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August 07, 2014 11:28 AM Ronald Reagan and Plagiarism

By Henry Farrell

So I’ve been in the West of Ireland without proper Internet access for several days, and am catching up with umpteen posts in my RSS reader. I was going to write a post about plagiarism anyway, focusing on this weird Gawker story accusing True Detective of plagiarizing Thomas Ligotti. If unacknowledged quotes or references, intended as Easter eggs for people who spot the reference constitute plagiarism, then there are a lot of plagiarizers out there, me included (e.g. I ostentatiously plagiarize Matthew Arnold in this piece, with no acknowledgment whatsoever). But then, a little further down the feed, because a few hours farther back in the past, I saw this New York Times piece doing a class of a ‘he says, she says’ on whether Rick Perlstein’s new book is rife with plagiarism (I should say before writing that Rick is a friend, and that I read an early version of the last book and provided not especially useful comments on it; I didn’t do so for the new one, and indeed don’t yet have a copy (see above under location: West of Ireland and Internet: dearth of access to).

Dave Weigel has copies of the letters back and forth between Perlstein and the conservative author and “political strategist” who is accusing Perlstein of plagiarizing. Not surprisingly, there doesn’t look to be anything worth talking about in the actual accusation (the bit where the lawyer representing the accuser claims that Perlstein’s willingness to talk with the author about sources is evidence against him, because it resembles how a “hit-and-run driver might return to the scene of his crime or lurk in his victim’s hospital lobby,” is especially remarkable). But the claims provide an interesting example of how the term plagiarism, as it has spread beyond its academic context has become a kind of catch-all accusation for a variety of phenomena (much of the accuser’s ire appears to have been motivated by Perlstein’s decision – which not only seems to me to be defensible, but in accordance with emerging academic practice – to put his footnotes and information about primary sources online rather than including them in the book itself).

The second interesting, but in-retrospect-not-very-surprising aspect of this imbroglio is the sharp rise in the level of conservative hysteria surrounding Perlstein’s books. Perlstein’s first book, Before the Storm received some very favorable reviews from conservatives. Perlstein was writing about a group of conservative activists who had received very little attention, rescuing them from the enormous condescension of posterity. It probably helped that Perlstein was then less well known, and the book looked unlikely to get a lot of popular attention. Nixonland was larger in impact (it sold a lot better, and Obama reportedly read it), and correspondingly received much more hostile attention from conservative reviewers. I expect that the new book, which takes on Reagan, who is obviously far more central to the internal mythology of American conservatism, will provoke reactions verging on gibbering lunacy. The Times article reports that conservative intellectual Sam Tanenhaus (who, as editor of the New York Times Book Review assigned the review of Nixonland to George Will, with entirely predictable results) has a forthcoming attack piece for the Atlantic. As Weigel says “there is great interest in stopping Perlstein’s history from becoming the official look at Reagan’s rise.” Very possibly, some of the negative reviews will score useful points. But given how profoundly conservatives are invested in the mythology of Reagan’s saintliness and wisdom, any good points will likely be embedded in a matrix of deep crazy. These are topics that many conservatives simply can’t think straight about. How they’re going to react to book number four when it comes out … I don’t even want to think about it.


[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

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