Tuesday, June 14, 2005

At Least Plagiarize Well

Eric Muller points to a fascinating story about an apparent act of plagiarism on the part of Brian LeBeau, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. LeBeau seems to have passed off as his own a 1993 speech by Cornel West. For example, West said:
But, I say to you, one must have a tragic sense of history. Hegel said, History is a slaughterhouse because of the blood, sweat and tears. Gibbon said, It's a series of human crimes and follies and misfortunes. And we know, yes, history is inextricably interwoven with scars and bruises and wounds and hurts and heartache and sorrow and grief, but it's more than that. We ought not to confuse the tragic with the pathetic. The tragic is about the exploration of human possibilities for freedom. That's what Sophocles' Antigone is about. That's what Shakespeare's King Lear is about. That's what Toni Morrison's Beloved is about: the exploration of the human possibilities of freedom, but hitting up against limits sooner or later.
Whereas LeBeau said:
As much as I believe that the only way for a democracy to survive in a to have a deep and abiding sense of history, I believe that it is essential to have a realistic, if not somewhat tragic, sense of history, if it motivates and causes us to act. Hegel was correct when he said, “History is a slaughterhouse of blood, sweat and tears.” Gibbon was right when he wrote: “History is a series of human crimes and follies and misfortunes.” History is inextricably interwoven with scars and bruises, wounds and hurts, heartache and sorrow. But it is more than that. We must not confuse tragic with the pathetic. The tragic is about the exploration of human possibilities for freedom. That is what Sophocles’ Antigone is about. That is what Shakespeare’s King Lear in about. And that is what Tony Morrison’s Beloved is about. It is about the exploration of the human possibilities of freedom, hitting up against its limits, but then realizing that it is in our response to those limits that lies our destiny.
As is often the case with plagiarism, it's the small and likely deliberate departures that give the game away. Nothing wrong with borrowing a line from Hegel that somebody else borrowed 10 years earlier. Plenty wrong with picayune variance from the clarifying remarks the original speaker surrounded that quote with. And here's the kicker: West's speech was at least in part a reflection on his experience as an African-American in academia; LeBeau is not an African-American, so, as Sally Greene puts it:
West's speech comes from a position of authority as a black American intellectual. This is a position LeBeau, who is white, cannot claim, nor does he attempt to. Rather, he drains the color out of West's speech so that, in the end, it is not so much an appropriation--though it is that--as a misappropriation, a watering down and a flattening out of a message that had its own particular power and edge.
A pretty shameful thing to do. Incidentally, Sally caught the whole thing by googling that line from Hegel. Blogosphere 1, MSM 0, right?


At 3:22 PM, Blogger Evan said...

The tragic is about the exploration of human possibilities for freedom. That's what Sophocles' Antigone is about. Besides plagiarism, a very categorical statement of a questionable proposition at best. I like Antigone's big speech and stichomythia with Creon as well as anyone -- I've been given it to read about half a dozen times in my education so far -- but I think it's a real stretch to argue that it's the central theme of the play. Sophocles packed an awful lot into that play, no question, but we should keep our eyes on the ball: Creon's the tragic hero. At least as often as tragedy is about "human possibilities for freedom" it's about the failures of human responsibility. But perhaps that would blow West's point.

At 7:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i wipe my ass with Beloved, on to about page 198


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