I watched the second part of the Clinton-Obama debate last night. I was much struck by the operatic drama of the confrontation. The first debate triggered a chain of thoughts about Desdemona and Othello. In this debate I felt part of the time as if I were sitting in a theatre watching a play about a famous Baroque-time duellist.
Plagiarism, according to Wiki, is "the practice of claiming or implying original authorship of (or incorporating material from) someone else's written or creative work, in whole or in part, into one's own without adequate acknowledgement".
In academia, plagiarism by students, professors, or researchers is considered dishonesty or fraud and the offenders are subject to academic censure. Journalists who plagiarize are in breach of journalistic ethics.
Plagiarism is dishonest on two levels. On the one level, academic strictness in punishing plagiarists is based on the claim that it is tantamount to a theft. The property being stolen is the product of the intellectual acumen and efforts of an individual mind. The person whose work is being plagiarised is actually a victim of an academic transgression.
On the second level, less onerous culpability is displayed in terms of the seriousness of the offence, the fact that by plagiarising someone else's words, one misrepresents him/herself to a readership or audience. He/she uses another person's beautiful and effective creation in order to elicit admiration and accord to him or herself.
I say this is the lesser of the two evils of plagiarism because I expect the audience, any audience, to listen and assess a speaker's words with some degree of personal responsibility and cognition. If a person uses another’s words to create an effect, then he is not the only one dancing this tango. The audience being influenced is at least an equal partner, complicit no less in its eagerness to be swayed in a certain way.
There is no question that Obama is clear of the first count of the plagiarism charge. He was not only allowed but actually given these words by the person who originally articulated them. There was no theft involved between the two. It was an exchange of gifts between friends. Nevertheless, Obama is not completely innocent of the fraud charge because he relayed these words to an audience, leaving them with the impression that these clever and incisive words were the product of his own intellect. That's what Clinton was trying to express last night without actually resorting to such a harsh word like "fraud". She failed to fully explain her misgiving by not holding the receiving audience at least as equally to blame. The booing that followed her remark was a perfect illustration of how willing that audience was to be duped.
It's a bit like the plot of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Cyrano loves Roxanne. Roxanne loves Christian. Christian loves Roxanne but he has a problem: Roxanne is an intellectual and he is a simple, unpoetic man. So Cyrano has a bright idea, he will write to Roxanne -pretending to be Christian. Christian agrees, because Cyrano's magical way with words will help him reach Roxanne’s heart. So Cyrano gets to express his true feelings for Roxanne while Christian gets the credit for their beauty; Roxanne, who was all too ready to fall in love with Christian to begin with, easily and uncritically accepts Christian's mesmerisingly eloquent letters as proof of his own genius.
So, no plagiarism took place, just a bit of a fraud played upon a very forgiving and compliant recipient.
When and if the audience sobers up, it might be too late to do anything about it but it least they will not be in a position to claim that they were unwittingly hoodwinked. They were warned but chose to look the other way. Kumbaya is so much more comforting and undemanding than actually having to do some rational heavy lifting, no?