The annals of the 1619 debacle at the New York Times

October 27, 2020 • 9:00 am

JAC: Greg has another installment in his continuing series on the New York Times’s 1619 project. Readers please note that this is Greg’s piece, not mine.


by Greg Mayer

As they have since it was published last year, the folks at the World Socialist Website (WSWS) continue to lead in the critique of the New York Times‘ 1619 Project. In doing so, they have highlighted not just the defects of the project as history, but the dissimulation and mendacity of the Times‘ editors and writers in their attempts to defend it. In doing so, they have performed a public service, and have put the lie to claims that criticism of “1619” is a right-wing project.

A few days ago the WSWS posted a damning summary of the Times‘ falsification of the history and intentions of “1619”: “It is all just a metaphor: The New York Times attempts yet another desperate defense of its discredited 1619 Project.” It’s a must-read. Some excerpts:

On October 16, New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein issued a new defense of the 1619 Project in which he now argues that its best-known claim—that the year 1619 and not 1776 represents the “true founding” of the United States—was a metaphorical turn of phrase not intended to be read literally. . . . according to [lead writer Nicole] Hannah-Jones and the Times, “true” history had been suppressed by dishonest “white historians” hellbent on maintaining their racist “founding myth” of 1776. After two centuries of a historical narrative centered on the false elevation of 1776, the 1619 Project declared that “it was finally time to tell our story truthfully.”

In spite of Silverstein’s deletion of the “true founding” claim and his other word changes, the Times’ essential position remains the same: The American Revolution was a retrograde event, in which the defense of slavery was the critical motivation. . . .

As for the Project’s quietly-deleted “true founding” thesis—which was emblazoned on the Times website and repeated again and again by Hannah-Jones on social media, in interviews, and her national lecture tour—Silverstein now claims that this was the product of nothing more than a minor technical error, the sort of snafu that is an inevitable outcome of difficulties for modern-day editors, such as himself, in managing a “multiplatform” publication and “figuring out how to present the same journalism in all those different media.” With all of these formats to tend to, the beleaguered editors of the Times just couldn’t get the story straight! Silverstein does not seem to grasp that the criteria of objective truth do not change as one moves from printed newspaper to website, or from Facebook to Twitter. What is a lie in one format remains a lie in another. . . .

This is the version that was sent out to school children. It read, with emphasis added:

1619 is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that our defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?

He [Silverstein] then quotes the revised passage, that has been made to the online publication only:

1619 is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that the moment that the country’s defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619?

Perhaps Silverstein hopes his readers will carelessly jump over this scissors-and-glue work. He writes that the difference in the two passages is “to the wording and the length, not the facts.” But actually, there to be read literally in black and white, the first passage refers specifically to an allegedly false “fact.” If a metaphor is being employed in the original version, it is very well concealed.

In an earlier piece, “Factional warfare erupts in New York Times over the 1619 Project“, the WSWS recounts the brouhaha at the Times over Bret Stephens’ criticism of 1619. Noting Stephens’ use of scholarly criticisms marshaled by the WSWS and others, the piece relates the “bitter conflict” at the Times. One detail I did not know was that the Times Guild has thoroughly disavowed the attack on Stephens from its Twitter account, not merely deleted it:

The Guild later deleted the tweet after a “furor” erupted among Times staff against this transparent demand for managerial censorship of a fellow journalist—to say nothing of its mangling of the English language. The Guild declared that whoever issued the attack on Stephens had done so without permission.

The 1619 affair has clearly revealed that wokeism is not a position on the left end of the American political axis. Rather, it forms an orthogonal axis, and racialists of all persuasions can espouse “identity” über alles; and opponents of wokeism can come from all along the traditional political spectrum. That is why we need to have terms such as the “liberal left” vs. the “illiberal left”. (The WSWS would be to the left of “liberals” on the traditional political axis, but I would identify them as “liberal left”, since “liberal” in this context refers to defense of civil rights and anti-racialism as the opposition to wokeism and racialism.)

In ignoring its own fact checker, dismissing cogent criticism from respected scholars, and dissimulating about its actions, the Times has discredited itself. As the WSWS put it,

The 1619 Project is a travesty of both history and journalism that has humiliated the Times and undermined its self-proclaimed status as “the newspaper of record.”

I still read the Times, but I can no longer defend it.

h/t Brian Leiter

43 thoughts on “The annals of the 1619 debacle at the New York Times

  1. Slavery and racism are a large part of American History and it’s place must get full consideration. But twisting history around in confused circles is not history either. Concentration on any date can become unrealistic just as concentrating on a specific event. Dates are used mostly to keep events in an order to avoid confusion. Even 1776 must be understood as a point in the middle of the confrontation known at the American Revolution. It was not the beginning or the ending. It was an announcement.

  2. Great distinction between liberal left and illiberal left (or between wokeism and liberalism). If that distinction could get more traction in the public sphere, a lot of liberals who align with wokeism out of laziness or lack of rigor, would recognize that wokeism is NOT a natural extension of liberalism and have second thoughts. (I know Jerry’s readers are well aware of this, but I suspect many old-school liberals are only vaguely so.)

    1. Couldn’t the same distinction apply to wokeism? I subscribe to most woke tenets but don’t think that cancelling people is the way to redress inequalities in society – liberal rather than illiberal woke

  3. I suppose we can look at most of what the NYT is producing these days as metaphor. Perhaps the Pulitzer Prize can add a new category for Best Metaphor Misunderstood as Journalism.

  4. I find it amusing that all the true blue capitalists rely on the socialists to acquire their understanding of American history. It is equally amusing that all of a sudden people are so concerned about the “true founding” of the country. It is as intellectually ridiculous as trying to identify the exact date that the first “true human” emerged on the planet. Yes, 1776 is the year that the country formally came into existence, but we need to understand the forces that shaped the declaration of independence. Silverstein should not have backed down from declaring 1619 as the true founding. It is one date out of many that could be justified.

    Recently, the NYT published an op-ed by historian Nicholas Guyatt on the 1619 Project. I was struck by how closely it mirrors my comments on the project that I have posted at this site during the last year or so. This means that he does NOT defend every aspect of the project. Here are a few key quotes from the Guyatt article.

    1. “In recent years historians have written a great deal about how slavery and racism influenced the American Revolution (and vice versa) without reaching a consensus view; they’ve also conducted a lively debate over slavery’s role in the shaping of American capitalism.”

    2. “But the 1619 Project has complicated long-held certainties about that history, forcing Americans (especially white Americans) to look at both the past and the present with fresh eyes.”

    I believe implied in the Guyatt article is an attempt to convey to its readers an understanding about the nature of historical writing that I have attempted to do many times in the past, apparently without much success. I will try once more since the vitriolic attacks on the project continues unabated.

    1. There is no “true” history, but there can be “false” history. False history means that the narrative is based on lack of evidence or the distortion of it. On the other hand, there cannot be true history in the sense of it being objective because historians of good faith need to decide what evidence to use and how it is to be interpreted. For example, one of the critics of the project, Sean Wilentz, has written extensively on the question of whether the Constitution was or was not a pro-slavery document. Wilentz thinks it was not. His interpretation has come under blistering attack by other historians. Such controversies are common in historical writing. Another controversy is whether the atomic bombs were necessary to end the war with Japan without a ground invasion. Likewise, as Guyatt points out, historians, acting in good faith, debate the nature of the American Revolution.

    2. Whatever the motives of those who attack the project, the assault is fodder for the right-wing. The purpose of the project (and despite its debatable assertions) is to bring to the public mind the role of slavery and race in the unfolding of American history. It rebuts the fairy tale version of American history, which is, in its most simplest terms, that stating on July 4, 1776, the United States was great and kept getting greater every day thereafter. For the right-wing those who attack the view are un-American and should be excluded from public discourse.

    The continuous assault on the project is irrationality run amok to the point of obsession. For the socialists, the project is “bad” because it ignores class (there is actually some merit to this criticism). But, for the vast majority it is “bad” because like the Bible stories, fairy tales are hard to give up.

    1. Give me a break. You are implying that Greg and I are irrational because we won’t give up our fairy tales. Sorry, but you’re wrong and uncivil. I object because the NYT is not only showing a mendacious side and, in fact, lying, but more importantly because this project is an attempt to propagandize school children with Critical Race Theory. Newspaper should not be in the business of providing curricula to school children.

    2. Thanks again for restating your views. Once again you accuse those here who criticize the 1619 project as having suspect motive. It’s all a game, isn’t it?

      Here is the problem I’ve had with your analysis since the beginning of your commentary here. You state above:

      False history means that the narrative is based on lack of evidence or the distortion of it.

      Those of us here, who you’re amused at for not understanding how the history of the US should be understood, have primarily complained that the 1619 project made a series distortions that seriously undermines its value, many of which were the result of ignoring evidence to the contrary and inflating the importance of what evidence there is. To make matters worse the authors and publishers surreptitiously corrected some of these failures, then tried to fob them off as mere editorial changes. This all pretty much fits your own definition of “false history”.

      It is troubling to me that you find it amusing that some of us, unwitting rubes of the far right as you say and so ignorant of how you think history ought to be presented, object to an account riddled with so many holes even we plebes can see them.

      I think there are good reasons, for history and pedagogy, to re-evaluate the importance of our Peculiar Institution and the 1619 Project could have been a good starting place. But, IMO, it was poorly done as both an historical account and as a piece of journalism. I suspect that’s because it was never meant to be either, at least not primarily. It was meant to further a wokist narrative and no history construed by the religious is going to be accurate, though it will attain (in many place it already has) the status of scripture; meaning it cannot be disputed. Journalism like the 1619 project is our future even if it wasn’t (exactly) our past,

    3. I think you make some good points, but to my mind they are somewhat off target. In general 1619 Project critics do not deny any of the points you make about US history or the profession of history. In fact these points are not typically involved at all.

      What the critics do point out is bad scholarship, misrepresentation and apparent bad motives. I can’t be sure but based on your comments it seems to me you acknowledge many of the criticisms, to one degree or another. But you nevertheless strongly argue for the 1619 Project and even denigrate criticisms of it because, it seems to me, you think that raising awareness of how important slavery was in every aspect of US history from the very beginning is more important than any other consideration. In short, it seems very much like a “the ends justify the means” argument.

      I don’t think we have to settle for “the ends justify the means.” The 1619 Project is not necessary to raise awareness of the role of slavery in US history and the costs of allowing it to proceed without criticism and pushback against valid faults has easily imagined risks of its own. Exchanging one false narrative sustained for ulterior purposes with another is a false choice that we don’t have to live with.

      1. I am not using an end justify the means argument. What I am arguing is that the nature of the American Revolution is subject to differing reasonable interpretations and argumentation presented by reputable historians, just as many events in American history are. The views presented in the 1619 Project are well within historical respectability. I believe this is what Guyatt is saying in his piece. I am also arguing that the right-wing’s relentless assault on the project (just search for “1619 Project” and you will find countless right-wing sites parroting each other) has little to do with its concern with “wokeness” or the pursuit of a better understanding of the Revolution. Rather, it has provided a golden opportunity to slam liberals since it contradicts what most people have taught about the Revolution and the godlike Founders.

        1. “The views presented in the 1619 Project are well within historical respectability.”

          This isn’t remotely true. It’s closer to what religious folks like David Barton do when trying to argue that the US was founded as a “Christian nation”. Very high levels of distortion, omission, and outright lying needed to craft that narrative.

          The 1619 is very similar to this…ideologically motivated rewriting of history.

          1. Your comment is a slur on respected historians that defend the 1619 Project. It reflects a profound ignorance of what the debate is about. As in all historical writings, they point out flaws, but largely consider it a contribution to the understanding of race and slavery in American history. See the below cited article for a discussion of how real historians debate the merits and demerits of the project.


            1. I’m sorry, but trying to describe the American Revolution as primarily an attempt to protect the institution of slavery is goofy. Is that what “respected” historians are actually claiming?

              It’s as goofy as any Barton-style revision of the founding of the United States as some kind of Christian theocracy.

              The United States country was founded mainly on Enlightenment principles, something both sets of revisionists get completely wrong.

              So my comparison between the two sets of miscreants is no “slur”.

              1. Well said. The NYT’s mistake was trying to propagate a highly contested interpretation of American history as the correct one and then to have it taught that way to schoolchildren.

                I respect Historian’s comments on almost every other subject, but I do not understand why he is irrationally defensive of the 1619 Project’s excesses. Right wingers oppose it? So do centrists, leftists, and socialists, not to mention many our our leading historians!

    4. “Silverstein should not have backed down from declaring 1619 as the true founding. It is one date out of many that could be justified.”

      You should have re-read this bit and stopped yourself right there. In these two sentences you have suggested a single date as a possible “true founding” and then suggested that there are many such dates. Which is it? If “true founding” doesn’t suggest a single date, then I guess I don’t understand the phrase.

      1. What I am saying and perhaps I wasn’t clear is that arguing about a “true founding” date makes as much sense as arguing who was the best painter ever. The debate over the founding date doesn’t make much sense, but if one must give a date 1619 is as justifiable as 1776. The project probably would have been better off not giving a date, but the debate is over something insignificant – nothing more than a parlor game, except that it gives the right wing something else to be offended about.

        1. What you say makes sense but you are downplaying the fact that not only did the 1619 Project suggest a new date, it insisted that it replace the old one. If we boil the issue down to a simple question of which date best represents the year in which the country was founded, it’s no contest — 1776 is much better. We’ve been using it for some time now and the 1619 Project makes a very poor case for changing it.

        2. I tend to agree that arguing over The Date is pretty silly, but I think you’ve mischaracterized the actual criticism here. The 1619 project characterized the commonly acknowledged date of 1776 for the US’s founding as inaccurate bias, or even deliberate misinformation, by racist whites with an agenda. That’s ludicrous.

          What’s worse is the bait and switch in which they use 2 entirely different conceptions of “founding” to compare the 2 dates. Which indicates an agenda other than historical accuracy, and which this is just one example of from the 1619 Project.

          1776 is widely known as the year that the US formally declared it’s independence, thereby formally declaring the formation of a new entity. That is the sense that pretty much everyone, even people woefully ignorant of US history, understands the year 1776 as being the year the US was founded. I think it is greatly implausible that anyone, no matter how ignorant of US history, thinks that there was no meaningful or valid history of the US prior to 1776. That’s ludicrous but that is exactly the straw man the 1619 Project erects for its bait and switch.

          1619, and many other dates, are, no doubt, historically significant with respect to the entity that came to be called the US. Those prior events are as much our history as 1776, or any other year in the past 300+ years. That’s the sense that the 1619 project uses for their date of 1619. And that sense of “founding” is perfectly valid, but it isn’t the same sense as 1776 being the year that the US issued the Declaration of Independence thereby creating a new entity. And they surely know that. And that’s bullshit propaganda tactics.

          It didn’t have to be that way. They could have avoided dishonest rhetorical tactics, mischaracterizations and other bullshit tactics. They could simply have said something like, “Slavery was an important factor in US history since the very beginning, before many people may realize. A good place to start is 1619 . . .”

            1. “Well put. It could also have made practical suggestions on how education could be improved.”

              As well as improving citizens’ inclination toward intellectual curiosity. Re: Bertrand Russell’s quote about most people preferring dying to thinking. To my mind, as with thinking, so with learning, the two arguably synonymous.

    5. I agree that 1619 is correctly seen as a departure point in American History, one of many that could be chosen. I find the 1619 Project objectionable for its claim that it is the only valid starting point, and that race relations is the only lens through which American History can be viewed (and apparently not the History of every other land that had slavery), and that it is the paramount theme in American History. If slavery and race relations have been neglected in American History (they haven’t), then correcting that is not done by excluding everything else. At the same time with regard to the 1619 Project’s claim that American Independence was primarily (or even partially) motivated by a defense of slavery, this doesn’t appear to be any kind of History. I know of no effort by the Crown to restrict or eliminate slavery (and WSWS is right to bring in the counter-example of the Caribbean colonies), nor do I know of any example from the colonies of people afraid that would happen. The 1619 Project is pure polemic, and by trying to create a myth of Original Sin it is insulting to Americans, right or left, black or white, who seek to live up to America’s higher ideals.

      1. I agree with most of this but I can easily believe the role of slavery in the country’s founding is underplayed (to put it mildly) in what we tell our children in school. Sure, it may be adequately covered in academic history but not anywhere else. How many times have we heard that the country was founded on the idea that all men are free? Perhaps a few places it is subtly hedged with “all men should be free” but mostly it is a lie that needs to be exposed. This kind of fake patriotism actually does a lot of damage and I would love to see it corrected. Unfortunately, the 1619 Project doesn’t help much.

  5. The 1619 Project best represents what Trump voters detest about Wokeness and, more generally, liberals, the Left, and Democrats. In the run-up to the election, several political pundits have realized that the 2020 reason to vote for Trump is to, as one put it, give the middle finger to everyone they hate and to Wokeness. While Biden hasn’t really embraced Wokeness, he certainly hasn’t come out against it. Presumably this is because he doesn’t want to alienate some of his voters but I wonder if he’s made the right calculation. It might be that his position is stopping Trump from taking a bigger nosedive than he has.

    1. The problem with your comments is you want spread the broad brush on all democrats as if they were all part of the woke. Maybe all republicans think that way but I doubt it. Putting labels on everything gets everyone in trouble. The 1619 piece was a bonehead attempt to rewrite history based on opinion instead of facts. That is the way I see it and could care less about who is woke and who is not.

      1. I certainly don’t regard all, or even most, Democrats as Woke. I’m a Democrat mostly and I detest wokeness. I doubt that all Republicans think that way either. We’re in an election where what some voters care about may make a big difference in the outcome. When I say “what Trump voters detest”, please interpret it reasonably and in this context, rather than as if I had said “all Trump voters”.

        “The 1619 piece was a bonehead attempt to rewrite history based on opinion instead of facts.”

        Totally agree.

  6. A little off topic but after a Muslim terrorist beheaded a French teacher, the NYT headline was “French Police Fatally Shoot and Kill Man after a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street.”

    The NYT has a narrative to follow and has given up on being objective. I listened to a French man speak about this and I have rarely heard such venom directed at the US media.

  7. The NYT’s evasions and obfuscations about the wording of the 1619 project represent the ruling first principle of the illiberal Left:
    never admit a mistake. This principle
    is also responsible for the fellow-traveling of the illiberal Left (e.g., The Nation) long after the character of the Bolshevik police state had become glaringly obvious. Once useful idiots buy a swindle of one kind or another, their weasel-words never cease in their attempt to defend the original mistake.

    1. That may indeed be a principle of the illiberal Left, but they are not remotely unique in that. It’s a defining feature of extremism of any and all sorts.

      1. Granted. The present grifter-in-chief of the USA is a nearly pathological example. But I repeat my suggestion that the refusal to own up to past errors explains why the Nation
        magazine and its type of reader continued to
        make excuses for the land of the Gulag for decade after decade. It was not so much love of Stalin as refusal to admit being fooled (which, by contrast, the New Republic did.)

        This behavior—the intellectual equivalent of the sunk cost fallacy—is not unheard of in the academic world as well.

        1. Your last comment is spot on. Indeed, I actively take advantage of it in scientific competitors when I see it. When they avoid an experimental direction because of a sunk cost commitment to another, they essentially block themselves from that likely more fruitful strategy.

  8. Someone may have mentioned it in previous postings on this topic and I didn’t catch it.
    In claiming the United States began in some year other than 1776, is 1607 (the founding of Jamestown) somehow less legitimate than 1619 in the NY Times’s view? Does the Times hold that the U.S. did not exist 1607-1618? I doubt that colonial British attitudes toward slavery changed between 1607 and 1619.

    If the United States began in the early 1600’s, when if ever did these particular thirteen colonies exist? Is there a consensus (however perhaps grudgingly acknowledged) among British historians over the last two centuries as to when the United States began to exist? I suspect some would say the United States began when the British decided to throw in the towel in 1783.

    Or, did the U.S. begin in the summer of 1776, by hindsight virtue of having defeated the British in 1783? Had the British won, would history (and the Times, did it exist, but not necessarily possessed of its current world view) state that the United States of America existed 1619-1783? Or, would it characterize the situation as the “North American British Colonial Rebellion of 1776-1783”? In the latter case, would the Times claim 1619 – versus 1607 – as the start of, say, the “North American British Colonial Empire”?

    Better stop. Logorrhea is starting to overtake me.

    1. Actually the first permanent European settlement in what would become the US was in 1565 in St Augustine Florida. I don’t know why neither that nor the founding for Jamestown was selected as the One True Date, but it is likely that it’s because neither St Augustine nor Jamestown had slaves at their founding. This won’t do from the perspective of the proper, approved, narrative, you understand.

    2. Just as another idea, how about 1788. After the Constitutional Convention in the previous year they got 9 states to ratify it by the end of 1788 I believe. Then in 1789 our government actual began. Before this time all they had was the Articles of Confederation and that was found wanting in a bad way. Also, the Constitution was finally an attempt to say – We the people and stop this obsession with a state.

  9. Reading about the behavior of the New York Times in regards the 1619 Project I’m immediately reminded of Conspiracy Theorists, all of whom like to ‘change the goalposts’ when people start finding valid objections to whatever is claimed.

    The classic example is the Food Babe who when caught claiming that airliners change the oxygen level in the passenger cabin depending on where you sit and recommended to sit as close to the cockpit as possible where the oxygen level was 100% responded to the critics by deleting the post and setting her website such that the Internet Archive would no longer back up her pages.

    I’ve seen similar behavior from 911 Truthers, Sandy Hook Truthers, Anti-Vaccine activists and so on.

  10. Thirteen years ago, Maajid Nawaz coined the term “regressive left”, which I quite like. He refers mostly to their pandering to Islamism, but it’s not exclusively about that. It is the same thought process.

  11. Why are we focussing exclusively (it seems to me) on tying the origin of the U.S.A. to when Black slavery began here? As pointed out earlier, “statehood” can be associated with the Spanish in the 1500s in what is now Saint Augustine, Florida. There was slavery there. The Spanish established the equivalents of states in California and most of the Southwest. There were Native American slaves there as well as in all the other parts of the Americas settled by the Spanish and Portuguese, etc. Not just Blacks. Russians and the British were established as governments in the west also.

    Prior to the arrival and settlement of the Spanish, Native Americans had settlements all over th Americas with various forms of government (one of which was used in part as a model for our Constitution). Native Americans had slaves before Europeans arrived, and after. We have no way of knowing if they brought slaves with them when they first arrived here so many centuries ago.

    Why are we not looking at the settlement of each colony of the original 13 as the beginning of a “state”? What about New Amsterdam that preceded New York, and other such settlements that preceded colonies we recognize in the northeast? And, then there’s
    Jamestown, of course, and who knows how many other failed attempts?

    Has there been a government anywhere that we know of throughout history anywhere on the globe without slavery somewhere in its’ past?

    I hate the idea and/or reality of slavery which has been with us and authorized in our holy books. If there is a God, he gave us slavery. Blame the deity. Slavery has come and gone in most states and non-states throughout history. He/she/it did it.

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