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Ed Driscoll

Speaking Truth About Speaking Truth To Power

January 13th, 2007 - 2:20 pm

Attempting to defend her much-publicized attack on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice due to Rice’s lack of children Thursday, Barbara Boxer invoked one of the hoariest clichés in the political lexicon:

Asked if her exchange with Rice was, as some suggest, a personal attack, Boxer insisted it was not.“I spoke the truth to power,’’ she said. “Condi Rice is in the room when George Bush decides to send 20,000 more of our beautiful men and women into the middle of a civil war.

“And I’m not going to apologize for making an extremely clear point,’’ she said.

As Allahpundit writes in response:

What bugs me is the self-congratulation. If one of the most powerful pols from the most powerful state in the most powerful country on earth can assume the mantle of “speaking truth to power,” then what’s left of “power”? Is that just a synonym for “Bush” now?

The phrase “speaking truth to power” sounds like something Marx or Nietzsche would have written (Nietzsche had his “Will To Power”, after all) in the 19th century, but it’s actually much more recent; it dates back to a 1955 Quaker pamphlet concerning the Cold War written by Milton Mayer. As Quaker historian H. Larry Ingle wrote here:

The phrase “speaking truth to power” goes back to 1955, when the American Friends Service Committee published Speak Truth to Power, a pamphlet ii at proposed a new approach to the Cold War. Its title, which came to Friend Milton Mayer toward the end of the week in summer 1954 when the composing committee finished work on the document, has become almost a cliche; it has become common far beyond Quaker circles, often used by people who have no idea of its origins. (One current example: Anita Hill entitled her memoir of her sensational charges of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Speaking Truth to Power.)To speak truth to power sounds so much like an integral part of Quakerism that some modem Friends have simply assumed the phrase goes back to the seventeenth century rather than arriving late in the middle of ours. It reflects what many contemporary Friends would like to believe is the characteristic Quaker stance toward political authority, hallowed in practice if not the exact words. Yet in its origins it was a political statement, entitling an explicitly political document.

This document sheds further light on its 20th century development (scroll to the bottom of page 14):

Let me recall the origin of the phrase. According to Steve Cary, the phrase just came to Milton Mayer one day, as he was thinking about the pamphlet. Everyone on the drafting committee liked it and asked where it came from.Milton Mayer thought he recalled it from some early Quaker writing, but no one subsequently found it, though Henry Cadbury made several attempts to find the phrase. In short, it would seem to have been original with Milton Mayer, though in sound and attitude it feels like an authentic expression of early Quakerism. It has its meaning for us, in part, because it is so concentrated and vivid an expression of an attitude toward government and other institutionalized forms of power. Surely it was the perfect title for a pamphlet challenging the behavior of the two antagonists of the Cold War. They represented raw, terrifying, unreflective and deadly power. What was called for to transform that power was bold and uncompromising truth.

Senator Kerry frequently claims that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism” was an aphorism written by Thomas Jefferson, instead of its actual origin as sophistry coined in the mid-1960s by an anti-World War II pacifist. Likewise, it’s fascinating to watch this simple phrase become a cliché that’s spread astoundingly far from its original–and apparently little-known–origin.

Update: Assuming deliberate satiric use of the above phrase in question is exempted, this seems a more than fair consequence if it continues to be used in the future.