The New York Times is backing off just a little from some of the claims they made in the “1619 Project”. Interestingly, as both an online and paper subscriber, I found out about it not from the Times, but from Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine! [JAC note: Jake Silverstein, the author of the “correction” below, is the head editor of the New York Times Magazine. If you want to read a correction that is not a correction, this is a masterpiece of slipperiness.]
I find little to quibble with in Andrew’s piece, “A Welcome Concession by the New York Times“, so I’ll quote a few bits.
It took them many months, but it’s a good thing that the editor, Jake Silverstein, and primary author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, of the New York Times’ 1619 Project have finally conceded that they did make a mistake in claiming that the retention of slavery was a primary reason for the American revolution. . . .
Silverstein’s concession is a marked shift from his position back in December, when he was adamant that he would not concede anything to the many historians who had criticized the project, especially over Hannah-Jones’s assertion about slavery’s centrality as a motivation for the Revolution. . . .
All of this is welcome, and Hannah-Jones and Silverstein did the right thing. . . . But it seems to me that the real tension here was not between journalistic inclinations and history but between ideological inclinations and history. The entire point of the 1619 Project, after all, was to “reframe” American history, to make 1619 its core beginning. And it was to buttress that argument that Hannah-Jones and Silverstein wildly overstated the salience of white supremacy to American independence.
And look, educating people about the brutal horrors of the slavery regime . . . But the upping of the ideological ante, the decision to call the issue a “project,” the placing of slavery at the center of the revolution, and the intent to deploy it as simple, incontrovertible, historical truth to schoolkids takes things much further.
It is, in fact, history as filtered through the ideology of critical race theory, which regards the entire American experiment as an exercise in racial domination, deliberately masked by rhetoric about human freedom and equality.
Andrew, who still calls himself a conservative, also writes the following:
[F]actual, honest journalism . . . imply a liberal view of the world, in which the race of authors is far less important than the cogency of what they have to say, in which history is not predetermined by analyses of “structural oppression,” but by fact and contingency. [emphasis added]
The sentence must be read carefully: he is accusing the Times of not exemplifying a liberal world view. With this I heartily agree. The paper has, in this project as in other places, fallen to the anti-liberal and racialist doctrines of wokeism.
Although making this concession in a way that let Andrew became aware of it, to its subscribers and readers the Times is still tub-thumping for the Project. It was touted in part of a March 12 in-the-paper-ad (i.e. an ‘internal’ ad), and in an email to subscribers:
A quick look at today’s issue of the Times Magazine shows no sign of the “clarification”, either.
We’ve noted here several times at WEITthe New York Times‘ “1619 Project”, a racialist program to rewrite American history. The notices have been largely critical, and we’ve pointed out that much of the criticism has come from the World Socialist Website (WSWS), an organ of the International Committee of the Fourth International. While the WSWS is a Marxist (and specifically Trotskyist) website, and their own writers have heavily criticized the 1619 Project, what has been most notable about the WSWS’s coverage is the series of interviews they have done with scholars whose own views range widely, including avowed Marxists, but consisting mostly of “average” center-left academics.
Now another center of criticism of the 1619 Project has arisen, this one originating from the right wing of American politics, but, like the WSWS, including a fair diversity among its contributors. The “1776” website states its mission as
“1776” is an assembly of independent voices who uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery. We seek to offer alternative perspectives that celebrate the progress America has made on delivering its promise of equality and opportunity and highlight the resilience of its people. Our focus is on solving problems.
We do this in the spirit of 1776, the date of America’s true founding.
Here’s a video introducing 1776 featuring its founder, Bob Woodson, in which he refers to slavery as America’s “birth defect”. (Notice that they use the same antique font for “1776” as the 1619 Project uses for “1619”!)
The group has a clearly conservative cast to its contributors. Of the eight featured essays on its home page, I was familiar with only two: Clarence Page, a well known columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University. Both I would regard as “centrist”, following the usual way of divvying up American political attitudes. Looking at the provided biographies, and a little googling, shows the others to be generally conservative (e.g. Woodson, Jason Hill), although some I’m unsure about (e.g. Stephanie Deutsch). The Bulwark, an anti-Trump conservative site, has also posted a long critique by Cathy Young. I mention these political leanings to neither praise nor condemn, but to point out the breadth of critical response to the 1619 Project.
Unlike the WSWS, which featured academics and historians, only three of the 1776 front page essayists are academics, and none are historians. (The WSWS did have critiques by its own contributors, who were also neither academics nor historians, but I have focused on the eight interviewees/essayists at the WSWS that garnered the most attention.)
One interesting rebuttal is coming from the newly formed 1776 Project, which seeks to “uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery.” The group of predominantly black scholars and writers was organized by anti-poverty crusader and MacArthur “genius grant” winner Bob Woodson, and features thoughtful essays rebutting the 1619 Project from heavyweight intellectuals such as John McWhorter, Clarence Page, and Shelby Steele.
The United States of America began in 1776, not 1619.
That one sentence is the thesis statement of “1776”—a non-partisan black-led response to the New York Times’s “1619 Project” initiative, which launched last week at D.C.’s National Press Club. I am pleased and proud to be a part of 1776, along with founder Bob Woodson, Glenn Loury, Coleman Hughes, Jason Hill, Carol Swain, John Wood, Taleeb Starkes, Robert Cherry, and many others. From my perspective as a member, 1776 has three core goals: (1) rebutting some outright historical inaccuracies in the 1619 Project; (2) discussing tragedies like slavery and segregation honestly while clarifying that these were not the most important historical foundations of the United States; and (3) presenting an alternative inspirational view of the lessons of our nation’s history to Americans of all races.
He goes on in this essay to cite the work of a number of the historians featured by the WSWS.
The reaction to 1776 by Nikole Hannah-Jones, leader of the 1619 Project, has been, as one would expect, negative. She tweeted this image as a response (Ida Bae Wells is Hannah-Jones’s Twitter name):
Mark Heminway parsed this response for those (like me) who didn’t know what she was getting at with this gesture:
Earlier this week, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine staff writer and the driving force behind the 1619 project, took note of the rival effort. “I want to say this is my response to the 1776 project,” she tweeted, followed by a picture of her pointing at her bottom row of gold teeth with her pinky, a dismissive and deeply unserious hip-hop gesture. She followed that up with a “serious” tweet where she suggested that her African-American critics at the 1776 Project didn’t actually care about the enslaved children at the time of America’s founding. (She later deleted the tweets.)
The political diversity of the critics of the 1619 Project shows what I think is a broader point, which is that wokeness is a political axis that is conceptually perpendicular to the traditional left-right axis of American politics. “Anti-wokeness” is found all across the political spectrum. Although wokeness— the fetishization of group identity, with group identity arrayed along a “scala homi“, and position on this scale determining a person’s worth and (allegedly) behaviors— is currently more identified with the political left, I think this is only contingently true in America; the blood and soil populists that contend for power or rule in Europe are the right wing of wokeness.The only difference is that Viktor Orban and his ilk place groups at different places in the scalahomi: Hungarians (or whoever) are the most worthy, and at the same time the most oppressed.
A few weeks ago, I asked “Is Maggie Haberman worth it?” This was in response to the New York Times‘ growing “wookeness”, as I called it: the pervasion of woo and woke ideology throughout the paper. A major aspect of this in the paper is their 1619 Project, a major effort to rewrite American history from a racialist perspective, and to, furthermore, evangelize for racialism. The Times dismissed criticism from historians, and last Sunday took out a two page ad in itself to promote the project. (Does one part of the Times pay some other part for these ads?) The Times may or may not think Maggie Haberman is worth it, but they sure do think the 1619 Project is! Here’s the first page:
And here’s a closeup of the text:
This is the second page:
And the text up close. This is the part that really got me. The Times is saying that I, as a subscriber, must share responsibility for the Project, and then thanks me for doing so. And to rub salt in the wound, their website is called “/worthit”, the very thing I have begun to doubt.
The Times catchphrase now is “The truth is worth it.” And the truth certainly is. But the Times no longer seems to know what is true.
The day after the two page ad, I received an email (sent to all subscribers) from Nikole Hannah-Jones, the leader of the 1619 project:
I am a journalist at The New York Times Magazine and the creator of The 1619 Project. I cover racial inequality and injustice for the magazine, and in many ways, this project feels like the journalistic endeavor I’ve been working toward my entire life.
I understood that 1619 — the year the first enslaved Africans were sold into Virginia in British North America — was a pivotal year in American history, but one that very few Americans had heard about. So, as the 400th anniversary of American slavery approached, I pitched a project that would dedicate an entire issue of The New York Times Magazine to examining not just that historic moment, but the ongoing legacy of slavery across modern American life.
That is how The 1619 Project, which would grow to include not just an issue of the magazine, but a special section of the newspaper, a podcast and a series of live events, was born. For eight months, the sweeping effort consumed many talented editors at The Times, as we all worked together to produce something worthy of the anniversary.
The day the project launched, it sold out all across the nation, and we have sold out of several additional releases since. I’ll never forget how it felt to see people posting videos and photos, proudly announcing that they had snagged a copy of The 1619 Project for themselves. What I have heard again and again from readers like yourselves who engaged with the project, is that they simply did not know this history before.
That is the power of The New York Times. We are unparalleled in resources, talent and the commitment to do unprecedented journalism that transforms national conversations and the way we think about our world. I do not know of another news organization that could have given this type of journalism its authority and its reach. And we most certainly could not do this without your readership and support.
Thank you for supporting journalism that matters.
They seem to really want me to cancel my subscription!
As Jerry noted the other day, the woo goes on as well. (Because newspapers track clicks assiduously, I now make a point of only reading the myriad bursts of wookeness in my paper copy, lest I contribute to the growth of this material—there’s no such thing as a bad click.)
But while the Times increasingly strains a reader’s patience, there is, as I noted in my original “worth it?” post, still much that is good. The following article takes on the use of unproven and improbable medicines in the treatment of coronavirus. Not visible in this link, but present in the paper version, was the subtitle “Ancient Medicine Raises Concerns”. This is the Times as it should, and used to, be.
Last August the New York Times Magazine launched what it called the “1619 Project“. The project’s promoters wish to change the general understanding of American history, and to have their view of American history adopted by schools. The project has generated a wave of backlash from historians. (The Times‘ Project is run by journalists, not historians.) While being sympathetic to some of the Project’s ideological goals, historians have decisively refuted many of the factual claims that are key to the Project’s interpretation. (We’ve discussed the Project in previous posts here at WEIT: here, here, and here, with links to some of the historians’ critiques.)
Not all historians are critical though, and Alexander Lichtenstein, an historian at Indiana University, has published an article criticizing historians who are not on board with the Project. In terms of history, two things stand out to me about the claims of the Project and its defenders. First is their claim that the American Revolution was about saving slavery from the British Crown, which was about to abolish it. (This isn’t the case.) Second, the Project wholeheartedly adopts, of all things, a neo-Confederate view of the Civil War: the war was about state’s rights, or Northern aggression, or some such; but not slavery. But of course the war was about slavery, and the Times here is actively undoing the valuable work it did with its Disunion series. That effort, marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, did much good in furthering understanding of the war, and, by republishing the secession ordinances, made it clear what the South went to war for.
But perhaps even more striking than dubious historical interpretation and factual errors is the ideology that pervades the defense of the Project: it is racialist and, apparently, capitalist. The racialist part is clear, and perhaps not surprising. Victoria Bynum, of Texas State University, San Marcos, one of the critics of the Project, and a target of Lichtenstein, has responded directly to him, writing on her blog:
Despite your [Liechtenstein’s] disclaimer that “in principle” being white should not “invalidate” the views of 1619 critics, in fact the skin color of historians critical of the 1619 Project has been scorned (and far worse) over and over again in the Twitterverse—by historians as well as the general public—as the preeminent reason for discrediting our views.
But Lichtenstein isn’t even right about the critics being white. Of the several critiques gathered by the World Socialist Website (WSWS; more on that below), one was by the well-known political scientist Adolph Reed of the University of Pennsylvania, who is black; Lichtenstein doesn’t mention him. Of the critics, he was one of only two I had heard of before (the other being the even more well-known, and white, James McPherson).
[Addendum, 4.ii.2020. I already knew Reed’s work, and knew he was black. The WSWS posted photos of all the people it interviewed about the 1619 project, but I hadn’t made any note of their apparent race at the time. Going back and looking, I now see that two of the eight interviewees are black- Adolph Reed and Clayborne Carson. That 1/4 of the interviewees were black completely puts to the lie Lichtenstein’s claim that “all of these historians are white.” (He might want to complain that Reed is a political scientist, so he doesn’t count, but that’s hair-splitting that I’m not buying.)]
Lichtenstein makes much of the fact that it is the WSWS that has published a number of critiques, noting “The animus of the Fourth International types seems clear”. I don’t know Lichtenstein’s economic policy views, and perhaps his disdain for the WSWS stems from some internal debate among leftists. (I once met a rather haughty and disdainful Trotskyist myself!) But I don’t know why it is brought up. Marxists of most stripes are not racialists—seeing class as at least equally important as race—and thus would not be expected to endorse a racialist project. Furthermore, the historians interviewed by WSWS are not all, or even mostly, Marxists. (The WSWS, like Bynum, has replied to Lichtenstein’s piece.)
Adolph Reed, however is a Marxist, and as such it is not surprising that he has been a fierce critic of racialism. He, along with Brian Leiter (a white Marxist, for those racialists keeping score), have characterized identitarianism in general (which Leiter derides as “diversity blather“) as a capitalist tool for distracting attention from what is really afflicting society. As Leiter wrote in a defense of affirmative action, since “diversity” would “increase productivity”, it was “good for capitalism”. Reed, noting the disconnect with what the real problems are (which, in his view, include a concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a very few; I concur), put it in a way that highlights, if not heightens, the contradictions:
. . . society would be fair if 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources so long as the dominant 1% were 13% black, 17% Latino, 50% female, 4% or whatever LGBTQ, etc.
So while Reed shows that criticism cannot be dismissed because critics are white, and a number of the white critics show that criticism cannot be dismissed because critics are Marxists (or perhaps the wrong kind of Marxist), a new piece at Reason by John McWhorter, an African American linguist at Columbia University [JAC: He’s also a liberal], shows that black non-Marxists can be critics, too. (I did not know of McWhorter before seeing this piece; he writes frequently for the Atlantic.)
McWhorter, following the criticisms of Bynum, Reed, and others, accepts that the central premises of the 1619 Project have been shown to be false. What he discusses is how—because we are in a post-truth society where facts must be bent to the demands of group identity and membership—the Project may well succeed:
The verdict is in: The idea that America’s real founding was in 1619 does not wash. And yet, it will be considered a mark of sophistication to pretend otherwise.
Since last August, The New York Times has asked us to consider that America’s real founding was not in 1776 but in 1619, when the first Africans were brought to these shores. Nikole Hannah-Jones teaches that the Revolutionary War was fought mainly not to escape British tyranny, but out of fear that British tyranny was about to threaten the institution of slavery.
Stimulating proposition, but professional historians, as modern academics about as enlightened on issues of race and racism as any humans on the planet, have politely but firmly declared that the facts simply do not bear out this take on our nation’s founding. Gordon Wood and others wrote careful and authoritative pieces to this effect, and more recently Sean Wilentz has penned a careful response to the inevitable pushback. Unless fact is not fact, unless documentation is forgery, no unbiased observer could read Wilentz here as partisan or as even swayed by subconscious racism. [Emphases added.]
He endorses the view that epistemologically challenged ideologies may usefully be compared to religion:
Only this perspective can explain how serenely professional historians’ takedown of The 1619 Project will be ignored. Of late, social justice warrior ideology has been deemed a new religion by many writers, Vox writer Matthew Yglesias’ term “The Great Awokening” being especially apt. The 1619 idea is an almost uncanny embodiment of this new way of thinking.
For one, note the suspension of disbelief we are expected to maintain. Supposedly the Founding Fathers were trying to protect slavery, despite never actually making such a goal clear for the historical record, and at a time when there would have been no shame in doing so. What are the chances that this supposed revelation would have slept undiscovered until now, when for almost 50 years, humanities academics of all colors have been committed to their socks to unearthing racism in the American fabric? Can we really believe that a group of journalists writing for the Times has unboxed such a key historical revelation from reading around, that no one else of any color has chosen to trumpet in the mainstream media for decades?
The insistence on maintaining the 1619 idea is rooted in a pervasive modern notion that when evaluating race issues, it is a form of intelligence and morality to duck truth when it is inconvenient to a victimhood-focused construct. W.E.B. Du Bois tackled the Dunning School with facts; today people sensing themselves as his heirs insist we accept alternative facts. Yet, to point out that neither Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, nor Martin Luther King Jr. would see this as progress renders one a heretic. This is one more thing we must overcome.
Although I thought the Atlantic was pretty Leftist, it also seems to be pretty reasonable, or at least anti-woke. The latest issue contains two such pieces, the first a long critique of the New York Times‘s “1619 Project” written by Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton and one of the signatories of a critical letter to the NYT that the paper’s editor slapped down. Note that there is pushback against Wilentz’s Atlantic piece already (see here and here). The arguments seem to revolve largely about historical details that seem inconsequential, but those details bear crucially on the Times‘s contention that this country was founded on slavery—in particular, that the American Revolution was an attempt by colonists both Northern and Southern to retain slavery—and that slavery’s sequelae are responsible for and highly visible in most modern American institutions. Read and judge for yourself.
The Hitchens Prize will be awarded annually by the Foundation to an author or journalist whose work reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence. The Prize is named in honor of the late Christopher Hitchens, a writer whose career was a rare if not unique expression of those qualities.
Indeed: Hitch always said and wrote what he thought, regardless of whether it was popular (remember his excoriation because of his favoring the Iraq war?).
Besides Packer, the winners have been these folks:
I’m not sure why Packer, a journalist as well as a prolific writer specializing in history, nabbed the prize this year, but perhaps readers more familiar with his work can enlighten us. His essay below, however (click on screenshot), is “contrarian” in the sense that it pushes back against the increasing tendency of writers to temper what they say lest they offend those vociferous Pecksniffs on social media. We all know of this phenomenon: the worries about writing about ethnic groups different from yours, the demonization of writers (especially in “young adult fiction”) who aren’t ideologically pure, and, as Packer mentions, the shameful refusal of many PEN members to endorse the organization’s freedom-of-expression award to Charlie Hebdo in 2015 (see here and here). There’s no doubt that the Offense Culture is having a chilling effect on writers, as with Amélie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir, which, after vicious attacks on Twitter about her “racial insensitivity,” she first canceled but then decided to publish. (Other examples are rife: see here and here for some recent cases.)
Anyway, I’ll give a few excerpts from Packer’s speech below the screenshot, so you can see the tenor of his remarks. Let’s hope that other candidates for the prize keep coming along, bucking the trend of “going along to get along.”
Excerpts. Note that Packer and Hitchens did have their differences, but that didn’t keep them from sharing libations. (Emphases in the statements below are mine.)
As we get further away from his much-too-early death, I find myself missing Christopher more and more. Not so much his company, but his presence as a writer. Some spirit went out of the world of letters with him. And because that’s the world in which I’ve made my life, the only one in which I can imagine a life, I take the loss of this spirit personally. Why is a career like that of Christopher Hitchens not only unlikely but almost unimaginable? Put another way: Why is the current atmosphere inhospitable to it? What are the enemies of writing today?
. . . But this solidarity isn’t what I mean by belonging. I mean that writers are now expected to identify with a community and to write as its representatives. In a way, this is the opposite of writing to reach other people. When we open a book or click on an article, the first thing we want to know is which group the writer belongs to. The group might be a political faction, an ethnicity or a sexuality, a literary clique. The answer makes reading a lot simpler. It tells us what to expect from the writer’s work, and even what to think of it. Groups save us a lot of trouble by doing our thinking for us.
. . . Among the enemies of writing, belonging is closely related to fear. It’s strange to say this, but a kind of fear pervades the literary and journalistic worlds I’m familiar with. I don’t mean that editors and writers live in terror of being sent to prison. It’s true that the president calls journalists “enemies of the American people,” and it’s not an easy time to be one, but we’re still free to investigate him. Michael Moore and Robert De Niro can fantasize aloud about punching Donald Trump in the face or hitting him with a bag of excrement, and the only consequence is an online fuss. Nor are Islamist jihadists or white nationalists sticking knives in the backs of poets and philosophers on American city streets. The fear is more subtle and, in a way, more crippling. It’s the fear of moral judgment, public shaming, social ridicule, and ostracism. It’s the fear of landing on the wrong side of whatever group matters to you. An orthodoxy enforced by social pressure can be more powerful than official ideology, because popular outrage has more weight than the party line.
At a moment when democracy is under siege around the world, these scenes from our literary life sound pretty trivial. But if writers are afraid of the sound of their own voice, then honest, clear, original work is not going to flourish, and without it, the politicians and tech moguls and TV demagogues have less to worry about. It doesn’t matter if you hold impeccable views, or which side of the political divide you’re on: Fear breeds self-censorship, and self-censorship is more insidious than the state-imposed kind, because it’s a surer way of killing the impulse to think, which requires an unfettered mind. A writer can still write while hiding from the thought police. But a writer who carries the thought police around in his head, who always feels compelled to ask: Can I say this? Do I have a right? Is my terminology correct? Will my allies get angry? Will it help my enemies? Could it get me ratioed on Twitter?—that writer’s words will soon become lifeless. A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade.
And indeed, those afraid to read what makes them uncomfortable are getting fewer and fewer.
Here’s an hourlong conversation between Hitchens and Packer, both Orwell lovers discussing their favorite author (Packer edited two volumes of Orwell’s essays).
As early as a few years ago, Jerry began worrying about the editorial drift of the New York Times. At the time, I wasn’t concerned. The questionable pieces were op-ed articles—opinion pieces not by the Times or its reporters. Although you could question the choice of writer, it wasn’t the Times‘ writers. But then it was the Times‘ own opinion writers and editorial board members (remember Sarah Jeong?), and then even the news division. I wrote this last fall:
I originally thought that the Times “wokeness” was just a series of bad hires for the opinion pages, but such bad hires have gone both ways– who, other than his close friends and family, could care at all what Ross Douthat thinks about anything? Jerry sounded the warning early, and, sadly, it is now clear that he was right, and that “wokeness” has infected much of the paper’s news coverage.
The trend has continued, and I’ve now found myself asking whether I should cancel my subscription—maybe subscribe to the Washington Post.
But, the Times isn’t all bad. In fact large parts of it are great. They have loads of terrific reporters. I mention Maggie Haberman in the title mostly because she’s also the daughter of one of my other favorite Times journalists, the now mostly retired Clyde Haberman (I especially liked his “NYC” column). But there are many others: Peter Baker on politics, Adam Liptak on legal matters, James Gorman and Carl Zimmer on science, and Tyler Kepner on sports, to name a few.
Here’s some of the recent bad stuff out of the Times. It’s in all the sections now: News, Style, Arts, Opinion. It’s both wokeness and woo—perhaps we can call it ‘wookeness’. The most salient example is the disaster of the 1619 Project, which Jerry has noted before. Interestingly, much of the pushback against the Times advocacy of shoddy history has come from leftist sources, most notably (to me) the World Socialist Web Site of the Socialist Equality Party. Why would leftists oppose the 1619 Project? Eric London summarizes it this way:
The “1619 Project” is a politically motivated attack on historical truth. Through this initiative, the Democratic Party seeks to present race, and not class, as the essential dividing line in American and world society.
Despite the pretense of establishing the United States’ “true” foundation, the 1619 Project is a politically motivated falsification of history. Its aim is to create a historical narrative that legitimizes the effort of the Democratic Party to construct an electoral coalition based on the prioritizing of personal “identities”—i.e., gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, and, above all, race.
The WSWS site has posted interviews with a number of respected historians (some leftist, some not; some American, some not) which are very critical of the 1619 Project: James McPherson, Clayborne Carson, Richard Carwardine, GordonWood, Dolores Janieweski, VictoriaBynum, James Oakes, and Adolph Reed (a political scientist). There’s more on the Project at the WSWS website. (I learned of the WSWS material from Brian Leiter’s website.) The most recent item on the WSWS site claims that Google is manipulating search results so as to downrank WSWS pages. WSWS notes that the first page of Google results gets 92% of the traffic, so the fact that WSWS’s substantive critiques of the 1619 Project show up on page two or three means that not very many people will be led to it. The WSWS has posted quite a lot on the Project, but I’m not sure I can judge the ‘appropriateness’ of Google’s results, or if the WSWS’s low rank indicates “suppression”. I could imagine that Google has a generalized bias against WSWS (and sites like it); I’d need more evidence to convince me that Google is acting specifically against WSWS’s coverage of the 1619 Project. Regardless, visit and link to the WSWS pages to raise their pagerank.
JAC note: The 1619 project has been constructed to be convertible to a school curriculum, and in fact it’s been adopted by public schools in several cities, including Buffalo, New York. This is the first case I’ve heard about of a newspaper attempting to indoctrinate schoolchildren with a particular ideological view. I consider this a dangerous precedent.
. . . and then this bizarre piece in the Opinion section, in which Jessica Stern, who is a professor at Boston University, wrestles with her conscience about engaging in “energy healing” with a war criminal:
Karazdic performs some “energy healing” by waving his hands around her head, and she “felt a kind of electricity heating up my head, making me slightly dizzy. But soon I began to calm down, at least a little.” Then, she has the sensation of trees growing out of the palms of her hands, which she attributes to Karadzic. She goes on, “I don’t know how this energy works; all I know is that it does.” Yikes!
As Beth Mole, a science journalist at Ars Technica, succinctly puts it, “energy healing” is
. . . a load of pseudoscientific garbage.
(She was writing about Gwyneth Paltrow, but the point still holds.)
So that’s my dilemma– is it worth putting up with, and financially supporting, the foregoing, in order to get Maggie Haberman?
There’s no doubt that America has been marked in a big way, with many people still marginalized, by the presence of slavery in our history. I see this every week in Chicago, America’s most segregated city, where (except for Hyde Park, where I live), white and black communities are largely separated, with the latter having poorer schools, deficient government services, and, of course, lower incomes. This cannot be understood without apprehending the context in which black people came to America: as slaves.
And so I applaud the New York Times‘s “1619 Project”, described in Wikipedia and whose contents are at the NYT link just below. Its goal is to educate Americans about the legacy of slavery in America, and to produce materials to supplement secondary school history curricula. This is timely and needed: for example, a Southern Poverty Law Center survey showed this:
Only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Most didn’t know an amendment to the U.S. Constitution formally ended slavery. Fewer than half (44 percent) correctly answered that slavery was legal in all colonies during the American Revolution.
Clearly, a corrective is needed. And even the critics of the 1619 project applaud its aims and much of the material (essays, documents, and so on) used to set the historical record straight.
But the reception of the project by scholars and historians has not been unmixed. Scholars on both Right and Left have contested the project’s contention that virtually all American phenomena and institutions since 1619 (when the first African slaves arrived in America) have been profoundly shaped by slavery and racism. Particularly distressing to scholars is the Project’s notion that the American Revolutionary War was caused, in large part, by the colonist’s desire to preserve slavery, and the fear that continued subjugation by England would abolish it.
Another big bone of contention is the Project’s theme that racism is still “in America’s DNA”, and that progress in eliminating it, and bringing true equality to African-Americans, has not nearly been as profound as “progressivists” claim. (This criticism of progressivism is behind a lot of the opprobrium that Steve Pinker gets for his books Enlightenment Now and The Better Angels of Our Nature.) Further, scholars claim that many of the facts adduced in the 1619 Project are either wrong or distorted, though much of the criticism is based on how one interprets the facts. For instance, the paper’s view is that African-Americans fought their battle for equality almost completely alone, while others emphasize abolutionists and other white groups committed to equality and the end of slavery. (The North, after all, went to war to end slavery.)
Critics also claim that the New York Times is implicitly engaged in an ideological project that bends the truth to elevate minorities, while critics of the critics dismiss them as white historians whose judgment is clouded by their own race.
My own view is that both sides are partly right. Progress in freedom and rights for African Americans has been palpable and huge, even since I was born (n.b., I don’t believe that anything like near equality has been reached, and I think that correctives like affirmative action are still needed). Further, as I’ve written before, the Times is indeed becoming more woke, which is apparent to anyone who has eyes to see. And that wokeness means sticking to a narrative that often slops over into its journalism.
On the other hand, one has to question those who criticize the Project on factual grounds when they don’t really adduce facts as much cherry-picked anecdotes (the Times is also guilty of this). This is clear from the letter that five historians wrote to the paper nine days ago, questioning two aspects of the Project (the indictment as slavery as a major cause of the Revolutionary War and the contention that Lincoln wasn’t as much of an emancipationist as he was made out to be). The historians, as has been pointed out, are white, but they are also experts in the history of slavery and thus have historical credibility that many of the NYT writers don’t have.
The criticisms in the letter (which was apparently abridged) were answered by NYT editor Jake Silverstein, who basically bats them all aside. You can see the letter and the editor’s response by clicking on the link below:
It’s hard to know how to evaluate that exchange because the letter is short and anecdotal, and the paper’s response defensive and a bit arrogant. Fortunately, the to-and-fro has been evaluated at greater length in two fairly centrist places: the American Institute for Economic Research(AIER) and The Atlantic. Both evaluations conclude that the Times project is generally good but has problems, and that the difference between the paper and critical scholars are largely but not entirely unresolvable matters of interpretation. But the first piece, by historian Phillip Magness at the AIER, concludes that in general the critics are more right than the Times.
Magness evaluates the four criticisms of the historians against the Times‘s responses, giving a final judgment after each. I’ll present those contentions and Magness’s responses, which are indented below:
1.) Was the American Revolution fought in defense of slavery?
The [Magness’s] Verdict: The historians have a clear upper hand in disputing the portrayal of the American Revolution as an attempt to protect slavery from British-instigated abolitionism. Britain itself remained several decades away from abolition at the time of the revolution. Hannah-Jones’s argument nonetheless contains kernels of truth that complicate the historians’ assessment, without overturning it. Included among these are instances where Britain was involved in the emancipation of slaves during the course of the war. These events must also be balanced against the fact that American independence created new opportunities for the northern states to abolish slavery within their borders. In the end, slavery’s relationship with the American Revolution was fraught with complexities that cut across the political dimensions of both sides.
2.) Was Abraham Lincoln a racial colonizationist or exaggerated egalitarian?
The Verdict: Nikole Hannah-Jones [NYT writer] has the clear upper hand here. Her call to evaluate Lincoln’s record through problematic racial policies such as colonization reflects greater historical nuance and closer attention to the evidentiary record, including new developments in Lincoln scholarship. The historians’ counterarguments reflect a combination of outdated evidence and the construction of apocryphal exonerative narratives such as the lullaby thesis around colonization.
3.) Did slavery drive America’s economic growth and the emergence of American Capitalism?
The Verdict: This one goes conclusively to the five historians. Echoing other critics, the historians point to serious and substantive defects with Matthew Desmond’s thesis about the economics of slavery, and with the project’s overreliance on the contested New History of Capitalism literature. By contrast, the Times has completely failed to offer a convincing response to this criticism – or really any response at all.
4.) Did the 1619 Project seek adequate scholarly guidance in preparing its work?
The Verdict: The historians have a valid complaint about deficiencies of scholarly guidance for the 1619 Project’s treatment of the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War. This comparative lack of scholarly input for the years between 1775 and 1865 stands in contrast with the Times’ heavy use of scholars who specialize in more recent dimensions of race in the United States. It is worth noting that the 1619 Project has received far less pushback on its materials about the 20th century and present day – areas that are more clearly within the scholarly competencies of the named consultants.
Overall, the critics come out looking better than the paper, and perhaps this is because the paper is recruiting mainly journalists and those historians whose views conform to the NYT’s ideological bent. But everyone, including the critics, still praises the Project. My own view is that if the paper were less defensive and more willing to listen to criticism, it would not only give the Project more credibility, but emphasize the messiness of history and the subjective nature of some of its judgments. Although the editor says that he’s always open to constructive criticism, it doesn’t show in his defensive response. And in the article below, even Nikole Hannah-Jones has backed off on her claim that protection of slavery was a major cause in fomenting the American Revolution; now she says it is a contributing factor, which of course is true for some people at some time, but isn’t a sweeping historical conclusion.
The second article, by Atlantic staff writer Adam Serwer, is equally judicious though less knowledgable about history. Serwer is more concerned with the ideological battle between critics and the paper, though he comes to no conclusion about motivations, except to say, properly, that ideology has no place in this dispute, not to mention accusations of people of having this or that view only because they are black or white (both sides have been guilty of this).
What is most interesting in Serwer’s piece is his analysis of the idea that racial progress has been and will continue to be made, an issue that puts the two “sides” in stark contrast. (I note that this is one contention where, if you specify what you consider “progress” in advance, you can actually get quantiative data bearing on the issue.)
The most radical thread in the 1619 Project is not its contention that slavery’s legacy continues to shape American institutions; it’s the authors’ pessimism that a majority of white people will abandon racism and work with black Americans toward a more perfect union. Every essay tracing racial injustice from slavery to the present day speaks to the endurance of racial caste. And it is this profound pessimism about white America that many of the 1619 Project’s critics find most galling.
. . . The project’s pessimism has drawn criticism from the left as well as the right. Hannah-Jones’s contention that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country” drew a rebuke from James Oakes, one of the Wilentz letter’s signatories. In an interview with the World Socialist Web Site, Oakes said, “The function of those tropes is to deny change over time … The worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis. It’s always been here. There’s nothing we can do to get out of it. If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?”
These are objections not to misstatements of historical fact, but to the argument that anti-black racism is a more intractable problem than most Americans are willing to admit. A major theme of the 1619 Project is that the progress that has been made has been fragile and reversible—and has been achieved in spite of the nation’s true founding principles, which are not the lofty ideals few Americans genuinely believe in. Chances are, what you think of the 1619 Project depends on whether you believe someone might reasonably come to such a despairing conclusion—whether you agree with it or not.
My own views are these. Yes, racism remains a tough problem, and is more pervasive than people realize. People may not consider themselves racists, but every time I drive through the ghettos of Chicago, or encounter the many black homeless people who sleep on the streets, I see the legacy of racism. There is work to be done.
That said, who can deny that there has been progress in race relations, even since I was a child. When I took the bus to college in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1967, the Greyhound station had two water fountains, two men’s rooms, and two women’s rooms. I didn’t realize until later why that was (the “white” and “colored” signs were removed three years earlier). Legal and moral progress has been made: it is no longer acceptable to act like George Wallace or usual racial slurs, and there are numerous legal strictures preventing discrimination. None of this was in place until the mid-1950s.
So yes, the Times should continue to emphasize the continuing effects of slavery, but it shouldn’t declare that civil rights are terribly fragile, when it’s pretty clear they aren’t. But the Times has apparently backed itself into a corner, to the point where the editor, acting like a scientist wedded to a defective theory, shows obvious confirmation bias in his response. The whole project would be better if the paper paid attention to its critics, and worked more closely with scholars of all stripes, of all colors, and of all ideologies.