Another sign of the New York Times‘ decline, besides its wokism and suddenly keen interest in astrology, is its attention to celebrity culture. (I use that last word with some hesitation.) This is mere persiflage, but after sharing my thoughts about this with Jerry, he urged me to post it on a Saturday, a day more amenable to such things.
The Times has put a lot of effort into producing, and now heavily promoting, a > 1 hour long documentary about Britney Spears, titled “Framing Britney Spears”, available on Hulu. Britney Spears, for the unfamiliar, was a 90’s pop star singer, who had some issues. (As Joe Walsh said, “it’s tough to handle this fortune and fame.”) She then had something of a comeback, including a stint at that old standby for fading pop stars, Las Vegas. She has been involved in various court cases over control of her assets.
JAC: Here’s a trailer for the Official New York Times video, more appropriate for the National Enquirer or TMZ than the Times.
Two things are wrong with this. First, why is the Times doing investigative journalism on Britney Spears? Who cares? There’s an extremely slim stab at justification on the grounds that her story reveals flaws in the legal practice of ‘conservatorship’, but they spend almost no time on this. It could also be justified as an examination of the bizarre manifestations of celebrity culture, but instead the documentary revels in and glorifies that culture.
Much of the program is taken up with interviews of obviously loony cultists of the “Free Britney” movement, who are slavishly devoted to carrying out what they perceive to be the wishes of a hidden figure whom none of them are actually in communication with. If this sounds like QAnon to you—bingo! That’s exactly what it seemed like to me. The conspiracy addled, sartorially conforming, group thinking, and delusional ways of both groups are striking. I immediately thought: “This is just like the nuts at the Capitol.” This might reveal deep and recurring dysfunction in human social dynamics, but that is not at all what the Times is exploring here, except inadvertently.
Second, they got bupkus! The investigation was a bust. No one who actually knew anything would talk to the paper. Everything they had was either old footage, not terribly relevant, or three Times talking heads. They had two modestly interesting people willing to talk. One was a woman hired to be Britney’s “assistant” back when she was a kid, but was eventually dismissed. Her interview is primarily of interest for the pathos of how this woman clings to memorabilia of her time in Britney’s entourage.
The other was a lawyer who represented Britney Spears for a brief while many years ago. He knows essentially nothing about the case, since he was dismissed by the judge before it really got started. But he is apparently an experienced conservatorship attorney, and makes a few enlightening remarks about how conservatorships are supposed to work; but not enough to give real understanding. This is a real missed opportunity. Is there widespread abuse of conservatorships? Are conservators failing in their duty to look out for the conservatees? This is strongly suggested to be so in Britney Spears’ case, but since the facts of the case are in sealed court documents, and no one who does know was willing to talk, we got nuthin’.
As one of my favorite movie critics, Ryan Jay, says, “Skip it.”
JAC: Greg should be praised here because I believe he had to pay to see that video!
GCM: Well, I paid for the Hulu subscription, but not for this particular program. A Hulu subscription is much like a New York Times subscription– there’s some good stuff in there, but also a lot of dreck. But while copious dreck is tolerable in a streaming TV service, it is not tolerable in the paper of record.
Roger Cohen, a columnist for the New York Times, is leaving the op-ed page; he will become bureau chief in Paris. This follows the departure of Bari Weiss, the demotion of David Leonhardt, and the defenestration of James Bennet. (Click on screenshot.)
Weiss was hounded out for her lack of ideological conformity. Bennet, the editorial-page editor, was forced out for publishing a piece that diverged from the opinions of his staff. Ironically, it was Bennet who oversaw the “wokification” of the Times‘ opinion pages—he was consumed by his minions!
Leonhardt was demoted from being a columnist. He was neither one of the in-house conservatives (Bret Stephens, Ross Douthat) nor one of the silverbacks (Friedman) that seem immunized from the quest for ideological conformity. A representative example of Leonhardt’s critique of the woke wing of the Democratic Party is this:
A brief extract from the above:
The biggest lesson is simply this: The American left doesn’t care enough about winning.
It’s an old problem, one that has long undermined left-wing movements in this country. They have often prioritized purity over victory. They wouldn’t necessarily put it these terms, but they have chosen to lose on their terms rather than win with compromise.
You can see this pattern today in the ways that many progressive activists misread public opinion. Their answer to almost every question of political strategy is to insist that Americans are a profoundly progressive people who haven’t yet been inspired to vote the way they think. The way to win, these progressives claim, is to go left, always.
Since Leonhardt still writes for the Times, Jerry asked me how I could be sure he was “demoted”. If you go from being a capital “C” Columnist, identified as such on the Opinion page, with your column appearing weekly in the print edition, to writing an online-only newsletter pointing to interesting articles from the day before and bearing the subtitle “And what else you need to know today“, as though it were a listicle, with only occasional pieces in the Sunday Review, you’ve been demoted.
Cohen is South African-British-American, originally a foreign correspondent who’s lived may years on the Continent. He’s very cosmopolitan, internationalist, and Enlightenment-friendly in outlook. I usually read his weekly column. His farewell column includes this:
This, dear readers, is goodbye, my last column for The New York Times. I have tried to defend the causes I believe in — freedom, decency, pluralism, the importance of dissent in an open society, above all. Uniformity of thought is the death of thought. It paves the road to hell.
It’s less obvious he’s been demoted, as heading the Paris bureau is a plum job (although I would have thought of that job as a step towards, not away from, a more influential position). Given Cohen’s peripatetic nature, I wouldn’t rule out he wanted to go to Paris. But his farewell mentions of pluralism, dissent, and the evils of groupthink immediately set off my suspicion that this is another step in the Times‘ opinion pages purge. (This purge seems to be spreading to other outlets: witness Andrew Sullivan’s departure from New York magazine, and now Matt Yglesias’s departure from Vox (which he co-founded, for crissakes). In the current context of the Times, I couldn’t help but read those last two sentences as veiled criticism.
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.
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.
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.
[Update: I’ve been informed by Sam Harris that Murray and Herrnstein did not make the quantitative genetics error I attributed to them: they did not suppose that in traits with high heritability mean differences between populations indicate genetic differences between populations. I wasn’t sure they did (not having read the book), hence my noncommittal “or at least their public proponents” caveat. I am happy to be corrected on this point. It makes the demonization of Sullivan even more perplexing.]
Sort of. We may read him, but we must find him “abhorrent”. Or at least so proclaims Ben Smith of the New York Times in “I’m Still Reading Andrew Sullivan. But I Can’t Defend Him.” The headline condemns Sullivan, in Smith’s voice no less, but then opens with Smith visiting Sullivan, apparently late at night, at Sullivan’s vacation home on Cape Cod. The whole piece contains these sorts of contradictions. Smith presents himself as a devotee of Sullivan, even an acolyte, and—maybe?—a friend. He goes on about how Sullivan pioneered political blogging, influenced a generation of writers, first made the case for marriage equality, presciently touted Obama’s importance before 2008, influenced votes in the Senate, and “helped lead America away from torture.”
But he is to be condemned. Why? Because in 1994, as editor of the New Republic, he published an excerpt from Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s book The Bell Curve, along with some other articles discussing and critiquing the book.
I haven’t read the The Bell Curve, nor the New Republic from 1994 (and neither are high on my reading list). It’s well known that Murray and Herrnstein, or at least their public proponents, made some basic quantitative genetics errors, vitiating their main point on IQ and heritability (see details below). For having published this collection of articles, Sullivan is irredeemable.
Three years ago, when Murray (and his faculty interlocutor) were assaulted by students during a campus lecture gone bad at Middlebury College, Sullivan commented on the 1994 publication, and this, I suppose, is his current view (Sullivan rarely writes about Murray):
[P]rotests against Murray are completely legitimate. The book he co-authored with Harvard professor Richard Herrnstein more than 20 years ago, The Bell Curve, included a chapter on empirical data showing variations in the largely overlapping bell curves of IQ scores between racial groups. Their provocation was to assign these differences to both the environment and genetics. The genetic aspect could be and was exploited by racists and bigots.
I don’t think that chapter was necessary for the book’s arguments, but I do believe in the right of good-faith scholars to publish data — as well as the right of others to object, critique, and debunk. If the protesters at Middlebury had protested and disrupted the event for a period of time, and then let it continue, I’d be highly sympathetic, even though race and IQ were not the subject of Murray’s talk. If they’d challenged the data or the arguments of the book, I’d be delighted.
Whether this reflects Sullivan’s view in 1994, I’m not sure. But I do know that Sullivan is a Voltairean proponent of free speech, and would publish things he disagreed with. Indeed, Sullivan’s willingness to entertain opposing views, and then to change his mind, is one of the striking things about him. It is thus curious that Smith, who claims that Sullivan was an “obvious influence” on his own work, misses this key element of Sullivan’s writing. Oddly, Smith goes on about how Sullivan never changes; but one of the most striking admissions of error I have ever seen in the public intellectual sphere is Sullivan’s owning up to the failures—not just in execution, but in conception—of the neoconservative project for Iraq that he had once so loudly cheered for.
Smith also writes about Sullivan’s departure from New York magazine, which Smith portrays as a preemptive firing before the “woke” staff at the magazine could organize against him. Sullivan’s publication of the New Republic issue—in 1994—was “a firing offense”— in 2020. If true, this is amazing, and damning of New York, its staff, and its editors. (Smith’s account is based on two anonymous “senior employees”.)
Smith’s piece is very Times à la 2020: you’re intolerable because I don’t like something you did more than 25 years ago. And in this case, it’s uber-Times à la 2020—it’s not anything you said 25 years ago, but the fact that you let someone else say something that I don’t like 25 years ago. At the Times, editors must pay for the opinions of authors!
Smith at times seems conflicted in carrying out his hatchet job on Sullivan—having praised him, even defended him, he seems reluctant to bring the dagger down, but ultimately he does. Smith is, perhaps, afraid for his own job. The Times has shown itself to be all too willing to force out or fire those who do not toe the line—just ask James Bennett.
I had read some of Ben Smith’s writing before he moved to the Times last spring, and I thought that this move would be a good thing. But it may be that rather than Smith being good for the Times, the Times has been bad for Smith.
Very brief quantitative genetics lesson: The basic error is to mistake heritability, a within population measure of the proportion of phenotypic variation in the population attributable to genetic differences, for a measure of the degree of genetic differentiation among populations; it is not. As a simple example, suppose we had two populations of a grass that have the same distribution of genotypes, and that heritability of height is high (and furthermore, to be absolutely explicit, there is no genotype X environment interaction). One population is grown with fertilizerm and the other without fertilizer. Although height has high heritability in both populations, the difference in mean height between populations is entirely environmental.
The New York Times is dying before our eyes, and for longtime subscribers, such as myself, it is a sad and painful experience. From Orwellian editorial practices to crusading for wokeism, the decline has been clear for some time now. I used to think that Jerry was reacting too strongly to some of the Times‘ missteps, but I’ve realized for a while that, sadly, he was prescient.
One area in which the Times has stumbled in a major way has been its coverage of woo, everything from “energy healing” to “non-invasive face lifts“. Its embrace of astrology has been especially dismaying– why on heaven’s earth would they do this? We’ve noted this before here at WEIT (for example here and here), and the woo just keeps coming. Here’s one of the latest:
The online sub-header is exquisite in its irony:
Will Coronavirus Kill Astrology? The pandemic has affected all of us. Who saw it coming?
The answer, of course, is epidemiologists and virologists saw it coming, not astrologers. But through journalistic gymnastics that defy common sense, it turns out that, according to the article, astrology is doing a fine job. It’s like all those various millennial cults who have gathered for the second coming (or the rapture, or Armageddon, or whatever), and when it doesn’t happen, they double down, finding some excuse for why the prophecy really is correct– it’s not just that the believers are fools. It’s textbook motivated reasoning. I’m reminded of what a colleague said after 9-11: “If this doesn’t give religion a bad name, nothing will.” Nothing did, and I guess the same goes for astrology.
This next example of the Times‘ love affair with woo one goes beyond astrology to ghosts!!
The online sub-header is oh-so dishonest:
For those who believe they’re locked down with spectral roommates, the pandemic has been less isolating than they bargained for.
“For those who believe…” What crap. Do they do articles coddling the idiotic myopia of “those who believe” that Obama is not an American? Or “those who believe” the world is flat?
In an article last summer, which I missed at the time, but which Jerry has recently brought to my attention, the Times actually lays out its strategy and goals for its popularization of astrology. It’s disturbing reading coming from a paper that once aspired to be, and was thought of as, the ‘newspaper of record‘.
Read this, and weep:
“We cover it because people have made it newsworthy,” said Choire Sicha, the editor of The Times’s Styles section, which reports on cultural trends and has published many of the recent articles on astrology. “It is a so frequently used part of people’s Instagram lives and online lives.”
Cicero said there is nothing so absurd that it has not been said by one philosopher or another. And the corollary to that you is don’t have to be a philosopher; masses of people, both small and large, may say and do absurd things (see Wikipedia on Heaven’s Gate; if you click on the immediately previous link, I would not advise clicking on anything within the page it goes to). It may be interesting to explore and understand the motivation for why people hold absurd beliefs. The study of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds has been well underway since at least the 19th century. But we should take the phenomenon of credulity and delusion seriously, not the beliefs themselves.
The Times used to boast that it had “All the news that’s fit to print.” Now its motto and operating procedure is “Anything that will attract eyeballs.” And they’re willing to swallow their principles—if they still have them—to do so.
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.
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?
After Jerry posted about the recent New York Timespiece touting astrology and its harmlessness, I came across some good news, and some bad news. First, the good news: some of the Times‘ writers continue to be able to exercise their critical faculties. In a piece, “#MAGA Church“, about a loony, apocalyptic church in New Jersey, Sam Kestenbaum writes the following about its pastor, Jonathan Cahn:
He devoured the writings of Nostradamus, the Virginia psychic Edgar Cayce and far-out conspiracy theories about ancient astronauts. Mr. Cahn soon stumbled on “The Late Great Planet Earth,” the 1970s best-seller that argued doomsday prophecies of the Bible were playing out with events like the Cold War and Israel’s Six-Day War. Mr. Cahn bought the book thinking it was about UFOs; instead he was given a crash-course in Christian eschatology.
It’s a longish piece, and you should take a look at the whole thing. It’s a great example of how fascination with woo, and the inability to reason about it, can lead further and further down the epistemological rabbit hole. If the only harm that comes of this is one person’s derangement, it’s harm enough, but this church is leading a whole flock of people– and their money– into a warren of woo, not to mention what those people might do.
The bad news is that the piece critiqued by Jerry is not a one off. I did a search at the Times’ website for “astrology”, and the results were intriguing, verging on appalling. The first 9 results were all supportive of astrology; and all had appeared since since July 2017. Many treated astrology as a “he said, she said” affair, which is bad enough, but often the astrology critic was a token. If a respected news outlet treated climate change, evolution, or gravity this way, we’d all be rightly outraged. (This search did not catch the latest astrology article on which Jerry posted; I’m not sure why.) The 10th astrology result was from 2011, an article about a race horse named Astrology.
The astrology articles are in a number of sections: “New York”, “Asia Pacific”, “Style” (2), “Arts” (2), “Sunday Review”, and (!!!!) “The Learning Network” (2). They are all by different authors, except for two by Amanda Hess. One of Hess’s pieces is not so bad, but in the other she suggests “online mysticism is filling a legitimate need”, and favorably compares the amount of “woo-woo crazy” in Goop vagina jade eggs to flat Earthism! She’s a little concerned that people are making money off of all this, but concludes that “retreating into the mystical internet feels like a quite rational move”. The diversity of authors and sections suggest there is not a particular editor who has a thing for astrology; rather, impairment of the critical faculties has seeped through many parts of the paper. The author of another Times article, not picked up in the “top 10” of the search, suggests that some people believe that criticism of astrology is misogynistic. (I hasten to add that there is no indication that the author of this piece concurs– she is reporting, not advocating.) But the Times is not merely avoiding criticism of astrology (perhaps to ward off the woke); it keeps bringing it up when there’s no evident impetus to do so.
I also noted that all 5 “NYT Picks” of readers’ comments on the piece critiqued by Jerry are pro-astrology. Here’s a sample of what the Times‘ editors found worth reading:
As to Mercury, when it is out of phase, being a Gemini whose ruling planet happens to be Mercury, it helps for whatever it’s worth to be aware when it comes and goes.
Yeah. Whatever it’s worth. My critical comment, to the effect, “Why did you publish this?” did not make it past the Times‘ moderators. I’m not sure why, as many commenters (including some WEIT readers, alerted no doubt by Jerry’s post!) said much the same thing.
The Times is clearly not all bad, and remains an essential news source, but I’ve been wondering lately if I should at least try out a subscription to the Washington Post to see how it’s doing.
(Links to the top ten search results, in order of their listing, are below the fold.)