May 17, 2015

Plagiarism of Reason


I got a call last week from a friend of mine, a humanities professor at a local college. The semester had just come to an end, and he was getting down to the nightmarish business of having to read 250 student papers.

            “The very first paper I picked up was plagiarized,” he said. “The very first one! It seemed a little suspicious, so I took one line, did an internet search, and it popped right up. I mean, how fucking stupid can you be? If you’re gonna copy something, at least copy something from some obscure book, something I might not be able to find so easily—not something that’s right there online. I’m gonna fail him, and I’m gonna fail him not for being a plagiarist, but for being a lazy plagiarist.”

            Of course that’s simply what students come to learn these days. It’s the accepted way of getting by and they don’t think twice about it. Plagiarism is par for the course throughout the culture. Ninety-eight percent of the news stories you read have simply been copied from other news stories, which themselves were copied from other news stories, which in turn . . . and so on. And considering further that the original news stories all these copies were based on were themselves based on official press releases, half-truths, and outright lies as it is, well, it gives you an idea what kind of world we’re living in. As William Gaddis spent a lifetime trying to prove, the entire culture is built on a foundation of artifice and simulacra. I guess Plato argued pretty much the same thing, too, but we don’t need to get into that.

            Back around 1998 I’m guessing, I was a staff writer at the NY Press. One morning one of my editors came back to my desk to tell me a writer at another paper had just sent him a note accusing me of plagiarizing something he’d written. Apparently whatever it was I had supposedly lifted had appeared in a column a few weeks earlier.

            Now, if you take what you do seriously (or even half-seriously), that’s a mighty hefty charge, and one that could haunt you right out of a career. Still, I wasn’t terribly concerned about it, given I’d not only never heard of this guy, I’d never read that other paper. I’d seen it around of course, given they left piles of them at every bar in the neighborhood, but never bothered to pick it up. See, it was another underground weekly based in the East Village that tried really, really hard to be hep and street tough and confrontational, staffed by a bunch of skinny white boys in their twenties trying really hard to be Charles Bukowski and Hunter Thompson.

            I brushed the whole thing off, but the little snipe wouldn’t let it go, repeatedly accusing me in print of stealing from him, but never offering anything by way of evidence.

            Finally after being pressed by my editor to supply a little proof of my insidious thievery of his intellectual property, in their next issue the poor, dim, desperate lout ran a paragraph from his original story side by side with an excerpt from one of my columns which supposedly bore a striking and suspicious resemblance. I guess he thought he had me now.

            I remembered that column well. Even kinda liked it some. But the funny thing was how wildly different the two excerpts were. My column had been about a small handful of moments, seemingly insignificant and forgettable instants of time and circumstance which had nevertheless remained crystalline and immutable in my memory, taking on an unexpected and possibly undeserved profundity, while my accuser was writing about, I dunno, some band I think. Not only were there no shared ideas or lines, beyond “the” and “and,” I don’t think they even shared any single words in common.

            Now that it was out there for all the world to see, I didn’t hear another peep about it, and it certainly hasn’t haunted me. My guess was his own editors told him to just, y’know, shut the fuck up about it.

            (It reminds me of the guy who accused Thomas Pynchon of plagiarism for using the character name “Genghis Cohen” in The Crying of Lot 49. In response, Mr. Pynchon wrote a letter to the Times suggesting that if this fellow felt he was the only one who could’ve come up with an awful pun like that, he might well need psychiatric help.)

            Anyway, about a year after that minor annoyance was set aside, there was another staff writer working at the paper. She was a smart and funny lesbian, a decent writer, and we got along quite well. After she turned in a behind-the-scenes peek into the workings of Bellevue’s psych unit, however, it was discovered she’d made up a bunch of quotes which she ascribed to the doctor in charge of the ward.

            Hoo-nellie, what an amateur move that was. I mean for god sakes, didn’t she think someone would, y’know, confirm the quotes, especially considering the doctor in question was a reasonably noted and powerful figure? Well, obviously not.

            As was always their standard and admirable policy (though sometimes more decidedly and permanently than others), the Press canned her.

            The afternoon she got the boot, she and I took a walk around the neighborhood and she explained it was all a gross misunderstanding, and at the heart of it all it was a witch hunt. They were just looking for an excuse to get rid of her because she was an outspoken and politicized lesbian.

            I tried to be as sympathetic as I could. The Press was, admittedly, kind of a boy’s club, and most all the women who wrote for the paper wrote almost exclusively about sex. The lesbian wrote about social issues and gay lefty politics instead of hot girl-on-girl action, so maybe there was something to her paranoia. I think I would have been more sympathetic had she not admitted to making up the quotes to give the story a little pizzazz.

            In the months after she left we remained friendly and kept in touch. She’d started freelancing and had already had a few pieces in the Voice (which was no shocker). One morning while I was at my desk, she called and was telling me she was in the middle of a little dry spell. Didn’t have any new ideas to work on. It happens to the best of us sometimes. Then, quite casually, she asked what I was working on. A perfectly normal question when two writers start bumping gums.

            As it happened I was in the middle of looking into the recent murder of an East Village poet in her fifties. It was well known in certain circles (though not by the NYPD) that she’d been involved in some mighty heavy S&M for years. She was discovered in her bed, her entire head encased in duct tape, and her live-in girlfriend was nowhere to be found.

            So, yeah, it was an interesting case. I’d about had the story wrapped, just needed to talk to one or two more people, and it was scheduled to run in two weeks. Given I was that far along and was still excited about the case I didn’t hesitate to tell my old (if tarnished) colleague all about it.

            Well, you can see where this is going, right? The Voice came out a day before we did back then, and so the day before the murder story was set to hit the streets, one of my editors was flipping through the Voice and couldn’t help but notice the long story about the same fucking case written by, yes, well.

            Thing was, she’d gotten the whole story wrong, concocting some nonsense about the murder being ordered by vengeful Mexican pot dealers or some such. Still, silly as it was, the fact that it’d appeared in the Voice first meant the Press wouldn’t run my story. That’s just the way they did things and I understood that, but still it meant several weeks of legwork down the crapper.

            I picked up the phone and left what I felt was a reasonably calm if miffed message on her answering machine. The next morning I came into the office to find her response, which she’d left about three that morning, on my own machine. She explained, see, that it was all perfectly reasonable. Sure she’d stolen the story, but since I was a staff writer and she was just a freelancer, I’d get paid in any case and she really needed the money.

            Uh-huh. I didn’t bother calling back. Needless to say, she has since gone on to have a very successful career.

            I guess it was a lesson that needed learning. It’s just the way journalism (and everything else) has pretty much always worked in the claws of a craven and soulless species infected with an unshakeable sense of entitlement. Which is why I no longer tell people what I’m working on.

            Jesus, how did I get off on this again?


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