Mickey Kaus is exactly right when he calls out conservatives for giving a general pass to Stephen Ambrose's lifting paragraphs from another author when they would crucify someone like Cornel West for doing the same thing. And I do mean, crucify.
First, a momentary sidelight on the Cornell West controversy. One of the ironies of the situation is that so much attention is being placed on rather touchy criticism of his self-indulgent rap album as a sign that he's somehow not a serious scholar or an academic loafer or something. This isn't true. The real problem is that West is an absolutely first-rate writer and thinker (take a look at his 1989 book The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, for instance) but he's spent recent years coasting (as many superstar academics do) with quickly scribbled popular works like Race Matters.
Now back to plagiarism.
Let me try to cover a number of different points here. First, the issue in question centers on a just released article by Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard. In the article, Barnes makes a pretty much undeniable case that a number of passages in Ambrose's new book The Wild Blue The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany came from another book Wings of Morning The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II by Thomas Childers.
Now before proceeding further, it's probably fair to admit that I come to this whole thing already not very friendly to Ambrose - for a number of reasons we can get to later.
That said, this sort of seeming plagiarism case is a complicated matter. I've always thought we need to collectively reassess our rules and punishments regarding plagiarism. First, as cutting-edge literary theorists are happy to make annoyingly clear, much of our current idea of what constitutes plagiarism is rather new and arguably based on an unworkable idea of how much any sort of written work is really 'original'.
Go back a few centuries, and certainly to the ancient world, and much of what we now consider plagiarism was commonplace and entirely accepted. More relevant for our purposes is the fact that when you really probe a work of literature you can often find similarities to other works - and to a great degree this is because authors, when they sit down to write, are influenced by other things they've read or heard more often than they know.
It really is possible to read a passage of text, like it, have it get stuck in your head, and 'write' it yourself - or some near version of it - a few months later, entirely innocently. When someone gets nailed for something like this, every writer has to have some sense of 'there but for the grace of God go I', etc. And if they don't, they should.
Given that such things can occur because of inattention rather than bad faith, I've long thought we need to institute a revision of the popular law of plagiarism, one that would recognize what we might call misdemeanor and felony plagiarism. One of the problems with our current system is that it's so all or nothing. Either it's not plagiarism - which Ambrose's defenders are now saying. Or it is - and that means you're basically discredited for good.
There needs to be some middle ground - misdemeanor plagiarism - that wouldn't be the journalistic equivalent of child molestation which plagiarism is generally considered. This would make it possible to call an author out for sloppiness - not noticing that he or she had lifted a few phrases, or doing so where some credit really ought to have been given - without fundamentally challenging their character or legitimacy as a writer.
As long we don't have such a distinction, I think we're always at the risk - as Mickey Kaus is I think implying - that the charges and sentences tend to be inevitably arbitrary, with unpopular authors getting crucified and sometimes destroyed for things that sympathetic or popular folks end up skating through with. Or even if it's not a popularity thing. Maybe it's just random.
So where does Stephen Ambrose fall? Good question. From reading Fred Barnes' article, there is just no question that certain passages in Ambrose's book came from Childers' book. And these are not phrases or sentences. They're whole paragraphs - at least a couple of which seem nearly word for word.
Using the criteria I set out before, it does strain the imagination to think that you can read a paragraph at one sitting and then reproduce it unintentionally a few months later. Or even a few days later. Possible, I suppose. But real hard to figure.
On first blush, I think - and I'm gonna reserve final judgment - that this is very serious misdemeanor plagiarism. Something for which Ambrose deserves to be a bit embarrassed and at least admit that he must have copied some stuff unintentionally. But not the sort of thing that makes him damaged goods.
Let me say also that I think this sort of thing, and much worse, turns out to be distressingly commonplace.
Here's an example. When I was in college doing a long semester research paper, I read a book on topic X by an American historian with a fairly sizeable popular following. He frequently writes in the New York Times Book Review and places like that. So not someone that obscure.
After I read this guy's book on topic X, I came across an unpublished Ph.D. dissertation from the 1950s on the same subject. It turns out that famous historian A had pretty much gutted unfamous would-be historian B's dissertation, with only passing credit. And, just as importantly, the published book contained a number of passages lifted from the unpublished dissertation in what I guess we might call the Ambrosian fashion.
Which is worse, the wholesale lifting of the guy's work, with little credit? Or the specific passages lifted word for word?