Archive for September, 2008

There are better written resources than Wikipedia on the stodgier subjects, and these textbooks, treatises and dissertations are easier on the eyes, to boot. However, when it comes to decoding contemporary, contentious and continuous phenomena, Wikipedia shines brighter than the bulk of published works.

The official historical consensus is a work in progress, and it won’t be readable for another generation — I write this because The Complete Book of Presidents was more completely a disaster once it reached the two latest presidents.

While it includes a relatively succinct analysis of the 1992 presidential campaigns, it includes a tidbit about how Bill Clinton plays the tenor saxophone “very well.” I’ll let the readers judge that particular horror on their own.

Even worse, where the other presidents had their notable achievements broken up by topic — Van Buren had a section on the Aroostook War (1839); Grant on the Treaty of Washington (1871) — Clinton’s chapter featured a full 10 pages of chronologically ordered but otherwise nonsensical laundry list, followed, fortunately, by a far more interesting 10 pages on Clinton’s scandals and impeachment.

Owing either to disorganization or built-in biases, neither section would pass editorial muster on Wikipedia. Even better, if the original copy were written in a laundry list, publishing the words doesn’t cement them onto a page. Someone with more time on his hands than the original author could take it upon himself on some lonely November weeknight to Wikify it — toss out unwarranted original analysis, organize all relevant information, find appropriate amounts of citation.

For high-profile current events, an area where public opinions very quickly change, Wikipedia has the high ground.

Remarkable, too: By definition, Wikipedia is just another work in progress.

I just read The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, a blunt instrument about the same size as another recent conquest.

As it contains every known fact about our presidents, with details on birth, death and extramarital affairs — it skims over Kennedy’s liasons, unfortunately — this was a fantastic and fascinating read. At least, it was, until its scope moved within the last 20 years.

The albeit solid 36-page chapter on one-term president George H.W. Bush is overlong with asides and what amounts to cleverness. (For comparison, the three-term-and-change Franklin Roosevelt also warranted 36 pages, much of it taken up by sections on his re-election campaigns.)

The most egregious example of superfluous, contextually inappropriate information comes while describing Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait:

But Saddam, having failed to win concessions from Iran to expand its narrow access to the Persian Gulf, saw in the rich coast of Kuwait the answer to all its problems.

So far so good. Then:

Saddam, whose favorite movie was The Godfather, made the emir of Kuwait an offer that was hard to refuse …

Surely, in describing such a high-tension scenario, listing the immediately relevant facts in chronological order would be far more effective. Saddam is — was — a naturally interesting character, but his actions will speak far louder than his favorite film.

As one of the Tyler Perry ladies left for the day, spreading goodbyes around, she made sure to give me a special message.

Benjamin, you are a credit to your race.

I laughed at the time, partly genuine and partly out of politeness. Then I thought about it. Was this comment, though benign, inherently racist?

Fortunately, I have a 100-percent accurate test for racist comments: Had I, a middle-class white male, said the same or a similar thing to the Tyler Perry lady, would she have laughed it off as I did, with no hard feelings?

Hell no.

Yet this doesn’t insult me. Maybe because masculinity isn’t a gender nearly as much as femininity, I’m used to whiteness being neither a race nor an ethnic identity.