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Pamela Troy Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-29-07 03:21 PM
Original message
Conservapedia and the 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

Its fascinating to observe the ways in which grown, educated people will struggle to make a terrier into a fish. Whether its euphemism, omission, repetition, posturing, quote mining, or simply stuffing a gag in a truth-tellers 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 isnt a lie, you can convince yourself that you arent really lying.

Its 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. Its 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. 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 Schlaflys "American History" lectures. I mentioned it in my earlier piece on Conservapedia, Strangling Reason in its Crib, but its worth re-examining here because its 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: dont work, dont 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, its 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 theres 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 articles Talk page. After some back and forth on that page about exactly how long Smiths 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: dont work, dont 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 Smiths 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 Jamestowns economic policies during a given period, but on Captain John Smiths famous dont work, dont eat quote and a definition of socialism thats 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 will follow this one are, as Ive 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 Conservapedias 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 Conservapedias 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 Ive 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 dont 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.
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WoodrowFan Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-29-07 03:26 PM
Response to Original message
1. K&R
can't wait to read more. thanks
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Dogmudgeon Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-29-07 03:30 PM
Response to Original message
2. That assumes the event(s) even took place
The so-called famous dont work, dont eat quote has long been in doubt. And the shift from "socialism" to "capitalism," likewise. Smith was an energetic and often short-tempered leader who had the task of motivating a group of depressed, discouraged settlers. Simply having someone with a clear goal in mind to coax, bully, encourage, and otherwise goad the group on seems to be a better explanation. No grand political theory is necessary to explain group dynamics -- or the basics of good leadership.

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underpants Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-29-07 03:40 PM
Response to Reply #2
3. I always understood it to be that he just beat the living **** out of everyone
Nowadays they call him a "corporate fixer" or a "managment consultant" but from what I know of Jamestown (I grew up 20 miles down the road if that means anything) is that it was a purely coporate venture (exactly opposite of the Mayflower folks-who were heading to Va. but ran out of "beer") and it was not going very well but it did turn around. Smith was the head guy from when they got off the boats if I remember correctly.

To Pamela -first of all welcome to DU :hi:

Very nice piece. I assume that you use the ---pedias for direct comparison and stark contrast. They both are editable and I used them as a starting point, a very general topic reference.

Anyway you may not be aware of Rush Limbaugh's "The TRUTH about Plymouth rock" but you might want to look it up-it is very similar to what you describe here. A complete revision of history to support today's beliefs as if they had always been concrete and unified. Also, of course, it adds credibility to their arguments of today, I guess.

Over all the right has engaged in a measure to rewrite history. They not only want to change their dubious role in it but also to make it appear that the conservative movement of today played a role from the nation's founding (notice they don't reach back into European history like say with the rise of Locke and liberal democracy theory and such) and that these "ideas" played an active part in the development of the US and weren't the force trying to withhold most of the progress (for the vast majority) and the freedoms.

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Dogmudgeon Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-29-07 04:58 PM
Response to Reply #3
8. It's one of the most troubling effects of the RW movement
The revisionism has leeched into everything.

Go to a general-purpose chat forum and ask people, "What's the difference between a Democracy and a Republic?"

First of all, it's a false contrast.

But a large proportion of people will innocently tell you that a Democracy is based on mob rule and catering to it, while a Republic is based on the Rule of Law and designed to minimize state intrusion.

Most of them aren't pursuing any agenda when they answer. This is what they are taught, even in public schools.

And the sure don't "get it" that the definition is constructed to lead to a partisan result; (Bad) Democracy -> Democrats, and (Good) Republic -> Republicans.

Then there's the revisionism of Free Enterprise itself. Why do you think conservatives never discuss Mercantilism, or even know what it is?

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yella_dawg Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-29-07 03:46 PM
Response to Original message
4. I was in a somewhat intense discussion
with my ditto-head brother a few days ago. He was rambling and making no sense whatsoever, and made a reference to US economic conditions in the 1950's and `60's. Trying to change the subject, I mentioned that during WWII, Europe was bombed to rubble, Russia and China were damaged both by war and by earlier internal political unrest, and Japan was destroyed. The US was the only industrial nation in the world that had an intact manufacturing base and agriculture. It would have been impossible not to have had relative economic growth for a few decades.

My brother's reaction was bizarre. This hateful use of facts to contradict his argument was unfair. Three days later, I'm still stunned at his reaction to common knowledge.

There's something terribly wrong here.

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BrainGlutton Donating Member (202 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-29-07 03:49 PM
Response to Original message
5. Dissing Conservapedia?! Can't you find something more challenging?!
I mean, nobody who doesn't follow the rightie line in the first place is going to take it seriously anyway.
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Pamela Troy Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-29-07 04:06 PM
Response to Reply #5
6. Ignoring them is not going to make them go away.
And silence is complicity, not just in the face of outrageous acts, but in the face of outrageous lies. Conservapedia is part of a concerted effort by the right at historical revisionism, and if Conservapedia itself were to disappear tomorrow, the efforts at rewiting history would continue. The myths spread by Conservapedia need to be challenged NOW. Not after they've gained in momentum and popularity.

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mconvente Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-29-07 04:58 PM
Response to Reply #6
9. I agree Pamela Troy
Maybe some of you are too old to remember your high school history classes, but at a young 20, I remember fine. Even though I was in honors/AP history, there were still PLENTY of ditto-heads who would see the site resembling Wikipedia and believe the information. Granted, our great teacher would call them out on their crap, but still, this can be a pretty big problem.

Any effort the rids conservatives the opportunity to congregate and destroy history is a great one.

Also, welcome to DU!! :hi:
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yella_dawg Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-29-07 04:41 PM
Response to Reply #5
7. Honest Question
What purpose is served by this kind of hateful response. The original poster made a well-reasoned and articulate statement. You pop off with a spiteful little snit that absolutely reeks of ignorance.

I honestly want to know what motivates this kind of nastiness. Can you explain why you felt compelled to push in where you obviously have no knowledge or even a supportable opinion?

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BrainGlutton Donating Member (202 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jun-30-07 09:13 AM
Response to Reply #7
15. I heard Schlafly interviewed on the radio.
He's a moron and comes across as one, in case you were wondering.

I also ran this thread on the SDMB:

Between the one and the other, I concluded nobody would take Conservapedia seriously unless he/she had already drunk the Kool-Aid.

I'm familiar with many informative, well-researched sources from a conservative POV. Conservapedia is to those as a piece of toilet graffiti to a textbook.

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drm604 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jun-30-07 10:10 AM
Response to Reply #15
16. People can be taken in.
Just because it's obvious bullshit to you and me doesn't mean that it's not a problem.

Young people who are still learning and don't understand about well-researched sources, etc. can be taken in.

People who do a Google search on a subject, click on a link and end up on a Conservapedia article can be take in if they're not familiar with Conservapedia. They may even think they've landed on a Wikipedia page. People can be very inobservant.

Even if it was just the Kool-Aid drinkers, this kind of echo chamber just further isolates them and reinforces their distorted view of reality.

Open questioning and ridicule is necessary. Ignoring it won't make it go away.
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Pamela Troy Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jun-30-07 10:57 AM
Response to Reply #15
18. Jules Streicher was an idiot too.
He still did a tremendous amount of damage.
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many a good man Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-29-07 05:12 PM
Response to Original message
10. Great work!
This is a very worthwhile exercise. Thank you. I look forward to the rest.
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pingzing58 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-29-07 05:21 PM
Response to Original message
11. Thanks for this post. There are historical facts and interpretations of those facts. It's good to
know that you Ms. Troy are keeping a close eye on both.
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kristopher Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jun-29-07 07:28 PM
Response to Original message
12. A very fine piece of work
Thank you Pamela.

I've played with the euphemisms for lying but gave it up about 2 years ago. They prey on that politeness and if you merely demonstrate the falsity of their arguments they will continue to shift from one lie to the next to the next and then back to the first; acting exactly as if it hadn't been broached and disproven 2 hours earlier. That is the point where I simply label them a liar and use the original posts to show that they are deliberately making a false statement. The belief seems to be that as long as it is related to "politics" it isn't lying, it is "just spin."
It drives them ballistic and after a couple of episodes leaves them totally tongue-tied in future discussions.

I look forward to your next installment.
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baldguy Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jun-30-07 08:26 AM
Response to Original message
13. Factual relativism = believing your own propaganda.
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Cerridwen Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jun-30-07 09:04 AM
Response to Original message
14. Thank you for taking the time to investigate and to post your

This is important information to have to hand.

I'm constantly amazed at the lack of skepticism displayed by those who would cite web-based sources; or any sources, for that matter; without further investigation or who take a writer's conclusions at face value. Unfortunately, it's not a right versus left issue. I've seen many here at DU respond to spun "facts" and use them to bolster their argument as well. It's quite scary; the lack of intellectual curiosity that is displayed.

I'm kicking, recommending and bookmarking for your research and a well written post.

Thank you.

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Jim__ Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jun-30-07 10:36 AM
Response to Original message
17. Great essay! Do you think that your time as an editor at Conservapedia did any good?
Were any of the other editors won over at all by your points? Or did everyone else, more or less, go along with the program? Do you think the other people actually believed what was being said, or were they deliberately trying to mislead people?

I am curious because I often have discussions like this with people whose viewpoint I disagree with. Facts are not relative, but the perspective that we use to interpret those facts does lead different people to different conclusions.

It is a fact that John Smith left Virginia in 1609. But, what about the economic system in Jamestown (and I have to admit that I have no idea of what it was). Could the claim that it began as a socialistic economy and faltered and then switced to a "conservative" economy and boomed be seriously made? Could the editors of conservapedia imagine that they're making a valid point?

We all tend to see the answers that we want to see. It usually takes a lot of research to be able to reach your own conclusions about issues. For instance, my guess is that to actually learn enough about the Jamestown economy to reach your own conclusions about what happened would take some study. Short of making that effort, most of us tend to read people that we've come to trust and then generally accept their conclusions.

With enough research and discussion, we can often come to an agreement, even with people who have a quite different perspective. It is a waste of time to try to reach agreement with dishonest people. Your pointing to a basic dishonesty at COnservapedia is important, because it tells people not to waste their time talking to these people.
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Pamela Troy Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Jun-30-07 11:15 AM
Response to Reply #17
19. "Did any good?" Well, I was not out to change Conservapedia.
I do hope some young readers of Conservapedia saw the information I added before it was removed, and became a bit more skeptical about the stuff they were reading there. If that happened, I suppose I "did good."

There are a few fairly reasonable editors at Conservapedia, but they are not the majority, and tend not to accrue much influence. Many of these seem to leave after a time from sheer frustration. And yes, I saw what I believe are deliberate attempts to mislead in that I saw facts -- not opinions, but facts -- removed or altered in a misleading manner. It's one thing for someone to pass facts by without seeing them. That can be ascribed to genuine unawareness. It's quite another for someone to carefully step over them, or take a wide detour them, or even pick them up, move them out of sight, and continue on their way as if nothing had happened.

Jamestown was very much a capitalistic enterprise owned by a corporation -- not by the settlers themselves. For that reason alone, calling it "socialistic" stretches the definition of the term "socialism"to the breaking point. The "boom" in Jamestown was the result of tobacco as a cash crop, not by some sudden rediscovery of the free market system. Andrew Schlafly's desire to label it "socialistic" seems rooted, not in a careful study of Jamestown's economic system, but by a desire to paint it as more "immoral" when compared with the more theocratic Massachussetts Bay Colony (which, by the way, Schlafly falsely paints as an early and ardent opponent of slavery. In fact, the Massachussetts Bay Colony was one of the first American colonies to institutionalize that "peculiar institution" and open up a trade in it.)

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