Thursday, August 13, 2009

Focus on the Phony


FROM JULY 2006

"I felt I could have written it so the fact that it was already written was kind of a technicality."

People who have seen The Squid and Whale will recognize the quotation above. Walt Berkman, a teenage intellectual wannabe, has been busted for performing Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” at a school talent show and pretending it was his own composition. When a counselor confronts him, Walt tries to rationalize his cheating by confidently asserting that he “could have written it.” It is one of the biggest laugh lines of the film. An absurd character stating obvious nonsense with total conviction has a way of making people laugh.

I discovered something equally laughable recently when I came across blogger Inopinion’s expose of Focus on the Family’s “Astroturf Machine.” As part of its campaign to promote the “Marriage Protection Amendment” to the Constitution, FOF furnished visitors to its web page with five different versions of the four paragraphs of a potential letter to the editor. All the user has to do is cut-and-paste the paragraphs he or she wants, put them all together (no need to worry about transitions – the paragraphs are made to fit snugly together in a variety of combinations), send the finished product off to the local paper, and wait for it to show up on the editorial page in a couple of days. To give you an idea of the type of rhetoric the letters feature, here’s one sample paragraph three:

Think of the MPA as a shield between our traditional values and radical judges intent on forcing their politically correct agenda on our nation. Without that shield, it's only a matter of time until marriage loses all meaning -- and social science data indicate children will suffer the most when that happens.


Inopinion estimates that with the mix and match feature of the machine, 600 different letters are possible. You might think that such stuff would not slip past the editorial page editors of our nation’s newspapers. You’d be wrong. Inopinion gives a long list of papers that published these paint-by-numbers letters, including the Toledo Blade, the Seattle Times, and the Savannah Morning News (see the letter “by” Anne Phillips of Rincon).

I think Inopinion has misused the term “Astroturf.” The term is meant to signify “phony grassroots” campaigns, propaganda efforts bankrolled by powerful interests disguised as righteous crusades started around kitchen tables by regular folks. For example, Common Cause has identified groups such as the “Internet Innovation Alliance” and “Consumers for Cable Choice” as fronts for big players in the telecom industry who are trying to make their corporate interests sound like populist causes. THAT’s Astroturf. Based on how many state-level “Defense of Marriage” referendums have overwhelmingly passed, it is hard to make the case that Focus on the Family is attempting the create the illusion of widespread opposition to gay marriage. But there IS something they had to manufacture, something to compensate for the apparent inability of many gay marriage opponents to make the rherotical leap beyond "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!" in defense of their position.

What they created is a plagiarism machine.

They swear it isn’t. Gary Schneeberger of FOF contends that what’s being offered here is only assistance in putting one’s best rhetorical foot forward. He also points out that politicians regularly submit op-eds that are certainly written by speechwriters or other staffers and newspapers have no problem with that.

I haven’t got an answer to his contention that what’s good for politicians should be good for everybody else (maybe newspapers should be harder on politicians who use ghosts, too), but the rest of this apology for the “letter writing wizard” strikes me as (to use an allusion that Dr. Dobson ought to appreciate) a fig leaf, and a pathetic one, too. Schneeberger’s arguments come from the same sewer of sophistry as Walt Berkman’s “I could have written it” argument.

Look at any of the published letters created by the FOF machine and see if you think that what the writers got was simply “help in organizing their thoughts into persuasive, publishable arguments.” Help? Please. That’s the same kind of “help” I would get if I played golf tomorrow and Tiger Woods took all my shots for me.

I am a high school English teacher and have been for sixteen years. As such, I’ve read student-written research papers and persuasive essays numbering into the thousands, and I’ve emptied scores of red pens onto them. I’ve seen a lot of plagiarized work.  Most of it results from novice writers being inexperienced with the conventions of attribution.  Some of it, however, is the student's naked attempt to conceal his inability or laziness. The "letter writing wizard" is definitely the latter. If a student presented me with one of these prefab letters as his persuasive essay, and tried to defend himself with the arguments given by Mr. Schneeberger (“I was just ensuring the best presentation of my values in the marketplace of ideas”), I’d consider that a new low in trying to defend the indefensible. If he defined plagiarism as “taking someone else’s words and ideas without their knowledge or consent,” I’d call that an incomplete and highly self-serving definition. In school (and most of the world outside of school) we say that “Plagiarism occurs when a writer duplicates another writer’s language or ideas and then calls the work his or her own” (according to the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy). That’s what every school under the sun means when it forbids plagiarism and that’s exactly what people who use this “letter writing wizard” are doing. And I’d add that concern about whether the original writer consented to have his work copied, while important, is the least of our reasons for trying to prevent plagiarism. We want our students to be thinkers, and this kind of plagiarism short-circuits the thinking process. When you have to form and articulate arguments on your own, rather than just cutting and pasting, your mind has to go to work. To do it right you have to be more than a parrot.

I’m mad about this thing not just as a teacher but as a veteran writer of letters to the editor. When I think of all the times I’ve gotten in a stew over something stupid I read in the paper, then drove my family to distraction by spending the next eight hours or so struggling to compose the perfect 150 word letter to the editor, then held my breath and sent it in, and then spent the next two weeks (or years in some cases) fretting about one phrase I wish I had changed – when I think about that recurring ordeal, and then think about these lazy, semi-literate bozos and their enablers . . . oh boy. It makes me want to write a letter to the editor.

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