We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging away at a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true

Robert Wilensky[1]

[That’s quite a quote, isn’t it? The general idea is that random typing, given enough of it, should produce just about any kind of literary work, including the works of Shakespeare.[2] But Wilensky says that doesn’t seem to happen on the Internet. Why not? He doesn’t say, but I have a theory.[3] Perhaps, just perhaps, Internet users are not really random actors. Perhaps other forces lead folks away from randomness – and eventual Shakespeare creation – and into more focused directions.

I’m not suggesting a higher purpose or divine intervention, or anything like that. There’s little evidence of that in our media, social or otherwise. I’m thinking of something much more basic, like the herd instinct you find with sheep, or a tropism that plants and lower animals might share. Could it be that simple noise can shape the Internet response of individuals and groups more than just about anything else in that environment?]

If so, then the phenomenon was very much in evidence in the media coverage of last week’s RNC Convention. The Republicans nominated Donald Trump, mirabile visu, as their candidate to be our next President. At one point his wife, Melania Trump, gave a major speech to introduce him to the public. Not that he needed an introduction; he’s been around for a long time, and is pretty well known; but, like lots of successful folks, he isn’t universally well-liked. Also he has enemies in his own party, in large part because he defeated 16 opponents for the nomination and antagonized lots of conservatives in the process.

By all accounts she did a good job,[4] but with a significant glitch. At one point she talked about the values her parents had instilled in her, i.e., that you

work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say … that you treat people with [respect] … Because you want our children … to know that the only limit to your [their, ?] achievements is the [strength] of your [their] dreams and your [their] willingness to work for them.[5]

It turns out that Michelle Obama said something very much like that back in 2008 when Barrack Obama was nominated by the Democrats to run for President. So the press immediately jumped on Mrs. Trump as a plagiarist, i.e., as one of those people who lifts other people’s ideas and takes credit for them.[6] No doubt they were especially indignant because reporters and pundits are above that kind of thing; they would never plagiarize, except possibly in school or their daily lives, and they certainly don’t teach their children to do it.

Sorry! I couldn’t resist. New allegations emerged as the plagiarism story continued to develop. Breitbart, for example, reported that other parts of Mrs. Obama’s talk, back in 2008, copied parts of a book written by Saul Alinsky, a 1960’s radical.[7] That would be a big no-no for social conservatives. Alinsky is supposed to have said that, when he died, he wanted to go to hell rather than heaven, because there was a better class of people down there.[8]

Is any of this true? I don’t know, but either way it’s not really important. While some of Mrs. Trump’s language may have overlapped some of Mrs. Obama’s, it’s clear that the sentiments expressed by both were not original with either woman. People generally know that you have to work hard for what you want in life. John Milton pretty much said it, hundreds of years ago: “Long is the way, [a]nd hard, that out of hell leads up to light.”[9] Also, there are old proverbs that take us in the same direction, for example: “If you don’t work, you shan’t eat.”[10] And, of course, it’s always good to keep one’s word. In England, 400 years ago, they bragged that “[a]n Englishman’s word is his bond.”[11]

And what about the latter part of Mrs. Trump’s quote, dealing with the strength of one’s dreams, and how they will determine our success in life? Was that thought unique to her or, for that matter, to Michelle Obama?  No. That’s the kind of thing Norman Vincent Peale used to say back in the 1950’s. “Believe in yourself!” he said. “Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy. But with sound self-confidence you can succeed.”[12]

So far as I know, it’s simply not plagiarism to state things that people, or the popular culture, generally accept as true. If you want to say, for instance, that “America is a great nation,” you’re not going to feel obligated to search out who said it first, to give credit. That’s because such statements are commonplace; they’re so regularly said that a speaker “can expect no credit for originality,” and therefore doesn’t need to give credit. Taken to an extreme, a commonplace thought may become a platitude. At that point it becomes dull, trite, and no longer persuasive. Platitudes never add to the reputation of a speaker, but also it’s not plagiarism to repeat them.[13]

So why did the media run with the plagiarism story vis-à-vis Melania Trump? Well, if you have to report every day, or every hour on an event you have to say something. In spite of what statisticians might prefer, news people can’t simply type randomly and possibly generate something good. They have to follow whatever leads, however poor, that show themselves. Small things become important simply because there’s nothing else. This is not a new problem.  A wise woman once reported the same thing before the Age of the Internet. “It is wonderful,” she said, “how much news there is when people write every other day; if they wait for a month, there is nothing that seems worth telling.”[14]

No doubt that’s part of the explanation, but there’s no denying that there was a political element as well to the Trump coverage. Readers of this blog know that we have a thing about political fallacies. The concept was developed by Jeremy Bentham, a philosopher who lived in the 18th and early 19th centuries.[15]  To Bentham political fallacies are the debating tricks and devices politicians use to distract legislators [and the public] from reform. He also called them poisoned weapons.[16] Over time he identified and exposed – his term, not mine – a large number, hoping that, when people understood them as instruments of deception, they would revolt[17]

The chief characteristic of the political fallacy is that it distracts people from issues by raising matters that are irrelevant to whatever is being discussed. One such fallacy, also well-known to the ancient Greeks, is the so-called argument ad hominem. To use it one attacks the speaker, rather than what he or she says. “The goal of an ad hominem attack is to discredit the claimant in hopes that it will discredit the claim.”[18]

In the case of Melania Trump, on the other hand, the goal was somewhat different.  Presumably her attackers weren’t taking issue with the specific things she said; after all, Michelle Obama had said the same, and nobody criticized her; rather, by calling Melania a plagiarist they attacked Melania’s right to have an opinion about anything. The subtext was: “Don’t listen; she copies others!” The attack was stupid, simple-minded and insulting, to say the least.

Anyway, that’s what I think.





[1] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition, 2004) (henceforth ODQ at __) at Robert Wilensky, p. 837, n. 17.

[2] See ODQ at Arthur Eddington, p. 295, n. 3: “If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in the British Museum.”

[3] Who am I? Sorry, I forgot to say. I’m Phil, the resident amateur philosopher around here, and the one who tries to answer the Great Questions that pop up from time to time in our blog.

[4] Want to watch the whole thing? You can see it on You Tube, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jt_9yb4FSYA

[5] See CNBC, Schoen & Wells, Melania Trump speech, The odds of a word match (19 July 2016), available at http://www.cnbc.com/2016/07/19/

[6] See Compact Oxford English Dictionary (3rd Edition, 2005) at plagiarize, p. 776. See Compact Oxford English Dictionary (3rd Edition, 2005) at plagiarize, p. 776. “Plagiarize: [to] take the work or idea of someone else and pass it off as one’s own.”

[7] See Breitbart, Pollak, Michelle Obama Copied Alinsky in Speech Melania Trump Allegedly Plagiarized (19 July 2016), available at http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/07/19/melania-trump-plagiarism-hillary-biden-barack-michelle/

[8] Want to know more about Saul Alinsky? Take a look at the Wikipedia article on him at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul_Alinsky

[9] See ODQ at John Milton, p. 532, n. 7.

[10] See ODQ at Proverbs, p. 623, n. 17.

[11] See ODQ at Proverbs, at p. 618, n. 46.

[12] See Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952, Fireside 2008) at p. 1.

[13] See Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2nd Edition, 1965, revised 1985) at commonplace, platitude, triviality, truism, p. 98: “A commonplace is a thing that, whether true or false, is so regularly said on certain occasions that the repeater of it can expect no credit for originality … It was formerly used in the sense of a notable saying, without any implication of triteness. … A platitude is a thing the stating of which as though it were enlightening or weighty convicts the speaker of dullness; a platitude is never valuable.”

[14] See ODQ at O. Douglas, p. 284, n. 1.

[15] See Bentham & Bingham, The Book of Fallacies: From Unfinished Papers of Jeremy Bentham (Hunt, 1824, Nabu Reprint, circa 2010) at p. 411. Hereafter the book will be cited as Political Fallacies at __. Nabu reprints are basically photocopies of the original, so page citations necessarily will be to the original.

[16] See Political Fallacies at p. 406

[17] Id. Of what use is it to identify [and analyze] these fallacies? “The use is the opposing such check as it may be in the power of reason to apply to the practice of employing these poisoned weapons. In proportion as the virtue of sincerity is an object of love and veneration, the opposite vice is held in abhorrence … in that same proportion will be the efficiency of the motives by the force of which a man is withheld from employing these arguments.”

[18] See Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (W.H. Freeman, 1997) at p. 56.