Plagiarists, Muses and 'Stalk-home' Syndrome

For me, a plagiarist is not only someone taking your words, but a worm eating into you. The extent of such I-way robbery differs. In every field, there are dangers. But when it is something that you have created, it really amounts to intellectual, as well as emotional, colonisation. Whenever it has happened to me, I feel as though someone is walking around with a piece of my skin.

By now it is known that renowned columnist Fareed Zakaria has been charged with lifting a few portions from another article by sociologist Jill Lepore. The Huffington Post report reveals that they are almost identical, although I do note the parenthetical exclamation mark after Texas. There was probably enough potential for original mischief. I am really surprised that he felt the need to copy this. Most of it is quotes. Is this lazy?

It has been explained away as the shoddy work of interns. In fact, Zakaria has perhaps taken courage from this to come out and apologise – the message being that he is doing so with much generosity despite being blameless.

“Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore's essay in the April 22nd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers.”

We love apologies. It imbues people with a halo. Time and CNN, where he was editor-at-large and host respectively, have suspended him for a month or upon review.

What he did is terrible. It is essentially a cut-paste job of factual information, not his first time. The apology and suspension will put a lid on too much spillage.

Zakaria is not the only plagiarist, and not among the worst. However,a writer-broadcaster like Tarek Fatah is utterly dismissive when he says that those who cannot write memos for sick leave are discussing it. Typically arrogant, revealing that the pecking order is in place. I’d understand it if they decide not to comment, but to brush this away reveals how these intellectuals form coteries and protect their own.

Plagiarism is rampant. Only, with easy access to material it can be outed.But is it as often as it should be?

We watch films that are facsimile copies of those in different languages (Bollywood is notorious for it; film producers hand over DVDs of Hollywood, Iranian, Korean films and ask directors to give them an Indian spin). We listen to music that leaves no room for doubt about its origins, although with remixes and nifty applications an echo makes us forget the sound. We see works of art that could be reprints. We read passages in books that even have conversations from elsewhere.

Academic writers are more often than not the worst offenders. Research is a convenient term to use the material from different sources. A professor who was visiting India wanted to meet some poets. I spoke with a friend and this is what he said: “Why should I share my views with him when he will use them as his own? There won’t be any evidence. I’d rather write and publish my opinions than give inputs.” I was not as smart and spent two hours with a person doing her thesis at a New York university on riots in India. I expected nothing, but she did not even have the courtesy to call up to thank me or send an email.

I had written this in Understanding the rot in Academia:

A few years ago All Deliberate Speed, a book by Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor, had six paragraphs lifted from What “Brown v. Board of Education” Should Have Said, a book by Yale professor Jack Balkin, and he did not know he had plagiarised. Why? He had left the job to his assistants. The wrong assistant forgot to attribute it, or so he said, and it went straight to the publishers without him realising it.

He acknowledged his assistants but it was an Ogletree book. Often an academician claims to be helping out students; young people are indeed looking for such godfathers but what are they being taught? It is about being part of institutional cliques. It is an incestuous world where the hierarchy is based on who gets to the goal-post first. Not how. The number of guest lectures, the countries that send out invitations help in bolstering this pecking order. The academic junket junkies merely hold forth within the circumscribed area of what their sponsors lay out.

The stalker-plagiarist

Some of my own experiences have a bit of a twist. The rest are too many to recount, be they interviews, lines from articles, poems, blog posts. Years ago one feature writer even told me rather excitedly, “You know, I have started using some of your lines.” Her reason was impeccable. “Since you’ve stopped writing for the magazine, I did not want them to miss you.”

Is imitation the best form of flattery? No, it is not. Or, perhaps, some of us prefer appreciation and understanding to flattery.

About six years ago I had published a poem that has cut through my very being. Much later, someone (let’s call him P) wrote a short story in which the most potent lines from my poem appeared. What followed was humiliating. A person caught like a deer in the headlights, which I hasten to add is common usage, transformed into a raging bull. I was not seeking anyone’s support, for I am not rash about my words or another’s, but many agreed that it was a clear case of plagiarism. What they could see, he did not. Or, pretended not to.

A poem and an article cannot be identical, and I could not sit and explain similes, but the lines used were not such that they are part of local lingo. I might add here that there are some classics where the lines are part of public memory. If you pun with them or parody them, they are recognisable and an automatic acknowledgement of the source. This cannot be said about most of contemporary writing, which makes it vulnerable.

P knew this and could therefore be offensive. He could not prove that he had not used those lines.

This is how he went about the admission:

"Yes, the Versey used those words before I did! Yes, I have read the poem before! No, I did not steal those words. Yes, the words came to me!

They were meant to come to me and they found me and they settled down and they made themselves home and they took root and they thrived on me and they grew and they got stronger and they flowered all over until they became MY words!

And there was not a darn thing I could do about any of that!

Shoot me, kill me! Who cares!"

It was getting to be a soap opera. The internalisation of “came to me” versus the overt “Kill me”. Passive-aggressive was the theme. I was called vile names, followed by contrition addressed to everyone but me:

“The influence of the writer whose name you bring up is EVERYWHERE in my writings – sometimes it is overt –but mostly it is invisible to others – and that influence has been there for the past two years in virtually everything I have posted on this site and perhaps elsewhere. It has been acknowledged again and again. I suspect that influence will be there forever – for life!”

He further added that it was a “simple, well-known-around-here fact”. A person who he thought was pretending to be ignorant of it was dismissed with being “simply jealous of me – not so much because of my writing ‘skills’ or anything else – but because of my being open and upfront with my feelings!”

A question of intellectual rights had become open season. I was in the dock, as it were, for being there as ‘inspiration’. This is how a woman interactor responded:

“With all due respect, Let's say, if (P) was actually infatuated or in love with you or admired you as a writer, why it is considered a crime and why he will be BERATED for loving any other human being?”

It was draining me, especially when I discovered his other writings. Amazingly, even his experience on a treadmill, treating it like a human, and the feelings that went through his mind and how they were expressed was the same as what I had written long ago.

The mind-reader in me tries to explain things. In this case, it was not laziness. Given the background, he wanted to seek my attention.

This must happen to others, too. I wonder how such stealers can live with the load of others’ creations, even in bits.

If we extend the meaning of copying to anything that is taken from an original manner of expressing, then I know of people who use someone else’s way of addressing, way of signing off notes…I know of people who pick others’ ideas, episodes and weave them around in such a manner, with change of location and some details, that it appears as their own. I know of people who even use another’s likes and dislikes. I know of those who use other people’s experiences and make it seem like they are theirs.

I’ve watched incredulously as my life’s precious moments too have been plagiarised.

(c) Farzana Versey

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