In Defense of Naomi Wolf
I’m someone who still considers himself a populist, a classical liberal who should be able to find a home on the far left of the political spectrum. As my writing and public comments have made all too clear, what passes for the “left” these days is anathema to me. Their “inclusiveness” doesn’t include civil libertarians or genuine reformers.
Naomi Wolf is one of those rare, truly liberal voices left in America, with any kind of public platform. She’s also one of the few prominent people from the “left” who praised and promoted my book Survival of the Richest, which should logically have been of great interest to real liberals everywhere.
In May of this year, Naomi Wolf was interviewed by Matthew Sweet on BBC Radio, to promote her latest book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love. During the course of the interview, host Sweet abruptly confronted her about the meaning of the nineteenth century legal term “death recorded,” a term she quite reasonably believed meant that a particular prisoner had been executed. Inexplicably, apparently it actually meant the opposite.
In what I consider to be a shameful display of unprofessionalism, Sweet sandbagged Wolf with his own research into the term. I certainly would expect anyone interviewing me to confront me about any mistakes or alleged mistakes beforehand, instead of springing it on me during a live broadcast. Sweet was able to pull up articles and Old Bailey prison records, so clearly he had done some real work on the subject.
What would cause a radio host to delve deeply into a term like this remains an intriguing question. When writing about sentences and executions of those charged with sexual offenses in previous centuries, few logical people would assume that “death recorded” somehow referred to those whose lives were spared. I know I would have made the same mistake Naomi Wolf did. Was Matthew Sweet so educated on this subject that he was privy to something that both Wolf and her editors at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt weren’t? If this was really a point of common knowledge, how did her publisher overlook it?
Sweet had the details at hand when he sprung this on Wolf, declaring that the term referred to “a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon. I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.”
To her credit, Naomi Wolf handled this about as graciously as anyone could have. I doubt very seriously that I could have showed such class in that kind of situation. Refraining from criticizing Sweet for his heavy-handed bit of “gotcha” journalism, she tweeted out that she would be reviewing “all of the sodomy convictions on Twitter in real time so people can see for themselves what the sentences were and what became of each of these people.”
Wolf’s publisher adeptly attempted to shift the blame squarely on her with the following statement: “While HMH employs professional editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking. Despite this unfortunate error we believe the overall thesis of the book Outrages still holds. We are discussing corrections with the author.” I think that an author with Naomi Wolf’s pedigree, with New York Times bestsellers and countless mainstream media appearances on her resume, deserved a bit more respect, and a much stronger defense, than that.
The American edition of Outrages has yet to be released, as it was pulled by the publisher in order to make necessary corrections. In a recent appearance at New York’s Strand bookstore, Wolf explained, “I had read death recorded as meaning death recorded The death penalty was the law of the land until 1861, [but] I misunderstood the phrase. Sweet pointed out an 1823 act that allowed judges to report a death without actually sentencing the person to death.”
Then Wolf, for the first time publicly, politely gave her rebuttal to Sweet. “There’s questions about his definitions. Some people disagree. Some things he said in the interview I don’t agree with. The bottom line is that he did me a favor by identifying a misreading that I corrected.” Wolf noted that “There’s been a lot of coverage on these two inaccuracies, and there have been inaccuracies in the coverage as well.” She specifically cited oft-reported quotes about her “long awkward silence” after Sweet showed her a newspaper clipping, which he obviously had prior to the interview, to buttress his argument.
“The internet interpreted that as my humiliation, my shocked horror,” Wolf stated. “In fact, I was pausing because his newspaper clipping had anomalies where the ages of the youths and the trial dates were different. I was pausing because I was trying to understand what those anomalies were.” She is also utilizing the research of three noted scholars on historical sentencing for sodomy offenses, which may well contradict Sweet’s claim that Wolf’s description of “several dozen executions” for sodomy was incorrect.
“I don’t feel humiliated but I’m grateful for the correction. I feel great responsibility and humility about this history.” Naomi Wolf declared. “The history of the freedom to love is everybody’s fight…. I do feel a great sense of responsibility for getting it right. We’re in a time of spin and fake news, endless lies from people who are not supposed to be lying to us, like press secretaries and politicians. Journalism is losing its ability to correct itself, as I saw with so many stories not correct about this. It’s my job.”
Arguing for gay rights is hardly an issue I’ve spent much time researching or writing about. But this story is about disrespecting an author who granted an interview in good faith. Of course, criticism is fine and should be welcomed by every writer. But this was about a completely understandable misinterpretation of a hardly common historical term, and how a journalist attempted to discredit a best-selling author’s book in the middle of a live interview. Certainly Matthew Sweet is a lot better known than he was before talking with Naomi Wolf.
A caveat here; Naomi Wolf has published my work on her Daily Clout web site. She wrote a nice blurb for Survival of the Richest, and told me she didn’t understand why it hadn’t made the front page of the New York Times Book Review. So, yes, I am prejudiced. Having spoken with Naomi, she’s just as nice as I thought she was. I admire her work, and her courage in going against the prevailing authoritarian mindset of the politically correct present-day American left.
I know Naomi Wolf will bounce back- she really already has. I just wanted to express my support for her, for whatever that’s worth.