Cleveland Uber Alles

Untimely Dispatches from the Neighborhood of the Unrepresented & Inarticulate; Anecdotes that Pedal and Coast Through the Boot-Print of 20th Century American Urbanism

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Abe Lincoln, Plagiarist Nathan Newman's essential Labor Blog carries the most reliable account of how Ohio Senatorial candidate Sherrod Brown made a criticism of Mike DeWine's ready support for the nomination of Judge Alito to the the Supreme Court and how ultimately Brown came to suffer unfair accusations of plagiarism at the hands of the Plain Dealer, which was only too happy to regurgitate for its readers the DeWine campaign's talking points. Other blogs, including Brewed Fresh Daily and the scurrilous, in this case, Right Angle Blog have picked up on this story as well. But before Cleveland Uber Alles piles on with its own examination of how these accusations further sully the integrity of our sole city daily, please take a moment to consider these words from the final line of Gettysburg Address:

". . . that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."
The speaker, of course, was the legendarily honest sixteenth president of the United States, and the speech itself was given at the cite of one of the Civil War's bloodiest battles, on November 19, 1863. The source of the language, however, was none other than Lajos Kossuth, the Hungarian revolutionary who arrived in America under the sponsorship of Congress in 1852 and whose struggle to usurp Hapsburg rule over Hungry became a cause celebre for patriotic Americans everywhere. Speaking to the Ohio State Legislature on February 6, 1852, Kossuth said:

"The spirit of our age is Democracy. All for the people and all by the people. Nothing about the people without the people. That is Democracy, and that is the ruling tendency of the spirit of our age."

Obviously, Lincoln either failed to acknowledge the source of this idea and the language he used to convey it, or he simply stole the idea and the language. It's worth noting, too, that he of the beard and hat also stole a line from the Bible's Matthew when he said "A house divided cannot stand." Well, where is history's outrage? Is Lincoln spared because he had the good sense to change a couple of words from the original? I doubt it. Sticklers of the sort the PD seem to be in the Sherrod Brown affair (caring not that the language Brown used was posted on a site that pre-authorized reuse, and not that Brown himself had readily acknowledged that the facts he cited about Judge Alito's career came from Newman's Blog), would no doubt hold Lincoln accountable, just as a college teacher might, since failing to acknowledge the source of a paraphrase, as Lincoln did with the Kossuth quote, is also considered plagiarism in academic circles. The "house divided" quote is easier to defend: it's the Bible and therefore in the public domain. But wasn't Newman's post, which Brown supposedly "pinched," also in the public doman? It doesn't matter to the PD, which editorializes thusly:
". . . blogger Newman is incensed that The Plain Dealer even cares where the language came from. "But we do -- and voters should, too. Here's why: We need to know who is speaking. Is it a responsible, elected public official, or an Internet dilettante? Or is theirs a seamless relationship that makes a vote for Brown a vote for or the Daily Kos? In their minds, does it make a difference? "In ours, it does. "Brown, a bright, energetic liberal who has gone almost 15 years with this page's endorsements and without a serious challenge, has let his campaign skills get out of shape. This transgression shows a staff that's already intellectually gassed -- and the race has yet to begin. What will happen once the gun sounds?"
Ach! I don't even know where to start. First, Newman, a published author who holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and a JD from Yale, is hardly an internet dilettante, and were the Plain Dealer's editorial writers not so "intellectually gassed" themselves they'd do a little research and properly inform their readers of the credentials of their source. The PD doesn't want readers to know that Newman is a legal scholar of a rather fine caliber, since that would call into question their claim that Newman's dismissal of the plagiarism charge is light and insubstantial. Moreover, by reading Newman--who has a true lawyer's gift for putting complex positions into clear succinct language --Brown and his staffers are showing that in fact they are indeed sharp enough and studied enough to run a well-armed campaign against DeWine, who will, as this whole plagiarism affair reveals, play the all too usual role of ad hominem attacking Republican. What's sad, as Newman himself has said, is that the PD's readers aren't getting anything about the substance of what his post revealed about Alito's judicial record--rather what they get instead is the PD pinching a story of talking points that were no doubt supplied by the DeWine campaign itself. To plagiarize the old saying: it's the pot calling the kettle--well, no it's not, since in this case neither Brown nor Newman come off as dark and obfuscatory but the PD does.


At 11:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to defend The PD's editorial ... but, come on, if a buddy said it was OK with him if you put your name on his old term paper, does that make it right? If the White House tells a TV news show it's OK to put the station's logo on a tape actually generated by a GOP-paid flack, is that proper? Sherrod plagiarized. I think the PD's editorial made too much out of it, but, geez, let's not be as knee-jerk as those GOP senators who were flooding the airwaves even before Scooter was indicted, trying to explain how breaking the law wasn't really, you know, against the law.

At 11:37 AM, Blogger Kossuth said...

By your standards George W Bush--or any other politician for that matter--is a plagiarist every time he gives a speech without acknowledging that the language contained within it is the work of a staff of speech writers named David Frum and whomever.

The fact is politicians use other people’s language all the time without attributing it (thus the point of the post), and we, the people, generally don’t trouble ourselves much about it.

No one cares if Bush even knows or understands what he’s saying, only how well his flight suit fits, etc., and ultimately, what people do care about—and do need to care about—is whether or not the Bush administration (and not Bush himself) is honest both in terms of the facts they site (e.g. the atrocious lie that climate change is not settled science) and the actions they claim they will undertake on our behalf (e.g. defend us from the evildoers, whatever).

By this standard—-and not within the juvenile context of whether or not a child is responsible enough to do his own work for high school English class—-Brown is doing just fine, and he’s really being smeared by the DeWine camp, who have been pushing this story to the PD.

At 6:24 PM, Blogger nolo said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your post. As for anonymous's comment, he's comparing apples and oranges. First, a politician using someone else's writing with permission isn't exactly like the example of a buddy letting you use his old term paper -- and for one good reason. Politicians rarely write their own stuff. They hire all sorts of uncredited people to write their stuff and help them analyze policy issues. Voters, on the other hand, aren't a bunch of profs grading politicians on their writing skills. Instead, we grade politicians on the concerns they have and the positions they take. Sometimes politicians are able to get to those positions all on their own; other times, they get there through the help of uncredited writers and advisors. All that matters to me as a voter is that he got there.

The second example is even less relevant. TV news shows purport to be independent sources of the news, not simply flacks for the administration or any particular political party. If a TV news show is airing party propaganda without identifying it as such, the TV news show has breached their promise to be objective. Again, it's not the same thing as a politician failing to credit a like-minded politically active analyst with authorship of a piece of analysis that the politician happens to agree with.

In my mind, Sherrod Brown's failure to credit Nathan Newman with authorship was at least sloppy, and was certainly a bit rude to Nathan Newman. But if Nathan Newman gave permission, it wasn't illegal, and if Nathan Newman's not offended, who am I to get offended on his behalf?

At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Cle-HOVA said...

That this story got any legs at all says more about the gullibility of the journalists who first pushed it and of readers who bought into the notion that what a politician writes in a letter is the same as what some kid writes in an essay. To recap:

No copyright violation took place.

When the fact that the source wasn't cited came out, Brown acknowledged the source and appologized. End of story. Brown acted with integrity. This is a tempest in a teapot if I ever saw one.


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