Rand Paul's Signal: I'm No Effete Intellectual Property Wuss

Rand Paul plagiarized, as did Fareed Zakaria, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, as have done some of my students and probably yours. Maybe you plagiarized, too. Survey statistics suggest that up to three-quarters of college students plagiarize, whatever that means to them.

But what is especially noteworthy in this week's case, after a series of reports of Paul's using others' work as his own, is his response: "I will now footnote everything, just like in college."

This is a signal. It signals that he will comply with the fussy norms of academic citation -- but only because we are making him do it. He is exaggerating the expectation, in a kind of lampoon.

Paul has no love of someone else's intellectual work. He demonstrates no appreciation for the reasons behind the norm that requires attribution. His capitulation is a pout, but with an audience beyond those usually concerned with such matters: He is signaling that he is no intellectual. He is a man, trying to get a job done. And those sissy English teachers might boss him around, and he'll give in, but with his fingers crossed behind his back.

Yes, intellectual property is a specific idea, that not everyone, everywhere, through all time and space has ever worshipped. There are contradictions in the norm, and nobody follows it with complete consistency.

But we try. Writers respect each other, and treat other writers as we'd like to be treated: by honoring their efforts. Professors try to teach students to acknowledge all the hard, generous work done by those who have bothered to publish things -- whether on pieces of paper or through the arrangement of pixels.

Norms of sharing are in flux, sure. Everyone who has given this any thought has acknowledged this.

But still, we try. We put names on things, and in doing so are credited -- with new ideas, strong thoughts, beautiful formulations, incisive analysis.

When someone claims to have thought of and expressed something he has not done on his own, he is saying that intellectual work doesn't really matter or count.

In this week's events, Rand Paul is first saying, Who cares?, and then saying Oh yes, I will footnote every noun and verb. See me obey? Both are signals to a certain audience that has always rebelled against the rules imposed by school teachers. His invocation of detention and his overly dramatic restructuring of his office show his attitude toward these restrictive rules.

And like all signals, they can be read both by the intended audience and by other observers.

To me, falling into the latter camp, I see someone who wants to be damn sure that nobody could possibly confuse him with being an intellectual or a writer.