They were inspirational figures, dreamers of beautiful dreams. But what goes missing in the slogans is that they were also sober, steely men. Each of them knew that thoroughgoing change, whether personal or social, involves humility and sacrifice, and that the effort to change oneself or the world always exacts a price.

But ours is an era in which it’s believed that we can reinvent ourselves whenever we choose. So we recast the wisdom of the great thinkers in the shape of our illusions. Shorn of their complexities, their politics, their grasp of the sheer arduousness of change, they stand before us now. They are shiny from their makeovers, they are fabulous and gorgeous, and they want us to know that we can have it all.

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