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Post Germany's Great Plagiarism Scandal
Created by John Eipper on 05/06/19 4:47 AM

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Germany's Great Plagiarism Scandal (David A. Westbrook, USA, 05/06/19 4:47 am)

In response to requests from Gary Moore and John Eipper (May 3rd), and as a way of taking notes for my own purposes, let me offer a few thoughts. While this is hardly the place to develop an epistemology, John's idea that the internet's capacities for "fact checking" makes fabrication obviously impossible, and hence some sort of cry for help, is an obvious thing to say, banal even. Internet => facts => deception impossible => cry for help.

Really? This bit of techno-naivete, worthy of the Jetsons (which now reads as brilliant sex farce, btw)--is as good a place as any to start. Some thoughts are so widely repeated, and superficially logical, that they lull us to sleep. "Terrorists are cowards," for example, was ridiculed in Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas and is with us still. What is interesting, and perhaps a clue, is that the statement that "the internet fact checks" both oversimplifies our own experience (I check facts constantly) and ignores how discourses work, especially on the internet, and so how we come to "know." Self-delusion, evidently, begins at home.

Isn't the age of the internet precisely the age of post-truth discourse? So how do we square our sense that "facts" are at our fingertips, literally, and yet . . . that doesn't matter as much as we once thought?

Here's a place to start. What is a "fact" is a difficult question, philosophically, but what one gets from the internet are statements. Some, by no means all or the most important, purport to report objective truths, that is, to be statements of fact. Still "statements of"--not facts themselves. I only know what I read, my late grandmother used to say, as if this stopped discussion.

Throughout his career Gary Moore has shown that "what I read" is often just the recycled version of what somebody else said, taken as fact. Statements of fact, repeated, become a kind of fact themselves, a fact that constitutes a discourse. But the fact may or may not be a more or less accurate description of what happened. Deaths in the Florida swamp, casualties in the Spanish Civil War, are "facts" that ought to be clearly ascertainable, but judging from WAIS discussion, are not. Relotius repeats "facts" of a sort--precisely the sort of facts one can get off the internet. And, Gary Moore points out, Der Spiegel's disavowal of Relotius does a fair amount of the same thing, i.e., repeating hearsay as truth, beyond quibble.

Note that the discourse depends on the fact's position, not the fact's precision. [Whites] [lynched] [number] of [blacks] in [Florida]. Each of the words in brackets is contestable, and has supported innumerable monographs. [Number] died at the hands of [Party] in the Spanish Civil War. And for Relotius, [Americans] are/tend to be [rapacious capitalist racists killers]. If such statements are plausible, i.e., not exiled from the discourse, then they are not exactly falsifiable except in their particulars. So we move from "fact checking" to questions of plausibility, and, at least in the case of an individual journalist like Relotius, falsifiability.

If I may be permitted my own naivete, investigative journalism (like anthropology) relies on facts of a different sort. I saw _____; she told me ___; I went to _____. Such facts are not on the internet, unless the journalist converts them into statements and posts them. That is, what the investigative journalist actually offers is that which often cannot be checked directly. "Fact" as "witness" rather than "received statement."

Herein questions of trust, which is why the Spiegel/Relotius scandal cuts so deeply. By playing to his editorial and public audiences' expectations, Relotius presented himself as a good guy, worthy of trust. He spoke with authority. And if we are dealing not with "facts" but with "statements of fact," the question of the speaker's authority is inescapable. One of the problems with journalism in the US today is that large swathes of "content providers" have lost their credibility with large swathes of the population. Their "statements of fact" are received as arguments, if rarely outright lies.

But back to naivete: the journalist's individual statements of fact, derived from his own reporting rather than the internet, may not be checkable, but they may be falsified. Here is where Relotius, after only a few decades (!) ran into trouble. To have conducted interviews in a place, one must have visited. To have taken a picture means it cannot have appeared earlier, taken by someone else. And so forth. So Relotius overreaches, and here the armchair psychoanalysts might have a point.

As I hope to have suggested already, I don't think most of the questions that dominate our discussions turn on facts, at least not usually. This is hard for many Americans, who fancy themselves empirical pragmatists, to accept. So let me take an American approach: as general rule of US law, in a case on appeal, the facts are not in dispute, i.e., the factual record compiled by the trial court constitutes "the facts" for the purposes of the case. If the record is found to be wanting, the appeals court may remand (send back) the case, to establish facts that seem necessary to reaching a just decision. That is, every case pretty much anybody has ever heard of is not about the facts. As I like to tell my students, what passes for "facts"--commonly received wisdom about the world--are cheap. We swim in them, checking spelling and quotes as we write or even have a beer with friends. We all have search engines, or better, research assistants. So, I ask students, what do you have to say that is important and why?

The question of audience and plausibility brings us back to conformity. Why were so many German readers willing to let Relotius lull them? I think Gary oversteps to hear the echo of jackboots [couldn't resist]. There is indeed something deeply frightening, however, about how social groups converge on this or that narrative, determine themselves, build a discourse around this or that set of "facts." Perhaps it has always been so, i.e., that is what it means to have a culture, or a nation, or a community. Civilization breeds discontent, and, as I don't think Freud said, our civilization breeds discontents specific to it.

So it's hard to tell how much of German complacency with regard to Relotius should be chalked up to the national character, the traditional and not-unfounded stereotype of conformist thinking among the well-educated. I've certainly said such things over the years, sometimes to family members. But surely the Germans have no monopoly on conformist thinking. (After all, the Americans pay so much better.)

For whatever reason, I find myself more inclined to see this particular scandal in "European" rather than "German" terms. Regardless of whether it is more "German" or more "European" in character, however, this episode seems to me at least as much about fantasy as conformity. The US really is a mirror, or a Doppelgaenger, a point of reflection for wide swaths of Europe, as Europe remains a point of reference for many educated Americans ("in Sweden . . ."). And in that mirror they want to see cowboys, religious fanatics, tremendous wealth and crushing poverty--drama. Just like we want to see free love and justice for all . . .

I am going to close, but Gary is right to mention the way Relotius plays into liberal fantasy. Without speaking for Gary, I do not mean "fantasy" to be dismissive. Without fantasy (myth, religion) politics itself would be impossible, one of the things liberalism is ideologically constructed to deny. Weber was closer to the mark in speaking of "Politics as Calling," alluding to Luther--calling by whom, for what? So I am sympathetic to those who dream of politics and their own redemption, and who therefore enjoy reading about Syrian orphans and American militiamen, much as a previous generation enjoyed reading about virtuous slaves and cruel masters in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Bad things do in fact happen, and we in fact hope. But such "fantasies" aren't really about the "facts," now, are they?

JE comments:  It's great to start off the week with a David (Bert) Westbrook essay.  Aerobics for the brain. 

Bert never lets us rest in our comfy chair of superficial thinking.  I now realize I wasn't praising the internet for its ability to "fact-check," but rather to plagiarism-check.  I'm old enough to remember when a questionable student essay required half a day's library research (often two libraries, if the plagiarist had the source book checked out to cover his/her tracks).  Now you simply Google a suspicious sentence.  Don't even have to change out of your jammies.

Much to chew on here, but when the dust settles, I'd like to turn our attention to The Jetsons.  There's nothing more culturally revealing than vintage futurology.

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  • Stephen Glass, Precursor to Relotius (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 05/08/19 2:56 AM)

    Gary Moore writes:

    The Relotius/Der Spiegel fake journalism scandal in Germany is again
    illuminated by Bert Westbrook's thoughtful reply (May 6). I said on May 3
    that the hoax and mass illusion issues in the now-debunked investigative
    reports by super-reporter Claas Relotius may never be fully explored,
    because they lead into so many different complexities--a Black Forest
    (Relotius liked such imagery) of "Darn, Who-Woulda-Thought" moments,
    where expectations about "logical" behavior fall apart.

    Hence John Eipper's
    speculation that the blatant, seemingly unconcealable size of Relotius's
    whoppers sounds like a Freudianly displaced "cry for help." Was it? I agree
    with Bert about the pitfalls here, but also with John backhandedly, for
    something important is indeed whispering in the eerie blatancy. And
    its name is Stephen Glass.

    Parallel cases in matters of deception (JE mentioned the 1983 Hitler Diaries hoax
    that slammed Germany's Stern magazine) help point up pathological behavior
    patterns where our ordinary assumptions about self-interest or "practical behavior"
    are left sputtering like P. T. Barnum's sucker. Relotius has also been classed with
    Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke--though those two bygone journalistic hoaxers
    (New York Times 2002-03; Washington Post 1980-81) aren't the closest parallels.
    In the way that one spoiler single-handedly almost destroyed the credibility of
    an entire magazine--but also in more intriguing and mysterious ways--the
    corollary for Der Spiegel and Claas Relotius in 2018-2019 was at the New Republic
    in 1996-1998, when it was irreparably damaged, and credulous careers were ruined,
    by a popular, eager-to-please young reporter (and then suddenly editor, like
    skyrocketing Relotius), whose very name reminds that life runs deep. Through this
    glass darkly (or Spiegel?) swims the crazy-quilt of metaphorical glimpses that once
    also intrigued a bigger fish--Freud--and along the way defies post-Freudian glosses
    like the smug term "sociopath."

    Was Stephen Glass (b. 1972 in a sedate part of Chicago) an empathically deformed sociopath,
    when his 1990s Dotcom Bubble days suckered a parade of self-important and exquisitely educated
    editors into proving their own blindness? The "cry-for-help" possibilities in Glass were
    underscored but then immediately demolished--much like the temptation to pigeonhole
    a "sociopath"--by the specifics in his behavior, as documented considerately by his scam
    writings. Leave aside for the moment his subsequent career--and, astonishingly, the more
    recent parade of (rich and influential) people who now say he's just a nice guy who went bad
    for a little while. Let's focus instead on that pesky human x-factor, known to the Greeks as

    Glass's hoaxes in the New Republic were, repeatedly, so ornate, so convoluted, that
    they seem now to have been almost openly sneering at the stupidity of the trusting audience.
    His fake stories were studded not only with lies--but also with coy little asides and references
    about lying itself--as if to shout: "Hey. look what I can do! I can walk right out onto the farthest
    tightrope of your laughable credibility--and I can still get away with it!"

    Metaphor is by nature non-linear. Its impact radiates, many directions at once. That's
    why it's metaphor, and not just 2+2 = 4. Put this kind of cannon in the hands of a profoundly
    unfettered narcissist (who can happily ignore the risk to other people) and the mere basics of
    human communication are revealed as an abyss. Both Glass and Relotius grew so
    involved in self-congratulatory novelist's imaginings that they repeatedly showcased the
    process in stray passages of print, as if glorying to see how firmly the all-believing fishes
    were hooked. Both also, by the way, when finally forced, whimpered (what else could they do?)
    that they had been pushed to their mendacity by their own anxious, self-despising hunger
    for prestige.

    One of the few examiners who spotted the tells in Stephen Glass was journalist Mike Miner
    at the Chicago Reader: “Glass—at least in retrospect—had shown himself to be so enamored of deception
    that he plotted a con in the fiction he was passing off as journalism"--meaning even within the verbiage
    of a fake article, Glass would chortle to the reader overtly about how he had fooled a third party
    (also invented). For example, he wrote that he had cleverly introduced himself on the phone as a
    supposed representative of a laughably fake-sounding organization (the "AASWP"), adding that
    he had asked his (invented) sucker about "Werty, Iowa--a fictitious town." It took courage for
    Miner to try redeeming this mess in its own coin--by writing about the twists in the writing--because
    such metaphorical cluster-bombs jeeringly require tedious discussion, a communicational risk avoided
    by most of the self-righteous but hurried media voices denouncing the flawed Glass, and evidently never
    getting the joke.

    The prestige factor--and the way it can bend through the right kind of lens into gloatingly veiled
    put-downs of Everybody-But-Godly-Me--weaves a wider web in the specialized annals of hoax,
    to pick back up on Janet Cooke (who devastated her trusting editors when she had to give back an
    effectively rigged Pulitzer Prize in 1981), and Jayson Blair (whose New York Times supervisors just
    could not believe he would do this to them). Unlike Relotius and Glass, Blair and Cooke represent
    another stream in the frailty of manipulable cultural assumptions, for both are African American,
    facing added cultural pressures toward re-rigging an anciently rigged deck.

    This fantastically hazardous
    direction--far more dangerous to the examiner than the mere boredom of discussing metaphor--
    also circles back to Chicago, when the Great Migration of World War I produced not only one of
    the first African American millionaires but a mass deceiver on a scale rarely examined by historiography
    in search of icons. Robert Abbott, founder of his era's largest newspaper for African Americans,
    notoriously and flagrantly invented much of his "news" about distant lynchings in never-falsifiable
    backwaters of the Deep South--in what amounted to a scandal sheet festooned with predatory
    ads for skin whiteners, hair-straighteners and get-rich-quick cons. Abbott, too, seemed at times
    to fairly gloat at the way his hard-pressed readers could be deceived; even his bylined correspondents
    for supposed news stories--such as archly-named "Eugene Brown"--were apparently invented
    like the imagined events and fake characters they were reporting on. But was Abbott "crying for help"
    in this charade? Or conversely, was he really so pleased with his powers that he had to twist the knife?
    Such diagnoses are a bit like calling a locomotive an iron horse. Well, okay, if the imagery helps to
    designate the uncomprehended. But where's the steam boiler?

    Alas, Claas-Glass! The radiating spokes of metaphor force an examiner's choice.
    This one riddle --the cry-for-help-or-shouting-boast--leaves completely outside the
    viewfinder certain other revelations made by the glibly experimenting sorcerer's apprentice.

    There was, additionally, Claas Relotius's "liberal fantasy world" of anti-Americanism.
    Too large a world for now.

    JE comments:  Nice job, Gary; the Glass-Spiegel (window-mirror) metaphor goes perfectly here.  (I am reminded too of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which doesn't fit at all.)  Wikipedia tells us that Stephen Glass later attended law school, but has not been admitted to the Bar in either New York or California on morality grounds.  Ahem, aren't lawyers supposed to be good at lying, or at least at constructing plausible narratives?

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