Why Tito Sotto’s plagiarism matters
On the morning of August 14, Senate Majority Leader Tito Sotto invoked tradition, to highlight the importance of the words that would issue from his mouth. “This chamber,” he began, “the Senate, is an institution that traces its lineage to the political structure of ancient Rome, where matters of policy were debated and decided in a Council of Elders … At that time, as now, issues were hotly argued, and, sometimes, lives and honors put at risk and scrutiny.” Promising words!
“Today,” Sotto continued, “we will define ourselves again.”
That day he did, as well as the days following. He redefined himself as a comedian turned politician turned plagiarist. As we now all know, he was discovered to have lifted, verbatim, entire chunks of his turno en contra speeches, from as many as 6 different sources on the Internet. This was the first of his 3 sins.
But does plagiarism really matter, in the grand scheme of things? After all, each of us has probably done it. Even I did once. Grade 10, English class, in Cebu. I fooled Mrs Galang into thinking the lyrics of Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” were by my own poetic hand. (Sorry Mrs Galang! Sorry Madge!)
Besides, we Filipinos have a proud tradition of plagiarizing. We see it committed, usually without apology, always without punishment, by many of our leaders and heroes: Supreme Court Justice Mariano del Castillo plagiarized in his ruling against elderly comfort women.
Manny Pangilinan took responsibility for lifting from Oprah, Obama, O’Brien, and Rowling in a commencement speech. Mikey Arroyo’s Ang Galing Pinoy partylist plagiarized its organizational documents from Bayan Muna’s. Literary lion Krip Yuson plagiarized from Rey Joble, for a magazine article about basketball. Even Amando Doronila appears to have neglected to cover his tracks, in an Inquirer editorial about Jeffrey Sachs and the IMF, lifting from a young Business World reporter named Diane Claire Jiao.
Art, after all, is either plagiarism or revolution. (I quickly cite Gaugin, lest I also be accused.) Yet for Sotto’s artfully prepared speeches, his spokesperson denies the former. What we have left, then, is the latter. And in a sense, Sotto’s plagiarism was exposed by an ongoing revolution, of the social-media variety.
Following Sotto’s speech on August 14, Alfredo R Melgar, a blogger for Filipino Freethinkers, discovered a portion was cut-and-pasted from the blog of Sarah Pope, “the Healthy Home Economist.” When Karen Davila asked him about it on national TV, the comedian denied it. “Bakit ko naman iku-quote 'yung blogger?” he said. “Blogger lang 'yon.”
Meanwhile, bloggers like Raissa Robles exhorted readers to check Sotto’s second turno en contra speech. Concerned Filipinos, as we’re wont to do, flocked to the highway…well, to the information superhighway. We put aside our Lolcats and FleshAsiaDaily to crowd-source fact-check Sotto’s second speech, from August 16.
More incensed by Sotto’s haughty denial than by the plagiarism, I plugged into Google all the English paragraphs in his speech. I easily discovered he’d plagiarized from 3 blogs. One was by a Filipino named Marlon C Ramirez. Another, from an American named Janice Formichella, whose article on Feminists for Choice advocates reproductive rights. A third was from an unidentified blogger, whose scientific studies were a tad outdated; in his speech, Sotto handily excised their 1939 and 1949 vintage.
Other netizens also discovered significant sections lifted word for word. One was from a research paper prepared by the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. Another was from a New York University site dedicated to the work of Margaret Sanger, the notable birth-control advocate. (Isn’t it odd how Sotto plagiarized advocates of reproductive health to firm up his argument against reproductive health?)
Yet more netizens punched holes in Sotto’s melodramatic story about his wife taking Diane birth-control pills in 1974, contributing to the death of their infant son in 1975, because those pills didn’t exist until 1978. (Unless, of course, Sotto has a DeLorean time machine, which would be rad. Though wouldn’t he have travelled to 1973 to warn himself not to go to 1978 and buy those pills for his wife to take in 1974, and therefore save his son?)
I, for one, was furious the senator had not only stolen words, but robbed them of their meaning, twisting the intent of the plagiarized authors to fit his purposes. I felt the untimely death of intellectual integrity was worth weeping over, ostentatiously, in public, because it’s the heart of public discourse.
Word of Sotto’s perfidy soon spread on Facebook, in the comments sections of news sites, and finally into the newspapers. It was a small but promising melee in a social-media revolution that’s holding governments accountable the world over.
Here we pause for a question: In this age of sampling, hyperlinking, and interconnectedness, don’t we all take from each other? Don’t we torrent our movies, or turn to tube sites for porn?
It’s the zeitgeist, to the chagrin of publishers, studios, and record labels. The musician Girl Talk is famous for clipping snippets of other artists’ music to make new songs. The Bible was written by multiple authors recording oral and pre-existing texts, and large parts are shared by even Muslims and Jews. We know Shakespeare adapted popular stories, as did Disney.
In my own writing, I like to insert riffs on well-known literary works, pop-culture, and cheesy music, as easter-eggs for attentive readers. Philippine tourism campaigns swipe from other countries. And don’t we love the myriad parodies and plays-on-words of business names, such as the fishball cart with the Facebook logo as “Facebool,” or the bakery “Bread Pit,” or the Batangas balut wholesaler “Starducks.” Such copyright violations aren’t just acceptable, they’re what makes being Pinoy punny.
This lenient environment is exactly what makes Sotto’s case unacceptable, because he didn’t appeal for leniency.
Sotto could’ve bowed his head, declared mea culpa, disciplined his speech-writing hacks, and away it would’ve gone. But that’s not our way in our government, where there’s something of an omerta—made-men might whack a friend of yours, or a friend of mine, but never a friend of theirs.
And there’s the rub. Plagiarism may be Sotto’s peccadillo, but his second and greatest sin is arrogant impunity—the sort we see when public officials believe themselves above the law. To those he plagiarized, Sotto said: “Come on! Sue me.”
In insouciant impunity, Sotto was not alone. When confronted with the many allegations, Hector “The Protector” Villacorta shielded his boss, like an ill-fitting Rough Rider prophylactic, studded for their pleasure. The chief of staff was hectoring, like the obedient mob lackey leering into reporters’ flashbulbs, mumbling into a nest of microphones: Didn’t see nuthin’, didn’t hear nuthin’, don’t know shit, this rap won’t stick, no comment, go fuck yerselves.
To plagiarizing Pope, the attorney banged out a belligerent semi-apology on Facebook. (Pope later called Sotto a “lying thief.” Villacorta implied she was being oversensitive.)
To plagiarizing the others, the attorney said he’d only comment if the plagiarized complained. (Formichella told me her work was copyrighted, and has written an article for Ms. Magazine to air her complaint. “I absolutely do not like,” she told me, “knowing my work has been used in a context to argue against legislation that has obvious benefits to the people of the Philippines.”)
To general charges of wrongdoing, the attorney claimed Sotto enjoys parliamentary immunity, while governments may disregard copyright, which anyway doesn’t apply to blogs because they’re in the public domain. Where'd he go to law school? T___ngina U? Such mangling of facts calls into doubt Villacorta’s understanding of law, and begs the question: Does his “Atty’ honorific actually refer to his being a dance instructor? Because a dance is clearly what this is—a D.I. leading his drama-queen boss, twirling and turning worries away, until a new morn brings a fresh set of problems to make us forget yesterday’s.
But for now, we’re still just talking about words, those stolen and those snidely uttered. Both are cheap to the likes of Sotto. Silence often speaks louder, and in his hush we see clearly the senator’s third sin: Lack of accountability.
This familiar crime is what underpins the corruption in our society. “Why attack the messenger?” Sotto said. Please. If the senator can’t accept responsibility for something as paltry as plagiarism, where the penalty’s hardly more than a public apology, will he take responsibility in future issues where penalties are more grave? If the senator can’t address our grievances fairly when they’re so small, will he face future grievances that are more costly?
If the senator can’t lead his staff to write speeches that are their own, how can he lead us? If Sotto can’t expect them to be ethical, moral, and legal, can we believe the role he’s taken as an ethical, moral, legal crusader? Can he be trusted later, when now he can’t admit he’s wrong and act to make it right?
(Even Senator Pia Cayetano, upon missing proper attributions in past privilege speeches, hastened to post amendments. She’s reported as saying: “If, at any time, I fail to attribute, I immediately make the necessary corrections and amends.” She knows enough to fix mistakes before the fan hits the shit, because Cayetano knows the law, and that it applies to all. As she’s tweeted: “Our intellectual property [law] states that one’s literary work is protected from the time of creation.”)
For a God-fearing man, as Sotto claims to be, shouldn’t the Sixth Commandment be equally important as the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth? Isn’t there hypocrisy to the senator’s concern with future lives that aren’t even a twinkle in a man’s testicle, while Sotto’s happy to lie, steal, and covet now what belongs to others?
Blogger lang iyon. Words lang iyon. But aren’t words the stuff of public discourse? In manipulating them, Sotto has undermined the important discussion of the RH Bill. It’s a debate the country deserves to have intelligently and honestly.
(You’ll notice, dear reader, I’ve not once divulged my stance on the bill. It’s immaterial to this piece. Sotto’s arguments have been well addressed elsewhere.)
Make no mistake, Sotto’s plagiarism should concern every one of us. For those who support the bill, Sotto has affronted with denials, delays, lies, and obfuscations. For those who oppose the bill, Sotto has shortchanged a chance to present valid, properly researched, up-to-date arguments. For Filipinos of either stripe, Sotto has thumbed his nose at intellectual property rights, political accountability, and even good manners. He’s insulted our intelligence. He’s insulted us—we, the Filipino people.
Is there anything left for us to do but grumble? Look to the street, I urge.
Like a commuter impatient to get to a buffet, Villacorta has tried to maul this issue into submission, slapping anyone standing in front of his car trying to enforce the law. But take heart, kabayan, for in the case of Robert Blair Carabuena, Malacañang lauded social media’s effectiveness. “We commend our vigilant citizens who actively seek accountability from individuals in both the public and private sectors,” the Palace said. “Public engagement is the bedrock of democracy. It is at its most potent and powerful when the constant scrutiny of the citizenry serves as a deterrent to the illicit and unlawful.”
For those reasons, the public pillorying of Carabuena was praised. Will the government now also respect this same spirit of vigilant citizenship and pursuit of accountability when it concerns the illicit and unlawful acts of one of their own?
It’s now to us to demand Sotto and Villacorta be held to account. It’s to us to push for due process, so that this doesn’t become just another wrong screamed at, denied, and swept into our communal memory, to be lumped with so many unaddressed crimes, large and small. The weight of that lump is what makes being Filipino at times so heavy.
In a properly functioning democracy, like the Philippines we all dream of, every crime (large and small) will be investigated properly and punished accordingly. Shouldn’t our government be capable of addressing multiple issues simultaneously? Can’t we attend to the RH Bill as well as demand a Senate Ethics investigation?
It’s simply what is right. Sotto may not resign (as he should), Villacorta may not get sacked (as he should), but a serious discussion of plagiarism, intellectual property rights, and proper senatorial conduct would be a significant step forward. Forcing the Senate to reach for the standard we deserve would be a victory.
What can be done? Beats me. I’m just a writer, doing what I know how to do. Aren’t there leaders we can turn to? Which lawyer, legislator, organization, or government official will stand up and do the right thing?
In truth, this will likely just fade away. As usual. We can’t even count on the Senate to admonish Sotto. Perhaps it’s omerta: Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile defended his colleague with thinking as cadaverous as it’s coddling. “Are there views on earth which were not copied from others?” Enrile’s reported as saying. “This word ‘democracy’ is not ours. We copied it from other countries.” Facepalm.
What’s left for us but words? If these leaders debase civic discourse, perhaps we can only stoop to their level. If they make a mockery of integrity and concerned citizenship, perhaps mockery’s what they deserve. If words can be rendered so valueless, does it matter what anyone says?
So here I go.
Sotto: You’ve been exposed as a liar and a thief. You make us laugh, with a character who puts his foot in his mouth so often we hardly notice, partly because it’s so habitual, partly because he resembles a foot (despite mustache camouflage).
Villacorta: Smegma should be scrubbed away. There’s not enough green phlegm in the world for a loogie befitting your thick faces, metaphorically speaking.
Such words may offend the offenders, but the intention’s not to insult but to illustrate. Because (don’t you get it yet?) these are mere words, echoing the views of others, and on the Internet at that. Go ahead, file a complaint.
To your parliamentary immunity I invoke poetic license: Saying Sotto’s like a sticky nugget of brown kulangot is meant purely as personal opinion, presented as simile, offered as hyperbole, expressed artistically to parody your actions, released online into the public domain.
Besides, who can even prove these words are really mine? - Rappler.com
(The author is a freelance writer. He has written for the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Globe & Mail, the CBC, and various international publications. His critically acclaimed novel Illustrado earned the Palanca Award and the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008, and was a New York Times Notable Book of 2010, among other accolades.)