20 July 2016

The People's Words

Since angry dark-skinned hordes have failed so far to show up at the Republican National Convention, we get stories like the Melania Trump plagiarism scandal. It would hardly be worth commenting on except that Trump fans have grown crazily defensive toward the presumptive nominee for First Lady, despite her foreign birth. They seem to deem her an asset to the Trump campaign because she's prettier and "classier" than either the current First Lady or the presumptive Democratic nominee for President -- not to mention her First Man. The prettiness is indisputable, while the "classiness" apparently consists of unconditional praise for the U.S. In any event, Mrs. Trump's honor is to be defended at all costs. One tactic is to raise the old bloody shirt of "Double Standards" and accuse the media of ignoring plagiarism scandals involving Democrats. This is a difficult tactic to pull off since the current Vice President, a Democrat, had his political career set back a generation by the first big plagiarism scandal of modern political history, while the current President was accused of plagiarism during his 2008 primary campaign. The "double standards" argument is pretty weak when a Google search of "Barack Obama plagiarism" calls up not only this week's Republican complaints against mainstream-media neglect of Obama's plagiarism  -- the candidate had borrowed lines from then-Governor Patrick of Massachusetts -- but also 2008 mainstream media reports of the plagiarism controversy. Of course, according to Republican logic the media must have downplayed it, since Obama did not withdraw from the campaign, just as Donald Trump's failure to divorce his wife (for now) will prove that the media downplayed her plagiarism as well. 

A more interesting response to the current plagiarism scandal is less partisan than populist, in keeping with the Trump movement. At this level there's a rebellion against the very concept of plagiarism. I'm hearing people argue that words belong to no one, that no one has a right to say that Melania Trump (or her speechwriters) were plagiarizing Michelle Obama's (or her speechwriters') words. I don't know if they feel the same way about phrases, but their main argument is twofold. First, "the people's words," as one person calls them, can't be claimed as intellectual property. Second -- and this may be the crucial argument for Trump supporters -- since there are only a limited number of words available to express ourselves, it's only inevitable that speeches expressing similar sentiments will sound alike, down to the phrasing, so what's the big deal? Donald Trump probably has the smallest vocabulary of any Presidential candidate in American history, and that's probably part of his appeal to many likely voters. What's the use of expanding your vocabulary, they may ask, when people can get in trouble like Mrs. Trump and her writers have? At least they can feel certain that Trump himself doesn't plagiarize, since his speeches sound like nothing professional writers would compose. Simplicity equals authenticity and honesty from this perspective, and with that in mind Trump fans really should blame the writers who forced the offending text upon Melania rather than letting her speak off the cuff as her husband prefers to.

If there's anything really damning about the whole affair, it has less to do with either Trump than with the idea that speechwriters, presumably partisan, assumed nevertheless that the words of Melania Trump and Michelle Obama, already antithetical personalities in many minds for many reasons, effectively were interchangeable. To the extent that they are props for their husbands -- Mrs. Trump blatantly so and Mrs. Obama's pretensions notwithstanding -- the writers are probably right. The real question is why the convention organizers thought Melania Trump had anything to say to the American people, or else why they thought her the right ventriloquist's dummy for whatever they wanted to say. Of course, candidates' wives are a commonplace at national party conventions; they're meant to testify to their husbands' character above all. But these appearances now encourage the dangerous belief that a First Lady is an important person upon whom votes confer some sort of power by electing her husband. We probably wouldn't be talking about plagiarism this week if people didn't believe that. You'd think that Donald Trump would prefer a more traditionally modest role for the First Lady, but just as he thought it important that Melania was more attractive than Sen. Cruz's wife, so he'll go on flaunting her as if she were Hillary and Michelle's opponent in a beauty contest. If she's been humiliated by this week's scandal, Trump has only himself to blame.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My standard for that is whether the message is more important than the messenger. If not, then plagiarism it is - as long as it is the original creator who complains, and ONLY the creator of that particular set of words who complains, and it can't be proven that someone else said the exact same thing earlier in time.

If, on the other hand, the original creator doesn't care, or is dead, why is it important?

And if the message is more important than the messenger, it should be self-evident. After all, is someone going to whine about plagiarism when the instructions being given them to keep them safe are "plagiarized"? But then, I don't put much stock in the idea of "intellectual property" when it's a corporation claiming ownership.