Friday, February 22, 2008


I'll admit it: The plagiarism accusations leveled against Barack Obama earlier this week made me slightly queasy. Among all possible ethical lapses, plagiarism strikes at some of my most deeply held values as a writer and a teacher. Also, it pisses me off when I bust a student at it, because it's a huge googlicious time sink and because I always have to wonder, just how stupid do they think I am?

So I took some time to look at what Obama actually did. In the end I'm persuaded that what he said last night in the Texas debate is true:
[F]irst of all, it's not a lot of speeches. There are two lines in speeches that I've been giving over the last couple of weeks. I've been campaigning now for the last two years. Deval is a national co-chairman of my campaign, and suggested an argument that I share, that words are important. Words matter. And the implication that they don't I think diminishes how important it is to speak to the American people directly about making America as good as its promise. ...

And the notion that I had plagiarized from somebody who was one of my national co-chairs who gave me the line and suggested that I use it, I think, is silly, and you know, this is where we start getting into silly season, in politics, and I think people start getting discouraged about it.
(Source: CNN transcript of the February 21, 2008, debate in Austin, Texas)
But you shouldn't take his word for it. Slate has debunked the plagiarism charge thoroughly and convincingly.

If I have anything to add to the debunking, it's from my perch as a certifiable hardass - a self-appointed captain in the Plagiarism Patrol. If Obama were a student of mine, I would've busted him, big time. He'd have failed this assignment, no matter how willingly his friend had loaned him his words.

But he's not my student, and that's the crucial difference. The rules of attribution are profoundly different in politics than in scholarly work. Comparisons to famous recent plagiarists such as Doris Kearns Goodwin are so far off the mark that they just sound looney. Goodwin, as a historian, has a professional obligation to credit the ideas and language of others. Anything else is tantamount to cheating and stealing. This was just about the first thing I remember learning in my history Ph.D. program. In my memory, the ABCs of scholarly ethics are all jumbled up with reading Foucault's Discipline and Punish, which may have not-so-subtly reinforced the lesson with its graphic descriptions of torture and constant surveillance through the Panopticon.

But if the same rule against borrowing other people's rules applied in politics, then no politician could ever rely on speechwriters. (I'm not sure if their speeches would be even more wooden in that case, or if they might actually improve.) Heck, I would've made myself an accessory to plagiarism back in the mid-1980s, when I wrote a couple of speeches for members of the California Public Utilities Commission.

Speechwriter Jerome Doolittle, who in 1984 gave Walter Mondale one of his better campaign lines - "In Reagan's America, a rising tide lifts all yachts" - tells us that the art of political speechwriting is all about recycling:
To criticize a politician for plagiarizing, then, is no more sensible than to criticize a fish for swimming. It is what both animals are designed to do. The only sensible criticism would focus on how effectively political speech does the job for which it is intended. How skillfully does the politician mix and administer the small dose of simplistic placebos that the patient is considered able to handle?
The problem for the Clinton campaign is that Obama does this fairly skillfully indeed. The plagiarism charge is a desperate attempt to convince people that his campaign is "only words."

But here's the thing. Words do matter. At times, words have made me fall in love - or lust - almost singlehandedly. Words can transport me into entire worlds of fiction or the long-dead past. Words can explode a friendship. Words can inspire - a trick that the Christian right and movement conservatives have not lost sight of since the Reagan era. Words can be the medium for triggering not just change but transformation and even transcendence, as Gary Hart recently wrote.

I'm not much given to citing Scripture, but I love the beginning of the Book of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Words aren't just transformative; they can even be generative and creative, bringing forth something from nothing. Words matter. And as long as we're not in the dusty, arcane world of scholarship (much as I love it!), it's okay to pass lightly-used words back and forth among friends, especially in the service of creating something bold and new.

This post is certified 100% plagiarism free. Gratuitous Panopticon image is Jeremy Bentham's original blueprint for his ideal prison, taken from Wikimedia Commons. LOLcat from - where else? - I Can Has Cheezburger?

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