Truthiness and urban legends: are editors who forget fake history doomed to reprint it?


On his Facebook page, my friend Dale Moerke posted a link to The progression of democracy, ostensibly a letter to the editor of the Jackson County Pilot, written by Les Opheim. It begins:

About the time our original 13 states adopted their new Constitution in 1787, Alexander Tyler, A Scottish history professor at the University of Edinburgh, had this to say about the fall of the Athenian Republic some 2,000 years earlier. . .

Ah yes, a truncated version of the “Fall of the Athenian Republic,” determined to be “Mostly False” by the Snopes Urban Legends Reference Pages. The LTE leaves off material falsely attributed to a Hamline University Law School professor and references to the Bush/Gore election, but what remains is still an urban legend.

There was no Alexander Tyler at the University of Edinburgh, and he didn’t write a book about the fall of the Athenian Republic. Snopes links to Loren Collins’ The Truth About Tytler. According to Collins, the first known citation of the quotation is 1951. It’s a fascinating piece of research.

More entertaining, however, is the fact that this is the second time the Jackson County Pilot has published a Les Opheim epistle using the “Fall of the Athenian Republic” urban legend. While the paper’s archive doesn’t seem to still include Les Opheim’s letter from April 2008, the text is included in a Bluestem 1.0 post, Jackson County Pilot publishes urban legend–with a twist.

Recently, I’ve spotted the apocyphal “Tyler” quotation cited in newspaper comment sections. The email of the urban legend must be making the rounds of the right’s inboxes again. I noted back in 2008:

As the contemporary American philosopher Stephen Colbert said:

“We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth-the truth we want to exist.”