Thursday, January 5

Plagiarism and Reviews

In my previous post, I noted some striking similarities between major reviews of the same novel. I also said that, if, as I speculated, these were not coincidences, I don't think they are a matter for criticism, let alone plagiarism. If I thought they were, I wouldn't have said anything--I wouldn’t dream of impugning a writer on such flimsy evidence.

In fact I wrote a letter to the Claremont Review of Books that took exception in the strongest possible terms to just such an accusation in Hadley Arkes’s cowardly and unprofessional review of Alan Dershowitz’s book Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origin of Rights. I wish I had a copy of the letter to post, but, unfortunately, I emailed it without saving a draft. My objection was to Arkes’s raising the question of whether Prof. Dershowitz is guilty of the same plagiaristic practices as his HLS colleagues Larry Tribe and Charles Ogletree (for an amusing account of those affairs, see here). Of course, lacking any real evidence, Arkes smears Dershowitz’s professional reputation by implication; he knows that legal repercussions would follow an outright accusation, so he dissembles, couching his libels in weasel-words like “a mischievous hypothetical” and “could it be that.” The relevant passage, in full, is:

How could Dershowitz have been so wrong on every aspect of these matters? The charitable answer is that this is not his usual field. He was operating out of the area of his main strength. Of course, with the recent experience of Professor Dershowitz's colleagues at the Harvard Law School, other explanations suddenly arise: Professors Tribe and Ogletree explained some egregious lapses into plagiarism by reporting that certain books of theirs were written in part by their student aides, with only a cursory review. A mischievous hypothetical: could it be that parts of Dershowitz's book are in conflict with one another because they were written by different hands? In a curious, telling passage, he refers to the author of the Dred Scott opinion as "Justice Roger Tawney," and to the author of the Brown v. Board of Education decision as "Justice Earl Warren." No one familiar with these cases, or the law, would have misspelled the name of Roger Taney; and he would have quickly corrected the text to read, in either instance, Chief Justice Taney and Chief Justice Warren. All of us need proofreaders, but there is a strong temptation to think that these pages were never read by anyone who had more than a passing acquaintance with the subject.

An extraneous “w” and two missing “Chiefs” are a threadbare rope on which to hang such impertinent calumny. As a matter of fact, Justice Taney’s name is pronounced “Tawney,” as anyone “familiar with these cases, or the law,” should know, Mr. Arkes. It is easy to imagine a phonetically-spelled (and possibly dictated) name among several hundred pages remaining uncorrected by the author.

My letter assured Mr. Arkes that, based on my experience as Prof. Dershowitz's research assistant several years ago, when I was still in law school, the substantive argument and text of the professor's books are his alone. His research assitants may do important research, offer ideas or criticize Prof. Dershowitz's, and write minor text, like footnotes, but the credit and blame for the entire final product is rightly his.

Arkes's unsubstantiated accusations are unbecoming a serious critic--or, for that matter, any man of character. If he had a good reason for traducing the reputation of a serious and accomplished professional, then he should have done so openly, prepared to face the consequences; otherwise he should have kept his poisonous gossip to himself.

UPDATE: The new edition of The Claremont Review of Books came out today, but letters to the editor do not appear in the online edition. I will check the paper copy tomorrow, but, based on the website, my letter does not appear to have been printed.


Anonymous Edwina said...

Great to see the revival of your blog!!

6:56 AM  
Blogger H. said...


Thank you very much. I haven't heard from you in, well, too long. I hope that all is well.


5:27 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home