|07-01-2007, 08:00 PM||#1|
Mo' holla fo' yo' dolla!
Join Date: Dec 2002
Location: In a bunker in an undisclosed location
Conservapedia's War Against Truth
“Tell you what though, for free, terriers make lovely fish. I mean I could do that for you straight away. Legs off, fins on, stick a little pipe through the back of its neck so it can breathe, bit of gold paint …”
- Monty Python Pet Shop Sketch, circa 1970
It’s fascinating to observe the ways in which grown, educated people will struggle to make a terrier into a fish. Whether it’s euphemism, omission, repetition, posturing, quote mining, or simply stuffing a gag in a truth-teller’s mouth, it all boils down to the adult version of crossing your fingers behind your back so that, along with convincing the listener that a lie isn’t a lie, you can convince yourself that you aren’t really lying.
It’s also interesting to observe the lengths to which even supposedly neutral observers will go to avoid uttering or writing the word “lie,” so useful as both a verb and a noun. “Falsehood,” “misinterpretation,” “mistake,” “untruth,” “mislead,” “misspeak,” all have been used.
My current favorite is Factual relativism, a term that appears in a Wikipedia article on Conservapedia. “In factual relativism,” the Wikipedia definition for the term reads, "the facts used to establish the truth or falsehood of any statement are understood to be relative to the perspective of those proving or falsifying the proposition.”
In short, in “factual relativism,” the liar is not just trying to deceive someone into mistaking a mutilated terrier for a fish. The liar is trying to convince everyone that a mutilated terrier can be validly defined as a fish because the liar thinks of it as a fish.
“Factual relativism” is found on the Internet at sites like Conservapedia, providing evidence of the current right-wing attempt to alter English common usage to the point where historical and political concepts are redefined and the assessment of major events of 20th century history revised.
Well before Conservapedia's Andrew Schlafly launched his response to the “liberal bias” of Wikipedia, certain myths had begun to crop up on the Internet, some of them so ridiculous that there was little real effort to counter them. It was difficult to believe, for instance, that many people would take seriously the claim that Hitler was a leftist, or that Joseph McCarthy and Augusto Pinochet are misunderstood heroes. Many of us failed to note a significant difference between the manner in which students of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties learned history, and the way students learn history today.
Twenty or thirty years ago, researching subjects like the Third Reich or McCarthyism meant actually visiting a library and poring over books and articles, many of them contemporary accounts of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Today most students look for their information online, and the result is a dearth of firsthand accounts from any era before the 1990s. On the Internet, descriptions of the Third Reich, the Red Scare, even the Civil Rights era, tend to be filtered through the eyes of 21st century writers -- and many of those writers are eager to take advantage of this vacuum and revise history to fit their own political agenda.
One distorting lens used in this attempt to reframe history is the premise that there are only two basic political viewpoints -- free market libertarianism, which is “good,” and socialism, which is “bad.” It’s an assumption that de-emphasizes the importance of human rights and expands the definition of “socialism” to include, not just collective or governmental ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods, but any system at all outside a laissez-faire free market. (Wow...who does this sound like?) Any form of government regulation of the marketplace is deemed to be “socialist” and therefore, “liberal” or “leftist.” As Conservapedia’s entry on “Liberal” says:
“'Liberal' today means the disfavoring of individual responsibility in favor of collectivism. ... One definition of liberal is anything that is not conservative.”
Thus the world is divided into two camps, “liberal/Socialist/bad” and “conservative/free market/good.” Instead of the complex, often messy process of determining right and wrong by examining the nuances of history and the human consequences of given policies and actions, Conservapedia students are invited to decide based merely on whether a given society or individual has been labeled “liberal” or “conservative.” These labels are so unrelated to reality that no citing of facts will alter them.
An illustration of how this works can be found in Andrew Schlafly’s "American History" lectures. I mentioned it in my earlier piece on Conservapedia, “Strangling Reason in its Crib,” but it’s worth re-examining here because it’s an example of how the “scholarship” of right-wing historical revisionism works online and how Conservapedia responds when confronted with cited facts.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say here that I signed on as an editor at Conservapedia under a pseudonym, and what follows here and in subsequent sections will describe in part my own role in trying to get some modicum of accuracy into Conservapedia entries.
At issue was the following statement, which read:
From 1607-1611, the Jamestown settlement lived under socialism, whereby the group shared its food with everyone no matter how much or little he worked. This economic system was a complete failure as no one had any incentive to do any work. John Smith arrived from England and he installed a conservative economic system: “don’t work, don’t eat!” Magically, by 1614 there was suddenly plenty to eat.
The usual assumption, when reading an essay intended to educate students about history, is that the writer has done some measure of research on the subject. When Mr. Schlafly announces that “From 1607-1611, the Jamestown settlement lived under socialism, whereby the group shared its food with everyone no matter how much or little he worked,” it’s natural to assume that he has studied the system of food distribution and property ownership in Jamestown from 1607 to 1611, has concluded -- rightly or wrongly -- that these policies qualify as “socialism,” and that this socialism was responsible for the heinous “Starving Time” at Jamestown that most historians agree took place from 1609-1610.
But there’s a problem with that reference to Captain John Smith who, as a five-minute Google will establish, left Jamestown forever in 1609, making it difficult for him to have "installed a conservative economic system” at Jamestown after 1611.
Like many of the articles in Conservapedia, those in the lecture series are "protected" so that even people who have signed on as editors cannot alter them. Any correction has to be filtered through the article’s “Talk” page. After some back and forth on that page about exactly how long Smith’s short but eventful stay in Virginia lasted, the passage was changed by Mr. Schlafly. As of this writing it reads:
From 1607-1608 the Jamestown settlement lived under socialism ... In September 1608, John Smith was elected president of the governing council. He ruled for a year and installed a conservative economic system: ‘don’t work, don’t eat!’ Under this new system, food production increased and by 1614 there was plenty to eat.
Now, suddenly, the system in place in 1609 is no longer “socialistic.” Suddenly the system in place in 1609 is Captain John Smith’s “conservative economic system,” which, we are told increased food production. (Never mind that “starving time” from 1609 to 1610.) The claim that Jamestown was a “socialistic” enterprise is based not on a study of Jamestown’s economic policies during a given period, but on Captain John Smith’s famous “don’t work, don’t eat” quote and a definition of “socialism” that’s so broad as to render the term practically meaningless.
One could conclude that the mission of Conservapedia is not to impart information, but to impart a specific bias. It seems that, to that end, information is frequently omitted or offered in a deliberately vague manner. Young people are not just taught to believe “John Smith saved Jamestown from socialism.” They may learn by example that deceiving readers is an acceptable, even a clever and moral tactic. “Truth,” becomes a supernatural concept unrelated to hard facts. If hard facts fail to support the “truth,” then the proper response is to twist those facts, or omit them entirely.
Conservapedia is a collection of lies culminating in a single, profoundly ambitious lie about the nature of language, of scholarship, of reality itself. More documentation of Conservapedia's shortcomings is available at the Wikipedia entry about the site. This series of articles is an attempt to examine in greater detail how Conservapedia handles certain subjects.
The four articles that follow this one are, as I’ve already observed, partly the result of my own experiences as an editor on Conservapedia, using the pseudonym PF Fox. I wanted to see precisely how the truth -- backed up with citations -- was treated there, and what that treatment revealed about the right-wing agenda of Conservapedia’s founders.
As a final word in this introduction, I have a few recommendations about visiting Conservapedia. It can be a learning experience to go beyond merely laughing at some of the more absurd entries. Examine the history of many articles -- they often reveal exactly how deliberate is Conservapedia’s policy of censoring factual information. A look at the discussion pages will also provide information on the rationalizations used for many of the editorial decisions. Frequently I’ve had suspicions I entertained about why a given fact was removed from Conservapedia resoundingly confirmed by checking the discussion pages.
And finally, it is always a good idea to check out the links and citations of any website. In many cases, these will either not say what the editor claims they say, or prove to be biased links to expressions of opinion -- like links to a Wall Street Journal editorial -- that don’t qualify as a source of objective and reliable information.
And reliability -- the extent to which a statement correspondes with the truth -- is so very, very important.