On Plagiarism

In college, faculty members have the tendency to drill the idea into their students that plagiarism is a bad thing. Despite it being the easy way out of thinking analytically about something in original wording, plagiarism is dishonest and it demonstrates how shallow the borrower is.

When I first enrolled in college, I was introduced to a citations-style manual by the MLA (Modern Language Association). At first, when I started flipping through the pages of the manual, I rolled my eyes and thought nothing of it until I produced my first release paper using MLA style citations. I started to feel empowered because I had fact firmly standing by my claims and any insecurity I had — about my research — was promptly discarded. Then it hit me: this prevented me from even thinking about plagiarizing. Why should I? In this crowded world of ideas, I can always blend into that crowd and yet illustrate my point thoroughly and proudly.

But since I climbed up to achieving that standard, seeing people plagiarize — who are at least twice my age — is disheartening especially when one of those people happens to be running a political campaign for a local seat in my district.

In my last entry, I introduced to you Maria Kelly, a candidate running for a seat on the Los Osos Community Services District. As it turns out, I’m a proud supporter and staff member of the Karen Venditti campaign. Venditti, too, is running for one of the two open seats on the LOCSD.

In late August, Karen and I put our heads together and we came up with several slogans. One of the slogans we came up with was, “A leader you can trust” (if you click Karen’s name in the previous paragraph and check the site’s header, you will see that slogan splashed under her name in bold, italicized). Before the slogan was used, I made the effort to see if our opposition used it previously in position fliers, business cards or web sites and I found no matches other than the word “trust” being used in a different context.

Two days ago, the family and I were driving down the street and right smack dab in the busiest intersection in our town, I see a large sign reading, “Leadership we can trust,” with Kelly’s yard signs attached as a border for the bigger sign. Granted, politicians borrow langauge and phrases from each other all the time. Joe Biden was accused of plagiarizing in the 80s, John McCain has plagiarized his speech about the nation of Georgia from Wikipedia and he currently chants Barack Obama’s “change we can believe in” slogan from time to time at rallies. We hear it all the time and you can look no further than Google to find political pundit spin about every politician plagiarizing in some context.

However, when it comes to campaigning in a town of about 15,000 for a highly contentious — and sometimes sought-after — position of power and the language used is very similar to the opposition, that’s when things get sticky. I decided to e-mail Maria about it and see what she would say. Let’s take a look:

September 21, 2008
8:30 AM

Hey Aaron,
Marshall had the “trust” on his website long before Karen’s website as well as in our handouts at the Farmer’s market 2 weeks before Karen.
I wouldn’t call it plagiarism either way. Any leader would want to be perceived as trustworthy so let’s go with coincidence.
Happy trails back at ya’,

My response:

1:16 PM

The word “trust” isn’t an issue here. It’s the slogan. Before I sent you the e-mail, I did look at the position fliers and Marshall’s site and I found no matches. Marshall’s web site URL is www.restore-the-trust.com, not “Leadership you can trust.” It’s true that the domain and hosting was registered July 12th and ours was registered in late August, but his verbage is different. The site design for electkarennow.com was uploaded September 10th and Karen created business cards with the same slogan. Those cards were distributed publicly. I would like you to take that sign down. I am convinced that there is plagiarism at play. It’s very McCain-like. Aaron

I meant to say, “Leadership we can trust.”

Her response:

10:41 PM

Hello Aaron, I appreciate your concerns but the first of all, I haven’t seen Karen’s business cards. In addition, the sign says: Leadership we can trust. That is a minor change but Marshall and I have discussed that slogan since Early August, even prior to our signs being printed. What that shows me is that we are in agreement that we need leadership we can trust! To insinuate that it was plagiarized is unfounded. I would look at the following statement: “safety and emergency services…” That could easily be off of my website but it was posted on the 18th on Karen’s. I’m not going to ask her to remove it even though I have safety and services on my sign as well. Ouch on the McCain comment – Maria

One thing I’ve always learned is that when someone says, “We thought/discussed it first,” their defense is weakened by common sense. I don’t know what’s in your brain. I don’t know what you talked about. Scrutiny is applied when things are brought to light. Scrutiny is brought into light when words and ideas are materialized in writing and public speech.

Maria decided to turn the tables and turn my candidate into an example of possible plagiarism, which I thought was childish. Those are labels of subjects that are not bundled uniquely as a phrase. It’s like saying “apples and oranges.” It’s a commonly used expression (expression of subjects in a similar sequence) but it can be vice versa (“oranges and apples”) but it’s too ambiguous to label as an idea or a unique slogan, which is really the issue.

My response:

September 22, 2008
10:37 AM

I don’t believe my claim is unfounded. When I started working on the design, I first checked to see if any other candidates were using any similar slogans; they did not. I was aware of restore-the-trust.com as soon as it was registered and I was aware of all of the other instances of “trust” being mentioned in your campaign paperwork. None of them, in any shape or form, were similar to the slogan, “A leader you can trust.” That slogan has become an integral part of Karen Venditti’s campaign from the very beginning and I believe that, in this case, using that slogan for the betterment of your campaign will confuse voters. Moreover, it’s a question of ethics. Are you running an ethical campaign? If so, take your sign down. Aaron

It really does become an issue of ethics. Take a look at it this way. The best candidate, in my opinion, is a candidate who does extensive research on their opponent on things like previous statements (possible gaffes?), personal ties and affiliations, voting records and activities. If she truly did her research, it wouldn’t have taken her too long to discover that the statement, “A leader you can trust” was placed prominently in the site’s header image weeks before the now infamous sign was unveiled. If she didn’t do research, saying, “I didn’t know” as a defense doesn’t really cut it especially when the campaign is localized and everyone knows — or thinks they know — what everyone else is doing most of the time.

About an hour and a half later, I received an e-mail containing one of the longest, most flamboyantly verbose paragraphs I’ve ever seen from any political candidate:

12:04 PM

We will have the issue addressed by tomorrow. It will confuse voters but I still contend, that we were completely unaware of Karen’s campaign using the “trust and leadership” slogan as her #1 focus point. Call it what you will Aaron but let’s be careful with treading on the ethical issue as I believe that touting a single technology and previous supporters intentionally misrepresenting information to win a campaign has far deeper implications regarding the trusting of our leadership. “$154 and out of town” still rings in my ears after receiving emails that say: “…we need to tie Steve and Chuck to Ripley so we can win this one…..” All the while folks knowing that the Ripley plan as a complete plan was not viable. Technology is not the issue we should be arguing about. If the issue is still affordability, how do we, as a community ensure that we are supported as a community to address concerns surrounding that? Chuck stood in front of the water board and said that he was willing to pay more for a green sewer because he has that kind of wiggle room – I don’t. Will a ongoing board majority of Chuck, Steve and Karen fight to take the project back to build a STEP system even if it’s problematic for many of us to come up with increased up front costs? Can a bankrupts CSD actually find a way to help develop and secure low interest loans? What if someone doesn’t have the money, can’t hook up then what? Everyone thinks they are right – I’m really not that arrogant. What I am right about is that our water supply is at let me explain why and that it will be o.k.? For the most part, yes. Is this important, yes. Ethical. Let’s not go down that road, as the continuum is one we very may well not agree on. Maria

Changing the subject is one of my favorite logical fallacies. I don’t think I really need to elaborate on that one.

My response:

1:18 PM
Maria, I simply asked you to take your sign down. You take some wild tangents here, but you’re talking to the wrong person. You need to debate these issues with Karen, not with me. I find your comments ironic, but I choose to stay on topic. Aaron

She managed to slip in one more response, but I’m going to snip it because I realized this blog entry is outrageously long-winded.

1:16 PM

Enough of the plagiarisms comments. It’s silly as there is no TM or Copyright for that type of text – don’t pick fights where fights don’t belong. As I said before, I’ll take care of it.

My final response was as follows:

1:33 PM

Maria, TM and copyrights are not the issue. We acknowledge that politicians are all cut from the same cloth in terms of similar speeches, slogans and soundbytes; everyone borrows from each other, but it’s the exclusivity of our slogan within a local campaign that is the question. There’s too much alike and I don’t want this to linger as an issue. Aaron

I know that some of you are thinking, “Could you have perhaps gone over the top?” Maybe. I mean, surely, she did change leader to “leadership” and you to “we,” but then I find myself nitpicking on words that were preserved in a unique sequence.

I’m sure a few of you are thinking, “Gosh, this guy sure has some vendetta” because I work for Kelly’s opponent. I have a problem when people take original slogans and material directly from the opposition for the betterment of their campaign. It’s also insulting in this way: if I make the effort to ensure originality by looking at their positions and campaign counterarguments, why don’t they have the decency to make the same effort by doing the same thing to me?

Edit (1:00 PM): As of 11:00 AM, the sign was taken down and there were no further responses by Kelly in e-mail.

On Mavericks

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the sixteenth President of the United States and a Republican, once said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”

Many people recognize Lincoln as someone who was outspoken in his views against slavery and redefined the conservative movement by insisting that the Declaration of Independence served as a foundation for defining freedom and equality for all more than laying all bets on preserving what his political opponents interpreted as sanctity of the U.S. Constitution. Essentially, Lincoln was a true maverick for conservatives without ever proclaiming that he was one.

Lincoln had no “Straight Talk Express” campaign bus. Lincoln did not believe in mudslinging. Lincoln did not believe in making unfounded accusations and statements. Since he became a member of the Whig Party in 1832 at the age of 23, Lincoln had ambition driven by the truth which he aggressively sought, but that’s what made Lincoln unique. Because of this, he was truly a maverick.

Arizona Senator and past current GOP presidential nominee John McCain developed a reputation in the media as a “maverick” for disagreeing with common, popular Republican legislation and ideas. Among those disagreements, in 1983 when John McCain was inducted into congress as a representative of Arizona’s 1st congressional district, he opposed the creation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. King, a proud supporter of Abraham Lincoln and his push to create the Emancipation Proclamation and give African-Americans a chance to live — the ways that an American with freedom should — was a legacy that took a long 25 years for John McCain to acknowledge.

Some maverick.

From 1982-1987, John McCain received $112,000 in political contributions from Charles Keating Jr., a retired American lawyer, politician, and banker and his associates at the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association. McCain was one of five senators who was contacted by Keating, who pleaded with McCain to prevent the government from seizing Lincoln. In a March 1, 2007 article by the Arizona Republic on recanting the Keating Five scandal, McCain said, “The appearance of it was wrong […] It’s a wrong appearance when a group of senators appear in a meeting with a group of regulators because it conveys the impression of undue and improper influence. And it was the wrong thing to do.”

See, that’s interesting. If the appearance of meeting with a group of regulators and lobbyists was wrong then, why, in 2008, is McCain’s presidential campaign’s staffed with lobbyists (from telecom immunity lobbyists to a mish-mash of overall lobbyists in general) including McCain’s chief political advisor, Charles R. Black Jr., who happens to be chairman of BKSH and Associates, a known lobbyist business in Washington — and even though Black still works with clients like AT&T, JPMorgan, and U.S. Airways, he says that he keeps business seperate from the McCain campaign. Scout’s honor.

In Los Osos, California, a town I live in, there is a heated political campaign for two open seats on the Los Osos Community Services District. Long story short, the Regional Water Quality Control Board (fixed) placed a moritorium on Los Osos until a sewer is built and effectively replaces supposedly polluting septic tanks. We had several incarnations of the LOCSD since the moratorium was put into place including one board, which had three board members booted out of their seats due to a recall. That board had illegally decided to go through with a project without a proper 218 assessment vote and dedicated source of revenue that would cost taxpayers at least $150 million and at least $200/month. The project was later scrapped by the new board incarnation.

Maria M. Kelly, former and current CSD board candidate, had been described as a “maverick” by her close friend, former CSD board candidate Lynette Tornatzky in 2006 at a candidates forum, which my father, Ed Ochs, also participated in.

The word “maverick” had haunted me as much then as it does now.

Kelly wrote on September 4th on Calhoun’s Cannon regarding her connection to Richard LeGros, one of the recalled board members of the LOCSD, “Richard and I became neighbors in March of 2005. If there is something insidious about buying a house in LO and having it be next to someone who may be for a sewer then we are in some serious trouble.”

Not only is LeGros a neighbor, he is also a representative of Taxpayers Watch, a non-profit organization suing the LOCSD for public waste of taxpayers money. LeGros and Gordon Hensley, also a recalled board member, chairman of the San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper and proud supporter of Taxpayers Watch, are well-known in the community as Kelly’s campaign consultants and active supporters. In spite of this, Kelly has often claimed that she is objective and has no strong opinion in favor of the new board or the recalled board.

Some maverick.

I believe that once you attribute a label to yourself like “maverick” or “reformer,” you will only come across points of irony — in your life — that will undercut the very message you are trying to communicate to your peers and constituents. This is an inexplicable yet acknowledged dissonance in politics. Nobody can truly escape this irony but one can admit to it and take accountability. I just wish that accountability was enforced more often in society so that people would feel more comfortable about coming to terms with it in the public.

EDIT (7:09 PM): Removed a few typos and edited for clarification.

EDIT (9/26/08 at 1:15 PM): Fixed a slight inaccuracy about the Coastal Commission.