I was surprised when people found that CJ Werleman had plagiarized things in his work. People like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass don’t surprise me. They are clearly creative people in over their heads who work their way into fabricating amazing stories. But it amazes me that people would write mostly original material and yet pinch a sentence here and a paragraph there. How does that happen?!
The reason this came up is that I was researching an article celebrating the upcoming third anniversary of Christopher Hitchens’ death. So I read Glenn Greenwald’s obituary of him, Christopher Hitchens and the Protocol for Public Figure Deaths. In it, he quotes an article by Dennis Perrin that sharply attacked Hitchens back in 2003, a few years after he had gone over to the dark side. I don’t normally think of Greenwald as a particularly inspiring wordsmith, but this sentence really impressed me:
I decided to go in search of a possible obituary by Perrin himself at the time of Hitchens’ death (December 2011). I didn’t find anything, but I did locate an article on Rationalists’s Blog, Remembering Christopher Hitchens… But! It was posted two days after the Greenwald article and contained the exact same, highly stylized, sentence. At first I didn’t believe it. It seemed like such an egregious bit of plagiarism. It was only later that I found out that the blog belonged to CJ Werleman in his early days before writing for respectable publications like Salon.
Discussions of plagiarism are generally overwrought, if you ask me. People treat it as some kind of unforgivable intellectual sin. What it usually indicates is laziness and sloppiness. In his three hour interview with The Young Turks, Sam Harris claimed that Werleman could be dismissed out of hand because he plagiarized. That doesn’t follow. The arguments are still the arguments, regardless of whether some words were stolen from someone else. But it was convenient that Harris had this out, because he really doesn’t have much of an argument against charges of racism. (And his racism doesn’t mean that his work should simply be dismissed.)
What bothers me about plagiarism is what it says about such people’s opinions about writing itself. Any number of people have noted my tendency to not quote large chunks of text from things I’m writing about. I prefer to provide my own overview. That’s largely because I love writing. What’s more, I assume that people read me because they like reading me. I’m not primarily a clearing house for other people’s ideas. (I do have that, though; I like my quotations posts very much.) Clearly, since I don’t like quoting people, I would never knowingly use someone else’s words as my own.
There is another aspect of this. I know my own style. If I copied text from another article into my editor for reference, I would never mistake a phrase as wonderful as “fully swamped by his pulsating excitement” as my own. Or rather, I would remember having written something so great. But why would I copy something like that into my editor? It makes me think that Werleman uses an entirely different process in his writing where he collects bits from various articles and then reworks them. This has the obvious downside that it is easy to forget that this or that paragraph wasn’t actually written by you. But from my perspective, the worse aspect of this is that it doesn’t lead to particularly good writing or thinking.
I don’t think anyone has looked into this, but Werleman plagiarizes himself more than he does other people. I think that shows that he is not intending to plagiarize. It is just how he works. But why is it that he was so successful as a writer when his process was the writing equivalent of “paint by numbers”? I think we should be far more concerned about that than we are about any particular plagiarist.