Mon | Jan 22, 2018

Tony Deyal | Journal of the plagiarist year

Published:Saturday | July 23, 2016 | 12:00 AM

I was about nine years old. In those days, I lived among a mix of people of Indian and African descent, and while I knew that there were people of Chinese ancestry who owned the laundry, the tea shops, and rum shops, all called 'Chin' by their customers, even Mr Tsoi-a-Fatt, I had never met one close-up and to talk to. Until Octavia Yow Foon.

One day, the headmaster came downstairs and told me that I had been promoted to Standard One. I was then allocated the chair next to Octavia and we shared the desk. I am not sure if I ever really spoke to her, but I know I was stunned and fascinated by her. I just stared at her and kept on staring.

The teacher, Mr Bunsie, gave us a 'composition' to write, and I was so intent on her, so obsessed, that where I should have put my name, I put hers. This was my first act of plagiarism or what, in these Internet days, would be perceived as a case of identity theft. We called it 'copying'. Later, of course, it became respectable and thrived under the patronage of the Greek God Xerox. At the same time, plagiarism gained both notoriety and respectability almost simultaneously. As one wit said: "To steal from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research."

These days, the already supercharged and overheated American political environment has been further enlivened by an accusation of plagiarism against Melania Trump, the wife of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Instead of blowing her own Trump-et, she blew someone else's - the person who had preceded her on a national political platform as the wife of the presidential contender for the Democrats in 2008, Michelle Obama.


A remix


Comic Trevor Noah, on 'The Daily Show', had a video of 'Melania' confessing to Kanye West that she had plagiarised and saying, "If they catch me, I will say it is a remix." James Corden's (Letterman-inspired) top-10 list included, "I thought it was the speech that every first lady gives.- ABCs Jimmy Kimmel quipped "The Trump campaign insists she did not plagiarise. Repeating things is how Melania learned to speak English."

Steve Johnson, writing in the Chicago Tribune added: "The other Jimmy, the 'Tonight Show's" Fallon, went artfully sideways. Yes, he made the pretty standard joke about Melania's daughters, 'Sasha and Malia'. (Seth Meyers couldn't resist, either).

Fallon also said, 'But at least Donald Trump didn't steal "Make America Great Again," his campaign slogan. Then Fallon showed a clip of Ronald Reagan saying, guess what? The best, the very best, the most fantastic and terrific and gold-plated and possibly even huge Melania line of the night came later, and it was worth waiting for. Said Meyers on NBC's 'Late Night': "Melania did it: She found something less original than being a model married to an old billionaire."

PR professional Laura Bedrossian tweeted a Melania take on John F. Kennedy's famous address, '... My fellow Americans, ask not what your copy & paste can do for you, ask what you can do for your copy & paste.- But my favourite is a tweet from Michael Crowley of Politico: "In hindsight, it did seem odd when Melania talked about the challenges of being a black woman at Princeton."

In an article by David Frum, The Atlantic looked beyond the jokes to find 10 reasons why Melania Trump's speech will have a lasting impact. These include that it was an opportunity to humanise Trump, which was wasted; it unleashed a cycle of internal finger-pointing and blame-shifting that will consume Trump's already dysfunctional campaign; and that the mood of Republicans at this convention was already embattled, defensive, and pessimistic and must be even greyer the day after Melania's speech than the day before.


Worse to come


But there is worse to come. There are many memes (images, videos, pieces of text, etc., typically humorous in nature that are copied and spread rapidly by Internet users) about Melania's plagiarism, but the one that I see as almost prophetic has Donald Trump using the famous 'I Have A Dream' speech of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The meme is consistent with what Dara Lind of VOX POP wrote, accurately hitting the nail on the Trump head and what Vanity Fair calls the "inanimate object that straddles his scalp like a dead furry lobster".

Headlined "The racism unleashed at the RNC is bigger and uglier than Melania Trump's plagiarism: Trump's campaign is a joke. Trumpism is very much not", Ms Lind's article emphasises, "If Donald Trump is elected president, it's not going to matter whether, or why, Melania Trump's 2016 Republican National Convention speech lifted a paragraph from Michelle Obama's 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. But what is going to last beyond election day  - whether Trump wins or loses - is the conviction, shared by a deep swath of the American population, that all unauthorised immigrants are (potentially dangerous) criminals; that Muslims, no matter where they were born, are not to be trusted; that it is important to declare that the lives of police officers matter but that to declare that the lives of the African-Americans those officers stop matter is an unacceptably radical and potentially terroristic act. Those attitudes were on full and ugly display on night one of the convention."

Sir Harold Evans, Reuters editor-at-large and author of The American Century, said, "Donald Trump was a joke until he wasn't.- In this sense, America is the land of the free and home of the brave. Until it isn't.

- Tony Deyal was last seen agreeing with the description of the 2016 Republican National Convention as 'where Steve King defends white supremacy and Melania Trump disproves it.'