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I’ll begin by answering the big question: Do I think that Sammy Rhodes plagiarized? Yes, and I will explain my answer below. But will critics of Sammy Rhodes own up to the fact that their verbal violence and unwillingness to enter reconciliation-oriented discussion prolonged the problem? I hope so, because this has been a traumatic process I wish not to repeat
and @prodigalsam is still an active Twitter account.
In May, 2012, I published an essay in the Huffington Post extolling the merits of comic Twitterer and Reformed University Fellowship pastor, Sammy Rhodes (@prodigalsam). It was part of a column called Literary Twitter that had also featured Dadboner and Alec Sulkin. I believe that essay was my last installment in the short-lived column.
In the past six months Sammy Rhodes has been accused of plagiarizing jokes from other Twitter comics. The evidence that he had done this, convincing enough at first, has increased week by week as different @prodigalsam tweets have been paired with their sources at a Tumblr titled “BorrowingSam.” I have been asked numerous times to rescind or update my original essay, but I have declined, because I had written and published it in good faith. It was date-stamped so that anyone could see when it was written. I also knew that the allegations were serious, and that I held no more than a layperson’s position to judge the evidence—the same as anyone else. I had no special capacity to make a call one way or the other.
On May 15 of this year I noticed someone had identified a connection between a @prodigalsam tweet that says, “Just won a Nobel Prize for untangling a pair of Apple earbuds,” and almost the same tweet from another Twitterer in which she says she should win a Nobel Prize for untangling her headphones, posted some time previously. I commented on the thread, “If this is true, Sammy should shut down his Twitter.” One of the people on that thread was Sean Tejaratchi, a.k.a. @ShittingtonUK, who last September rated Rolling Stone’s list of the 25 funniest people on Twitter.
He might rate among the 25 angriest, too. Sean Tejaratchi is a man whose pure hatred for Sammy Rhodes (he had called him a “Christian c__t”) and intolerance for any other option but “Condemn him,” which he asked me to do more than once, led me to question the wisdom of engaging in further public discussion of the issue. At first I tried to trust Tejaratchi, offering him my cell phone number so that we could talk. He called, and in an hour-long discussion I asked if there was any evidence other than what was included on “BorrowingSam.” He told me it wasn’t his job to help me come to my “f___ng senses” about Sammy Rhodes’ plagiarism. He kept assuring me I wouldn’t do anything about this, and if I did, he wouldn’t be there to pin an award on my lapel.
About a week later, on June 1st, after more Twitter skirmishing, Tejaratchi began an email to me as follows: “As you’re well aware, you’re a contemptible f___ing coward, but I’m still going to tell you something important. Sam is under attack from an increasing number of angry people. You can blame, and have blamed, the cruelty of the world and the mentality of mobs, and I'm sure we can debate this until your stupid bowtie rots off your neck.”
But I did something I probably shouldn’t have. On Sunday, June 2nd, and again on Tuesday, June 4th, I tweeted short series of thoughts on the matter, beginning with “I’m going to put my feet in this fire for a bit. Calling all Jack Merrydews.” Folly. But my central concern was that the livid, swarming nature of opposition to Rhodes unfairly loaded any constructive discussion and blocked the path toward a reasonable solution. I also believed that Rhodes had a right to change his ways, to stop reusing jokes (as he called it, “covering” some of his favorite comedians’ material) without citing his sources. Surely, I thought, all this flaming and abuse would only polarize the issue, and it was my duty, as one who was also by now feeling the heat, to say something.
I introduced historical context to the discussion, arguing that jokes have been considered intellectual property only since the advent of cable television and that Twitter might be more like Vaudeville than contemporary performative comedy. I also suggested that Sammy Rhodes might be receiving more flak than another joke-stealing comedian might receive due to his status as a Southern Christian minister. I knew, having lived in New York City and L.A. for periods of years, respectively, that Southern Evangelical Christians are not on most culturati’s list of preferred people to deal with, or even think about. But it was stupid of me to point that out, because it immediately turned the discussion into one of “who’s the real outsider” and “white martyrdom.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the great and famous Patton Oswalt, with 1,310,955 Twitter followers, began to tweet directly at me. He called me a “dipshit” and told me not to “zigzag.” He said, “I'm holding you up with my left so I can punch you with my right.” I felt as though I had made a poor case and didn’t really engage the man but for a couple of insults I thought were funny, such as, “I did wake up this morning hoping I'd get attacked by a comedian who hasn't had a lot of film/TV success.” That was retweeted by Oswalt and about 50 other people, but I eventually deleted it in fear of the angry mob, many of whose comments directly to me were retweeted by Oswalt for his 1.3 million followers to read.
The next day Salon ran an article on the situation, then another one the following day interviewing Rhodes for his perspective. Both are fair and worth reading. Finally on Friday, as a last hurrah, Sean Tejaratchi wrote a 1,700-word “open letter” to me and published it on Tumblr. The title mocked my desire for conciliation: “Destination: Friendship!” Oswalt tweeted it, too, calling it “REQUIRED READING” (in all caps). It begins similarly to the email Tejaratchi had sent me privately: “As you know, you're a dishonest a__hole.” Etc. Meanwhile, Rhodes had received counsel from mentors, friends, and the higher-ups at Reformed University Fellowship itself to step away from Twitter. I myself had counseled him to “deactivate” for both practical and ethical reasons. Hard to say how many times I asked Sammy Rhodes to do that.
The result was a short series of tweets from @prodigalsam last Friday saying he was leaving Twitter “for a season” but was going to be “absolutely crushing it over on LinkedIn,” language that must have struck his opponents as reprehensible in the extreme—the sort of disingenuous shapeshifting they’d come to expect from a “Christian c__t” like Sammy Rhodes. He also asked for financial support for his ministry. There was no real admission, still, and no apology. I winced as I read it.
Looking back, even this close to the events described above, I am convinced that the reason I engaged this discussion the way I did was not due to the fact that I’m a “dishonest a__hole” but because I was, truly and without apology, horrified at the verbal abuse Sammy Rhodes’ opponents slung not only at him but at anyone who gave the slightest appearance of not openly condemning him. At one point a Tweeter named Anthony Robinson merely asked what the discussion was about and nearly got his head taken off. He was blocked by Tejaratchi and others. It felt like an old Western-style shootout in which a blundering postman steps off of a train to deliver mail and loses his hat to sudden gunfire.
Being horrified by the method of Rhodes’ opponents, I had a hard time not “zigzagging” in my line of reasoning. I’m no defender of thieves, but I am a bit mysterious (I’m a poet, for goodness sake), so I had a hard time thinking clearly when epithets were being slung willy-nilly. In the past 24 hours I have repeated to Sammy Rhodes my advice that he deactivate his account, perhaps indefinitely. I have done so respectfully, and I hope he does. But if he doesn’t, that’s not my problem.
Finally, let me say that I have a lot of hope for the way humans communicate online and in other media. We’re capable of considering, negotiating, and resolving conflict. But on Twitter, at least in the past few weeks, we haven’t been doing that.
UPDATE 6/1013: As of this morning, Sammy Rhodes had deleted his @prodigalsam Twitter account.