18 February 2011


Without ever actually using the word "plagiarism," Michael Moynihan in last weekend's Wall Street Journal makes the case that Dominic Sandbrook engaged in a good deal of it in Sandbrook's new book, MAD AS HELL: THE CRISIS OF THE 1970s AND THE RISE OF THE POPULIST RIGHT.

Moynihan, the senior editor of libertarianism's flagship magazine, REASON, says that Sandbrook "shamelessly and repeatedly cannibalizes the work of others...." such as Mark Bowden's book about the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981, GUEST OF THE AYATOLLAH (2007).

Such a charge requires putting passages side by side. Sandbrook writes thus:

"At Washington's National Cathedral, bells tolled every day at noon, once for each day of their captivity, while in Lawrence, Massachusetts, churches rang their bells fifty times a day in sympathy."

Bowden had put it thus: "At the National Cathedral in Washington, bells tolled every day at noon, once for each day of the lengthening captivity. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, all of the churches around its city hall sounded their bells fifty times each day at noon to remember the American captives."

To be fair: Sandbrook did a little re-writing of Bowden. He shortened Bowden's sentences in that passage, as a copy-editor might, deleting the arguably unnecessary word "lengthening" in the first of those sentences for example. Still, the similarity is rather too great for comfort. It would have been better to use quotation marks and credit Bowden in the text even if it did mean using that adjective.

Another example? Any book about the politics of the 1970s will have to describe the bicentennial celebrations of 1976. In that context, Sandbrook writes specifically of the Boston fireworks:

"On television, pictures showed girls applauding on their boyfriends' shoulders, fathers lifting their children in the air, a South Boston priest waving an enormous American flag."

J. Anthony Lukacs had described those fireworks in his 1986 book, COMMON GROUND. Thus: "Long-haired girls perched on their boyfriends' shoulders, fathers held children aloft, a priest from South Boston waved a huge American flag."

One gets the feeling, from such examples (Moynihan provides others) that Sandbrook did just enough copy editing to avoid the p word. In that Bostonian scene, this chiefly involved changing the tense from past to present. Also, Sandbrook might say in his own defense that Bowden, Lukacs, and the other sources to which Moynihan refers were all explicitly cited in his footnotes.

The problem remains, though. The borrowing isn't of the usual scholarly sort, but goes to the choice of anecdotes, the physical details thereof, and the adjectives. In order to write a book about the 1970s, it is necessary but not sufficient to read a lot of the stuff that has been written about the seventies. One must think about the subject sufficiently to make it one's own.

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