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Surely You’re Joking: The Attack on Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein’s new book The Invisible Bridge, is sure to anger some conservatives who think Ronald Reagan qualified for sainthood long ago. And it angered one Reagan lover in particular, Craig Shirley, who runs a PR firm for clients like Ann Coulter and Citizens United, and who wrote a book about Reagan 10 years ago that Perlstein cites extensively in his book.

But now Shirley is hallucinating that Perlstein didn’t cite his book, and is accusing him of plagiarism. Shirley’s lawyer, Chris Ashby, wrote to Simon & Schuster, making what might be among the most audacious demands in the history of publishing, for the destruction of the book and the payment of $25 million in damages:

Mr. Shirley demands that all printed copies of The Invisible Bridge be withdrawn and destroyed. If Simon & Schuster decides to re-issue The Invisible Bridge. Mr. Shirley demands proper attribution for each and every piece of his work that Mr. Perlstein has quoted, paraphrased, used or otherwise relied upon. Likewise, digital copies should be revoked and replaced. And given the extent of the infringement—and what we believe to be its knowing and willful nature—Mr. Shirley also demands $25 million in damages and a public apology from Simon & Schuster and Mr. Perlstein, to be run as an advertisement in/on The Nation, New Republic, Newsweek, The New York Times, Salon, Slate and The Washington Post.

Paul Krugman has called this smear of Perlstein “grotesque,” but the New York Times media article by Alexandra Alter called Shirley’s complaints “the most serious accusations” against Perlstein, without bothering to contact any experts who could easily point out that they aren’t serious at all.

I’ve written extensively about the issue of plagiarism, and even defended Alan Dershowitz against charges of plagiarism. I haven’t read Perlstein’s book, but nothing cited by Shirley’s lawyer comes even close to plagiarism. The worst thing Perlstein is guilty of might be using the same words “festooned” and “dissolving” as Shirley did in describing a couple of scenes. It’s not plagiarism, it’s paraphrasing, and it’s commonly used to describe the atmosphere at a historical event, where you want to be as accurate as possible without losing the narrative in a string of quotes from historians.

This whole controversy apparently started with a complete misunderstanding by Shirley about Perlstein’s decision to place endnotes online rather than in the physical book. According to Shirley’s lawyer: “After realizing the book contained no bibliography, footnotes, end notes or other citations, Mr. Shirley initiated an exchange of e-mail messages in which Mr. Perlstein confessed to making a ‘principled decision’ to omit them because he thought they were ‘useless except for show.’”

Of course, Perlstein didn’t omit the endnotes and citations; he put them on his website, laboriously including links to every possible primary and secondary source. But Shirley (whose credibility in recounting these conversations is obviously questionable) mistakenly believed that Perlstein had utilized Shirley’s book as a key reference without attribution, and then Perlstein bragged to him about how he thinks citations are “useless.” Anyone who glances at the thousands of citations for Perlstein’s book can see how absurd this idea is.

And then Shirley apparently deluded himself into thinking that Perlstein’s entire concept of writing a book about Reagan had been stolen, along with much of its content, from Shirley’s own book. According to David Weigel at Slate, “It did not matter to Shirley that Perlstein had put citations online.”

That’s a shocking admission, because it matters a great deal. Online citations are a perfectly legitimate means of sourcing—in fact, Perlstein’s approach is superior to conventional footnoting because it allows readers to click on many of his sources and read the original work themselves, which is hardly the tactic of a plagiarist. Yet Fred Barnes at the Weekly Standard lies to his readers by declaring that “there are no footnotes in Perlstein’s book.”

Of course, Shirley’s lawyer eventually did figure out that Perlstein’s endnotes were online. But by that point, he already had a job to do, and so claimed that the many citations of Shirley in the endnotes were just further proof of theft:

Mr. Perlstein’s source notes also establish just how important Reagan’s Revolution was to him as he wrote The Invisible Bridge. Indeed, we think it is unlikely that Mr. Perlstein even could have completed his book without Mr. Shirley’s book.

The idea that Perlstein could not have finished his book without Shirley is completely laughable. In fact, Perlstein was extremely gracious in his book to Shirley, thanking him in the acknowledgements for saving him “3.76 months of work.” All historians utilize the work of those who preceded them, and 3.76 months is a rather small proportion of the time Perlstein spent on this book. A simple glance at Perlstein’s thousands of endnotes shows how extensive his research was, and what a small proportion of the work relied upon Shirley’s book. It’s ludicrous to imagine that Perlstein’s in-depth critique of Reagan is nothing more than the theft of a hagiography by a conservative hack.

Shirley’s lawyer complains in his letter threatening a lawsuit that

Mr. Perlstein’s blanket, backhanded reference to Mr. Shirley in the acknowledgements section of his book—he quips that Mr. Shirley “saved [him] 3.76 months of work”—is unavailing, particularly because it fails to mention Reagan’s Revolution by name.

It’s difficult to imagine a more petty complaint than, “you didn’t plug my 10-year-old book while you were thanking me.” Did Shirley really imagine that his book sales would skyrocket if his book was mentioned in the acknowledgements?

Shirley’s lawyer also claims that Perlstein uses “facts and ideas Mr. Shirley first discovered.” Yes, he does. It’s called research. But other claims in the lawyer’s letter are more obviously false, such as accusing Perlstein of “attempting to pass off information gleaned in interviews as if he had conducted them himself,” which, of course, nothing in those passages cited does.

And Shirley’s lawyer even constructs a bizarre conspiracy theory: “Mr. Perlstein actually called Mr. Shirley to discuss the work, much like a hit-and-run driver might return to the scene of his crime or lurk in his victim’s hospital lobby.” Or, much like a historian might call a writer in attempting to verify the sources for what he had published. What Shirley imagines to be some kind of criminal hunting him down to steal his work and then taunt him is, in fact, perfectly normal work for a top-notch scholar like Perlstein.

Shirley’s smears against Perlstein are part of a conservative effort to slam a liberal critic of Reagan. Even more disturbing that Shirley’s false accusations is this campaign to actually ban the book from being published and demanding $25 million (why not $1 billion, if you’re making up fictional numbers for nonexistent harms?).

Perlstein deserves to receive a critique based on the merits of his book, not unbelievable accusations of plagiarism that lack any foundation.

About John K. Wilson

Author of "Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies."

5 comments on “Surely You’re Joking: The Attack on Rick Perlstein

  1. professor_at_large
    August 6, 2014

    In response to “It’s not plagiarism, it’s paraphrasing,” the reader is referred to almost any college manual on plagiarism. For an analysis of how the failure to recognize that unattributed paraphrasing is regarded as plagiarism in Anglo-American academia has been a problem in China, cf. http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/68/1/41.abstract.

    • Lauren Leach-Steffens
      August 6, 2014

      Except that the paraphrased areas were extensively cited in this case.

      • professor_at_large
        August 6, 2014

        The blog posting was not at all clear that the paraphrases were attributed; indeed, the impression given by the sentence quoted in my comment was that they need not be when paraphrasing — which is, of course, not the case. It is good that this point has now been cleared up.

  2. Aaron Barlow
    August 6, 2014

    Thanks, John! All scholarly work depends on the work that went before. One responsibility of the scholar is to keep track of the immediate sources of her or his work and provide them for future scholars. Perlstein has quite clearly done that.

    Ultimately, what Shirley is claiming, what many claim who want more control over Intellectual Property, is that what he did is original while anything that came later is derivative. That’s nonsense, and it has always been so.

  3. Pingback: Rick Perlstein’s Link Rot | Zachary M. Schrag

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