A little plagiarism, a little book

“Plagiarize! Plagiarize!//Don’t let anything evade your eyes!”Tom Lehrer, Lobachevsky

“Oh, he just stole from me. I steal from everybody.” Attributed to Woody Guthrie by Pete Seeger (Together, with Arlo Guthrie, 1974)

“Plagiarism is the root of all culture.” Pete Seeger (1974 tour)

Internet files and other databases make plagiarism amazingly easy. College faculties debate how best to police against plagiarism. Students caught and kicked out appear befuddled at the academic death penalty, when all it takes is a couple of mouse clicks over a text prepared by a willing accomplice.

Federal judge, University of Chicago law professor and blogger Richard Posner wrote a small book on plagiarism. In fact, that’s its title, The Little Book of Plagiarism (Pantheon,116 pages, $10.95).

My policy in class is to challenge students when I find they’ve stolen someone else’s work. I go over attribution, footnoting and bibliographic listings, on a spoken assumption that they don’t know how to do it. They don’t like it, but they realize it’s better than expulsion. I’ve never had a student try it a second time (that I’ve caught).

Some younger students, in junior high and high school, say they do not understand why they may not simply cut and paste material from internet sources, but I suspect that is more defense than genuine lack of understanding. More than once these same students have later complained that other student’s “stole” their work. Plagiarism sometimes appears more clear when others steal from you.

In a review of Posner’s book in the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Kirsch wrote that Posner identified a key problem for society: What do we do when the stolen text improves the work? It’s the issue that Woody Guthrie knew and Pete Seeger stated: Borrowing good stuff is what culture is all about. In highly literate circles, the game is to make allusions to works that most people know, to relate to an already-established body of knowledge to shed light on other ideas.

Plagiarists, on the other hand, would shut off access to the broader body of the work of the originator – so the intent of the true plagiarizer is not to relate to previous works. Some plagiarizers want credit for the ideas, some student plagiarizers probably want credit only for the word count.

In the higher evil, plagiarism is not about stealing other people’s ideas. It’s about stealing the words without caring about the ideas. It is not that the plagiarizer covets the ideas too much, but rather that the plagiarizer is indifferent to the ideas, seeing only the individual trees and missing the forest.

That’s where the great danger lies as well. A forest is more than just the sum of the trees in it, as we only too late discovered with regard to ecosystems that depend on the various stages of forest growth, aging, decline, destruction and rebirth. An idea is worth more than the mere count of its words, or even the prima facie meaning of the words.

The sin of the plagiarizer is in not knowing what the plagiarizer steals.

And, with a tip of the old scrub brush to Let’s Play Math, we call your attention to a blog devoted to plagiarism issues, Plagiarism Today. Especially, you may want to take a look at the blog’s review of Posner’s book.

12 Responses to A little plagiarism, a little book

  1. […] the spirit of a recent post at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, (and he tips his brush to Let’s Play Math) I would give credit to the man who taught me the […]


  2. jd2718 says:

    And you’ll pardon me if I get a little dewy-eyed reading that.


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    I find it difficult to get worked up over anyone’s support of Soviet Communism prior to about 1954. First, such a view tended to run counter to the prevailing view of the period 1920 through 1941, and as such, it represents a strain of anti-Fascism which was probably the most noble end of U.S. politics at the time. Contrast it with Charles Lindbergh’s enthusiastic endorsement of Germany’s Nazi movement, and it doesn’t look so bad. The fact is that most Americans had a difficult time picking which way to jump in the period after 1930, being preoccupied with the reality of the Great Depression, and most of the world wondering, seriously, whether capitalism was dead. Those great old movies in the “Why We Fight” series, especially the one by Frank Capra, include segments noting that most Americans favored Germany in the middle 1930s, and that view didn’t substantially change until after 1939. Seeger was on the side trying to get America to fly right, mostly. Was Seeger wrong? Sure — but we know that only in hindsight. Everyone was wrong, one way or the other. Being wrong is no sin.

    Second, whatever Seeger may have felt or said about the Soviet Union was a tiny part of the work he did in that time, preserving folk music and promoting American movements in labor and civil rights. Seeger’s support for Americans has been strong throughout his life.

    Third, saying nice things about Stalin, even, is far from “slavish obedience.” As Roger Baldwin discovered, there were great flaws in the Soviet system, not least that it lacked a working and workable Bill of Rights. Seeger’s always been a supporter of the Bill of Rights (which alone tends to run counter to Stalinism seen more clearly). The commies in America were right: We need a strong Bill of Rights, and we need to stand up for it. It’s no sin to be right.

    And jd2718 makes the case, that in the totality of Seeger’s life and accomplishments, the good far outweighs the bad. His “Turn, Turn, Turn” may have done more to popularize Ecclesiastes than all the Billy Grahams, Jerry Falwells, Fulton Sheens, Forrester Churches, all the Christians and Jews good or bad, in the past century.

    Seeger tells the story of paying a high price for hubris, too, that is instructive. He has lived for 60 years in Beacon, New York. One night in the 1970s he showed up at a local meeting (PTA? city council? I forget which), and when he spoke, people complained about “outside” agitators. He realized that for all his work nationally and internationally, his neighbors didn’t know him, nor had he done much for them. So he decided to act locally, and for a few years didn’t stray very far from Beacon. In that time he developed the idea of the Clearwater Sloop, the Clearwater festivals, and the drive to clean up the Hudson River. Today, cleaning up the Hudson River is something even a Republican governor of New York likes to get in on. Seeger demonstrated in a very real way that activism has local effects, and he did it in a great way.

    Seeger says he’s disappointed in all politicians, now. The reality is that Pete’s much more the statesman against both sides, now.

    And, have you ever heard Pete yodel on Bob Nolan’s “Way Out There?” It opens the 1974 album of the Seeger/Guthrie tour, and it alone merits forgiveness for a world of sins.


  4. jd2718 says:

    So what? The man has been on the right side of every social movement in this country during my lifetime, and for decades before that. Civil Rights, Viet Nam, the environment, now Iraq (though I never heard him say anything specific about that).

    And as far as foreign policy, the guy served, no?

    But most importantly, his music. The songs he wrote, the songs he popularized, the generations he entertained, historically (Erie Canal), silly (What color were those eels?) patriotically (from the New York Islands to the Gulf Stream Waters…), spiritually (there is a season…), politically (take your pick).

    Did he get everything right? Please no. I don’t want a saint. I’d love to see the man who entertained and enlightened, even inspired a bit when I was a kid.

    Anyway, so what?


  5. elektratig says:

    C’mon Ed! He changed his mind because the Party line changed! That’s called slavish obedience to one of the great monsters of human history, not a breath of fresh air. You’re better than that.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Someone who can change their mind about foreign affairs seems like a breath of fresh air these days — a model others should look at perhaps . . .


  7. elektratig says:

    Before everyone gets too teary-eyed about Pete Seeger, it’s worth recalling that he was a dedicated Stalinist through at least 1950. After the Hitler-Stalin pact, he sang:

    Franklin D, listen to me,
    You ain’t a-gonna send me ‘cross the sea.
    You may say it’s for defense
    That kinda talk ain’t got no sense.

    After the Nazis invaded the USSR, the album was recalled and destroyed, and Pete changed his tune:

    Now, Mr President
    You’re commander-in-chief of our armed forces
    The ships and the planes and the tanks and the horses
    I guess you know best just where I can fight …
    So what I want is you to give me a gun
    So we can hurry up and get the job done!


  8. Ed Darrell says:

    Oh, years ago. Pete is an alumnus of a summer camp (Camp Rising Sun) run by a foundation (Louis August Jonas Foundation), which I worked for — years ago. In that glorious summer of 1974, when he was up and down the East Coast in concert dates with Arlo, he stopped off at the old camp, spent a night and gave us an impromptu concert on the lawn.

    He’s still doing concerts, as of the New Yorker interview a few months ago (which is here: http://www.peteseeger.net/new_yorker041706.htm). He’ll sing until he can’t. I can’t find a schedule for the summer — but it’s a fair bet he shows for a few Clearwater appearances, and maybe a show at Saratoga, or Tanglewood, or Wolf Trap. (Hmmm. Pete’s not got a great presence on the internet — I wonder if Arlo’s website shows more?)

    See the American Folklife Center’s newsletter for Spring 2006:
    http://www.loc.gov/folklife/news/pdf/afcnews-winterspring-2006.pdf (feature on Pete and Toshi)

    The Library of Congress is hosting a symposium on the Seegers, Mike, Peggy and Pete, with a special concert capping it on March 16 — alas, tickets are all gone (SR tickets? Scalpers?):

    Oh, and check this out:

    When I was in a graduate program in rhetoric, I had proposed to do my thesis on Pete Seeger and the rhetorical effects of music, travel and activism. Hey, if I’d stuck at it, maybe I coulda been a presenter!

    Pete’s in his 80s. I hope he makes 120 at least, in great health.


  9. jd2718 says:

    I found on a non-noteworthy website this: Woody Guthrie’s (guitar? banjo?) said “This machine kills fascists”. But the inscription that Seeger’s banjo still bears is altogether more pacifistic: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

    You interviewed him? I’ve never heard him in person. If I go up to the summer festival, does he still sing a little?



  10. Ed Darrell says:

    A Pete Seeger concert is a history lesson in itself. And now that you mention it, yes, he does give credit all over the place. It’s one of his endearing qualities. It was fun watching Pete and Arlo in concert, or Pete and anyone else. Pete would sit on stage to watch the other performers, enjoying the heck out of them. Enthusiasm and joy are the most contagious things in the universe.

    The drumhead of his banjo has this painted around it: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” When I asked Pete about it, he gave credit to Woody, but it took me years to find a photo of Woody — his guitar had a sticker that said essentially the same thing, but had “fascists” instead of hate. I gather the saying changed over the years. Hey, that’s what folk music is all about.


  11. […] the spirit of a recent post at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, (and he tips his brush to Let’s Play Math) I would give credit to the man who taught me the […]


  12. jd2718 says:

    I was listening to a Pete Seeger cd on my way out of town yesterday… He cites his sources all over the place. Well, he talks about who wrote the song, or who taught it to him. “Save your applause to the young man who wrote those last three songs…” “Frank Proffitt taught it to (?), who taught it to me…” “If you like that sort of music, you can come back here in three weeks when a group of people who were raised up singing it will be performing…” “I can’t always play things as they were intended… this is a sort of hillbilly flamenco….”

    Every song, he had some credit to share, some recognition to pay, maybe appreciation more than recognition. He cared about the music.

    I think this line of yours “It’s about stealing the words without caring about the ideas” is perfect.


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