Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Run Over by an Ambulance: Convenient (Traditional Chinese Saying)

Reverse plagiarism—claiming that somebody else wrote your words—used to be more common than direct plagiarism because authority was a much more valuable commodity than words, which, after all, can be improvised on the spot. Nowadays we fetishize originality, but reverse plagiarism still has its uses. The Soviet-era literary critic Michel Bahhtine, silenced by Stalin, published many of his most important critical works under the name of various party apparatchiks, and right-wing publicists regularly quote the pseudo-Abraham Lincoln to bolster their ideological prejudices with stolen prestige. For my part, I find that reverse plagiarism allows me to float more ideas than I have a license to conceive since it isn’t quite decent to contain multitudes. Besides, there are certain notions that not only deserve to circulate, but deserve to circulate as anonymous proverbial wisdom without the impediment of any author whatsoever. For example:

Every time somebody complains that liberals only love mankind and not men, I find myself reaching around for a folksy counter that might point out in a concise and earthy fashion that a statistical approach to human affairs reflects a basic ethical principle, the equal claim that every person has on our moral respect. By the time you’ve typed in that many words, you may as well deliver a lecture to the normal distribution and the Second Critique while you’re at it. So I’m very tempted to appeal to that old proverb, “One man’s blood has as much salt in it as another.”

Second instance: A number of books and articles have been written about the appeal of Republican politics to people whose interests are seriously harmed by Republican policies—on a per capita basis, the red states benefit vastly more from Federal money than the blue and good old boys are much more likely to go bankrupt than professional people in Connecticut. Just as few of the poor sods who got gunned down marching up Seminary Ridge owned slaves or benefited at all from the semi-feudal society of the South, working people support the initiatives of the Conservatives who routinely exploit them. Which is why I want to quote the saying, “Mistreated dogs are the most loyal” as if there were such a saying.