by Greg Mayer
The New York Times is backing off just a little from some of the claims they made in the “1619 Project”. Interestingly, as both an online and paper subscriber, I found out about it not from the Times, but from Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine! [JAC note: Jake Silverstein, the author of the “correction” below, is the head editor of the New York Times Magazine. If you want to read a correction that is not a correction, this is a masterpiece of slipperiness.]
I find little to quibble with in Andrew’s piece, “A Welcome Concession by the New York Times“, so I’ll quote a few bits.
It took them many months, but it’s a good thing that the editor, Jake Silverstein, and primary author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, of the New York Times’ 1619 Project have finally conceded that they did make a mistake in claiming that the retention of slavery was a primary reason for the American revolution. . . .
Silverstein’s concession is a marked shift from his position back in December, when he was adamant that he would not concede anything to the many historians who had criticized the project, especially over Hannah-Jones’s assertion about slavery’s centrality as a motivation for the Revolution. . . .
All of this is welcome, and Hannah-Jones and Silverstein did the right thing. . . . But it seems to me that the real tension here was not between journalistic inclinations and history but between ideological inclinations and history. The entire point of the 1619 Project, after all, was to “reframe” American history, to make 1619 its core beginning. And it was to buttress that argument that Hannah-Jones and Silverstein wildly overstated the salience of white supremacy to American independence.
And look, educating people about the brutal horrors of the slavery regime . . . But the upping of the ideological ante, the decision to call the issue a “project,” the placing of slavery at the center of the revolution, and the intent to deploy it as simple, incontrovertible, historical truth to schoolkids takes things much further.
It is, in fact, history as filtered through the ideology of critical race theory, which regards the entire American experiment as an exercise in racial domination, deliberately masked by rhetoric about human freedom and equality.
Andrew, who still calls himself a conservative, also writes the following:
[F]actual, honest journalism . . . imply a liberal view of the world, in which the race of authors is far less important than the cogency of what they have to say, in which history is not predetermined by analyses of “structural oppression,” but by fact and contingency. [emphasis added]
The sentence must be read carefully: he is accusing the Times of not exemplifying a liberal world view. With this I heartily agree. The paper has, in this project as in other places, fallen to the anti-liberal and racialist doctrines of wokeism.
Although making this concession in a way that let Andrew became aware of it, to its subscribers and readers the Times is still tub-thumping for the Project. It was touted in part of a March 12 in-the-paper-ad (i.e. an ‘internal’ ad), and in an email to subscribers:
A quick look at today’s issue of the Times Magazine shows no sign of the “clarification”, either.
13 thoughts on “NYT backs off a bit on some claims of the “1619 Project””
Sullivan’s writing in that excerpt alone is excellent.
It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia article about The 1619.Project was edited to reflect Silverstein’s correction a few days ago.
Attempting to frame slavery as a primary reason for the revolution is a strange ideology but it is also indicative of an ignorance of American History and we already have plenty of that. The heart of our movement to revolution took place in the colony of Massachusetts. Anyone would be hard pressed to put slavery in the middle of this reality unless they want to believe it was South Carolina or Virginia and not Mass.
When Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776 there is not much there to explain this either. In fact, although it was edited out of the document later, Jefferson went into a rant attempting to blame the King for slavery in the Colonies. That fact hardly matches up with the slavery causing the revolution unless you want to turn the argument on it’s head and blame the King for the institution and the farmers, such as Jefferson, as the victims.
Interestingly (and ironically) enough, one of the men killed in the Boston Massacre was a former slave from Framingham Massachusetts named Crispus Attucks.
When Washington first arrived in Mass. to take command of the army he saw that many black soldiers were there or showing up to fight. He did not want this at first but soon learned they were as good as any soldiers he had. He could not afford to be picky.
I am not going to rehash the details of my previous comments on the 1619 Project. I want to avoid being chided for going over the word limit. I am glad that the NYT is clarifying its position on whether or not protecting slavery was the primary cause of the Revolution. I look forward to watching the video of the historian forum. I will just make these points:
1. The focus of the debate about the 1619 Project regarding how important slavery was in precipitating the Revolution is a right-wing diversion that all too many liberals have fallen for. Why? It is much more important to understand that in the southern states slavery was the glue that kept those societies together. For the slaveholding elite, the institution provided labor for them to live a luxurious lifestyle. For poorer whites, the presence of slaves gave them a sense of superiority and the aspiration to one slaves themselves, which many did even if it was only one or two slaves. In other words, slavery allowed for the existence of a hierarchical society, which most whites were comfortable with.
2. We cannot really know the extent that the southern slaveholders rebelled to protect slavery. That would require an act of mindreading. Could we expect the slaveholders who were always yelping about liberty (for themselves, of course), publicly state that they were rebelling to keep African-Americans in chains?
3. Most importantly, the southern slaveholders at the time of the Revolution and a few decades thereafter did virtually nothing to end the institution, despite sometimes saying they were embarrassed by it. Here is an example of where actions (or non-actions) spoke much larger than words.
So, the right-wing attack on the 1619 Project is an attempt to perpetuate the myths of American history, based on the notion that the country is exceptional, blessed by Providence to spread democracy throughout the world. I can say much more on this, but I will conclude by noting that the notion of American exceptionalism is a core belief of American conservatism and must be defended at all times. The idea that slavery and race is a core theme running through American history is a challenge it has risen to rebut.
As far as a non-historian can, I agree with your overall assessment. But it strikes me that you are implying that those who dispute the historical accuracy of some of the claims of the 1619 Project are doing so with the perspective (and defense of) a right wing version of American exceptionalism. I’ve read enough of your writing to know you aren’t making that claim about all critics, but I wonder what (if any) of those criticisms you do accept? Further, are any of them, whether you accept them or not, untinged by right wing demagoguery?
Professional historians are endeavoring in good faith to attempt to critique the assertions made by the 1619 Project. They do this work in the same manner as other historical debates, of which there are many. It is an ivory tower approach without pushing an agenda. As is often the case, they may differ among themselves. On the contrary, the right-wingers are pushing an agenda. As I stated above, they are most concerned with maintaining the notion of American exceptionalism. Historians who argue that slavery was not a primary cause of the American Revolution are serving the interests of the right wing, although they cannot and should not be faulted for reaching conclusions that the evidence leads them to. But, for the right wing, they are saying that if slavery was not a cause for the American Revolution then slavery and race were not a major theme in American history and it is nothing more than liberal propaganda to argue so. Of course, the real target of the right wing is the American public that knows next to nothing about American history. You would be hard pressed to find any professional historians working today, regardless of their views on the causes of the Revolution, who would deny that slavery and race are central to understanding American history. It is ridiculous to quibble whether this was THE central theme in American history or second or third.
‘The word in the middle of the emailed image rotates among “Music”, “Traffic”, “Health care”, “Capitalism”, “Democracy”, “Education”, and “Prisons”.’
I wonder what word(s) the Times would decline to use in its rotation.
All of this reminds me of something I may have said here long ago and I know there are some historians who agree. If you are going to take those left wing (woken) ideas or those right wing ideas back with you to learn history, you might just as well not take the trip.
There are those who think the “attack” on the “1619 Project” is right-wing agitprop.
Wrong. The criticism comes from a spectrum of writers, both left and right.
Let’s not forget that both the World Socialist Website and the American Institute for Economic Research have done a great service in providing clearinghouses for the many, many articles pointing out “1619’s” reprobate warts, and its virtues.
Yes, the World Socialist Website’s interviews with the major American historians who protested the project’s inaccuracies were probably the most important interventions in the debate. They had far more importance than any right wing complaints because those historians were not right-wingers.
It is the viewpoint of the modern far-left (not the old Marxist left) that America is nothing but a clusterf**k of oppression that was founded in bad faith and utter hypocrisy. That is simply the mirror of the right wing’s American exceptionalism. It was important that this ideological overreach in the 1619 project be contested.