Plagiarism has reared its ugly head again. But not always is it rehearsed robbery

This is the season of borrowed riches. The ghost of plagiarism is visiting us again. This time, in one clean swipe felling the otherwise indefatigable Fareed Zakaria, noted author-editor-columnist, who has admitted to lifting a part of history professor Jill Lepore’s work in his column on gun control that appeared in Time this month.

Zakaria’s words were “Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859. Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man”.”

Zakaria’s thoughts and words almost echoed those of Lepore who wrote, “As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

What’s worse, he has now been accused of another instance of plagiarism by The Washington Post, an allegation Zakaria has robustly denied.

Unfortunate and headline-grabbing as the Zakaria incident is, it is merely the latest instance of lack of probity to hit the world of words and letters. In recent times, there has been a cloud of uncertainty over the work of Jonah Lehrer who fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan for his bestseller Imagine: How Creativity Works. Cornered, he too admitted to the lapse.

Closer home we have had our own cut-copy-paste cases. A little more than a decade ago, a widely respected editor of an English daily had to pay with his job for his indiscretion. A few years after that, a celebrated film critic though was able to weather the storm caused by allegations that her review of Shark Tale was lifted from that of the widely respected film critic Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun Times. The cyber world went into an overdrive with eager contributors showing just where an extra half sentence was inserted, just where everything from a comma to a full stop remained the same in her review.

At another level we have had the young and promising Kaavya Viswanathan who was similarly caught for the unsavoury deed. Her debut novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life had strikingly similar passages to Megan F. McCafferty’s Second Helpings. Not to forget management guru Shiv Khera who did not quite do things differently in the book Freedom Is Not Free. He was accused to lifting passages from India: Enough is Enough by a doughty Amrit Lal, who challenged Khera line to line, passage to passage.

Yes, the kings and queens of letters have been found in borrowed clothes. It is important though not to indulge in sweeping generalisation and indict all of them as nothing more than lifters of words and ideas. While first-timer Viswanathan and the senior journalists were indeed guilty of lifting complete passages for reasons as simple as laziness or as reprehensible as stealing, Zakaria’s case is different. He has been found to have picked a paragraph which does not lend much flourish to his column and only a little substance. Zakaria has been careless, maybe, even irresponsible. His work is though not necessarily rehearsed robbery.

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