Brow Beat

Maybe Melania Trump Wasn’t Plagiarizing. Perhaps She Was Doing Scholarship “European-Style.”

Melania Trump
Melania Trump hails from a region where people’s understanding of plagiarism is, shall we say, different.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Melania Trump is getting a lot of flak for her rather flagrant re-appropriation of Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic Convention speech, which is understandable. The entire country—if not the world—was wondering what words might emerge from the mouth of the usually-mute Slovene, so last night’s speech was going to come under intense scrutiny no matter what she said.

So the fact the third Mrs. Trump lifted key parts of her oratory so blatantly from enemy territory—stopping short only of explaining the challenges of being a black woman at Princeton—was cause for undisguised glee from all Trump detractors.

However. I have a theory. Not an excuse, mind you, just a theory, as to why such a ridiculous and easily-identifiable occurrence could have occurred on the world stage. (Remember, the Republican National Convention managed to make Sarah Palin sound like a gifted orator in 2008.) I believe that not only did Melania “write” at least that part of her speech herself, as she has claimed, but that her clumsy cut-and-paste job is not uncommon to individuals who share her European upbringing.

You see, plagiarism is so unbelievably common in Europe that a 2013 Europe-wide study of almost 5,000 participants by Coventry University’s Irene Glendinning found that although most European students could identify a 100-percent copied passage as “plagiarism,” when that same passage had “some changes” made to it, “almost 40 percent” said they “do not think it is plagiarism or are unsure whether it is.”

When you view or read Slate’s excellent side-by-side comparison of the speeches in question, making “some changes” is exactly what Melania (or, I guess, her speechwriter) did. The real tell comes not in the verbatim parts, actually, but in this passage, where someone (I think Melania!) made “some changes” that seemed sufficient (emphasis added):

That is a lesson that I continue to pass along to our son. And we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow. Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.

Pay close attention to the phrase I’ve put in bold. Upon closer inspection (or any inspection), that sentence sounds all right, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. “We want our children in this nation?” I think she means “We, in this nation, want our children …” But who can be sure? Of course, what she’s apparently done is garble (or “condense”) Michelle Obama’s original sentence, emphasis added again:

Because we want our children, and all children in this nation, to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work hard for them.

You’ll see that the phrase “children in this nation” works fine as a clause in the middle of the First Lady’s sentence, but re-appropriated, it just sounds like quasi-eloquent gibberish. Which anyone who has ever graded a stack of student papers, here or in Europe, will recognize immediately as the sign and the seal of someone trying to sound articulate about a concept she doesn’t really understand. And it’s especially common when students have utilized “Rogeting” (the ol’ right-click Thesaurus), or any other allegedly clever device to make “some changes” to original work in order to claim it as one’s own. I’m not saying that it’s probable (or even likely) that Melania Trump intentionally acted like an unscrupulous freshman from Ljubljana (or, for that matter, like superstar theorist Slavoj Zizek, now the world’s second-most-famous Slovene). I’m just saying that she happens to have been educated in a region where such actions are commonplace.

Casual plagiarism is so common and widely accepted in Europe, in fact, that when German teenager Helene Hegemann published the novel Axolotl Roadkill in 2010 to wild acclaim, and then it was discovered that large portions of it were actually lifted verbatim from the earlier cult novel Strobo, her response was this: “There’s no such thing as originality, just authenticity.”

I’m not saying there’s a direct link, obviously, but let’s give Melania a break. She’s a first-generation immigrant, after all. And, as a very reliable source has recently informed us, even some third-generation immigrants refuse to assimilate into American society. You know, America, the place where everyone writes their own work.