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'Schadenfareed' and the humbling of hubris


TIPPING POINT: Jeffrey Goldberg of 'The Atlantic' first raised the red flag of lack of attribution

Fareed Zakaria has now been cleared of allegations of plagiarism. But charges of hubris - the fact that he was not seen as humble enough on the road to success - still hang in the air.

In April this year, a college-mate of mine, now a thriving cardiologist in a bleak Texas oil town, wrote to me asking if I knew CNN/Time's Fareed Zakaria, and if I did, could I put in a word with him to spare an hour or so for a chat with a group of politically engaged South Asian doctors. They had heard Zakaria was visiting their city (Midland-Odessa, which is also George Bush's hometown) for a talk and wanted host a meal for him during his visit. Indeed, I had met Fareed Zakaria a few times before so I promised to sound him out, not sure if the celebrated (and now disgraced and subsequently rehabilitated ) analyst, spoken of as a future US mandarin or policy honcho, would even remember me.

The last time we met was when he invited me to guest on his newly launched TV show. Perhaps I was a poor talking head, or perhaps my views were unpalatable, but I never returned to the show. You see, I'm something of a perpetual dissenter in the US capital (18 years) who doesn't buy or recite boilerplate Washington DC narratives, and I have a blunt way of remembering and recounting uncomfortable facts in a city that has a very porous memory. For instance, I remember a time in the mid-1990 s when the Taliban were guests of the US State Department, complete with their black turbans and dark views, which didn't bother Washington DC in the least. Or I can recall days when Israel, Iran (yes, Iran!) and the United States were sworn allies. But we'll save all those stories for another day.

Anyway, I emailed Fareed Zakaria recalling our meetings and conveying my friend's request and the physician group's background and interest. Sometime later, I received a reply from his assistant conveying that "Fareed greatly appreciates your kind note. He must, unfortuantely, regret the offer to be hosted in Midland. The schedule is full from the time of arrival through depature" (email reproduced with typos ). In my email, I'd also sought a separate phone conversation with Fareed to talk about the then hot-button India-US-Iran imbroglio (over oil sanctions ), but the assistant relayed that "he will have to regret that as well. He is traveling abroad through the end of the week and returns to a very full schedule. " However, "if the call could wait a week or two, please let me know a little more - when, where, how would the conversation be used?" the assistant inquired.

Busy man, I noted wryly to myself. There was no sense of pique or being offended because he was more a professional acquaintance rather than a friend or colleague. Besides, it is possible that he was genuinely busy and couldn't spare any time;it's not easy to write multiple columns, host a TV show, write learned foreign policy treatises, and walk the talk circuit (where he reportedly commands a fee of $ 75, 000 per gig).
But I found it striking that he had outsourced even replying emails to an assistant when a simple but personal "no can do" would have sufficed. I have personal replies - not just form letters - from the world's most powerful and world's richest, and they are not even acquaintances, much less friends. Still, after relaying his regrets to my friend, I dismissed the episode from my mind, the recesses of which are imprinted with illustrations of "the higher they go the harder they fall" principle.

For reasons that are not difficult to surmise, this happens more often among immigrants. Perhaps the hunger for success surpasses the need for common courtesies and elementary grace. In this spirit, I await regretfully (since such mishaps give me no joy) the thud of the next fallen Indian-origin whiz (now that Rajat Gupta has bitten the dust), including a prominent CEO touted as the next commerce secretary. Some of them are flying so high that the tale of Icarus - who had his wings burned when he flew too close to the sun - comes readily to mind.

Don't get me wrong. There is no sense of schadenfreude (pleasure derived at the misfortunes of others) here. In fact, I am not even convinced what Fareed did amounts to plagiarism. His friends have come out to defend him and give examples of how meticulous he had been in the past in attributing quotes and references. And in person, he is unfailingly courteous to his guests and acquaintances.

So what is Fareed's fault? At best, he overlooked an attribution. At worst, it's possible he didn't even write the piece that went under his name. Some critics, mostly out of envy, suggest he has become so busy that he may have outsourced it to a research assistant. But at least he squarely took responsibility for the mishap.

It is not the first time Fareed has been called out for citing without attribution. But why is the blowback so ferocious and toxic this time? Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer with The Atlantic who first raised the red flag in 2009 when Fareed used a quote from his (Goldberg's ) piece without attribution, has this to say: "Because Fareed is so successful;because he is so obviously ambitious (unlike others in our profession who do a slightly better job of masking their ambitions); and because plagiarism is such a sin in our profession, he has become a schadenfreude target. But I haven't joined in on the fun...He (Fareed) made a terrible mistake rooted in arrogance and sloppiness, but I don't see why this mistake should be a life-destroying one. "

So there. Fareed's fault is really not plagiarism (he has now been cleared of the allegations and his columns and TV show restored). But charges of hubris - the fact that he was not seen as humble enough on the road to success - still hangs in the air. That's really what brought the knives out. Indeed, plagiarism is a crime and can be punished by professional bodies and readers. Hubris, on the other hand, meets its own distinctive comeuppance.

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