Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Beyond “Plagiarism,” Stealing The Flag

The reader should note the quotations marks around the word “plagiarism.” The quote marks are intended to bracket the word in doubt because plagiarism often lies in the mind of the accuser. Note to the reader: I borrowed this thought from someone else, changing it slightly from “beauty lies in the mind of the beholder,” a sentiment some have traced to Plato.

Was Shakespeare plagiarizing when he borrowed heavily from Montaigne and Boccaccio? Or, as seems more likely, was he merely capturing their bright flags? We are not the inventors of the words we use to encapsulate our thoughts. In fact thoughts themselves have a parentage. C. S. Lewis put it this way: You cannot invent a new primary color. The attribution game is, in some cases, a tangle that has ensnared many an “expert.”

There are two kinds of plagiarism: true plagiarism, in the course of which an author or speaker consciously lifts whole paragraphs from someone else without proper attribution; and falsely imputed plagiarism, in which a speaker says things others have said cast into similar language.

A question of false attribution arose recently in connection with a quote attributed to Mark Twain that appears on my own Facebook page: “Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience." -- Mark Twain

Here is the discussion:

I just saw this on Don Pesci's page, and it's a perfect day to repeat it.
"Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience." -- Mark Twain

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John Mucci This is one of those black holes of quotabilities:

What is the origin of the phrase “do not argue with idiots”? Please cite some credible references. From googling…

[The authoritative site, “English language and usage,” quotes a few like locutions – one of which is remarkably similar from Greg King: “Don’t argue with idiots because they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience” -- but issues no definitive statement on the Twain quote in question:  “In any case, I'm sure many people have come up with various ways to express the same concept through the ages. Some of the wittier versions become widely known, and half of those get attributed to Twain. On my side of the ocean, Franklin probably gets credit for half of the rest, while those probably go to G.B. Shaw on the other side of the pond.” Mr. King, it should be noted is a current stand-up comedian. Could he have lifted his sentiment some someone who attributed it to Mark Twain?]

Gail Lavielle John Mucci, thank goodness I used as my source someone else's Facebook page! :-) The fortunate thing here is that whoever said this, however many times they said it, and however plagiarized it may be, it is still true. I would prefer to have less experience in this area than I do to back it up.

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Don Pesci I've been through this before. The jury is still out on the question of attribution. Some say King, some say no. Chasing down attributions is a little bit like looking for a needle in a hay barn. Twain himself was a borrower and lender of quips. Did Disraeli say "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics," or did he not? The quote is attributed to Disraeli BY TWAIN. No one has been able to find it in Disraeli's works. Did Twain make it up? The jury is out. G. K. Chesterton once quoted a poem from memory, inaccurately as it turned out. When this was brought to his attention, he remarked that the REAL poem was the remembered poem. Since no one has been able definitively to chase down the Twain attribution, and since the science of attribution is still in its infancy -- and therefore imperfect -- I plan to let the attribution stand as is because it is too Twain-like to be dismissed so airily by some who could not find Al Capone if he was hiding under their beds. That "Al Capone bit" is not mine: I've forgotten where I picked it up. However if, ages hence, someone should attribute it to me, I will not curse him from the grave. If it sounds like a Twainianism, waddles like a Twainianism and it found coupled with a picture of Twain, well then, to quote the Pope -- who are we to judge?
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Gail Lavielle DonJohn Mucci and I play with this stuff all the time on Facebook. He's very clever and is actually not being snarky. I love the Chesterton remark that the real poem is the remembered poem, because that is precisely the case of music. What is on the page is just notation -- it is the individual performances that are actually the real musical works, which are different every single time they are played. On another note, if I were looking for Al Capone, I most likely couldn't find him under my bed, because I wouldn't recognize him if I fell over him. It happens to me all the time even with people whom I know well!
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Don Pesci I was always bewildered by Twain's Disraeli attribution. It had to come from somewhere. Did the Disraeli quip come to Twain by way of a discarded letter from someone in England who may have been a contemporary of Disraeli? Did someone pour the quote into Twain's ear over sherry at some London club during one of his many travels to Europe? Not every memorable line comes to us with a birth certificate attached. Don't suppose the Al Capone bit refers to Mr. Mucci; I'm referring here to the tiresome "experts" who suppose that because a quote cannot be traced to an author in his written works, it cannot be traced to him at all.

The reader perhaps is aware that no one ever “wins” arguments of these kinds. However entertaining they may be, they are most often inconclusive. It is not always easy to trace a bit to the horse’s mouth.

James McNeil Whistler, who was a very clever fellow, used regularly to accuse Oscar Wilde, who was a very clever fellow, of lifting his lines. One time, in a debate between the two, Mr. Whistler said something memorably quippy and Mr. Wilde remarked that it was very clever: “I wish I had said that.”

Whistler to Wilde: “You will Oscar, you will.”

The same might be said by Denzil Washington of Michelle Obama, credited with originating a line here spoken by Mr. Washington.

We now turn to Melania Trump’s too much reported “plagiarism.” Neither of the two is Oscar Wilde nor James McNeil Whistler. It is said that Mrs. Trump borrowed heavily from remarks made by Mrs. Obama in an earlier speech praising her husband. This is true. In politics, reclamation of this kind is what we call “stealing the flag.” You re-edit political sentiments expressed by your opponent and turn them to your own purpose. If it is plagiarism, it is mimicry devoted to a specific purpose: that of recapturing a rhetorical flag previously taken by the enemy.

There are two important morals to the plagiarism story, which is itself a false flag: 1) No one owns the English language, and 2) If you are a political commentator and your analysis stops at plagiarism, it has not gone far enough.

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