Superintendent plagiarizes letter to the editor, maybe doesn’t understand original

Max Lenington, Yellowstone County treasurer, assessor and superintendent of schools

Max Lenington, Yellowstone County treasurer, assessor and superintendent of schools

Max Lenington hates the president and his wife; that much he made clear in the letter he wrote last week to the editor of the Billings Gazette, entitled “Why I hate the Obamas.” The way in which he hates the Obamas, however, is suspiciously similar to that described in conservative columnist Mychal Massie’s piece “Why I do not like the Obamas,” which Massie accuses Lenington of plagiarizing. I should point out that these are all allegations and no one has confirmed that Lenington plagiarized anything, but he totally did it. As the Missoulian puts it, “Lenington appears to have essentially condensed Massie’s editorial from about 1,000 words to 300 words. It also seems that he restructured sentences written by Massie and interchanged certain words with others that have similar definitions.” Comparison after the jump.

We know that Lenington read Massie’s column, because on August 6 he used his Yellowstone County email account to ask Massie for permission to “use some of your excellent Anti-Obama comments.” Massie replied that Lenington could quote his work, so long as he attributed it and refrained from rewriting any quoted material.

Lenington did neither of those things. His letter is a digest version of Massie’s longer piece with superficial, sentence-level changes throughout, often at the expense of sense. Consider this sentence from Massie’s original, in which he laments that the media has not investigated the Obamas as aggressively as they did Clinton and Bush:

There is no scenario known to man, whereby a white president and his wife could ignore laws, flaunt their position, and lord over the people as these two are permitted out of fear for their color.

Compare that to Lenington’s version:

There is just no possible way; whereby, a white president and his wife could ignore the law, flaunt their position and be the lord of the people, as these two are permitted out of fear for their color.

As you can see, Lenington’s version is slightly different, both in its diction and in its understanding of how “whereby” works. It is similar, however, in that it boldly asserts that the Obamas have enjoyed racial privilege. That was maybe an oversight on Lenington’s part, because Massie is black.

Lenington seems to have followed the plagiarist’s baffling practice of including personal details about the original author in his own stolen version. Massie’s column opens with the following paragraph:

The other evening on my twitter, a person asked me why I didn’t like the Obama’s? Specifically I was asked: “I have to ask, why do you hate the Obama’s? It seems personal not policy related. You even dissed their Christmas family pic.”

Sic throughout—so much sic. It’s not exactly a dynamite opening—the first two sentences are comically redundant—but Lenington lifts it whole-cloth:

About a month ago, I submitted a letter to the Billings Gazette disparaging our divider-in-chief, President Obama. Since that time, I have been “tweeted,” emailed and phoned by people who ask “Why do you hate the Obamas? It seems somehow personal. You even disrespect their family Christmas picture.

Why? This particular framing device is incidental to the content of the letter, but Lenington still presents Massie’s experiences as his own. It’s an odd quirk when he’s talking about imaginary people who call him, but it becomes more problematic when he presents a black man’s understanding of racial dynamics as his own.

Lenington calls the Obamas “the worst kind of racialists” and indicts their “contempt for my very traditional America”—a complaint that sounds very different coming from him than it does from Massie. Weirdly, Lenington copied this portion of the letter almost word-for-word, as if he did not understand the significance of a black man accusing the Obamas of playing the race card as opposed to a white one.

When Massie says that the Obamas have gotten soft treatment in the media because they’re black, it sounds questionable but not, you know, idiotic. Maybe black conservative columnist Mychal Massie understands how minority status can work to your advantage in certain situations. White Montana multi-office holder Max Lenington almost certainly does not. He understands it so little that it didn’t even occur to him that a black man’s words might sound different out of his mouth.

That aspect of this debacle has been pretty much lost, and maybe that’s for the better. Lenington probably will not suffer too badly for stealing a little-known columnist’s rant for a little-read letter. If nothing else, he’s made himself widely known for hating the president, which probably won’t hurt him in Yellowstone County. He has outed himself, though, as a man who will take credit for other people’s ideas without even understanding them. Maybe that’s a useful man to have in government, but I cannot think of how.

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  1. My Christ, what about the fact that he’s a superintendent of schools and has no idea how to punctuate properly and is a plagiarist? As far as the inventive punctuation usage, I feel like there’s some unfettered hubris there. I imagine Lenington saying to himself, “Look, I know a professional writer and his editor wrote it like this, but damn it, I think a semicolon belongs in here anyway.” Not only is that foolish, but it’s a hell of a message for a superintendent to send: you don’t have to know or understand a rule in order to eschew it, and if you think you’re smarter than everyone else, just so do it the way your way.

  2. I was really angry about the use of hate by these two excellent columnists/thinkers, but then I realized I was hating them.

    <3, compassion, and understanding. Where they're coming from Obama represents a threat, and we might feel equally righteous about our hate if something threatened us.

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