Why Melania Trump’s Plagiarism Matters

Should coverage of Melania Trump’s plagiarism outweigh coverage of the racism, misogyny, and other bigotries on display at the Republican National Convention? Probably not, but it does have a deeper relevance than its function in further exposing the absurdity of the Trump candidacy.

Let’s start here: intellectual communities build themselves through acts of citation. Bloggers link; scholars footnote or in-text cite. In some non-western cultures, writers may include passages in ways that western scholars would view as plagiarism, but I believe that this generally occurs in cultures in which an educated person would be expected to recognize the sources without a citation. It functions similarly to allusion and is considered a way of showing respect to the original writer. In context, Melania Trump’s appropriations show disrespect for word work (and play) and thought—more evidence, as if we needed it, of anti-intellectualism.

But it gets worse with Republican National Convention chief strategist Sean Spicer’s defense of Melania Trump’s speech, and I’m not talking about the strangeness of appealing to My Little Pony (though the willingness to admit that convention speeches have no more complexity or thought to them than a children’s show is striking). Instead, I want to focus on this claim:

I mean if we want to take a bunch of phrases and run them through a Google and say, ‘Hey, who else has said them,’ I can do that in five minutes.

Well, yes. That is how someone lacking access to an automated plagiarism checker might go about finding copied or patchwritten material, but Spicer seems to be suggesting that such a procedure will uncover levels of copying similar to Melania Trump’s in any speech or text. Besides being demonstrably false, this claim suggests a rejection of the possibility of creative thought, as if new ways of speaking and thinking beyond “common words and values” cannot exist. And I have to wonder if that represents the way Spicer believes the world is already or if, instead, it demonstrates the way the Republican leadership would like the world to be.

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