Original Sin

by jkatejohnston

I have a soft spot for plagiarists. I’m not talking about frat boys getting term papers off the internet. That’s cheating and knowing that you’re cheating. But there’s something strange and touching about plagiarism like Melania Trump’s—or Joe Biden’s so many years ago. How could they have thought they’d get away with it? They must have been convinced by some temporary trick of the brain that they were speaking their own words.

I can imagine Melania dutifully studying the speeches of other nominees’ wives and then coming up with her own version, and imitation somehow crossing over into outright quotation. Part of the problem must be that all political speech is full of canned phrases. Your truth-o-meter has to be turned way down low to write any workmanlike set-piece political speech. And from that state of mind, or absence of mind, it’s an easy step to outright word-for-word parroting.

And it’s not like Michelle Obama’s words were so original. Work hard; respect others. That’s been said before. Michelle put it across a lot better. And of course it was foolish of Melania to copy the exact phrases. Your word is your bond. Oh dear. Michelle must really have made an impression on her.

But I’m trying to get to a story that my friend Kelly told me. When she was in high school, a song came to her in a dream: words, tune, harmonies, it was all there, perfect. She woke up and wrote it down in a frenzy of inspiration. Then she went to the piano to play it, and it was Elton John’s Someone Saved My Life Tonight, note for note.

The difference between Kelly and a plagiarist is that she recognized the song when she heard it, so she never passed it off as her own. But for long, convincing minutes she believed she’d been inspired. The sensation was delicious.

Reading this over, I see that my explanations are unsatisfying. Maybe Melania knew exactly what she was doing and just expected to get away with it. Either way, I feel sorry for her. Her position seems false from beginning to end.