A friend of mine wrote me today to tell me that I was quoted in the Washington Times -- for something I wrote almost 20 years ago as a student. Puzzled but mildly curious (c'mon, who among us hasn't ego-googled from time to time?), I of course clicked on the Washington Times story -- available here -- and sure enough, there I was.
The article was criticizing Ted Kennedy -- who has expressed strong concern about Alito's membership in a Princeton organization formed in the 70s to oppose the admission of women to the college -- as a hypocrite, because Kennedy himself was actually a member of the all-male Owl Club, one of the finals club at Harvard College. The finals clubs were and are invitation-only social clubs that had parties, created networking opportunities for members, and excluded women. I was quoted in the article as follows:
After one student government officer's association with the Owl was exposed in 1986, student Jennifer L. Mnookin took the young man to task in a column published in the Crimson.
His "membership in a final club is an insult to women undergraduates and to the 90 percent of the student body that the clubs deem unworthy of membership," she wrote. "Final clubs perpetrate an attitude that encourages members to treat the rest of the world as second class citizens -- to make them enter the clubs through side doors, to bar them from certain rooms, to devalue and look down upon them."
"Hmm," I thought as I read the quote. "That's more or less what I believed as an undergraduate. Doesn't quite sound like me, though. And I sure don't remember writing it."
At first I thought to myself that it just showed how 19 years is a long time -- plenty long enough to forgot one's own words. But then I thought about how many other Crimson articles I still remembered writing -- even pretty stupid ones, like Indian restaurant reviews or feature articles on the witches of Salem, MA.
So, I trotted over to the Harvard Crimson's web site , did a search, and found the article in question. It was a strongly worded critique of Richard Eisert, then undergraduate-council chair, for joining the sexist Owl club and thus sending a negative message. Well, Rich and I weren't close friends, but he was in my freshman dorm and a generally nice guy -- and even if I thought those things about his decision, which I probably did, I was dubious that even the throw-caution-to-the-wind 19-year-old version of myself would take quite such a holier-than-thou tone about the whole thing, at least not with my name attached. Then I got to the bottom of the piece, and saw that it concluded with a 'dissenting opinion,' disagreeing with the "majority's outrage and incredulity."
Aha! This wasn't actually a personal article at all, but a staff editorial. I hadn't written it -- or if I had, it was as part of a team effort, speaking in a collective voice rather than my own. Somehow, due to a clerical error or database entry-mistake or god-knows-how, it had become listed in the Crimson's searchable archive with my name attached, and some industrious Washington Times reporter, looking for fodder with which to criticize Kennedy, had turned it up.
I suppose that for the Washington Times' purposes, the fact that it was a staff editorial rather than an individual opinion would only make their point more strongly -- in fact, it probably matters to virtually no one else on earth that the quote attributed to me wasn't really mine. But it weirded me out, perhaps because, as an academic, my words, what I write, is a big part of what and who I am -- and these words, through no particular fault of the Washington Times reporter, really weren't mine.
Of course it's not a new problem. In my historical work, I sometimes find dozens of judicial cases in the 19th century that quote another case for a particular proposition. Turns out, however, that the case so quoted literally doesn't contain the word that many courts claim it did. Often, you can trace the error back to a particular treatise that got it wrong, that made a simple, human mistake, that gets repeated and repeated by judges who either didn't have access to or didn't choose to check the actual opinion. I guess treatises in the 19th century operated the way web databases do know: they were sources you could go to as a substitute for looking to the original.
Problem is, then and now, that you're only as accurate as your database.