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Exhuming McCarthy

Exhuming McCarthy June 22, 2007

For all of the faults of Wikipedia, it's a marvelous demonstration of the power of the hive-mind of the Internet. It really is an impressive achievement. One way to step back and appreciate that is to compare it to its latest imitator, the Schlafly-spawn's "Conservapedia."

Conservapedia is old news in the blogosphere, but it's back in the headlines thanks to this week's Los Angeles Times article.

It's kind of fun to alternate between the two sites, comparing entries. For example, here's a link to Wikipedia's exhaustive entry on The X-Files. And here, reprinted in its entirety, is the Conservapedia entry:

The X-Files was a television program on Fox about two FBI detectives who investigated the occult. One of them was named Fox Mulder, the other was named Dana Scully. The former was played by David Duchovny, the latter by Gillian Anderson.

That entry is listed under Conservapedia's category "Broadcasting," which contains 24 other articles on TV shows and TV networks and one on Katie Couric. (This arbitrary list has to be seen to be believed, but it does perhaps provide a window into the peculiar tastes of the right-wing homeschoolers who sketch out much of the site's content.)

If the X-Files comparison seems too low-brow, try something else:

• Shakespeare: Conservapedia; Wikipedia

• String theory: Con; Wiki

• Frederick Douglass: Con; Wiki

• Henri Matisse: Con; Wiki

Let's be charitable and try a few that ought to be easier territory for the Conservapediaphiles:

• Ronald Reagan: Con; Wiki

• Phyllis Schlafly: Con; Wiki

• Homeschooling: Con; Wiki

Even on their home turf, the Conservapedia entries are short and shoddy imitations of the Wikipedia entries.

Meanwhile, the monkey wrench gangs have been hard at work, and an entertaining "watch" site — RationalWiki — has arisen, with a delightful "Best of … collection.

The stupid on display here is a source of endless amusement. But while smarter monkeys might have made for a less laughably embarrassing site, I've come to believe that the whole enterprise was conceptually doomed. C-pedia's "About page suggests it is intended as a conservative alternative to Google and Wikipedia. That's just not possible.

The cooperative, democratic, open-source ethos of Google and Wiki is antithetical to the supposedly conservative values espoused by the C-pedia's contributors. The original is based on the idea that all of us, together, know more than any of us individually does. The "alternative" is based on the idea that some ideas are forbidden and must be censored. The model for the Conservapedia's form of collaboration isn't so much Wikipedia as it is one of those totalitarian youth clubs in which children are commissioned to report subversive comments by parents or teachers.

Thomas Cahill's pop-history How the Irish Saved Civilization recounts the role that medieval monks and scribes played in preserving the West's knowledge of history, science, art and literature throughout the Dark Ages until, one day, the time was ripe to bring it forth again to help usher in the Renaissance. The sense one gets from C-pedia is that of a group of scribes working to do the opposite — to reduce and eliminate much of what we've learned so that, one day, the Dark Ages can be reborn.

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