Of Plagiarism and Dead Polar Bears

Sad: Knut, the world famous polar bear from the Berlin Zoo, died yesterday, aged only four which even by polar bear standards is no age to die at all. It seems as if Knut lived his short life under an unlucky star, for Knut’s surrogate dad, zookeeper Thomas Dörflein, also died much too young only two and a half years before.

Actor Michael Gough also died yesterday, though he lived a much fuller and longer life than Knut and his keeper and lived until the age of 94. Michael Gough is best remembered as Alfred, the Butler, in Tim Burton’s Batman films of the 1980s and 1990s, but he also appeared as the Celestial Toymaker in a largely lost Doctor Who story and as the mad scientist inventor of the Cybernaut robots in The Avengers. Whatever he was in, he was always fabulous.

The New York Times runs, more than two weeks late, a very stupid and clueless article about the Guttenberg plagiarism case. This one is so wrong I don’t even know where to begin.

Apparently, Americans – or at least this particular American journalist – are unable to comprehend that though hardly anyone in Germany cares about what our politicians are doing in their bedrooms, we do care when a government minister commits fraud. Because that’s what plagiarizing a doctoral thesis is, fraud.

And if Barack Obama or a member of his cabinet had been found to have gained an academic degree via fraud, I am pretty sure that the scandal in the US would be just as big, if not bigger. Hell, certain fringe groups in the US are busily inventing fake scandals such as Obama is not an American citizen or he is a secret muslim, since there are no genuine ones.

As for Americans not being upset that Martin Luther King apparently plagiarized part of his dissertation, a) some of them are apparently quite upset* even years after the case came to light, b) Martin Luther King has been dead for more than forty years, the alleged plagiarism has been known for twenty, so it’s not exactly a current case and c) unlike Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, Martin Luther King actually achieved many accomplishments that have nothing to do with whether or not he came by his doctorate honestly.

As for the allegedly huge public support for Guttenberg, I have seen the figures, but I’m not sure what to make of them. Because at least in my environment, there is very little support for Guttenberg. I have met only two or three people who supported him without question and that was very shortly after the scandal broke and the full extent of his plagiarism was not yet known. Everybody else is against Guttenberg. And it’s not just academics who call for his resignation either. Plumbers, hairdressers, roofers, 14-year-old boys, people who regularly read the tabloid Bild, which has become the prime Guttenberg cheerleader – all of them think he’s a fraud. So I don’t know where the huge numbers supporting Guttenberg come from – maybe he has a lot more support in the South of Germany – but I just don’t see it.

As for the New York Times article and its smug “Germany is finally falling for celebrity culture” verdict, that’s bullshit. Most of my students are eager viewers of Germany’s Next Top Model or Deutschland sucht den Superstar, the German version of the Pop Idol show. However, while they may believe that talent and casting shows are a good way to determine the next pop star or supermodel, very few of them would agree that casting shows are a good way of finding political leaders. People in general are not that stupid and while they consume the products of celebrity culture, the casting shows and gossip mags and all that jazz, they are not fooled in taking them seriously. Guttenberg tried to do politics the American way, he never met a talkshow he didn’t like and presented himself and his pretty blonde wife as a gossip mag and tabloid dream couple. And some people may have fallen for it, part of the time. But in general, we still prefer our politicians to be able to do their jobs rather than look good on the cover of a gossip mag. And that’s a very good thing.

*And isn’t it telling that the e-mail quoted by Snopes drags the sex into it again? What is even more telling is that the main point of contention seems to be whether or not the women in question were white. Sigh.

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