August 28, 2012

When the whole world was (and wasn’t) watching…

On August 28, 2010, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck held a controversial media event and “rally” for his Tea Party followers in Washington, D.C.

Because Beck had made racially insensitive remarks in the past, the most noted aspect of his event was that it was being held on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

That stirring address, on August 28, 1963, capped the historic “March on Washington” organized to support equal rights for black Americans.

It includes lines found in many books of quotations.

One of the most frequently cited is King’s inspiring vision of a colorblind future America:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

The end of King’s speech, which used familiar phrases from the patriotic anthem “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and the traditional Negro spiritual “Free at Last,” is also frequently cited:

“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

The March on Washington was heavily covered by the media. It was one of the most important civil rights events in modern history and Martin Luther King, Jr. was America’s most prominent civil rights leader at the time.

His speech was broadcast live on television that day. The whole world was watching.

Coincidentally, it was another event exactly five years later that made the phrase “the whole world is watching” a famous quotation in itself.

In late August of 1968, thousands of people who opposed the Vietnam War gathered in Chicago to take part in protests timed to coincide with that year’s annual Democratic National Convention.

On August 26th, the Chicago police beat and arrested protesters at one of the scheduled rally events.

The next morning, Rennie Davis, a protest organizer and leader of Students for a Democratic Society, talked about the police violence with his colleague Don Rose.

Rose was press secretary for the umbrella anti-war group, the National Mobilization Committee To End the Vietnam War.

In a 2008 interview published in the great activist magazine In These Times, Rose recalled that Davis said to him: “Jesus, this is really bad, what can we say?”

Rose answered: “Oh, tell them the whole world is watching and they’ll never get away with it again.”

Davis and other protest leaders liked the phrase “the whole world is watching” and it began to spread among the protesters by word of mouth.

When Chicago police began brutally beating and arresting hundreds of people on the night of August 28, 1968, the crowd noted the presence of TV news cameras and began chanting:


Indeed, the whole world was soon seeing shocking images of what was later called “a police riot.”

It became an infamous historic event. And, the words “the whole world is watching” became an immortal catchphrase still used at civil protests in countries throughout the world.

Flash forward to Glenn Beck’s media event on August 28, 2010. It drew some moderate media coverage, especially from FOX-TV, which featured Beck as a talk show host at the time.

But, contrary to what some of Beck’s fans and critics anticipated, the only thing that was newsworthy about his event was that nothing really newsworthy happened. Moreover, nothing Beck said in the speech he made that day was deemed quoteworthy.

In fact, his event already seems largely forgotten, along with whatever he said.

Since then, Beck’s show on FOX has since been canceled and his “15 minutes of fame” seem to be ticking away. When all fifteen are gone, some people may think of the words of that old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

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August 17, 2012

The origins of “Rum, sodomy and the lash” – Churchill’s alleged quip about British naval tradition…

Many books of quotations include a caustic quote attributed to Winston Churchill (1874-1965) in which he supposedly called British naval tradition nothing but
“rum, sodomy, and the lash.” (Sometimes given as “rum, buggery and the lash,” using the old British slang term “buggery” to refer to homosexual sex.)

The earliest source commonly cited for this quip is the diary of former British diplomat, politician and author Harold Nicolson (1886-1968).

In a diary entry dated August 17, 1950, Nicolson recorded some anecdotes about Churchill.

One involves a version of the “rum, sodomy, and the lash” quote.

But the version Nicolson wrote about that day included “prayers” in the litany. His diary entry says:

…when Winston was at the Admiralty, the Board objected to some suggestion of his on the grounds that it would not be in accord with naval tradition. ‘Naval tradition? Naval tradition?’ said Winston. ‘Monstrous. Nothing but rum, sodomy, prayers and the lash.’

This is why some books of quotations give the alleged Churchill quote as “rum, sodomy, prayers and the lash.”

The source commonly cited for the shorter version of the naval tradition quip is a book of reminiscences by former British Vice-Admiral Peter Gretton (1912-1992). According to an anecdote in Sir Peter Gretton, Former Naval Person: Winston Churchill and the Royal Navy (1968), Churchill said it shortly after he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911.

With his new authority, Churchill had ordered the British fleet to convert from coal to oil and was mothballing older ships in favor of smaller, faster ones.

A disgruntled Admiral indignantly told Churchill he was scuttling the tradition of the Royal Navy. Gretton wrote that Churchill answered:

       “Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.”

Despite these oft-cited anecdotes, it appears that Winston Churchill never said any version of the naval tradition quote.

According to a post on the website of the Churchill Centre and Museum in London, Churchill told his personal assistant Anthony Montague-Browne that he never uttered such words.

Montague-Browne confirmed this to Richard Langworth, one of the most respected Churchill biographers.

In his great book about Churchill quotations and misquotes, Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations, Langworth says that Montague-Browne personally told him that he had asked Churchill about the quote.

According to Montague-Browne, Churchill responded: “I never said it. I wish I had.”

Langworth notes that “rum, sodomy and the lash” is similar to “rum, bum and bacca” — a catchphrase from an old saying about the, er, pastimes of British sailors, dating back to the 1800s:

     “Ashore it’s wine, women and song; aboard it’s rum, bum and concertina.” (Bum = a man’s rear end; bacca = tobacco.)

At any rate, it seems that attributing a quotation about rum, sodomy and the lash to Winston Churchill is nothing but an old British naval tradition.

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