Post-Gazette columnist Brian O'Neill set off a brew ha ha last week (Pittsburghese, I think, for "brouhaha") when he wrote that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is copying some of Council member Bill Peduto's best ideas -- and then praised MLR for it. I usually stay away from local politics, because to my mind expecting Pittsburgh politicians to be wise and productive on behalf of the citizenry is like teaching a pig to sing. It's frustrating and time-consuming, and it irritates the pig.

In this case, though, the mini-frenzy over MLR's alleged "theft" intersects with my day job, which is the study of copying. And from that perspective, and not for any reason having to do with elections or politics, I think that Brian O'Neill is right. Much as this country pretends to adhere to the mythology of originalism (what you might call a "Dr. Pepper" obsession, after that brand's "Be a Pepper" campaign, but traceable all the way back to Ben Franklin and beyond, to Genesis), copying other people's stuff, and copying their ideas above all, is inevitable, traditional, necessary, and often valuable.

Thomas Edison didn't invent the light bulb. But he perfected and (most important) commercialized it. Ditto for Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone. Isaac Newton is famous for saying, "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants," but Newton, too, was a borrower, if not a plagiarist. The idea behind that quotation, if not the text itself, has been traced to Bernard of Chartres, who died in the 12th century. If everyone is held only to their "own" ideas, we would never get anywhere -- culturally, economically, and politically. Everyone borrows. One of the most famous borrowers of all? Pittsburgher Andy Warhol, who copied the Campbell's soup can label lock, stock, and barrel and didn't ask for permission or (originally) pay any royalties.

Now it would nice, perhaps, if Mayor Luke gave Bill P. some credit, but politics rarely allows for that, and turning this into a flap over credit just shows how silly the flap really is. Ritual appropriation of the ideas of your adversaries is the norm in American politics, not the exception; pointing this out is one of the central functions of the political media. The media accuses, forcing the politicians to respond, and a trivializing, escalating circle of credit denial and blame assignment is the result. Thanks, Brian O'Neill, for trying to head off that problem.

Criticize MLR all you like, but don't criticize him for being the politician that he is, or for not following the Dr. Pepper mandate. The usual reason to be concerned about attribution and plagiarism is that the reader/consumer/voter is misled about something. As a voter and taxpayer, I don't care whether I've been misled about who thought of the policy first ("thinking of it first" is highly imperfect proxy for "being a better leader"); what I care about is whether the policy is the right one, and whether the right policy is being handled the right way. "Mayor Luke stole my ideas" is playground stuff. Instead, ask: Is he appointing new and experienced faces to important City positions, or is he recycling Pittsburgh political retreads? Ask: Can the man execute? And if Bill Peduto were in the Mayor's office, ask if anything would be different.


4 Responses to "Copying"

Al Arnold said... 2/22/2007 5:00 AM

Great post!

Intellectual theft (Yes, it is possible in politics) does and should happen every day in local politics. The problem is it doesn't happen at the state or national level. There if you don't think of it first, it is wrong.

Al Arnold

EdHeath said... 2/22/2007 8:43 AM

A different blog (Fester's Place)raises the question of how to evaluate presidential candidates, suggesting that their record of leadership should be the measure. I am troubled that the mayor’s biggest mistakes seem to be from showing either loyalty to political operatives (the McNeilly scandal) or by showing bad judgment (the mayor’s denial and then admission over his Heinz field detention), yet the mayor’s most promising ideas seem to come by appropriation from someone running against him. Does the mayor have the judgment to recognize good ideas, once no one is running against him? Or will he simply start endorsing ideas that reward his allies?

Brian O'Neill said... 2/22/2007 10:08 AM

Thank you, sir.

Brian O'Neill
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

J Peazey said... 2/22/2007 3:01 PM

Borrowing is all the rage. I guess what would make me feel more comfortable would be the borrowing of ideas from any good source, not just Peduto. It raises the question of whether the Mayor will continue to pursue good ideas when the election is over, or revert to the retread strategy

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