The Politics Beyond the Plagiarism

Calling Melania Trump a plagiarist gives her a kind of agency the Trump campaign probably didn't intend for her to have, argues Jonathan Beecher Field, and the incident involves far larger issues.

July 21, 2016
 
 
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In case you missed it, in her remarks Monday night at the Republican National Convention, Melania Trump lifted portions of Michelle Obama’s speech from the 2008 Democratic National Convention. (Or at least her speechwriter, who has come forward to take the blame, did so.)

Almost eight years ago, I wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed about plagiarism and politics. I expressed my disappointment that the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, had chosen Joe Biden as his running mate in spite of Biden’s record of plagiarism. It was a different time. I had not heard of Joe Biden’s rival for vice president, Sarah Palin, and I probably overestimated the influence that elected officials have on the behavior of college students.

There are things I regret about that column, and I learned that the Inside Higher Ed commentariat is full of surprises, to put it politely. When I woke up this past Tuesday morning and saw that my news feeds were clogged with stories of another instance of political plagiarism, I went back and looked at what I’d written about Biden eight years ago. What strikes me most of all is that plagiarism is not a particularly useful way to talk about political speeches. Like many academics, I looked at the evidence Jarrett Hill provided and started to wonder what I would do if Trump had handed this in to me and I’d caught the similarity. After a few moments, I realized this question was a waste of my time, because she is not my -- or anyone’s -- student.

Fortunately, there are a variety of ways of thinking about this incident that are more interesting and more useful than pretending Melania Trump is an undergraduate who plagiarized an assignment. In particular, I am grateful to queer friends and colleagues for pointing out on Facebook how weird it is to have the candidate’s family appear and speak at a political convention. It is a tradition that is largely confined to politics.

Imagine if the spouse of a plenary speaker at the Modern Language Association or the American Historical Association made remarks introducing his or her partner, for instance. As Alex Corey, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Colorado’s English department, observed in a post, “Maybe we could also talk about the broader acts of copycatting within the official political sphere, like the fact that at every national convention and throughout campaigns and periods of holding office, partners in marriage (most often women due to the political environment) must take the stage to speak as symbols of the candidate's/officeholder's ‘values’ and subtly remind everyone that the most legitimate kind of adulthood -- the most ‘capable’ of representing the public -- is the one that also heads a two-partner family. So maybe heteronormativity is the more pernicious plagiarism on display here?”

Corey mentioned that Jordan Stein’s comments were useful in framing this post. Stein, who teaches in the English department at Fordham University, in turn cited Lauren Berlant’s Queen of America Goes to Washington City as inspiring his thinking on the political family. The family man as a form of plagiarism is an idea that may take some getting used to, but consider the ridicule that attended the bachelor candidate’s Lindsey Graham’s innovative idea that he could have a “rotating first lady.” Plagiarism on college campuses often occurs when a student is under duress. Absent the expectation that spouses perform on behalf of the political career of the person they married, there would be no need for Melania Trump and the Trump campaign to devise a speech, plagiarized or not.

Plagiarism is not the only way to steal. Jason Payton, an assistant professor of English at Sam Houston State University, comments, “Ms. Trump’s speech enacts the ambivalence toward black culture that Eric Lott has argued has conditioned white America’s experience of its whiteness for centuries. Lott notes in Love and Theft that the 19th-century blackface minstrelsy tradition alternated between white “celebration and exploitation” of black culture, or between ‘love and theft.’ The appropriation of black culture to consolidate white identity that Lott identifies within the 19th-century minstrelsy tradition continues to the present day, and this act of historical appropriation forms the horizon against which we should view Ms. Trump’s plagiarism …”

Payton continues, “Ms. Trump affirms the American values of ambition and industriousness, but in failing to credit Ms. Obama for her inspiration, Ms. Trump also constructs a racial fantasy wherein the advocacy for American values can be divorced from the history of critique and resistance by people of color.”

In a similar vein, Crystal Feimster, a faculty member in the department of African studies at Yale University, points out that “white folks have been stealing/ventriloquizing black people's words to their benefit for centuries, so why should Trump be any different? It is white supremacy at its best. I especially love that she cribbed the hard work part and the expression commonly used by black youth that your word is bond …. The fact that we can laugh about it, act astonished that she borrowed Michelle Obama's words or dismiss it as trivial without connecting the dots is part of the problem we face as a nation -- our inability to recognize the way racism and white supremacy function beyond overt racial slurs and violence …”

“‘Blue lives matter’ and ‘all lives matter’ are stolen words used to erase violence against bodies of color,” Feimster adds. “Plagiarism matters, so this matters.”

Race and ethnicity also figure in the aftermath of this event. Kirsten Silva Gruesz, a professor of literature at University of California, Santa Cruz, describes “the defense of Melania as already so toxically racialized. Good vs. bad immigrant, for instance.” After a litany of racist and misogynist attacks on Ms. Obama by Trump supporters, these same supporters are working to characterize Ms. Trump as the victim of a misunderstanding, even as they erase Ms. Obama’s endorsement of bedrock American values.

Plagiarism is a useful and important concept when people are being evaluated for expressing ideas in their original language -- in college, for instance. There are times, such as in academic writing, where the author’s name indicates that the work is her own, and her sources are cited using an appropriate system of citation. There are other kinds of writing, like the manual for your toaster or the Book of Common Prayer, where there is not this presumption of original expression. Sadly, it’s difficult to expect that Donald Trump’s campaign wanted to give Melania Trump the platform to speak her mind, so even calling Trump a plagiarist gives her a kind of agency that I don't think her husband or his campaign intended for her to have.

Finally, as Jane Coaston, a political reporter at MTV, explains in an article you should go read right now, Trump’s plagiarism was “the least bad thing to take place on a no-good, very bad night.” For professors, one of the most frustrating things about dealing with plagiarism is that it takes time away from teaching other students, and from research. The plagiarism issue is important for thinking about this RNC if and only if it allows us to think about the larger issues that have brought us to this political moment.

Bio

Jonathan Beecher Field is associate professor of English at Clemson University.

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