Most Americans get exercised over plagiarism only when one rock band (like Led Zepp) is suing another over lyrics or melody, or when a scolding note comes home from Hunter’s or Kendle’s teacher, and there are as many popular notions and technical definitions of the offense as there are putative authorities. They almost all seem to have in common intention, some unquestionable textual appropriation and claim of credit by the chronologically second host of the text. In the literatosphere, plagiarism is viewed as theft, and royalties, penalties, reputations, allegiances – all are on the line.
The term is Latin in origin, and its Roman users meant “kidnapped” or “kidnapper” when they said it. This is not a casual concept, maybe not even a misdemeanor, so it’s no wonder that eyebrows and hackles rose when listeners to First Wife Melania Trump’s carefully calibrated values speech at the RNC heard whole paragraphs that echoed (and to some degree duplicated) Michelle Obama’s speech on just such an occasion eight years before. And without crediting the current First Lady. A former Bush speechwriter was quick to say in an interview that, while we want our public figures to be inspired by the speeches of the past, we do not wish that they be dependent upon them. Ms. Trump’s speech fell, to his ear, clearly into the latter category, though she did omit the phrase about treating adversaries “with dignity.” So last night’s speech, while derivative, did not follow the Michelle Obama script exactly. In fact, much of it was less elegant and memorable, but those three passages raise some serious questions.
The gallant Republican defenders said “coincidence, common phrases, accident,” even, “You can find these words in My Little Pony,” while the Democratic kibitzers cried “theft.” And what a peculiar theft it would be, if in fact Melania were thinking, “Gee, that Muslim Obama woman was so right about our hopes for our children and so on,” since her Donald, with his scary-voiced schoolyard “there’s something going on here,” has all but called Obama a clueless traitor and a devil, maybe the Devil. But at least the two parties now have something in common, some of the most heartfelt and captivating sentences in a speech. Is it plagiarism? If this were an academic context, we have web sites we can employ to measure the closeness of particular passages and parameters, as well as precedents, for the teacher or other adjudicator to apply.
What really interests me here are three questions, the first a frivolous thing but mine own. In early modern western literature, allusion, appropriation, citation, downright hijacking played a role in the “next-to-newest new” process of constructing a text. But magpie gathering wasn’t really the invention of Eliot, Joyce and their ilk; the pirated phrases, scenes, character relations in Shakespeare are the subject of a storeroom of dissertations, articles and books, and Melville pillages the Bible and Lear to shore up his whale tale. But Eliot and Joyce were more concerned that their audience “get it,” that they be able to connect the dots, feel the layering, see the wires jumping from enhanced voltage and follow the electricity back to Dante, Milton, Homer and Chaucer. It was part of their project, to hitch their wagons to a star or stars, working with the assumption that the rising tide would float all the boats. Importantly, they ran the old passages of language through the prisms of their imaginations to provide a fresh perspective. Perhaps that’s what the author(s) of Melania’s speech had in mind. But I can almost see the furrowed brows and scowls out there in virtual audienceland. That’s probably not what she was doing, as she (or he or whoever, probably they) provided no apparatus in the text for us to make the link, no pattern of allusion or reference, and instead of refreshment, Ms. Trump’s replication features just a few slips where the power of the rhetoric is diminished by a turn of grammar or an omitted word.
So scrap that. The other questions I would raise are “Who wrote the speech in question?” and in the context of this election, “How big a deal is it?” Tempest in a teapot? Core sample of the campaign, or something in between?
Who? If a fairly a-political, honest and innocent wife just delivered a professionally constructed speech, then we have no significant quarrel with her. She’s a victim. But in an interview the day of the values speech, Ms. Trump told Matt Lauer of CNBC that she wrote the speech herself straight through in one go, read it over and was satisfied that it revealed her life experiences and beliefs. Yet the next day, when the shouts had hit the fan, Farcebook, Twitter and so on, Paul Manafort said that a team of writers interviewed Ms. T. and then cobbled together the speech. Later we got so many conflicting stories that they add up to an epic clusteredit with no real author. Maybe it was a combination, but when I hear two separate explanations so disparate, I suspect one is either mistaken or a lie. I can’t help wondering if we’ll ever know whose lie.
Anyone who maintains that it was all just a freak coincidence needs to be, what, waterboarded? Maybe just a good wrist twist will do. But if (as I suspect) surrogates, mouthpieces, spokesfolk and minions wrote it, they have to be outed and assigned the Walk of Shame. If Melania wrote the speech flash-bang once and done, then she has to bear the onus of dishonesty, face up to it as Joe Biden and many others of us have done for transgressions written or spoken, no matter how long ago. But then William Jefferson Clinton never took back that “never inhaled,” and he slept at a posh address for eight years. So, suppose she shows that she is capable of error and apology, or the ghost writers do, and forgiveness is requested? It would be embarrassing, but it might reveal the best of the Trump package to be a little more honest, accuracy-driven and fair-minded than they now appear.
And compared to “I know more about Isis than the generals,” I’m worth ten billion dollars,” “Mexico will pay for it” and “I never actually said that, I just retweeted it,” why does it matter if Trump’s high-priced wife or her assistants/minions/cribbers slipped in a few nicely lapidary phrases so solid in their emotions and thinking that no one would disagree with them and someone might have actually said them before? Let’s go with the premise that she did not write the speech, which I believe to be the case, though unproven as yet. That Monday night moment was meant to roll out and substantiate the human, familial, gracious and charming (“spectacular looking,” as one Trump surrogate said in an interview) side of Team Trump, the generous and cultured, eloquent and fine arts-educated face of a hit squad that generally “watches the shows” for information, doesn’t read books, consults with itself and is willing to exclude, expel, bomb, waterboard, snarl at or shoot from 5th Avenue anyone who does not share its agenda and prejudices. And the softening and smoothing almost worked, until the appropriated sentences revealed just how low the operatives of Team Trump were willing to go in order to score points. Rhetorically, it was foolish and cheap, morally it was reprehensible. But these are desperate times, and they call for desperate measures, which everyone in the dirty game understands. When a member of Congress was allowed to shout out with impunity during the State of the Union Address “you lie” to a sitting president, the civilized code of conduct began to fray faster, and the rules of engagement altered.
Someone in the Trumperial Guard, perhaps even the C.E.O. himself, needs to apologize and name the guilty parties so we can move on, try to repair our endangered national dialogue and be guided by our ideal mode of conduct, instead of the ruthless language we’ve been using like a blunt instrument. Forgiveness seems in order, once mistakes are admitted and we know whom to forgive.
But given Trump’s businesslike, bartering mind, perhaps these kidnapped sentiments and sentences will have to be ransomed, as he likes only good deals, fabulous deals you can’t even imagine, the best deals ever, and we have his wife’s (or somebody’s wife’s) word concerning his “word is [his] bond” and of “the strength of [his] dreams.” What else can we suppose he wants? Is it too much for us, to stretch the metaphor to its breaking point sense, like the family of a hostage to ask for a little proof of life?