I have not read Barack Obama’s inaugural speech, which still lies a few days in the future, but I am confident that it will enter the pantheon of top ten inaugural addresses.
And it will do this not only because he – and his team – will find wonderful and evocative new phrases, but because his speech will also resonate with old rhythms and references. We will find ourselves moved not only because he will point us forward, but because he will also reach back in order to strike the mystic chords of memory deep in the American mind.
Sound at all familiar?
Most of those who love U.S. history will know already I borrowed the words of one President to compliment another. Whose? Lincoln’s – from the final sentence of his first inaugural address.
We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory …will yet swell the chorus of the Union….
So – today’s question – was I plagiarizing Lincoln or was I relying on our common knowledge of the mighty code that shapes our national values and political culture?
The press always seems horrified when one person – particular a politician, who is assumed to be a hypocrite — is found to be using someone’s else words. I understand the elementary moral logic of this – don’t steal someone else’s property. But sometimes we all seem to lose control of the concept.
Both Barack Obama and Joe Biden have been through the mill of criticism on the use of other’s words.
When Barack Obama was criticized for his elevated rhetoric during his campaign, he turned around and rebutted the attacks with quotations from various major pieces of American literature, lightly mocking the idea that words were not important in and of themselves.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident… just words.” “Ask not what your country can do for you, but you can do for your country … just words.”
The problem for Obama was that this particularly brilliant formulation had originated not with him, but with Deval Patrick, our governor here in Massachusetts, a warm and wonderful speaker in his own right. Patrick had invented and used the exact same phrasing several times towards the end of his campaign for governor of Massachusetts in 2006. I heard Patrick myself roll out the phrases in a speech at Powderhouse Park in Somerville during the summer of that campaign.
People attacked Obama for using Patrick’s words, even though Obama and Patrick are close friends, Patrick wanted him to use them, and Obama had inadvertently slipped – through the tedium of repetition — from carefully attributing the phrases to Patrick to simply using them.
Some will remember that when Joe Biden ran for President in 1988 he was forced to withdraw from the race after plagiarizing Neil Kinnock. David Greenberg, writing in Salon at the end of August in 2008, put it this way
Biden’s downfall began when his aides alerted him to a videotape of the British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, who had run unsuccessfully against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The tape showed Kinnock delivering a powerful speech about his rise from humble roots. Taken by the performance, Biden adapted it for his own stump speech. Biden, after all, was the son of a car salesman, a working-class kid made good. Kinnock’s material fit with the story he was trying to sell.
Greenberg goes on to attack Biden for other instances of plagiarism and uses these examples to question whether he had adequately been vetted.
I have been a university professor and I know that the unattributed use of others’ work is a serious problem, especially in the age of the Internet. I am also the son of two authors who have made their livings carving sentences out of thin air – and who have both been plagiarized at different times. So I don’t view it lightly.
At the same time, I am a preacher. A good many of the words I have delivered in public have been expositions of other people’s words – most notably those of Jesus. And I am mindful that in Jesus’ day and age, most people could not read and so the primary medium for communication was the spoken word. And the more memorable that spoken word was, the better.
Indeed, the gospels record the words and actions of Jesus preserved in the memories, compiled in different ways and different times, by people who had heard what Jesus had said. Thus we have Jesus in Luke saying “Blessed are the poor” and in Matthew saying “Blessed are in poor in spirit.”
One major cultural transition that we have undergone is that many people no longer understand references to Biblical stories and language. This gap allowed Mark Gerson to write skillful references into George Bush’s speeches that could be heard by religious conservatives as references to Christian hymns and scripture, while those same comments swept past other Americans unnoticed.
But this gap also makes for real confusion.
Quick – who said: “a house divided against itself cannot stand”? Most people would say Lincoln. And it’s true. But he was quoting Jesus.
And who said: “Let justice roll down waters”? Martin Luther King. Yes, but he was quoting the prophet Amos.
And (for extra credit) who said “some people see things that are and ask ‘“why?” I see things that never were and ask: “why not?’” Bobby Kennedy? Correct – but he was quoting George Bernard Shaw.
The media confusion that can build up about this is quite amusing. The most loopy example of hysteria came this past summer from right-wing-absurdist-artist-cum-anchorman Steve Doocy, who accused Barack Obama of quoting Mario Cuomo “practically verbatim.” On June 17, Jon Stewart brilliantly satirized Doocy’s looniness by putting up the two supposedly matching quotes and identifying that they shared exactly three words: “of”, “to”, and “we.”
But let’s take a look at a real string of verbal tradition. Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic convention address is considered one of the greatest American speeches of the late 20th century. This is an excerpt:
Ten days ago, President Reagan admitted that although some people in this country seemed to be doing well nowadays, others were unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures. The President said that he didn’t understand that fear. He said, “Why, this country is a shining city on a hill.” And the President is right. In many ways we are a shining city on a hill….
Mr. President … the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.
Cuomo was attacking Reagan’s use of the “city on the hill” imagery. Reagan, in turn, was quoting John Winthrop’s speech on board the Arabella before he landed in Massachusetts in 1630. And Winthrop was in turn quoting the Sermon on the Mount – thus, again, Jesus.
This is not plagiarism. This is a cultural conversation over several centuries. In holding a conversation within such a community, we rely on shared knowledge that is rooted in phrases and stories. That’s one reason comedy is so hard to translate – to appreciate a joke, we often have to understand the rich context in which it sits.
The problem of drawing the line between plagiarism and oral tradition is particularly acute when it comes to telling stories. When I heard that Donald Neale Walsh had been criticized for using someone else’s touching story about a Christmas pageant, I thought, “uh oh, that sounds bad.”
But then I realized that I tell dozens of stories of unknown origin. I don’t say that they happened to me. But I can no longer remember exactly where I heard them.
Indeed, when I first started preaching more than two decades ago I realized that I desperately needed good stories to spice up my thin theological perspectives. So I began to collect anecdotes. When I heard a good tale, I wrote it down. And being an earnest scholar, I often tried to record the source. Often that was unsatisfying. I had heard the story on the radio. I had heard someone tell it at a dinner party. I had read it in a waiting room in a doctor’s office.
As I told the stories over the years, I gradually reshaped them. I figured out what moved people, where the emphasis should lie, how the punch-line should be framed. And, in doing so, many of these stories became like old friends who I can bring forward and introduce to new people. Yet through years of doing this, I know no longer remember how to attribute them.
And the truth is that no one, sitting at a dinner table, would want me to take the time to share the detailed provenance of every anecdote or illustration. It would look like – and be – pure pedantry.
Telling good stories is a waning art. Abraham Lincoln was superb at it. It would be a shame if people killed off this lovely form because they were anxious about being blamed for having told something that began somewhere else. Almost everything begins somewhere else.
Of course, I still follow a few rules. I don’t say that things happened to me that did not take place. I don’t quote people directly without attribution. But I do make references – clumsy or clever, silly or sly – to things that other people have said, including people in the Bible or people in politics or even people in my own family. This is how culture is created and passed on. We share our words and our stories and pass them on to each other, across the oceans and down through the ages.
There is nothing wrong, and much that is good, with that.
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