A Trojan horse has passed through the gates of the academy, virtually unnoticed. The Sinon is Keith Miller, an assistant professor of English at Arizona State University and author of Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources (1992), and the subversive offering is his essay in the January 20 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Redefining Plagiarism: Martiir Luther King’s Use of an Oral Tradition.”

Considering the cowardliness and disingenuousness with which the scholarly community has greeted the revelations of King’s literary thefts, this call for a kinder and gentler definition of plagiarism in light of King’s chicanery is not surprising. Miller argues that King’s plagiarisms should not be condemned but rather “understood” in context of the “black experience.” Because King was black as well as a preacher, and because black preachers traditionally “voice merge” with one another by freely borrowing sermons without attribution. Miller concludes that King’s plagiarisms must have derived from his inability to separate himself from this homiletic tradition and to comprehend the standards of an alien “white” culture—this even after 11 years of higher education, three academic degrees, and a Boston University seminar on plagiarism and scholarly standards.

Since many minorities come from cultures rich in oral traditions, Miller urges the academy to redefine plagiarism to accommodate these “excluded” groups. To put this more bluntly, all legal claims to original thought and the interpretation of ideas must now be nullified in deference to multiculturalism, cultural relativism, and universal human rights. Like the long list of taboos to have fallen before it, plagiarism must now be updated and redefined in accordance with social progress. For “the process of securing fundamental human rights,” argues Miller, “such as those King championed—outweighs the right to the exclusive use of intellectual and literary property.”

To Miller’s chagrin, what’s good for the goose is apparently not also good for the gander. As copyright expert Robert Gassier points out in the February 24 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Dr. King vigorously defended his copyright in ‘I Have a Dream’ when others wanted to use it. (See King v. Mister Maestro, Inc. . . . 1963).” This is doubly interesting when one recalls that King plagiarized the famous climax to the “1 Have a Dream” speech from a 1952 address to the Republican National Convention by a little-known black preacher named Archibald Carey.

Miller is proud of where this revolution in standards will lead. “A lawyer asked mc for advice in defending a Native American student charged with plagiarizing papers in law school,” he states. “The student came from an oral culture, and could not immediately understand or obey the rules of written English. . . . King’s example thus is not an isolated case.” Indeed, Miller’s call for a new conception of plagiarism should have little trouble gaining the support of both the ABA and the U.S. Student Association, as “voice merging” is a godsend to lawyer and plagiarist alike.

Miller’s defense of King and his novel approach to plagiarism are both predictable. Polygamy, female circumcision, animal sacrifices, and witchcraft have all become acceptable so long as they are practices of preferred minorities, and if Mr. King seduced underage girls, then statutory rape must be redefined as mere erotic exuberance or as an assault on children’s rights. Miller’s sophistry and skewed logic produce just such absurdities. “Simply put,” he writes, “we face a contradiction: We wish to lionize a man for his powerful language while decrying a major strategy that made his words resonate and persuade.” Then for the howling non sequitur: “How could such a compelling leader commit what most people define as a writer’s worst sin? The contradiction should prompt us to rethink our definition of plagiarism.” And we should rethink drunk driving in light of Chappaquiddick and redefine adultery to accommodate King’s philandering.

In better days the follies of our heroes did not move us to subvert the moral underpinnings of our culture. Great falls were lamented but expected of Fallen Man; they were the unavoidable acts in the tragedy of life, and the lessons they taught formed the grist of our greatest literature. But a rhetoric of accountability has little appeal today and pales before the lure of “diseases,” “addictions,” and novel theories of human behavior that conveniently exonerate us from responsibility for our actions. Marion Barry, when caught cavorting with drug dealers and smoking crack cocaine while mayor of D.C., didn’t let down his constituency, make a mockery of political office, shirk his responsibilities, break laws, to say nothing of trivializing the real problems plaguing the black community. No, he simply had an addiction and needed a couple of months of counseling to build his self-esteem. Baseball star Wade Boggs, who blubbered on national television that he was “addicted to sex,” didn’t lie to his wife, neglect his children, and cheat his teammates and his fans by playing ball only halfheartedly when his wife rather than his mistress was watching from the stands; his “disease” did. And similarly with King. He didn’t take the words of others, claim them as his own, and then go to court to protect his purloined property. No, he simply acted within a rich but little appreciated tradition to which the majority culture must learn to be sensitive.

Miller, it should be noted, is white, which is not an inconsequential fact. For it is whites who have led the fight to palliate King’s plagiarisms and who have given new meaning to the term “whitewash.” It is the moguls of the majority culture in both the academy and the press who continue to praise Clayborne Carson of the King Papers Project for his “honesty” and “integrity,” even though Carson learned about King’s thefts in 1987 and admittedly lied about the evidence (while accepting public funds as an editor) for three years thereafter. Miller, in his book, even floats the absurdity that plagiarizing was perhaps King’s greatest gift to the country, for without stealing the words of white scholars and preachers for his articles and speeches. King could never have sold whites on the civil rights movement.

Jon Westling, John Silber, and Peter Wood of Boston University, as well as all but one member of the committee that B.U. convened to examine King’s thesis, arc also white. As the committee concluded in its September 1991 report, because King plagiarized only 45 percent of the first half of his dissertation and only 21 percent of the second, the thesis remains a legitimate and “intelligent contribution to scholarship” about which “no thought should be given to the revocation of Dr. King’s doctoral degree.” Funny, B.U. would give “no thought” to revoking King’s fraudulently earned doctorate, but when its own dean of the Boston University College of Communication, H. Joachim Maitre, stole numerous paragraphs from an essay by film critic Michael Medved for his May 1991 commencement address—a mere case of “voice merging”—it demoted him to the ranks. S. Paul Schilling, who was the second reader of King’s dissertation, states in a letter B.U. reproduces in its report that “it should be recognized that [King’s] appropriation of the language of others does not entail inaccurate interpretation of the thought of writers cited”—as if King deserves praise for stealing accurately—and notes that King was “operating on a very crowded schedule during most of the work on his dissertation”—as if theft is excusable if one is busy and in a hurry.

These embarrassing exonerations and rationalizations of King’s plagiarisms arc more damaging to blacks than if B.U. had revoked King’s doctorate. For by excusing King’s pilferings—and in Miller’s case, by excusing them as “a black thing”—King’s apologists are telling black scholars everywhere that they shouldn’t bother doing their own work, or worse, that no black can really pull his own weight, write his own papers, or actually become a professional like white people can. When Miller argues that the accomplishments of blacks should be held to different and clearly less-demanding standards, that they should be discounted in light of the “black oral tradition,” he takes a backhand to every black scholar honestly pursuing his craft.

Put simply, these specious attempts to exonerate King are primarily “a white thing,” not a black. This is hardly surprising. They appear, in fact, strikingly similar to many other acts of penitence —such as affirmative action, quotas, and the race-norming of government exams—that a guilt-ridden white community has felt duty-bound to perform in expiation of racial sins, both real and imagined. But if they waft of something new, of something characteristic of our more “sensitive” and enlightened present, they just as surely smack of something very old, something redolent of the very age we have tried to exorcise and discredit. For these spurious rationalizations of King’s wrongdoings arc nothing if not also a manifestation of what Kipling termed the “white man’s burden,” of that pernicious form of paternalism that breeds lies and deceptions and that oppresses the very people intended to be uplifted.

This “whitewash” of King’s actions has many antecedents. It was the white media that appointed Jesse Jackson over Ralph Abernathy to succeed King at the head of the civil rights movement. They were the ones who publicized Jackson’s lies about cradling the dying King, who published the photographs of the bogus bloody shirt, and who since then have buried all mention of this particular act of crass opportunism for which King’s closest followers never forgave Jackson. Philip Nobile, whose expose in the February 23 issue of the Village Voice revealed the extent to which Alex Haley plagiarized and fabricated his “autobiography” Roofs, reminds us that it was an all-white, 17-man jury that awarded Haley the Pulitzer Prize for his stolen work of fiction. (Haley paid a $650,000 settlement in an unpublicized plagiarism suit shortly before he died.) “If we blew the Haley prize, as we apparently did, I feel bad,” William McGill—former president of Columbia University and an ex officio presence on the 1977 Pulitzer Prize board—told Nobile. “The answer to that question [whether race affected the board’s decision] is yes. . . . We all labored under the delusion that sudden expressions of love could make up for historical mistakes. . . . Of course, that’s inverse racism.”

Hustlers and hucksters like Malcolm X—”hustler” being Malcolm’s description of himself in his “autobiography,” written by Alex Haley—and the Reverend Al Sharpton, who still claims Tawana Brawley was molested by white racists, are also largely the creation of the white media. As is the infamous film on World War II by Nina Rosenblum and William Miles called The Liberators, which purports that the “true” liberator of Hitler’s most notorious concentration camps was an all-black unit of the U.S. Army. PBS televised the film nationally and hailed it as an invaluable look at a shamefully neglected aspect of world history; Hollywood plugged it as the “best documentary of the year” and quickly nominated it for an Academy Award; and yet the film has been quietly pulled from circulation, as even black veterans from the very unit supposedly responsible for the liberations have denounced it as balderdash and blatant propaganda.

Nietzsche believed “one may sometimes tell a lie, but the grimace with which one accompanies it tells the truth.” If our culture’s infatuation with lies is any indication, Nietzsche clearly underestimated the modern mastery of the straight face.