I like Wikipedia, I really do. But there are also some serious, very serious problems with it. I just read the entries on the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, a few related historical entries, and the entry on the movie Zulu, which is about the Battle of Rorke’s drift.

My interest here is in looking at how things African are depicted in movies and other aspects of popular culture, especially historical events and “traditional” cultures. (I am not an expert on modern African studies.)

I will write about that at another time: Suffice it to say that at this point it is obvious that the overall pattern of divergences from historical (probable) fact in the movie can be best understood in reference to the by then well developed African in Western Eyes trope. One of the more blatant divergences is the invention of a person who simply was not present at the event (interestingly, there seems to be only one significant example of this in the movie) and it is “the young white woman” without which no Western movie about Africa would be complete.

Anyway, in reviewing these Wikipedia entries, I noticed that the Wikipedia process has it’s own pattern, including a preponderance of (amateur?) military historians at the keyboard who are unable to leave a single fact unturned no matter how insignificant, and a nearly complete lack of proportion so that very important facts get glossed. In addition, if you are Black or African, don’t expect your dead to be honored like the white dead will be. Shame.

And so, this all inspired me to make fun of Wikipedia with the following parody:

The following is a brief characterization of World War Two:

  • Japanese Imperial, German Nazi, and Italian Fascists, and others, formed an axis intent on taking over large areas of the world.
  • They were opposed by British, French, Soviets, American and others who formed an alliance.
  • The main part of the war, involving numerous military forces, lasted about five years, and the total death toll from fighting and ancillary strife reached tens of millions.
  • Notable was the attempt by the Nazis to systematically exterminate the Jews and some other groups, a project which resulted in the death of about six million people mainly in death camps.
  • The war changed the global map of nations, the world’s economy, and gave rise to movements and organizations intent on making sure that large scale war of this type would not happen again.
  • The allies won.

The following is a brief characterization of World War Two after the dweebs who write and edit Wikipedia get hold of it:

  • Nazi Germany, or the Third Reich, is the common name for the country of Germany while governed by Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) from 1933 to 1945.
  • Third Reich (German: Drittes Reich) denotes the Nazi state as a historical successor to the medieval Holy Roman Empire (962-1806) and to the modern German Empire (1871-1918).
  • A major part of the German military was the Schutzstaffel.
  • While a multitude of uniforms existed for the SS, often depending on the theatre of war where they were stationed, the all black SS uniform is the most well known.
  • The very first SA uniforms and insignia were paramilitary uniforms fashioned by early Nazis which incorporated parts from World War I uniforms to include such features used by other Freikorps formation such as high boots, daggers, and the kepi hat.
  • Nazi Germany had two official names, the Deutsches Reich (German Reich), from 1933 to 1943, when it became Großdeutsches Reich (Greater German Reich).
  • For the Japanese Army, the Type 3 Officers Uniform, was introduced in 1943 and was similar to the Type 98 but was made of cheaper materials.
  • There were many helmets
  • Adrian helmet – As with many countries, the IJA adopted and produced the French Adrian helmet.
  • There were war crimes.
  • Type 92 – The Adrian helmet was later replaced by a Japanese designed helmet called the Type 92 (1932).
  • Six million Jews and others were exterminated by the Nazis.
  • Type 90 – was like the cork helmet issued by the European imperial powers.
  • Up to nearly 80 million people died as a direct result of the war.
  • Type 92 – This was a cork version of the Type 92 steel helmet.
  • The US marines came to their own as a major military force during this war.
  • The Marine Corps dress uniform is an elaborate uniform worn for formal or ceremonial occasions.
  • The marines attacked Guadalcanal on August 7th 1942.
  • During the ensuing battle, over 10,000 marines were wounded.
  • The dress uniform for the US marines has used a single brass button on the sleeve since 1923.
  • And so on and so forth

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Comments

  1. #1 Mu
    October 19, 2010

    The neutrality of your entry is hereby disputed!
    The cork version of the 92 steel helmet is known as the Type 93.

  2. #2 MattK
    October 19, 2010

    Just started editing Wikipedia (articles on turtles). This is very funny and bang on. With turtles I am reasonably lucky because there are only a few people interested in editing the species that I work on. My major complaint is the “Captive care section”. It should simply read “Don’t keep turtles as pets. If you must, adopt an unwanted Slider. You will get bored of it in 6 weeks anyway, therefore it doesn’t matter what kind you want. Might as well get a Slider.”

  3. #3 Rich Wilson
    October 19, 2010

    Building a bike shed. Everyone wants to feel important by having their say, and it’s never ‘done’.

  4. #4 Nemo
    October 19, 2010

    Whenever I see anyone whining about Wikipedia, my response is: “So fix it.” That’s the main feature of Wikipedia — if you think you can do it better, do it. There are (basically) no filters; you don’t have to wait for anyone’s approval. It’s yours to improve.

    So fix it.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    October 19, 2010

    Yeah, I did that once and I ran into a wall of shit. It takes a special kind of person to delve into that business.

    So, could you fix this for me? The entry for Battle of Rorke’s Drift lists the Zulu Casualties thusly:

    351 killed
    500 wounded

    However, in the hours “after the battle” most or all of those 500 wounded were systematically killed by the British soldiers. So it’s kind of hard to say that they weren’t killed in the battle, given that the killing never really stopped. The Zulu gave up and ran away, and the British just kept going until all those laying on the ground were also dead.

    It should, to be honest and to reflect the pertinant facts, read:

    851 killed
    0 wounded

    with a footnote explaining how that came about.

    (And a further footnote saying that some sources put the dead at much, much higher, including individuals who were present.)

  6. #6 Gabe
    October 19, 2010

    “There were war crimes” … indeed. Very funny.

  7. #7 Tommykey
    October 20, 2010

    The best take on the Zulu War was that Monty Python skit from The Meaning of Life.

  8. #8 Radioactive afikomen
    October 20, 2010

    I’d just like to point you to a couple of very insightful posts about Wikipedia’s “style” by David Gerard, one of WP’s veteran admins:

    http://davidgerard.co.uk/notes/2010/09/09/the-wrung-dry-corpses-of-words/

    http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2005/10/more_on_wikiped.php

    Admittedly, neither mentions the disproportionate emphasis on certain aspects of a given subject like you do here. I still find the analysis of Wikipedia’s writing style to be very interesting, and just barely relevant enough to this post for me to link you to them. : )

  9. #9 Ashley Moore
    October 20, 2010

    Too true.
    While this is a problem with all of wikipedia, I think it is especially true of articles on military subject and weapons, where the editors seemed to be obsessed with the trivial details, as you say.

    If you look at the articles on weapons, especially modern rifles, you can see long, long lists of every variant for every army, every method of ‘receiver’ manufacture and every bullet type.
    And of course, almost nothing on how weapons are distributed around the globe, etc, which would take real scholarship.

  10. #10 Ashley Moore
    October 20, 2010

    You forgot:

    World War II was mentioned in the song by 90s punk band, ‘XXX’, entitled ‘World War 2′.

  11. #11 Phillip IV
    October 20, 2010

    So it’s kind of hard to say that they weren’t killed in the battle, given that the killing never really stopped.

    But the key thing is that the fighting stopped – adding the casualties of a post-battle massacre to the casualties of the battle itself would make them appear more legitimate (and overstate the ‘effectiveness’ of the British force), so I don’t think it’s a good idea here. In my opinion the casualty figures would be most honestly stated as:

    351 killed

    500 wounded (murdered by the British after the Battle)

    As for the ahistorical female character in the movie, that’s just what went for ‘common sense’ among movie producers (and still goes, in some cases). ‘Female interest’, as it was called, needed to be present in every movie. If the set-up didn’t supply it naturally, it had to be forced in at any cost, otherwise the female audience might stay at home. This meant that female characters were arbitrarily added to original stories, or when already present were arbitrarily outfitted with romantic subtext, or when the subtext was already present, it was upgraded to the ‘pure love’ standard. One of the few period movies that managed to avoid that fate, after a drawn-out struggle, was “Lawrence of Arabia”, and it didn’t seem to suffer an adverse reception at the box office for it.

  12. #12 stripey_cat
    October 20, 2010

    Geeking over uniforms, weapons and other technical details has its place (if nothing else, it’s useful for illustrators to make sure they’re getting things right!), but its place is not in the main article. One of the huge benefits of wikipedia is that you can create new articles very easily. I really do not understand why this feature isn’t more widely used, and the resultant articles linked from the main.

    MattK – I know a couple of families that have kept tortoise species as multi-generational pets (they’re a lot longer lived than dogs or even horses). Like anything, people need to make a responsible commitment, considering the likely lifespan of the pet: lots of idiots get bored with rodent pets before they reach their full growth, even; on the other hand, there are plenty of people discussing best senior diets and dental care for an aged guinea-pig, too.

  13. #13 dirk franke
    October 20, 2010

    As a long time Wikipedia-contributor and admin I just want to print this article out, hang it on my wall und silently rejoice every day. So true.

  14. #14 IanW
    October 20, 2010

    Did you miss this part, Greg?
    “In addition to the 351 Zulu deaths during the battle, at least 500 wounded Zulus were massacred after the battle.[13] The British of Chelmsford’s relief force had no mercy for the captured, wounded Zulus left behind”.

    Or was that added after you blogged this yesterday?

  15. #15 ildi
    October 20, 2010

    One of the things I like about wiki is that you can often find out what possible points of contention are by reading the discussion page.

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    October 20, 2010

    Radioactive: Thanks, I’m sure I’ll enjoy those links.

    Ashley, Right. By the way, it is probably a good thing that there are entries pointing out every single detail of military gear … if one wants to look that up, this is the place to find it. But in the case cited in my comment, the subject matter is not the kind of buttons the soldiers used, but the larger scale socio-political climate and the fact that the British did something they may have done only once or twice, or perhaps never, before or since, and that by any standard would be considered a war crime, brushed under the rug by being buried in with the other facts.

  17. #17 Greg Laden
    October 20, 2010

    Phillip: One could argue that the fighting has not stopped if the killing has not stopped, but yes, putting it the way you suggest would be accurate and get the point across.

    Yes, the female needs to be present in every movie, but in Africa movies she must be present with her father. Always.

    They also changed the character of one of the soldiers, who was decorated, into a scoundrel and a criminal, later redeemed, to get the scoundrel criminal guy who is redeemed character (not specific to Africa movies). His descendents walked out of the movie when it was first shown and were quite pissed!

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    October 20, 2010

    IanW, no I did not miss that (nor was it added). I’m saying that the summary box that all battle related posts have should reflect this. (As suggested above by Phillip, perhaps).

  19. #19 Fred Bauder
    October 20, 2010

    Our coverage of anything outside popular culture is poor. African subjects especially so. The cure is jump in and start editing.

    And don’t give up if you have trouble either with other users or learning how to do it well. I’ve been doing it for 8 years and have had plenty of trouble, but a lot of fun too. And substantially improved coverage of subjects I’ve been interested in, or just had information about.

    Today I added a tiny bit about Al Kilf, a small city on the Euphrates: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Kifl

  20. #20 natural cynic
    October 20, 2010

    They were opposed by British, French, American and others who formed an alliance.

    Gee, might “others” include the Soviet Union? The site of the largest land battles ever fought [Stalingrad & Kursk]. Your emphasis on the western viewpoint in African colonial wars is well taken, but you seemed to forget our erstwhile buddy Uncle Joe and company.

  21. #21 Gwen
    October 20, 2010

    I agree that sometimes Wikipedia can be extremely bland. You do have to understand that it is difficult to give a summary of everything in the entire world. But to be honest, some of their entries are so unbelievably complicated that I have no idea what they are trying to say. For example, last year I took a biology class and I tried to look up the process of making DNA. I got onto this massive page, and I wasn’t even sure that it was in English. Clearly a very advanced scientist had created this page, and had not thought about who his viewers were going to be.

  22. #22 Laura
    October 24, 2010

    I believe that Wikipedia is a very useful resource, but I would not suggest writing a research paper entirely off of it. It can you give you facts that are very interesting, but I would not put too much weight on those facts. Wikipedia also serves as a sort of springboard – if you find an interesting fact you can usually verify it by finding it on another website. I remember that when I was in middle school, teachers would say that it was a “forbidden” site , because anyone could write anything on it. However, since anyone can edit it, usually false and completely random information is omitted immediately, and a sort of balance is maintained. And as for all of the extremely detailed information that is on there, it can interest someone, and if it does not interest you, you can just skim over it!

  23. #23 Greg Laden
    October 24, 2010

    Laura, a colleague once noted that Wikipedia is an excellent search engine, more robust than most others. That’s one way to look at it as a spring board. It is also an excellent spell checker!

  24. #24 Audrey
    October 25, 2010

    I appreciate the point that you made in your post, but I have found that many of the facts found on Wikipedia, while seemingly mundane and unimportant to those who want the principle ideas, are actually very useful. Many of the facts that I’ve come across are exactly what I need for research, and although they may not be entirely reliable, they do encourage further research and prove to be a great starting point for more specific study.

  25. #25 Greg Laden
    October 25, 2010

    Audrey, I agree. I use wikipedia all the time for that reason, in certain areas (the wiki is not good in all areas). But that is not my main point.

    My point is that because of the nature of the process itself that results in these fact-rich treatments, biases emerge simply because the distribution of the facts does not always reflect the nature of the issue at hand.

    I left this out regarding the battle in question: The official wiki version of describing a battle includes listing the combatants . This entry notes that some several hundred “blacks” (from “native” regiment) defected prior to the battle. But, it does not mention the wholesale and fully atrocious, illegal slaughter of all of the Zulu wounded after the battle. It is suggested that this latter fact is because that happened ‘after the battle.’ But the defection of the “black/native” soldiers before the battle happened before the battle.

    Here it is plain and simple: Changing the criteria as to what to include first makes the Africans look bad, then hides a major atrocity, of historic proportions, committed by the British/Whites.

    In my book, that makes this entry very racist. Yes, all the facts are in there, but they are arranged in a very selective manner, probably unconsciously. But not assuming that there is intention does not mean that it is OK. If a fact was accidentally misrepresented it would not be considered correct just because it was gotten wrong by accident. The very racially biased layout of the article is real, and a result of the process used by Wikipedia.

    I am writing something about the movie depicting this battle, and Wikipedia gives very usfull and documented information that I can use, and I appreciate that for what it is. But there is this other problem…

  26. #26 Peter Damian
    October 31, 2010

    I just found this post. It was so funny I posted it at Wikipedia Revew http://wikipediareview.com/index.php?s=&showtopic=31278&view=findpost&p=257577

    My blog also covers some of the stranger articles in Wikipedia (I’m a specialist in medieval history – see this http://ocham.blogspot.com/2010/06/william-of-ockham.html e.g.).

  27. #27 Lilburne
    October 31, 2010

    Most wikipedia entries are full of crap, or at least every one that I’ve bothered to investigate has been. Once you get past the general unreadability, and the false claims, one finds that many of the claims left are often garbled as successive editors, with little knowledge of the subject, try to rescue the article from claims of copyright violation or POV.

    @Laura: The problem is that each time you load a page into wikipedia you can never be sure whether it has just been vandalized or not. Besides there are historical articles that for years say “X agreed with this” and then for last two years say “X did not agree with this” which is true. Articles have great injections of tosh inserted into them by one editor, and the most blatant rubbish gets removed, but not all of it.

  28. #28 Greg Laden
    October 31, 2010

    This:

    http://wikipediareview.com/index.php?showtopic=18641

    is a good example of wikipedia weirdness. The author of the comment give several examples of a particular editor’s prose, obviously to indicate that it is wrong somehow, but not once does he say what is wrong. It looks fine to me (as quoted). I’m sorry, but it is not stunningly obvious. If there is a complaint, make the complaint, don’t point to it and assume everyone else will understand it. Very strange.

  29. #29 Emperor
    November 1, 2010

    I wrote that comment. The crowd at Wikipedia Review is on average ridiculously knowledgable, so I didn’t feel like I needed to explain the finer points of world history to them. You’re right though, I should have written it so that a wider audience could easily understand it.

    Anyway to the blogger here: good job with this blog. Your brief characterization is as good as any I’ve read, and I’d love to have you come write for Encyc. Consider this your engraved invitation.

  30. #30 Greg Laden
    November 1, 2010

    Thanks. We’ll see, but I really am not sure I’m cut out for it.

    I guess my point (about your comment) is this: There is an internal conversation going on that is probably very productive but one would need to break into it.

    In this case, one would have to imagine (or know where to look up in the depth of the wikihistory) the alternative historical statements.

  31. #31 Emperor
    November 1, 2010

    Let’s take a small example from the current article. The infobox has a number of images, among them a picture of Keitel signing a surrender document. Now what do you think is the purpose of showing a crusty old German general doing paperwork? Are there not, perhaps, more iconic images to put in the infobox?

    The reason is because the Russians insist that the “real” surrender occured in Berlin, a day after Jodl signed a surrender further west. For political reasons the Soviets had a redo involving Keitel, and everyone played along.

    All the same, I think you and I can agree that Keitel is not the most important man of World War II, and that using his photo in the infobox is a lousy editorial choice.