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Lionel Beehner

Lionel Beehner

Posted: May 19, 2009 10:10 AM

Sorry, We Are All Plagiarists


Maureen Dowd plagiarized. Goodness gracious, let's take her out back to the woodshed and make her repent.

Wait, let's not. We all plagiarize. I've read now a half dozen articles about Dowd's plagiarism. Every one of them mentioned the irony of how Dowd exposed Biden's plagiarism way back when, and boy isn't that the biggest of life's ironies? Trouble is that each of these articles went on to point out how the world has a funny way of forgiving plagiarists. Biden did end up vice president, you might remember. Sorry, scribes, but the trafficking of cliches is a greater sin than the lifting of someone else's copy.

Everyone plagiarizes. Stephen Marche just wrote a brilliant essay in Esquire about what our love of conspiracy theories and secretive organizations says about our culture. The thing is, I had the exact same idea last fall. Did I ever try to get my idea published? No, but surely he read my mind and stole my idea, even though I've never met the man. Isn't that plagiarism?

Oh, and my sister is a plagiarist, too (sorry, sis). Yes, in a packed car a few Christmases back, she recounted a tale from her college years when Meatloaf, during those down years when Meatloaf had no Top 40 hits and was playing liberal arts college campuses, was seen sitting in her university student center, head down, forlorn. Her friend, seeing the washed-up singer sitting there by himself, was torn over what to do. He decided to do what any good Jesuit student would do: He opened the door and yelled, "Meatloaf, you suck!"

It's a funny story. The trouble is, it happened to my friend Mike's older brother. She has probably told that tale so many times she just assumed it was her own. Which is fine. Who cares if it happened to Mike or my sister? The important thing is that Meatloaf sucks.

Op-ed writing is about the dissemination of opinions and ideas. Maureen Dowd does not hold a monopoly on fresh commentary (thank, god) but does hold probably the most prestigious slice of real estate in the media world. Should she name her sources? In an ideal world where column inches don't matter, yes, but I don't want to read an op-ed full of "according to"-s and "says my good New Republic friend"-s. I assume not every opinion she has is her own. So why is it such a shocker to learn she may borrow from time to time?

I say borrow away. I'll be the first to send Dowd some ideas percolating upstairs for her to use. And I don't give a damn if she sources or quotes me. Because at the end of the day, it's the originality of the idea that matters, not the ego of the idea's source.