The Bad-Faith Defenders of Progressive Plagiarism

It’s been just over two weeks since I first called attention to signs of possible plagiarism in the works Kevin M. Kruse, a history professor and left-wing political commentator for MSNBC. Princeton University, where Kruse teaches, is reportedly conducting an investigation into the matter. Kruse’s Twitter feed, which normally contains a heavy stream of political content, went suspiciously silent after the story broke. Other academics reviewed the evidence, including side-by-side textual comparisons. While initial responses were muted, most who weighed in conceded that it looks bad for the Twitter-famous historian. As the Chronicle of Higher Education summarized, “what Kruse did in those instances is, by almost any definition, plagiarism. And it is certainly plagiarism under Princeton’s guidelines, which specifically say that sloppiness is not an acceptable excuse.”

At the same time, other historians on the progressive left rushed to Kruse’s defense. Rather than engage with the evidence of academic misconduct, their primary tack consists of redirecting their ire onto my motives for bringing that evidence to light. Brian Rosenwald, the co-editor of the Washington Post’s ‘Made By History’ blog, accused me of conducting a “poisoned search” for plagiarism and called on the profession to “ignore it — especially when the purported misdeed is decades old.” Joshua Zeitz, a historian and editor for Politico, tweeted “it’s bullshit and it’s a hit job.” Magness’s “motive counts” when assessing what to do about Kruse’s offenses, he continued.

Eladio Bobadilla, a history professor at the University of Kentucky, paired this line of deflection with an unfounded conspiracy theory that suggested the Koch Brothers were paying me to investigate Kruse. “[W]e should also understand that those leading the attacks are bad-faith actors with lots of (Koch and similar orgs’) money, lots of resources, lots of time, and lots of hate,” he tweeted. Kruse’s misconduct was wholly secondary in his mind to what he labeled an “ideological” attack, as if that somehow obviated the evidence of plagiarism. It warrants mention that Bobadilla wrote his dissertation under Nancy MacLean, and was her primary research assistant on Democracy in Chains. He is therefore no stranger to responding to substantive scholarly criticism by bombarding the critic with unfounded paranoias about ‘Dark Money’-fueled conspiracies…or gratuitous allegations of racism and bigotry thrown in for good measure.

The most elaborate defense of Kruse came in a widely circulated Medium post by historian Lora Burnett, who declared me “a bad-faith actor whose primary aim is to discredit rather than to improve the practice of academic history.” I’ve tangled with Burnett before, most notably in 2017 when she flooded the internet with bizarre conspiracy theories portraying me as a hired gun who created an “astroturfed conflict” around Nancy MacLean’s widely-discredited book Democracy in Chains. In her most recent post, Burnett rails against me for the sin of embarrassing Kruse, a celebrated progressive academic, “at a time when the historical profession itself is under attack.”

So what exactly did I do that qualified as “bad faith” in the eyes of these historians?

As I previously detailed, I stumbled upon the first signs of possible plagiarism while writing a review of Kruse’s 2015 book One Nation Under God. I examined the book for strictly academic reasons. I specialize in the history of American libertarianism, and Kruse wrote a story claiming to tie mid-20th century free market economists to the modern Religious Right. The discovery of questionable textual similarities in that work heightened my scrutiny. When I started the first chapter of White Flight, another of Kruse’s books and the basis of his essay for the New York Times’ 1619 Project, additional red flags went up. On a hunch, I checked another suspicious passage against Kruse’s doctoral thesis, and quickly discovered several lines of text that appeared to be lifted from another source without any quotation marks or footnotes. My “crime,” it seems, was scholarly diligence while reading these texts.

Tellingly, none of Kruse’s defenders dispute the evidence as presented, although they do try to downplay its severity. According to Rosenwald, Kruse’s main offense occurred in a “decades old dissertation” that now warrants the benefit of a statute of limitations. Burnett repeatedly declared that I had found “only six sentences” from the dissertation that “constitute the sum of Kruse’s plagiarism.” Other questionable passages in Kruse’s more recent works, mostly consisting of near-verbatim sentences that included footnote citations but not the requisite quotation marks, were simply “paraphrasing” and, according to Burnett, in line with the practices of “standard and responsible historical scholarship.”

This exonerative claim is at odds with odds with Princeton’s guidelines on plagiarism, which state “If even one phrase is good enough to borrow, it must be properly set off by quotation marks.” It also marks a sharp reversal in Burnett’s own stance. In 2016, she fumed on Twitter about a different plagiarism scandal. The accused party had used “near-identical passages…just lifted” from another author’s work. “[T]he ‘copy the whole passage, but alter one word here or there so it’s not identical’ tactic,” Burnett continued, “is plagiarism.” The perpetrator in this case was not a progressive academic though. It was Melania Trump, who appeared to have lifted several lines in a speech from remarks by her predecessor Michele Obama.

Intellectual inconsistencies of this type reveal the toll that activism extracts from academic rigor. In a curious development for the history profession, the definition of plagiarism now appears to shift as a matter of political convenience. At least in the mind of some historians, the time-honored practice of carefully scrutinizing texts and sources no longer applies when it reveals embarrassing patterns in the work of an ideological ally.