Friday, March 4, 2011

Baron Cut and Paste

Charlie Sheen and the Baron Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jakob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg have something in common. For a brief period, and at roughly the same time, both have dominated the news, one in the United States, one in Germany, and reminded us just what fools we mortals can be.

The parallel ends there, though. In the American case, watching Charlie Sheen’s wheels come off his wagon has had zero redeeming social value. Focusing on him says more about us than about him. If we had any decency, we’d turn away. Instead, every comedian, every TV talk show, everybody has had a heyday with poor Charlie. As a San Francisco columnist put it this morning, we are like the folks that used to go down to Bedlam and watch the antics of the insane. We get a good laugh and we feel superior. Bully for us.

The German case is different. The situation there held German society up to the light and exposed a whole bunch of dismaying facts about how it works, and a couple encouraging ones, as well. Charlie’s story showed only that we can be weak. The Baron KT’s case has revealed that, and a whole lot more.

“Baron Googleberg,” as he is being called, or “Baron Cut and Paste,” has fallen on his face from a very high place. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was on his way to the very top. He went from being head of the CSU in Bavaria, and thus part of Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU ruling party administration, to Economics Minister and from there to Defense Minister. Until a few weeks ago, when it was revealed that he had plagiarized almost half of his doctoral dissertation in law at the University of Bayreuth. Pretty hot stuff, when it comes to political scandals.

What’s baffling about the Freiherr (=Baron) Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jakob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester von und zu Guttenberg (from and of the place that carries the family name)’s case is why a man in his position would ever take such a risk. It has gotten harder to copy other people’s stuff now that everybody knows how to use search engines. You can type in text and see instantly whether it has been lifted. My first thought was this guy can’t be too bright.

But if he’s stupid, you have to wonder how he became such a rising star? What’s the story here? Is it, as some comedians suggest, simply explained by the fact that doctoral dissertations are so boring that nobody reads them? And he knew that? Is it that he’s so arrogant he didn’t think he’d ever have to explain himself? Is it that the internet has changed our attitudes toward intellectual property? Is it that nobody has very high expectations of politicians in the first place? How about the possibility that being young and handsome, rich, married to beauty and brains just sets you up for a fall? All sorts of questions like these are flying around as the dust settles. Germany seems to be polarizing around him. The right is claiming the left, with all those effete intellectuals and their witch hunting media friends are out to get this hero. The left is claiming the scandal is worse than it first appeared. It’s more, they say, than just about the theft of intellectual property. Now the real problem is the arrogance of wealth and power behind first his denial of the story entirely, then an attempted cover-up, and now into a battery of outrageous arguments – he’s too good to lose, the crime was trivial, he’s only human.

Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jakob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester von und zu (when you've got a "zu" you have a whole lot more than just a "von"), age 39, is not only German nobility himself. He is married to nobility, as well. His wife Stephanie is the great great granddaughter of Bismarck. Moreover, she is as popular in her own right as he is, as a talk show host and author of a book on child abuse.

To a lot of people, plagiarizing is something like jaywalking. Not smart. Not legal. But forgiveable.

I don’t share that view. I taught writing for over twenty years and I lived with plagiarism always just around the corner. No matter how much time I spent teaching students how to summarize and paraphrase, the temptation to simply reproduce text without attribution was ever-present and I dealt with it constantly. My encounters with plagiarists were pretty small potatoes compared with the fall from grace of Germany’s Minister of Defense for representing the work of other scholars as his own while working on a doctoral degree in law. But I developed the view that virtually all of my writing teacher colleagues held as well, that you don’t trivialize the importance of trust. My students were second language learners and largely unfamiliar with the concept of intellectual property. But I held them to an absolute standard of honesty, even at the early learner stage. KT’s failure to do this at the doctoral level – in a degree in law, no less, is something I consider no trivial matter.

I can understand why one might be inclined to show sympathy for KT. I’ve written a doctoral dissertation and am intimately familiar with the process. We used to say almost anybody could do it with not much more than average smarts, but only if they can find the stamina. It’s a humiliating process for many. You have your ego torn apart and built back up again in a feudal environment, and there are days when the challenges seem insurmountable. On top of it all, just when you get your confidence back and begin to sense you’re on the verge of accomplishing great things, your advisor tells you, “Don’t think of the dissertation as a life’s work – it’s a quick and dirty demonstration of your abilities and nothing more – save your first book for later; just get it done.” I’ve known people who didn’t take that advice to eschew perfection and ended up dropping out. I have no trouble understanding how KT, when faced with such moments, might have crossed the line. It takes considerable clarity in your thinking not to cross that line.

If you don’t go into an academic profession, one has to ask why you would want a PhD in the first place. The obvious answer for a politician and a businessman like KT is the prestige, which is probably especially relevant in Germany, where if you have two doctorates they call you Herr Doktor Doktor. In my case it was less a love of learning that motivated my returning to grad school, at least initially, than a desire not to be pushed around in third rate jobs. I’m not inclined to question people’s motives. Besides, while a politician doesn’t need a PhD, his dissertation was on constitutional law in the U.S. and Europe. He probably deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to motivation.

The question of KT’s motivation in getting a PhD would normally be irrelevant to the issue of plagiarism except for the fact that his defenders, including Angela Merkel, are downplaying his time in academia as insignificant. “I didn’t hire him to be an academic,” she said, implying we should judge him on his political qualifications and dismiss all this fuss about his academic ones.

Now that’s out of the frying pan into the fire, as far as I’m concerned. What a doctoral degree is supposed to represent is the ability to do independent research and be trusted to get it right. It’s a licensing mechanism. Historians, teachers, lawyers and other professionals are not as likely to have life and death decision power over you as doctors do, say, but anybody who has been led astray by lies (and sometimes even by just bullshit) can understand that the theft of intellectual property marks a thief as surely as the theft of a car or a purse. What you hope you get with a PhD degree is a top of the line bullshit detector, the ability to produce and evaluate information in the most useful possible way. When an academic (even a temporary one) is seen to be manipulating information instead of using it productively, you have the researcher equivalent of a shyster lawyer, a quack doctor, or an engineer who bypasses earthquake codes when building bridges and schools. If you think this is overly dramatic, give me a better rule of thumb for trusting strangers out in the world.

So this is where the story gets interesting for me. I wish KT no harm. In fact, I’d like to see him eat a little crow, show some sincere contrition, pick himself up and get back to business. Not that I agree with his politics. I read somewhere that he once tried to get a street in Berlin named for Ronald Reagan.

But what’s going on in Germany is disconcerting. Not only does Angela Merkel want to downplay KT’s little contretemps, to put it the way she sees it. KT’s own father baked him a cake with “We’re with you, KT” and held a little rally at the family castle in Guttenberg, complete with complaints about a witchhunt.

OK, so that’s just fatherly love. What about the YouTube called “We love you, Gutti!” ? What about all those facebook sites? The Swiss magazine Blick reported the other day, that while 7500 people have signed on to a Facebook page called “Students and Academics against Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg”, and some 47,000 have formed a group called “Wir wollen Guttenberg nicht zurück (We don’t want Guttenberg back),” two other groups have formed on Facebook, one with some 400,000 signatories, called “Gegen die Jagd auf Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg” (“Against the (witch) hunt on Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg”) and one with 563,897 signatories, and counting, called “Wir wollen Guttenberg zurück. (We want Guttenberg back.)”

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. Beside the fact that at least one site is claiming the pro-KT Facebook figures are a fake, is this a Rorschach test of German society, with the masses falling for a handsome prince and his lovely princess? Have they drunk the Kool-Aid and come to believe it’s all a leftist plot? A witch hunt? That Germany has so few good politicians that we can’t afford to lose this winner of a guy? What are we to do with all the new information coming out about how KT maybe wasn’t in charge as Defense Minister and failed to get the story straight about a death of a German soldier in Afghanistan? And what about that alleged mutiny in the navy, when a sailor refused to climb a sail after somebody fell to his death? And what about his claim to management experience when appointed economics minister? Is his “company” a real company? Or simply a cover for the family fortune? Are these issues that were properly put to rest? Or should they be reinvestigated? Is this lefty mudslinging? Or sloppy investigative journalism put right at long last?

I’m greatly encouraged by the fact that some 63,609 doctoral and other students and researchers have signed a letter of protest over Merkel’s attempted trivialization of the plagiarism. And they’re not mincing words. The letter speaks of “massive, systematic deception,” and shows serious annoyance at being written off as “footnote fanatics” from the “ivory tower.”

The rallies scheduled in twenty German cities in support of KT have pretty much gone up in smoke. Where some showed up, they were met with others in a counter protest. That probably says as much in the long run as the pro-KT “likes” on Facebook.

The consequences of the scandal are still unfolding. Merkel could conceiveably lose the next election over this. KT’s plans to reduce the size of the German army dramatically could be overridden by his successor as Defense Minister, Thomas de Maizière. From KT’s own perspective, the negatives must appear pretty daunting. The media are all over him. Der Spiegel is calling this scandal Xeroxgate. Bayreuth University has taken back his law degree. And people all over Germany are picking up the pieces. Imagine how his dissertation advisor, Peter Häberle, feels at this moment. He’s apparently gone into hiding.

Whether KT does some serious revising of his personal ethical code and comes out the wiser, or whether he allows the mass support for him, as well as voices in his conservative party framing him as a victim, to turn his head, remains to be seen. Where he goes from here is anybody’s guess.

There’s even a group trying to make him King of Bavaria.

Wouldn’t that put them effete intellectuals and all their plagiarism nonsense in their place.


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