The Joy of Antique Wikipedia Entries

Wikipedia is universally relied on and universally distrusted. On the one hand, it’s a stunning repository of knowledge that has rendered the World Books of my not-so-distant childhood utterly obsolete; on the other hand, it’s always partly tethered to the wisdom of crowds, meaning that diligent scholars and fact-checkers must perform a two-step: look it up on Wikipedia, then confirm it elsewhere.


Studies have shown that Wikipedia’s accuracy rate compares well with that of “official” encylopedias, which can’t be updated as fast or expanded as comprehensively. And yet there are still those occasional articles that land it shy of perfect respectability…

My favorite irregularities aren’t the glaring errors, the garbled sentences, or the instances of cheerful bias (from an article on Indian mystic Swami Shivananda: “Though his suffering was intense, he was always happy, as he never felt alienated from his Lord whose presence he was constantly aware of”). No, what I love most are the passages ingested from old public-domain reference books. So many articles borrow from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, that the site has developed a special attribution template for editors to use in annotating them.

And yet what must give Jimmy Wales fits gives my heart convulsions of delight. It’s sheer magic: flyblown tomes you'd otherwise never encounter are suddenly thrust under your nose. People and events with zero impact on the modern world somehow become relevant again. Need to learn about New Hampshire conchologist Augustus Addison Gould? Of course you don’t, but thanks to the zombified 1911 Britannica, you can!

It’s easy enough to seek these anachronisms out, but it’s even more fun when you find them by accident. If libraries die, this may become the closest future generations get to the special kind of serendipity they provide. Recently I stumbled across an entry on painter Joshua Cristall, which contained the following excerpt from Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravings (1886–89):

He was first apprenticed to a china dealer at Rotherhithe, but, finding that business too irksome, he left both his master and his home, and went to the Potteries, where he found some employment as a china painter. Finding this too monotonous, he came to London, and commenced a life of great privations and hard efforts to study the fine arts. It is said that at this period of his life he seriously injured his health by trying to live for a year on nothing else but potatoes and water.

Try getting that kind of information from the World Book.

By the time you click the links above, by the way, the articles may very well have been brought up to date. The Wikignomes are sleepless. Their system, mostly, works.

But I hope it never works too well. Encyclopedias by their nature are quixotic endeavors—what resource can seriously hope to provide all the knowledge in the world?—so it’s fitting that they should contain a little romance. Maybe even some sobering wisdom, as in the entry on Crinoline:

The crinoline had grown to its maximum dimensions by 1860. However, as the fashionable silhouette never remains the same for long, the huge skirts began to fall from favour.

Ah, how true: style is fleeting. But old-timey anecdotes are hilarious forever:

However there is one instance of a crinoline possibly saving a life, in the case of Sarah Ann Henley who jumped off the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol in 1885 after a lover's quarrel, but survived the 250 ft drop because her skirts supposedly acted like a parachute and slowed her descent. Although it is debated if the skirt actually saved Ms. Henley from the fall, the story has nevertheless become a local Bristol legend.

That entry, by the way, doesn’t properly cite its sources, so I have no idea where this yarn comes from. Once in a while, it’s better not to know.

[Image from Crinoline article, Wikipedia. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]

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    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.