Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Johnson, Obama, And Political Plagiarism

I was listening to one of the few things in the world that can still well me up with tears today—Lyndon B. Johnson's “We Shall Overcome” speech to the houses of Congress, where he appealed to them to pass the Voting Rights' Act.

Johnson's famous address reads, at one point:

What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

It got me thinking about the foundation of the concept of Intellectual Property. You see, Johnson deliberately steals the phrase “We Shall Overcome.” Now, I don't know where that phrase originates, but it is a very old one that goes into Southern spiritual music, and it clearly doesn't originate with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, that phrase will forever be tied to King's famous speeches-- “I Have A Dream” and “I Have Seen The Mountaintop” and many others. It was as linked to him as “My name is Harvey Milk and I am here to recruit you!”

Lyndon Johnson steals the phrase—deliberately. There's a very deliberate flourish. He is showing, beyond a doubt, that he has been listening to King. In a way, the struggle of a huge zeitgeist shift like the Civil Rights Movement is also a struggle over the language. For the period that the struggle was called “States' Rights versus Federal Rights,” the South won. But when it became the “Civil Rights Movement,” how long could the South be termed against the Civil Rights Movement?

Johnson, when he says to the two houses of Congress “We Shall Overcome,” is demonstrating that he has ceded control of language, for a moment, to King. That's why it is important that he steal that phrase—specifically that phrase. Hearing that phrase come from a Southern, white man—from a drawl that, from others, was still at the time spewing hate—is precisely what wells me up about that speech.

Imagine if King had some sort of ownership power over it? Imagine if he refused Johnson the right to borrow that right? The same speech, lacking the language stolen from King and his movement, would be painfully hobbled. The great speeches in America, if you read them, are all tied to each other. How many phrases in the Johnson Speech, are drawn from the other great speeches?

For, with a country as with a person, "what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"


The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: "All men are created equal." "Government by consent of the governed." "Give me liberty or give me death."

And Johnson's speech, in turn, becomes a source to future speeches. Here's Johnson, saying the most important sentence of the speech:

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.

Here's Obama at the 2004 DNC Convention Speech:

There is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there’s the United States of America.

Obama is barely borrowing any of the words, but the underlying rhetorical structure is the same: rejecting the linguistic and conceptual divisions of this country. The concept of “A house divided against itself cannot long stand” is incorporated into the grammar of Johnson's statement; Obama steals that grammar, and it becomes the bedrock of his speech. And his speeches, too, are littered with the references of history.

That's why his speeches are effective the way they are: they tap into a long history of America's greatest moments, not just in the content but in the form, in the taken phrases.

Now, obviously, the concept of plagiarism doesn't extend to this kind of speech-stealing, does it? Right? From CNN:

On a conference call with reporters, Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said it was clear Obama had "lifted rhetoric" from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

Late Monday, Clinton followed up with a swipe of her own.

"If your whole candidacy is about words, then they should be your own words," Clinton said in Madison, Wisconsin. "That's what I think."

As we see, if the person you're taking the language from is unrecognized, it suddenly crosses into uncouth. Granted, it may have been one of the highlights of Devall Patrick's national recognition to have the national news calling him the origin of Obama's speeches (even if he only contributed that one phrase), but it was called plagiarism. And there are politicians who have lost their careers to plagiarizing speeches—there was a huge furor over the fact that the Australian and Canadian Prime Ministers gave identical speeches in support of the Iraq War in 2006. (That, by the way, was for good cause: the implication is that someone outside of your country is writing your politicians' speeches in order to convince the people of those countries to go to war...)

It's just a reflection on the deviation of norms. Suppose we say that the use of Devall Patrick's phrase is unacceptable, but the use of King's phrase is acceptable. What would the difference be? Perhaps you could say that Obama's use of Deval Patrick is less acceptable because the phrase does not automatically connect to Deval Patrick, and Obama doesn't directly acknowledge Deval Patrick. Johnson is tapping into a phrase which millions of Americans know instantly its storied roots—even if they can't instantly connect it to King, they know what is being referenced.

This standard does not apply to music. As a matter of fact, in music, it works exactly the other way around. If you take a musical phrase (a “sample”), you can only use it if it is not recongizable, and its legally best if you don't acknowledge it.

Why? We can see here that there's two different standards of plagiarism here: intellectual plagiarism, and commercial plagiarism. In intellectual plagiarism, the punchline is you didn't acknowledge your source. In commercial plagiarism, the punchline is you didn't pay your source.

Different norms.

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