So what if President McCain goes to war?

I’ve cornered three plagiarists in my time, and each defended him or herself very differently. The first denied any malfeasance had occurred despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary; the second reacted quite politely, resignedly; and the third went completely mental, threatening to sue me and leaving long recitations about defamation law on my answering machine. The only generalization I can offer is that plagiarists are prone to bizarre, self-defeating arguments, including the following:

  • There were no other words available in the English language with which to make the point in question.
  • The original author of the text wouldn’t mind, or, I have a contractual arrangement allowing me to pass off the author’s work as my own.
  • Perhaps a third party is the real author, and both I and the person you think I plagiarized simply forgot to add quotation marks.
  • I was on a tight deadline.
  • I’m not the only one who does it.

I always assumed these flailing rationalizations were simply the result of adrenaline rushing ill-advisedly to the aid of writing careers. But having seen various people repeat them, and others, on behalf of a plagiarist this week—not just war room staffers, but pundits—I don’t know what to think anymore. Just a few examples:

  • It was a long time ago (L. Ian MacDonald and the National Post editorial board)
  • John Howard wouldn’t care (Thomas Walkom, whose column is actually way better than I originally gave it credit for, and the NP)
  • All politicians who use speechwriters are “guilty of intellectual theft.” (Walkom)
  • Stéphane Dion plagiarizes too (NP)

Whoever copied and pasted the relevant sections of John Howard’s speech into Stephen Harper’s is clearly guilty of plagiarism as Webster’s defines it, but that doesn’t really matter. I think the Liberals do well not to even use the p-word, since it seems to engender all these weird, tangential debates. What matters is not who copied-and-pasted it or even whether the Prime Minister knew (though that would make it even worse). What matters is the simple fact that the speech was delivered. The leader of the opposition, now our Prime Minister, made a case for Canada to go to war that had largely been authored in freaking Australia. My mind still recoils at the idea. It’s just… wretched, even before you factor in what a disaster the war turned out to be.

John Geddes asked yesterday, “Who is accountable for what a member of Parliament says in the House of Commons?” It’s a good question, but many observers still seem fixated on who’s responsible for the plagiarism per se. If the Lippert Scenario is true, then we have our answer: Owen Lippert. Taking responsibility for other people’s actions, and demanding others do so, can be politically advantageous, but as far as I’m concerned it’s just moral exhibitionism. The accountability I’m interested in is, did Harper or any of his team take the time to question the facts as presented by the war’s leading proponents? Did any critical thought whatsoever go into their pro-war stance? And in what way have Harper and his team changed since then, to ensure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again?

Anti-Harper partisans have their answers, of course, and will think these questions naive. But that doesn’t excuse Harper of his responsibility to provide them to Canadians who are willing to give him some benefit of the doubt. The embarrassment of that speech will, and should, linger with him no matter who’s responsible. But the slack-jawed incuriousness it represents may well linger with us all, way up in the highest office in the land. We deserve, at the very least, contrition, and an explanation.

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