One of the reasons why I decided to start writing this blog back in 2010 was in order to share some of the things that I knew and thought, but which I realized I would never include in my academic writings.
Scholars/professors acquire a lot of knowledge and insights over the years from engaging in research and teaching that never make it into their academic writings. What is more, in the past there were very few ways for scholars/professors to share that information so that it could end up educating more people.
A scholar/professor might share some of those ideas in talking to a graduate student who came to her/his office, and that graduate student might then go on to build on them in her/his dissertation. Or alternately, a scholar/professor might mention something to a colleague at a conference over drinks at a bar, and that colleague might then go on to include that information in her/his own academic writing.
Other than those limited means of sharing information, much of what professors/scholars knew, stayed in their brains.
In 2010 it dawned on me that the Internet could be like one enormous professor’s office, or an always-open conference bar, where anyone at any time can find out what it is that a scholar/professor knows or thinks, but hasn’t written (or never will write) about.
At the same time, I was also aware that “common people” had already discovered the power of the Internet for spreading knowledge, and the success of Wikipedia was the clearest sign of that. Nonetheless, this was creating “problems,” as many of the people who were contributing to Wikipedia (and still are) were not experts on the topics they were writing about.
So another reason for writing the blog was to put ideas out there on the Internet that were not well-represented (including on sites like Wikipedia, which I confess, I’m too lazy to contribute to), but which I felt were academically valid.
Today I was reminded of all of this when I saw that a blog entry that I wrote was referenced on the Wikipedia page for Hồ Chí Minh, to refute the claim that Hồ Chí Minh once said “I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”
I actually noticed this a few weeks ago (as I saw that someone had linked to the blog from that Wikipedia page). At that time, whoever included that information had simply said something on the “talk” page for the Hồ Chí Minh Wikipedia page about how someone on a blog had provided a lot of information that questioned the claim that Hồ Chí Minh had made that statement.
Today, however, I noticed that a lot more information has been provided in an effort to demonstrate that this blog is “scholarly,” and therefore (theoretically) reliable.
I’m assuming that the editors at Wikipedia must have contacted the person who wrote that information, and that that person then provided the information about me to add “weight” to its believability.
I find this all very interesting for what it says about how knowledge is produced in the digital age.
I am not an expert on Hồ Chí Minh, and I am not an expert on the period of history when Hồ Chí Minh allegedly made that statement. There are, meanwhile, plenty of scholars in the world who are experts on one or both of these topics.
At the same time, the ideas that I presented in that blog article are ones that I have come to think after reading and teaching about Vietnamese (and Southeast Asian, and East Asian and world) history, and they are the type of ideas that if there were no Internet, I would mention to a graduate student in my office, or to a colleague over drinks at a conference bar.
However, before the time of the Internet, I never would have written those ideas down, as I don’t write about that period. And finally, who knows how long it would take before one of the experts on that period were to talk about that quote? And if someone did (such as the graduate student in my office or the colleague at the conference bar), how much longer would it take for something written in a single academic writing to reach a general audience?
Wikipedia aspires to create “crowd-sourced” knowledge that is nonetheless scholarly valid. Are the ideas of a “scholar” who is not an expert on Hồ Chí Minh or the 1940s-1950s on a “sometimes/somewhat scholarly blog” valid?
I guess they are until the time comes when a true expert comes along and offers another interpretation, which is what Wikipedia is designed to enable. Or maybe I just saved that person the need to do so? 😉
I’m not sure, but in teaching about this period recently I remembered that there is another comment related to this topic.
In a documentary entitled “Pacific Century: From the Barrel of a Gun,” a former OSS officer by the name of Allison K. Thomas says that in a conversation that he had with Hồ Chí Minh (in I’m guessing 1945), Hồ Chí Minh said the following regarding his desire to gain the support for Vietnamese independence from the US: “He told me privately that he would welcome one million American soldiers, but not one French soldier.” (The quote starts at 3:42 in this video.)
So Thomas was “privately” told by Hồ Chí Minh that he would rather have American soldiers in Vietnam than French ones, and Paul Mus heard from “a good source” that Hồ Chí Minh would “prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of [his] life.”
This is difficult information to verify. I certainly can’t “prove” that none of this was ever said, but I do think that drawing attention to the fact that these quotes are problematic is better than having people unquestioningly believe them.
So thank you to whoever added that information to Wikipedia. Spreading the ideas that get expressed in my office and at conference bars is one of the reasons why I started this blog.
At the same time, it also feels a bit odd. I always feel that what I write on this blog is “unfinished.” These posts, like conversations in offices and bars, all contain ideas that can be developed further.
Then again, I guess that’s what Wikipedia is too – a place where knowledge can get developed and transformed further – and that it is through this open and continuous process of interactions between “lay people,” “semi-professionals” and “professionals,” as well as between “academic,” “semi-academic” and “ungrounded” ideas, that knowledge is being created before our eyes in the digital age.