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Of memes and demons and your vote


Simcha Fisher - published on 10/12/16

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There’s a meme going around social media, and it’s making my eye twitch. Well-meaning but careless readers believe that, as the meme implies, it’s an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Here’s the quote:


It’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s certainly not from Screwtape, and it’s certainly gets nowhere near the level of wit, insight, or clout that C. S. Lewis could turn out with his left pinky finger. (And Uncle Screwtape would never say, “Keep up the good work!”)

Screwtape did have something to say about politics, but it’s more subtle and less meme-able. Here’s a passage from the actual book (“we” refers to the demons who tempt humans, and “the Enemy” is God):

About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand, we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner.

Memes are designed to make you think, “Hey, YEAH! I’m RIGHT! I’ll go tell everyone.” And Screwtape’s advice is designed to make you think, ‘Oh, crap. I’m wrong. I’ll go to confession.”

Another way to tell the difference between real and fake quotes, besides the dubious content? The style and vocabulary. Remember several years ago, when everyone was drooling over this putatively prescient quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

“Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind. And when the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood boils with hate and the mind is closed, the leader will have no need in seizing the rights of the citizenry. Rather, the citizenry, infused with fear and blinded by patriotism, will offer up all their rights unto the leader and gladly so. How do I know? For this is what I have done. And I am Caesar.”

And I’m a Chinese jet pilot.

This sounds like Shakespeare in the same way that my dog smells like camelias, which is to say, not at all. Not said by Caesar, not written by Shakespeare, not quoted by anyone who has even a nodding familiarity with how the English language is supposed to work.

As Mother Teresa once said, “Wherever I go in the whole world, the thing that makes me the saddest is watching people pass along bogus quotes without even stopping to think if the attribution is plausible.” Or was it Abraham Lincolnmeme who said that? Aw, who cares. I’ll just pass it along.

Anyway. Here’s another quote that really is from Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, and which really can inform us as we defend and endorse our presidential candidates — and it’s short enough to fit inside a meme:

“To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens our Father’s heart.”

I believe not only that C.S. Lewis wrote that, but that a demon would actually think it. And you can pass that along, too.


Image: “The Laughing Demon” Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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