Don't Shade Your Eyes!

Plagiarize!

Let no one else's work evade your eyes. Remember why the good Lord made your eyes.

So don't shade your eyes.

But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize!

NOT BAD, HUH? I wrote that little ditty myself.

Well, in all honesty, I should perhaps acknowledge that my mini-masterpiece is somewhat derivative of a similar song penned by a certain Tom Lehrer '47.1 I may have inadvertently borrowed a few of Mr. Lehrer's ideas in assembling this particular work. All right, maybe more than a few.

But the exclamation points are mine, dammit, all mine.2

WE ALL LEARNED the gospel on plagiarism in junior high. When quoting others directly, footnote. When paraphrasing others, footnote. When drawing upon others' ideas, footnote. When in doubt, footnote. In fact, foot-note everything. And footnote correctly. If you don't, you'll be in deep, deep trouble. 3

In its purest, slimiest form (see above), plagiarism is basically a bad thing. This kind of plagiarism entails dishonesty, thievery and stupidity--all things of which I am generally not fond. I copied an "original" limerick about a camel straight out of a children's poetry book in Mrs. Rubin's third grade class, and I'm still sorry about it. (Especially since Mrs. Rubin owned the same children's poetry book.) Professor Richard Marius, the director of Harvard's expository writing program, once wrote a story about a public hanging--then found the same exact story underneath someone else's byline 15 years later. (The plagiarist died soon afterwards. Coincidence? Perhaps.)

But to be perfectly honest, I can't get too worked up about less heinous cases of plagiarism. Words are pliable things, and I can't get too upset just because two people happen to ply them in similar ways. And to be honest, footnotes bug me. Even if you know there's nothing interesting to read in a footnote, you still have to read it.4 When Dr. Sherwood Frazier was forced out of his Medical School post for plagiarism, I must admit I felt sorry for the guy. Did Martin Luther King Jr. really plagiarize his dissertation? Hey, accidents will happen. I'm still an adoring fan.

A few years ago, Delaware Senator Joseph Biden ripped off part of a speech from a British politician, Neil Kinnock. Then he had the audacity to tell the media that the hullaballoo over his plagiarism was "much ado about nothing."5

But Biden had a point. What exactly did he do wrong? Withhold the truth? Come on, that's part of a politician's job description. Use words that weren't his own? Well, behind every pol lies a speechwriter. And I never heard President Reagan begin a speech, "As Peggy Noonan has written..."

On an evil scale of 1 to 100, with the Guyana massacre rating a 96, the BCCI scandal scoring an 82 and the Peewee Herman affair getting a two, I'd give Bidengate a 12.

On the stupidity scale, of course, the incident rates at least a 75. Biden's boo-boo was getting caught.

JOURNALISTS and their editors seem to get extremely indignant about plagiarism. A Boston University dean plagiarized his commencement speech? We'll splash it all over the front pages all summer long. A New York Times writer plagiarized an article about the plagiarized commencement speech? Run with that baby.