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Jul 21, 2005 6:36 am

Charges of "Plagiarism" as a Political Tool ...

At the risk of sounding naive, it seems to me that in the last two years the charge of plagiarism has become simply one weapon among many in larger political struggles. I don't know that that was the case when Stephen Ambrose, Donald Cuccioletta, Philip Foner, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ann Lane, Bryan Le Beau, Louis Roberts, Benson Tong, and Brian VanDeMark were accused of plagiarism. For the most part, decisions about their guilt or innocense could be reached without political calculation.

But, especially in the last two years, charges of plagiarism have become intensely politicized -- politicized to the degree that whether they are accurate or not, whether they are true or not, becomes almost a secondary consideration. Five examples: 1) the charges by Alexander Cockburn and Norman Finklestein against Alan Dershowitz; 2) the charges against Ward Churchill; 3) the charges, by Dershowitz among others, against Rashid Khalidi; 4) the charges by Churchill against Michelle Malkin; and 5) recent charges against Ann Coulter. Thanks to Jon Dresner and Anne Zook for the last of these instances.

At the risk of sounding naive, I have a couple of observations about these last five examples. First, they seem to involve the political extremities of American public life. They appear to be charges by one far side against another far side. Second, burdened as they are by lots of other baggage, these are very messy cases in which innocent by-standers might prefer not to comment. I dislike the politicization of plagiarism charges and do not want to be used by persons who make them only in service of a political agenda. Politicizing the charge of"plagiarism" is very dangerous business. It could teach our students to regard our finding of plagiarism in their work as merely a political finding. Third, in two instances, the accusations are about e-documents that have subsequently been modified in response to threat of exposure or legal action. And, fourth, I think my life has been blessed by not having known Alan Dershowitz, Norman Finklestein, Ward Churchill, Michelle Malkin, and Ann Coulter. Khalidi, alone, among the charged and chargers, is someone I'd like to know.

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Ralph E. Luker - 7/21/2005

Hiram, I agree that Jon argues that the context of all of these public charges has been political for quite some time -- going back as far, perhaps, as the Abraham case. I don't think we can easily determine the truth of the matter in the accusations unless they can somehow be treated in a context that has been sanitized as much as possible from the political motivation. I keep wanting to say that, if Khalidi is guilty of plagiarism, it isn't because he is a supporter of Palestinian rights; and that, if Dershowitz is guilty of plagiarism, it isn't because he is a supporter of Israel.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/21/2005

Well said, Caleb. I agree with both of your points, though the low-mindedness of my post is a little bothersome to me, now that you point it out.

John H. Lederer - 7/21/2005

I think the core of the issue is that we have a strong attraction to the "no man is above the law" policy -- but, I suspect, most people have broken the law at some time in their lives. The misfortune for a politician is that his opponents will examine his past most diligently for those violations, and then attempt to apply the "no man is above the law" principle.

Clinton is an example. He lied under oath to evade civil liability for his past actions. That is a punishable offense, and absent politics, I think most would agree that he ought be criminally punished.

But the original unsavory incident from his past surfaced because he was President, was dilgently pursued because he was President, and because he was President there probably was a far greater temptation to lie about such demeaning incidents.

In other words, had he been the manager of a used car lot who had affairs with his female employees, he would have been punished for lying under oath -- but most likely there would have been no harassment action by an employee, and if there were he most likely would have settled the claim quietly. Publicity about the affair would not have had the same impact for the used car lot Lothario that it would for the President of the United States.

Hiram Hover - 7/21/2005

Important questions, which put me in mind of those two rather different figures—

There was much in Jon Wiener’s book, Historians in Trouble, that I found unpersuasive, but wasn’t this his point—that charges of academic misconduct (including plagiarism) have to be understood in their political context, and that they’ve been politically motivated for some time (and not just the year or two).

And it’s not limited to academe. The investigations that culminated in Clinton’s impeachment are a prime example of going after your opponent not for his policies but for supposed ethical lapses. Politicians, of course, have smeared one another for a long time, but the culture of investigation—giving rumors and innuendo official recognition, by referring them to a special panel or authority—seems to have really taken root of late.

Caleb McDaniel - 7/21/2005

Thanks for a very thought-provoking post, Ralph.

Politicizing the charge of "plagiarism" is very dangerous business. It could teach our students to regard our finding of plagiarism in their work as merely a political finding.

But couldn't this also be a teachable moment that, to put it crudely, "knowledge is power"?

I agree there are risks to having our students think that political "power" consists only in being the party that is presently at the top of the heap, or the extremity that is closest to the mainstream. But I'm not sure it would hurt for our students to realize that what they do with words about history (almost?) always has some "political" content, not in the sense of high politics and partisan squabbling but in the sense of politics as an arena of conflict.

I think your point, though, is that these stories empower our students to simply charge us with being partisan if we point out plagiarism in their work, that it destroys the ground for any teachable moments by pitting students against teachers the way the left is pitted against the right. I agree: that would be a very sad state of affairs.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/21/2005

I agree with you that opposition does give incentive to skeptical approaches to a text and there's nothing inherently wrong with that.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/21/2005

It's been pointed out before, particularly with regard to Bellesiles, that you're more likely to read closely and fact-check your opposition, and to cite publicly any flaws you find. There is a real difference between those of us who take plagiarism seriously as an ethical failing and those people for whom plagiarism is a convenient "dirty word." It's hard to define strictly and briefly what constitutes plagiarism, so there's going to be disputes. At some level, partisans are going to have to allow non-partisans to referee, or it will never be anything but "so's your old man"....

Plagiarism has become, in some cases, a nasty way of making "unoriginal" seem like a sin (Churchill's charges against Malkin, for example, grossly overstate her reliance on past writers by calling it plagiarism, but there's no doubt, as Chris Bray and others have shown, that Malkin's work draws heavily on the arguments and tropes of many earlier writers) particularly with regard to the ever-popular "talking points/echo chamber" problem (Coulter, in this case, who draws heavily on sources she agrees with for her facts, and apparently doesn't trust herself to paraphrase much; if a student's work was that badly sourced, they'd get a penalty and a stern talk on paraphrasing and a rewrite, but it wouldn't be expulsion material) of politically charged punditry.

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