If nothing else you have to admire Bret Stephens bravery for speaking up. Plenty of people have done so before now but I don’t think any of them were employed by the NY Times. Stephens is effectively bringing the controversy home and we’ve seen recently what can happen when the woke reporters at the Times decide they are offended by your work. Simply put, you can be fired for crossing certain lines at the Times and criticizing the 1619 Project is probably one of them.
At the end of his piece Stephens explains why he’s taking the risk. He owes his fellow writers at the Times some collegiality but he also owes readers to write about current controversies and 1619 has definitely become one of those.
Stephens opens his piece by praising some of the goals and elements of the 1619 Project. But he concludes that, on balance, the project failed. He then looks into one of the major sub-controversies of the Project, the issue of whether or not the Times and Nikole Hannah-Jones had presented the date as our “true founding.”
In a tweet, Hannah-Jones responded to Magness and other critics by insisting that “the text of the project” remained “unchanged,” while maintaining that the case for making 1619 the country’s “true” birth year was “always a metaphoric argument.” I emailed her to ask if she could point to any instances before this controversy in which she had acknowledged that her claims about 1619 as “our true founding” had been merely metaphorical. Her answer was that the idea of treating the 1619 date metaphorically should have been so obvious that it went without saying.
She then challenged me to find any instance in which the project stated that “using 1776 as our country’s birth date is wrong,” that it “should not be taught to schoolchildren,” and that the only one “that should be taught” was 1619. “Good luck unearthing any of us arguing that,” she added.
Here is an excerpt from the introductory essay to the project by The New York Times Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, as it appeared in print in August 2019 (italics added):
“1619. It 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 its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?”
This is exactly what Hannah-Jones claimed couldn’t be found, i.e. a statement that the wrong date was being taught to school children. If you look at the 1619 Project now, you’ll find that language (everything in italics) has been removed. The times did this without alerting readers that a change had been made. Jake Silverstein told Stephens these changes weren’t significant. If not, then why make them at all?
The true founding controversy is significant because it shows that the NY Times has been quietly backing away from what was a commonly used shorthand for the entire project early on. Hannah-Jones herself said, “it’s a simplification of the project, but it’s a powerful simplification of the project.”
Stephens then recounts some of the other problems with the Project pointed out by various historians:
An early sign that the project was in trouble came in an interview last November with James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Battle Cry of Freedom” and a past president of the American Historical Association. He was withering: “Almost from the outset,” McPherson told the World Socialist Web Site, “I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective.”
In particular, McPherson objected to Hannah-Jones’s suggestion that the struggle against slavery and racism and for civil rights and democracy was, if not exclusively then mostly, a Black one. As she wrote in her essay: “The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of Black resistance.”
McPherson demurs: “From the Quakers in the 18th century, on through the abolitionists in the antebellum, to the Radical Republicans in the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the N.A.A.C.P., which was an interracial organization founded in 1909, down through the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, there have been a lot of whites who have fought against slavery and racial discrimination, and against racism,” he said. “And that’s what’s missing from this perspective.”
Stephens also makes reference to the claim that the preservation of slavery was the major motivation for the Revolutionary War. That’s the one area where, after intially refusing to make any correction, the Times eventually relented, though the corrected version remains somewhat dubious.
Stephens argues that the problem here isn’t just in the details, it’s in the overall concept. Journalists and newspaper editors are not historians. If they wanted to present a discussion among experts about changing views of American history, that would be one thing. What they actually did was present one side of an argument as if it were true. And then when challenged by actual experts they largely ignored the criticism on the grounds that some historians agreed with them. Who are those other historians and are they qualified to opine on subjects like the causes of the Revolutionary War? In his response to a letter from a group of historians criticizing the Project, Jake Silverstein named five of the historians consulted. Only one of those specialized in pre-1900 history:
Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of the Times Magazine, admitted that the paper “did not assemble a formal panel for this project,” but he did identify five “scholars of African-American history and related fields” with whom the Project consulted. Only one, Tiya Miles, specializes in pre-1900 events; another, Desmond, is a sociologist whose most recent book focused on the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Neither Silverstein nor Hannah-Jones has explained why the Times chose not to consult with any of the letter’s signatories, all leading scholars of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century America and specialists in the issues that the Project addressed. If the Project’s editors and Hannah-Jones are ignorant about the work of the Bynum letter’s signatories, their historical competence is deeply suspect. More likely, they understood that figures like Wood or Oakes would challenge the Project’s preconceived notions of the American past, and so they deliberately ignored their work because it would undercut their own preordained conclusions. (Hannah-Jones’s dismissive tweet about McPherson’s criticism of her work strengthens these suspicions: she mockingly asserted that only “white historians have produced truly objective history” before asserting that “there is no such thing as objective history.”)
While the project may lack the support of genuine experts it certainly doesn’t lack for zealous defenders eager to accuse critics (including professional historians) of various crimes against social justice. Victoria Bynum, one of the historians who signed the letter critical of the Project, pointed out the response she got for daring to do so:
“White privilege,” “wealthy elites,” “mansplainers,” “old white people,” “ivory tower elites.” These are just a few of the epithets hurled at me and the four historians I joined in protesting the flawed and inaccurate history presented in the New York Times’s 1619 Project. A quick pass through Twitter reveals that some historians are “ashamed of,” even “heartbroken by,” our letter to the Times editor. One historian chastised us for criticizing the 1619 Project at a time when our “republic” is so dangerously divided! Really, historians? Is it no longer our right or responsibility to critique works of history, at least not when they’re about a long, ugly episode of our nation’s history? Does history not have to be accurate if the subjects were truly victims, as enslaved Americans surely were?
Bynum put her finger on the real problem with the Project, i.e. narratives about the past being written with political agendas of the present in mind:
History is a profession that takes years of training. In his response to our letter to the New York Times, editor Jake Silverstein admits that, although the Times consulted with scholars, and although Nikole Hannah-Jones “has consistently used history to inform her journalism.” . . . . the newspaper “did not assemble a formal panel [of historians] for this project.” Perhaps this explains why a number of 1619 Project defenders, including Hannah-Jones, implicitly deny the need for training by claiming there is no such thing as objective history anyway. Too often, the assumption that journalists make good historians leaves us fighting over dueling narratives about the past based on political agendas of the present.
The 1619 Project is wrong about our true founding but it certainly captured the true zeitgeist and that’s why it will continue to be hailed as a great success despite all of the criticism from genuine experts in the field.
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