Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Plagiarismgate: Preparing for the Next Six Months

THE RESULT OF TUESDAY'S Democratic primaries means that the campaigns, speeches, and the scrutiny will last another six weeks, maybe more.

Without question, Senator Clinton's campaign will be looking closely at pretty much everything Senator Obama says, no doubt, hoping to catch him in some sort of transgression, like plagiarism.

Last week, my letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle generated some correspondences and questions that I thought I would address here and at The Daily Kos.

When Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton’s campaign communication director, accused Barack Obama of plagiarizing a speech by long-time Obama friend governor Deval Patrick (D-Mass), it set off a cross-posting conflagration in the blogosphere that has acquired the moniker “plagiarismgate.” Wolfson’s snarky charge prompted columnists like Maureen Dowd, Bob Cesca and others to excavate phrases, passages and entire portions of Clinton speeches that seem to suggest she stole from Jimmy Carter, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, and even Obama himself. Nothing burns in cyberspace more than the combination of global text search and scandal. It is the blogosphere’s Duraflame, and these issues may flare up for the rest of the campaign.

Amidst this great back-and-forthing, however, no one is asking what it means to plagiarize a speech or even what the consequences might be for such a transgression. It’s a rare but glorious moment with the Venn diagrams of writing and literature professors merge with that of political discourse. Plagiarism is our purview; we deal with it every day in our classes, in our student papers, and in our own scholarship. It may be the most important ethical code of our profession, and yet, it can confuse the most persnickety, especially now.

As the world digitizes and YouTubes and blogs, the rules of who authors what and who owns what complicates traditional notions of theft, piracy, and appropriation. For example, Obama and Patrick use the same campaign strategist (David Axelrod), and both men admit they regularly share ideas with each other. Obama even joked in a speech last year that he was “stealing” a line from “his buddy Deval Patrick.” There is no question that a portion of Obama’s speech about “words” echoes one Patrick gave in 2006; in fact, certain passages are verbatim. But the fuzzy nature of political speeches problematizes the hard-and-fastness of plagiarism because of what I call “authorial invisibility.”

We know James Joyce wrote Ulysses, and we’re certain Wallace Stevens penned “The Snow Man,” but, in political discourse, authors are almost always invisible. Who writes Mike Huckabee’s speeches? Hillary Clinton’s? President Bush’s? Did Axelrod write the 2006 Patrick speech? Did he write or consult on the recent Obama speech? If so, is he guilty of self-plagiarism; what we in academic circles call “double-dipping?” If so, does that exculpate Obama? Could Patrick have actually stolen the idea from an old conversation with Obama?

Part of the problem lies with the cultural associations endowed to written and oral discourse. Oral discourse carries an ephemerality that somehow excuses it from the same ethical codes as written texts. There is something about the impression of printed material, its permanence, and its three dimensionality that makes its theft more egregious than parroting a speech in a speech. When an author steals from another author, that act carries a pre-meditation that violates the sanctity of printed, copyrighted, authored material.

But, what of material whose owner or author is unknown and unknowable? What does this do to the question of ownership and theft?

In the world of oral political discourse, asking if Obama’s speech plagiarizes Patrick’s is a bit like asking if Lebron James’ drive to the basket plagiarizes Michael Jordan’s. Words, concepts, performances, gestures, and clich├ęs are the threads that weave the ever-expanding tapestry of digitized free media that we wrap ourselves in every day. Now and then, we’re all going to be guilty of stealing the covers.


  1. If there was a written document of that speech, if duval patrick had written the speech down, and Obama copied from it without permission, would THAT be plagiarism?

  2. Hi Dean!

    Perhaps you've seen Jonathan Lethem's essay in Harper's Magazine, "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism" (February, 2007). It's a brilliant collage that challenges, as do you, the very notion of originality. Not coincidentally, that article is preceded by one "On the Rights of Molotov Man," about the use of a famous (and very cool) photo in a variety of unattributed contexts. Great stuff.

    All my best to you, as always!

  3. Good question, Anon. Perhaps. It seems the real issue is if Obama's speech writers pinch passages and make it seem as though it is Obama's. There is so much cross-quoting, so much playing with sound bytes, it's often unclear if someone is referencing a quote or not.

  4. Hey, Jeff, so good to hear from you.

    I love that Lethem essay. It's very smart, as are the notes explaining the "plagiarism."

    Visit (and post) any time . . .