“Prebunking” the Times’ rehabilitation of Uri Geller

July 12, 2023 • 11:20 am

by Greg Mayer

When I wrote Jerry about the New York Times declaration of victory on behalf of the con artist Uri Geller, I predicted that there would be a response from the Center for Inquiry, and maybe Michael Shermer as well. And sure enough, former CFI vice president D.J. Grothe, as Jerry has already noted, has responded, as has the CFI itself, and, as anticipated, so has Michael Shermer. I’ll get to those, but by far the best response came from data scientist Mark Palko, who responded three years ago! Talk about clairvoyance!

How did Palko do this? The Times has been recycling the same story about Geller for years; Palko took apart a previous instance of it. In 2014, the Times published a piece by Adam Higginbotham with the same tale of how Geller rose to success and fame after Johnny Carson, aided by James Randi, failed to expose him as a fraud on the Tonight Show in 1973. Palko takes it apart this way:

It’s a great tale except that there’s little reason to believe it actually happened that way. Start with the fact that Geller seems to be the main source, which should have raised some red flags for Higginbotham.

For the latest Times article, Geller is again the main source.

The 2014 article claimed that Geller’s abject failure on Carson’s show led to a booking on the Merv Griffin Show; did it?


How about the appearance on the Merv Griffith [sic] Show? Wasn’t he invited shortly after the Carson debacle? Not exactly. He was invited back.

Geller was on Griffin about two weeks before he bombed on Carson; they invited him back to Griffin two weeks later.

And did Geller’s fame take off after his Carson failure? Palko checks the data:

If anything, it looks like Randi’s debunking of Geller starting with the Tonight Show and culminating with 1975’s The Magic of Uri Geller [a book by Randi] was what brought the charlatan down.

Palko caps off his remarkable “prebunking” thus:

Journalists love people-are-stupid narratives, but, while I believe cognitive dissonance is real, I think the lesson here is not “To an enthusiastically trusting public, his failure only made his gifts seem more real”, and is instead that we should all be more skeptical of simplistic and overused pop psychology.

I have shown the video of Geller’s appearance on Carson to nearly two decades of undergraduate students in a course on “Science and Pseudoscience”; I don’t think any of them were impressed by Geller’s psychic abilities. What it is is a master class in what is known as “escape from refutation”.

The CFI reports on the “Rehabbing of Uri Geller” in yesterday’s edition of its “Morning Heresy” newsletter.  It begins by saying “it’s officially time to start worrying about the New York Times“– something Jerry and I have been saying for years now!– and goes on, describing the Times piece as

… a lengthy – and progressively more maddening – hagiography of Uri Geller. If there is ever a museum dedicated to fawning, nonsensical historical revisionism, this article deserves its own wing.

It finishes with an excerpt from letter sent to the Times by James Underdown, CFI Investigations Group Founder:

And herein lies the downside to human deep-fakes like spoon benders and faith healers. They paint a picture of a world that doesn’t exist, then fill it with gullible followers. What results is a populace that scoffs at science, ignores medicine, and believes their own eyes at a magic show.”

And finally, Michael Shermer’s take.

Addendum: Greg asked me (he’s doing field work) to add this to the post:

Mark Palko just sent me this piece by Mark Evanier. 
Palko says that Evanier is well connected in the magic community. Note that he disagrees with Grothe’s acceptance that a lot of magicians now embrace Geller. He writes instead:
The sheer reaction to the piece suggests that the embrace is not as widespread as the reporter claims. The professional magicians I know have always kind of regarded the guy as someone who got very rich and famous duping people with the kind of magic most of them could do when they were thirteen — and probably do it better.

h/t Mark Palko, Andrew Gelman

A new New York Times opinion columnist

April 27, 2022 • 10:00 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry and I have lamented here at WEIT the decline of The New York Times, including its descent into woke ideology and pseudoscience. But we have noted some encouraging shifts in the position of the editorial board, even if they are sometimes confused, and the odious Dean Baquet is stepping down as executive editor. A new opinion columnist, Pamela Paul, has just been added, and her first column is encouraging, as it suggests that the Times may be diversifying its opinion writers beyond its stock conservatives. In the column, she takes on the notion of “lived experience”.

The accompanying illustration is quite clever. If “lived experience” limits our art, then all an artist can do is reproduce a precise image of himself. (The artist looks rather more like a physician from a 1950s cigarette ad than a sculptor, though.)

The central tenet of identity politics is that an individual’s “identity”, primarily “race” and “gender”, defines and constrains an individual’s position in society, both in what that individual will suffer from in an unjust society, and in what that individual may do in a just society. A frequent rhetorical flourish in the assertion of this central tenet is that “lived experience” is the sine qua non of non-problematic expression– unless an individual has the same identity, that individual may not write about, depict, study, evaluate, or otherwise comment on someone who is of that identity, or the identity in general.

Paul disagrees. She begins by questioning her own competency to write about anything outside her experience:

Am I, as a new columnist for The Times, allowed to weigh in on anything other than a narrow sliver of Gen X white woman concerns?

and notes that to the “establishment gatekeepers in Hollywood, book publishing and the arts” the answer is, increasingly, ‘no’:

It’s the ultimate litmus test: Only those whose “lived experience” matches the story are qualified to tell the tale.

She explains what this means:

So what is this vaunted “lived experience”? You may recognize it by its longstanding name, “personal experience,” or less excitingly, “experience.” But “lived experience,” with its earthy suggestion of authority, says to other people: Unless you have walked in my shoes, you have no business telling my story.

It’s essentially a turf war. Only Latino authors can write novels about Latinos. Only Holocaust survivors can convey the truth of the Holocaust. Only disabled people can portray disabled people. Everyone else is out.

But she does not accept this constriction of creativity and commentary:

This is one point of view, and as with most points of view, some of it is valid. Clearly those who have lived through something — whether it’s a tsunami or a lifetime of racial discrimination — have a story to tell. Their perspective is distinct and it’s valuable.

But it is, crucially, only one perspective. And to suggest that only those whose identities match those of the people in a story — whether it’s the race of a showrunner or the sex of the author of a book under review — is a miserly take on the human experience.

Think about the great art that would be lost if we loyally carried out this rigid identitarian mandate.

There is in her piece one thing that I originally took to be a false step. Early in the piece, she wonders whether Jews are entitled to update “West Side Story”, since it is “fundamentally about Puerto Rican lives”. This statement, taken at face value, displays a shocking ignorance of the play on which it purports to comment. (A sort of ignorance which is, unfortunately, increasingly evident in the pages of the Times.) “West Side Story” is not “fundamentally about Puerto Rican lives”, anymore than it is about “Polish lives” or even “Veronese lives”– it is about human lives. As everyone knows, “West Side Story” is a musical retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”, set in New York in the 1950s. In “Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare, an early modern Englishman, mined “Italian” sources for a story set in the Renaissance based on tales that go back to Classical antiquity in Greece and Rome. To locate the heart of this story in any particularity of “Puerto Rican lives” is a profound misinterpretation.

Upon reflection, however, I believe she is merely parroting and parodying the complaints of the woke, and I read this passage as mockery rather than error.

Do read her whole piece, with its salutary thesis that “lived experience” is a “miserly take on the human experience.”

The New York Times sinks even deeper

February 13, 2021 • 12:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

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.

The New York Times loses another columnist

November 17, 2020 • 9:15 am

by Greg Mayer

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 many 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.

Neither Cohen nor Leonhardt complained, but the Times has shown itself to be intolerant of criticism. Apparently only Bret Stephens can do that and live to tell the tale.

The annals of the 1619 debacle at the New York Times

October 27, 2020 • 9:00 am

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


by Greg Mayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t Brian Leiter

Is Andrew Sullivan beyond the pale?

August 31, 2020 • 11:15 am

by Greg Mayer

[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 2020it’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.

h/t Eli

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

May 20, 2020 • 12:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

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.

“1776” throws down the gauntlet to NYT’s “1619 Project”

February 28, 2020 • 12:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

We’ve noted here several times at WEIT the 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.)

1776 has drawn some notice, including in a commentary entitled “The New York Times Goes All In on Flawed 1619 Project” at Real Clear Politics by Mark Hemingway:

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.

And in Quillette, one of the 1776 essayists, Wifred Reilly, a political scientist at Kentucky State University, introduces the group in an essay entitled “Sorry, New York Times, But America Began in 1776“:

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 scala homi: Hungarians (or whoever) are the most worthy, and at the same time the most oppressed.