Hoo sez?

The only thing original on this planet is sin.

I can document that. A gentle reader or two might reject my scriptural and patristic references — may say that the whole idea is bosh — but in old-fashioned journalistic terms, I’m home free. I can source my claim. Alternatively, if I didn’t source it, I could be had for plagiarism.

Often I was, towards the bitter end of my strange, accidental, journalistic “career.” Or at least it would be “tried on.” There seemed to be a little committee of liberals and progressives who went to work with their Internet search engines after each column I wrote, in the hope that I had casually delivered myself up. They would search for some source I had not exhaustively identified (mere mention wasn’t good enough); for a phrase I might have copied; or failing that, perhaps an arithmetical error.

Best of all: some politically incorrect phrase or idea might be spotted, that had somehow got by my liberal and progressive editors, in which case the usual “formal complaint” could be made to the Press Council, or some Human Rights Tribunal.

In consequence of their ministrations, I must have become the most neurotically careful hack in the country. In surely ninety-nine cases of a hundred I was vindicated by the time-consuming “formal complaints process,” and never once nailed for anything deceitful. But their hopes sprang eternal.

I was the unique beneficiary of this editorial service, for the complainants ignored the innumerable liberal and progressive columns which appeared around mine on the editorial pages. And this notwithstanding whenever I read them, I found appalling moral judgements and egregious factual errors.

But the bread-and-butter work was for plagiarism. This is considered the most deadly of modern journalistic sins, although the guilty only copy each other’s clichés. They are supposed to change the wording slightly, especially when the cliché runs on for several paragraphs. Should the writer entertain “inappropriate” ideas — i.e. those which can’t be characterized as leftist twaddle — the standards for sourcing are extremely rigorous, and a fact, however obvious, must be backed up with reams of statistical data. In which case, they have you cold, for use of “inappropriate” sources.

At its worst, the Spanish Inquisition was more lenient. Blasphemy required some effort, and heresy precise wording, along with frequent repetition. Even then, you got plenty of warnings. Should one happen to read something about the actual history of the Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición, one discovers that it was a pushover, except when some powerful operator behind the scenes was using it to settle a personal score. In its heyday, Hollywood censorship was tighter. One has more or less the same experience in reading of Joe McCarthy: more sinned against than sinning.

But neither of these were much interested in plagiarism. Indeed, no one until recent decades cared to enforce the wilder demands of footnote culture, as result of which a writer like Shakespeare could get away with literary theft on almost every page. All the English writers, as all the Europeans, were lifting stuff from the Bible holus-bolus, as well as from each other.

Language, you see, is a communal enterprise, and it forms on mimetic principles. So, for better or worse, is thinking.