Monday, August 25, 2008

Joe Biden and Plagiarism

SINCE ITS INCEPTION, TWR has taken a keen interest in the intersection of politics and plagiarism. Not long ago, we posted on accusations of plagiarism against Barack Obama by Hillary Clinton, and we also wrote about plagiarism and the memoir Love and Consequences. Now, plagiarism and politics are back in the news a la Joe Biden.

As most readers will remember, Senator Biden was accused of plagiarism in 1988 in the middle of his first bid for president. The charges of word theft came (first and loudest) from Maureen Dowd, who proved that he lifted portions of a speech from the labor leader Neil Kinnock and passed them off as his own.

Today in Slate, Jack Shafer, goes one step further, claiming that Biden didn't just pilfer Kinnock, but became Kinnock, making the transgression even more egregious. To illustrate, I plagiarize Shafer himself:

In his closing remarks at an Aug. 23, 1987, debate at the Iowa County Fair, Biden said:

I started thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?

Biden then gestured to his wife and continued:

Why is it that my wife who is sitting out there in the audience is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? Is it because I'm the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college and a graduate degree that I was smarter than the rest?

But, as Dowd first showed, what was biographically accurate for Kinnock was invention for Biden. So, not only did Biden (or his writers) steal words, they stole events and identity.

As someone who teaches and writes about plagiarism and the ethics of borrowing and stealing, as one who both borrows and steals, and as someone who has given many talks several days in a row, I can sympathize with Biden and his speechwriters. Shafer correctly notes that reporters at the event where Biden spoke acknowledged he "had repeatedly cited Kinnock as the source before abducting the Kinnock persona." But, to Shafer, this doesn't exonerate Biden--it just makes him bizarre.

To me, who often juggles dozens of sources, authors, and voices, when presenting a paper or writing a scholarly article, it can be difficult to keep everything straight. If you think this is an excuse, just ask Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose sloppy note taking lead to some instances of plagiarism in her 2001 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.

In general, plagiarism reveals either laziness or a lack of imagination. The practice of stealing someone else's intellectual work and passing it off as your own, though, can also point to questionable professional ethics. The question is, then, does Senator Biden's past dalliance with plagiarism, mean that his ethics are suspect?

But, maybe there is even another question.

How big of a transgression is plagiarism? Does it show the same sort of bad judgment as sleeping with a filmmaker while you're wife's recovering from cancer? Taking illegal campaign contributions? Misleading the public about weapons of mass destruction?

In my mind, Biden's plagiarism says less about him than it does about us. If it mattered to us, we'd punish him and Goodwin and others more than we do. But, in a culture of downloads and sampling, winning and losing, authorship and presentership, we have made a cultural decision that plagiarism is a minor offense. Because of that, it has yet to be determined if this will be a major problem.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

On the Olympics: Patriotism or Triumphalism?

IN A RECENT INTERVIEW, Chris Collinsworth asked Kobe Bryant where his patriotism came from. Bryant, who is, for the first time, playing on the USA Olympic basketball team, responded that his patriotism comes from the fact that "America is the greatest country in the world."

This is a phrase we hear a lot, all too often perhaps. In fact, it has become part of America's standard rhetorical artillery. No one is really sure what it means, but a lot of people say it. Are we the greatest at providing health care? At educating children? At rehabilitating criminals?

To be sure, the Olympics is about greatness. They are always more fun to watch and to follow than it seems like they are going to be, but cheering for athletes can be a tricky business. I always wonder, when I'm hoping that Michael Phelps slips past the Serbian guy for his 7th gold medal, if I'm rooting for Phelps (who, as a youth, was arrested for DWI) or for the United States. Is my desire a personal affiliation (I like Phelps), or is it patriotic (I like my country)? Can mere patriotism, when on the crucible of the Olympics, become jingoism?

On the other hand, when I happened to catch the U.S./Cuba baseball game that went into extra innings, I found myself cheering for Cuba. Then, I puzzled if I was rooting against the U.S. In the whole Cuba vs. United States paradigm, it's hard to side with the Americans--on the diamond or off.

What is interesting about the Olympics is the nationalism (and the patriotic emotions) the inter-national competitions evoke. Is rooting for the U.S. sculling team an act of patriotism (loyalty) or an act of triumphalism (domination)? For a long time, America has preached democracy and equality but enacted dominancy and supremacy. At their worst, the Olympics downplay the former and completely catalyze the latter.

One wonders, for example, if in the photo above, Michael Phelps is indicating that he is number one or if the United States is number one. If he's celebrating America's dominance, is that dominance brought about because he swam in a pool faster than seven other men? Does athletic victory have anything to say about military victory?

I find myself surprisingly pleased, this morning, when I note in the Times that the U.S. leads in the overall medal count. What I've decided this means is that I'm happy that young men and women who I share many cultural, national, and contemporary American experiences with, are doing well and achieving their goals, in part because of the assumption that because they are American, I have a better idea of what winning in America means to Americans. For most of us, experiences are national--we see them through a national lens. It colors, shades, and focuses how and what we do and feel.

Cheering for Americans and American teams during the Olympics is fine; in fact it's great. You'd feel like a dope not getting caught up in the frenzy of the drama. But, it' s important to remember that the Olympics are ultimately about athletics not indicators of governmental bad-assness.

Friday, August 15, 2008

iPod Indian

LAST WEEK, I WAS on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Northern Minnesota, and I came across this fantastic t-shirt. In San Francisco, as in most places around the country I'm sure, iPod billboards featuring the silhouetted hipster rocking out with the iPod in white relief are everywhere.

One of the things that's always interested me about these ads is there attention to but silence about race. It seems to me the artists of these ads often accentuate the ethnic markers (an afro, for instance) of the shadowed figures. It's a way of using semiotics to show that iPods connect cultures, cross cultures, and are consumed by cultures.

It is as rare to see an American Indian in a popular ad as it is common to see ads themselves. Name the last time you saw an Indian model for The Gap, Abercrombie and Fitch, Mercedes-Benz, Tag Heuer, Target, or Rolex. Also, think of the last time you saw any semiotic representation of an Indian using and enjoying technology.

Imagine my joy, then, when I came across this shirt. The woman I bought it from told me that at their last powwow, the sold more of these shirts than any other.

On one hand, I wonder about the decision to continue to indicate Indians through powwow and dance garb (fringes, head dress, feathers), but perhaps the entire image is a play on the power of icons, the ubiquity of racial and commercial semiotics.

Either way, I love the shirt.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Poems Katie Couric Would Like: Frank O'Hara's Meditation in an Emergency

WHEN THE SEASON TWO premiere of Mad Men made Frank O'Hara's 1957 collection of poems, Meditations in an Emergency, a major point in one of its subplots, the unlikliest of poets was, overnight, thrust into American popular culture. Immediately following the show--and even during the program--viewers all over America were typing "Meditations in an Emergency" into Google. When the search engine kicked out "Frank O'Hara" and the accompanying smattering of poems, Mad Men aficionados were no doubt puzzling over what the possible connection might be between this poet and their beloved show.

Perhaps even Katie Couric was wondering about O'Hara and if she'd like his poems.

"In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love." That's O'Hara with one of the best lines in one of the best poems from Meditations. It's a line that, when taken out of context (like in a blog), appears to be about romantic relationships in a time of war, or the complexities of divorce, or love and death during the Great Depression. But, one reason O'Hara is great is the simple fact that this line refers not to any economic, natural, or emotional disaster but to movies!

It's true.

This line is the catalytic moment in a funny, goofy, over-the-top poem called "To the Film Industry in Crisis." Had Walt Whitman been around in the 1950s and been obsessed with Johnny Weissmuller, Clark Gable, and Marilyn Monroe, this is the poem he would have written. Expansive and ambulatory, its catalogs of names and notions actually make you believe that Hollywood is/was in crisis.

No American poet was more enamored with visual culture than O'Hara, and no poet would have loved contemporary TV (and having his poem appear on TV) more than he. Many of the poems in Meditations are homages to celebrities (James Dean), to the love of celebrities, to love itself as embodied by celebrities.

Obviously, this awareness of celebrity presence is one reason Katie Couric would like O'Hara's poems, but she (and most readers) would also be attracted to O'Hara's love of attraction. Drawn to everyone and everything, O'Hara looks at everything through the lens of love:

O boy, their childhood was like so many oatmeal cookies.
I need you, you need me, yum, yum. Anon it became suddenly.

Love, love, love,
honeymoon isn't used much in poetry these days
(For Janice and Kenneth to Voyage)

I am moved by the multitudes of your intelligence
and sometimes, returning, I become the sea--
in love with your speed, your heaviness and breath.

One thing I love is O'Hara's knack for playing with easy assumptions and cliches about authenticity, depth, and what we might call "appearances." O'Hara is a master at teasing out the nuances of interior and exterior. "It is easy to be beautiful;" quips O'Hara, "it is difficult to appear so."


No doubt Katie Couric thinks something like this every day, just before that red light atop Camera 1 flashes on.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

TWR To Enter Moustache/Beard Contest

What more is there to say?