Posted by Richard Moore Oct. 13, 2014
I suppose it makes for good politics, the GOP’s insistent attacks on Mary Burke’s honesty, credibility and work ethic after it turned out her campaign stole some wording for her economic plan from other Democratic candidates.
It must be good politics because Burke has suffered some erosion in her poll numbers since the plagiarism flap began. Gov. Scott Walker, for the first time since March, has gained just a little breathing room, if you consider a straw hole in a coffin a fine supply of fresh air.
How ironic it would be, though, if it turns out to be Burke who is buried alive by the state-run media’s obsession with this plagiarism nonsense. And how fortunate for the Walker campaign that not too many intelligent people work as reporters and editors in the mainstream press.
True enough, some might ask, though only portions of the 37-page report were actually lifted word for word, isn’t it important that leaders give proper attribution when they use someone else’s work? How can Mary Burke possibly be trusted as an honest person when she blatantly steals someone else’s words? Doesn’t this make her, as Christian Schneider pondered, the pyrite candidate?
Asking such questions, of course, means actually assuming Mary Burke wrote any of her plan in the first place, a far stretch for any candidate in this day and age. Especially in statewide races, consultants are hired by the dozen to write the campaign plans and literature – to draft the rhetoric in a way voters will find attractive – and so it should be assumed that was the case here.
The media, particularly, should have pointed out early on that campaign zombies actually wrote – or stole – the booklet Burke put out. That’s just the way it is these days, and it has been for a long time. It has nothing to do with her integrity.
The idea that stealing platform language exposes her as a candidate with no ideas is likewise absurd. Here’s a news flash for the media: Democrats and liberals think alike, and so do Republicans and conservatives.
What if her campaign consultants, or even Burke herself, sat down and wrote the plan? The language would be different – no paragraph theft – but would the content or the ideas be different? Not likely. The Democrat would still be pedaling big-government ideas, most of them recycled from other campaigns.
That’s because most new ideas bubble up from think tanks and a movement’s intellectual wing, while the politicians are generally not the idea people but the salespeople who have the charisma to pitch those ideas. So when a new proposal emerges, four or five or more campaigns will likely run with it.
Sure, it’s lazy to pilfer the same language, but it says nothing at all about the credibility of the ideas pilfered. As someone once said, imitation is the best form of flattery, and that goes doubly so in politics.
The bottom line is, no candidate is expected to write their own campaign literature, and no candidate is going to sit down and run a plagiarism check on everything the hired consultant produces. Nor should candidates spend their time doing so. That they don’t isn’t laziness; it’s reality.
In other words, the so-called plagiarism scandal is much ado about nothing. It simply offers up another convenient way for the GOP to attack Burke, and apparently an effective one at that because of the complicity of the state-run media.
In recent years, there have been increasing voices of concern over the nation’s rising obsession with plagiarism, especially in higher education. The concern is that students, in their zeal to avoid the plagiarism tar brush, produce incoherent sentences and mangled styles that are often incomprehensible.
To say it another way, these days students and journalists don’t spend time honing their craft and learning how to write and report; they spend it combing through their text to make sure they haven’t plagiarized anything. And they often write badly just to make sure they haven’t stolen anything.
Don’t misunderstand me, plagiarism is wrong. It is especially wrong in higher education and in journalism. But obsession pays no attention to context, and context is important: Most often, the accused plagiarist is not copying pages and chapters of books – though that does happen – but is guilty of a minor violation in an extensive and otherwise original body of work, most often accidentally.
Which is worse, an unwittingly lifted phrase read some time earlier, or just horrible writing?
It used to be the latter, and should be again, but in this age of our obsession with plagiarism, it’s become the former. As Laura Miller wrote in Salon, “We’re a plagiarism-obsessed society, partly because we know how much damage we can do to someone’s career and life by accusing them of it, but largely because so many of us don’t really grasp what plagiarism is.”
Precisely. because most people don’t understand the nature of plagiarism – the intentional theft of material rather than the accidental regurgitation of a minor passage – the state-run media can point to Burke’s minor word-for-word transfers of commonly accepted Democratic ideas as plagiarism rather than as a consultant’s sloppiness and laziness, which is what it was.
The media do it to sensationalize, while the GOP gleefully glombed onto the attack to try to demonize and destroy Burke’s candidacy.
That said, there’s a whole lot wrong with Burke’s Invest for Success plan, and it has nothing to do with plagiarism. It has to do with the ideas themselves. What she is espousing would be dead wrong for Wisconsin, and the plagiarism flap is obscuring that.
For starters, let’s not forget that the portions Burke lifted came from mostly losing Democratic campaigns. Yet none of them were accused of plagiarizing. Voters simply rejected the ideas as bad.
Ditto here. As for the rest of her plan, I’m more than willing to proclaim it as an authentic Wisconsin Democratic plan. Indeed, it sprouts from the weedy garden of the Doyle administration, of which Burke was very much a part.
For example, at the heart of the Burke plan is an emphasis on industry clusters, whereby, as her plan states, groups of similar or related firms benefit from their close proximity to gain market advantages.
Different regions will have different clusters, i.e., tourism in northern Wisconsin.
The problem is, that was also the heart of Jim Doyle’s program. I remember listening to Doyle’s first commerce secretary, Cory Nettles, in Rhinelander early in Doyle’s first term as he extolled the virtues of a cluster economy, and especially for northern Wisconsin.
In 2009, Doyle continued to tout industrial clusters in his last budget, proclaiming that budget included “innovative proposals to strengthen inner cities, rural communities, industry clusters and entrepreneurships.”
It’s Mary Burke’s plan, and it would be a disaster for Wisconsin and especially for the North. Doyle’s cluster approach was a cluster, all right: it resulted in tens of thousands of lost jobs statewide, while northern Wisconsin lost 10 percent of its population during his tenure.
Of course, it’s not called plagiarism when you recycle bad ideas, but that’s what Mary Burke is doing, and it’s a whole lot worse than stealing paragraphs.
As a matter of fact, politics is an arena where theft should be encouraged. The beauty of our federalism is that states can be laboratories of innovation, and others can look at places where good ideas have worked and say, ‘We’re going to do that, too.’
By all means, that should be encouraged, even if they steal the language right along with the idea. Mary Burke is not a journalist, nor a literary writer, nor is she tending the credentialed fields of higher education; she is a politician, and it’s a whole different game.
What matters in politics is the merit of the idea stolen, not the language used to steal it. That Mary
Burke chose to peddle a bad idea from her past is far worse than the theft of words by her campaign.
Richard Moore may be reached at email@example.com
No, deadly force wasn’t used against the Sowinskis, but the government action against them and their family was violent just the same. It is a brutal reminder of the rogue government at work in the United States of America today.
First published in The Lakeland Times