Plagiarism, Appropriation, Personality and Politics

The presidential primary is forcing existing tensions on the US left to a high pitch of twang.

The campaign is forcing an intense bout of self-examination and blood-letting in the already incredibly self-referential and self-obsessed US feminist blogosphere – and now in addition to the increasingly vicious Clinton /Obama divide there is a new rupture. Pandagon blogger and now popular speaker and author Amanda Marcotte, who is white and from Texas, has been accused of intellectual appropriation and even plagiarism by a group of women of colour bloggers, with some apparent justification.

She’s being criticized for having been commissioned to write an article on immigration for Alternet while failing to point to any of the work that’s gone before on WoC blogs and sites that have dealt extensively with immigration as a feminist issue. Some have gone so far as to allege plagiarism.

One blogger, the much respected writer, blogger and campaigner Brown Femipower, has quit blogging over the furore: many of her peers, who have also been doggedly influential in opening up an overwhelmingly white, male US-centric blogosphere to women’s voices, and women of colour particularly, are incensed that their work has, as they see it, been stolen. Holly at feministe has all the background links:

Half of you have read about this already and I’m the other half would really like to know what happened. (Hat tip to belledame for pointing me to a good summary… and be sure to follow the other links from that post. And also these more recent ones.) From what I understand, BFP does not want to be at the center of this maelstrom; that’s part of why she’s removed herself, and I respect that. But this is out there now, it touches on many things that need discussion badly, and the silence of a blog like Feministe saying nothing is a little too loud of a statement for my gut. So here we are.

Many WoC bloggers understandably see this alleged plagiarism as business as usual – white person rips off black person’s work and takes credit; the old, old story. That it’s a self-described fellow feminist and progressive doing it makes it all the more painful, but really, at bottom whoever it is almost irrelevant – what is important is that the class and race inequalities of wider society are being mirrored online. The meta-issue is that people have had their voices and work appropriated far too often and they are not going to take it any more – now is the time to draw a line.

It is becoming a litmus test for progressives online and off. Holly at feministe again:

If you go look at some of the other posts cropping up about this incident, there’s a theme of investigating “the facts.” Who was where on which date, when did this or that get written, who had prior knowledge of what other writing? And so forth.

I understand the desire to try to establish individual wrongdoing or innocence — to try and prevent the same thing from happening again, whatever position you’re taking. But as I have tried to say at length before, I think the discussion of individual guilt often distracts from the bigger picture of racial injustice. I don’t care if there was actual plagiarism or a more abstract kind of plagiarism, if one writer did or didn’t get an idea from a conference or from another writer. What I care about is that when white feminists undertake to write about the issues of women of color — such as immigration, which is clearly a massively race-infused issue — they should do so in solidarity with women of color. In ways that give political voice to women of color, to immigrants, to those whose voice is generally not heard as loudly.

When any of us have a soapbox, an opportunity to get up and talk, we must continue to stand by those who aren’t called on. If you want to consider yourself an anti-racist or a white ally to people of color — if you want anyone else to consider you those things — then it behooves you to swim against the current. If everyone did, perhaps the tides would turn, even if it was just in our corner of the blogosphere. And sometimes all you have to do is simply call out the hard work of another woman who went before you, who has paved the path that you’re walking down with research and ideas and words and strong feelings. All you have to do is cover your bases, pay your respects, and make sure you can’t be read as trying to take sole credit.

Fair enough. But global is also local and personal and Amanda Marcotte, understandably having made a name for herself as a feminist blogger of note, sees the accusations as a deliberate and malicious attempt to ruin her career. From the comments to the same post:

Amanda Marcotte says:

April 10th, 2008 at 9:44 pm – Edit

I’m not sure if I’m hurt more by scurrilous accusations about my intellectual honesty, or the assumption that I’m too stupid to make connections myself without someone holding my hand. What I do know is that the number of grad students and people holding multiple degrees involved in this shows that we’re talking a group that knows that setting out to destroy someone’s reputation as sport is deeply fucking wrong. Deeply. Fucking. Wrong. Unethical to an extreme.

I think that that excerpt from her many comments to that post’s a fair summation of her position. Full disclosure: I spent a very brief time with Amanda when she visited Amsterdam. I liked her; she came over as bright and clever, a nice if somewhat politically naive American and no more careerist or ambitious than any other modern young American woman I’ve met. But at least she made the effort to find out about other lives and other realities; so many of her peers don’t.

But then again, she had something many of her blogging peers didn’t and which has given her a big headstart in her career; an established blog and an established voice to take over.

Pandagon was of the original big blogs of the baby blogosphere, one of the first big wave, and it was started by two male writers, Jesse Taylor and Ezra Klein[See comment below]. Amanda was orginally a guest blogger then began blogging permanently, while Jesse and Ezra eventually left the blog for other careers; Amanda claimed the blog, had a post noticed by Playboy, was picked up (and equally swiftly dropped) by the Edwards campaign and now Pandagon is Amanda Marcotte. It’s a brand, and its commenters a demographic golden nugget. But a brand can be damaged and no wonder Amanda is fighting back tooth and claw.

Feminist writers who become successful will always walk a knife-edge. They are convinced that they are building their career on talent and ideas but they succeed because they are what the establishment wants to hear, the acceptable voice of dissent. Lookit the cute, feisty feminist! But then again, you have to live and if you can make a living by your opinions and your writing, while spotlighting injustice and oppression, then why shouldn’t you? Or so goes the argument.

They say plagiarism, she says influences, but both sides are arguing from clashing premises. The accusers are arguing for an academic standard of intellectual rigour, morality and honesty in online discourse which I suggest is unreasonable; such rigidity does not necessarily translate to the world of modern cross-platform publishing, which wants more content, more, more, and damn the hindmost. There is also an argument to be made that if a writer were to acknowledge every political influence ever, then each piece would be so overburdened with footnotes and acknowledgements as to be unreadable.

But Amanda is not just a celebrity woman blogger but a speaker-at-conferences, a public progressive, a personality, if only minor, who holds herself out as a voice for the oppressed and her personal success is inevitably built on the experiences of others. This is not the first time she’s been accused of hijacking others experience for her own career either. It has become something of a career leitmotif.

At very least it can be said that Marcotte is interposing herself, unwanted, as the editorial filter and interpreter of others’ work and experience; because of her ethnicity doors have opened for Amanda that would slam shut in the face of others and because what she writes is filtered through the same class and race consciousness that informs much of modern culture, then what she says and how she says it is much more acceptable to the ear of the white public, which is really all the publishers and advertisers are bothered about.

She has little control over that, though; it’s not her fault she fits the commercial zeitgeist so well, but she could at least acknowledge that. Anxious Black Woman makes the point perfectly:

To me, the other part of this white privilege is the simple fact of mainstream media choosing to render our knowledge meaningless, marginal, “too angry,” as others have said, and a host of other “problems,” while our white counterparts receive the welcome mat and easier access to journals, newspapers, and publishers. For example, why is Stuff White People Like, which I believe just started this year, already getting a book deal (I got this news from Professor Black Woman – can’t find the direct link) when the rest of us, who have offered the same critiques of whiteness (although I’ll admit that blog is hilarious and could see the mainstream appeal) keep getting editors at publishing houses who say they don’t want to “regurgitate” what we’ve already written on our blog, so any book deal we get had better be “original” and “not yet published”? I do think the publishers have a point, but I’m wondering if the author of SWPL received the same criticism, or is it just the very appeal and “marketability” of white people that gives the author access to publishing? Not to mention that, although the blog critiques whiteness, it is still by its very nature a promotion of said white culture and is therefore more palatable for the white supremacist society that chooses who to promote and who to ignore.

I’m using that one example to suggest that the same sentiment perhaps guided Alternet to publish Amanda Marcotte while ignoring BFP, who not only has kept the issue of immigrant women’s rights at the forefront of her blog but has also provided the groundwork for such so-called “progressive whites” to sift through and downright steal from. The very politics of her access to publishing in a mainstream site is problematic, but to then fail to cite and LINK back to BFP is just the worst forms of silencing.

It seems to me that Marcotte is a symptom as much as a cause: but she has committed two particular sins. She’s failed to sufficiently openly acknowledge the influence of other women and writers of colour on her own work – and worse, she has failed to hold the door open for them to follow her through. In that she fits the pattern of almost every prominent political woman on the broad US left so far. Can you blame those shoved aside, yet again, for being angry?

It’s not so much about who has the loudest voice or platform – or even about the scrabbling to get it, or personalities, though both are factors – but more about who gets chosen to have the loudest voice and about who does the choosing.

This apparently minor split amongst feminists isn’t minor at all. It’s another front in the larger war for the soul of the progressive left in America and consequently of the Democratic party and of a potential future presidency. Revolutionary or reformist? Inclusive, or supportive of continuing privilege?

In any battle of ideas there is bound to be collateral damage; I’m not happy to see a fellow feminist under attack and it’s hard enough for a clever and opinionated woman to earn a living, but sometimes, as belledame so pithily points out in riposte to Amanda’s above comment, sometimes politics is about more than one person.

[Edited to correct my crappy English and to better reflect reality]

3 thoughts on “Plagiarism, Appropriation, Personality and Politics

  1. A small nitpick: it was Jesse who started Pandagon and only later brought aboard Ezra, who then introduced Amanda. It was mainly his work that made Pandagon big, with both Ezra and Amanda inheriting his audience and building on his work.

    Apart from that, I’m not going to comment on this trainwreck.

  2. I stand corrected.

    Given that’s so, one could say with some truth that the careers of both Pandagon alumni were built on the back of minority bloggers from the gitgo.

    Couldn’t one?

  3. stop talking/blogging peoples…. and get out there and do something!!!What a waster of time and energy!As for this white feminists vs feminists of colour territorial crap..so bourgeouis to even be having the debate it s disgusting and offensive to everybody…
    This is not a womans issue or a race issue or a literary issue its an EGO issue,and the battle on both sides is embarrassing.who cares who is credited or references.VIVA ANA NIMA!!!!VIVA LA INCOGNITA!!!!Listen to those who do not sign their name, for it is they who do not solicit status or credit for their words!

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