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There’s the Rub

Imitations

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It’s almost as amusing as an episode of “Iskul Bukol.” Tito Sotto’s camp now suggests that John F. Kennedy himself took liberties with other people’s lines and claimed them as his own. Specifically, that he wasn’t the originator of “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” it was his teacher.

The correction appears in a book called “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero” by Chris Matthews. It was the headmaster of the school Kennedy went to, named George St. John, who kept saying that to the students. It was attested to by one of Kennedy’s classmates who said, “I boil every time I read or hear the ‘Ask not…’ exhortation as being original with Jack. Time and time again we all heard [the headmaster] say that to the whole Choate family.”

This isn’t the first time I myself have read this. This has appeared in a number of articles in the past, for the simple reason that Kennedy himself attributed the source of the idea to others, at least verbally to friends and acquaintances, if not to the world in his speech. But that is by no means plagiarism in that the other fellow never put it down in writing. We do not know exactly in what context he said it. We do not know exactly how he said it.

It was Kennedy who said it that way. Or more accurately, it was his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, who phrased it that way. Should Kennedy have made the attribution in his speech? Maybe, but he didn’t need to. To the extent that the idea hadn’t found a claimant, his claim being writ in stone, or paper, it was fair game, it was part of collective lore or wisdom. All that we hear around us are so. Sorensen probably heard Kennedy himself saying it many times and decided to incorporate it in his speech. That is what speechwriters do. At their best, they just give shape and form to other people’s thoughts, however random or wispy.

To be sure, the Sotto camp’s sniping at Kennedy wasn’t entirely unprovoked. It was induced by Roberto Romulo taking a dig at Sotto in a business-sector family planning summit thus: “I think it would be appropriate to give you a quote—I assure you it’s a quote, I’m not plagiarizing—from John F. Kennedy who said,  ‘Ask not what the country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’” But even if Sotto’s response wasn’t unprovoked, it was still the wrong one. There’s just no parallel. Elsewhere, Sotto has said that the people he rips off from should be flattered because as the man said (Charles Colton, actually) imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, imitation might be, the original being known, but not so plagiarism, the original being hidden from view.

But what really makes all this miserable is not that Sotto mistakes imitation for plagiarism, using an idea and purloining a text. Even if Kennedy himself plagiarized—which he did not—what of it? It doesn’t justify anything. Plagiarism is wrong whether some of the best people in the world can be discovered to have done it. Plagiarism sucks whether some or all of the senators, or the speechwriters they hire (cheaply), do it all the time.

Imitation is bad enough as it is, especially for us, who have thrived, or languished, depending on how you look at it, by aping other people. That we’ve thrived in it is easily shown by the sign various hotels and bars in Asia hang on their doors, “Filipino band playing,” referring to the prowess of Pinoy musicians to do covers like the original. That we have languished in it is equally easily shown by the reputation we’ve developed over time of being copycats, specifically cheap and inferior American imitations. You’d imagine the days of the “Elvis of the Philippines” would have been pushed back by OPM, but they keep coming back, if in less garish forms.

You’d imagine therefore that our trajectory, or direction, of striving should be toward eschewing imitation and being as original as possible. Or avoiding the beaten path and blazing new trails instead. Imitation may be flattering to the imitated, but it is not so to the imitating. You’d imagine that a senator would be exerting himself to summon a burst of originality and creativity from us, and not encouraging us to lapse back into manufacturing a Xerox culture.

That’s just for imitation, it’s far worse for plagiarism.

What’s unsavory about it is that it drags us back to the previous government’s time when public officials justified their existence not by showing the best they could be but by showing the law had not proven them guilty beyond a shadow of doubt. Arroyo deserved to be there not because she embodied the aspirations of the people but because the courts had not proven her votes fake. Now, a senator deserves to be there not because he drives us to exceed ourselves but because he can point to his fellows, quite apart from a former US president, as quite possibly being as guilty of plagiarism as he. To use a “Iskul Bukol” metaphor, that’s not striving for an “A,” that’s settling for “pasang awa.”

Kennedy’s inaugural speech, not quite incidentally, was an exhortation to excellence, idealism, transcendence. It ends this way, the last part being relevant here: “My fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. Whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.”

It’s something our senators would do well to heed. Ask not who else has copied or imitated or plagiarized, ask who has achieved things we can marvel at and be proud of.

The latter is the only thing worth imitating.


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