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Just a little copying

idaho RANDY

Noted here: The quote within the next paragraph is not mine originally. I came across it in an online New Yorker piece, dated July 29.

It follows a note that the term plagiarism evolved from a gang of ancient-times Romans called the plagiarii, who were known for kidnapping slaves. The poet Martial, who made the connection, wrote, “If you allow them to be called mine, I will send you my verses gratis; if you wish them to be called yours, pray buy them, that they may be mine no longer.”

He was suggesting a level of seriousness that politicians ought to observe. Others too of course. Students have flunked out when caught cheating by way of copying. Teachers have been fired (such as, a year ago, a Brown University professor said to have used unattributed material in a book). Journalists have lost their careers. Bloggers get sued.

Some politicians have wriggled past records of plagiarizing. Russia’s Vladimir Putin got away with an extravagant 16-page copying incident because – well, who was going to nail him for it?

In this country, things are a little different. Then-Senator Joe Biden, who in 1987 had launched a credible campaign for president, saw his political advancement derailed for 20 years after he was caught using unattributed language from a British politician’s speech.

Earlier this summer, Montana Democratic Senator John Walsh was found to have, years ago in graduate school, used writing from others without attribution in one of his papers. He soon after withdrew from the Senate race. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has been accused of a string of smaller-scale unattributed copies; whatever consequences may arise from that are yet to come, but if he runs for president they will dog him and weigh him down.

That history of taking the offense seriously is one reason it has become a big deal in the Idaho superintendent of public instruction race, where Republican Sherri Ybarra’s campaign lifted about a web page’s worth of material from the site of her opponent, Democrat Jana Jones.

This rises to the truly bizarre. That Jones’s campaign wasn’t even the first to point it out (the IdahoEdNews site was) is a little surprising. Copying from obscure sources or even from personal heroes is one thing, and in most of those cases (like those of Biden, Walsh and Paul) the problem would not have arisen had they simply acknowledged the original source of the words. In the Ybarra case, even that doesn’t help: Should she acknowledge her opponent as the source to aspire to?

A speculation here on what happened: When time came (late in the cycle) for Ybarra’s campaign to develop a website, someone may have grabbed web code from Jones’ campaign site with the idea of using it as a technical framework, a starting point, with all the publicly-visible words and some of the rest of the code intended to be replaced; and then, no one followed through and did the rewrite. Probably nothing nefarious was intended. Such an error doubtless feels minor; who’s really hurt?

In this case, as a matter of politics, the copying may feed into a narrative that Ybarra’s campaign is too undisciplined, low-energy, low-effort and even sloppy to suggest competence at the level of a statewide office whose job is overseeing the public schools. It doesn’t help that Jones’ campaign has run smoothly and that her background includes serving as the chief deputy in that same office.

This incident, coming after a series of other campaigning missteps, could derail the campaign. It might not be politically fatal, but it may be.

Plagiarism is serious stuff. Ask Martial.

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