One Week Later
Six editors share their thoughts on the ‘Opal Mehta’ controversy
The “Opal Mehta” controversy has inspired tremendous outrage among many observers, most of whom have no connection to Viswanathan, nor any inclination to read her novel. Some have decried this reaction as gratuitously vindictive, and indeed, there has been a measure of jealousy inherent in the smugly satisfied public response. But such sentiments sheath a measure of meritocratic rage that I find deeply heartening.
America is a country rooted in equal opportunity. Its citizens believe deeply in meritocratic justice: rewards should come to those who have earned them. Viswanathan abused this system, demanding a compensation to which she could claim no just entitlement, and writing integrity out of her novel and her conduct.
With their outrage, ordinary citizens have affirmed their opposition to the abuse of privilege. With their smug satisfaction, they have expressed not their envy but their faith-sustaining belief in merit as the arbiter of success; in a word, fairness.
—Paul R. Katz ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Hurlbut Hall.
THE OTHER CRIME
“Opalgate” seems to have spun more accusations of envy than those of plagiarism. Many on campus and beyond have said— “Let’s face it: we are all jealous of her success”.
I speak on behalf of another “we”: those of us who—believe it or not— were impressed by Viswanathan’s achievements, just as I am impressed by the incredible work I see my friends produce everyday. If there is any envy, it stems from the fact that, because Viswanathan comes from a wealthy family, she was able to pay $20,000 for a college counselor who put her into contact with a publisher. In short, she was lucky enough to be able to pay for connections.
I wish, for the sake of literature in general, that every gifted writer had the clout required to get his or her work out there like Viswanathan did. So my reaction of disgust to the entire affair is not premised on jealousy, but injustice. The disillusionment comes not from plagiarism but from the blatant (mis)use of social power.
—Emma M. Lind ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Grays Hall.
“Completely unintentional and unconscious” was how Kaavya Viswanathan classified her theft of over 45 phrases from novels by Megan F. McCafferty. Hardly some vague, borderline case of plagiarism, this was consistent and barely disguised pilfering.
Of course, this does not mean it was conscious—hence, the first line of defense for fraud: “I didn’t know!” Blaming the misdemeanor on a strange sub-conscience that causes unusually immoral behavior—as if the culprit had taken Jekyll’s potion and mysteriously transformed into her Hyde counterpart—is offered to mitigate the action.
Unfortunately for Viswanathan, she is an adult who entered into a legal and moral contract not plagiarize. If she could not control the copycat monster within, she really ought to have stayed out of publishing.
—Juliet S. Samuel ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.
LITTLE, BROWN, AND STEREOTYPED
"Isn’t it kind of awesome to see an overachieving Indian kid finally do something wrong?"
With this line, the popular blog Gawker noticed a current that I almost missed in the "Opal Mehta" controversy: xenophobia. The contribution is small—issues of honesty and class are undoubtedly more important and apparent here—but it’s there. We in our enlightened, genteel Cantabrigian bubble may not comprehend, much less suspect the existence of, such sentiments, but that just tells me something I’ve always known—that we’re damn lucky to be here.
Take this post from the blog Boston Confidential: "Miss Viswanathan’s story is based on her own life, a tale of an ultra-achieving Indian girl whose ambitions seem boundless and whose (apparently) Machiavellian methods are perhaps too eagerly rewarded by over-indulgent parents." Replace "Indian" with another category (besides "East Asian," which has a similar reputation)—try it with, say, "French"—and this claim doesn’t quite make sense.
Others, too, have noted this trope. Perhaps most explicitly, one Kevin Killian, a reviewer on Amazon.com, wrote, "Give the girl a break! People don’t like her dark skin and her air of foreignness, but let’s back off [from] the racism."
The xenophobia thesis makes sense when situated in a palpably post-9/11 national context. We’ve had fractious debates on the Dubai port scandal, immigration across the Mexican border, and outsourcing to India; Americans today are more distrustful and, in cases like this, possibly more resentful, of foreigners than they were 10 years ago.
That Viswanathan is an Indian American seems to have added to the vehemence of the national reaction. Xenophobia is the, well, elephant in the room that mainstream media not noticed just yet. It is a small beast, much smaller than honesty and class to be sure, but it’s there, and any complete explanation of the "Opal Mehta" controversy must take it into account.
—Sahil K. Mahtani ’08, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.
LOOKING INTO THE ABYSS
Kaavya Viswanathan did not fall, as some would posit, from the glorious perch of a published author. Kaavya’s roost was atop the same rickety tower of meritocracy that so many of us built on our way to our Harvard admission.
But just because we sleep between Ivy-covered walls, it doesn’t mean we sleep soundly. And as we climb higher, the tower weakens further under instability of its hasty structure. Some breeze might come along and poke out a rung, and suddenly we’ll be back on the ground, surrounded by the rubble of our own accomplishments.
That’s where Kaavya sits, and it’s scary for us to see her there. Although assuring ourselves that we would never plagiarize others’ work, we, too, fear that some freak revelation might suddenly collapse our own personal tower.
We see one of our own who dared to add one more accomplishment to her tower and fell all the way back to New Jersey. Somewhere in the sky there is a tier of security, but Kaavya’s fall shows us that right now we are nowhere close.
—Matthew S. Meisel ’07, a Crimson editorial co-chair, is a chemistry concentrator in Currier House.
DO AS WE SAY
Kaavya Viswanathan is hardly the first Harvard figure to come under scrutiny for lifting passages from the works of others. Just a few skips away from Lamont Library, where Viswanathan purportedly penned most of the novel during her freshman year, lies Harvard Law School, which has done little to punish or even acknowledge that three of its most distinguished professors recently stood accused of varying degrees of academic dishonesty.
In 2003, Alan Dershowitz came under fire for “wholesale lifting of source material” from another book in his “The Case for Israel,” according to a professor from DePaul University. Rather than apologize, Dershowitz dismissed the accusation, calling it “funny.” In 2004, Charles Ogletree felt compelled to publicly apologize for “serious errors” when it was reported that six paragraphs from his book were lifted almost verbatim from a 2001 collection of essays by Jack Balkin. And just weeks later, Laurence Tribe ’62 issued a mea culpa when it was found that a 19-word passage in a book of his had previously appeared in a another scholarly work. Tribe’s apology seemed to do the trick: Harvard bestowed the prestigious title of “University Professor” on him that same week.
In a culture where some of our most esteemed scholars and writers fall prey to the sloppy writing, editing, and fact-checking that leads to such mistakes, and where the University seems to tolerate rather than censure such behavior with a wink and a nod, how can we expect more from our students?
Harvard ought to make clear that such behavior, whether exhibited by students or faculty, violates the code of ethics and intellectual integrity that form the bedrock of this university in the first place. Until then, Viswanathan,like those law profs, seems off-the-hook—at least from Harvard.
—Lauren A.E. Schuker ’06, who was president of The Crimson in 2005, is an English concentrator in Kirkland House.