January 04, 2007

Plagiarism and the President (Frances)

Racecars aren’t breaking speed limits at the Indianapolis 500 Speedway. The limits don’t apply to the cars on that racetrack during that race. But what about George W. Bush?

Isn’t he a plagiarist? He “wrote” a 1254 word essay that appeared in the WSJ today. I’ll bet he didn’t write even one word of it. I suppose there are some fools who think he wrote it, but of course they are wrong. In fact, he probably had very little to do with the content of the essay. Instead, people who work for him came up with the ideas, and he okayed them. There is no way he could have come up with the ideas, let alone the words.

One could say that the usual rules of when plagiarism occurs don’t apply to the president “writing” an op-ed in a newspaper; that’s why I brought up the racecar point. But the application of plagiarism isn’t limited to academics of course. And “everybody knows he didn’t write it” doesn’t seem sufficient to avoid the charge of plagiarism, especially since not everyone knows it. The fact that the essay contains nineteen occurrences of the pronoun ‘I’ makes it worse!

So: is he obscenely guilty of plagiarism?


Joe said...

YES, he may be guilty, but given his atrocities against humanity, one is inclined to overlook the misdemeanor. On the other hand, we might take a page from Eliot Ness's case against Al Capone: convict on a lesser charge if it means getting a master criminal off the street.

Bryan Frances said...

Suppose the plagiarism charge could be made convincing. Would that prevent him from doing anything? For instance, can a library be built in honor of someone obviously guilty of plagiarism? Isn't there something wrong about that? Wouldn't any decent university hesitate to build it?

Probably not.

Mike said...

This is a subtle issue, I think. There is a God-awful lot of work that goes into many papers in philosophy (especially papers having to do with one's thesis) that goes far beyond the imagination of the sole signatory. Indeed, fingerprints are all over the early work that many single authors take credit for (with pretty much routine acknowledgement) in some major venues. I'm not especially bothered by that, since it is so hard to track influence and ideas and so incredibly boring to do so. So, I guess I'm not so scandalized by W taking credit where it's less-than-entirely due.

Bryan Frances said...

Hi Mike,

I agree with most of what you said. in particular, when one writes a dissertation one often describes the central problem it addresses without giving credit to those who formulated the problem in the first place.

But let's face it: GWB wrote virtually none of his essay, the essay contained many sentences of the form "I believe/did such and such", there is not even an attempt to say where any of the ideas or issues came from (e.g., no acknowledgements at all), and the ideas, issues, and words rarely came from GWB himself. It's nothing like a borderline case of plagiarism.

If he is to be saved from the charge, as I think could well be the case, then his salvation has to be something like "The whole plagiarism issue doesn't even apply to this case, for such and such a reason". In my opinion, as soon as we apply the usual rules to determine whether he plagiarized, he is guilty. If he's innocent, it's because the usual rules don't apply at all.

Anonymous said...

You all act as if plagiarism is a crime, which to my knowledge it is not. In any case, none of you should be surprised that the work is not his own. A President has not even written his own speeches since Hoover took office.
Furthermore, by being so myopic as to nitpick Bush's Presidency with callow claims of plagiarism you belittle grandiose nature of his other failings. Like his destruction of our liberties or his ignoring international treaties. This article was nothing more than petty childish froth. There are more pertinent issues to address concerning the dolt we currently have in office.

Bryan Frances said...

Anonymous, are you joking? Either that or you’re an idiot who can’t read.

First, you say that we are acting as if plagiarism is a crime. That’s stupid. I said nothing that even remotely suggested that plagiarism is a crime.

Second, you say that we shouldn’t be surprised that the work is not his own. That’s stupid. I said nothing that even remotely suggested that I find it surprising that the work is not his own. I did mention that SOME people will think Bush wrote it, but of course that’s an entirely different point.

Third, you say that I’m belittling the grandiose nature of his other failings. That’s stupid. I did nothing to belittle the grandiose nature of his other failings. I wanted to call attention to an issue I found interesting and that is interesting for many of the readers of this blog (mainly professors and other teachers). I said nothing that even remotely suggested that the plagiarism accusation is even in the same ballpark as other accusations that have been made against Bush. For those accusations, go to a political blog, not a philosophy blog devoted to other issues entirely.

Mike said...


If there is some objection here, I'm guessing it's that focusing on the smaller W transgressions should be avoided because there are larger W transgressions to focus on. I guess that might be a worry, were there some opportunity costs involved. But there are no opportuity costs. It is not as though noting the smaller trangressions precludes anyone at any time from noting the larger transgressions. Obviously it costs us nothing (certainly nothing more) to note both.