Every respectable ideology needs an encyclopedia. The editors of the Enlightenment Encyclopédie, when composing the organizational frontispiece to the work, situated religion but a few spokes away from superstitions and black magic, while the reader of the entry on “Cannibalism” interested in related themes would find himself advised to consult the “Eucharist” entry, were he to consult the book’s reference notes. The good Bolshevik editors of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, for example, were quick to minimize the entry on “Jews” in the face of the Soviet anti-Semitism of the early 1950s.
And while the neatly-edited pages of larger Wikipedia articles may give the impression of a smoothed-over ideological consensus, any look into the discussion pages of more contentious articles suggests that the tradition of encyclopedia as ideology is not want to end. As one user, “Truthteller,” wrote of Wikipedia’s “Creationism” article: “I hate to tell you this but you obviously have your facts wrong. This is so biased that it quite obviously tells me that you either HATE Christians, or Jesus Christ, Himself, or that you have NEVER taken ANY time to check out the facts for yourself.”
If New York attorney Andrew Schlafly has his way, future encyclopedia readers may take with them an even harsher judgment of Wikipedia than “Truthteller.” Schlafly is the mind behind Conservapedia.com, an alternative online encyclopedia that describes itself as “a much-needed alternative to Wikipedia, which is increasingly anti-Christian and anti-American.” Schlafly devoted much of his free time to home-schooling high school age children in New Jersey until he found that many of his pupils, who came from conservative Christian households, had to rely on Wikipedia – “full of dangerous ideas that homeschooling was supposed to prevent from seeping into the home,” one pro-Schlafly blog says – for much of their research. The war against Wikipedia was on! In the most-read article on Conservapedia, “Examples of Bias in Wikipedia,” Schlafly writes that “the entry for the Renaissance in Wikipedia refuses to give enough credit to Christianity” and that its “Abortion” entry “reads like a brochure for the abortion industry.”
It would be easy – and perhaps unfair – for the anti-American, anti-Christian-fundamentalist writer to document and satirize the historical claims that Conservapedia makes. Indeed, while a rudimentary visit to and search of the site will yield plenty of yuks for the liberal Internet user, what is most striking about Conservapedia may not be its content but the way it has changed the encyclopedia itself. Rather than structuring the encyclopedia as a collection of human knowledge, Conservapedia is structured in such a way that encyclopedic knowledge is only useful insofar as it aids its reader to develop a Christian dialectic in which, as Arthur Koestler says, “New facts automatically take on the proper color and fall into the proper place.” If it is true that most encyclopedias tell their readers what was thought, then the brilliance of Conservapedia is that, more than just summarizing the past, it provides its readers with the ideological framework necessary to process and defend themselves from new and challenging facts.
Conservapedia is only superficially similar to Wikipedia. A visit to the homepage yields a few basic similar options – a welcome note, a news section, and an “On This Day in History” column – yet something seems different. For one, the collective professionalism of Wikipedia is missing: Conservapedia lacks a logo, and while a discussion page shows that the site’s contributors are working on one, the desire to differentiate their logo from that of Wikipedia’s has led to creative slowdowns. At this juncture, the Conservapedia muse has graced the organization with the following suggested logo: Conservapedia is short on articles: while it can boast since its founding in November 2006 to have surpassed the Kyrgyz and Turkmen versions of Wikipedia in terms of total articles, with 3,800 articles, it remains several thousand entries behind such languages as Afrikaans, Basque, and Esperanto. And the miniscule length of many Conservapedia articles is problematic, and one discussion page even poses the question, “Should Conservapedia be taken offline, or locked against editing, on Sundays?”
But though this may seem madness, there is method in it. More than having decided that “we’re not always consistent about everything” with respect to the Sabbath, the consistency and quality of Conservapedia’s articles reflects the fact that articles are composed in an entirely different way here than at other online encyclopedias. The process of writing Conservapedia goes through several stages: Schlafly begins by writing a “lecture” on a given subject, and the website currently features a complete fourteen-lecture world history course from Creation to today. But the original lectures themselves feature little original source material and are the product of a dilettante’s hand; writing of the decision of many Europeans to make the journey to the New World, Schlafly draws the parallel: “Think about it. Would your family uproot and move, at great risk to your lives, to a place that had no civilization or anything of value? Do we see families moving to the middle of the desert in Arizona, or to cheap land in the middle of Wyoming? No.” At any rate, the child’s education stops at the point where the lectures end – at least until they write articles for terms used in the most recent lecture. Once enough students have filled in or improved terms from the most recent lecture, Schlafly writes and posts the next unit’s lecture; then the students are to research and create entries on that newer lecture’s key figures and concepts, repeating the cycle anew. Conservapedia is, then, on the one hand an encyclopedia by and for children.Whether for limited understanding or in a precocious attempt to circumvent the guidelines of homework, most articles are about a paragraph in length and consist largely of quotations copied and pasted from other sources.
But what is the content? Looking to Schlafly’s complete world history course with its fourteen lectures, what jumps out is how thoroughly most historical events are integrated into a relentless attack on atheism, science, and in some sense, liberalism. While discussions of history prior to 1859 feature their gems, world history since the publication of Origin of Species is one long nightmare. Inquiring as to the roots of imperialism, we learn that “in England and Germany, people who believed in Darwin’s theory of evolution felt a racial superiority and sought conquest (survival-of-the-fittest) to force other races into submission.” This, of course, led to the Nazi Holocaust: “Besides 6 million Jews dying, 3 million Christians were killed also along with many priests and nuns. This is a very touchy subject for the Jews and is not often discussed amongst them.” And as for the father of it all? We read that “Darwin’s own family considered him to be a disgrace even before he failed at an attempt to become a doctor.” People who subscribe to evolutionary theory are viewed on Conservapedia as superficially educated in science. The brilliance, however, of Schlafly’s project is the degree to which Conservapedia provides readers with the proper ideological framework through which to discuss any and all topics. The Conservapedian physicist, looking for information on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, reads that “relativity has generated a huge following by advocates of moral relativism. The idea of moral relativity may exist independent of (and substantially predates) the theory of relativity, but invocations of the theory are used in attempts to lend legitimacy to this version of morality.” Betrand Russell, for example, is defined not as a philosopher or logician, but “a twentieth-century atheist.” In short, Conservapedian articles are written in such a way that opposition to atheism and evolution becomes the measuring stick for historical importance. Conservapedia presents its reader with information in such a way that all historical events, persons, and concepts, can be assimilated and understood through an anti-atheist worldview. If Freud was hated by the Soviets for his anti-proletarian bourgeois science and by the Nazis for his race, then the Conservapedian would hate him for his atheism.
It remains to be seen – or rather read in the pages of future encyclopedias – how successful the Conservapedian experiment will become. Yet, if one reflects more on how the online encyclopedia may reflect and alter human perception, it seems prudent to remember that the Wikipedian project may be disliked not just by the academy for the way it threatens to destroy the craft of research, but also by the American Christian Right, for while the democratic, collective-editing craft of Wikipedia may reflect modern liberals’ stance towards how citizens ought to argue about and settle factual disputes, revelation does not and will not fit into the Wikipedia article paradigm. “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it,” Churchill said, but the days of his post-war statement may have come to an end. For if some take away Conservapedia’s colorful articles and pedagogy-driven structure from these contemplations, Schlafly’s project seems most remarkable in how it contests a view of historiography and encyclopedia-writing based on consent, evidence, and debate. Whether my post-mortem days find me immortalized in self-indulgent histories of my period or just tucked into a passing footnote with other epigones of my day, will my legacy depend more on the homework of an errant home-schooled eighth-grader than the actions of my life? Be I lionized or laughed at, fawned at or forgotten, I’ll see you after “nun.”