The Gospel According to Wikipedia

September 24, 2006

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“According to Wikipedia” is a phrase that is starting to precede pronouncements quite a lot in blogs, and it’s one that disturbs me.

I’m something of an information junkie. A former significant other once said to me, “All you care about is facts.” Not true, as a matter of … well … fact, but it’s true that I like to learn new things and gather new information, even if I don’t necessarily remember much of it two days later. So yes, I certainly do like facts, along with philosophies and opinions, but I like those facts to be correct—in other words, to be facts. I like information, not misinformation.

The idea behind wikis is wonderful—a resource to which anyone can contribute and that anyone can edit. And the idea behind wikis is horrifying—a resource to which anyone can contribute and that anyone can edit. Anyone. I suspect that Stephen Hawking isn’t whiling away his spare time contributing to Wikipedia. Contributors are more likely to be people like me, a thought I find very scary.

I don’t think Wikipedia existed several years ago, when I was teaching at a local community college, but if it had, my students would have been quoting it right and left, since a not insignificant number of them believed—in spite of my regular rants—that if it was on the Internet, it was true.

Misinformation, presented with authority, takes hold very easily. Think Piltdown Man, a hoax that held strong for 40 years. Think the supposed several hundred Eskimo words for snow, a debunked but still much-believed piece of misinformation. (To be fair to the Wikipedia article, it doesn’t perpetuate the Eskimo snow myth.) Think about the body of opinion that says the Holocaust never happened. Think about all the people who buy the Weekly World News because they actually believe what it prints.

Then think of the Internet, which spreads its reach a hell of a lot farther than the junk tabloids you can pick up at the checkout line in the grocery store.

People have a tendency to imprint on the first thing they read or hear. I’m no exception. It’s very hard to let go of that first belief, and I suspect many people don’t. So erroneous beliefs get passed on, then they become “reality” and “fact.” Wikipedia, for many people, is the stamp of approval on content. Hey, it says it’s an encyclopedia.

All of the above is not to say that I never look at Wikipedia. Sure, I look, and I find a lot of useful information and links, but I check anything I find there against other sources and look for other opinions, just the way I was taught, back in my student days when we had those heavy paper things that were such a bother to schlepp around—what were they called? Oh yes, books. I remember learning that some of those contained suspect scholarship.

So anyway, what is my point (I know I had one)? I guess it’s that it doesn’t hurt to practice skepticism and to teach our young people not to believe everything they read unless they are very, very sure of the body of scholarship behind it.


The Promised Land: V

September 19, 2006
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The workers of many religions and nationalities clasping hands across the factory conveyer belt are the central message of the mural we have been examining for the last several days: There are no boundaries between workers. We are all workers, and we are all, therefore, equal because whatever we do, we contribute.

I recognize two symbols of ethnicity at the right of the assembly line of workers:

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In the middle is symbol of the Celts and below it is, I think, a Native American symbol. But the top symbol, which seems to be two seahorses facing—what is that? It’s one of many unanswered questions about this superb mural. The muralist’s name appears below, and I plan to track her down and find answers.

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If you visit the Washington, D.C., area and are interested to see this mural, you’ll find it on Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria, on the side wall of the building that supports the Tenants’ and Workers’ Support Committee. The creation of the mural was featured on Sept. 7 and Sept. 8 on Alexandria Daily Photo.


The Promised Land: IV

September 18, 2006
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In these two details, we see celebrated the strength and solidarity of women. In the larger detail, the women are led by the iconic figure of Rosie the Riveter, who became a World War II propoganda figure used to encourage American women to work in factories in place of the men who had gone to war.

The original Rosie, seen immediately below, was painted by Norman Rockwell as a cover illustration for the Saturday Evening Post of May 29, 1943.

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© Curtis Publishing Company

More familiar is the Rosie of the “We Can Do It” propoganda posters.

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I will wrap up this series of posts on the Chirilagua mural tomorrow.


The Promised Land: III

September 17, 2006

Today I am looking at some of the smaller details of the Chirilagua mural. A reminder that what follows is my interpretation of the symbolism in this mural. I don’t know whether it’s what the muralist had in mind.

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Various folk art motifs appear in the mural, recognitions of the many cultures that exist in this country. Some are easily recognizable and others not (or not to me). Here I see a shamrock. Beneath it is the Yin Yang symbol (more usually seen turned 90 degrees counterclockwise). It stands for opposing but complementary forces in nature: feminine-masculine, night-day, dark and passive-bright and active—and in this context, perhaps the difference between dream and reality. Under it is what at first sight I saw as having elements of an Ionic capital, but now I think may be a Native American or a pre-columbian symbol. Any ideas anyone?

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Here are representations of the types of work many immigrants perform: driving taxis, working in the fields or on construction sites, working as housekeepers and cleaners. Two hands reach for the dove of peace, or perhaps release the dove of peace—in either case the hope is for peace.

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This is part of the bottom of the mural, On the left, shackled hands, the symbol of subservience; on the right, the black power salute, a symbol of the fight against subservience. I don’t have even a guess about the two blue diamond shapes over the shackled wrists.

The heart looks to me like a Pennsylvania Dutch motif.

The black cat, its back arched, and the loaf of bread with the roses both stand for activism and the rights of workers. The black cat or wild cat is used as a symbol of radical unions (think wildcat strike) and the loaf and roses represent the 1912 Bread and Roses strike. The work week had been reduced by law to 54 hours per week, and in answer, the mill owners cut wages. Thirty thousand textile workers struck. Some of the women carried signs saying “We want bread and roses too”—not just the basics of existence, but something more.

I see what appear to be roots growing down to the motifs. Perhaps because the country is rooted in these facts and values, among others? What do you think?

More tomorrow.


The Promised Land: II

September 16, 2006

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A reminder that what follows is my interpretation of the symbolism in this mural. I don’t know whether it’s what the muralist had in mind.

Moving directly below the detail of yesterday’s post, we see a sheriff stopping a would-be immigrant at the border. She carries all that she is taking to start her new life, and it is so very little. The ship in the background is the Mayflower, and symbolizes the first settlers—the people responsible for the foundation of the the United States. The man standing directly behind the woman looks to me to be in colonial dress and I see him not as a real person but as the shade of one of the first settlers—another reminder that those first immigrants created this country. Stretching across the desert behind the woman are crosses, which, to me, stand for the people who lost their lives making the journey to the border into the United States.

At the upper right is a pointing hand. You will see in the detail below whom it belongs to.

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The pointing finger belongs to an angry-looking judge. He is indicating to the would-be immigrants that they should go back to the countries they came from. The sign round his neck refers to House Resolution 4437 “To amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to strengthen enforcement of the immigration laws, to enhance border security, and for other purposes,” introduced in December 2005.

Behind the sheriff, we see George Washington, the father of this country, as a baby. Slightly behind him is his African American nurse wearing chains to symbolize that she is a slave. This detail interests me very much. Depicting servants as smaller than those they serve makes very clear their status as inferiors. You will find the device in ancient Egyptian art. She is also slightly behind him—yet her chained hand is on him. The message is plain, I think: The support of the slaves whose names and faces are lost to us has every bit as much to do with the growth of the United States as do the actions of those whose names and faces are so well-known.

As an aside, it is apparently a shock to many visitors to Mount Vernon, the plantation home of George Washington, to see the slave quarters. I suspect that there’s a reluctance to accept that a revered figure kept slaves, a practice we deplore today. In fact, he inherited 10 slaves from his father, and by his death, there were more than 300 slaves at Mount Vernon. He was considered a “benevolent” slave-owner by his contemporaries. Some of his slaves were taught to read. In later life, he was publicly in favor of the abolition of slavery, and under the terms of his will, he freed his own slaves, but he could not legally free those who belonged to his wife, Martha.

More about this mural tomorrow.


The Promised Land: I

September 15, 2006

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If you read my Washington, DC photo blog, please bear with what starts out as repetition. I’m indebted to Marie McC of Alexandria Daily Photo for taking me to see this mural She featured it in the making on Sept. 7 and Sept. 8, and I posted briefly about it on Picturing Washington on Sept. 15.

The mural is in the Chirilagua (a.k.a. Arlandria) neighborhood in Alexandria, Va., and it touched me deeply. The more I look at it, the more I am caught up in its symbolism. I talked about a couple of details on the Picturing Washington post, but I’d like to go into the mural in more depth here.

I am an immigrant too, and the mural brought home to me something I’d not ever stopped to reflect on: that I am a very privileged immigrant compared with those who came across the border with nothing and did the menial jobs no one else wanted. In contrast, I came to the United States from a secure and comfortable life in the United Kingdom to a place in graduate school, a teaching assistantship to help pay my way, and a secure future (as far as any future can be secure) based on my British and American education.

Every interpretation is just that—an interpretation. Art speaks to most of us on some level or other, whether or not we can articulate what we feel. What I get out of this piece of art may not be what you get out of it. That’s for you to look and determine.

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Starting in the upper left corner, we have flying saucers. What do we make of them? Perhaps that those who can contribute come not just from many countries, but also from many universes? Our minds should not be closed to those worlds we don’t yet understand? I don’t know.

Dominant are two motifs. First is the pair of men, one bearing a “Welcome” sign, the other with a handful of dollars. Welcome to the land flowing with milk and honey. The riches beckon and the people come, one after another, surmounting difficulty (the drainpipe) to enter the promised land. See how small they are in comparison with the symbols of riches? And see how small they are compared to the huge hotel? Many of those little people will end up there—not as pampered guests, but as those serving them. Their future is to be the maids who change the beds and scrub the bathrooms, the doormen, the bellboys, the dishwashers in the hotel kitchens.

The second motif: Three planes fly towards the promised land. Are they simply bringing more immigrants? Perhaps. But I think the fact that there are three is significant. Are they the three planes that caused the destruction of 911, reminding us that we are not the inviolable promised land? We are threatened. All those who seek our shores do not have good intentions.

More tomorrow.


Five years on

September 11, 2006
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Back in our days of innocence, people used to say they’d never forget where they were when JFK was shot. I remember where I was—in London, doing my homework. My father called me down from my room.

It was unthinkable.

I remember—it seems so recent, but it really is five years ago—when the World Trade Center was hit and then the Pentagon, just two miles from where I live.

It was more than unthinkable.

I remember when I heard on the radio about the attacks in London, my home, just over a year ago. The unthinkable and the more-than-unthinkable had already happened in my lifetime and countless times in history.

It was inevitable.

I wish I didn’t think about, wonder, and dread what’s going to happen next. Our power to destroy becomes more and more lethal.

And more inevitable.