Bret Stephens is wrong about most things, but he is very brave

October 10, 2020 • 11:15 am

The title of this piece came from Greg Mayer, who was about to write a post on this same subject when he saw my draft. So, with permission, I’ve stolen his title, which was better than mine. And I agree with it.

Bret Stephens knew what he was doing when he called out the 1619 Project in his latest column (click on screenshot below). For he not only criticized the project, but the paper’s—his paper’s—journalistic integrity, verging at times on mendacity.  In fact, it’s a good piece, even if you don’t like Stephens’s conservatism, for what I know about his indictment is true. But how much of a career will he have at the NYT now? For what he did was far more serious than the “crimes” that made Bari Weiss’s life at the paper so untenable that she left. She was just anti-woke, which went against the paper’s editorial grain.

When Greg saw this draft (he’s followed the Project since its inception, he added this:

You mention Bari Weiss, but don’t forget the opinion page editor, James Bennet, who was defenestrated from the Times for insufficient wokeness. One thing about Stephens that might protect him is the fact that he is very visible, as the Times‘s premier conservative columnist. Both Weiss (who only occasionally was published by the Times) and Bennet were mostly behind the scenes players; Stephens is out in front, published twice weekly (including his duets with Gail Collins), and a “Columnist”, not a mere contributor.

In his column, Stephens says the 1619 Project, however good its motivations, was handled so duplicitously that it gave the paper’s critics “a gift.”

Let me say first that since the 1619 Project was not just journalism, but also an attempt to infiltrate American secondary education with its ideology from Critical Race Theory, it represents a victory for the Woke. Although Ayaan Hirsi Ali says the Woke haven’t won, I disagree. They control not only the two most respected liberal papers in America, and most higher education, but are now putting their tentacles into secondary-school education. Even the Chicago school system has adopted the 1619 Project as part of its curriculum.

But I digress. I described some of the paper’s questionable practices in earlier posts, and Stephens reprises how Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project’s director, simply lied about the project’s overriding aims, saying that she never tried to change the foundation date of America from 1776 to 1619. But she did make that claim several times, and it quietly disappeared from the paper’s website without an explicit correction. And despite trenchant criticism by historians about many of the project’s empirical claims, the paper and editor refused to accept, or even consider, the criticisms.  The Woke don’t do stuff like that.

Stephens finds other problems, like the new claim that 1776 represented the year of “defining contradiction” of America, that the founding principles were “false,” and that Jake Silverstein, the NYT Magazine editor, grossly exaggerated when he said this:

“Out of slavery—and the anti-Black racism it required—grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.”

Well, you can argue about the meaning of words like “contradiction,” “falsity”, and “nearly everything,” but the fact remains that noted historians on all sides of the political spectrum have argued that the Times‘s journalism simply distorted history. Stephens gives several examples of pushback by historians (e.g., here, here and here) and concludes, correctly, I think, that the 1619 Project is “a thesis in search of evidence, not the other way around.”

The historical distortions and track-covering by the Times are not in doubt, at least not among those who’ve followed the controversy, but of course all criticism of the 1619 Project by liberals comes with the obligatory praise for its anti-racist intent.  And indeed, the intent was admirable. Who of good will can oppose anti-racism? But the execution has been deeply flawed, and will the paper really reduce racism by inculcating a generation of American children with Critical Race Theory? Further, Trump has already suggested that he’ll cut off government funding to any schools who adopt the 1619 Project in their curriculum. I oppose that autocratic decision as well, as the President should not be dictating what’s taught to children. School boards set curricula.

In the end, Stephens knows he’s even more of an apostate with his NYT colleagues now, but you have to admire him for the courage of his convictions. He didn’t have to write this column, which includes criticisms of the paper’s journalistic practices like this:

Journalists are, most often, in the business of writing the first rough draft of history, not trying to have the last word on it. We are best when we try to tell truths with a lowercase t, following evidence in directions unseen, not the capital-T truth of a pre-established narrative in which inconvenient facts get discarded. And we’re supposed to report and comment on the political and cultural issues of the day, not become the issue itself.

As fresh concerns make clear, on these points — and for all of its virtues, buzz, spinoffs and a Pulitzer Prize — the 1619 Project has failed.

Nor did he have to end his piece this way, but I’m glad he did:

For obvious reasons, I’ve thought long and hard about the ethics of writing this essay. On the one hand, outside of exceptional circumstances, it’s bad practice to openly criticize the work of one’s colleagues. We bat for the same team and owe one another collegial respect.

On the other, the 1619 Project has become, partly by its design and partly because of avoidable mistakes, a focal point of the kind of intense national debate that columnists are supposed to cover, and that is being widely written about outside The Times. To avoid writing about it on account of the first scruple is to be derelict in our responsibility toward the second.

All the more so as journalists, in the United States and abroad, come under relentless political assault from critics who accuse us of being fake, biased, partisan and an arm of the radical left. Many of these attacks are baseless. Some of them are not. Through its overreach, the 1619 Project has given critics of The Times a gift.

In the meantime, the Wall Street Journal has reported on a futile effort: a letter to the Pulitzer Committee signed by historians (including Glenn Loury), asking them to take back the 1619 Project’s Pulitzer Prize (that Prize was ridiculous from the get-go, awarded not for quality but wokeness). You won’t be able to read the WSJ article, which is paywalled, but you can see the beginning by clicking on the screenshot below. (Judicious inquiry may yield you a copy of the piece.)

The WSJ repeats some of the earlier criticism, but also links to the Pulitzer letter, which you can read by clicking on the screenshot below:

Of course the Pulitzer folks won’t retract the prize; I don’t know if it’s ever done that, but it surely wouldn’t retract an award for an antiracist piece in these times.  Here’s a short extract from the longish letter which includes lots of material we’re familiar with by now:

The duplicity of attempting to alter the historical record in a manner intended to deceive the public is as serious an infraction against professional ethics as a journalist can commit. A “sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay,” as the Pulitzer Prize Board called it, does not have the license to sweep its own errors into obscurity or the remit to publish “deeply reported” falsehoods.

The Pulitzer Prize Board erred in awarding a prize to Hannah-Jones’s profoundly flawed essay, and through it to a Project that, despite its worthy intentions, is disfigured by unfounded conjectures and patently false assertions. To err is human. But now that it has come to light that these materials have been “corrected” without public disclosure and Hannah-Jones has falsely put forward claims that she never said or wrote what she plainly did, the offense is far more serious. It is time for the Pulitzer Prize Board to acknowledge its error rather than compound it. Given the glaring historical fallacy at the heart of its account, and the subsequent breaches of core journalistic ethics by both Hannah-Jones and the Times, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written” does not deserve the honor conferred upon it. Nor does The 1619 Project of which it is a central part, and which the Board seeks to honor by honoring Hannah-Jones’s essay. The Board should acknowledge that its award was an error. It can and should correct that error by withdrawing the prize.

The letter is signed by 21 original signatories and 7 additional ones from “the Independent Institute.” I can’t be arsed to look most of the scholars up and, as most Woke people do, try to discredit them. I’d never heard of any of them save Glenn Loury, who, as I recall, identifies as a liberal. It doesn’t matter, though, as Pulitzer won’t revoke the Prize. But the original award to the 1619 Project is, I think, a travesty, motivated much more by ideology than by quality.

h/t: Cate, Enrico

46 thoughts on “Bret Stephens is wrong about most things, but he is very brave

  1. Jerry and I had discussed this while he was writing, and I’ll add one more thing I mentioned, about the campaign to retract the Pulitzer Prize. I oppose retracting it, for much the same reason I would oppose the retraction of any other award (or the destruction of at least most monuments)– it is a falsification of history. Around the World in 80 Days seems rather pedestrian now, but it tells us something that it won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1956.

    George Patton* once said that “Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man.” The 2019 Pulitzer Prize is a monument to the stupidity of the Pulitzer Prize Board.


    *This is how it was quoted in the film Patton, which is not exactly what he said. See here for details.

  2. Bret Stephens’ article is excellent. Responses to the 1619 Project like his give me hope that Critical Race Theory, and Wokeness in general, will fade over time. It will take longer than we’d prefer, of course, and do much damage before it’s gone.

    As Stephens points out, the controversy has produced some positives. People are now talking about the role played by slavery in the founding of the country like never before. The 1619 Project was a bad take but followed by good takes in response.

    I do worry about Wokeness and CRT infiltrating schools and universities. However, this follows a pattern similar to that of creationism a few decades ago. It sneaks into our schools while hardly anyone notices. At some point, people start to pay attention and fight back, eventually beating it. Given our fast-paced world today largely due to social media, let’s hope for (and work towards) its speedy demise.

  3. I thought the article was good, but I’m worried that the pushback against CRT is coming almost exclusively from conservative sources, which will discredit it in the eyes of all Leftists and many liberals.

    Some woman in my Twitter feed said as a result of Trump’s opposition to CRT, she’s going to promote it every day until he’s out of office. Terrible way to make decisions, but if there’s one, then there are probably thousands thinking the same way.

    The revolt against CRT needs to come from within the left-of-center community; I’m certain that there’s a large constituency who are repelled by it, but are afraid to stand against it.

      1. “That’s us, right?”

        Well, yes, but we’re nobodies. 🙂

        Of course, the moment you criticize CRT, you get cast as being far right, so it might be a Catch-22.

  4. Glenn Loury is an economist, not an historian. Hence, I don’t see what gives him any special expertise in American history. I looked at the list of the signators that urged the revocation of Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer. I recognized several names, all part of the conservative intelligentsia. From the names I recognized only two would I consider qualified to opine on the quality of the 1619 Project: Phillip Magness and Myron Magnet. The letter itself is a regurgitation of the complaints against the project that have been aired a thousand times before.

    There are much more important issues at play here than the quality of the articles or the supposed NYT’s takeover by the Woke. The unrelentingly assault by the right-wing on the project is right out of their playbook that should be entitled “How to Dupe the American Public by Endlessly Repeating Lies.” The tactics they used are exactly the same they used on attacking Hillary Clinton on Benghazi and Joe Biden for Burisma. It matters not if their accusations have any truth to them; just repeat them often enough and the public will come to believe them. In contrast to these other episodes, the 1619 Project brouhaha is pure gold for them. Is there anyone so naïve as to believe that the right-wing cares in the least about historical truth or the journalistic integrity of the NYT? No, the reason the right-wing has glommed on this issue is that it allows them to smear those, mostly liberals, who accept the basic thesis of the 1619 Project – that slavery and racism have played a major role in the unfolding of American history and the presence of these institutions are a direct contradiction to the supposed American ideals. By the way, I reject the argument that most white Americans were aware of the history of slavery and racism and didn’t need the 1619 Project to explain it.

    The right-wing attack on the project is reminiscent of the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Then, as now, those on the left were accused of being unpatriotic and anti-American. Today, the right-wing attack is that those who accept the project’s thesis reject the “true” understanding of American history, which, of course, is pure fairy tale. That is, it is not hard for the right-wing to convince many Americans, most of whose knowledge of history comes from high school, if from anywhere, that the country’s “true” founding (a meaningless debate) is 1776 when a group of God-inspired demigods gathered together to create a nation that was great from day one and just kept getting better with each passing day.

    To keep this comment relatively short, I will note that many people who reject the fairy tales of the bible have much a greater time rejecting the fairy tales of their own history. For some nationalism has a much greater hold on their intellect than religion. For many Americans, it is just too painful to admit that maybe the country is not quite as great as they once thought. This is a hard pill to swallow.

    1. “Americans have spotty knowledge of central facts about the history of slavery in the United States, although younger adults have an edge over their elders, according to a Washington Post-SSRS poll.

      Even so, a solid majority say the legacy of slavery affects American society today, including majorities across racial, partisan and generational lines.”

      Complete article and poll results:

    2. Don’t forget that neither is Nikole Hannah-Jones an historian….though that in now way prevents her from opining and commenting on history.

      (Wasn’t the Pulitzer she won for commentary?)

    3. To be clear, the NYT‘s revision of its website is an implicit acknowledgement of errors in the project as originally published – do you condemn the newspaper for not having the journalistic integrity to do so openly and transparently, Historian?

    4. “Glenn Loury is an economist, not an historian. Hence, I don’t see what gives him any special expertise in American history.”

      An argument from authority (or in this case the reverse) may be true or may be false. That the 1619 project has attracted a lot of right wing criticism does not necessarily invalidate that criticism.

      Political inclination should not trump facts – although that’s what the Woke sometimes rely on.

    5. “Glenn Loury is an economist, not an historian. Hence, I don’t see what gives him any special expertise in American history.”

      Neither is Noam Chomsky an historian. What historian should I read to properly learn about U.S. intervention in Latin America/the Caribbean and the Philippines? Steven Kinzer has held forth informatively on the latter, but as far as I know he does not claim to be an historian, so I guess he does not count for all that much.

      Same with Gore Vidal, who did not attend college. How could anything he wrote/lectured on possibly be worth reading/listening to?

      Same with Eric Hoffer, the “Longshoreman Philosopher.”

      I take it that being a self-motivated, intellectually-curious autodidact does not count for much in the age of Holy Trinity of Degrees credentialism.

    6. It’s hard not to notice that, again and again, you attack the people criticizing the project, but not the criticisms. You attack the political affiliations of some critics, but conveniently leave out the many critics who don’t fit the part of your Right-wing conspiracy narrative. You continue in refusing to address the criticism in any way, instead writing long comments about how conservatives, the Right, and others have done worse things. And you refuse to respond to anyone who brings up the actual, factual misrepresentations made by this project.

      As far as historians go, I’d trust an economist who is talking about the facts of a history project over a historian who is only talking about ideology and doing everything possible to avoid engaging with the material.

      And I certainly would never trust a historian who makes his decisions on whether or not to support historical claims based on ideology rather than whether or not the claims being made are actually true. To base your support on ideology rather than factual analysis is a betrayal of the very idea of being a historian.

      1. There is only so much I can write in these comments. I’ve addressed your complaints in previous comments (probably in about half a dozen), including the criticisms of the project. You can look up them up or not. I don’t care. I also discussed what historians do and how they write history. You don’t know how historians work and the nature of the profession. You can also take the time to find out. Again, I don’t care if you believe me or not. I realize that I appear to be the sole defender of the 1619 Project at this site, although this particular comment was not focused on the substance of the project, but how the right-wing uses it for their ideological ends. I will continue to do so when I feel I can make a contribution. I don’t give a damn if I am the only one who has a certain view. Regarding the subject matter such as this, it cannot be addressed in a few one liners. And this is not the place to write extended essays. Finally, unlike some, I comment only on matters that I feel I know something about. I try to avoid bullshitting about the first thing that comes to my mind under the deluded pretense that I am qualified to opine about everything.

    7. I have some sympathy for your POV. It seems that critics have a laser focus on some mistakes while ignoring the useful correctives in the broader picture. To my mind the 1619 Project’s biggest mistake is that they should have called it the 1492 Project. Because the often-genocidal war against Native Americans had, arguably, more to do with the US rebellion against Britain. As historian Woody Holton points out, some central Revolutionary leaders had extensive land holdings in newly conquered Indian territory. The British Crown wanted to hold back and consolidate east of the Appalachians:

      the King issues this proclamation, the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which essentially says, you know, no, we don’t want you Americans to travel and settle beyond the Appalachians. That will only incite Indian revolts, which we don’t [have] the money or troops to put down…

      The properties west of the Appalachians become stranded assets for the Washington, Madison, and others, and the only way they got out from under the Proclamation was to rebel.

      1. You make a good point. The Proclamation of 1763 was one factor in causing the Revolution. The British refusal to allow settlement west of the Appalachians infuriated some of the Founding Fathers because it threatened their pecuniary interests. Here we confront the intersection of the concept of freedom in an abstract fashion with one’s freedom to speculate in land for personal gain. Of course, this “fact” contradicts the fairy tale version of American history.

        1. It seems that the most positive outcome of the 1619 Project is to point out the fairy tale version of American history that most of its citizens seem to embrace. Anything that educates the population is a big win. It’s too bad that those behind the 1619 Project seem to rank defending their ideology over everything else.

    8. I’m sorry, but I’m NOT right wing and I see this project as misguided and, indeed, duplicitous at times. And no, you don’t have to be a historian to comment on the project.

      I reject your claim that attacks on the 1619 Project are motivated by conservatism and racism, along with your implicit message that we all have to be on board with it, no matter how its journalists behave. The paper’s behavior with respect to the Project is reprehensible. Read the title of my post–I am NOT a conservative but I support Stephens in his most recent column.

    9. I find it odd that you think that Loury, an economist, is not qualified to comment on the causes of the American revolution given that the causes were largely economic including, but not solely, the issue of slavery.

      1. Did you mean to say the American Civil War when you mentioned slavery?

        In any case, if Loury as an economist has studied the American Revolution then I would admit my mistake and retract my comment. However, if this is not the case then his being an economist is no qualification to opine on it. Indeed, an historian who specializes, for example, in the administration of Dwight Eisenhower would not be a reliable source for commenting on the American Revolution. This would be the equivalent of a foot surgeon opining on brain surgery techniques. We live in an age of extreme specialization (a trend only likely to continue) in which people know a lot about a very small area of knowledge and very little about anything else. This is why we depend on experts for information about various topics. Even then, experts can disagree. The search for “truth” is often frustrating and elusive.

        1. No, I meant the American revolution. I do not think slavery was irrelevant to that event, only that it was not the sole or even the primary cause. There is a large literature on the economic causes of the American revolution by economic historians. Taxes, 1763 Proclamation, and others. And, of course, slavery is an economic issue, surely.

          So is it now your view that Loury is not qualified to comment because his field in economics is not economic history? What is your field in history? Do you think you are qualified to comment only on your special field?

          I am not saying Loury is right. Just trying to understand why you think we should disregard his views on authority, rather than by the merits of his arguments.

  5. Careerists and fakers invariably attach themselves like barnacles to worthy causes once the cause appears to be paying off. However misguided, the old Bolsheviks of Bukharin’s generation were aiming, or thought they were aiming, for a society of liberation and equality. But once it had seized power, the Party was joined by a huge cohort of opportunists: the apparatchiks, bureaucrats, political commissars, censors, propagandists, and secret policemen portrayed by Koestler in the police interrogator Gletkin of “Darkness At Noon”. It was this new class that gave the Soviet state its unique qualities—socialist realism in the arts, Lysenkoism in Biology, Orwellian language in everything, the Gulag, the Moscow trials, and the Stalin cult. Maybe we are about to find out that these qualities were not so unique. It is also worth reflecting that the new class of apparatchiks proved to be more permanent than the state in which they operated, as the present condition of Russia demonstrates.

    1. “[T]he new class of apparatchiks proved to be more permanent than the state in which they operated.”

      That’s an interesting insight. I fear this is what universities have to look forward to: intense focus on antiracism, representation, and diversity imposed by woke faculty members with lifetime tenured appointments.

      One can hope that the broader culture will move on from this madness, but wokeism now seems to be baked into universities (or at least my university) for decades.

  6. If anything is accomplished maybe it will be that some people might pick up some good history books and actually learn some history. I would prefer they do that than to get whatever knowledge they have piecemeal off the internet where all knowledge seems to come from these days. As I think he is saying, journalism gives us a draft or maybe a brief look at what is happening but it is not the final chapter on any subject. I often think too much is made of 1776 as the beginning of everything and little else need be told. Jefferson did the draft of the declaration and many other had a hand in editing the thing. It’s purpose was nothing more than words and the real story was made by lots of people that did not begin or end in 1776.

  7. If readers have library cards, they can get past paywalls by logging onto their library’s home page and looking for electronic databases such as Academic Search Premier or LexisNexis, etc. Consider getting a library card if you don’t have one – I wasn’t going to pay a dime to read “White Fragility,” which was available as an eBook.

  8. “In the end, Stephens knows he’s even more of an apostate with his NYT colleagues now, but you have to admire him for the courage of his convictions. He didn’t have to write this column, which includes criticisms of the paper’s journalistic practices […]” – Indeed, he demonstrated a lot of guts (and journalistic integrity] in writing his piece. The letter to the Pulitzer Board was spot on, too, but of course it will have no effect – and shame on the Board for what that says about journalism and standards in the current era.

    1. Wow that’s quite a read. The socialists call out her “staggering hypocrisy and moral blindness [that] is typical of an ultra-egotistical, self-absorbed and affluent petty-bourgeois social stratum.” Basically, they ask why she chooses to help Shell black-wash (is that a word?) the corporation’s criminal history of killing (black) Ogoni people in Nigeria. Must be a hard question for Ida Bae to answer.

    2. Not very impressive. I mean, Shell sucks, but Emancipation Park Conservancy in Houston is just another large non-profit organization in a capitalist society. Like almost all of those, it takes corporate money to host events, like Hannah-Jones’s speech. Shell, I am guessing, is very big in Houston. So, the choice before H-J is probably either tell Shell where they can stick it and leave Emancipation Park scrambling for some other guest appearance (which will still be funded by Shell), or let Shell get a PR boost that it might get anyway. I think she made the wrong choice, but it’s hardly out of the ordinary in the world of pundits in America.

  9. Unfortunately, you cannot say “anti-racist” without saying “racist”.
    But I speak as a Pinky-Yellow XY. So I am just talking down to everyone from my privileged racial plinth: please don’t criticise my genetically determined insensitivity. 😉

  10. Being a good leftie, I had held my nose at Stephens in the past and disdained to read his columns. But I found nothing to object to in this column; indeed, there was much to applaud. For those who worry about so much opposition to the 1619 Project coming from conservatives—well, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And the historians Stephens quotes are all liberal/left. Furthermore, as Stephens notes, the most dubious aspects of the 1619 Project were “unbidden gifts to Donald Trump” and the Right.

    Several sections of the column are worth quoting:

    “Why have generations of Americans considered 1776 our birth date — as opposed to 1781, when we won our independence militarily at Yorktown; or 1783, when we won it diplomatically through the Treaty of Paris; or 1788, when our system of government came into existence with the ratification of the Constitution?

    “The answer is that, unlike other dates, 1776 uniquely marries letter and spirit, politics and principle: The declaration that something new is born, combined with the expression of an ideal that — because we continue to believe in it even as we struggle to live up to it — binds us to the date.

    “Contrary to what the 1619 Project claims, 1776 isn’t just our nation’s ‘official’ founding. It is our symbolic one, too. The metaphor of 1776 is more powerful than that of 1619 because what makes America most itself isn’t four centuries of racist subjugation. It’s 244 years of effort by Americans — sometimes halting, but often heroic — to live up to our greatest ideal. That’s a struggle that has been waged by people of every race and creed. And it’s an ideal that continues to inspire millions of people at home and abroad.”

  11. I don’t know of Bret Stephens, but add that even Fox News allows a court jester or two who can mock the king on occasion. Allowing some well-controlled counter-narrative helps in manufacturing consent.

    It tells the audience what the opposite view allegedly is, and this presentation can be controlled nicely in numerous ways, at minimum to pretend that the views in that outlet are really “fair and balanced”.

    The NYT is more woke now, but that’s the desired US corporate/urban Zeitgeist now. In that sense, not much has changed there.

  12. Assuming someone here cannot get enough of hearing someone extol the virtues of CRT, this from Georgetown Univ. law professor Paul Butler might be worth your trouble:

    The irksomeness starts at 3:45. At 5:23 refers to the “scientific concept” known as “implicit bias.” 8:48 makes sure to approvingly reference the Time’s 1619 Pulitzer prize. 14:00 invokes Orwell vis-a-vis the Princeton kerfuffle. 15:25 the host states the Trump administration wants to “replace critical thinking with patriotic education.” [No mention of the prospect of CRT replacing critical thinking]

  13. I’ve read Stephens for a long time now and – despite the fact I disagree with him a lot he is a man of conviction and one of those conservatives one can sit down with and have a decent, respectable disagreement with. He’s not always wrong and he’s on the money here.

    HA! Once I said in the comments: “Oh Bret, you were doing so well, we nearly had your house-trained and then you write this….” (regards some obnoxiously conservative drivel).

    That said…. his “competition” at the Times is that deranged religious maniac Catholic Ayatollah and odious dotard, Ross Douthert – a man who personifies “not even wrong” every column.

    So good on Bret.

    D.A., Chelsea, Mhtn, NYC

  14. “But the original award to the 1619 Project is, I think, a travesty, motivated much more by ideology than by quality.”

    Just wait till next year’s academy awards…

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