These days, having strong feelings about politics is almost a survival skill, particularly for those of us charged with shedding light on the culture and its machinations. A conversation about ideas, sharp and engaging, is all we can hope for, even—or particularly—when we don’t agree with the opinions being promoted. And we have few resources as meaningful as the study of history, which provides us with a fuller and more nuanced understanding of our current and peculiar moment in time.
But the study of history and its evocation in political discourse is not without its perils. One is especially grave: The impulse to avoid engaging with divergent ideas and diverse thinkers by demonizing them with a simple and indelible label like racist, misogynist, or Nazi.
The last one is particularly vexing, not only because it is bandied about a lot these days in one conjugation or another, but because those of us invested in the sanctity of Holocaust memory this week received a stinging example of how easy it is to tarnish this memory to score a cheap political point.
On May 11, the Forward published a piece entitled “Is Jordan Peterson Enabling Jew Hatred?,” adorned with a collage of the popular Canadian professor side by side with Adolf Hitler. The photo itself was enough to strike readers as an exercise in poor editorial judgment, and the Forward soon had to replace it with another photograph and issue a lengthy apology.
That, however, was not the end of the piece’s troubled life. A number of publications soon began to check the assertions of the paper’s reporter, Ari Feldman, noting that most of them simply didn’t hold up. Writing in The Weekly Standard, for example, Jonah Cohen fact-checked Feldman’s core assertion—that Peterson’s work enabled Jew hatred because it was somehow an inspiration to neo-Nazis—and found it patently false. While Feldman argued that the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer called Peterson “the Savior of Western Civilization,” Cohen, looking up the statement, discovered that its author, identified as Joe Jones, apparently meant it ironically: Jones had previously referred to Peterson as “a faggot” and has written a post for the Daily Stormer entitled “Jordan Peterson’s Fans are Massive Faggots with Daddy Issues,” hardly a ringing endorsement of the academic. Furthermore, as Cohen reported, the site’s founder, Andrew Anglin, had posted an article of his own, entitled “Seven Hour Video on Why Jordan Peterson is a Piece of Shit.” Feldman, then, was either too lazy to look up these references, or staggeringly dishonest when he took one ironic quote, stripped it of its context, and presented it as fact.
Which, more troublingly, was Feldman’s method elsewhere in the piece as well. In his zeal to indict Professor Peterson, Feldman interviewed Deborah Lipstadt, the world-class Holocaust historian, who seemed in the piece to be clearly supporting Feldman’s connection of Peterson with Holocaust revisionism.
“Lipstadt said that Peterson’s statements on Jewish intelligence reminded her of Kevin MacDonald, a professor of psychology who the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as ‘the neo-Nazi movement’s favorite academic,’” read one potent passage of Feldman’s piece. “Lipstadt said that MacDonald’s academic language obscures the anti-Semitism behind his opinions. She worries the same is true of Peterson.”
Reading Feldman’s article, however, Lipstadt was troubled to find that her views as expressed bore little resemblance to what she said was the obvious thrust of her actual interview with Feldman.
“I repeatedly made it clear to the reporter that I had not read Peterson’s work and was barely familiar with him,” Lipstadt said in an interview with Tablet. “I could, therefore, answer no questions about the work or the man.“ Lipstadt did, she said, agree to provide some larger theoretical context pertaining to scholarship in general, and qualified each of her answers by saying that they were not meant as reflections on Professor Peterson or his work. These repeated attempts at contextualization were nowhere mentioned in the piece. “I am disappointed that the article did not make clear that I had little knowledge of Petersen, thereby potentially skewing readers’ impressions of my comments,” Lipstadt said. She had since written her own letter to the editor of the Forward to correct the record.
When reached by Tablet, Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner said: “As Deborah noted in her letter to the editor, Ari quoted her correctly. Since she was concerned that some readers might think she had direct knowledge of Peterson’s work, we updated our story to reflect that she does not. Deborah is a Forward contributing editor and we value our continued relationship with her.”
But I’d argue that the omissions in question are more than just technicalities. While Feldman accurately quoted Lipstadt’s words, by erasing their context he made it seem as if Lipstadt was applying her considerable scholarship to taint Peterson as an enabler of anti-Semitism, a grievous accusation. Again, you can give the young reporter the benefit of the doubt and argue that his actions were simply a result of sheer incompetence, or you can suspect that something more sinister was at play, an attempt not at objective journalism but at crude politics designed solely to smear someone, Professor Peterson, who some on the right view with favor.
Professor Peterson may very well hold opinions that some find offensive. But it’s crucial, particularly in our fraught moment in American history, not to collapse distinctions and present someone as an enabler of anti-Semitism who is quite obviously not. It’s just as crucial not to manipulate history and skewer the measured statements of historians just to score quick and empty political victories. The Internet, which values winning the social media battles of the moment and has little room for nuance and complexity, rewards hit pieces that shout loudly, truth be damned. It’s the duty of responsible reporters to make sure they never fall in to the trap. And there’s a lesson in there for the rest of us, too.
Reached for comment, Feldman refused to address any questions on this matter, but yet another correction to the story, posted earlier this week, removed Feldman’s core assertion about Peterson being beloved by the Daily Stormer and added a note reflecting Lipstadt’s reservations without taking any responsibility for the damage the original story had done. Eisner told Tablet that she has spoken with Lipstadt, who said she was satisfied with the change.*
I respect Lipstadt’s feelings here. Still, it’s hard not to feel that these editorial notes and amendments are poor substitutes for what is owed to both her and Peterson: an apology.
*This sentence was amended to reflect a statement from the Forward, received after the original post published.