Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hillary "Remembers" and We Forget

On Christmas Day, 1985, I happened into a war. It wasn’t much of one, really, but it included kids trying to sell us (I was traveling with a friend) what they claimed were pieces of the bomb that had fallen on a cattle market, a bomb that had signaled the start of hostilities; bullets fluttering the leaves of a tree we were sitting under; lots of panic; and wholesale evacuation of town.

Though my memory of those few days seems perfectly clear to me, I am sure that my friend, were we to meet up again, would draw a substantially different picture of the events.

As there were no cameras around, nothing recording the events of that forgotten conflict, we would have no way of establishing the veracity of either account. His memory or mine: which could ever be the truer?

Probably neither.

And we all know that. We’ve all heard examples of differing memory, especially in connection with eye-witness accounts of automobile accidents and (for example) wars. We’ve all experienced embarrassing instances where our own certain memories have been shown fallible by more reliable recorders.

Why, then, are we giving Hillary Clinton such a hard time about her faulty memory of the dangers of a trip to Bosnia, a dozen years ago?

Could it be that we, the self-righteous Obama supporters, are discovering that, when the temptation is there, can fall into negative campaigning as quickly and easily as Clinton herself? Could it be that we are proving no better than they?

Last week, Obama offered us an opportunity—and I mean all of us, not just the candidates—to raise the level of public political discourse in America. Now, however, we seem to be following the lead of William Kristol, saying “Let’s not, and say we did” instead of addressing the substantial issues of our time (including race, which is not, as Kristol thinks, peripheral to anything in America) in considered discussion. Like school children shamed into seriousness, we bowed our heads and promised to be good but, as soon as teacher was out of earshot, what did we do? We piled on once again, and with a manic glee unbecoming of even a sixth-grader.

Come on, people… we can do better.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Answering the Obama Challenge

My reaction, on reading Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech yesterday, was that he has offered us and our presidential candidates the chance to raise the level of debate in America to a level not reached for more than thirty years. This morning, The New York Times, in an editorial, agrees: “

We can’t know how effective Mr. Obama’s words will be with those who will not draw the distinctions between faith and politics that he drew, or who will reject his frank talk about race. What is evident, though, is that he not only cleared the air over a particular controversy — he raised the discussion to a higher plane.

It is going to be difficult, however, for Americans, from lonely bloggers to pundits with a national stage (not to mention Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and even Obama himself) to pull themselves out of the muck they’ve been playing in for so long (each pretending that only the others are in the sewer)—that we’ve been playing in so long—and to begin to address ideals and ideas in our presidential politics, not simply issues (which we have used as a replacement for ideas) and attacks on the weaknesses of others.

Just how hard this will be was brought home to me this morning as I read reader responses to The New York Times “Campaign Stop” column on the Obama speech. One person wrote:

I really believe that this unfortunate episode is just about the worst possible thing that could have happened to Obama - formerly this white boomer’s choice for the presidency. The Reverend Wright has just answered the doubts of every white voter contemplating voting for a black president for the fist time. In spite of all his eloquence, I predict that Sen. Obama will never manage to extract the good reverend’s foot out of his mouth.
Posted by Teddy Harris

This mild (by comparison to many) attempt to bring us back down into Rovian innuendo and spite made me sad for another reason: I doubt the writer feels he (or she… “Teddy” could easily be a woman) is racist, any more than Geraldine Ferraro does. But this is a racist comment, of just the sort Obama was asking (by example) that we rise above. Obama says he heard such unwitting comments from his grandmother, and we have certainly heard them (and worse) from Wright.

But what do we do when they continue, continue in the face of what amounts to a plea that we step above and beyond? Today, following Obama’s example, we ask the person to take a step upward. No longer do we turn away in disgust.

In the little post, Harris assumes a racial divide and hegemonic thought within both whites and blacks of just the sort that Obama, and his panoply of supporters have been working to overcome. Like Wright, Harris does not see that we are trying to move forward from the divisive positions of the past—does not see that we have, in fact, moved forward (even if it is only a tiny step).

No more than black voters (who Obama had to woo away from Hillary Clinton—he was not initially so strongly supported within the African-American community), white voters are not monolithic—nor are they afraid that there’s some sort of secret black resentment in all of that community, a fear that Harris expresses as “doubts.”

Harris is allowing racism to dominate his/her decision-making process, though Teddy would probably be pained to be called racist.

It’s time for Harris, for me, for all Americans to rise above considerations of race and to look to our ideals and dreams—to the best possible future for America. For a long time, we’ve been too scared to express such idealism, mired (as we have been) in the muck of racial divisiveness fomented by political opportunists.

Finally, someone is giving us the opportunity to step up, as a group, to prove that we are something better.

I hope that, one day soon, the Harris’s, both black and white, will look down at themselves, see the muck, rinse themselves off, and step up and join us.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Tiny, Attempted Scam Story

Sometimes, when I think I’m getting too cynical, something happens to both give me a laugh and affirm that a healthy dose of skepticism is an important part life on the Web. One of those “somethings” began last Sunday.

I received an email from someone at polimedia.us that started with this:

We have reviewed your

blog on behalf of one of our clients that

would be interested in placing advertising with you.

Immediately, my scam detector went off: the email did not mention the name of my blog and it looked amateurish, sure signs that things aren’t right.

As I read on, I felt my suspicions confirmed:

we will require a one time, one day (24 hours) free placement in order
to test the quality and quantity of traffic your website can actually

This, of course, is not the way legitimate advertisers work. So I snorted, was about to hit delete… but decided to play with this a bit.

I used to follow cases where people played the various advance-fee scam artists, pretending to be interested but trying to twist the potential scammers instead. I didn’t really want to do that, but wanted to see if I could get an actual response rather than the mass-mailed spam before me.

So, I emailed back, asking that I be removed from their “bulk-mail lists.”

To my surprise, I got a response!:

While you're not on such a "bulk list", we take it you're not interested in
our offer either. Not much else to be said.

All the best,
Polimedia Advertising Team

I couldn’t resist. My email in response simply reiterated my request, in one sentence.

Now, I wasn’t quite sure if the first email had come from the Polimedia concern claimed. Perhaps, I thought, it was a legitimate company being phished. A look at the Polimedia website, however, made me think not… but I wasn’t sure until today, when someone in Bucharest, Romania (the “home” of Polimedia!) visited my blog moments before I received this:

No, actually, I happen to think you're a very amusing fellow, not to mention
a grandiose Assistant Professor of English, which I must say I've regarded
all my life as the uttermost pinnacle of human achievement, and while a
meager Associate Marketing Executive myself, I've always pined to do what
you do.

Will you tell me more, oh Great One?

Obviously, I’d gotten someone’s goat.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Plagiarism: Honestly!

Two recent plagiarism cases point clearly to what should already have been obvious: Our ways of viewing plagiarism neither solve the problem nor further academic discussion. If anything, they may do more the opposite, even setting a roadblock to clear, careful discussion and even to academic freedom.

In an article published in Harper’s, the novelist Jonathan Lethem tries to raise this issue, pointing out that everything written and spoken is, in some sense, plagiarized and pointing out that concern for plagiarism is, in many more senses, a smokescreen for a desire for ownership. Also recognizing this, Erik Campbell, writing in Virginia Quarterly Review, tries to divert the discussion into two types of plagiarism, Hard and Soft, the first dealing with the words themselves, the second dealing with ideas. He ends his essay with this:

And so, naturally, I then began to think about Alice Cooper and how he stole some stage theatrics from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and how Ozzy Osbourne later stole much of Cooper’s iconography and how Marilyn Manson is really an amalgam of the Cooper–Ozzy archetype and I tried and tried to quiet my mind and find sleep. To sleep. Aye, perchance to dream . . .

And although I read somewhere that every breath we take contains a molecule of Caesar’s dying breath, I breathed deeply anyway, hoping that—if not my breath—then my dreams might prove to be my own.

But part of me knew better.

Faithfully yours,


With the connectivity that underpins our language, languages, and life, there’s no real originality, never was. All comes from, comes from, comes from… even when it seems startling and different.

Most of us academics and journalists do understand this, yet we also manage to hold that plagiarism is a sin of the first rate, blasting the culprits while utilizing the crime and its results, confusing unsophisticated writers and students.

In the first of the recent cases, a Bush administration religious-right advocate was caught:

A review by The News-Sentinel found that of the 38 columns Mr. [Tim] Goeglein published since 2000, 19 included plagiarized material, according to Mr. [Kerry] Hubartt [editor of the Fort Wayne, Indiana News-Sentinel]. He said the paper would no longer publish work by Mr. Goeglein, whom he described as “well respected here by a lot of people.”

“There was no reason for it that I can see,” Mr. Hubartt said, noting that Mr. Goeglein had submitted columns voluntarily and had no deadlines to meet. “He was not under any pressure.”

Hubartt’s comment is significant: Goeglein, though he was certainly sloppy and probably dishonest, clearly didn’t know the rules of the game. He could easily have gotten away with what he did by changing the wording ever so slightly, by make clear attribution to the sources of ideas, and by quoting directly at least some of the time. None of this would have been more difficult—nor would it have reduced the “value” of his columns in anyone’s eyes.

What would the difference have been, in anyone’s eye? Very little. But, having been caught, Geoglein is without his White House job.

The second case is more troubling, for the accused brings in questions of race and hints of those of academic integrity:

The college said Dr. [Madonna] Constantine was being penalized, but did not say what the penalty was. A spokeswoman for the college, Marcia Horowitz, said Teachers College did not have set rules governing plagiarism or how it should be punished.

Dr. Constantine, in an e-mail message to faculty and students on Wednesday, called the investigation “biased and flawed,” and said it was part of a “conspiracy and witch hunt by certain current and former members of the Teachers College community.”

“I am left to wonder whether a white faculty member would have been treated in such a publicly disrespectful and disparaging manner,” she wrote.

Constantine is accused of using parts of a student dissertation in her own published articles, without acknowledgement. Though I do not know the particulars, I suspect she is hinting that she knows, as we all do (in academia), that the practice of using unpublished student work unacknowledged in one’s own work for publication is rather more common than it should be. This fact makes the singling out of any one scholar open for accusations of the sort Constantine brings.

Both Geoglein and Constantine have been dishonest, and their sin has been in getting caught—and in not being quite careful enough in their dishonesty.

What’s the difference, after all, in what they’ve done, and that of a journalist or scholar whose publications are impeccable? A few words, that’s all, of attribution. A following of form.

Yes, I understand the importance of ownership in a society such as ours, where personal and group success are made possible (in part) through our rights over our “own” creations. But ownership is, itself, something of a fiction: Our idea of land ownership, for example, is something we’ve made up and codified. It has no reality; its base is simply common agreement that an outsider might easily misunderstand. Just so, we’ve made our rules for ownership of intellectual property, rules that we insiders understand, but the stranger might not. So, it is generally the desperate and naïve, people lacking understanding of how to negotiate the system, who get caught—or the careless. Or, possibly, people like Constantine, operating on the premise that “everyone does it” then screaming discrimination when they get caught (don’t get me wrong: discrimination may be there—I don’t know).

Except in the case of the careless (and I include Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin in this category), there is dishonesty here, true. And it should be treated as that. But, with plagiarism so often so little different from what goes on as standard journalistic or academic activity, couldn’t we change our attitude towards it just a little?

Couldn’t we start seeing it as a question of honesty and, sometimes, even a misunderstanding of the rules governing incorporation of the work of others into one’s own? Can’t we start treating the plagiarist with a little more understanding, recognizing that much of what any of us does, as Lethem and Campbell point out (Lethem even deliberately and playfully plagiarizes in his piece), is little different, ultimately, from what the plagiarist does?

Most journalists and academics, I am sure, will respond with a resounding “No!” But, again as both Campbell and Lethem point out, they have plagiarized themselves. The only difference is that they have done it by the rules.