In the immortal words of Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On?” When did we lose our way? When did lying, cheating, plagiarizing and brazenly breaking the law become the new normal? The new standard by which we live.
It turns out that the man the whole world believed was one of our greatest athletes, used illicit performance enhancing drugs. Year after year after year, Lance Armstrong cheated and lied his way to victory. A famous, and revered, football coach watched, in silence, as young boys were being sexually molested right under his nose. Time after time after time, Joe Paterno knowingly allowed the most heinous of crimes to be committed, so Penn State would continue to attract budding football stars; and big donations. Rupert Murdoch, the founder, Chairman and CEO of the world’s second-largest media conglomerate saw nothing wrong with hacking the phones of celebrities, royalty and private citizens. For the kind of attention-grabbing headlines that sell newspapers — regardless of whether or not they were true, and regardless of the damage it caused his victims.
Jonah Lehrer, a brilliant, successful 31-year old author fabricated Bob Dylan quotes for his latest book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works”. And if that’s not bad enough, his publisher is apparently thinking of re-publishing a corrected version of it. Why? Well, of course, I know why. But the answer disgusts me. Because they’ll probably sell more books and make more money than they otherwise would have — even if the original version had sold exceptionally well. Because now it’s controversial. It’s achieved a whole new level of fame. It’s no longer a book. It’s a conversation piece.
But what’s really troublesome is, if that book comes out again then we are turning our backs on the fact that the author made stuff up. And maybe, just maybe, he made other stuff up, as well. But he got fired from his magazine-writing jobs, so who cares. He was publicly humiliated, so who cares. For a minute, but never mind. Now let’s all make some money.
And what about the CNN host and Time Magazine columnist, Fareed Zakaria, who plagiarized Jill Lepore’s essay in the New Yorker? So boo-hoo, he got suspended for a month! And then he got to go back to all his high-paying jobs. And his face was red for a couple of days. Come on. I know he didn’t murder anyone, but the consequences have to be more severe if we ever hope to make the point that has to be made here. This is unacceptable behaviour. Period. It is dishonest. How can we believe, trust and respect journalists who plagiarize material? And then lie about it.
So he apologized. Big, bloody deal. And we’re supposed to believe that it was an ‘honest’ mistake. We’re supposed to believe that he’s so busy, he didn’t have time to write his own material? That he’s so busy, he accidentally forgot to credit the source? Oops. We’re supposed to turn the other cheek. We’re supposed to condone it.
Well you know what, in my book, that makes us as guilty as he is. And as guilty as his bosses are. Because we’re all letting him get away with it. Rewarding him for it, actually.
Neil Fein has a WordPress blog that’s one of my favourites: Magnificent Nose. Recently, one of the writers who contributes to the blog wrote a review on Lehrer’s book. Neil then responded to a comment I’d made about writing a blog of my own on this subject. He wondered what I’d find if I googled similar lapses in the past. He didn’t think it would take long and, of course, he turned out to be right. Wikipedia has lists and lists of examples of plagiarism in academia, computer games, journalism, the arts, politics and, even in Wikipedia. Here’s just a few examples:
Let’s start with James A. Mackay, who turned out to be a serial plagiarist. He was a Scottish historian who was forced to withdraw all copies of his biography of Alexander Graham Bell from circulation in 1998 because he plagiarized the last major work on the subject — a 1973 work. He was then also accused of plagiarizing material on biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots, Andrew Carnegie and Sir William Wallace — and was forced to withdraw his next work, on John Paul Jones, in 1999 for an identical reason. He died in 2007.
Mark Chabedi, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, plagiarized his doctoral thesis. He was fired from his professorship, and The New School revoked his Ph.D. In Moorestown Township, New Jersey, high-school student Blair Hornstine (ironically her father was a Supreme Court judge) had her admission to Harvard University revoked in July 2003, after she was found to have passed off speeches and writings by famous figures, including Bill Clinton, as hers, in articles she wrote as a student journalist for a local newspaper.
Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle was forced to resign when it was revealed that, amid other allegations, his Globe column dated August 2, 1998 contained 10 lifted passages from George Carlin’s 1997 book, Brain Droppings. I decided to google him, just for the hell of it. You know, to see what’s happened to him since 1998. Clearly it pays to be disgraced. He writes more than 4000 newspaper columns and continues to write for Time Magazine, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, ESPN The Magazine and on and on an on it goes.
I fear we are fast becoming a society that is morally and ethically bankrupt.
We’re greedy. We’re greedy for power. We’re greedy for fame. We’re greedy for success. We’re greedy for wealth. We’re greedy for medals. We’re greedy for notoriety. We’re greedy for adulation. And to feed that greed we are prepared to do whatever it takes. We’ll take drugs. We’ll ignore evil. We’ll steal the work of others. We’ll mislead. We’ll deny the truth. As long as we get what we want.
Because all around us, there is evidence that proves that the punishment rarely fits the crime. And if we’re not careful, if we don’t get a grip, that’s the legacy we’ll be leaving future generations.
Now ain’t that the truth?