As a child psychologist and psychoanalyst, I have worked with children and adolescents of all ages who come to me with every imaginable kind of problem (and some that are, quite frankly, unimaginable). Usually, the teenagers I see are there because they've gotten themselves into trouble, both at home and at school. The trouble could be drugs, it could be overly aggressive behavior, it could be truancy, it could be lack of respect shown to authority figures and, not uncommonly, it could be because he or she has gotten thrown out of school for plagiarism.
Any child over the age of, say, 8, knows it is not only morally wrong to sign your name to something you did not write but that it is a punishable act. Such punishment, when the child who commits the plagiarism is in high school or college, often includes expulsion from school. With kids ever more internet savvy (i.e., having access to the myriads of articles and papers written on any given subject by some supposedly obscure author) and school administrators and teachers trying to ensure that the teen does not "slip one past them," schools are increasingly using programs designed to detect whether, in fact, a piece of written work handed in by a student was actually written by that student and does not match, in phraseology or any other patterns that such programs detect, written work by someone other than the student. We, as a society, value honesty and integrity and one of the surest mark of a lack of both is a person's willingness to claim someone else's words (or work) as their own.
And this is why it matters that Barack Obama is now furiously trying to suggest that it's "no big deal" that he plagiarized his friend's, Deval Patrick's, speech. He's even claiming that Mr. Patrick told him to use the speech. Perhaps Mr. Patrick did. Perhaps Mr. Patrick told him to use the speech and never told him to say it was written by Mr. Patrick and not by Mr. Obama. It doesn't matter, actually, what Mr. Patrick said or did not say to Mr. Obama. What matters is that Mr. Obama passed this speech off as his own, adding only his by now customary flourishes of tone and inflection. That the man who has presented himself to this country as the man of integrity and change turns out to be a fraud — and that is what we call people who pretend that someone else's words are their own — must be a profound disappointment for his supporters, if they can be honest enough with themselves to admit it.
However, what's even more disheartening and heartbreaking is this: Mr. Obama, in his historic bid for the Presidency, represented an ideal with whom children from broken homes, of mixed racial origins, of no great means, of inner turmoil who seek refuge in drugs, could all look up to and strive to be. In one fell swoop of his unwritten-with pen, he has dashed the hope that here stood a man who pulled himself together and got it together.
Here stood a man who towered above others in his quest for decency and integrity. Here stood a man who played it straight and said it as he saw it. But Mr. Obama is not that man. This man, as it turns out, is just another guy who seems to have bought into his own hype about how wonderful he is even as he tries to convince us he is not simply a liar. Worse still, he has been shown to be a liar while he has paradoxically been running his entire campaign based virtually exclusively on his stellar character, a character he has claimed that is so different from all those Washington insiders he has sought to set himself apart from.
Listening to the pundits of Slate Magazine claim that this charge of plagiarism "won't stick" with the voters because "with Obama, there's no pattern of lying," only adds insult to injury. I'm sure that even Slate Magazine remembers that Mr. Obama's so-called autobiography, Dreams From My Father, was discovered not to be entirely factual, as well. It took Mr. Obama some time, as I recall, to finally admit that, yes, some of the characters were not real but were, rather, "composite" characters. In other words, they were fiction. Which means that, in other words, he lied about it and never told anyone that his autobiography was not only not entirely written by him (check with his ghost writer), but that his so-called life was not exactly what he claimed it was.
Children know that not telling the truth, either by omission or commission, is the definition of a lie. Perhaps there is more of a pattern to Mr. Obama's distortions and omissions than even these two rather egregious examples point to. As a clinician, I have found that if one lies about one or two things here or there and then makes light of those lies, and acts as if the ones who find this offensive are the ones making mountains out of molehills, you can almost take it to the bank that a deeper pattern of not telling it like it is exists. It's only a matter of time before it becomes more fully exposed. So, it's suffer the children yet again. Yet again, a grownup who might actually have served as the inspiration he so adamantly claims he is, turns out to be another scammer who, when caught in the scam, does what every child does: he says, "it's no big deal." And then he has the audacity to cast aspersions on the ones who caught him. Even the children I see don't do that.
So, here's the lesson these kids will learn if the media, as they seem likely to do, go too easy on Mr. Obama for this crime: The trick is in getting away with it. That's the lesson they will learn, when the sad thing is they could have learned so much more from him. Mr. Obama's dismissal of this fraudulent act and his other as "no big deals" undermines what parents and teachers have been trying to teach their kids about honesty and integrity, sometimes against very strong odds. They thought maybe in Mr. Obama they had a helping hand. They were wrong.
What they have instead is a man who, while seeking the highest office in the land, shrugs off a "crime" as no big deal, seeks to blame those who uncovered it, and arrogantly thinks he should not be held to the same standard to which we hold school children. I only hope for the sake of the children watching, that he is wrong.
As Mr. Obama using Mr. Patrick's speech says, "it's only words." Yes, Mr. Obama, words do matter, especially when they're lies.
Dr. Sylvia Welsh is a Clinical Psychologist and Psychoanalyst. She is on the faculty of the NYU Psychoanalytic Institute and the faculty of the NYU School Medicine, Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Welsh treats children, adolescents and adults, families and couples.