Truth in the time of narrative wars
Makarand R Paranjape | 12 Jul, 2019
WHEN MAHUA MOITRA, first-time Trinamool Member of Parliament (MP) from Krishnanagar, made her debut in the House on June 25th, the whole nation, it would seem, took note. Her impassioned and forceful attack on the Modi Sarkar, peppered with poetry and sarcastic barbs, made her a political star overnight. “In 2017,” she declaimed, “the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum put up a poster in its main lobby and it contained a list of all the signs of early fascism. Each of the seven signs I have pointed to you featured in that poster.”
The structure of her strictures against the Government was derived from this list that she quoted verbatim, proceeding to illustrate each sign with examples from what failed contemporary India. Moitra’s speech was widely appreciated for its boldness and eloquence. But, more importantly, she became the favourite poster person of ‘Left-Liberals’ (LeLis), the toast of Lutyens’ town, and the rallying point of critics of the ruling dispensation.
I myself wrote an op-ed (‘Here’s what’s wrong with our new ‘LeLi’ poster person’, DNA, June 29th), praising her pluck and passion, but disagreeing with her assumptions and contentions. One glaring contradiction in her furious fulminations was her refusal to see any of the ‘early warning signs of fascism’ in her own state, West Bengal, ruled by her party leader, Mamata Banerjee. Her selective outrage, thus, made her intervention less effective or trustworthy. In my column, I did not bring up the charge of possible plagiarism against Moitra. The allegations levelled against the Government were far more serious, if unsustainable. India does need principled and effective opposition voices, I argued, but her agitprop rhetoric, amounting to little more than a rant or rage, would not serve this purpose.
AFTER NEARLY A week-long revel of accolades and praise heaped on her on both mainstream and social media, the discourse surrounding Moitra’s political debut changed drastically. With a closer examination of her sources, she was accused of plagiarising large chunks of her speech. The exact starting point was possibly a 10.48 PM tweet on July 1st by Vijay Chauthaiwale, senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader: ‘The famous speech by @Trinamool MP #MahuaMoitra which @sardesairajdeep praised was an article written by a US journalist on trump in Jan 2017. All she did was to juxtapose Modi in place of Trump. Plagiarism at its worst. Here is original article.
A whole flurry of exchanges over Moitra’s possible plagiarism erupted soon after. I myself joined the lists almost at the same time as Chauthaiwale with this tweet sent, as it happened, just 13 minutes after Chauthaiwale’s ‘Is Mahua Moitra a plagiarist? Compare the two articles in Washington Monthly and Huffington Post. The words aren’t identical but the basic structure (using the Holocaust memorial poster) & ideas have been lifted; instead of @realDonaldTrump she’s lambasting @narendramodi on similar lines.’
What is important to note is that neither of the above tweets relied on the so-called Holocaust Museum poster. There was never even the faintest suggestion that Moitra had plagiarised from it given that she had herself quoted from it so profusely. The source in question, which Moitra had failed to mention, was Martin Longman’s January 31st, 2017, Washington Monthly article, ‘The 12 Early Warning Signs of Fascism’. While other critics of Moitra, including Zeeanchor Sudhir Chaudhury, repeated the charge of plagiarism on television, in the Twitter debate that followed, I scrupulously refrained from going that far. Right from the start, while Chauthaiwale called Moitra’s speech ‘Plagiarism at its worst’, I, instead, raised the question: ‘Is Mahua Moitra a plagiarist?’, giving links to the full texts of Martin Longman’s article, with its template of accusations, and Moitra’s speech in Parliament.
ONE REASON I had stopped short actually of accusing her of plagiarism is that I have been quite familiar with what it actually entails. For nearly 40 years, ever since I started teaching English composition (it’s called ‘rhetoric’ in US universities) to undergraduates in 1980, I have not only explained to students what plagiarism is but also taught them how to avoid it. Later, I found myself doing pretty much the same to pre-PhD post-graduates, at the other end of the university spectrum in Jawaharlal Nehru University, where I taught the research methodology course for some 15 years.
Before we come to the issue of whether Moitra plagiarised parts of her speech, it would be useful to understand what constitutes plagiarism. Especially because many in India still seem totally unacquainted with its meanings and implications. Plagiarism is a serious offence inviting, in the most severe of cases, failure, revocation of certificates and degrees, even dismissal from a job. It is a form of intellectual theft or cheating where the culprit claims credit for other people’s words or ideas by pretending they are his or her own. Facts in the public domain or common knowledge need not be cited each and every time, but distinctive words or ideas whose authors or authorities one has relied upon must be duly acknowledged. Most research is cumulative, based on previous work; that is why such owing up of one’s sources is crucial to protect academic integrity and give credit where it is due. The simplest way to avoid plagiarising is to acknowledge other people’s work when we use it.
One glaring contradiction in Mahua Moitra’s furious fulmination was her refusal to see any of the ‘early warning signs of fascism’ in her own state, West Bengal, ruled by her party leader, Mamata Banerjee. Her selective outrage, thus, made her intervention less effective or trustworthy
If there’s one ‘universal truth’ about plagiarism it is this: not only is it rampant all over the world, but those who call out its perpetrators become instantly, sometimes insanely, unpopular if not hated. Unfortunately, plagiarism is quite common even among the great and famous. In the field of journalism, well- known editors and celebrities have been found guilty of it. To offer just a couple of examples, the former editor of the Hindustan Times, VN Narayanan, lost his job because he copied a column by British journalist Bryan Appleyard. The world-famous Fareed Zakaria has faced plagiarism charges multiple times. In 2012, he was suspended by CNN-Time when he admitted to plagiarising a column on gun control. Two anonymous media watchdogs accused him of being a serial plagiarist, citing some three dozen instances (‘The wrongs of Fareed Zakaria’, Politico, September 16th, 2014 ). On close examination of these charges, experts considered them instances of ‘patch writing’ and ‘low- level’ plagiarism. Unlike Narayanan, Zakaria survived.
Famous writers have been found out plagiarising. Indrani Aikath Gyaltsen, so promoted by Khushwant Singh and Penguin, sadly committed suicide, it is believed, after being found out. Another sensational instance was Kaavya Viswanathan, whose first novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, published to much acclaim when she was not yet out of her teens, turned out to have large chunks of plagiarised material. She had reportedly struck a $500,000 two-book deal, but all copies of the first novel were recalled and destroyed; her contract for her second book was also cancelled. Coming to academics, vice-chancellors, senior professors and star scientists have sometimes lost their jobs or positions and been forced to revoke publications or tender apologies when they have been caught plagiarising. In schools and colleges plagiarism is so common that most papers and theses must be put through plagiarism-check software before they are submitted.
Oftentimes, though, the consequences of plagiarism are not so drastic or stern. That is because this malpractice is frequently an outcome of ignorance or laziness, rather than moral turpitude or dishonesty. Those who commit it don’t recognise fully what they are doing. While they may never dream of filching a Rs 500 note from a friend’s purse or wallet, they might still plagiarise easily and regularly. The same moral opprobrium is not attached to plagiarism as it is even to common theft. When plagiarism is detected, one aspect that all teachers and administrators bear in mind is its extent. The intent offender, in so far as it may be inferred, must also be taken into account. If it is a minor case of plagiarism, proper citation can easily rectify it. But if the perpetrator is a repeat or deliberate offender, habitually lifted a disproportionate share of material from others without proper acknowledgement, then it is considered a grave and indictable offence.
KEEPING THE ABOVE considerations in mind, let us examine Moitra’s speech in greater detail. There are at least two important aspects to bear in mind here. The first of these is the factual position on whether she did or did not commit plagiarism. The second is the controversy, amounting almost to a narrative war, that subsequently erupted on the issue.
What if an author absolves a real plagiarist who has lifted chunks of material from him or her without proper acknowledgement? Does the author’s absolution, like a papal bull, wash away the ‘sin’ of plagiarism? Obviously not. It is not the author’s word for or against such an allegation that should count, but the actual evidence
The factual position first.
1. In her speech, Moitra claimed that “In 2017, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum put up a poster in its main lobby”, from which she derived her seven “signs of early fascism”.
Truth: No such poster was ever put up in the ‘main lobby’ of the Museum; certainly, it was never an exhibit (‘Early signs of fascism’ poster was displayed at the gift shop, not at the American Holocaust Memorial Museum’, OpIndia, July 4th; ‘Fact Checking Zee News’ Fact Check Accusing TMC MP Mahua Moitra Of Plagiarism’, Boom , July 3rd).
Indeed, a fact-checking site, Snopes clarified this as early as March 1st, 2017 (‘Did a Holocaust Museum Display a Poster Listing ‘Early Warning Signs of Fascism’?’), just a month after Longman’s article in Washington Monthly.
The list referred to was sold as a poster in the gift shop of the museum for a brief period. It is no longer on sale. It was withdrawn, apparently, because it promoted hate.
Assessment: 1. Moitra did not check or cite her sources properly; in addition, she made a couple of factual errors. It is very unlikely that she would have actually seen the poster sold in the museum gift shop. She should have acknowledged how she really came across it rather than trying to garner scholarly prestige and political cache by saying it was displayed in the lobby of the US Holocaust Museum. Did she come across the list in Longman’s article? Or did she happen to chance on it on the internet? In either case, she repeated Longman’s error therefore it is mostly likely that is where she found. If so, she clearly failed to cite his article.
2. If Moitra, as we have seen, falsely attributed her list of ‘early signs of fascism’ to the US Holocaust Musuem lobby display, where did it actually originate? What was its context? Was it identical to ours today, after the BJP, led by Modi, was swept to power again in 2019?
Truth: Several versions of the quoted poster attribute authorship to Lawrence Britt.The list in question can be traced back to an op-ed, ‘Fascism Anyone?’, by Britt in Secularist Humanist (2003). Though designated as ‘Dr. Laurence Britt, political scientist/scholar’, Britt is neither a doctorate, let alone political scientist/scholar; he has been described as a ‘former corporate executive turned political buff’ (‘The Supposed ‘Early Warning Signs of Fascism’ Debunked’, Quite Frankly, February 3rd, 2017). Britt wrote the article to criticise George W Bush, who became the 43rd President of the US in 2001.
Secondly, Britt’s 2003 list contained ‘Fourteen Defining Characteristics of Fascism’ (Rense.com). These same 14 are listed the Holocaust Museum list, but with a different title, ‘Early Warning Signs of Fascism’. Longman’s article was titled ‘The 12 Early Warning Signs of Fascism’. Though he reproduced the 14-point poster, he only attributed 12 signs to Donald Trump.
Moitra reduced these 12 signs to seven in her speech.
Assessment: Moitra did not trace the list back to Britt, nor did Longman mention Britt in his article. Longman used Britt’s list to assault Trump following Britt’s outline for attacking Bush. So there was already a guide for Moitra to follow, complete with specific points used to discredit leaders one disliked. In referring only to the poster and neither to Longman nor Britt, Moitra was not fully or properly acknowledging her sources. She failed to admit that others before her had used the same template to attack political opponents, that her modus operandi was not original by borrowed.
While she cited the Holocaust Museum list, she did not admit that the presentation of her speech followed that of Longman and Britt prior to her. In an interview published in a leading news portal, she not only dismissed allegations of plagiarism, but declared, “My speech came from the heart” (‘My Speech Came From the Heart’: TMC MP Mahua Moitra Dismisses Allegations of Plagiarism’, News18, July 3rd).
Moitra, facing plagiarism allegations also mentioned “political scientist Dr. Laurence W Brit [sic]” as the author of the “14 signs of early fascism” in her defence. Of course, she had not cited Britt in her speech. Moreover, we know that Britt is neither a doctorate nor political scientist. Was Moitra plain ill-informed or was she fudging? What Moitra conspicuously failed to admit is that she had used seven of the very same points as Britt, and after him Longman, to attack Modi quite similarly to how they had respectively lambasted Bush and Trump. To the extent, she gave the impression that adopting the poster was her own idea to that extent, she was passing off two other predecessors’ design and format of political condemnation as her own. She could—should—have cited these sources.
Given that Moitra’s was a speech in Parliament rather than a scholarly paper or article, her infraction is neither a grievous nor seriously sustainable offence as some have made out. What is far more serious, however, is the narrative war that erupted around this issue
I POINTED TO THE substantial distinction between those who accused Moitra of plagiarism and myself. This distinction is important to underscore because in the counter-attack that followed, I was also falsely blamed of having claimed that Moitra had plagiarised. That is why it is this coordinated counter-attack that should be examined in greater detail. It could be more crucial to understand India’s declining public culture than the actual charge of plagiarism against Moitra.
The synchronised LeLi onslaught surely suggests a larger ideological cabal or wolf-pack that hunts together.
They made the mistake of claiming that I had accused Moitra of plagiarism, which I had not. Further, they also slammed me for ‘dishonesty’ and ‘bad faith’. The ‘fact- checking’ website, Boom, concurred that I had accused Moitra of plagiarism. Despite contacting me, they did not publish my reply in which I had stressed how the issue was not the Holocaust Museum list, but Moitra’s not citing the Longman article, which seemed one of the primary sources of her speech. I wrote to them again asking why my response had not been quoted, also pointing out a couple of more errors. Their report is yet to be updated as I write this.
An important sidelight to the controversy was the role of Martin Longman, ‘political animal’ (as his byline describes him), whose article was probably an unmentioned source of Moitra’s speech. Into the fray jumped Longman, responding to Chauthaiwale thus: ‘She may have taken inspiration from it, but she may have had the same idea. Either way, she didn’t steal from me.’ To say that she had the ‘same idea’, with the seven identically worded ‘early signs of fascism’, used in a fashion similar to his to attack Modi is disingenuous if not unconvincing. Possibly targeting Zee anchor, Chaudhury and me, Longman was even harsher in his July 3rd tweet, ‘I’m internet famous in India because a politician is being falsely accused of plagiarising me. It’s kind of funny, but right-wing assholes seem to be similar in every country.’ These tweets by Longman were taken for gospel truth by the LeLi brigade to discredit all those who may have not only charged Moitra with plagiarism, but raised the question of such a possibility, as I had.
But there is a fundamental flaw in such appeal to authority. What if an author absolves a real plagiarist who has lifted chunks of material from him or her without proper acknowledgement? Does the author’s absolution, like a papal bull, wash away the ‘sin’ of plagiarism? Obviously not. It is not the author’s word for or against such an allegation that should count, but the actual evidence.
A more serious objection to the repetition of such ‘signs of early fascism’ is that they are not properly researched or based on more authentic sources. ‘Fourteen General Properties of Fascist Ideology’, extracted from Umberto Eco’s famous essay, ‘Eternal Fascism’ or 10 elements of fascism proposed by Italian historian Emilio Gentile, for instance. Or even earlier, more authoritative pronouncements such as the Manifesto of the Fascist Intellectuals or Doctrine of Fascism by the likes of Giovanni Gentile and Benito Mussolini, the founders of fascism. Neither Moitra nor her LeLi defenders bothered with any of these. They were more interested in second-hand, potted summaries; to that extent they defamed an elected Government with borrowed ideological ammo.
KEEPING ALL THESE facts of the matter in mind, let us revisit the original question: did Moitra commit plagiarism or not? I would take a somewhat lenient, certainly less polemical position on this, than her harshest critics. Whatever their intent was to discredit her or find the truth, I am of the view that Moitra’s alleged plagiarism is a borderline lapse. It could have been readily obviated by admitting that her idea and structure of attacking the Modi Sarkar was drawn from Longman’s 2017 article dissing Trump and the earlier 2003 article by Britt, the author of the list, assailing Bush. Yet, given that hers was a speech in Parliament rather than a scholarly paper or article, her infraction is neither a grievous nor seriously sustainable offence as some have made out.
What is far more serious, however, is the narrative war that erupted around this issue. Supporters of Moitra—some of them supposedly senior and respected editors, intellectuals and academics—resorted to diversionary tactics, hypocrisy and chicanery. They slammed those who pointed to Moitra’s above- mentioned lapse or showed the more than accidental similarities between her sources and her speech, arraigning them for dishonesty, bad faith, ignorance, political incorrectness and much else.
Of course, they could have disagreed with the charge of plagiarism against Moitra. Instead they chose to bully, pan, discredit, troll, undermine and scam those who had raised it. In doing so, like typical LeLis, they showed themselves incapable of handling dissent and disagreement, let alone engage in civil public debate. Who are the real enemies of FoE, one wonders, after yet another skirmish? Certainly not solely ‘right-wing assholes’. Our loserly LeLis are certainly ‘holier than them’, so obviously duplicitous, ill-informed and devious. They must also bear the responsibility for the shrinking of meaningful dialogue and debate in India, if not vitiating and destroying our public culture.
The one good thing out of this irruption is that the discerning community of citizens is now much more aware—or ought to be—of plagiarism than ever before. In the future, all public figures, I trust, shall be more cautious in citing the sources and similarities, both in words and ideas, of those whose work they have used. This should apply to Moitra too— unless she proves to be a serial offender. I should hope not for that would certainly be a pity for one so gifted and gutsy.
Makarand R Paranjape