The future is a foreign country.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the tempest in a teapot surrounding Rick Perlstein’s apparently brilliant new book. Perlstein, as you may know, is the author of other terrific books about modern conservatism: see here and, for his most celebrated (at least until now) work, here. In addition to that, he’s also something of a darling of progressives in the United States, in part because he wears his politics on his sleeve, but also because he reaches out to what some people call the Netroots. He is, then, an excellent historian, an activist, and a relatively early adopter and shrewd user of social media as a communications/marketing tool.

He’s also being accused of plagiarism: see here and here.*

Craig Shirley, who has written his own well-regarded books about Ronald Reagan, claims that Perlstein ripped him off a bunch of times in his new work. Now, this is the point in my post where I have to stop and say that I haven’t yet read Perlstein’s latest book.** That said, I’m pretty sure the plagiarism claim doesn’t amount to much. If the best Shirley’s attorneys can do is the quoted passages in the two articles linked above, that’s pretty thin gruel.

See for yourself:

Page 287 of Shirley’s “Reagan’s Revolution” states: “Even its ‘red light’ district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting, as dancing elephants were placed in the windows of several smut peddlers.”

and

Page 771 of “The Invisible Bridge” says: “The city’s anemic red-light district was festooned with red, white and blue bunting; several of the smut peddlers featured dancers in elephant costume in their windows.”

Those are quotations, by the way, so please don’t sue me.

Here’s more:

This is from page 72 of Shirley’s book, Reagan’s Revolution, “Whenever he flew, Reagan would sit in the first row so he could talk to people as they boarded the plane. On one occasion, a woman spotted him, embraced him and said ’Oh Governor, you’ve just got to run for President!’ As they settled into their seats, Reagan turned to Deaver and said, ‘Well, I guess I’d better do it.’”

and

And (according to Shirley’s attorney) this is from Perlstein’s book: “When Ronald Reagan flew on commercial flights he always sat in the first row. That way, he could greet passengers as they boarded. One day he was flying between Los Angeles and San Francisco. A woman threw his [sic] arms around him and said, ‘Oh Governor, you’ve got to run for president!’ ’Well,’ he said, turning to Michael Deaver, dead serious, ‘I guess I’d better do it.’”

Those, too, are quotations. And again, all things being equal, I’d rather not be sued.

To be totally clear, both of these instances strike me as a bit too close for comfort. I’d like to think that I would have been more careful. And also that I would have avoided using any form of the word “festoon.” But that’s the kind of thing that happens quite frequently when one writer, even acting in the very best faith, borrows from another writer. Professional historians deal with this kind of problem by citing sources in their scholarly apparatus.*** And that, in my view, is where things get considerably more interesting in this case.

You see, Perlstein, as I understand it, chose not to include endnotes in the paper version of his book. Instead, he has made his sources available to readers at his website. The notes there are voluminous and seem to provide Shirley with ample credit for his hard work.

But there’s the rub: the information is only available online. Perlstein, writing on facebook (where I first got wind of this controversy), twitter, and probably other platforms that wear their pants too low while listening to that hippety-hop music****, has said he made this choice in service of his readers. His book, he explains, is already long and expensive. And readers, he insists, don’t like footnotes. One of those statements is certainly true (800+ pages!) and the other probably is (in Perlstein’s facebook feed, it became clear that lots of people find footnotes boring or distracting). Still, that’s how professional historians roll.

Which means that Perlstein consciously chose to eschew professional best practices. And he says that he did so, at least in part, not only in deference to his audience, but also because he’s embracing the future, a time when there will be no more paper books. Again, check out the twitter exchange, in which Perlstein suggests that he’s blazing a trail — “I’m glad to go my own way. And devil take the hindmost.” — and that, “There’s no question of plagiarism. There is none. There may be, tho, a new publishing paradigm.” (Emphasis added.)

Again, I think at least one of those statements is very likely true. The evidence I’ve seen suggests this isn’t a case of plagiarism. But I think Perlstein nevertheless misses an important point: if this is, in fact, a new publishing paradigm, the waters of attribution, which are expressly intended to provide clarity, are becoming murkier than ever before.

Even leaving aside the question of how durable various electronic media are or aren’t — in other words, the question of whether the notes currently available on Perlstein’s website will endure beyond the next update of Microsoft Office, much less the inevitable collapse***** of the nation’s power grid — citations, the sometimes-annoying notes attached to works of scholarship, play an important role.****** They not only provide readers with a road map that leads to where the author found her or his information, but also the sources themselves — including, in a case like this one, other professional historians — with the credit they deserve. In fact, with the pervasiveness of measures like “Impact Factor,” being properly cited has probably never been more important for scholars than it is now.

Which is not to say that Shirley is accusing Perlstein only because the latter has bucked convention. I expect that Shirley is upset, at least in part, because Perlstein is getting a great deal of publicity, attention that Shirley perhaps believes should be his. I also think it’s likely that this case is getting a lot of press, relatively speaking, because movement conservatives are so committed to policing the boundaries of collective memory surrounding President Reagan. Given that, Perlstein’s work was primed to be more of lightning rod even than usual.

In the end, because this case is contentious, I want to reiterate that I don’t think Perlstein tried to hide his debts. Quite the contrary, I take him at his word: he believes his way of presenting notes is more user-friendly. I just think he’s wrong about that. And, more important, although he’s a very talented historian, I hope his vision of the future is cloudy.

* I apologize for linking to The Daily Caller. If someone can find an article from a more reputable source that better summarizes this controversy, please let me know.

** I’m in Canada. It is a well known fact that there are no books in Canada. Actually, there are some books here, but they’re printed entirely on thin sheets of ice, and I don’t read quickly enough to finish before the whole thing melts. It’s very frustrating. And rather wet.

*** Not a euphemism.

**** My lawn: please get off it.

***** I’m kidding.

****** If you’re interested in this kind of thing, you should check out Tony Grafton’s book.

7 thoughts on “The future is a foreign country.

  1. Jonathan Rees

    So how the heck can they can accuse him of plagiarism before the book is even out? Are they doing this to review copies? Who the heck would be dumb enough to send a review copy to the _Daily Caller_ anyways? Inquiring minds want to know.

    Reply
  2. tenuredradical

    I have a copy of the book: e-copies were distributed several months ago. That said, I am a huge admirer of Rick’s, I feel for him in this, *and* think that regrettable things like this happen when writers are synthesizing secondary sources fast and/or relying on research assistants (Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin) If we found paragraphs that similar to a published source in a student paper, cited or not, we would at minimum ask for a rewrite.

    Reply
  3. Ari Kelman Post author

    I’m a huge fan of Rick’s work as well. I hope my post didn’t suggest otherwise. That said, I’ve received several e-mails from people who have read the book suggesting what you seem to be suggesting, TR: that the work may have been completed in a bit of a rush, perhaps with the help of a research assistant, and thus some things slipped through the cracks.

    Regardless, I still don’t think what I’ve seen suggests that plagiarism occurred. As you say, TR, and as I said in the OP, this sort of thing happens all the time when writers, doing their best to be fair to their sources, borrow from other writers. It’s an occupational hazard that’s best addressed at the individual level with careful citations and at the professional level with an acknowledgement that what’s happened here isn’t unusual at all.

    Reply
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