Monday, May 27, 2019

The Shame of Naomi Wolf

It couldn’t have happened to a finer human being and a more serious scholar-activist. That’s right, get ready for the Schadenfreude… this time for authoress Naomi Wolf.

You recall Naomi Wolf. She shot to feminist stardom by writing a book called The Beauty Myth, wherein she argued that women who purchase accoutrements to look more beautiful are really dupes of the vast right wing conspiracy. Then she threw off all of said accoutrements and stripped bare… intellectually speaking. She wrote a biography of the vagina. The reason was clear: if you want people to respect you for your mind, you should oblige them to obsess about your vagina.

Next month Wolf is bringing forth a new opus, called Outrages, where in she shows herself to be outraged by what she calls the “criminalization of love.” Among the claims she makes is that numerous gay males were executed for practicing sodomy in nineteenth century England. As she discovered during an interview with the BBC, she simply gotten her facts wrong. It was bad enough that anyone was prosecuted for homosexuality, but the truth was, no one was ever executed. One wonders whether Wolf will note in her book the instances where gays in Iran, for instance, have been murdered by the regime. Don’t hold your breath.

Why had she gotten the facts wrong? Simply put, she read the phrase “death recorded” and assumed that it meant that the individual in question has been executed. In truth, the phrase meant at the time that the judge had decided that the individual should not be executed. A simple error, one that had been missed by Wolf’s publishers, editors and her dissertation advisor at Oxford.

Anyway, Ann Althouse is on the case (via Maggie’s Farm):

During a BBC interview, Wolf got the humiliating news that the term "death recorded" did not mean what she assumed, that a death penalty was carried out, but the complete opposite, that the judge determined that the person should not be executed.

The Guardian offers an expanded view:

After Thursday’s BBC Radio interview, [the BBC interviewer, historian Matthew] Sweet said he felt the error did call Wolf’s central argument into question. “I think her assumptions about ‘death recorded’ have led her to the view … that ‘dozens and dozens’ of Victorian men were executed … I have yet to see evidence that one man in Victorian Britain was executed for sodomy,” he said, while the historian Richard Ward said it was a “pretty basic error”.

Althouse is rightly exercised by the fact that her publisher and the New York Times are running cover for Wolf. Why so? Perhaps because Wolf is a celebrity intellectual who leans toward the far left.

Althouse explains:

I see that a spokeswoman for the U.S. publisher of the book — “Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love" — is saying there was an "unfortunate error" but "we believe the overall thesis of the book ‘Outrages’ still holds."

How can the publisher say "the overall thesis of the book ‘Outrages’ still holds"? Or, to be precise, they still "believe" it holds? The only way I can make sense of that is to perceive Houghton Mifflin Harcourt not a publisher of works of history, but in the business of ideology and propaganda, where the believing is all that really matters. Of course, the "overall thesis" survives. In ideology and propaganda, your overall thesis is the foundation and you're going to continue to build upon it, no matter how many efforts collapse. Just throw out those bad materials and go get some different materials and rebuild on the same foundation. Could something be wrong with the foundation? The question isn't even comprehensible in the business of propaganda.

Good point. In our era of ideologically driven polemics, facts do not matter. If the facts do not support the politically correct opinion, then we need only find new the facts. Point very well taken.

The Times is being equally charitable:

The NYT is being as kind to her as possible, I think. Here's how it describes her:
A prominent author who has written several works of feminist and cultural criticism, Ms. Wolf is known for books such as “The Beauty Myth” and “Vagina: A New Biography.”

She's "prominent." She gets on the talk shows. But why? Were any of the books that made her "prominent" based on good scholarship? Where are the serious scholars — the principled, devoted historians and philosophers — who didn't get on the shows because Naomi Wolf made books that had an attention-getting, stimulating "overall thesis"? It's an unresearched thesis of mine that such people exist.

Propose the right ideas and they will let you get away with anything, even with egregious errors of fact.

Althouse adds that the incident does not make Oxford University look very good. The old standards of academic rigor have been tossed aside in favor of ideology:

So this book was an Oxford PhD thesis?! Wow. Oxford needs to account for itself. There's a brand that ought to mean something. Do the thesis advisers there rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking? Did the NYT attempt to talk with Stefano-Maria Evangelista? Can we get him on the air at BBC.


sestamibi said...

Michael Bellesiles must have been her dissertation advisor.

Sam L. said...

NYT: We love Lefty writers! They can DO NO WRONG, and if they should, somehow, we'll cover for them!

UbuMaccabee said...

Naomi Wolf, Naomi Wolf...oh, yeah, the one with weight problems, I remember her. Gosh, she's gotten big as a house.