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The Story of America

by J.M. Fenster

Pub Date: Dec. 3rd, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-5387-2870-3
Publisher: Twelve

A lighthearted romp through several centuries of cheating at popular American pursuits.

Cheating isn’t what it used to be, argues historian Fenster (Jefferson’s America: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers Who Transformed a Nation, 2016 etc.) in this quirky dishonor roll of cheaters from the Colonial era to the present. Americans blithely tolerate lapses their forebears might have condemned. “The abandonment of the stigma against cheaters is a trend in our times across every pursuit,” writes the author. With a wit that ranges from deadpan to sardonic, Fenster shows how “cheating has found a comfortable place” in fields that include politics, business, higher education, bridge tournaments, and NASCAR races. Consider the Kansas biology teacher who, after discovering in 2001 that 28 of her students had plagiarized work for a project, gave them all zeroes, which effectively left them failing the course; the principal supported her, but parents protested, and the school board ordered her to pass all but one of the cheaters. Compare the young plagiarists’ get-out-of-jail-free card with punishments faced by cheaters of yesteryear: the producers of the rigged 1950s game show The $64,000 Question, investigated by the government, or runner Rosie Ruiz, stripped of her title after faking a victory in the women’s division 1980 Boston Marathon. Fenster ascribes the destigmatizing of cheating in part to the waning moral influence of elders like grandparents—“America should have thought of that when it traded in ancestor worship for descendant worship”—and tarts up the history with devices like a twee self-interview and a California marriage counselor’s “Test to Identify Chronic Cheaters and Whether a Spouse Who Has Strayed Will Do So Again.” There are also digressions into topics such as the author’s golf game (at times “I shoot a neat 67—per hole”). The flippant tone of much of this book—entertaining as it can be—is often at odds with its serious and well-taken points about the normalization of cheating in America.

A timely subject gets a treatment at times too clever for its own good.