As Always, Please Do Not Steal My Ideas

Audrey Thompson

Annika builds a snowwoman, part I

While visiting Cris and Stephanie, I mentioned a philosopher with a solution to the problem of why well-meaning white people do things that we know we shouldn’t do but still do anyway. This philosopher has decided that the best explanation is that we have two selves, a good self and a bad self, and the bad self is the one doing the bad stuff. Stephanie looked dubious. “As in ’Jeffy did it’?” said Stephanie. “Or when the Family Circus guy has everyone say, ’Not me’ and there is a ghost — I hate that there is a ghost; why does he have to draw the ghost? — called ’Not me’ doing it? That was the idea? Why would people think that their entitlement has its own personality?”

Diagram:  6 personality types among philosophers

Put this way, it did not seem like all that good an idea, although clearly its being a bad idea has not stopped Bil Keane from raking in money. There is a guy on the web whose signature is that he has hated Family Circus since 1975; although something of a latecomer, he speaks for many others. But even though millions of people agree with him, I doubt he is making money off his idea, whereas Bil Keane has only ever had three ideas (the one of footsteps showing the hilariously circuitous path that Jeffy has taken on his way home is the one that my brother hates with an almost obsessive passion), but every day Keane gets paid all over again for one of his three ideas.

Billy has a gun

It will be interesting to see whether the philosopher gets paid or sued for using Bil Keane’s idea. To be fair, the idea may very well have been the philosopher’s to begin with and Keane the one who stole it, ideas not being his strong suit. Still, it is undoubtedly Keane who is getting paid.

I am not sure about general-practitioner philosophers but philosophers of education do not traffic in money-making ideas. We have many ideas, some good, most bad, but none of them make any money. Most people have never heard of philosophers of education, but if they have, they do not think of them as people who rake in money. Even my parents, who know two philosophers of education in the flesh, do not think of them as people whose good ideas will make any money. Not that my parents would necessarily agree that they are good ideas, but they would feel better if the ideas paid off in hard cash.

Donna, Beth, Frank, Audrey, Ivan
Philosophers of education with some non-philosophers of education

Some philosophers of education will tell you all about what Plato or Socrates would have thought was a good idea to try in the classroom. Others will tell you all about what Freud would have said. Some might tell you what Rousseau or Dewey would have said. The thing that may strike you about all these ideas is that they are not new, although admittedly that does not mean that they are not good. Some of them are lousy but that isn’t really my point. My point is that new ideas do not pay. Feminism, queer theory, and whiteness theory are newer, but these ideas are more likely to get your senator to draft a Constitutional amendment against you than to get you paid for your ideas. In its whole history, the United States Constitution has been changed only twenty-seven times; this is not the fault of my state’s senators, one of whom has proposed or co-sponsored sixty-seven resolutions to amend the Constitution. His ideas are not new; they are things like, “Make people do things my way.” But people send him lots of money to have these ideas.

No one could have newer ideas than my brother. His ideas are so new that they will still be new a century from now. Below is his solution to the problem of insufficient bookcases.
Drawing of bookcase pasted on wall
Bedroom bookcase

Here is a dubious idea that people are trying to raise money for. Although flamingos rarely live in the desert, some well-meaning folks want to bring flamingos to Utah to keep Floyd company. Pink Floyd is the flamingo who escaped from the Tracy Aviary seventeen years ago and has lived in the Great Salt Lake ever since. I don’t know about bringing in other flamingos to keep Floyd company. Other flamingos are not going to like it here. It is too cold; it is not flamingo territory. While it is true that Floyd seems to be thriving against all expectations, Floyd clearly is not your typical flamingo. As Ivan puts it in a helpful phrase, Floyd is “the Chuck of flamingos.”

Like Chuck, our nephew Tom is also very creative; like us, he specializes in ideas that will never make a dime but that are extremely time-intensive, demanding, and complicated. He is the only person I worry about stealing my ideas. I sent him an idea yesterday. It is not a money-making idea but it is a good idea. I enclosed four pictures of him taken several years ago, one of which featured the top of his head. I encouraged him to have new pictures taken with his Mom and Dad, in the exact same poses, to give us a sense of continuity between then and now. I explained the idea in detail. At the last minute it occurred to me that, in carrying out my idea, he might think that it was his. This happens all the time with Ivan, who constantly steals my ideas and then heaps voluminous praise upon himself for having had the ideas. “Why don’t you reuse this video tape to make me a copy of Two Towns of Jasper for my class?” I’ll say. “I already was going to do that. I thought it was a good idea of mine,” Ivan will say. Ivan and Tom are not blood-related but they are pretty much identical in this regard. There was little question in my mind that Tom would steal my idea and try to claim credit. I closed my letter on a loving but legalistic note. “As always, please do not steal my ideas,” I wrote.
Audrey’s stolen idea Audrey’s stolen idea
Audrey’s stolen idea Audrey’s stolen idea

I have had to take a firm line with Annika, as well. I had sent her three photos of her Dad and Harley taken some years ago. I carefully arranged the photos in the most dramatic and interesting order, which happened to be the same order in which I had taken the pictures. She wrote back instantly, claiming credit. “I even arranged them in a certain order,” she wrote, describing the exact order in which I had arranged them. I fired off a rebuttal.

“I see that you are claiming credit for arranging the pictures in order,” I began politely. “Probably you are overlooking the fact that I specifically arranged them in that order when I sent them. Also, I took the pictures in that order. In addition, Joe and Harley performed them in that order. Other than that, of course, you are free to claim full, godlike credit for something that you are only a complete bystander on. It is not the first time that credit will have been wrenched from my trembling, nerveless fingers. Ivan does it all the time. I will clean the papers off his chair and he will remark, very pleased with himself, ’Look, I cleaned all the papers off my chair!’ This is why I now document every single thing that I do on video tape and with a witness. It is the only way to get credit for the things I do, of which there are quite a lot.”

Here are the pictures in the order for which Annika is trying to claim credit. I took the pictures when Joe came to visit while Harley was still a baby. They played chess together.
Joe and Harley playing chess
Harley ponders her options
Joe makes his move
Joe makes his move

Harley makes the winning move
Harley makes the winning move

That wasn’t all there was to my letter, of course. I am famous for writing informative, news-filled, educational letters. Even my birthday card to Annika was distinctly educational. I had slipped the word “peccavi” into our cheerful greetings. (I was never thanked for this.) The spell checker on this word processing program, which I have turned off countless times but which always turns itself back on again, does not recognize and does not like the word “peccavi.” Then again, it has never cared for “multicultural,” regardless of my assurances that it is a word and that I plan to continue using it as such. If you look up peccavi, you will find that dictionaries do not at all agree on how to pronounce this word, which may be why one does not hear it very often, yet it is a fine word to know. It is to my credit that I slipped it into my niece’s vocabulary so painlessly.

Here is a curious fact. Thesaurus makers have entirely different standards for words than do dictionary makers. I used the laptop’s thesaurus to look up “lard.” It did not like lard. Instead, it offered me “lardy-dardy,” for which the synonym is “lares and penates.” It is no use looking up lardy-dardy in the dictionary, because it is not a word that dictionary makers care about or even believe in. I can sympathize with them on this point. If lardy-dardy really is, as claimed, a synonym for lares and penates, a term I have never heard anyone use but which means household goods, it could be risky to use lardy-dardy as a casual variant. Then again, if someone is trying to impress you with their new 14-karat gold-plated faucets, it would be nice to be able to say, “Ah, new lardy-dardy,” which sounds more polite than “ostentatious gewgaws.”

Ivan asked his classics list about “peccavi.” David White wrote back to say that there is no single correct pronunciation in Latin, since in ancient times the pronunciation would depend on the context. What counts as context in today’s pronunciation is not the same as what used to count as context back when Latin was new, however. What counts as context now, it turns out, is whether you are reading Caesar or Cicero (“use the reconstructed classical pronunciation, pek-KAH-wi”), or “singing liturgical music or reading medieval poetry,” in which case you should use the “Italianate ecclesiastical pronunciation, pek-KAH-vi.” If, and this is frowned upon, you are using traditional English pronunciation, you can pronounce Latin as if it were English, saying, “pek-KAY-vee,” but this is really only for lawyers, who are already messing up Latin with their “habeas corpuses” and “modus operandi” pronounced Hahvud-style. Disappointingly, there was no word on how peccavi is pronounced when used in a thirteen-year-old’s birthday card, although it seems to me that this is pretty solidly what we mean when we refer to “context.”

There are a lot of words that should never have gone out of style in the first place, along with a number of others that should never have come in. I am too jaded nowadays to be shocked that “irregardless” has made it into the dictionary; that is what comes of having fake folksy types in office. Still, the dictionary does have the virtue of describing words that people might actually use, and if people use “irregardless,” I suppose it has to be noted, albeit extremely grudgingly. By contrast, thesauri do not care at all about how people really talk. There is something a little sneaky about many of the words that the thesaurus offers us as synonyms. One senses a certain desperation when the synonyms offered for “despair” are “cave of despair” or, alternately, “cave of Trophonius.” In many academic disciplines, writers are not allowed to use terms like “cave of Trophonius” or “remedilessness.” Some copy editors do not like words that they do not know and forbid writers to use words like “prepossession” on the grounds that they are not words everyone knows and uses every day, as if academics were just trying to fit in with everyday ways of talking.

If there is one thing we know, it is that academics are not worried about fitting in with everyday people and also do not know how. Many academics do not even know how to fit in with other academics. One scholar I heard about, who had had his book manuscript accepted for publication, refused to deposit it with the publisher for fear that the publisher would steal his ideas. Most people who have heard this story think that there is such a thing as playing things too safe.

But actually, publishers are the least of our worries. If philosophers have multiple selves, we are awfully vulnerable, particularly if the whole point is that the other selves are bad. How can we be sure that our inner bad guys won’t steal our best ideas?

Annika builds a snowwoman, part II
Annika with snow woman; please do not steal this idea


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