My words are mine

I guess you can’t blame Melania for quoting Michele Obama verbatim and thinking it was her own fine sentiments. Never mind that there are free ‘plagiarism checkers’ available on the internet. She could have plugged ‘her’ speech into one of these services and found out instantly that even if it were “93%” different, that other 7% matters. But then, she probably never heard the 2008 speech from which her own was pilfered. And she certainly didn’t write her own speech. So, don’t shoot the messenger, right? Poor, innocent Melania! Surely, she should not be held accountable for the things she says when baring her soul to the nation in an effort to get her husband, that bastion of honesty, Donald Trump, elected. Surely not!

But what about the moron speechwriter? If he were going to harvest his words from the brilliance of a first lady, why not choose one from his own party? Laura Bush, say. Or Nancy Reagan. It is as incredulous as any argument made or not that he was unaware of his infringement as it is that he should duplicate the words of a Democratic first-lady-in-waiting. And a speech only two conventions ago, at that. Why not steal the words of Mamie Eisenhower? No one would have picked that up.  Perhaps because these women did not say anything affecting; perhaps because said speechwriter was too lazy and too careless and has a boss who wouldn’t have recognized the infraction any more readily than his wife did. But to copy and paste Michele Obama’s words into Melania Trump’s address? Please.

To say that a little plagiarism is okay is like saying 7% of a song is okay to replicate without paying royalties or a little copyright infringement is nothing to either be worried about or ashamed of. When, indeed, it is both. Otherwise, all those students expelled from schools and universities for copying their friends papers or from scholarship available on the web should be re-instated. Otherwise, the music and movie industries shouldn’t be so fired up to fight piracy. Otherwise, writers and poet might as well kiss goodbye their pride in authorship, to say nothing of their livelihoods. Otherwise, the moral imperative of taking ownership of and responsibility for one’s own words would be toothless. To defang that imperative is a dangerous business, indeed. It’s the stuff of libel and slander.It’s the stuff of anonymous threats and ‘blocked callers’ who leave obscene messages. Of ransom notes and poison pen letters.

A few years back when I was teaching online English lit courses at Southern New Hampshire University, I was dumbfounded to discover just how stupid students could be when it came to baldly ripping off other people’s scholarship. Papers would be turned into me with sections of argument recognizably lifted from sources. How did I know? Not only was the tone and intellectual content different from the students’ but so was the font and the point size of the text. What? Did they think I didn’t have eyes to see? I flunked them. And when they came back to me with sob stories, I said simply: Plagiarism is stealing and stealing is not condoned by this university or by society.

Which brings me back to that standard-bearer of fair play, upright thinking and enviable integrity, namely Donald Trump. He defended his wife and did not fire the speechwriter by arguing that “93%” of her speech was hers. Well, his. Or somebody’s. But not Michele’s.

That “93%” argument is nothing but a 100% sham, because plagiarism is not just the theft of another’s words; it is also a theft of another person’s ideas. Melania’s borrowed rhetoric stole Michele Obama’s context as well as her phraseology.

Melania or her speechwriter could have attributed those sentences and sentiments to Michele Obama as words so wise as to be worth both repeating and attempting to live by. Even after the fact. What an act of grace that would have been! Or, this morning Donald Trump, a candidate for President of the United States and as such defender of the principles this country is predicated on, could have defused the fuss with an apology and an acknowledgement. It is the mark of a winner to know when to eat a little crow. It’s the mark of a loser to deflect ownership of one’s errors by taking aim with blame.

And yet 41% of Americans want to make this man the leader of the free world. But Trump’s definition of free may be closer to ‘free to do whatever I want; free to break the rules; free to lie, cheat and steal.’ Including the words of others.

— Belle Songer




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