Author Naomi Wolf is making the rounds promoting her new book Outrages: Sex, Censorship, And The Criminalization of Love. It’s about how Victorian-era laws criminalized gays and lesbians and how many of those laws or beliefs exist at least in spirit today.
The problem is that, at least in one crucial respect, Wolf’s reading of historical court documents is wrong. Not wrong in the “you say originalist, I say fascist” normal sort of way. I mean wrong in the “I don’t think that word means what you think it means” mortifying way.
The legal record shows that the last U.K. execution for “sodomy” occurred in 1835. Wolf claims to have uncovered evidence that men were executed yearly after that date. She points to notations saying “death recorded,” in criminal records. The problem is that “death recorded” was actually a legal term of art meant to denote mercy, not death. It was a way to say “okay, we’re going to mark you as ‘dead,’ now go on, get out of here, and don’t let me catch you again.” It’s Marcellus Wallace telling Bruce Willis he’s lost all of his L.A. privileges.
I now present Wolf learning what I just told you, live on the radio, during her book promotional tour. (WARNING: This clip is not safe for children, those who have showed up for school naked, or people with impostor syndrome.)
Now, like Wolf, I didn’t know what “death recorded” meant. I’m pretty sure that if I read a criminal document which said “death recorded,” I’d have assumed that the brother was put to death.
Of course, I did not write an entire book based on my understanding of a 19th-century legal term. Remember, my entire legal and moral philosophy is pretty much based on disregarding the intended meaning of 18th-century slavers. I think trying to explain modern realities by divining old-timey legal documents that have been stripped of their social context is inherently dangerous, Neil Gorsuch.
But it feels like nobody should suffer what happened to Naomi Wolf, in the same way that nobody should be buried alive and eaten by moles.
Then again, if you had to pick somebody to be buried alive and eaten by moles, Wolf might well be one of the authors on your list.
Yeah, let’s just say that Wolf’s scholarship is not the best.
In any event, this is why I stick to blogging. A post can be deleted much more easily than a book.
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