Fact check: Quote falsely attributed to French writer and philosopher Voltaire
The claim: Voltaire said, ‘If you want to know who controls you, look at who you are not allowed to criticize’
Voltaire is one of the many historical figures that is often misattributed.
A May 20 Facebook post claims the 18th-century philosopher said, “If you want to know who controls you, look at who you are not allowed to criticize.” The post has accumulated more than 2,300 interactions.
USA TODAY reached out to the user for comment.
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Voltaire was a critic and public activist, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but the quote came more than two centuries after his death.
Quote is from reported neo-Nazi, white nationalist figure
The original quote is worded slightly differently, according to etymologist Barry Popik, and it’s from a 1993 radio broadcast by Kevin Alfred Strom. Strom is an American white nationalist and Holocaust denier, according to the Associated Press.
“To determine the true rulers of any society, all you must do is ask yourself this question: Who is it that I am not permitted to criticize?” said Strom in “All America Must Know the Terror That Is Upon Us.”
USA TODAY searched Voltaire’s correspondence from 1742-1777 in the University of Southern California’s digital library but did not find any evidence to support the claim.
Strom, one of the founders of the National Vanguard organization, confirmed in 2017 that the quote is indeed his.
“So it’s pretty clear, even to my critics, that I came up with the idea and the quote — and Voltaire never did,” said Strom in the online post.
Strom said it was “kind of flattering” that his words would be paired with “the name of the man who said such witty things.”
The quote is “not un-Voltarian” said Paul Gibbard, a professor at the University of Western Australia and a researcher at the Voltaire Foundation at the University of Oxford in England, in an interview with The Guardian.
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Gibbard said Voltaire’s resistance to authority makes the public think it is plausible that he would have said the quote.
USA TODAY reached out to Gibbard for comment.
Our rating: False
The claim that Voltaire said, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize,” is FALSE, based on our research. The quote is from American white nationalist Kevin Alfred Strom. In 2017, Strom confirmed the quote is his, with a slight change in the wording.
Our fact-checking sources:
- Facebook post, May 20
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Aug. 31, 2009, Voltaire
- The Big Apple, Aug. 16, 2012, Entry from August 16, 2012
- Southern Poverty Law Center, Kevin Strom, accessed May 24
- Southern Poverty Law Center, National Vanguard, accessed May 24
- Kevin Alfred Strom, Aug. 14, 1993, All America Must Know the Terror that is Upon Us
- AP News, June 18, 2019, John Cusack apologizes for anti-Semitic tweet
- University of South California Digital Library, Voltaire Correspondence, 1742-1777, accessed May 24
- National Vanguard, Jan. 19, 2017, Voltaire Didn’t Say It
- The University of Western Australia, Paul Gibbard, accessed May 24
- The Guardian, Nov. 27, 2015, Cory Bernardi mistakenly ‘quotes’ Voltaire on Twitter with neo-Nazi’s line
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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.
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