Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.
I’ve read that paragraph before. But not in the Lessig transcript. It comes from this Andrew Sullivan article in The Atlantic.
Why append it to the Lessig transcript? I think the anonymous commenter — who, however, chooses to identify himself or herself with the law firm Latham and Watkins — is drawing attention to the similarity between that paragraph and this one which does appear in the Lessig transcript:
So I want you to shut your eyes and imagine what it will seem like to a young man in Iraq or in Iran, who wakes up on January 21st, 2009, and sees the picture of this man as the president of the United States. A man who opposed the war at the beginning, a man who worked his way up from almost nothing, a man who came from a mother and a father of mixed cultures and mixed societies, who came from a broken home to overcome all of that to become the leader in his class, at the Harvard Law Review, and an extraordinary success as a politician. How can they see us when they see us as having chosen this man as our president?
Was Lessig’s paragraph influenced by Sullivan’s, which it’s reasonable to suppose he has read? My guess is that it was. If so, was the influence conscious or unconscious? My guess: unconscious.
This reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2004 New Yorker article on plagiarism, Something Borrowed, in which he recounts how one of his own New Yorker articles was pretty blatantly plagiarized by Bryony Lavery, the author of a play called Frozen. The incident prompts him to reflect on the nature of influence, and he muses:
When I read the original reviews of “Frozen,” I noticed that time and again critics would use, without attribution, some version of the sentence “The difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom.” That’s my phrase, of course. I wrote it. Lavery borrowed it from me, and now the critics were borrowing it from her. The plagiarist was being plagiarized. In this case, there is no “art” defense: nothing new was being done with that line. And this was not “news.” Yet do I really own “sins and symptoms”? There is a quote by Gandhi, it turns out, using the same two words, and I’m sure that if I were to plow through the body of English literature I would find the path littered with crimes of evil and crimes of illness.
Now here’s where it gets really twisty. In Something Borrowed, Gladwell refers to Lessig:
Creative property, Lessig reminds us, has many lives — the newspaper arrives at our door, it becomes part of the archive of human knowledge, then it wraps fish. And, by the time ideas pass into their third and fourth lives, we lose track of where they came from, and we lose control of where they are going.
Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarizes a series of passages from Megan McCafferty’s teen novels “Sloppy Seconds” and “Second Helpings” for her debut novel: “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.”
On his blog, Gladwell initially makes the same sort of defense for Viswanathan that he made for Lavery in the New Yorker piece. Then his readers call him out, and he winds up agreeing with them that it was a different case.
But I digress. The real point here is that nowadays, even as ideas pass into their third and fourth lives, we don’t necessarily lose track of where they came from. A couple of years ago, Tim O’Reilly wrote a blog post entitled Act your way into a new way of thinking, which he said was “a fabulous quote from Richard Pascale’s book Delivering Results.” Tim added this postscript:
P.S. Very cool to be able to find the original source for the first quote via Google book search. As it came to me, it was simply labeled “Richard Pascale, Stanford Business School.”
At the time, I commented:
> Very cool to be able to find the original source”
And, to track the meme! From this it does appear Pascale is the original source:
Fascinating to see who cites him and who doesn’t.
But that doesn’t affect my point. Whether or not Lessig’s paragraph was influenced by Sullivan’s, the ways in which we influence one another are becoming more transparent, more traceable.
To complete this twisty excursion, I was looking up The Anxiety of Influence, by Harold Bloom, and found this eponymous blog posting from Lorcan Dempsey, in which he was surprised to find Bloom so prominent in the original WorldCat Identities tag cloud, and in which he cites a Tim O’Reilly post expressing similar surprise:
Who knew that as far as libraries are concerned, Harold Bloom is right up there with Brahms and Chopin. That’s one influential literary critic!
OK, I’ve reached my connection limit for now. But the fact that all these connections are traceable is a wonderful thing.