Creative Control

Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist

The Words Out of His Mouth.

Originally written and performed at The Paper Machete, a weekly live magazine taking place at Chicago’s historic Green Mill. You can listen the the performance here.


Pablo Picasso once famously said:

“Good artists borrow, and great artists steal.”

Except it might not have been Picasso who said that. Other scholars—and by “scholars” I mean “websites devoted to compiling quotations so that desperate writers can find quotations with which to pad their essays”—other scholars claim that it was in fact T.S. Eliot, Picasso’s contemporary if not his peer, who first spoke this useful, shoulder-shrugging excuse. “Good artists borrow, and great artists steal.”

Therefore one is left to wonder: Was the notion first vocalized by Picasso or Eliot? Did one of these men steal it from the other, and if so was it done knowingly, with malice and envy aforethought? Or was it done subconsciously, the way that sometimes it’s approaching dawn at the after-after-after party, and you’re tired and soaked in champagne, and you’ll tell a story to a rumpled, bedroom-eyed stranger about yourself, then realize hours later that the story you told didn’t happen to you…it happened to somebody else, and when that person told you the story of what happened to them they did so with such vivid detail that you internalized it, in the way that only the best stories can do.

But the stranger has left the party and you didn’t catch their name, and nobody you know seems to remember them, so you never get a chance to say “I’m sorry, that story I told you about me was never about me.” And then years down the line somebody you just met tells you an unbelievable story that they heard from somebody else about a guy who did this thing that one time, and despite knowing that you were never the subject of that story you say to this person you just met: “That was me! That’s my story. That happened to me.”

Thus it is that such thievery evolves from “outright lie” to “truth enough.”

And perhaps it was neither Picasso nor Eliot who first said it. Perhaps instead these were the words of somebody you have otherwise never heard of, somebody whose major artistic contribution to the world was to succinctly and poetically describe the difference between good artists and great, and who then, as if to prove his or her point, had that description stolen from them and placed forevermore into the mouth of a great artist.


But I’ve managed to digress before I’ve even begun. I’m not standing here to speak of either Picasso or Eliot, but of Randal Howard Paul, junior United States senator from Kentucky, who has for the past few weeks been battling what the media likes to call a media firestorm, because calling something a media firestorm allows the media to justify the amount of time they’re devoting to their media firestorm instead of reporting on drone warfare, natural disasters, or other events that more accurately approximate the destructive power of a firestorm.

Rand Paul, junior United States senator from Kentucky, has spent the last few weeks first as target of accusation, then later as target of scorn, for having plagiarized a significant amount of his written and spoken remarks throughout the last few years of his burgeoning career as a GOP role model. These works include: several policy speeches, his 2012 book Government Bullies, and his weekly regular column in the Washington Times. Much of the original material has come from the previously published writings of members at prominent conservative quote unquote think-tanks, including the Cato and Gatestone Institutes, and was presented by Paul in some cases verbatim and without proper attribution.

Footnote One: I learned most of this from articles on Salon, The Huffington Post, and Buzzfeed.

In response to the mounting evidence, Paul has been giving something of a master class in modern political damage control, doing all of the following:

  • Admit to being guilty of plagiarism, and agree to suffer consequences such as the loss of his Washington Times column.
  • Offer proper attribution where it had been missing before.
  • Blame some of the plagiarism on his staff, who supposedly gave him the material as “background information” without proper attribution.
  • Scrub the offending speeches from his website as if they had never happened at all.
  • Decry the liberal media as “hacks and haters” for pointing out his plagiarism in the first place.
  • Ask why he’s been unfairly targeted for such an unrelenting tidal wave of criticism.

In other words, faced with criticism and a very real stain on his credibility as an honorable, straight-shooting moralist, Paul has managed to accept guilt, make amends, pass the buck, deny the mistakes happened, blame the messengers and play the victim, all while retaining his boyish good looks and folksy demeanor. If Anthony Weiner had been a talented enough politician to convince people that his penis belonged to a member of his staff he might be the Mayor of New York City right now.

But friends, Romans, countrymen, I do not come to praise Rand Paul, nor do I come to bury him.

Footnote 2: Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene 2. Sorta.

The fact is that plagiarism is not new in any profession. It’s been well-documented—Footnote Three, Robert Evans for Cracked Dot Com, “Five Great Men Who Built Their Careers on Plagiarism”—that several notable scientists, artists, and statesmen have been proven plagiarists. H.G. Wells was a plagiarist. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a plagiarist. Even T.S. Eliot was a plagiarist, having grabbed many lines of text for use in his most famous work, The Waste Land, and having it dismissed as “homage” for years, and which makes one think twice about whether or not it was Picasso or Eliot who first talked about the actions of great artists. It can be argued that Paul isn’t simply plagiarizing words, he’s plagiarizing entire historical biographies!

But no. The plagiarism, this is an outrage to us, and Rand Paul must pay in his character capital for what he has done to us. Ours is a culture that values originality. It values newness, and creativity! This is why our top television programming involves actors and game-show contestants showing us how well they can cover the beloved pop hits of the last 50 years!

Let us not look to the things that Paul has said that other people have said so much better that he felt inclined to steal them wholesale. Rand Paul is considered by many conservatives to be the future of the movement, an honor he has gained by opposing abortion in all cases including rape and incest, by opposing any restrictions on the sale or possession of firearms, by opposing same-sex marriage, by demanding that the Department of Education be dismantled entirely. Maybe the plagiarism is the least odious thing about Rand Paul, and maybe it would be nice if the media firestorm got sent over to his actual political positions instead of the sentence structures he may or may not have purposely or accidentally stolen. Rand Paul may be a great artist, but great artistry doesn’t make him a great leader. It might be worth it to us as a nation if he was sent home to work on his craft for awhile.

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This entry was posted on November 9, 2013 by in Essay, Language, Paper Machete, Performance, Politics, Society, Writing.
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