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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

So What?

As a college freshman and English major I took an essay writing class my first semester. My professor's name was Dr. Snow. She was a stern taskmaster, a white-haired, unsmiling elder who took no prisoners. I remember absolutely nothing about the class other than my fear of Dr. Snow and the trouble that followed my first essay submission.

Having emerged from high school with some writing accolades, I felt pretty confident that I would do okay in Dr. Snow's essay class. Maybe even an A. I turned in my first essay (the subject of which I could not, under torture, recall) and strode back to my dorm, pleased with myself and looking forward to laurels from my new professor.

Next class Dr. Snow returned graded papers ... all but mine. She said she wanted to see me after class. A trickle of unease. Why?

After 50 minutes my fellow students departed and there we sat, Dr. Snow at her desk and I in my seat. She gazed coldly at my 18-year-old face and, holding my paper up in one hand, asked without introduction: "Where did you get this information?"

Over the years I've often said to friends "So-and-so had a parakeet look -- cocked head, blank eyes" to describe a person who just isn't getting the message. It's possible I came up with that metaphor because that's the first time in memory I was the parakeet. It took me a few long seconds for what she was getting at to compute. Then it came home.

"Are you suggesting I plagiarized this?" I asked her.

"Yes." No emotion, and no question in her mind that she was right.

Granted, I was young and hadn't even begun to write what I would come to do later in my life. But I'd written enough -- and had been taught well enough -- to know there is no greater transgression in writing than to steal someone else's words and call them your own.

I was outraged and told her so.

The truth, I think, has a certain ring to it. She grilled me for ten minutes, which may not sound like very long unless you're getting grilled by a formidable professor who's accusing you of cheating your first week in college. She asked me where I got specific information and I told her I got it out of my own head, having been a reader since I was old enough to talk. She asked me to explain the specific meaning of certain passages and I did, at length. She stared me down and I stared back. Finally satisfied that she was indeed hearing the truth, she wrote a B+ on the top of the paper (I guess an A would have been too much of an admission that she'd been wrong), handed it to me, and with what is probably my own imagination creating the rest, dismissed me with a tiny Devil Wears Prada hand wave and said softly "That's all."

I'm talking about this today, of course, because of the Melania Trump brouhaha at last night's Republican convention. This morning the Trumpsters circled the wagons after news broke that Mrs. T and her speechwriters borrowed rather liberally from Michelle Obama's speech at the 2008 DNC. The Trumpsters -- those coiffed and snarling attack dogs that Trump's campaign unleashes at the first sign of trouble -- have insisted all over cable news today that the accusation of plagiarism is ridiculous! This is a Clinton plot because Hillary is threatened by strong-woman Melania! That Mrs. T used common phrases!

I can't speak for any Hillary let's-take-Melania-Trump-down plots, but I can tell you after watching the comparison of Mrs. Obama's 2008 speech and Mrs. Trump's speech of last evening that somebody ought to be fired over at Trump headquarters. Indeed, Melania may have the same feelings as Michelle about her word being her bond and encouraging children to reach for the sky (that's what the Trumpsters are saying, that she was just expressing similar feelings). But when said feelings are expressed verbatim that's call plagiarism, honey.

Today the Trumpsters, along with denying any culpability for this obvious act of plagiarism, are also squealing So what? That's really been their battle cry for months, hasn't it? Every time DT spews out another racist or sexist or downright frightening remark, the Trumpsters circle those wagons, pop up on "the shows" and shout So what? 

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, addresses the issue of plagiarism and answers the question "So what?" rather succinctly in an article published in the Huffington Post in August 2014:

"Plagiarism -- simply put, presenting someone else's words or thoughts as your own with no attribution to the original author -- is a serious intellectual and moral problem for several reasons.

Plagiarism's moral problem is clear: taking someone else's intellectual work product and using it without attribution is theft. Without fundamental moral rules protecting intellectual work products in a manner equivalent to more tangible goods or money, the work loses value. The plagiarist essentially robs the author of the value of the written word.

But plagiarists do not simply take someone else's work product for their own private enjoyment, which might be weird but harmless. Plagiarism reaches its full blown status as a moral problem and disciplinary (possibly expellable or fireable) offense when the plagiarist uses the other person's uncited work for personal and professional gain -- to earn credits or a college degree, to get ahead at work, to win a Pulitzer Prize, to sell a book or an article."

Or maybe to promote one's husband who's running for President of the United States.

Now nobody's perfect, that's true, and throughout history good, moral men and women have certainly engaged in a little shuck and jive. However, Donald Trump's entire campaign seems to be bereft of morals. The name calling, the swearing, the lying. Encouraging violence at his rallies. Calling women fat pigs. Calling Mexicans rapists. The Trump University debacle. And now the stealing of someone else's words -- and not just anyone but for the love of god Mrs. Barack Obama -- and putting them in the mouth of his wife. Donald didn't do it personally and it's unlikely that Melania wrote her own speech. So the campaign has some staffer who wrote the words, and when he/she got stuck, googled Michelle Obama's 2008 DNC speech and said "Hey, this is good!" and hit copy/paste, assuming nobody would know the difference. And if they did know the difference, So what? The staffer felt comfortable plagiarizing and then maybe musing So what? because that's what he learned from the top.

I remember thinking, back in 1974 under the icy gaze of Dr. Snow, that any career I might have in writing could be over if I was unable to convince this influential professor I was telling her the truth, that I hadn't plagiarized my essay. Plagiarizing was then -- and still is -- a very big deal. That Trump and his Trumpsters don't think so -- and that this man and his henchmen who are so close to the most powerful office in the world seem to have no moral center -- should be a big wake-up call for anyone who plans to vote for him. I'm not trying to pick a fight here with my friends on the right side of the political spectrum: I get it, his sound bites can be entertaining and his blustering about international affairs maybe fills a void for the angry who are looking for someone to blame. But with that said, you've gotta admit the guy is just scary. He tells his constituents he's an outsider. Yes, that's true. What he doesn't say is that he's also a megalomaniac, although to anybody paying attention, that should be obvious.

To quote Tony Schwartz, Trump's own hand-picked biographer and co-author of The Art of the Deal:

“You know, it’s a terrifying thing. I haven’t slept a night through since Donald Trump announced for president because I believe he is so insecure, so easily provoked and not — not particularly — nearly as smart as people might imagine he is. I do worry that with the nuclear codes, he would end civilization as we know it.” 

Not much to say after that.



Related links
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patricia-mcguire/perilous-plagiarism_b_5666296.html
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/25/donald-trumps-ghostwriter-tells-all











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About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum