A little over a year ago, Doubleday published a study of the rise of neoconservatism called They Knew They Were Right. The book has the trappings of a serious work of original research, such as extensive endnotes about primary sources, suggesting that its author, Jacob Heilbrunn, had toiled in archives and periodical reading rooms. In a review that appeared in this magazine (“Out of Place,” June 23, 2008), Corey Robin argued that in its materials and its method They Knew They Were Right is marred by blemishes large and small. Besides recycling lots of well-known history, Heilbrunn reuses without attribution the language, argument and research of several writers. Robin’s suspicions were aroused when he noticed that Heilbrunn had pilfered material from an article Robin had published in the London Review of Books. After he recovered from the mugging, Robin opened Heilbrunn’s book to a random page, arbitrarily chose a fact-laden passage and set about vetting it. This passage, too, was tarnished by shoddy sourcing. Robin then undertook a more systematic investigation, and after finding several dozen instances of ambiguous sourcing, he concluded that “on at least two occasions, [Heilbrunn] expropriates the research of others without attribution. And on at least one occasion, he passes off the prose of another writer as if it were his own.”
When I learned in September that Anchor Books would be publishing a paperback edition of They Knew They Were Right, I sent Robin’s review to Anchor’s editorial department. In an accompanying note I explained that Heilbrunn and Doubleday hadn’t replied to Robin’s review. That is, the author and his publisher hadn’t challenged the claim that the book contains passages of stolen material, and that the similarities between the passages point to a larger pattern of unacknowledged sourcing and plagiarism that can’t be attributed to chance or dismissed as innocent mistakes. This I found peculiar. Did the author of They Knew They Were Right really think he had done nothing wrong?
A reply from Anchor never arrived, but a change in the paperback edition of They Knew They Were Right, which appeared in January, reveals that Heilbrunn (or his editor) read Robin’s review. The passage with material lifted from Robin’s London Review of Books article has been retrofitted with a modifying clause: “As Professor Corey Robin has noted…” Heilbrunn doesn’t identify the LRB article as his source–a typical lapse that makes the correction cosmetic. Why name-check Robin but not cite his article? And which is ultimately worse: the original error or the botched, if not disingenuous, correction? Stranger still is the fact that Heilbrunn corrected the least egregious offense flagged by Robin, leaving unmodified other instances of unattributed expropriation, including language harvested verbatim from a 1981 article by Patricia Derian about President Reagan’s human rights policies (see box below). By choosing only to right the wrong done to Robin, the author of a critical review of his book, Heilbrunn seems to have mistaken an intellectual offense for a personal one. Either he doesn’t understand the evidence of plagiarism presented by Robin or he just doesn’t care.
If They Knew They Were Right is careless, parasitical and occasionally dishonest, the paperback publication of the title is disheartening. Launched in 1952 by Jason Epstein, an editor at Doubleday, Anchor is one of the country’s oldest and most eminent publishers of trade paperbacks. As Epstein explained in an article in Publishers Weekly in 1974, the idea behind Anchor was to reissue out-of-print hardcover titles in inexpensive, well-designed paperback editions tailored to “a much smaller and more specific audience, mainly academic, literary, highbrow–specialized in these and other ways.” Success came quickly. By 1954 Anchor’s sales “were over six hundred thousand copies for the year,” writes Kenneth Davis in Two-Bit Culture (my source for Epstein’s remarks), reaching beyond the target readership at universities to local booksellers. The titles flying from the racks included Theodor Herzl Gaster’s The Dead Sea Scriptures, William Whyte’s The Organization Man, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and Robert Graves’s Good-bye to All That. With its sloppy sourcing and borrowed reasoning, They Knew They Were Right is a blot on all that.
Since the publication of They Knew They Were Right, Heilbrunn has been busy contributing articles to the “Week in Review” section of the Sunday New York Times and to the paper’s Book Review. The editors of the Book Review found They Knew They Were Right worthy enough to be among their 100 Notable Books of 2008. The economy may be drowning in toxic debt, but the paperback reincarnation of They Knew They Were Right, an altogether different species of bad paper, suggests there’s still nothing like failing upward.
Heilbrunn, They Knew They Were Right:
For example, on April 30, 1981, [Reagan] remarked, “Even at the negotiating table, never shall it be forgotten for a moment that wherever it is taking place in the world, the persecution of people for whatever reason…persecution of people for their religious belief…that is a matter to be on that negotiating table or the United States does not belong at that table.” But the New York Times reported on the same day that “after the speech, a White House spokesman said Mr. Reagan had not meant to alter his policy of playing down the rights issue in foreign relations.”
Derian, “Some of Our Best Friends Are Authoritarians,” The Nation (November 7, 1981):
On April 30, The New York Times quoted President Reagan as having said that “even at the negotiating table, never shall it be forgotten for a moment that wherever it is taking place in the world, the persecution of people for whatever reason…persecution of people for their religious belief…that is a matter to be on that negotiating table or the United States does not belong at that table.” In the same edition of The Times, a front-page story reported that “after the speech, a White House spokesman said Mr. Reagan had not meant to alter his policy of playing down the rights issue in foreign relations.”
Reagan was initially rather disdainful of human rights, which he showed unmistakably by nominating Ernest Lefever, a member of the Committee on the Present Danger as well as the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center (which Abrams himself would head in the 1990s), to be assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. Lefever had declared that human rights were irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy and, furthermore, that any legislation making foreign aid conditional on a nation’s observance of human rights should be repealed. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which had a Republican majority, rejected his nomination.
The President nominated Ernest Lefever to be Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. Lefever’s publicly stated views on the subject were (a) that all legislation making foreign aid conditional on a nation’s observance of human rights should be repealed and (b) that human rights had no place in U.S. foreign policy. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with a Republican majority, handed the President his first important defeat by voting 13 to 4 to reject the nomination.