The Czar speaks again…

Ok, so now to my surprise, the Trump campaign has brought forward a responsible party for the plagiarism in Melania’s speech. In the New York Times of July 20, we read that Meredith McIver, an in-house staff writer for the Trump Organization, has issued a statement claiming responsibility for the plagiarized elements that remained in the final draft of the speech. In the words of Jason Horowitz’s article (he said carefully referencing his source),

In the statement, Ms. McIver, a 65-year-old co-author of several books with Donald J. Trump, said that as she and Ms. Trump were preparing her speech, Ms. Trump mentioned that she admired Mrs. Obama and read to Ms. McIver parts of the first lady’s 2008 speech at the Democratic convention.

Ms. McIver said she had inadvertently left portions of the Obama speech in the final draft.

Now, part of me wishes that the speech had explicitly used the words of Michelle Obama. This could have been a very unifying kind of pivot. “Like the current First Lady, I share the values of hard work, etc.  But while all of us are united around some core values, we also have our differences. Which are…”  This is the kind of nuanced reasoning we teach to freshmen all the time, precisely because it breaks down the reptilian reliance on false dichotomies.  It also reminds us that one’s opponents in a genuine discussion of ideas are not one’s enemies. Instead, we got plagiarism backed up after the fact by the most common excuse of plagiarists: she “inadvertently left portions of the Obama speech in the final draft.”  This should have the credibility of the employee who, caught with a hand in the till, says, “I’m going to pay it back,” or the cheating spouse who blurts out, “This isn’t what it looks like.”

As the Czar of Plagiarism, let me explain two things.

  1. All plagiarists change something in the words they are stealing. Perhaps this is to assuage their guilt; perhaps it’s to throw off Turnitin.com.  Instead of establishing innocence, the changed elements establish mens rea.  Think about it: if you steal a car, you don’t sell it as is down the street. You repaint it at least, or chop it up for parts. So when apologists for Trump’s campaign pointed to the differences by way of exculpating Melania & Co, they were being much dumber than they meant to be. Tough guys and sharpies should know better than to look at the pieces of a stolen vehicle and say, “That’s not my car, mine isn’t in pieces.” The really clever plagiarists can even pass through the search engines of Turnitin.com by totally rewriting what they steal—but the charge of plagiarism still sticks when you’ve lifted the whole argument, including the particular evidence, and put it in your own terms.
  2. The most common excuse I hear these days from students busted for plagiarism—let me be clear, this is a small minority of the very honorable Honors students it is my pleasure to teach—is precisely this: “Oops. I didn’t mean for that to stay in. That’s a mistake.” I have literally heard students claim that they “accidentally” turned in their notes file (made up of copy-and-pasted stuff from Sparknotes.com or Wikipedia) instead of their final draft. But mind you, this “notes file” has no attribution of source, and is formatted just like a final draft, including a title page. Please, all ye entering freshmen, unlearn this excuse now. It will not save you from the consequences of plagiarism. If we were to accept it at face value, it would only expose just how terribly you do your research, since you apparently don’t label your notes files appropriately with references for your quotations. It’s not a great idea to run from being called a crook by embracing the idea you’re a moron. You’re a college student!

The saddest truth, though, is that Melania Trump herself, who claims to have been inspired by Michelle Obama’s words, didn’t notice the all-too-close resemblances. This of course undermines the credibility of the scenario we’ve been given. But let’s move on.

Plagiarism has no party affiliation; it’s a temptation even good students can succumb to in a jam. But hopefully this scandal will show matriculating students this fall that it’s not an option.  After all, they won’t have the excuse of a team of sloppy speech writers. Though I’ll probably hear that one, too, before too long.

 

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About richarda18

Associate Professor of Classical Studies The Honors College at the University of Houston
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