Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Defense of Melania Trump. Sort of.

It has been far too long since Curmie set fingers to keyboard, and there have been plenty of things to write about. Yes, I’ve been busy, but I really need to get back to writing. So here we go, with my first essay in months: a defense (of sorts) of Melania Trump.

Yes, you read that correctly. It is true that Curmie has a (hopefully) well-earned reputation as a scourge of plagiarists: one of my former students even posted a Facebook status that it was clear Melania had never taken one of my courses; that post now has dozens of “likes” from other alumni and a handful of colleagues. We’ll just avoid discussing the Rick-roll altogether, shall we? And it is true that I despise everything about the Bloviating Tribblehead, including his idiot trophy wife. But Melania has become the butt of countless jokes, memes, and other forms of public humiliation (a couple of which I have graciously attached here) for plagiarizing a paragraph or so from, of all people, Michelle Obama, when she spoke about her husband at the Democratic National Convention eight years ago. And no rational person thinks Melania herself is actually guilty.

Yes, she spoke those words. And yes, they were first spoken by someone else. And no, they were not in any way attributed in the speech to anyone else. But, seriously, does anyone really think that Melania, a poorly educated, dim-witted woman speaking in what is at best her second language, actually wrote the speech? There is a distant possibility that Michelle Obama wrote hers, but Melania? Not a chance. And what’s telling is that everybody with an IQ above room temperature knows that. Melania Trump is a puppet, spouting a speech-writer’s words without any real pretense that the ideas expressed, let alone the expression itself, are original with her.

The section in question is pretty much boilerplate (after all, if you’re going to plagiarize, make sure you steal the part about values and morals):
From a young age my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise; that you treat people with respect. They taught and showed me values and morals in their daily life.

That is a lesson that I continue to pass along to our son, and we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow. Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
Even a savvier woman than Melania Trump—and there are millions upon millions of them in this country alone—could be forgiven for not recognizing that this particular version of pabulum is just a little too familiar-sounding.

But it’s not the lazy and dishonest speechwriter who’s going to catch flak for this colossal gaffe: it’s the person who uttered those portentous words in public. What’s telling about this situation isn’t that Melania Trump “plagiarized” in front of tens of millions of television viewers. It’s the response of the Trump campaign, which revealed itself once again as disingenuous, arrogant, and inept. Indeed, the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency is about the only thing that could ever convince Curmie to vote for Hillary Clinton. The two presumptive nominees are equally narcissistic, equally corrupt, equally hubristic. But at least Hillary has some relevant experience, is less overtly racist, and is… what’s that word, again? Oh, yeah: sane.

Truly, the excuses gushing out of the Trump camp are a sight to behold. There’s a good summary at Vox. Let’s see: there’s campaign manager Paul Manafort’s attempt to shift the blame from the culprit to the Hillary Clinton campaign, who, in Manafort’s paranoid delusion, somehow invented the obvious and unmistakable evidence that the speech wasn’t original.

There’s Chris Christie, who lost whatever shreds of dignity he may once have clung to by suggesting that because “93%” of the speech was original, there wasn’t plagiarism. I’ve never agreed with Christie politically, and I strongly suspect he’s more than a little dishonest, but this level of utter stupidity is simply mind-boggling. If a student, even a fall-term freshman, hands me a paper that is 7% plagiarized, that’s an F not merely for the paper, but for the course. (N.B., I’m talking here about the intentional appropriation of someone else’s words with an attempt to deceive, not about what I call “technical plagiarism,” which is a product of ignorance, inept high school teachers, and the quantification fetish that infests American secondary—and post-secondary—education, distracting teachers and students alike from things like proper writing in order to pay obeisance to the Great God Accountability… but that’s a rant for another day.)

There’s the defense by the insufferable Katrina Pierson that the ideas are conventional. Of course they are! But the phrasing is not. A significant chunk of the speech was plagiarized. Full stop. And no intentional obfuscation is going to change that. (Well, it might in the mind of a gung-ho Trump supporter, who is, after all, a moron by definition.)

Pierson also put forward the obviously true and equally obviously irrelevant assertion that English isn’t Melania’s first language… apparently that’s an excuse, somehow. Saying the wrong word in off-the-cuff remarks: that’s a situation in which a speaker might legitimately claim to have made an honest mistake. Full-blown plagiarism in scripted remarks? Nope.

And finally, there’s what Vox writer Sarah Kliff calls the “My Little Pony” defense: a variation on Pierson’s conventionality argument. Lots of people talk about work, you see. This one is advanced by GOP strategist Sean Spicer, who may indeed be too stupid to understand that specific phrasing matters. Lots of people contemplate suicide, too, but if you say “to be, or not to be,” you’d better not be claiming the words are original. Side note: Curmie wrote the previous sentence, then happened across a Verge piece by Adi Robertson, who not only adds a couple more excuses and excuse-makers to the list (more on them in as second), but also, in response to Manafort’s claim that “What she did was use words that are common words,” writes: “You know what else are common words? ‘To,’ ‘be,’ ‘or,’ ‘not,’ ‘to,’ and ‘be.’” So people can come up with the same idea independently. But notice that even though Robertson and Curmie referenced the same line from Hamlet, we did so precisely because that line is so recognizable, and we did so differently. (It might also be worth noting that Kliff’s article was posted literally 8 minutes before Robertson’s and uses most of the same examples, but—once again—differently.)

So… Robertson adds Jason Miller’s claim that “Melania’s team of writers took notes on her life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking.” Seriously, Melania, with friends like these… In some instances she was saying what she really thinks? This is a defense?

So where does that leave us? Was there plagiarism here? Absolutely, and of the worst kind: not quite word for word. In other words, the perpetrator knew he or she was breaking the rules, and (one presumes) made a feeble attempt to avoid detection. Curmie had a student a few years ago who copied a large chunk of his paper from one of “those” websites, then changed every fourth word or so in order to go undetected. It might have fooled whatever website or app assured him he was going to get away with it; it didn’t fool Curmie: there were just too many strange locutions… took me about 45 seconds to find the website in question.

The correct response is simple: “Everyone knows that most speeches at a convention like this are crafted by speechwriters from the thoughts of the speaker. This is standard practice, and this case is also extraordinary because Mrs. Trump is not a native English-speaker. We therefore relied on a staffer to write her speech. We understand that parts of the speech appear to have been lifted from a speech by Michelle Obama in 2008. The staffer has been fired, and we apologize to Mrs. Obama and to the American people.”

Or, as former Mitt Romney campaign manager Stuart Stevens put it, “In the process of helping Mrs. Trump, writers mistakenly included unoriginal material. We apologize & it won’t happen again.”

But that would be admitting a mistake, and that’s not been allowed in American politics since the Carter administration. The fact is that Melania Trump is just a dupe, betrayed by someone on hubby’s staff. But, as Stevens also tweeted, “The problem with Mrs. Trump's speech is less that it happened & more campaign trying to deny it did. One is a mistake; other character flaw.” It was said of Watergate that the uproar was more about the cover-up than the crime. So there’s another indictment of the Trump campaign: they don’t learn from history.

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