Anatomy of a Wikillusion Or, how to Rid Yourself of Embarrassing Footnotes in Three Easy Steps….

Posted By on November 5, 2011

One of the truly great things about Wikipedia – a feature that redeems many of the perhaps unavoidable limitations of the project – is that it stores every revision of all its pages, including both entries and talk pages.

There’s a paper trail – always (well, almost always….), a continuous sequence of the revision process, one to which historians of ideas may refer in their never-ending quest to ascertain the dynamics of the evolution of knowledge – or, as in this case, its devolution at the hands of partisan demagogues.

So sit back, dear reader and tighten your seat belt, ‘cause we’re going to take some hairpin turns down the slalom of intellectual history, and make some surprising discoveries about just how much, um, creative iconoclasm,  is going on to keep “Shakespeare” safe for the Professoriate.

The story begins with a 2009 article published in a journal, Brief Chronicles, of which I’m proud to be an editor. That article, by German scholar Robert Detobel and the late K.C. Ligon, challenged the longstanding Stratfordian belief that Francis Meres was a reliable witness for the orthodox view of Shakespeare.

I won’t go into any detail enumerating the basis of their argument, beyond saying that, in my opinion, the article had aimed a devastating blow to the orthodox view of Shakespeare. In one fell swoop, Detobel and Ligon had wiped out the traditional belief that Meres was a safe citation for the Stratfordians. Read it for yourself and see if you agree.

If anyone wants to discuss the article, I’d be happy to do so – just so long as you’ve read it first and show me that you understand the argument well enough to offer a credible rejoinder. I won’t be approving the sort of comments, which seem to be rather popular on this  topic (perhaps for understandable reasons, given the implications of what Detobel and Ligon have done),  that substitute insult for argument.

Figure One: The Wikipedia "Francis Meres" page in February 2010. Click on the image for a readable pop-up.

Our story begins with a Wikipedia revision that I undertook on March 14, 2010 to the Wikipedia page on Francis Meres.  Figure One shows the state of the page when I began my edits.

Figure Two: Francis Meres Wikipedia entry following my edits on March 14, 2010.

At that time there was a also note on the talk page asking why there was no list of the Shakespeare plays mentioned in Palladis Tamia.

This did indeed seem like a surprising oversight. So I supplied such a list. I also wrote what was, to me at least, a reasonably fair and balanced treatment of the highly charged role that Francis Meres has played in the history of the authorship debate, including a reference to the most current research by Detobel and Ligon:

Meres has been an important source for both sides in the Shakespearean authorship controversy. In addition to being often cited as evidence for the chronology of the Shakespearean plays, his Palladis Tamia is regarded by orthodox Shakespearean scholars as an important witness to the traditional view of Shakespearean authorship.

However, Meres also mentions Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as among several who are “the best for comedy amongst us.” This fact has been cited by both sides in the authorship question; to the Oxfordians it has signified that Oxford was known as a prominent comic writer, and they wonder, if this is so, why none of his comedies survive, at least under his own name.

To orthodox scholars, on the other hand, it has seemed that Meres’ double reference to both Shakespeare and Oxford means that he knew that Oxford could not have been the author of the Shakespearean works. A possible solution to this enigma was proposed by Robert Detobel and K.C. Ligon in a 2009 Brief Chronicles article which employs a detailed numerical analysis of the structure of Meres’ “comparative discourse” to argue that while Meres pays lip service to the distinction, on a closer view he actually suggests the identity of Shakespeare and Oxford.

But Stratfordians – at least those active in Wikipedia – are not exactly fond of “fair” or “objective.”

They don’t like de Vere’s name mentioned on any but necessary pages, and they’ll take as much time as needed from their day jobs to make sure that Wikipedia readers never get a hint that there’s a real controversy about anything they don’t like.

They are defending the citadel against the infidel — and that both requires and justifies extraordinary measures, above and beyond the usual call of duty.

Their outlook and modus operandi are perhaps best summarized by Adam Gopnik in his February 2011 New Yorker article:

[one] sees the limits of the so-called extended mind clearly in the mob- made Wikipedia the perfect product of that new vast super-sized cognition: when there’s easy agreement, it’s fine, and when there is widespread disagreement on values or facts as with, say, the origins of capitalism it’s fine too; you get both sides.

The trouble comes when one side is right and the other side is wrong and doesn’t know it. The Shakespeare authorship page and the shroud of Turin page are scenes of constant conflict, and are packed with unreliable information.

Lest one imagine that Gopnik is talking about the “unreliable information” of the Oxfordians, it should be noted for the record that his article was published long after those beacons of Wikipedian enlightenment – Tom Reedy, “Nishidani,” and Paul Barlow (to mention only the most obvious suspects)  – had seized control of the Shakespeare authorship page, partly by throwing Richard Waugaman, MD, and Heward Wilkinson, PhD, off of Wikipedia on various trumped-up accusations of the sort on which certain Wikipedia editors seem to be, a little like 17th century Jesuits,  experts.

When Gopnik refers to one side being right, and another wrong without knowing it, he’s referring to the logical consequences of the sort of delusional censorship which is our story today.

Along with listing the “Shakespeare” plays to which Meres alludes (which, in retrospect, might well have been more suitably listed, as they now are, but without any real analysis of the central role that Meres has played in the authorship question, here, and certainly with no reference to any “alternative” perspectives about what Meres was actually doing), I committed the greatest sin, apparently, that a Wikipedia editor can commit.

Figure Three: The page as edited 66 minutes later by Tom Reedy. Note that not only the content, but the citation, has been removed.

I listed a source that is not approved by the Denton County Sherriff’s Department.

Within 66 minutes, Tom Reedy (Figure Three), Public Relations specialist for the Department, was on the job. He eliminated not only the list of Shakespeare plays and my analysis, but the footnote to Detobel and Ligon. Reedy added, it is true, several other sources on Francis Meres.

I have no objection to that.

That after all, is what collaborative editing is all about, isn’t it?

But what is the possible justification for eliminating a source to an alternative viewpoint published in a peer reviewed journal – one which, incidentally, has had in its first three years of operation, no less than two articles reprinted by well established academic publishers?

Clearly, as far as Tom Reedy is concerned, the ends justify the means.

He’ll decide what sources Wikipedia readers get to read, and which they don’t.

Reedy did attempt to justify the removal of the citation by saying that the material was not “RS” – “reliable source.”

This is how Wikipedia works when it comes to controversial topics about which, to quote the New Yorker, “one side is wrong and doesn’t know it.”

Edits by tenured University Professors citing peer reviewed articles from a publication that is getting excerpted by Gale (Showerman, 2009) and Palgrave MacMillan (Wainright, forthcoming) get dumped by guys who work in Sherriff’s departments.  Senior Wikipedia editors look the other way — after all, someone has to defend Wikipedia from ideas that might make readers actually think.

Who better than the Public Relations wing of the Denton Sheriff’s Department?

To be continued….

n.b. 10/8/2015. When I originally wrote this I was under the mistaken impression that Adam Gopnik knew more about the authorship question than he actually did; later I learned that Gopnik, ironically, was one of those who was wrong but didn’t know it. His comment still works, it just applies to himself as well as Reedy et al. They are wrong but don’t know it.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


51 Responses to “Anatomy of a Wikillusion Or, how to Rid Yourself of Embarrassing Footnotes in Three Easy Steps….”

  1. knitwitted says:

    Yes, won’t that be somethiing when something shows up. Maybe a madder shade of read? : )

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • Categories

  • Archives

In "From Crackpot to Mainstream"Keir Cutler, PhD, takes down the recent Shakespeare Beyond Doubt (OUP, 2013)

Criticism of Cutler's "Is Shakespeare Dead?": "A magnificently witty performance!" (Winnipeg Sun). "Highly entertaining and engrossing!" (EYE Weekly). "Is Shakespeare Dead? marshals startling facts into an elegant and often tenacious argument that floats on a current of delicious irony" (Montreal Gazette).