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Plagiarism is dumb. Thinking you’ll get away with it is dumber.

By Suzanne Garment
July 25, 2014

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You’ve got to hand it to the New York Times for its exposé of the plagiarism committed by Senator John Walsh (D-Mont.) in the paper he submitted for his 2007 master’s degree from the United States Army War College. Walsh, who spent more than three decades in Montana’s National Guard and won a Bronze Star after his 2004-5 tour of duty in Iraq, was appointed to the Senate in early 2014 and is now in a tough race for election to his seat. Montana Democrats have made much of Walsh’s military service. The Times’ accusation of plagiarism seriously threatens that narrative.

In olden days, before we had computer-driven, heat-seeking plagiarism-discovery apps, proving that someone had plagiarized was like establishing that he had written pornography: You presented the text, made your argument and invited readers to know it when they saw it.

A computer user poses in front of a Google search page in this photo illustration taken in BrusselsThe Times story is vastly more advanced. It features a page-by-page “interactive graphic” of Walsh’s paper about the Middle East, titled “The Case for Democracy as a Long Term National Strategy.” Each improperly attributed passage in the paper is highlighted; when you hover over the passage, a pop-up box tells you where it really came from and how Walsh misappropriated it. The cumulative result gives new meaning to the term “dead to rights.” Worse, the plagiarism demonstrated by the story is not so old that it can be dismissed as a youthful indiscretion.

Which raises the big, unavoidable question: In this day and age, when everything is online and everyone has access to it, flagrante delicto is maybe three mouse clicks away. How can any rational human being do this sort of thing anymore?

The question is so big and unavoidable that maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the latest turn of events. Walsh now says, as reported by the Associated Press, that when he committed the plagiarism, two years after his return from Iraq, he was in fact not a rational human being. Walsh’s head, he says, “was not in a place very conducive to a classroom and an academic environment.”

An Iraq comrade had recently committed suicide. Walsh himself was on medication and being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, including persistent nightmares, anxiety and sleeplessness. He says he has now “worked through” these issues, though he still takes antidepressant medication. These mitigating explanations are unlikely to do a whole lot for Walsh’s senatorial campaign.

New York Governor Spitzer addresses the media with his wife Silda Wall at his office in New YorkYet we can’t just chalk up Walsh’s situation to post-traumatic stress — because the same kind of thing keeps happening in political scandals, and not only in cases of plagiarism. Consider New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, a former hard-charging attorney general, and his liaisons with a prostitute, or Senator Larry Craig’s arrest in an airport men’s room during a police sting operation involving sexual activity there. By now it is among the best-known facts in the Western world that we live in an age in which personal privacy, in general, and politicians’ privacy, in particular, are quickly diminishing to zero.

You write a paper? It and all of its sources are on the Internet. You got caught running a red light one night in some godforsaken little town 25 years ago? Anyone who doesn’t like you can find the police record. You had a really messy divorce from your childhood sweetheart?  Said sweetheart is going to be Googled, located, interviewed and offered a publishing deal.

So, what is it with these people who think they can run for office without making provision for the eventual discovery of their transgressions? The logically necessary answer is that something about their ambition, or some character trait that accompanies this ambition, is powerful enough to drive the eventuality to the far corners of their conscious brain and beyond.

With Walsh, we see a study in upward mobility — military-style. Here was an individual who joined the Army National Guard right out of high school and began his academic career with an undergraduate education at Carroll College in Montana and then earned his degree from what the Times describes as an adult learning institute associated with the State University of New York.

Yet he later got into the Army War College, which the Times calls a “coveted career stop.” Getting a master’s degree from the prestigious institution appears to have played a significant role in Walsh’s career advancement. It was an example, said one military evaluation, of his “maintaining continuous military education and training in subjects pertinent to today’s leadership challenges.”  Walsh was going to do what it took to show that he was educated, as the military establishment understands the term, about “today’s leadership challenges.”

The Times story points out that the six concluding recommendations of Walsh’s essay on the Middle East were lifted from a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The recommendations were more or less as follows: (1) Don’t try to marginalize all Islamists; (2) Develop a “better understanding” of each country’s particular organizations; (3) Don’t rely on organizations and individuals that have Western values but little influence; (4) Don’t support “superficial” reforms at the cost of “real political reform”; (5) Don’t think that regime change is always the route to democratization and liberalization; and (6) Review the failings of past U.S. “democracy promotion.”

These generalizations are less than compelling—and could have seemed especially wearying to a man who had earned a Bronze Star in Iraq.  Questions of attribution must have seemed—well, academic.

In this circumstance, it must have been especially easy for ambition to blind Walsh to the likelihood of eventual discovery. So, he plagiarized. He engaged in conduct whose equivalent he would never have countenanced on the battlefield — and he will undoubtedly pay for it.

 

PHOTO (TOP): Senator John Walsh  REUTERS/Senate.gov

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A computer user poses in front of a Google search page in this photo illustration taken in Brussels May 30, 2014. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

PHOTO (INSERT 2): New York Governor Eliot Spitzer addresses the media with his wife Silda Wall Spitzer at his office in New York, March 10, 2008. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

 

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