We're Just Sampling
So political writer Molly Ivins is a plagiarist again. A story in June alleged that Ivins hijacked the work of Betty Brink; the story was written by Fort Worth Weekly's Marsha Brown; I saw it on James Romenesko's Media Gossip site; the website is brought to you by James Romenesko; James Romenesko, presumably, was brought to you by Mr. and Mrs. Romenesko, but I'd like to make clear that I haven't double-checked that; Mr. and Mrs. Romenesko were brought to you by God. Have I credited all the sources?
Ivins borrowed liberally from Brink's story about prison conditions for inmates with medical problems. Ivins apologized and said that it was inadvertent and that the proper citation of Brink's story was cut for space by a ham-handed editor. I'm surprised Salon's right-wing schnauzer David Horowitz—whose slagging of that nice Nobel Peace Prize lady seemed like it would never end—hasn't jumped on this one with both right feet. (I hope he wasn't one of the ones let go in the recent "streamlining"?)
Brown's story about Brink's story and the alleged theft of same by Ivins was one of those unnecessarily well-documented exposs we in the alternative media like to present, especially when the culprit is the local daily. (See New Times Los Angeles' constant squawking about how the Los Angeles Times misidentified a non-suspect in the Notorious B.I.G. murder; the delicious coda is that the New Times itself made the very same muddle many months ago, fingering the very same non-suspect, and, when faced with it, said they'd "forgot." Now do you think they'll shut their yaps?)*
But I'm pretty sure that is not the point! The bitter jealousies between alternative weeklies and the mainstream dailies are a topic for a whole host of websites, websites that are mostly of interest to journalism wonks. So what is the point, then? Well, I'm glad you asked.
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The point, very simply, is this:
Who cares if Molly Ivins did, inadvertently or advertently, plagiarize Brink's work? When Ivins takes on a case, any case, she's like a political Marshall stack—amplifying a worthy story to rock & roll levels.
The fact is that in this Jubilee Year (thanks, pope!), we do not "plagiarize." We "sample," and it's all thanks to Tone-Loc. Mad props to Tone-Loc! Big respect, yo!
All day, every day, I sample or, sure, plagiarize the day away. Every time I'm out with my witty and urbane photographer, Jack Gould, you know what he does? He says something witty and/or urbane! And you know what I do? I steal it! If you can't plagiarize from your friends, they're probably not worth having as friends.
According to T.J. Jackson Lears' No Place of Grace(full citation to Lears, as well as Lears' copious citations to Gramsci [himself an inmate with a MAJOR medical problem having to do with scoliosis, kyphosis or lordosis, I think], blithely omitted here), people mine the past for symbols of stability. That's how we get to the incessant use of Doric columns on plantation verandas in the antebellum South. People (we) do this (Lears says) generally when they (we) are fearing that the wealth they (we) have expropriated is going to be re-appropriated by the dirty proles.
But Lears and all his doting grad students notwithstanding, such sampling—whether architectural, spiritual or sartorial—today is not born of a reactionary fear; it's merely that all of us little culturemongers of the new wave are like people living in garbage dumps in Manila, the people whose homes were recently swept away in a mad rush of rain-soaked plastic, rotting bananas, used diapers, grass clippings, newspapers, a sock, a dog's body and a cantaloupe rind. What once took humanity 100 years of unconscious labor—maybe the Renaissance—now takes 10 painfully self-conscious years; who has time to experience it live, when it streams by on TV, on the Internet, in the alternative media, on radio, in the dailies and in the magazines? We experience everything before this instant as history. We've become reluctant postmodernists—borrowing from you and you and you—with expensive haircuts and very chic eyeglass frames.
Unlike Salon's Reluctant Capitalist (what a lily-livered apologist!), I'm not yet reconstructed. My mom raises commies. It's what she does. And I think if Truman Capote wants to steal Sally Bowles from Christopher Isherwood and turn her into Holly Golightly, then he should do it! Sally Bowles belongs to all of us.
"Property"? Pshaw! Although, for some odd reason, it seems somehow rude to download songs off Napster, I have no qualms whatsoever about using a dual-cassette deck to dub a tape. So why is it okay for Molly Ivins and Truman Capote and me to steal other people's intellectual property, and it's not okay for, say, Robin Williams? Mostly, I'd say, because we have a greater good in mind. For Ivins, that's focusing her laser lights on injustices in order to blast them into dust motes. For me, well, it's to make myself look hilarious.
I've got this UC professor who e-mails me really good love letters. They're brimming with smart stuff. Recently, when I informed him I was going to steal some of his pithier statements without crediting him, he responded beautifully: "Mine lines, if they be fine, are thine lines (you cannot steal what is already yours), for they are fine for thee. Credit me not, but do kiss me at thine earliest opportunity." I dunno. Sounds to me like someone's been sampling John Donne.
*For unnecessarily well-documented hullabaloos about nothing, though, not much can beat the front-page Los Angeles Times piece, written practically at New Yorker length and the culmination of a six-week investigation, about the shocking fact that a local amphitheater scalps three rows of tickets to each show.
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