Block Quotes and Block Heads

Block Quotes and Block Heads

As you may have noticed, we tend to use block quotes quite frequently in our writing.

When we pitched the idea for The Dictatorship of Woke Capital to Encounter Books, Roger Kimball – who was already familiar with our work – responded with something like the following: “This sounds great, but please, please, PLEASE, limit the long quotes.  They make readers tune out quickly.”  He was (and is) right, of course.  Even we tend to zone out a bit when we come across long quotes.  And you will note that The Dictatorship contains only a handful of long quotes, roughly half of which come from a brilliant scholar of philosophy and culture named Roger Kimball (because I am NOT as dumb as I look).

Despite all of this, we continue to use block quotes in this format for a handful of reasons.

First, a newsletter is different from a book.  We have limited space, and more to the point, you have limited time.  Back in the old days (the 1990s), our stuff went out in print format exclusively, which meant that we had to give context to certain stories.  We couldn’t expect readers to know what news item we were referencing or to have access to it, even if they did.  For example, for much of the time that it was breaking stories about “Lippo-gate” and other Clinton fundraising scandals, almost on a daily basis, The Washington Times wasn’t distributed outside the metro area and didn’t even have a website.  As some of you old-timers may remember, we used to get reprint permission from the paper and then fax copies of important stories to our blast fax list.  Those…were the days.

The point here is that the block quotes were a convenience for our reader – and they still are.  Yes, we can and do provide hyperlinks to most stories we reference, but we also see the analytics every day.  We know that most of you don’t click links (unless they’re videos).  Most of you don’t have the time to read our stuff, in addition to the background material it’s based on.  Such is life in a busy, information-saturated environment.

A second reason we use block quotes is that it is extremely difficult to rewrite something as well as (or better than) it was written the first time.  We’re not going to summarize Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk or C.S. Lewis as well as Burke and Kirk and Lewis did.  And we aren’t going to pretend otherwise.

This is also the reason we quote ourselves so often.  If you’ve ever written something and then lost the document (because Bill Gates sucks or whatever), then you know that it is also very difficult to re-create something you have already written and nigh on impossible to re-create it as well or better than the first time.  We try sometimes, but not often because the failure rate is almost 100%.

A third reason that we use block quotes is because it is unambiguous.  Doing so ensures that readers know what text is ours and what text is someone else’s.  It also ensures that they know which ideas are ours and which ones we’ve borrowed.  When I started working for Melcher more than 27 years ago, he was very clear and very adamant about this latter bit.  “You lose nothing,” he used to say, “by giving proper credit to those whose ideas you admire.  More to the point, you gain nothing by claiming them as your own.  Readers can tell.  Smart people will always know better.  You diminish yourself as a writer by pretending otherwise, no matter how smart you think it makes you sound.”

An unintended but welcome side-benefit of citing people for their ideas, in addition to their text, is that it has occasionally made us new (and smart) friends.  Most of the “old friends” we cite in these pages are people Melcher knew long before I started to work with him and whom I know because of him.  Most of the rest are people to whom we were introduced by our old friend and former colleague (and founding partner at Capital Alpha Partners) the ubiquitous Jim Lucier.  A Few of them, however, are people who saw that we had quoted them and reached out to say thank you or hello or whatever.  The truly delightful real-life Indiana Jones Fred Starr is one such friend.

An additional fringe benefit of over-citing and over-quoting is that we have never been (and, hopefully, never will be) accused of stealing someone else’s work.  Another Melcher-ism: “Professionally and reputationally, you’d much rather be accused of a copywrite violation for over-quoting than plagiarism for under-quoting.”  As you may have heard, this is advice that the embattled president of Harvard, Claudine Gay undoubtedly could have used:

Harvard University president Claudine Gay plagiarized numerous academics over the course of her academic career, at times airlifting entire paragraphs and claiming them as her own work, according to reviews by several scholars.

In four papers published between 1993 and 2017, including her doctoral dissertation, Gay, a political scientist, paraphrased or quoted nearly 20 authors—including two of her colleagues in Harvard University’s department of government—without proper attribution, according to a Washington Free Beacon analysis. Other examples of possible plagiarism, all from Gay’s dissertation, were publicized Sunday by the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo and Karlstack’s Chris Brunet.

The Free Beacon worked with nearly a dozen scholars to analyze 29 potential cases of plagiarism. Most of them said that Gay had violated a core principle of academic integrity as well as Harvard’s own anti-plagiarism policies, which state that “it’s not enough to change a few words here and there.”

Harvard’s board voted earlier today to retain Gay as the university’s president.  Its members did so, presumably, for a variety of reasons, the most important and likely of which is that they weren’t going to let “those people” – i.e. the rubes, hillbillies, and other deplorables – take her scalp as they did Penn’s Liz Magill’s.  Well…good for them, we suppose.  They stuck it to the…whomever.  The only catch is now the university is stuck not only with a moral coward as its leader but quite possibly an intellectual fraud as well.

Note that Gay has defenders here.  Some observers have noted that the allegedly improperly quoted passages were written, in the first place, by her dissertation advisor, and he, of all people, would have been in the best position to catch any plagiarism.  Maybe this is the case.  Maybe it’s not.  We don’t know, but we’re not sure that it matters.  Because of the circumstances leading up to today’s board vote and because the plagiarism issue is thus far unresolved, Harvard’s board has put itself and the university in the position of appearing, at the very least, to protect an intellectual fraud specifically to poke their collective finger in their critics’ collective eye.  That, coupled with the antisemitism issues that precipitated Gay’s Congressional appearance in the first place, puts Harvard in the position of risking a semi-permanently stained record.

Voting thusly was the board’s prerogative, of course, but it just seems so stupid and so counterproductive.  Whether she technically plagiarized or not, Claudine Gay was foolish and arrogant.  As we said, it would have cost her nothing to do the right thing.  Instead, because she didn’t, it may cost her everything.  And if it doesn’t it may cost Harvard quote a bit as well.

It’s fitting, we suppose.  All it would have taken to avoid this mess is a few quotation marks here and a handful of indented paragraphs there.  And it’s not like Gay had to worry about her readers tuning out.  We can almost guarantee you that no one ever read anything she wrote – least of all her dissertation – unless they had to.  Getting readers to “tune in” was her bigger challenge.  Nevertheless, she placed posturing and personal convenience over intellectual integrity.  She is, in short, contemporary American academia personified.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
[email protected]

Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.