Wikipedia: Golding Digitized
From time to time a new scandal arises, such as the Siegenthaler affair and now the launch of a tool for listing anonymous Wikipedia edits by organizations, raising to the fore the problematic nature of an “encyclopedia anyone can edit”. This post, however, is not an addition to the already saturated opinion-market of essays telling the world how Wikipedia sucks; Wikipedia is here used only as an illustration, an exemplar of a general problem. In the world of computing, Wikipedia is just a vivid and expanded demonstration of the truth that “permit all” is usually followed by “delete all” (or, as Unix buffs say:
chmod 777 usually comes before
rm -r -f). In the world of culture and human anthropology, which I have an inordinate interest in, Wikipedia is an illustration of the tabula rasa (blank slate) fallacy.
Wikipedia is just another in a slew of anarchist ideas—the idea of “a smoothly-functioning anarchy” (the words of Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Project), the idea of “a self-policing system”, the idea of “a consensus-driven community”, the idea of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, and you get the drift. It doesn’t matter if Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, is an anarchist or not; the idea can be traced to that pedigree, even if Wales developed it independently. Whether intentionally or not, Wikipedia has its place in the long list of enterprises in which the creator or founder really plays God, making an experiment whose pillar is creation from scratch—the aforementioned tabula rasa. A very interesting fact, for the Bible describes how God Himself, because of the free will and the passions He has given humans, voices His total rejection of the concept of tabula rasa.
Successful art is usually deemed as such because it stands the test of time. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is relatively recent (1954), but its ideas are timeless, and its core idea (as far as I gather) is that Biblical idea that tabula rasa utopianism is a grave error. A bunch of little kids is stranded on an island paradise: they have a goal (returning to civilization), they have their needs provided (the fruits of the trees on that island), and they have minimal sources of friction (no girls to fight over, for example). It is really a clean slate, and by rights it ought to function smoothly. Yet little time passes before they partake of the same afflictions of all other societies: factionalism (the Merrydew schism), murder and—finally—the burning of the trees, the source of their sustenance. The beast is indeed within those kids, no matter how favorable the external conditions have been from the start.
Wikipedia’s lack of professionalism is the hot topic, the popular point of discussion; under the radar, however, slips the issue of what Wikipedia was conceived to be as opposed to what it has become. Bureaucrats, administrators, piles upon piles of rules, vital actions bogged down by procedure, pages put under protection or semi-protection—a complex, elaborate, monstrous, labyrinthine system that belies the entire initial concept. Yes, you don’t need to tell me: those changes were necessitated by the circumstances. No argument here. But this is proof of the fallacious nature of tabula rasa utopianism. This is the same, exact same idea as in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and in its (conscious or unconscious) source, the Bible, the Word of HaShem.
How many times have we seen that happen? “Such if we do, heaven will be created on earth”, only to prove dismal at best, forcing the founders to take a turn diametrically opposed to their original vision. The “smoothly-functioning anarchy” envisioned by Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond is most popularly demonstrated by the Linux kernel, but the Linux kernel is free of the schisms and bureaucratic creep that have plagued other open-source projects because it is under the rule of a dictator (Linus Torvalds), even if that dictator is semi-jokingly called a benevolent one. The Marxist experiment, spawning one of the cruelest dictatorships in history (Stalin’s, long may he roast in hell, amen) and 100,000,000 deaths in its wake, was another attempt to solve humanity’s problem by creating from scratch, as if human beings were program source code to be cleaned by doing a complete rewrite.
Or religious reforms. Many an attempt at religious reform aims to clean up the religion from what are considered sinful accretions, such as commercialism, ritualism, legalism and getting entwined with the state, only to become a religion in its own right, moreover usually succumbing to the same accretions that the reformer-founders aimed to dispose of. For example, the Jewish reformer who is described to have railed against the commercialism near the Temple, turning the stalls, spawned a religion in which, a few centuries afterward, many of the men of cloth engaged in their own forms of crass commercialism (such as the sale of relics). Similarly, Protestantism had the goal of “ridding the religion of all the priestcraft, of the priests and popes telling people how to read the Bible”, but ministers and reverends fill the niche quite nicely. The Muslims pride themselves of belonging to a religion without priests, to contrast with the “Jewish and Christian corruptions”; true, Islam has no priests, but, once again, it has a class that fills that hole well. Buddhism may have started as a rebellion against the excesses and empty piety of the Hindu Brahmins; Buddhist functionaries can compete with the best (worst) of those. Sikhism was meant to purify religion of empty ritual, focusing instead on “God’s True Name”; there is no shortage of ritual that has accumulated there over time. And finally, scientific rationalism aimed to purge humanity of all the “primitive superstitions born of unreason”, all the religions, all beliefs in the supernatural; secular religions quickly took to fill the void, and, on the way, drenched the world in blood in the course of the 20th century.
All this consistent track record, of the failure of tabula rasa experiments, could have been avoided, had mankind listened to what God has to say on the matter. The Bible lists these occurrences from start to finish, and even if some parts of it are not taken literally, the lesson is a stupefying one. Adam and Eve; the post-Flood generation that built the Tower of Babel; and then the periodical fall into transgression by the one nation that HaShem had consecrated for His purposes, the Israelites. A clean slate, followed by a fall into weak human lapses. Golding set out the idea in another form, but it’s God’s lesson unto us anyway you put it.
These falls into transgression from an initial pure state—are they oversights on God’s part, as the unbelievers say? Perish the thought. It is not but our Creator drumming the truths of our nature—and He knows best, for He is the manufacturer—into our thick skulls. God says (Genesis 6:5):
And the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
And he also says (Genesis 8:21):
For the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth. (&c)
Now the Jewish view differs from the Christian one, in that the latter says humans are incapable of standing up to their evil inclination while the former says they are (based on HaShem’s words to Cain, in Genesis 4:7: “[…] But thou mayest rule over it”). But the view that humans are inclined toward evil is shared by the two religions, because the Bible (in the above two passages, for example) is absolutely clear about this. God’s word brings the rational explanation to the phenomenon that every eye—every eye not letting the predetermined opposite doctrine get in its way, that is—can see. Every eye can observe the scrapping of tots with each other at kindergarten: the selfishness, the vindictiveness, the cruelty. And all of this, unlearned. Did the parents teach them to be that way? No, most chances are that the parents, when they see it, react in shock and try to do something to counter it. Untaught to be evil. Unimparted propensity for bad behavior. Goodness has to be taught to the child, and fought for throughout all his life; badness comes naturally.
Do you now realize the secret behind the tabula rasa fallacy? God tells us: there is no such thing. There is no clean slate. There is no escape, not even an island paradise setting as in Golding’s book! Those kids had the benefit of an external clean slate, yes, but internally they started with the same fully-occupied slate as every human being—the basic fact of human nature, the inclination of human beings toward wrongdoing. Judaism says it can be overcome, through effort—but Judaism rejects the idea that good and thoughtful planning by human beings can guarantee the neutralization of that basic evil. It’s not ours to create humans anew; God has the first, last and only say in that matter.
So many times, before I got religion, I looked at passages in the Torah and said, “This is open to abuse!” I was reading it with the critical eye of a hippified anarchist, regarding it as a book authored by humans for furthering their tyranny over the masses. “This is for giving an unlimited supply of food to the priests! How convenient”, I said. “This passage means the rabbis have unlimited power over the common man”, I said. But now I see, that even if the spirit of those thoughts still has a grain of truth in it—there is free will for everyone to abuse his power, after all—I know that such attempts at correction as humans (particularly leftists like I was then) have undertaken have never led to the desired effect, to the utopia hoped for.
The fact is there is no human guarantee in anything. From the 18th century, scientific rationalists envisioned a world in which science and reason provided the solution to most (if not all) of humanity’s problems. Quite apart from the world wars caused by non-religious ideologies, the fact is technological advances have brought a mixture of blessings and curses, which add up to the same situation as humanity has always been. Courses on “success in business”, rationally-sounding though they are tailored to be, are a mass of superstitious nonsense that would make any Middle Ager proud. Just as you can take all the steps detailed in a book by Bill Gates or Donald Trump telling you how they got rich, but to no avail, there is no reason why scientific rationalism should improve the human condition. And the various medical suggestions given for evading the mortal diseases of our time (HaShem guard us and save us) can only improve statistical probability, which is no help if genetics or some other unexpected thing gets in the way (example: a young, healthy sportsman dying of a heart attack in the middle of a game, HaShem guard us).
Therefore there is no good word except HaShem’s mitzvah from last week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 18:13):
Thou shalt be whole-hearted with the LORD thy God.
Tamim: whole-hearted, complete, childlike in trust. Working with what He created, not trying to get around it through sophisticated attempts at improvement. Recognizing that His creation, because of the very fact of being His creation, is not a blank slate. Not attempting to play God by creating a micro-world or micro-humanity, but building on what He created. Asher bara E-lohim la’asot (Genesis 2:3): literally “Which God created to do”, and our sages of blessed memory say of it: He created it for humans to build on it. Not for humans to dispute it and try their own hand at creation. If you have any doubts about the error of that, just look at the track record.