Over the course of 25+ years in education, I have dealt with many nefarious things, but plagiarism has been one of the most complex and annoying issues of all. As a classroom teacher (6 – 12th grade), a school administrator, and college instructor, this has been a recurring problem for me in various degrees of seriousness. Technology has made words, images, music, and ideas readily available to anyone and everyone with Internet access. I can definitely say that things have become much worse over the years and there are no signs of it getting better.
Which brings us to the matter at hand: Barack Obama’s alleged act of plagiarism. What exactly did he say? What did the other guy say? Does any of this really matter?
In this excerpt from the article “Clinton Camp Says Obama Plagiarized” by Beth Fouhy of the AP, we see the words Obama used and then the words of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick from a campaign speech:
“Don’t tell me words don’t matter,” Obama told the Wisconsin audience. “‘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?”
Patrick used similar language during his 2006 governor’s race to push back on similar charges from his GOP opponent. “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ just words? Just words?” Patrick said. “‘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?”
Is this plagiarism? Does it even matter if it is?
Well, in the academic world, plagiarism matters. We educators should start talking about it fairly early on (I am already explaining it to my daughter who is in 1st grade and has to do “book reports”) and often. It is crucial to establish protocols for young readers and writers; among them is the proper use of sources of information and maintaining their integrity.
“Oh, come on,” you might say. “My child was not cheating on that book report. She just put it in her own words.”
“Well, my friend, (I would respond) we have to make clear that ‘her own words’ have to be her own. If she rephrases what she has read, then that is called ‘paraphrasing’ and it must be noted or else it is plagiarism.”
Now, I suppose this will incur the wrath of numerous parents who want to get those projects and reports out of the way before the weekend is over. I know this does not make life easy for us, but who said that scholarship is an easy road? In fact, we are doing our children a great disservice if we do not explain early on the rigors of academia and help prepare them for it; otherwise, they might as well keep that after school job in fast food places and call it a career (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Back to Obama: should we concern ourselves with his alleged case of plagiarism? What is plagiarism and how do we know it when we see (or hear it)? Think of the late great George Harrison who wrote beautiful songs, one of which was “My Sweet Lord.” I loved that song so much, but when it came down to it, old George was accused of plagiarism. The charge was that he had stolen the music from a long ago hit “He’s So Fine.” In the end, the court ruled against Harrison and that was a hard day’s night for many of us Beatles fans.
It is odd that Barack Obama, who with his crowd appeal and tendency to make audience members swoon (and even faint), is in the same position as a former Beatle whose group did much the same thing to audiences. The thing is this: can we accept that politics is the same as art? Does the spoken word have a copyright? Is there a way to make sure the words we speak are protected?
We do know that public speaking is an arduous and often thankless task; however, it is the way most American politicians capture the hearts and minds of the voters. Think of all those campaign speeches of Lincoln and Douglas so long ago as they tried to capture the votes in a nation ready to divide and fight a war, or more recently between Kennedy and Nixon as they spoke to Americans via that wonderful invention known as television. The idea of a transparent presidency, one for all the nation and the world to see, became a reality and the young, handsome Kennedy prevailed due to his ability to make rhetoric (and a televised persona) work in his favor.
So, yes, while public speaking is an art and therefore under scrutiny, one can also say that it becomes public domain once it hits the airwaves. Dr. Martin Luther King’s amazing “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the finest examples of public rhetoric to become studied and analyzed over the years. I have used that speech as a teacher in the classroom as an example of not just a wonderful speech but as an excruciatingly fine piece of writing.
This is the thing that is most essential for us to understand: candidates do not speak great words in speeches before those words are written on paper. The reality is that those words are in some way material that is protected; however, their broadcast to the public then drops them into the hands of that public who may use them as long as they are cited.
I am not here to defend or support Mr. Obama, but I think it is clear that he was citing the great words of others who came before him. What teacher has not done that in the classroom? I have often echoed the words of some of my great teachers as I have taught. That is the trickle down effect of good teaching. Did not Plato echo Socrates and Aristotle echo Plato while teaching? Would we expect anything less?
For that matter, what parent has not scolded a child and then stood in horror and thought, “My God, I am saying the exact same thing my father (or mother) used to say to me?” This is the kind of oral communication that has gone on for countless generations, inspired long ago by our storytelling ancestors who could not write but passed the great tales of their grandfathers down like fine porcelain china words for their progeny.
All of this reminds me of a story I heard once about poet T.S. Eliot complaining because fellow poet Ezra Pound had read something he had written and noted that he had borrowed too glaringly from other writers. When Eliot said that it was hard not to write what had been written before, Pound shook him to his senses by saying that it was not a problem, as long as he could “make it new.”
There are many words floating around in the universe that have been spoken since the beginning of time. Words, once escaping the mouth, are out there forevermore. One can imagine the words of caveman Uyk bouncing off the words of Homer, Caesar, Napoleon, Hemingway, and Tony from Brooklyn all at the same time. This rhetorical melting pot of language is, for the most part, a babbling audio free for all moving across time and space that can never be captured again. Unless, of course, we get those words recorded as they are being uttered.
Therefore, while we can never hear what Caesar said on the steps of the Senate or what Lincoln said at Gettysburg, we most definitely can hear what Dr. King said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or Kennedy said in West Berlin. These words are preserved and part of the canon of thought and expression. To use them and quote them respectfully, giving full acknowledgement to their origin, is an honorable and noble part of academia, journalism, and public speaking.
Barack Obama said those words with reverence. No, he did not say the names of the original speakers of those words, but we did not need him to. He did not mention Deval Patrick either, but Mr. Patrick has no monopoly on using those excerpted lines from the archives of the collective public record of great spoken (or written as is the case of Jefferson) words of American leaders. Thankfully, they are there for all of us to mine liberally and use respectfully (with documentation) in our written and spoken arguments.
While I believe Mr. Obama has done nothing wrong, if nothing else, this incident magnifies the importance of teaching our children well in regards to plagiarism. Everyone must realize that, yes, they are just words, but in academia, politics, and every day life, words really do matter.