Recipe Rationalizations

Go ahead: tell him that recipes are trivial.

The Elizabeth Warren recipe plagiarism is turning into a fascinating study of whether objectivity and fairness can survive partisanship. So far, the results are depressing.

There is increasingly persuasive evidence that the recipes contributed by “Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee” to the cookbook “Pow Wow Chow” were not Native American recipes passed down over generations as Warren represented them, and that she 1) knew this and 2) intentionally misrepresented and disguised their origins while lifting them, barely altered, from other published sources. Faced with this, Warren supporters are falling back on classic rationalizations rather than accepting, reluctantly, the obvious import of the data: their candidate is an untrustworthy faker.

Howie Carr, the Boston radio talk-show host who initially uncovered the plagiarism in “Pow Wow Chow,” reveals more details of one of Warren’s apparent thefts in today’s Boston Herald. For her version of the recipe for “Herbed Tomatoes” that she lifted from the September 1959 edition of Better Homes and Gardens, Warren made a few strategic changes, Carr reports.  She cut one the “one-half teaspoon monosodium glutamate” from the ingredients ( “Apparently MSG was not available at the Muskogee Stop & Shop in 1856,” writes Carr) and also eliminated the option of using margarine rather than butter, since “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buffalo Grease” was not on the shelves of her elusive Cherokee ancestors. This indicates an intent to deceive by Warren, in addition to her plagiarism.

Central to the defenses offered for Warren by Democrats are the following classic rationalizations:

  • “Everybody steals recipes!”, a.k.a. “Everybody does it.” See Clinton, Defenders of: “Everybody lies about sex.”  But everybody doesn’t take copyrighted material from published sources and represent them as their own while using French recipes and Better Homes and Gardens to bolster a dubious  Native American identity. (And everyone who lies about sex doesn’t 1) do it under oath in a court of law and 2) isn’t President of the United States, Lanny.)
  • “These are just recipes!”, a.k.a, “The Trivial Trap,” or “Little lies don’t count.” But they do. And Warren belonged, and belongs, to a field devoted to teaching values as well as facts, and a profession that is supposed to be the intractable foe of plagiarism, while training students in another profession, law, that holds dishonesty and misrepresentation to be anathema to its mission.
  • It’s not like she plagiarized a legal treatise (like other Harvard professors), a.k.a., “There are worse things,” also known as “The Manny Ramirez” excuse, as in “It’s not like I killed somebody!”  But you know, this is condescending and dishonest. To the professional chef whose recipes Warren ripped off, his work product is every bit as significant as a legal treatise is to the legal scholars at Penn and Harvard. And the fact that there may be worse things doesn’t make any misconduct more ethical; the rationalization is just a manipulative way to make misconduct seem less objectionable by placing something arguably worse next to it, like making Roseanne Barr seem more attractive by having her stand next to a warthog. Did Ted Bundy ever say, “Yeah, but at least I never killed 6 million Jews or invaded Poland!” Probably.
  • “Well, at least she never bullied a gay kid, like Mitt Romney did!”, a.k.a. the “They’re just as bad!” excuse, or the “Hey! Look  over THERE!” tactic. In politics, this is used to suggest that because the other side of partisans won’t hold their favorites to ethical standards, the partisans whose standards-bearer is being legitimately criticized is allowed to ignore ethical standards too. It is a pathetic rationalization, even when it doesn’t, as in this instance, attempt to suggest that similar standards should be used for teenaged prep school students and mature law school professors.

Actually, using any of these is pathetic. It takes a little courage and determination to be honest in accepting the fact that an individual you like, supported and trusted is in fact untrustworthy, but being able to muster the integrity to apply identical standards for wrongdoing and dishonesty to all and foe is basic ethics.


Pointer: Michael Patrick Leahy

Facts: Boston Herald

Graphic: Daily Perversion

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

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