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Monday, June 13, 2005

"Striking similarities" . . . and differences

A headline in today's Chronicle of Higher Education: "Missouri Dean Appears to Have Plagiarized Commencement Speech by Cornel West" (subscription req.).

Google is a remarkable tool. Without it, I probably wouldn't have bothered to try to track down the original quote from Hegel that Sydney Schanberg had alluded to in a story that I blogged about on May 17. But I was curious, and Google is curiosity's friend.

I found more than I bargained for. I found Hegel's quote cited, or alluded to, in two commencement speeches--one in May 1993 by Cornel West, the other in Dec. 2003 by a professor less well known: Bryan LeBeau of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Indeed, these speeches bore many "striking similarities," as noted by reporter Tom Bartlett, who has admirably followed up on my tip with today's story. The story begins like this:

Plagiarists, take note: Google will get you.

If anyone needs further proof of that, consider the case of Bryan LeBeau. In December 2003 Mr. LeBeau, a professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, gave the university's commencement address. Mr. LeBeau spoke to graduates about the "rich notion of citizenship" and a sense of history in which "no culture and no civilization and no society has ever had a monopoly on wisdom or virtue."

This would be perfectly fine except that those words also appeared in a commencement speech delivered a decade earlier by Cornel West, now a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University and one of the country's best-known academics.


What went on here? LeBeau has no credible excuse. He suggests that speech-making follows different standards than scholarly publication. For a response to that, Bartlett turned to Peter Charles Hoffer, author of Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, and Fraud in the Writing of American History, who was not so forgiving: "'Even when using the same quotes,' he said, 'you start to smell smoke.'" And besides, even if you credit the "it's only a speech" excuse, it goes only so far: LeBeau published the speech--without attributing West--in one of his newsletters from his office as dean.

To study the texts side by side is a fascinating exercise. What's remarkable is not just the sameness: there's a remarkable difference as well. West's speech comes from a position of authority as a black American intellectual. This is a position LeBeau, who is white, cannot claim, nor does he attempt to. Rather, he drains the color out of West's speech so that, in the end, it is not so much an appropriation--though it is that--as a misappropriation, a watering down and a flattening out of a message that had its own particular power and edge.

As West speaks, the year is 1993: early Clinton administration. In the midst of a culture that "tries to convince us that we are vital and vibrant only when we're consuming," he suggests "that maybe public institutions no longer have the wherewithal to respond to the deep problems." He challenges his audience to think about what he sees as an "unprecedented lethal linkage of economic decline and cultural decay and political malaise." From his position as both an American and a black American, he asks his listeners to "cut against the grain" by "having a deep and abiding sense of history." He calls it (here's where Hegel comes in) "a tragic sense of history." But

[w]e ought not to confuse the tragic with the pathetic. The tragic is about the exploration of human possibilities for freedom. That's what Sophocles' Antigone is about. That's what Shakespeare's King Lear is about. That's what Tony Morrison's* Beloved is about: the exploration of the human possibilities of freedom, but hitting up against limits sooner or later.


Now for LeBeau. The post-September 11 environment is the urgent context against which he invokes the "rich notion of citizenship" that West had called for a decade before. LeBeau also appears to recommend a "tragic sense of history"--but not exactly. He isn't completely willing to go that far: "I believe that it is essential to have a realistic, if not somewhat tragic, sense of history, if it motivates and causes us to act." Then he goes through the same litany of Hegel and Gibbon and Sophocles and Shakespare and Morrison, but note what he does to the sentence that concludes West's passage:

It is about the exploration of the human possibilities of freedom, hitting up against its limits, but then realizing that it is in our response to those limits that lies our destiny.


"[I]t is in our response to those limits that lies our destiny." Whatever that means--and I'm not exactly sure--it has the effect of taming the message, suggesting that all will be fine in the end.

West tells us pointedly that what he calls "hope" is different from optimism:

[T]here is a need for audacious hope. And it's not optimism. I'm in no way an optimist. I've been black in America for 39 years. No ground for optimism here, given the progress and regress and three steps forward and four steps backward. Optimism is a notion that there's sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we're doing, things will get better. I don't believe that. I'm a prisoner of hope, and that's something else.


LeBeau, while skipping the disavowal of optimism, does concur that there is not "sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer from the past that if we keep doing what we're doing, things will get better." But as he winds up to West's conclusion he makes another revision that is, I think, revealing.

West:

Of course I come from a tradition, a black church tradition, in which we defined faith as stepping out on nothing and landing on something. That's the history of black folk in this country. Hope against hope. And yet still trying to sustain the notion that we world-weary and tired peoples, all peoples in this society, can be energized and galvanized around causes and principles and ideals that are bigger than us, that can appeal to the better angels of our nature, so that we, in fact, can reach the conclusion that the world is incomplete--that history i[s] unfinished, that the future is open-ended, that what we think and what we do does make a difference.


LeBeau:

History suggests that we are a world-weary and tired people, but not a people destined to failure. History also suggests that we have been, and can be, energized and galvanized around causes and principles and ideals that are bigger than us, that can appeal to the better angels of our nature, so that we can reach the conclusion that the world is not entirely a tragic place after all, but incomplete--that our lives are not simply a source of despair, but rather unfinished, and that the future is open-ended, that what we think and what we do does make a difference.


Of course, LeBeau cannot lay claim to a "black church tradition." But instead of alluding to it, as he could have (by for example citing West), he assimilates it. The tradition that West comes from maintains that our national culture is made up of multiple "peoples": "we world-weary and tired peoples, all peoples in this society." (Cf. Toni Cade Bambara, 1986: "The wealth of this country, I would argue . . . is its peoples. That's plural.") For LeBeau, "we are a world-weary and tired people, but not a people destined to failure." Moreover, "the world is not entirely a tragic place at all."

Now, it would be entirely fair for LeBeau to disagree with West over whether we are many "peoples" or one "people." He doesn't have to agree with West over whether a "tragic sense of history" is called for, or over subtle disinctions between "optimism" and "hope." An interesting talk could have been written in which he took on West's ideas and challenged them, asking his audience to think along with him in new ways. That would have been a strategy that acknowledged and respected West's ideas for what they are--and for the distinct African American historical tradition from which they come.

But that is not the speech that LeBeau gave to the graduating class at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in December 2003. Those graduates, sad to say, got much less than they bargained for.

Astute readers will have noted that both LeBeau and West owe a debt to Lincoln's first inaugural address ("the better angels of our nature"). Exactly when does the taking of someone else's words pass from theft to trope, from appropriation to allusion? It's an interesting question, one I've been discussing with Eric Muller, whose good sense I knew I could rely on in helping me figure out how to handle this story. I'll have more to say about that in a later post.

*Bartlett notes that both LeBeau and West misspell Toni Morrison's name.

UPDATE: Eric wonders about the consequences. Ralph E. Luker of Cliopatra chimes in "with considerable sadness."

UPDATE 6/14: Beth, a reader at Eric Muller's site (the same Beth who makes good observations in a comment here?), figured out that the first part of LeBeau's speech bears "striking similarities" to a commencement speech by Russell Baker. This second lapse is not mentioned by LeBeau in the statement he issued today on HNN. Interestingly, both West's and Baker's speeches are found in a collection of commencement speeches at humanity.org.

UPDATE 6/15: See Muller and Luker for more.

UPDATE 6/17: The interim chancellor at UMKC has placed LeBeau on administrative leave from his deanship through December 2005, I've learned from several readers; more here. Meanwhile Joan Aitken, a communications professor at UMKC, writes, "Many scholars believe a higher level of integrity of public speaking is necessary--higher than the written word--because of the emotional power of the spoken word."