He was a recently retired big shot from DC, running a well-funded foundation, and he offered me something I desperately needed in graduate school: paid work. The money was good, and the job was fairly straightforward: research a particular issue and write a report. I think I probably assumed that the report was for internal consumption, though I don’t recall that he misled me in this respect. Regardless, I was shocked when the article came out. Not once did he mention that he intended to have it published in a trade publication. Nor did he tell me that he was going to put his name on it. This guy was a renowned intellectual superstar, a talking-head on CNN, a man who played golf with former presidents—and yet he was stealing from a lowly graduate student.
I soon learned that he’d been doing this sort of thing for decades, and that it had led to some awkward moments. A conference participant would ask him about something “he” wrote and he’d stare at them blankly, with an odd mixture of fear and confusion. A journalist would make an offhand reference to “his” work in an interview and he’d miss it entirely. This guy was paid a great deal of money because people thought he was that guy: the guy who did all of that groundbreaking research, the guy who wrote all of those landmark studies. But it now looks like he didn’t have much to do with that research. He probably didn’t write any of those reports either. Sometimes I wonder if he’s even read them.
What hypocrites we are! When our kids are in school, we preach a moralistic gospel of authenticity: don’t plagiarize, be yourself, speak in your own voice, and all the rest. But when they graduate, they enter a world wherein celebrities no longer write their own memoirs, politicians no longer write their own speeches, and CEOs no longer write their own emails.
We laugh at Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), which depicts a dystopian future wherein even love letters are written by paid professionals, but we’re practically there already. The leaders of our institutions—from banks to universities to governments to corporations, even high school principals—are increasingly little more than actors, reading from scripts, written by others.
There are those who say that this is an unavoidable outcome of an increasingly complex world, that our leaders are busier today than they’ve ever been before. But I don’t buy it. Are today’s leaders busier than, say, Lincoln during the Civil War? I seriously doubt it. And yet Lincoln’s wartime correspondence is extensive, all of it written in his own hand. Wrote all his own speeches too. Every single one.
Just as a healthy dog can put up with a whole lot of fleas, a healthy society can put up with a whole lot of bullshit artists, incompetent impostors, and non-contributing zeros. But there’s a limit. When I call 911 because my house is on fire, I need real firefighters to show up shortly thereafter, not actors impersonating firefighters. When I’m rushed to the emergency room after a nasty car accident, I need a real surgeon to operate on me, not an actor impersonating a surgeon. When I get on an airplane, I need a real pilot to fly the plane, not an actor impersonating a pilot. And when I’m trying to make intelligent political choices during an election campaign, I need to hear from the candidates themselves, not their speechwriters.
The first part of Robert Musil’s unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities (1930) tells the story of a 32-year-old mathematician named Ulrich, a thoroughly boring guy who is, alas, tragically, smart enough to recognize that something’s missing. Ulrich lacks spirit, and he’s utterly devoid of passion—that much is clear early on. Before long, however, it becomes clear to the reader that his predicament is considerably worse than it seemed at first blush. What Ulrich lacks are well-defined virtues and well-defined vices: his strengths are as insipid as his weaknesses. And his inner life is, as a consequence, dry as a desert.
Just as the hermit crab discovers, much to his chagrin, I imagine, that he cannot produce his own shell, Ulrich realizes, early on in the novel, that he simply cannot come up with his own ideas, nor can he connect the ideas of others to his lived experience (and thus make them his own). As such, he seeks to appropriate the ideas and examples of others. Like the intellectual equivalent of a hermit crab, Ulrich crawls through his culture, naked and nervous, searching for a suitable shell to steal. Are we not now surrounded by Ulrichs? Are we not ruled by them?
—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)