29 February 2016

Lions, jellyfish, and a quotable Italian fascist #nlpoli

American media circles were all abuzz this weekend about a little episode on Twitter featuring Donald Trump and a quote he liked.

Gawker created a Twitter account last year that spouted quotes from Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini but attributing the quotes to Donald Trump.  Nothing happened to the account until Donald Trump himself retweeted this quote:

Note the name on the Gawker account is ilduce2016. Il Duce, for those who don’t know is Italian for The Leader, and was Mussolini’s chosen title. German nazis took the cue from Mussolini, incidentally, when they referred to Adolf Hitler as der fuhrer.

It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep. An issue of Time magazine in 1942 attributed the quote to Mussolini.

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians might find that quote just a teensy bit familiar.  Historian Ray Blake used a similar quote to derive the title Lions or Jellyfish,  his book on relations between Ottawa and St. John’s since 1949.  The blurb about the book from University of Toronto Press explains:  “Asked in 2010 about his pugnacious approach to federal-provincial relations, Newfoundland premier Danny Williams declared ‘I would rather live one more day as a lion than ten years a jellyfish.’”

Williams wasn't answering a question when he said those words.  They came out of old Twitchey in November 2010 at an annual fundraising dinner.  They were dutifully reported in the Toronto Globe and Mail,  newspaper of record for Williams and his fellow Newfoundland nationalists.

Williams used the event, as he usually did, to bash the local media,  his critics, and anyone else who had pissed him off.  That year,  Williams was especially upset at the provincial Liberals who had hired Craig Westcott as director of communications for the official opposition. 
"I would rather live one more day as a lion than 10 years as a jellyfish," he said to applause.
""I'm going to take each and every one of them [his critics] on whenever I can," Williams vowed.

What Williams knew and everyone else didn’t at the time was that he was about to quit politics. Within a month, Williams had done a runner, leaving his party with a sudden leadership crisis.  The party insiders resolved by leaving Williams’ hand-picked successor in place, rather than risk a divisive leadership contest so close to an election.

CBC posted a video of Williams’ remarks and it is really worthwhile to watch the speech. You can see a great deal of vintage Williams in it  You can also look back and laugh at Williams’ claims about his financial management prowess in light of the mess he actually left behind.  There’s also no small irony as Williams complains about comparisons some people made between him and folks like Robert Mugabe or Hugo Chavez, having just paraphrased Benito Mussolini.

The similarity between the two quotes are so close that it is hard to imagine that either Williams or his speechwriter hadn’t come across the Mussolini quote somewhere and adapted it for Williams’ use. This may even have been one of those cases where a quote stays in your head but the context doesn't.     A sheep became a jellyfish, in a rather self-conscious effort to localise the reference for the audience at the fundraiser.  And the reference to 100 years for the Italian fascist became a mere decade for the townie lawyer.  But the connection between Williams' line and the Mussolini quote is unmistakeable.

The thing about the quote, though, is that  - divorced entirely from its original context - it’s the kind of phrase that would attract the self-praising Williams just like the self-praising Trump leapt at it. Go look at the Williams speech again.  It was, like most of Williams speeches,  all about him.  The sentiment of the Mussolini quote is about the toughness of the speaker.  That fits perfectly.

With the few simple changes in the Williams version,  though, lots of folks - your humble e-scribbler included - just missed the fairly obvious origin of the remarks. But now that you've seen it,  you will never look at the lions or jellyfish quote quite the same way again.