“The ‘1619 Project’ is filled with slovenliness and ideological ax-grinding”

May 11, 2020 • 9:15 am

by Greg Mayer

The New York Times‘ ‘1619 Project’, and the critical reaction to it, has drawn attention here at WEIT a number of times. The diversity of the sources of criticism has been notable, ranging across the traditional political spectrum from left to right. In another salvo from the right, conservative political commentator George Will attacks the project in a new column in the Washington Post. The occasion of Will’s critique is that, incredibly, the lead writer of the project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize! (As Brian Leiter notes, the Pulitzer people have not covered themselves with glory in their awards for “Commentary”.)

As his headline (in the title above) shows, Will attacks both the historical account given by the project, and its motivations. He selects “three examples of slovenliness, even meretriciousness, regarding facts”. The examples chosen are the significance of a British offer of freedom to slaves who would flee to the British army; Lincoln’s views on emancipation and enfranchisement; and the role of whites in “the long struggle for freedom and civil rights”. (With regard to the latter, one of the things that seems to me to be most ahistorical about Hannah-Jones’ account is its elision of the Civil War. What is most striking about slavery in America is that it was ended by a war in which hundreds of thousands died—”every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword“. And the Union Army– with full credit to the free blacks and escaped slaves that rallied to it, and whose martial exploits had such salubrious effect on enfranchisement– was overwhelmingly white.)

While noting the Times‘ loss of journalistic credibility for embarking on a “political project”, and its “ideological ax-grinding”, Will mostly addresses the historical facts (or lack thereof). In a commentary at New Discourses, the claim is made that “facts” are not at all the point of the 1619 Project. (New Discourses is a new website by the “grievance studies” scholars, which Jerry has previously noted.)

From the New Discourses article on the ‘1619 Project’ (first sent to me by reader cesar):

Of some note, understanding the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project more or less necessarily begins by observing that it is not history, but the kind of pessimistic and hyperbolic historiography that is typical of critical race Theory. This makes it necessary to observe that a fundamental pillar of critical race Theory is historical revisionism—the rewriting of history in a way that tells it from the preferred and cynical narratives of critical race Theory. This renders the 1619 Project firmly within the realm of seeking to rewrite history (especially American history) to promote its cynical, anti-liberal agenda. Indeed, the project posits the history of the United States as little more than a long series of strategic moves by which white racism—especially anti-black racism—was established and has been and remains maintained as an ordinary and permanent feature of (American) society (see also, interest convergence). Indeed, critical race Theory sees racism and white supremacy as integral components of the very fabric of society (particularly American society) that is therefore urgently in need of deconstructing, disrupting, and dismantling (see also, liberationism and Neo-Marxism).

The importance of the point about the 1619 Project not being a serious attempt at historical understanding but a project within critical race Theory is beyond calculability. This is because the standard approach to challenging the 1619 Project’s bogus claims and attempt to roll itself out into our society and educational system is to challenge its historical legitimacy, and this is unfortunately a necessary part of engaging with it. The trouble is, because the 1619 Project neither is history nor claims to be history, this necessary activity is ultimately severely limited in its purposed utility.

Will’s tactical error, by this analysis, is that he challenges the project’s historical claims, while the project’s promoters do not even acknowledge that facts and argument count. New Discourses goes on:

Under critical race approaches, established historical methods, having largely been devised by white people working in a “white” cultural context are understood as merely “white history.” This will be understood to be imbued with all of the biases of whiteness, including failing to understand its own bias (see also, white ignorance and willful ignorance) and thus unconsciously working to maintain itself and its dominance (see also, internalized dominance and privilege). Thus, according to the worldview that informs the 1619 Project, there is no way to adjudicate between one historical narrative and another except by referencing the identity politics of systemic power and determining how one’s positionality has led to the creation or adoption of any particular narrative (see also, Foucauldian).

Under the critical approach characterizing the 1619 Project, there is also no need to hold oneself to rigorous academic methods or procedures, including peer review, for these would be assumed to be corrupted by “white” biases as well. Therefore, it is not only consistent with the critical ethos of the 1619 Project to exist outside of academia, it is strongly advantageous to it because it calls into question the entire process by which it can be authoritatively criticized.

The 1619 Project suffers from this “anti-epistemology”— instead of a theory of how we know things, it is a theory of how we can’t know anything.  (Such theories are always hoist by the petard of self-reference, but that’s for another day.)

Interestingly, in this week’s New York Times Magazine, their ethics columnist, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, comments on another dysfunctional epistemology, that of anti-vaxxers. He writes:

This doesn’t work with epistemic dissidents. Whether they fixate on climate change, the moon landing or vaccines, they distrust authority, including scientific authority. (Maybe they think that the medical establishment has been suborned by big pharma or bamboozled by ideology.) They know that beliefs have changed in the past and think they have a special insight into which of our current mainstream beliefs are the next to go. They have invariably rabbit-holed into a detailed counterreality.

I love the term “epistemic dissidents”—it’s a nice way of capturing that the argument isn’t about whether this or that is true, but about whether “facts” or rational arguments are even relevant. (It also is very close to “epidemic dissidents”, which is very appropriate, perhaps unwittingly, for the world’s current pandemic.) Note that Appiah, correctly, associates views primarily from both the left (vaccines) and the right (climate change) with this dysfunctional epistemology. Although we’ve had occasion to note the affinity of the Republican party for anti-science, I’ve also argued that wokeism (of which the 1619 Project, a sort of anti-history, is an exemplar) is conceptually perpendicular to the traditional left-right axis of American politics, and Appiah’s choice of examples makes the same point for the larger phenomenon of “epistemic dissidents”.

46 thoughts on ““The ‘1619 Project’ is filled with slovenliness and ideological ax-grinding”

  1. I’ve also argued that wokeism (of which the 1619 Project, a sort of anti-history, is an exemplar) is conceptually perpendicular to the traditional left-right axis of American politics…

    IMO the traditional left-right axis hasn’t been the focus of our political parties for decades. The GOP is not truly small government and hasn’t been since at least Reagan, and similarly the Dems have been pro-business over labor since at least Clinton.

  2. I’ve often thought that what ails modern society, here in the USA at least, is a lack of respect for authority of all kinds. It’s the whole “we make our own truth” mindset that has gradually taken hold and carried to extremes. It leverages a good idea (question authority) and turns it into a travesty (no authority can be trusted). Perhaps the pandemic’s “truth” will serve to counter this trend. Similarly for climate change. These chickens are coming home.

  3. O.K., I’ll take the bait again, but I will keep my response short since I have written on this topic several times before.

    First, I don’t care what George Will thinks. He may fancy himself as a person that due to his supreme intellect feels confident to comment on any topic, no matter what it may be. In this instance, he is doing nothing more than parroting the prevailing right-wing line, which many so-called liberals have fallen for. As I have commented before, the view that the nation was founded in 1776 is absurd except in the literal sense that independence was declared in that year. I call this the Adam and Eve understanding of American history. That is, this view posits that the entire history of the American colonies disappeared in a poof and by magic a totally new people emerged when John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence. What happened in 1776 was the outgrowth of many factors, one of which was the presence of slavery that shaped the country’s development. People who swallow the right-wing line need to read more academic history.

    Second, the New Discourses article reflects its obsession with critical race theory. It states: “It is therefore a project aiming not to inform or educate but to induce a critical consciousness about race and racism (see also, critical theory). That is, the goal of the project is to make it impossible to think of the founding of the United States without including ideas of both slavery and institutional, cultural, and structural racism.” Actually, the article has it right. The founding of the United States should not be thought of without including ideas about slavery. Any responsible academic historian of American history recognizes this.

    Third, I will conclude (although I could write much, much more) by noting that so-called liberals, many of whom are skeptical of the Bible creation stories, fall without hardly any reflection for the creation myth perpetrated by the right wing. Somehow, they find it hard to accept that perhaps their memories of American history taught in high school many years ago may have told less than the whole story. The 1619 Project, whatever may be its faults, has served the purpose of reminding the nation of the central role slavery and race have played in the country’s history. It serves as a balance to a fantasy world history that the right wing and its liberal fall guys spout with the intensity of an evangelical preacher in the pulpit.

    1. With respect, Historian, that’s a mighty fine polish you put on this piece.

      I do agree that we have been taught many myths about the origins of the US, but does it make sense, from a historian’s perspective, to replace one set of myths with another?

      1. The central role of slavery and race in the founding of the country is not a myth, even if was not an explicit stated goal of the Revolution. For example, slavery was an extremely important issue at the Constitutional Convention. There are many issues to consider when trying to understand what was going on in the latter quarter of the 18th century. Slavery just happened to be one of the biggest.

        1. This is the same type of generalization and equivocation practiced by the 1619 Project:
          1) Why would slavery have been central to the Colonies’ independence? What threat was there from the Crown to American slaveholding? None. The closest thing is Dunmore’s proclamation, which is a reaction to the rebellion rather than a cause. Any threat to slaveholding would have pushed the Caribbean colonies to revolt, too.
          2) The fact that slavery was important at the Constitutional Convention makes it an issue a decade later, not at Independence.
          3) I don’t know how you quantify slavery being “one of the biggest” issues, but if it was only one of the biggest, that only makes it one of many, and it is no more balanced to address it in isolation than it is to ignore it.
          To try and define slavery as the fundamental fact of American History, as the 1619 Project does, misses what was unique about America among all the other slaveholding nations in the world, both in the West and the East.

          1. To minimize the role of slavery and race in American history (including the colonial period) is like talking about evolution while minimizing natural selection or erecting a building without a foundation. So,yes, the issue is fundamental, but not the only one.

            1. Well, they say the issue is basically the ONLY ONE, and distort history to make their case. Nobody has said that slavery was not an issue, but, frankly, the NYT willfully distorted the situation three times, and they won’t even fess up.

              1. Where do they say the issue is basically the only one? I have seen this asserted multiple times, but usually without citation, and in one case, with a citation that failed to show the point.

    2. Balancing one fantasy with another is a intellectually dishonest. Relying on ideology over fact is not legitimate just because you’re doing it on behalf of “our side”.

      1. It’s fascinating to me as in immigrant to see how the notion of American exceptionalism continues….even if in historical drag as the unique product of slavery and racism.

        I would recommend to all of you getting Orlando Patterson’s magisterial “Slavery and Social Death” so you are aware that slavery is almost as ubiquitous as gravity.

        What’s weird about the United States is that even before its founding, many were positing slavery as an institution in deep disrepute. As opposed to seeing it as a reflection of pre-existing hierarchies.

        1. To be fair, we often see our experience with slavery as exceptional precisely because Historian is right above; slavery WAS deeply embedded not just in our founding and we have always struggled with it and its echos. Our country literally split apart and suffered through a horrific war to end the practice. Unfortunately we didn’t complete the job and so had to suffer another 100 years from the horrors of the institution. It still reverberates today.

          We Americans have a right and an obligation to think on our experience with slavery as exceptional because it is.

          1. Yes, because the United States consider itself exceptional. But it is a perception and a myth, not a fact.

            There is nothing exceptional about slavery in the United States. Slavery has been deeply embedded in cultures throughout the world.
            (which had existed among the Aztec [who would not infrequently serve as human sacrifices], the Incas, and American Indians, and first introduced to the Americas by the Spanish early in the 16th century.)

            But you do note the difference: The United States split itself in 2 over slavery. That is to its credit, not degradation.

            Can you give examples of other nations that had done the same? The island of Hispanola perhaps…..but that was a massive slave rebellion, possibly the largest of its kind.

            1. I’m sorry, dd, perhaps I wasn’t clear. You actually made my point; the US is probably (I am not sure) the only country whose very survival hinged on the question of slavery. That alone makes our experience exceptional.

              Of course you are right, slavery in many forms over the ages and across the world is about as rare as sand. But there are elements to the American experience -which we are still dealing with today- that make it exceptional. That was my point.

              1. Thanks. But I don’t see how I have made your point.

                Slavery was deeply embedded for millennia throughout the world…both economically and culturally. BTW, including sub-saharan africa.

                The very existence of slavery was time and again an index to its pivotal role in
                societies, not something parenthetical.

                Slavery disappeared with the coming of industrialization since physical labor was displaced in large part by machine labor. Not a wholesale change, but a directional one.

    3. By and large, current Americans (especially white Americans) are pig-ignorant regarding the horrors of chattel slavery and the ways in which that peculiar institution shaped the development of this Republic (including the way in which it continues to function as the background radiation to many of this society’s current ills). This ignorance is badly in need of a corrective, but I’m not so sure the “1619 Project” fills the bill.

    4. I think it important to listen to dissenting opinions, especially ones that are pretty well argued like yours have been. But…
      1. No country with a stated year of foundation would claim they sprang into existence without a prior history and culture that shaped its foundation. No one has claimed ours is the exception.
      2. George Will may have his flaws, but he does argue his points from some pretty heavy hitting historians. You can literally ignore him; pretend he never wrote this article, and those arguments are still out there.

      1. These historians have focused on what they consider specific factual historical errors in the main 1619 article, particularly the extent to which the protection of slavery was a motivation for the Revolution. Regardless of their misgivings about the article (other historians are not so vexed), they would not deny that slavery and race are a major theme in American history. But, the goal of the right wing is to reduce slavery and race to a minor role in understanding American history. In any case, for it, the Civil War solved the problem. That there is a contradiction between its so-called minor role and the necessity of a war to end slavery is something that the right wing doesn’t dwell upon. Perhaps we can view the 1619 Project as a first draft of bringing the issues of slavery and race to the attention of the American public. Its goals are admirable as we are in danger of retreating even deeper into the fairy tale understanding of American history.

        1. Your penultimate sentence is, to me, the saving grace for the Project. We could do well with a re-evaluation of the founding of America, as you suggest, to counter alarming growing right wing mythologies. I just wish the “first draft” wasn’t so deceptive in both its content and its intent.

        2. We’re not right wing here, if that’s what you’re suggesting. What we’re saying is that the NYT is making a false case–that the ONLY issue of founding is slavery, and they’re buttressing that case with distortions. They have an ideological agenda, and we’re calling them out about it.

          Regardless of its goals, and of any movement’s goals, you don’t want to lie and distort to move your cause forward.

    5. As usual, I find your essays engaging and for the most part convincing. Thus here. The article in question makes a point of saying that the great majority of Union soldiers were ‘white,’ and that it was they who died for the cause. But which cause? Restoring the Union or eliminating slavery? Before 1 Jan. ’63 there was for many northern troops only the former motivation. When they were asked to fight against the South to eliminate slavery, many balked. In Illinois two regiments had to be disbanded after de facto mutinies, and there were widespread complaints in others. It is important to recall that most of these men were volunteers.

      Whenever one looks, then looks again, the history of just about anything is more complex than ideology would permit it to be. The greater history’s depth and amplitude, the better the account will be (the more nuanced too). Still, this doesn’t mean no large assertion can be true. Here’s one I think is: no slavery, no Civil War.

    6. … I don’t care what George Will thinks. He may fancy himself as a person that due to his supreme intellect feels confident to comment on any topic, no matter what it may be.

      I was never much of a fan of Will’s. I recall a couple decades ago when Doonesbury ran a series of strips spoofing him for keeping a “quote boy” on staff to punch up his pieces with ostentatious erudition. And the OG Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko — never one to suffer stuffed-shirts gladly (even when they were fellow Cubs’ fans, like Will) — once said Will looked and wrote like a “schoolmarm” who spent so much time fretting about the “national fabric” he might as well be the national upholsterer.

      But I gotta admit that (whatever one makes of the merits of the current column under consideration) joining the ranks of the never-Trumpers and finally, in his dotage, leaving the Republican Party seems to have liberated something in Will, as to both his thinking and his prose.

    7. What Historian said, plus a Fourth: The caricature painted by New Discourses bears no resemblance to the bits of the 1619 Project that I read. Another of the posts at the New Discourses website has “the Principle of Charity” as part of its title. If the article on the 1619 Project is at all representative of the website, the hypocrisy is mind-boggling.

  4. These comments align well with my own non-historian’s readings of 1619. It struck me as I read it that the problem I had with it wasn’t just that it gets some facts wrong, it was clear that the only way for their arguments to stand up was if they ignored a whole lot of other facts. I believe this was done deliberately, which is deeply dishonest.

    The idea stated here, that they simply don’t care about fact, fits. IMO, 1619 is ideology masquerading as history and our children are going to be taught it. O brave new word.

    1. While trying not to line up with the ideas of any one set of opinions I am very close to this one. People need to know the history of slavery in America told honestly and as completely as possible. Just because early historians ignored much of the slavery issue does not mean we should give it a place it does not belong. Every part of our history needs to be reexamined and we learn more about it with every new book. But we also must live with the facts concerning the causes of our American revolution and to say slavery was it just does not compute.

      1. Randy, the cause isn’t helped when those making the case (Hannah-Joness and the NYT) are NOT TELLING THE STORY HONESTY AND AS COMPLETELY AS POSSIBLE. So we shouldn’t swallow what the paper tells us whole hog.

        Nobody is arguing that we don’t need to know about slavery, but, as you said, we need to now the facts “honestly and completely”. That is not what the NYT is doing.

        1. I agree completely and think I have said so. I do not dwell on the 1619 project at all because it is not only too far from the truth it makes some really strange pronouncements. Even much more current parts of our history have been misunderstood or ignored and slavery does not hold a lock on this either.

          I do not know of any historians who have explained some of the major facts about our involvement in WWII correctly prior to some very recent telling. I am not sure why and I do not look for conspiracies. All I know now is that FDR has not received much of the credit he deserves on some very important strategies of that war. These are the D-day invasion itself and the unconditional surrender. He is also the guy who picked Ike to be supreme commander of the invasion and not others as many had thought.

  5. I’ll start caring about the Pulitzer Prize when they rescind the award to Walter “Break a Few Eggs” Duranty for this reporting on the Ukraine famine.

  6. Did anyone really think that ‘1619’ would not get some big time prizes, including the Pulitzer?

    There was really little choice…especially when you consider the drubbing it has taken and its exposure, As example, this article, in which “The Times” is in fact, Nikole Hannah Jones, Pulitzer recipient:

    “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me.”


    1. My, oh, my. Politico certainly seems to be condemning the 1619 Project with that headline. I wonder why it didn’t lead with its sub-heading: “The paper’s series on slavery made avoidable mistakes. But the attacks from its critics are much more dangerous.” Historian Leslie Harris concludes with this:

      “It is easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history in order to present white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy. At least that is the corrective history toward which the 1619 Project is moving, if imperfectly.”

      I suppose Politico should be praised for publishing the article, but surprise, surprise, the “1619 Project Truthers” don’t seem to be attacking Politico for its totally misleading headline.

      1. Look, Historian, if you’re talking about people on this website as “1619 Project Truthers”, I ask you to knock it off. We don’t take well to being called hypocrites, if that’s what you’re doing here. And I, for one, didn’t even see that article.

      2. Well from up here in the cheap seats it sure looks like Ms Harris is guilty of one hell of a distortion herself. The hypocrisy is galling. Who the hell is she talking about with the claim that we who disagree with the truthiness of the 1619 Project see “white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy”?

        That is a risible and grotesque distortion. What is worse for Harris’ ethics is that lies are simply no corrective to whatever she imagines we believe. But lying for a cause just doesn’t seem to bother people like Harris.


        1. I believe that Harris is referring to two prominent historians, who signed the letter to the NYT criticizing the 1619 Project: Sean Wilentz and Gordon Wood. She notes that in their most distinguished works of American history during the revolutionary period they barely recognize the presence of African-Americans. I am glad that DD directed my attention to this article. It points out the faults in the main article, but, on the whole, she deems it a worthy endeavor. I recommend the Harris article.

          1. Hmmmm. That is more like plausible deniability than an actual defense. But I do agree, it’s a good article. She makes some good points.

  7. “Ideology masquerading as history” is, of course, the core of the various “Critical Theory” this and “Critical Theory” that fake academic subjects. So, as the New Discourse writers are well aware, efforts like the 1619 Project come straight out of this wing in the ivory tower. The culpability for this whole trend lies with the academic administrations which, a generation ago, allowed specious subjects to pretend to academic status.

    On the other hand, this is not entirely new. When I was an undergrad, during the Cold War, most Poli Sci departments were engaged in American celebration kinds of bullshit, and most Econ departments were ideologically enmeshed with capitalism. What has happened since then is that the ideological fakery has just shifted to clichés of the adversarial Left, and in new bullshit departments.

  8. Not sure that epistemology has actually caught up with reality, but authority has a significant role in promotion of ideas and persuasion. Frankly, even when an idea can be extensively backed up with evidence or arguments or proofs, there simply is not enough time to counter every refutation.

    Some people are clearly full of it, some may be taken seriously, etc.

    I put a lot of faith in the authority of hard scientists, and am quite skeptical of social scientists for the most part. I could be wrong here, could be right.

    What you have in these sub-cultures (and cults) is a narrow set of authorities and a number of narratives to discredit anyone who is not part of the group. This creates the group-think and the self-referential structure.

    Next, by being published in the NYT and used as a school curriculum, it gains authority, the same way the Mormon’s would if they could get the NYT to take their “history” seriously, and the same way they would if the public schools taught the 13th tribe of Israel went to America or whatever.

    Its a mistake to call this irrational, its what we all do. But hopefully we have better authorities and we are open to diverse sources of information and alternative viewpoints, and are willing to think critically. However, the reality is that many people are not that smart, bad ideas generally serve the self-interest of certain constituencies, and most people are pretty uncomfortable with cognitive dissonance.

    The trick to persuading (or converting) an anti-vaxxer is not by evidence, it would rely more on discrediting the authority upon which they base their views, and hopefully crediting a mainstream source.

  9. I’m very curious to see if the anti-vaxxers will forego the coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available. I actually wish that they could be denied access to getting it if they did want it because their misguided, conspiracy theory nonsense does real harm to innocent people in the world and they need to be stopped. It’s like they took an anti-Hippocratic Oath.

  10. What I think is the important “bottom line”: The 1619 Project has, more likely than not, set back, rather than advanced, the fight for racial equality in America. People who support racial equality don’t need convincing; the uncertain, and especially those who already oppose racial equality, will say “If you have to lie to support your position, it likely is not true.”

    1. Thank you for referencing John McWhorter’s article. I, too, greatly enjoy his writing and have read some of his books on language. I always appreciate his preciseness and clarity. I don’t need to agree with him all the time as he always makes me think more carefully about my own positions, especially in relationship to others.

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