Saturday, July 26, 2014

Plagiarism in Politics

Acting U.S. Senator John Walsh is the latest victim of "oppo-research," a new level in research into political candidates and opponents that digs into virtually every aspect of a person's life, including his academic records.  As it turns out, Walsh plagiarized large sections of his 2007 Master's thesis and now finds himself in trouble, not just politically but with the university.

Last year, it didn't take Rachel Maddow very long to root out the source of Paul Rand's comments on eugenics, catching him quoting from a wiki page on the movie, Gattaca, adding the word "liberal."  This turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg, as Rand often doesn't attribute his sources.  He claims he was just being "sloppy."

There was also a big brouhaha over where Obama's 2008 campaign slogan, "Yes we can" came from.  Many conservative sources attributed it to Bob the Builder, but it has been used so many times that one would consider it in the public domain.  Cesar Chavez used the Spanish form, "Si se puede" as the motto for the United Farm Workers back in the 70s, and one could probably find even earlier examples.

Plagiarism charges are nothing new.  Even Cicero was accused of cribbing Demosthenes, among others, for his rhetorical style and content.  That could be said of most politicians, who usually rely on historical models, whether they choose to reference them or not.

However, Walsh failed to properly attribute quotes in an academic paper, which is a serious no-no.  It got Joe Biden into a whole lot of trouble back in 1988, when it was revealed during his Presidential campaign that he had failed a 1965 introductory law course due to plagiarism.  The supersleuth now as then was the New York Times.  But, even the NYTimes editorial staff has been accused of plagiarism, notably Paul Krugman.  It seems no one is immune from such accusations.

In the end, one wonders if it really matters except maybe in the court of law, where family members of Randy California tried to block the re-issue of Led Zeppelin IV because they claimed Jimmy Page stole his famous riff in Stairway to Heaven from Randy's intro to Taurus.  The case was thrown out.

That should be the case with many of these political plagiarism charges, but it seems that politicians will use anything to get a leg up on their rivals, especially in hotly contested Senate races where the Republicans hope to regain the majority in the U.S. Senate.  Fortunately for Walsh these charges came early enough where he has a chance to rebound from them, provided he doesn't stick his foot any deeper into his mouth.

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