Thursday, May 1, 2008

When Wikipedia Renders One an Un-Person

Frequent readers of this blog will note that I frequently link to Wikipedia articles on and in most cases, I have found the articles I cite to be reasonably good introductions the topics I mention in passing. When I found myself to be written into a Wikipedia article only to be made an "un-person" a month later in what appeared to be a ideologically motivated revision, I decided to dig deeper into a world of topsy-turvy wiki redaction. In this case, it was not an example of editors determining that I was not a notable individual, but rather an anonymous user erasing certain inconvenient facts, such as myself. This story begins when my attention was called to an article on Peter Schumann because I was mentioned as a critic of his:

the series ["Independence Paintings: Inspired by Four Stories"] was the subject of a sermon by Burlington Rabbi Joshua Chasan on Rosh Hashanah [2] and made longtime company contributor Ian Thal cut relations with Bread and Puppet Theater over the paintings and over the fact that the content of the new B&P show The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists[sic][3].


The revision came from an anonymous editor from the IP address 76.19.64.64, which belongs to server that appears to be based in Mount Laurel, New Jersey and is owned by Comcast. The revision is dated February 8, 2008, the week that Bread and Puppet Theater was performing in Boston. While Greg Cook would not publish his series to The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research that included interviews with both Schumann and myself for another day, his preview of the show had already appeared The Boston Phoenix.

Leaving aside the need for proofreading, the article was incomplete in that it spoke about the dispute surrounding Schumann's work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict yet gave scant attention to any of his notable accomplishments (of which are many.) This is not the worst flaw in a Wikipedia, as articles are collaborative endeavours, someone would be expected to eventually fill in the details, however far off into the future "eventually" may be. What caught my eye was not so much that I was mentioned but this particular passage:

Schumann denied any such accusations [of anti-Semitic content], pointing to how his family escaped from Nazi rule when he was 10, accusing his critics of "over-interpreting" his work and saying :I’m not saying that what’s happening in Palestine is the same as what happened in Warsaw...but it's certainly a reminder. [4].


The citation was from Ken Picard's Septemeber 19, 2007 article for Seven Days, "Over the Wall" in which Picard writes:

For his part, Schumann has repeatedly denied the accusations of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial — after all, he and his family fled Nazi Germany when he was 10.


Note that Picard did not specifically state that Schumann claimed to be a refugee from Nazi Germany as the anonymous author from 76.19.64.64 had done. Picard may very well have made a statement that he mistakenly believed to be common knowledge (an error that few, if any, have never made.) However, this is contradicted by other statements made by Schumann, such as in this interview conducted by Rosette Royale that appeared in the March 2, 2006 edition of Real Change News:

I was born in Silesia, which was German. It became Polish in 1945, after the war. It was part of Germany that was given to Poland by the Yalta Conference. Ninety-nine percent of the population of Silesia was made into refugees at the end of the War and we were part of that 99 percent.


Without going too in depth into the complex history of Silesia, one ought note that up until 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, only parts of Silesia had been part of Germany. Of the "Ninety-nine percent of the population" that was deported after the 1945 redrawing of Germany's borders, many of those Germans were settlers who had taken up homes, land, and property from Silesian Poles who had been either assigned to slave labor camps or deported to the General Government area of occupied Poland, or the Silesian Jews who were walled into ghettos or exterminated in death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkeneau, conveniently located in Silesia. Clearly, Schumann's family was a refugee not from Nazi Germany but from the defeat of Nazi Germany.

An article in the August 5, 2007 The New York Times tells a parallel story:

[Schumann] was born in Silesia, now part of Poland, in 1934, the son of a Lutheran schoolmaster. During World War II the family fled to northern Germany, where, as refugees, they lived on scraps gleaned from local farms.


Which indicates that Schumann's family fled from Silesia not due to redrawing of borders but by the advance of Soviet troops or Allied bombing campaigns, not from Nazi Germany, but rather deeper into Nazi Germany. Other articles tell similar stories.

Though I first commented on what I presume to be Picard's error on this blog, I also broached the topic in a letter to the editor which led to a stimulating email exchange with Picard. However, because of my understanding of Wikipedia ethics, I felt constrained from correcting or altering the Peter Schumann article, and instead left a note in the discussion section attached to the article on February 15, 2008:

Obviously, since I am named in this article, it would be inappropriate for me to contribute directly, but I should note that there appears to be a major factual error regarding Schumann's childhood[....]

The points being, 1.) It appears to be an error; and 2.) my understanding of wiki ethics requires that I not touch the article, 3.) somebody else needs to fix it.


However, on March 20, 2008 revision, an anonymous contributor with the IP address of 68.56.17.70 (a server operated by Comcast out of Cherry Hill, New Jersey) to the article changed the text to:

In 2007 Schumann premiered "Independence Paintings: Inspired by Four Stories" in Boston and Burlington, Vermont [2]. The series was inspired by ten days Schumann spent in the Occupied Territories of Palestine, as well as John Hersey's The Wall", a graphic account of the birth, development, and destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of the Jewish ghettos established by Nazi Germany during the Jewish Holocaust. Though some members of the Jewish community deemed Schumann's equation of the concentration camps for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories with the concentration camps of the Jews in Nazi Germany "offensive", the general reception to the work was quite positive. Schumann denied accusations of anti-Semitism, emphasizing how his family escaped from Nazi rule in his childhood. [3].


The heading was also changed from "Accusations of anti-semitism" to "Palestine Exhibit." The writer from 68.56.17.70 stated:

I've edited political distortions out of the "Anti-semitic accusations" section, as well as created a section on the Domestic Resurrection Circus, which I can update again soon.


The writer from 68.56.17.70's removal of the "political distortions" included:

a.) repeating a politically sanitized myth about Schumann's childhood and misrepresenting his family as victims of the Nazis, so to deny any criticism that his work may have an anti-Semitic character or in anyway misrepresents the history of the Holocaust;

b.) deleting the names and acts of any of the exhibit's critics and content of their critiques, thus trivializing the criticism;

c.) trivializing concern regarding antisemitism by using scare-quotes around the word "offensive" as if the likening of the Palestinian West Bank to the Warsaw Ghetto were merely impolitic as opposed to a distortion of known facts; and

d.) characterizing the reception of the exhibit as "quite positive" when press coverage from Seven Days, The Burlington Free Press, The Boston Phoenix, and WCAX; blogs such as my own and The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, and Joshua Chasan's letters indicates that the reception in both Boston and Burlington was best described as "contentious."

Essentially, the writer from 68.56.17.70 has engaged in a form of politically motivated vandalism, possibly motivated by some personal affinity for Peter Schumann or Bread and Puppet Theater or an affinity for the causes Schumann espouses, but most certainly not out of an affinity for Wikipedia's mission to be a high quality free encyclopedia. The lesson that can be gleaned is that while parts of Wikipedia may be well policied by the community of editors, it is possible for less frequently visited articles to either carry unintentional distortions and that articles covering particularly contentious subjects might be manipulated by partisans and must read with vigilance .

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