Reenactors and Wikipedia

The title of Monday’s meeting is “The Public’s Practice of History.” Going on that prompt, I’m going to try and decipher the importance of the readings. Sticking with the historical battle reenactment case study, I have a question: what does it mean to “practice” history? Doctors practice medicine, fencers practice fencing and pianists practice the piano. If reenactors are practicing history, then does that mean each time they meet they try and improve their interpretation of history? From what I gathered from the readings, this isn’t what its all about. I argue reenactors are not “practicing” history, but are enjoying history. Please allow me elaborate…

I think Nick Kowalczyk’s “Embedded with the reenactors” nicely encapsulates all that is good and bad with reenacting. Kowalczyk sometimes mocks the absurdity of reenacting, while also highlighting some of enjoyable aspects of it. I think he hit on some of the clear negative points of this hobby that make the whole business less-than “serious history.” Kowalczyk, (as well as Little and Levin) point out it’s mostly middle-aged white men that participate. From my experience, I would guess the younger males would also participate in historical battle reenactments, but they prefer paintball and video games. To me, all three activities are strikingly similar – they involve simulating combat without the mess of dying. We could probably throw boxing, MMA, football, and rugby into that group too.

Levin and Little perhaps draw on a more serious critique that Kowalczyk only anecdotally mentions with these string of quotes:

Winston Churchill called the F&I the real first world war, someone added.

“It’s truly our nation’s forgotten war,” another mourned.

“Now that the Democrats are in office they’ll fund every useless social program and gut the things that really matter, like the national parks system.”

Someone else said, “This battle here is the reason today we ain’t speaking French.”

And one re-enactor offered this insight: “We’re people with an appreciation for history. We don’t just take The New York Times and go glug-glug-glug.”

Very few, if any, re-enactors recycled their bottles and cans.

I think it’s fair to say that historic battle reenactors, maybe just on the East Coast, tend to be conservative. This may not be true for us out here in the West – I don’t know. But for the Eastern States, the Civil War can still draw lines between people. Kevin Levin’s article shows how historical reenactment can still be a medium for deeper historical bias and nostalgia. Ann Little’s article also points to some examples that she says shows “Romaticizing the past, like reenacting, is a White thing.” I hesitantly agree with this sentiment, especially when people live in the geographic place they are reenacting. I think it’s different when the reenactor has almost no connection to the historical event.

Despite the criticism drawn out in these two articles, and partially by Kowalczyk, I think historical battle reenactment is harmless fun. These authors have misdirected their animosity towards a historical hobby. Should historians also critique Renaissance fairs, Steam Punk, or train models for misrepresenting history? No! Perhaps historians are mostly jealous because reenactors are having more fun with history than they are. Reenactors are mostly men and some women enjoying the parts of history they are drawn to the most: the battles. Many people, myself included, enjoy watching violence. Anthropologists, biologists, psychologists and others have shown just how prevalent the desire to see violence is. It should be no surprise that it is  the part of history some people want to reenact.

Kowalczyk asked “Why aren’t we repelled by the bloodshed that made and maintains the republic?” I wonder if he is seriously asking this question. Violence is everywhere in American entertainment. “If it bleeds it leads,” is the mantra of mass communication. When history is extruded for entertainment, sex and violence will be the first two topics covered.

As you may have noticed, I limited my case study to specifically historic battle reenactors. As Corey mentioned, living history seems like a completely different topic, which must not draw as much scrutiny, since all three articles we read mostly covered war reenactors.

Now on to Wikipedia….

I think Noam Cohen has a valid critique of Wikipedia, but Timothy Messer-Kruse does not; as Famiglietti clearly demonstrates. Thirteen percent female representation on an open forum that is increasingly becoming the go-to place for knowledge is not a healthy percentage. I think Messer-Kruse simply had a bad experience with Wikipedia and his complaint about undue weight needs some refinement.

I agree with Jane Margolis’ argument about the gender gap on multiple online and print platforms, where women are less likely to post OpEds. The surveys clearly show the gender gap and I think something should be done about it. It seems like a solvable problem. I recently learned about code.org, a non-profit foundation geared at increasing computer programing in education. It seems like there are many groups that are trying to break down the barriers that currently hold back many groups of Americans from the techno-sphere.

Messer-Kruse on the other hand, has slightly missed the point of wikipedia. Yes, he unearthed new evidence on the Haymarket Affair that very well may disprove something on wikipedia. He has every right to go in and change the entry, and post new evidence. Someone else, however, also has the right to go in and change it back quoting a secondary source that has been widely published and read. That is both the beauty and unreliability of Wikipedia. By mostly relying upon secondary sources, wikipedia can be trusted to put forth the consensus. Granted, as we learned in Cohen’s article, that census may be biased due to a demographic issue.

As a historian it is my job to sometimes question the consensus view on a topic that I spend a significant time researching. Once I find the truth I publish it in a peer-reviewed article or book and overtime hope the consensus changes. I do not, however, go to each library in my community and remove pages from encyclopedias and replace them with my own work.

One thought on “Reenactors and Wikipedia”

  1. Jim, that is a great question about what it mean to practice history? And you bring up a great point about confusing hobby with something more serious.

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