In the Immortal Words of Jan D. Wolter...

Fame and Accident

A while back, I received an E-Mail from a person who was writing a novel. He planned to include pertinent quotations at the head of each chapter. He wanted my permission to include the following quotation, attributed to me, and wanted to know where exactly it had been published:
It's important to remember that just because there are crooks, zealots and morons supporting a position, it does not automatically follow that the position is wrong.
      -- Jan D. Wolter
The problem, of course, was that although it certainly sounded like something I might have said, I had no memory of ever having said it. It certainly hasn't been in anything I've published, since my publications are limited to technical papers. I speculated that it might be something I posted to some newsgroup or conferencing systems somewhere sometime. The author lost interest.

A web search for the phrase turned it up in quite a few places. Mostly lists of famous quotations. Here's a few:

http://www.ifindkarma.com/attic/msglist/NewMsgs9507.nice
Lists me between two AA Milne quotes: "It's always useful to know where a friend-and-relation IS, whether you want him or whether you don't." and "It's so much more friendly with two."

http://www.4degreez.com/quotes/mquotes_wisdom_d.html
Listed between Arnold Bennet "It is well, when judging a friend, to remember that he is judging you with the same godlike and superior impartiality." and Thomas H. Kean "When I face an issue of great import that cleaves both constituents and colleagues, I always take the same approach. I engage in deep deliberation and quiet contemplation. I wait to the last available minute and then I always vote with the losers. Because, my friend, the winners never remember and the losers never forget." This page is also at http://variant.tierranet.com/quotes/mquotes_wisdom_d.html, and http://www.wellofwisdom.com/wisdom/0/quotes-cat.html.

http://www.4degreez.com/quotes/quotes_wisdom.mv
Listed between Roger H. Lincoln "There are two rules for success: 1) Never tell everything you know." and the same Thomas H. Kean quote above.

http://www.wist.info/authors/w.html
This quotation list gives my correct year of birth and profession ("American computer science professional"). Someone must have actually done some research. I'm listed between Mary Wolstoncraft "It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world." and Stevie Wonder "Ya gots to work with what you gots to work with."

http://www.fifer.net/quotes/
Listed between John Quinton "Politicians are people who, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, go out and buy some more tunnel." and Lily Tomlin " Ninety-eight percent of the adults in this country are decent, hardworking, honest Americans. It's the other lousy two percent that get all the publicity. But then, we elected them."

http://articles.animalconcerns.org/Faqs+Ref/arquotes.html
A list of "useful quotes for animal rights activists" where I am listed between the same John Quinton quote above, and an uncredited quote "The mockingbird can change its tune eighty-seven times in seven minutes. Politicians regard this interesting fact with envy."

http://www.dreamwater.com/dreamscape/Quotes.htm
Another defunct page, that listed me between Robert Anson Wilson "People's belief in their own local reality-tunnels keep us all far stupider than we ought to be..." and Hemon Wouk "Income tax returns are the most imaginative fiction being written today."

http://www.ltwombat.com/quotes/W Quotes.htm
This page is defunct. Between Paul Wolfowitz (Deputy Secretary of Defense) "It's not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism. -- September 13, 2001" and Tiger Woods "Hockey is a sport for white men. Basketball is a sport for black men. Golf is a sport for white men dressed like black pimps."

http://www.geocities.com/kent_kingsford/
Between John Lehman (Secretary of the Navy 1981-1987) "Power corrupts. Absolute power is kind of neat." and Dan Quayle "One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is 'to be prepared'."

http://p086.ezboard.com/fcanadianskepticsforumfrm8.showMessage?topicID=41.topic&index=17
Some kind of forum post, with a nightmare of a sig file, containing 15 quotes. I'm between Gailbraith's Law "Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof." and Albert Einstein "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind."

http://www.nightsinger.com/quotes/others.html
I'm listed between Thomas Carlyle "The greatest of all faults is to be conscious of none," and Abraham Lincoln "Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?"

Shortly after I found out about this thing, Google imported archives of huge numbers of historical Usenet postings. Larry Kestenbaum found the origin of the quotation there:

From: Jan Wolter (wolter@cs.tamu.edu)
Subject: Re: I watch Rush
Newsgroups: tamu.general
Date: 1995/05/15

In article <3p8cjt$pbj@news.tamu.edu>, Chris Barnes  wrote:
>In article <3p579j$mqb@news.tamu.edu>, wolter@cs.tamu.edu says...
>
>>I regularly see people with that mind set going down in flames when they get
>>in argument with actual well-informed and thoughtful liberals
>                         -------------------------------------
>
>Isn't that a contridiction in terms?   ;-)
>
>As with your points about Rush, that was just too easy to pass up.

So you're a believer in the strawman liberal, eh?

Given any of the major issues on the political agenda, you will find
intelligent, decent people with very strong arguments on both sides of
the issue.  One of the easiest ways to distinguish them is by the fact
that they don't automatically assume that all their opponents are crooks,
zealots or morons, since people who casually dismiss the viewpoints of
others are rarely well-informed.  I'll readily admit that the majority of
liberals including most of the more prominent spokesmen are dang fools,
but the same is true to about the same degree about conservatives.  It's
important to remember that just because there are crooks, zealots and morons
supporting a position, it does not automatically follow the that position
is wrong.

    - jan
This was a followup to an article I had posted about Rush Limbaugh's television show. I'm vaguely surprised that the tamu.general newsgroup, which is a Texas A&M discussion group, even gets out on the wider net, much less archived for posterity. Interestingly, the article doesn't give my middle initial, which is included in almost all quotations.

The quotation turns up in a few other places. In 1995 and 1996 Christopher Zguris used it in his sig file in a number of Usenet postings, mostly talking about guns and motorcycles. This might have been the mechanism by which the quotation escaped tamu.general. Maybe some reader of that group who knew me well enough to supply the middle initial (quotes from someone with a middle initial seem so much more authoritative) included it in a sig file. From there it would be plausible that some collector of quotations would pick it up, and others crib from him.

In 1997 someone named Delilah used it in two different postings to alt.games.vampires.the.masquerade. It looked an awful lot like she was just pasting in random quoations from a quotation archive as responses to other people's comments. I have seen a few instances of people actually invoking the quotation to support a particular point, but mostly it just seems to appear in signatures and lists of quotations.

I've also seen it used as filler in spam email. It looked like someone was padding out their spam with random selections from a quote file to make it look less like spam.

It's all a bit strange. I wrote the thing once upon a time. I was probably pretty pleased with the sentence after typing it, but I immediately forgot about it anyway. I've posted an awful lot of text in an awful lot of places. I'd hardly think this is the best thing I've ever written.

So what will happen? Will I eventually appear in Bartlett's Quotations? It would be weird if, a decade after my death, I was remembered only for this one casually written sentence. More likely it will just fade away. Who knows?

The quotation certainly has some survival characteristics - a certain pompousness in its phrasing, an appropriate quotable length, and a frequently relevant sentiment (hasn't everyone occasionally been dismayed at the idiocy of their allies?). It also has some handicaps. Notably, it lacks a famous author and hasn't actually been "published" anywhere.

But for some reason, it took on a life of its own, scrabbling through mind-space like a cockroach, striving for survival. It lives or dies almost completely independently of me. Well, almost independent. I could probably give it a big boost by actually becoming famous for something.

Maybe the best idea would be to attribute it to someone else. Lots of famous people are famous for saying things that they never actually said. Presumably someone said those things, but that person lacked the necessarily charisma to boost the quotation into the public consciousness, so someone else was recruited for the job. Question is who?

Though having a non-famous author is a bit of an advantage. As it is, the quotation seems to be favored by both liberals and conservatives. If it was attributed to Walter Mondale or John McCain, it would be read as refering to a particular political party. Since my politics aren't widely known, they don't color the meaning of the quotation.

There is a certain randomness to the success of this particular sentence. What made it get semi-famous, when so many others faded into obscurity? Ultimately this sentence was selected for limited fame by random factors.

I think fame is often pretty random. This must be frustrating for people who actually want it. You can work at it for years, and never get it, or get it only for some casual action you hardly thought about, or it can just drop on your head without any effort on your part. No wonder people hungry for fame get so crazy. Random reward systems do tend to induce neurosis.

Jan Wolter - jan@unxipapa.com
Fri Oct 11 10:39:33 EDT 2002

Update on November 1, 2010: The quotation isn't dead yet. A google search shows the quote be tossed in at the end of many miscellaneous posts. Here's a few examples:

On Jan 13, 2006, Brian Landoe just stole the quote, without attribution, in a post to swhicker.blogspot.com:

fatochre, your post is a refreshing break from the partisan bashing that is so often practiced by those on both sides of the isle. yes, te republicans have imperfect supporters like o'reilly, and pat robertson. just as the democrats have to live down the legacy of the Clinton scandal. It's important to remember that just because there are crooks, zealots and morons supporting a position, it does not automatically follow that the position is wrong, just as it is important to remember that truth is not determined by the majority opinion.
Apparently this guy thinks only presidents deserve capital letters.

"ComradeK" posted the following to definecynical.net on Dec 28, 2006:

Lastly, I'll admit something else. There are a lot of incredibly biased, angry and ignorant pro-gunners out there. They think guns are the way the truth and the light without ever really studying the question. But I think most anti-gun people are the same. They recoil with horror at the thought of allowing people to carry guns, without ever bothering to delve into the facts of the matter. I was against carrying firearms for defense at one point, then I read into the issue and changed my mind. There's this quote I have that I always liked, though I can't remember who it's attributed to. I think it's fitting: "It's important to remember that just because there are crooks, zealots and morons supporting a position, it does not automatically follow that the position is wrong."
How could he forget the famous name of Jan D. Wolter?

From a May 30, 2010 blog entry by Kathy Posner:

Last week Cicero trustees passed an ordinance that voted themselves the power to issue parking tickets. "The intent is to make our town a safer place for our families," said Fran Reitz, a trustee and the town collector. "This basically gives us more eyes on the street." In a prepared statement, Town President Larry Dominick said the new ordinance will improve safety economically. "It's a good idea because all of the members of the board...spend a lot of their time monitoring the conditions in the town," he said. "They are aware of everything. This will help increase the response time and also crack down on motorists who violate parking and traffic laws but escape punishment." Town officials contend their motivation arises from civically responsible ideals: They want to reduce chronic parking congestion by placing seven more parking enforcement monitors on the street at no cost to taxpayers. I agree with giving the trustees this added authority. As Jan D. Wolter said, "It's important to remember that just because there are crooks, zealots and morons supporting a position, it does not automatically follow that the position is wrong."