The scandal broke in The Wall Street Journal, two and a half years ago. Three self-described "left-leaning liberals" had fooled feminist and gender studies journals to accept a number of “absurd and horrific’” hoax papers for publication. One paper was billed as a rewrite of a chapter from Hitler’s "Mein Kampf," but using feminist theory.
Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose’s endeavors were praised in some quarters as an essential satire of fashionable jargon and theories, and a brave expose of academic journals’ openness to publishing "intellectually vacuous as well as morally troubling bullshit," as Yascha Mounk put it.
Others slammed the authors’ hoaxes as mean-spirited attacks on leftist scholarship; 11 of Boghossian’s Portland State colleagues described them as "fraudulent, time-wasting, anti-intellectual." When Boghossian’s university opened an ethics investigation against him, Jordan Peterson (of intellectual dark web infamy) declared only Boghossian’s critics could be accused of "academic misconduct" and not the philosophy professor himself.
What is clear is that the hoax and its controversy propelled Boghossian and his co-writers into the media limelight, big time, with multiple article in the mainstream press and a particularly warm welcome from right-leaning platforms: Dave Rubin’s show The Rubin Report and Peterson’s own YouTube channel, but also from more centrist outlets like Joe Rogan’s podcast.
But did the trio really demonstrate that contemporary academia is receptive to an "intersectional 'Mein Kampf'"? What did the stunt actually prove? What were the underlying motivations of the hoaxers, and the conservative media stars who embraced them so eagerly? What light does this saga throw on today’s culture wars and the so-called "anti-wokeness" and cancel culture campaigns? Whom did the three writers really hoax?
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Let's go back to the stated aims of the three writers themselves.
Inspired by physicist Alan Sokal’s famous 1996 hoax paper in the journal Social Text, these "concerned academics" saw themselves as critiquing "an ongoing problem we see in gender studies and related academic disciplines," a problem they name as "grievance studies": the effort to inflame the grievances of "certain identity groups" on subjects such as race, gender and sexuality.
Their aim was, they claimed, to "reboot" the academic conversation, to "reintroduce scepticism" about core assumptions, and provide a safe space to challenge the "increasing power of grievance scholars."
Over a period of 10 months, they wrote 20 papers: seven were accepted for publication, and four were published.
To excavate the controversy, and as a historian studying Hitler, I've chosen to drill down into one of the hoax articles: "Our Struggle is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism," the piece flagged by the WSJ as based on "Mein Kampf."
It was sent to the journal Feminist Theory but was rejected; it was accepted by Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work in the fall of 2018, but never actually published. On The Rubin Report, James Lindsay airily hypothesized that it was "probably days away from actually being published when the WSJ broke their story."
Clearly, the idea that an article based on "Mein Kampf" could be published in a serious scientific journal is certainly an appalling prospect – and generates instinctive outrage. So let's dig a bit deeper: What does "based on 'Mein Kampf'" actually mean?
First and foremost, the source material. The chapter the hoaxers chose, not by coincidence, is one of the least ideological and racist parts of Hitler's book. Chapter 12, probably written in April/May 1925, deals with how the newly refounded NSDAP should rebuild as a party and amplify its program.
According to their own account, the writers took parts of the chapter and inserted feminist "buzzwords"; they "significantly changed" the "original wording and intent” of the text to make the paper "publishable and about feminism." An observant reader might ask: what could possibly remain of any Nazi content after that? But no one in the media, apparently, did.
Indeed, in public, the trio constantly downplayed the amount of re-writing they did to the original text. On Joe Rogan’s podcast in October 2018, Lindsay described how they'd "modified the words and added theory around it so that it would fly," and in another interview explained that this was to "get past plagiarism."
Chapter 12, he noted, included sentences like: "This is why we need the Nazi Party, and [this is] what is expected of people who are going to be part of it." What did they change? "We took that out [the Nazi party reference] and replaced it with ‘intersectional feminism.’" What's left is an entirely anodyne sentence, stripped of any identifiable Nazi vestiges. Hardly "owning the grievance warriors."
So what did the text in the article accepted by Affilia actually look like? Was it, as Fox News claimed, a "feminist Mein Kampf", suggesting men should be treated the same way as Hitler victimized Jews?
It is surprising, to say the least, that none of the journalists reporting on the controversy actually bothered to compare the two texts. If they'd done so, they would have found that the Affilia article didn't contain anything that could be recognized as "Mein Kampf" even by a Hitler expert, let alone a lay person.
The best way to illustrate this is to highlight a section of what remained of Hitler's text, spread out as it was over several paragraphs on several pages:
[…] to appeal to […] contented and satisfied, […] to embrace […].
[…] half-measures, by […] a so-called objective standpoint, […] the goal […]. That is to say, […] in the sense […] many limitations, […]. […] countered only by an antidote, […] only the […]. […] people […] neither […] nor […]. […] abstract knowledge […] directs their […]. […] is where their […] lies. […] receptive […] in one of these two directions […] never to a […] between the two.
[…] emotional […] stability. […] than respect, […] is more […] than aversion, […] weakness) […], […] will […] power.
The future of a movement is […].
The lacunae between these preserved pieces of text were filled with material that was either re-written, or entirely new (including references to bona fide scholarship). This created the convincing illusion of an original philosophy paper. Neither the words nor the intent were comparable to "Mein Kampf"; indeed, the intent was the very opposite.
If the idea was to showcase the 'absurdity' of feminist theory, and the ideology-fueled laxity of editors, why didn’t they choose to work from a much more ideological or racist part of "Mein Kampf," say chapter 11: Volk und Rasse ("People and Race") instead? Well, Lindsay told Rubin, revealingly, it was "too extreme" to be useful.
If the point of the experiment was to prove that radical theory was so unhinged it could pass as Nazism, they failed. If the point was to hoodwink a feminist journal to run "Mein Kampf" dressed up as feminist theory, but denatured the text to be unrecognizable from the original, then they didn’t prove their contention at all. What they did prove was that there are workaday sentences with nouns and verbs and adjectives in "Mein Kampf" that can be repurposed.
Ironically, the figure whose 1996 hoax inspired the "Mein Kampf" stunt, Alan Sokal, was lukewarm on whether the later hoax had actually proved anything of importance, precisely because the authors had gone so far out of their way to mask their core contention in order to get published. He noted in a 2019 interview that the problem with the grievance studies hoax "may be that the authors did too good of a job of imitating the style of other articles in the field. In which case the articles […] wouldn’t prove much of anything."
In fact, the trio wrote two articles based on "Mein Kampf." In one of them they claimed ) to have "essentially" just replaced references to "Jews" with "white men," although their own fact sheet states the article was a more comprehensive "rewrite": they exchanged "Jews" with "white people" or "whiteness," and "added plenty of jargon and critical race theory."
Why didn't this article get any media traction? Because it was never accepted by any journal, let alone published. That failure meant two out of three journals chose to reject "Mein Kampf" articles.
Nevertheless, the trio's stunts garnered them enormous attention. Besides Rogan and Rubin, they were interviewed by Jordan Peterson (at the time at the pinnacle of his fame), and their “results” spread through largely uncritical reporting in leading newspapers all over the world.
Riffing off Lindsay's framing, an op-ed in The New York Times falsely claimed that not only had the "Mein Kampf" piece been published, but that they had "simply scattered some up-to-date jargon into passages lifted from Hitler’s 'Mein Kampf'"; in The Washington Post, an op-ed incorrectly stated that it "was literally a partial chapter of 'Mein Kampf' rewritten using women’s studies buzzwords."
Right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro called the stunt "genius" and asked, unself-consciously, when "true power" would be restored to educators not engaged in "navel-gazing mental masturbation and toward a renewed intellectual search for knowledge."
The online magazine Quillette offered a précis of the scandal that indicated its self-appointed status as savior of free speech wasn't bothered by obvious factual inaccuracies, stating that all seven papers had actually been published (false), one included a 3000 word excerpt from "Mein Kampf" (false) and that the latter had been published in Affilia (false).
But it was in Sweden that perhaps the most egregious write-up appeared. The country's second largest daily newspaper, the liberal Svenska Dagbladet, featured an editorial headlined, "The Feminazis at Our Universities," and it went downhill from there.
Editorial staff writer Ivar Arpi didn't bother to fact-check his claims about the Mein Kampf piece, regurgitating the same mistakes as Quillette, and then claimed the article accepted by Affilia was nothing less than "feminazism, literally."
"Feminazi" was the go-to slur for feminists coined by right-wing Christian shock-jock Rush Limbaugh back in the 1980s but its use in a Swedish newspaper was shocking and extreme; no other news outlet in the world (not even Fox News) used "feminazi" in connection with the hoax. Arpi, however, brought the term into mainstream, liberal parlance as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Perhaps Arpi's foul language was a harbinger of Sweden's growing anti-feminist backlash. A poll last month showed 41 percent of Swedes somewhat agreed with the statement: "It is feminism’s fault that some men feel at the margins of society and demonized," the highest rates among eight European countries surveyed. According to Nick Lowles, chief executive of the anti-racist group HOPE not Hate, that anti-feminism is "wrapped up in the growing right-wing culture wars" and exhibits increasingly aggressive, even violent, rhetoric.
Feminism and gender studies are in the crosshairs of neo-fascism, and Sweden just so happens to have the world’s largest far-right party, the Sweden Democrats, formed by ex neo-Nazis, and one actual Nazi (an SS volunteer on the Eastern Front in WWII). The party won no less than 17.5 percent of the popular vote in the country's 2018 general election.
The "Mein Kampf" hoax itself is embedded within these wider culture wars, and is revealing about their dynamics and the strange-looking self-declared liberals-and-right-wing alliance pushing so much of the outrage machine.
That is best seen in the hoaxers’ own parsing of their stunt as they bathed in the glow of right-wing adoration. It had a far cruder, nastier edge, and goes to the heart of why the trio so deliberately chose "Mein Kampf" to "expose" the left.
On the Rubin Report, Lindsay offered an explicit analogy between "Mein Kampf" and so-called leftist "grievance studies": He claimed that Hitler, too, "was pushing the politics of grievance."
Perhaps Lindsay thought this was the winning ‘tell’ of the whole endeavor. But it resembles far more what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls "pseudo-profound bullshit": To the extent it is true, it is trivial – to the extent it is not trivial, it isn’t true. All politics is based on some form of grievances; that is why we engage in political struggles in the first place: to correct a perceived wrong in the world.
Ironically, the trio’s whole stunt was based on their grievances towards "intersectional feminism" and gender studies; so are their grievances also the same as Hitler’s? Of course not. Hitler’s grievances and feminist grievances are not the same, and it is absurd to claim that they are. They are fundamentally different in every possible way except for them being termed "grievances."
This ludicrous equivocation does, though, illustrate just how widespread the relativization of Nazism and its crimes has become, and the naïve ease with which it is being spread by people who are far from being fascist themselves.
To imply in any way that feminism and Nazism can be put on the same footing is a reductio ad absurdum: to relativize the atrocities of Hitler’s regime. The right-wing media constantly replays the same equivalence dynamic, comparing cancelled events on campus, sanctioning platforms publishing threats of violence or just losing followers on Twitter as Nazism, Kristallnacht or the Holocaust.
But the use of the Hitler analogy is also intended to valorize the current-day "victims" of the so-called "feminazis" – conservatives, Trump supporters, the "anti-woke" and their self-declared liberal fellow travelers. They are now framed as the "Jews," the victims of a totalitarian left which, not coincidentally at all, is often equated by the right-wing fringe to Nazism (the "National Socialists were socialists" idiocy.) Much of the outrage at this ravenous but nebulous "left" has now transitioned from attacking feminist theory to the all-encompassing bugbear of "critical race theory."
All this, despite the evidence of the real world – where the right-wing was just in power, where in 2020 the GOP won nearly 47 percent of U.S. votes, where conservative churches, universities and think tanks are as solid as ever, and where an enormous and influential right-wing media ecosystem thrives – a fact hardly peripheral to the careers of Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson themselves.
So, what did the "Mein Kampf" articles actually prove? Ironically, they showed that the journals they targeted rejected both of their papers; only after major revisions to one of the texts – and after having been emptied of all traces of Nazi ideology and no longer had any resemblance to "Mein Kampf" – did they manage to get it accepted.
If anything, it proved a remarkable resilience on the part of these journals to withstand pseudo-scientific bullshit. Moreover, the article Affilia accepted was a philosophical paper not premised on outrageously obvious forged data, as some of the other articles did. The fact that they managed to fool some reviewers with fraudulent content, and in some cases fabricated data, is not exactly earth-shattering news.
As Science reported, by late October 2018 more than 18,000 papers have been retracted by peer-review journals since the 1970s, about 60 percent due to fraud. The problem is arguably much bigger in the natural sciences than in the humanities and social sciences. Yet, we don’t see Boghossian, Lindsay and Pluckrose berating natural science journals for publishing bad science.
When Inside Edition featured an experiment where a comedian read Hitler quotes to Trump supporters, who were told they were from his speeches - and most agreed with the statements. The prankster didn’t even tweak the quotes.
That didn’t demonstrate that Trump supporters were Nazis, but that people are naturally gullible and suggestable, and will accept a person’s framing (especially if it comes from an academic or a friendly journalist) unless they have strong reasons not to, or information that contradicts it. The same is true in this case; reviewers assume that their peers don’t brazenly lie and fabricate content for the sake of an ideological prank.
No, the campaigns against gender studies, the study of racism and "intersectional feminism," and the gleeful efforts to humiliate other academics has nothing to do with a wish to preserve the integrity of science; it is an ideological and political crusade against an entire field of science simply because of its connection to feminism, social justice, and the fight for equality. Don’t be fooled by it.
Mikael Nilsson is an historian based in Stockholm, Sweden, specializing in Hitler and National Socialism. His latest book is "Hitler Redux: The Incredible History of Hitler’s So-Called Table Talks" (Routledge, 2020). Twitter: @ars_gravitatis