July 22, 2024

Link by Link: Shedding Hazy Light on a Midnight Ride

The comment was debated in news pages and on cable television in the first week of June, but perhaps nowhere was the controversy fiercer than on Wikipedia, where rival versions of the Paul Revere story played out thereafter. In the first 10 days of June, the Paul Revere article there had half a million page views.

Ms. Palin’s implication — that Revere’s was a ride to warn the British overlords rather than the fearful colonists, with a gun-rights message rather than a self-government message, and that he used bells rather than his lungs — is very much in the tradition of the telling of the Midnight Ride, which has long been used as an exercise in mythmaking.

Defenders of Ms. Palin’s version first took to the Wikipedia page June 5. By the middle of the week, they had added well-sourced sentences about how under the “alarm and muster” system that Revere’s ride was part of, citizens used “bells, drums, alarm guns, bonfires and a trumpet” to allow “for rapid communication from town to town.” There was also a footnoted paragraph that mentioned how Revere, when captured by British troops, warned the troops that the rebels in Lexington and Concord were massing against them.

One editor persistently added the fact that the colonists on the eve of revolution were themselves British. As the article explains: “Revere did not shout the phrase later attributed to him (‘The British are coming!’). His mission depended on secrecy, the countryside was filled with British army patrols, and the Massachusetts colonists still considered themselves British.”

By that logic, Revere did, as Ms. Palin put it, “warn the British” —   namely, the rebel colonists who were still technically British subjects.

With its well-explored tangents, supported by footnotes, and a bit of pretzel logic, the latest version of Wikipedia’s Paul Revere article can be seen as a useful example of the modern predicament of the Internet user — too much information, not enough judgment. It’s a bit like reading in depth about Kafka’s work as an insurance-claims adjuster.

When told about the debate, Jill Lepore, a historian and a professor at Harvard who wrote an article in the New Yorker about the “Hyperlore” surrounding Revere’s ride, sent along the Revere entry from the American National Biography Online. This entry, she said, was “a scholarly dictionary, and authored, and, therefore, exactly the opposite of Wikipedia.” There is no mention of ringing bells in warning; no warning of the British, rebellious or not.

Even before the Palin controversy, the Paul Revere article at Wikipedia was “semi-protected” — meaning that only registered users could make changes to it — because it was a popular article for joke entries.

“The protection was originally implemented in November 2010 because there was a lot of vandalism being done to the article,” wrote Jeff Schneider, 35, a software developer from Arlington, Va., who since last year has had the article on his “watch list,” meaning he is notified if the article is changed.

He learned on that initial Sunday that one user had cited Ms. Palin herself as the source for this sentence — “Accounts differ regarding the method of alerting the colonists; the generally accepted position is that the warnings were verbal in nature, although one disputed account suggested that Revere rang bell during his ride.” He removed the sentence as not being based on a “reliable source.”

During the developing debate on Wikipedia, there were some harsh words, mockery and acts of vandalism. People were called liars, Ms. Palin was called names. But over all, the debate remained surprisingly fact based.

And that is the wrinkle of the tale of the Paul Revere article at Wikipedia: After all the attention and arguments, the article is much longer (more than 3,600 words) and much better sourced (more than 90 footnotes) than it was before Ms. Palin’s comments. But you might also say that the process has shifted the article’s focus, as editors seemingly have searched for, and added, factual material that backs the Palin vision of Revere’s ride.

With all the revisions prompted by a modern political statement, one Wikipedia contributor asked on a discussion page whether they should consider simply erasing all the additions and returning the page to its pre-Palin state “considering that this is an article about a guy that died 200 years ago (and no new information has emerged recently) the entire flurry of recent activity can be attributed to defenders or detractors of Sarah Palin.”

But another user wondered what the fuss was about: “With few exceptions, I don’t see a significant bias in the large number of recent edits. The media attention has brought many eyes here. Let’s take advantage of that attention — while it’s here — to improve this page, eh?”

Mr. Schneider, writing in an e-mail, agreed that the attention had been good: “I know there were some editors who tried to add Palin’s side of the story, but as in the case of my initial removal — that information can quickly be removed on the basis that it is not backed by a reliable source.”

The Palin comments have reverberated at other Revere-related articles, including the one about the mythmaking Longfellow poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.” One anonymous user last Tuesday added a brief bit of snide vandalism: “Longfellow notably ignored Revere’s use of warning shots and bells in the midnight ride for reasons of meter.”

In an essay in The American Scholar about the poem, Professor Lepore said that Longfellow left out another critical detail, perhaps for poetic, not political reasons. Revere was joined by another man, William Dawes, on his midnight ride yet Dawes has been largely lost to history. One parodist in 1896 answered the riddle:

“But why should my name be quite forgot/ Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?/ Why should I ask? The reason is clear —/ My name was Dawes and his Revere.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=ff0685df2079fedac2f3fde146f965c8

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