For a Canadian Wikipedia
Wikipedia was barely two months old when Jimmy Wales wrote a memo which set a pattern which still endures: “I want to set up some alternative language wikipedias.” By ‘alternative’ languages he simply meant ‘foreign,’ and he went on to specify German and French as first steps.
Since that memo, there has been a torrent of Wikipedias in languages other than English, with the German and French editions still leading the pack in terms of number of articles. As well as versions in most widely spoken languages, there are editions in Latin, as well as several synthetic languages, including -- of course! -- Klingon. As of October 9, 2006, there were 250 versions, of which 50 contained more than 10,000 articles.
This profusion speaks for the success of this strategy. It’s gratifying to see the Poles (4th place, after the French), the Japanese (the only non-Europeans in the top eleven), the Swedes (9th) elaborating their own encyclopedias.
Where language and national boundaries are not congruent, however, I believe there are consequences of organizing by language, particularly for historical topics, which have drawn little if any attention.
Countries, needless to say, differ at times, sometimes strenuously and even violently. Take for example the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. In Wikipedia-world, both France and Germany (or more precisely French and German speakers) can each construct and present their own version of the conflict. In this case, neither account is at all chauvinistic, but each has its own tone and distinctive manner of presentation. The German account is about twice as long (c.2,800 vs. c.1,400 words; given the structure of German grammar and word formation, that understates the difference). It even provides more detail on the Paris Commune. The French account includes the delicious detail that France lacked sufficient ammunition for its shoulder arms because the Prussian crown prince was the major shareholder in France's Belgian supplier! But the point here is because Wikipedia is organized by language, each language community, and in this instance nation, can provide its own version.
Consider by contrast the American Revolution or the War of 1812 where the principal belligerents were Great Britain and the emergent American republic. Because there is one English-language Wikipedia, the quite different perspectives of the two nations (and Canada) have to be homogenized in one account. What should we expect the outcome to be?
In both cases we are presented with conventional accounts written primarily from a patriotic American perspective. There is no attempt to perceive the situation from Great Britain’s vantage point, beyond the occasional throw-away line. (I would contend that the American Revolution article does not represent the current state of scholarship even from an American whig perspective, but that is not the issue here.)
It’s entirely reasonable that Americans should be able to present an account of their nation’s founding and early struggles from their own perspective. But it’s equally reasonable to expect that the other side should get an equivalent opportunity to present its case.
Wikipedia’s much vaunted neutral-point-of-view (NPOV) is paraded as providing a level playing field. In cases such as those cited, it is suggested that the solution would be to provide section (a) ‘Americans interpret this….’ , and section (b) ‘the British interpret this…’ -- if one has to acknowledge national perspectives at all.
But the very longevity of an American patriotic perspective in these and other articles indicates that a NPOV is often culturally determined. A sentence or two, or even a paragraph, inserted into an article whose whole premise and architecture is developed from an assumed conviction of the righteousness of the American position is hardly a solution.
The English language article on King George III provides an instructive illustration. Ignore the redundancies, misprints, and stylistic infelicities which a competent copyedit could rectify. Note the entire paragraph given to the entirely spurious allegation of a 1759 marriage, an allegation made only a century later. Note the basic misunderstanding of the nature and role of British ministers and cabinets in the eighteenth-century, as well as the creation of peerages. Note the retailing of George’s alleged mental affliction in 1765, a contention refuted by John Brooke in his biography (1972; p.337-38), and which has generally been accepted by historians.
But especially note the highly disproportionate space give to George’s role (or alleged role) in the American Revolution, and to his ‘insanity’ and ‘mental illness’ as it is variously and repetitively labelled. Here of course is why the 1765 allegation is important: his insanity antedated, and thus implicitly was a causal factor of the Revolution (most historians date the onset of his illness to 1788).
These perspectives just happen to coincide with American popular beliefs about King George. To be fair, they were once partially supported by nineteenth-century whiggish British historians. But since the work of Sir Lewis Namier in the late-1920s, as well as that of Richard Pares, Herbert Butterfield, and more recently that of Linda Colley and many others, the tide has run strongly in the other direction, and a much more balanced and nuanced picture has emerged. But of all these authors, the contributors to this article are innocent. (The first of only four books referenced is Mark Bryant’s Private Lives: Curious Facts About the Famous and Infamous; it certainly sounds like a first-rate source.)
Yet this Wikipedia article has been ‘peer-reviewed’ and rated “one of the best articles produced by the Wikipedia community.” The criteria for the accolade: “Definitive. Outstanding, thorough article; a great source for encyclopedic information….No further editing necessary, unless new published information has come to light.”
If this is as good as we can expect it to get, it is both telling and distressing. But it vividly illustrates how NPOV in practice is strongly influenced by national cultures.
The general issue is not confined to the English-language version of Wikipedia. La Francophonie is a very big space; does it make sense for France and its former colonies in the Maghreb, West Africa and elsewhere to have to arrive at a common version of their historical interaction? Should Canadians be surprised when the French article on Louis Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon, marquis de Saint-Véran, is only 233 words? Or that the Rebellion of 1837-38, so significant in the Quebec mentality, is dispatched in fewer than 400 words?
Should Spain and its former colonies have to agree on the one account of the process of colonization, or the wars of liberation of the early nineteenth-century? Should Germans and Austrians have to agree on the Anschluss? Should French and Algerians have to agree on the Pied-Noirs (my read is that the existing French article conveys little sense of the indigenous Algerian viewpoint)? Should Irish and English have to agree on one account of centuries of invasion and destructive conflict?
The language-first principle means that the Basques get to tell their own story, but Mexicans do not. In France, there are Norman and Breton editions; in Germany, Niederdeusch; an Alemannisch (Alsatian) version straddles the two countries. So communities with their own language get a green light to tell their own tale; those that share a common language do not.
The argument here is not a case for extreme nationalism. It is an argument that nations are real, and that nationhood should be allowed legitimate expression. Wikipedia’s language-first principle of organization serves well the many cases in which language and nation are congruent. Where several nations share a common language, however, it in practice too often privileges the dominant country and reduces the others to subaltern status.
This is at root an argument a priori. One can easily find examples of potentially contested issues where Canadians, for example, would find the English Wikipedia article quite adequate. One is probably the Fenian Raids of 1866-1871. (The only reference provided is a book recently published in Canada, and the article may be largely derived from it.)
But that doesn’t negate the point of this post that there should be room for country-based versions of Wikipedia. At present, articles on Canadian topics are submerged in the huge mass of Wikipedia, and so obscured despite the search function and hyperlinks. And, especially in articles which span the borders, Canadians and others have American spellings and stylistic conventions imposed on them.
NPOV is one of the trinity of core content policies of Wikipedia, and the contributor is offered scores of pages (when copied into a Word file) on what it means, including FAQs, and the advice of Wikipedia Project: Countering Systemic Bias. As defined, NPOV specifically recognizes nationalistic biases.
But a nationalistic bias should not be conflated with a national perspective. There are several reasons why it is not only not possible, but not desirable, to eliminate national perspectives in dealing with historical topics. In brief:
First, history writing is a field of contested ideas and interpretations. Once one moves beyond basic facts and deals with causal factors, significance, implications, relationships between events, or among historical actors, or between actors and events, one commonly finds a lack of unanimity among historians even within one country or language, much less across those boundaries.
Second, long before post-modernism, it was recognized that there could be different legitimate historical narratives and traditions. Seventy years ago for example, G.M. Young, commenting on Gibbon, noted that larger historical issues were presented “as the individual observer (i.e., historian) sees it.” [Victorian England, p.185] As is tiresomely recited today – but apparently not often enough for Wikipedians to have heard – there is no single master, privileged, historical account.
Third, given the above, and especially since Wikipedia bans original research (which at times at least temporarily does resolve some differences among historians), how realistic is it to expect a well-grounded consensus to emerge in its pages through a Humean ‘come let us reason together’ process?
Fourth, a constituting part of our identity is the values embedded in the matrix of cultures in which we each live and have our being – generational, religious, ethnic, professional, and even national. To demand and expect that history be void of culture and values is not to raise it to a purer and more objective level, but rather to eviscerate it. An understanding, at times partisan and tinged with pride, of the history of our communities is part of how our identity is shaped and reproduced.
Fifth, we should recognize that many readers would learn from reading different accounts of the same topic, which reflected, in part, different national perspectives. These perspectives often exist, and we learn nothing when they are made invisible in Wikipedia’s one master language account.
Finally, Wikipedia seems to have a blind spot just where it should be focussing the spot light. It warns against numerous sources of bias: gender, age cohort, education, employment, ethnicity, nationalism, etc. But it is unable to recognize and own up to its having a pronounced American bias -- entirely to be expected given its origin and the simple weight of numbers. The closest it can come is to acknowledge an ‘Anglo-American focus’ which is contrary to NPOV. Remarkable. Two centuries after the rebel victory, it is still those Brits screwing things up.
According to one list, there appears to be almost one thousand ‘Wikipedians in Canada’ who are contributors to the current English-language Wikipedia. But even the rubric ‘Wikipedians IN Canada’ indicates the anti-national bias. I haven’t found a similar list for the French-language version, but there is a Quebec listing, and even a group which meets monthly in Montreal.
The New Yorker’s ‘Wikipedia Mania’ article (to give it the newsstand cover title) reported that an unnamed Canadian was the most prolific contributor. The Globe and Mail (4 August 2006) quickly tracked down Simon Pulsifer, 24, a University of Toronto history graduate, who has edited about 78,000 articles and drafted a few thousand. His first was on the Panama Canal. The Globe even ran an on-line discussion with him.
Wikipedia contains several resources on Canadian material. There’s a Canadian Wikipedian Notice Board which lists requested articles, and ones needing improvement. There is the Canada Collaboration which is "an effort to improve Canada-related articles in Wikipedia.” The ‘Category Canada’ page lists 26 categories of articles on Canadian topics, each one of which leads to many specific articles. So one cannot suggest that Canada is ignored, but all these guides are common to other areas of the world, and several other versions.
As well, there are resources for those who wish to start a new Wikipedia in a language not yet covered. I have found no formal policy against multiple Wikipedias in any one language, but all of the material on starting new ones is framed in terms of additional languages: “So we encourage anyone who wants to build a wiki in their own language.” It may be that the question of national Wikipedias has never been seriously considered.
How might one go about starting a Canadian Wikipedia? The idea could be tested on those who have identified themselves as Wikipedians in Canada to see how many might be interested and at what level. In terms of content, there are the existing relevant articles in the English and French language Wikipedias.
But what if the on-line Canadian Encyclopedia (TCE), both French and English versions, were made available to seed a Canadian Wikipedia? The éclat with which TCE was greeted in the mid-1980s when it sold over 150,000 copies (a huge number for a work of popular fiction much less a multi-volume reference work) is part of the rationale for advocating a Canadian Wikipedia now. The on-line TCE appears to be selectively updated; the article on Stephen Harper, for example, carries his career up through his becoming prime minister. But most articles seem to be current only until the last print edition in 1988; the softwood lumber dispute, for example. It would require the consent and co-operation of the Historica Foundation which provides the TCE on-line. This proposal assumes that the existing on-line TCE would and should continue to be available. If a Canadian Wikipedia were to take off, it would quickly vary unrecognizably, both for better and worse, from the TCE articles which had seeded it. A TCE starting point would encourage a Canadian Wikipedia which included articles in both English and French.
In putting this post to bed, I stumbled across a group which earlier this year was exploring forming a Canadian chapter of Wikipedia, and perhaps even a Canadian version. The discussion seems to have stalled mid-year, and I am currently trying to contact the proponents to determine the status.
The existing English (American) Wikipedia is as much as instrument of American cultural hegemony as Hollywood, and more dangerous by being more disingenuous. It’s time for Canadians to have our own.