Thursday, July 21, 2016

Plagiarism, part 2

I became involved in a discussion of plagiarism two days ago ( when news broke about the unquestionable recycling of several sentences from a 2008 speech by Michelle Obama in a recent speech by Melania Trump. The news sparked memories of the many times I've worked with students who deliberately or ignorantly (maybe I should say "confusedly") violated accepted standards of integrity by plagiarizing some of the content in their papers.

In all of this I in no way intended to attack Melania Trump. I saw her as a victim in the scandal--though it turns out she may have more of a hand in writing her speech than I had assumed, but still with innocent intent. (See "Melania and the speech writer" below for more on this.)

I assumed that there would be reaction to my blog post. I posted a link on Facebook and was hoping for some reaction, since many of my posts get very little response. So I was pleased when I saw comments.

But I was surprised at the degree to which some comments were partisan, several of them echoing Fox News or online sources that viewed the controversy as a way of scoring political points, not of seeking for clarity and integrity on the important matter of how words are used in public discourse.

Many of the public responses listed instances of plagiarism by figures "on the other side" to show that the "accusers" were as guilty as the "accused." (I question the words "accuser" and "accused" because most reports I saw focused simply on the facts of the case, that is, the clear evidence that several sentences in Melania's speech were lifted from Michelle's. Those who were seeking for someone to blame focused on the then unknown speechwriter--even wondering if this were deliberate sabotage--or on the campaign for not vetting the speech more carefully. Melania was generally treated with sympathy.)

Some public responses, including from the Trump campaign, excused the plagiarism as insignificant because similar phrases can be found in My Little Pony or popular songs or because "Michelle Obama didn't invent the English language." (If this last rationale is taken seriously, then no one is ever guilty of plagiarism, at least as long as they use words found in the dictionary. On this view, we might as well throw the whole concept out of the window.) Others, including the Trump campaign chair, claimed that no plagiarism had taken place--that the offending sentences were not taken from Michelle Obama's 2008 speech, that any perceived similarities were an illusion. That, I can affirm with absolute confidence, is simply a denial of reality. It is like saying that the sun is black or that water is dry. [See footnote 1 below.] Such a claim represents a serious offense against either sanity or the moral responsibility to speak truly.

These attempts to rationalize or deny the obvious dragged the controversy out longer then necessary and I suspect subjected Melania and the speech writer (who has now revealed her identity) to extended pain.

I honestly had assumed the campaign would apologize for the mistake (or misdeed) within a few hours at most and that everyone could move on. Instead they created two days of unnecessary turmoil by trying to move on without an admission of error. I think there's a lesson here for all of us.

So what after all does count as plagiarism?

Back to the question of plagiarism. What bothered me most in all of this was that the various denials and rationalizations promoted twisted and confused ideas about what constitutes plagiarism. No, plagiarism does not consist in using an occasional common phrase, like "live your dream" or "your word is your bond" or "work hard." Nor does the appearance of such phrases in a clear case of plagiarism somehow mean that it is no longer a case of plagiarism.

Plagiarism consists either in using very distinctive phrasing (so distinctive that it is clearly associated with a particular source) without giving credit or in using whole sentences that have been taken from a source that is not credited. Even when the words and ideas are common, if someone has put them together in a certain order, especially in a passage that is several sentences in length, simply copying those sentences (even after making a few changes) is considered plagiarism if the source is not credited or if the words being quoted are not put in quotation marks. The odds against such copying being merely coincidental are global if not astronomical.

The many counter instances of supposed plagiarism that were offered during the two days of controversy include a range of cases from genuine plagiarism to completely acceptable practice. It's unfortunate that the distinctions among these cases were blurred because of the partisan passions or propaganda involved in presenting them.

Here are some cases that people brought up:

Joe Biden: The plagiarism of which he was guilty was revealed some 20 years ago and led him to drop out of a presidential race. Yes, what he did was plagiarism, and he acknowledged it.

Michelle Obama: Some have pointed out that Elizabeth Dole and Laura Bush also talked about hard work and integrity. Sorry, talking about the same topics and even using some of the same words does not constitute plagiarism. Someone also pointed out that, in a particular speech, Michelle Obama had used the words "military families," "love," and "an empty seat at the table," just as Laura Bush had (more or less). Sorry, that doesn't count either. The only distinctive phrase in the two passages is "an empty seat at the table," something commonly used when talking about military families--or any family with an absent member. Everything else in the two passages is worded very differently. Even if the echoing were deliberate, it would not be considered plagiarism.

More seriously, some have accused Michelle Obama of quoting from Saul Alinsky without giving credit. This is a more complicated but instructive case, partly because Michelle was quoting her husband (she put the phrases in question in quotation marks) and partly because Barack's use of the phrases probably derives from his work with community organizing and with the Black community, both places where the phrases are common.

What are the phrases? "The world as it is" and "the world as it should be." It's not exactly as if these aren't phrases that could occur to thousands--even hundreds of thousands--of people independently. The phrases are widely used, as Internet searches show. The fact that the phrases are widely used by community organizers and other activists is not surprising, given that their aim is to change things as they are. And it's possible that Saul Alinsky had something to do with the popularity of these phrases among such activists.

What's interesting, though, is that most people use these phrases to make a very different point than Alinsky was making. He was arguing basically that we need to deal with "the world as it is" and not with our fantasy of what we would like it to be ("The standards of judgment must be rooted in the whys and wherefores of life as it is lived, the world as it is, not our wished-for fantasy of the world as it should be"). The Obamas, by contrast, have used the phrases to encourage positive change. What Michelle said was: "And Barack stood up that day, and he spoke words that have stayed with me ever since. He talked about ‘the world as it is‘ and ‘the world as it should be.’" She was probably thinking of something similar to the idea expressed in a famous quotation from Robert F. Kennedy: "Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not."

The reason some media outlets have been so eager to say that Michelle or Barack Obama were quoting Saul Alinsky is that Alinsky was a radical and in particular the kind of hard-nosed (and somewhat snarky and cynical) secular radical that some would like to believe the Obamas are, but that they are not. Besides using the phrases to make a point that is almost the opposite of Alinsky's, the Obamas' tone is much more positive and hopeful. And their point--even with some of the same wording--has been made by many others, including those speaking from a definitely religious viewpoint. In fact, I've found similar wording in Latter-day Saint publications. For details you'll need to check footnote 2 below.

To put this matter in a nutshell, Michelle Obama's use of the phrases "the world as it is" and "the world as it should be" is definitely NOT a case of plagiarism. Nor is it an indication of her malign intentions to turn America into a Soviet state.

Donald Trump, Jr.: This is another interesting case that probably passes fairly easily the bar of ethical acceptability. Someone (again probably with partisan motivations) discovered that part of the speech by Donald Trump, Jr. at the 2016 Republican Convention was copied very closely from an article by F. H. Buckley. Buckley wrote: "Our schools and universities are like the old Soviet department stores whose mission was to serve the interests of the sales clerks and not the customers." Donald Jr. said: "Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class. Now . . . They're like Soviet-Era Department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers." (By the way, as a university teacher I have a problem with the idea of viewing myself as a sales clerk and students as customers to whom I am selling "stuff.")

The main reason this doesn't count as plagiarism is that Buckley helped write Donald's speech. In other words, Buckley was using his own previously published ideas and words (somewhat modified) in a speech he was working on for someone else. I think most people would see that as quite acceptable. There are cases when repeating something one has published elsewhere can get sticky and maybe inappropriate, especially if done at length--but it would have to be at much greater length than in Donald Jr.'s speech.

Barack Obama: This is another middling case--a case where Obama used the words and ideas of a friend, a friend who did not object to his using them, who in fact defended Obama's use of them. The difference from Donald Jr., though, is that Obama apparently didn't check in advance with his friend. And he could have saved himself a lot of grief if he had simply said, "As my friend Deval Patrick might put it, . . ."

Apparently what happened is that Obama went off script during a 2008 speech in Milwaukee, ad-libbing comments that were not in his prepared text and that clearly echoed ideas and phrasing he was familiar with from Deval Patrick. Obama said: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter! ‘I have a dream.’ Just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Just words! ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words — just speeches!”

In an earlier speech, Patrick, while running for governor of Massachusetts, had said: “But [my opponent's] dismissive point . . . is that all I have to offer is words — just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Just words – just words! ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words! ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Just words! ‘I have a dream.’ Just words!”

Discovering the similarities, Hillary Clinton's campaign accused Obama of plagiarism. And he was in fact echoing Patrick's words and ideas and should have given him credit.

I think it's good to hold public figures accountable on such matters, if only to maintain standards in our use of words. Clearly some cases are more serious than others, and some of what people have called "plagiarism" is definitely not plagiarism. It's also important to not let such false or exaggerated accusations pass unanswered for the same reason: to maintain clarity about what those accepted standards are.

Melania and the speech writer

As of midday yesterday, the Trump campaign has released a statement by the speech writer who worked with Melania Trump apologizing for the unacknowledged borrowing of passages from Michelle Obama. That clear (and contrite) confession brings a stream of fresh air to the situation, ending the denials and rationalizing.

One thing we learn is that the plagiarism resulted from carelessness or clumsiness--lack of careful review and communication, which is often what happens in cases of unintentional plagiarism. A couple of professional political speech writers had prepared a speech for Melania which was largely discarded, though parts were used. Meredith McIver, an "in-house staff writer for the Trump Organization" who helped Trump write some of his books, took over to help Melania craft her speech. McIver says:
In working with Melania Trump on her recent First Lady speech, we discussed many people who inspired her and messages she wanted to share with the American people. A person she has always liked is Michelle Obama. Over the phone, she read me some passages from Mrs. Obama’s speech as examples. I wrote them down and later included some of the phrasing in the draft that ultimately became the final speech. I did not check Mrs. Obama’s speeches. This was my mistake, and I feel terrible for the chaos I have caused Melania and the Trumps, as well as to Mrs. Obama. No harm was meant.
So Melania read Michelle Obama's words to McIver over the phone; McIver wrote them down and then at some point either forgot their source or assumed they were not directly quoted and then inserted them into a draft of the speech. Melania Trump either forgot that the words were a direct quotation (which she had supplied to McIver) or was not aware of the problems that would be caused by using the quotation without crediting the source.

McIver apologized for not checking the language more carefully and even offered to resign (an offer that was rejected). In any case, the error was an innocent one in the sense that no one appears to have intended to deceive or wrongfully appropriate the words.

One thing that touches me in this story is Melania's admiration for Michelle Obama. She has many reasons to feel a connection to Mrs. Obama's personal story and many reasons to admire her ideals and her character. I am happy that Melania Trump has not fallen for (what I think there is good reason to call the genuinely evil) hatred of the Obamas that some in the country feel.

Melania's attitude points to the possibility of a much different public spirit than we have seen in recent years--one that would allow people to disagree and argue but still feel and express sympathy, gratitude, and respect for each other. Melania's attitude reminds me that most Americans have much more in common than they may realize, that the spirit of enmity (besides being evil) is based on illusions, illusions that are promoted by a relatively small group of people who thrive on drama and contention or who are caught up in an almost blood-thirsty craving for victory at any cost.

Which in turn reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Lincoln's first inaugural address: 
 We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. 
Is it too much to hope for that we can do better at living up to Lincoln's words? I don't think so. And you can quoted me on that.


Footnote 1: I've borrowed the images of a black sun and dry water from C. S. Lewis's book The Last Battle, though he uses them to make a somewhat different point.

Footnote 2: Passages resembling "the world as it is" and "the world as it should be" in LDS publications:

(a) In a speech in October 1971, John H. Vandenberg said: "In accepting life, we must relate to the world as it is—to the struggle between good and evil." The main thrust of his speech, though, was to "turn our eyes heavenward" and not be discouraged in dealing with the world as it is. (See

(b) A February 1971 article quotes Hari N. Dam, who summarizes one of the attitudes of Hinduism and its contrast with the Western approach as follows: "We accept the world as it is; you try to change it according to your blueprint." (See

(c) A June 1993 article by Joseph Walker on the distortions found in movies and TV presents wording very close to the Obamas' but with "life" instead of "world":
The thirteenth Article of Faith encourages us to seek out that which is “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.” Such things may not always represent “life as it is.” But they certainly represent life as it should be. 
(d) The most interesting example is in an article by Neal A. Maxwell, a beloved leader and brilliant thinker. In "Spiritual Ecology," published in February 1975 (, he wrote:
The rising generation within the Church become “idealists without illusions,” prepared to cope with the world as it is, prepared to bring the message of the Master to bear on the world’s problems, with the inner confidence that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to human problems, able to say this (not condescendingly or with false pride) but humbly and with a sense of certitude born of their own experience. 
His point is a somewhat like Alinsky's but more positive and certainly more spiritually grounded: we must deal with "the world as it is" (compare Alinsky's "The standards of judgment must be rooted in . . . the world as it is, not our wished-for fantasy of the world as it should be") but we must also have confidence that we can solve the world's problems--in effect, bring it closer to the way it "should be."

Notice that this passage from Elder Maxwell includes a quoted phrase: "idealists without illusions." He doesn't credit the phrase's source, probably because it was at this time a phrase in wide circulation. But it probably would have been wise (perhaps in a footnote) to credit John F. Kennedy, to whom the phrase is generally attributed. These sorts of phrases that get picked up and quoted by lots of people constitute a bit of a gray area. People tend to assume either that everyone knows who the source is or that the phrase has become so common as to enter into the public domain. But 40 years later, we may no longer recognize the source of the phrase, and it may no longer be so commonly used.

By the way, it's also interesting that many of these uses of "the world as it is" date from the 1970s. Saul Alinsky published his Rules for Radicals in 1971--which suggests either that he suddenly made the phrases "the world as it is" and "the world as it should be" popular or that these phrases were already in wide circulation. I think the latter is more likely.

For one thing, I doubt that LDS Church leaders were reading Alinsky, though Elder Maxwell may have been part of circles where such ideas were discussed. My guess is that the phrases became popular as a result of the idealism of the 1960s. I suspect that if someone searched carefully enough, they would find examples of this pairing of phrases during the decade preceding the publication of Alinsky's book.

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