Bret Stephens has done a public service in exposing the 1619 Project for what it is: An agenda-driven attempt to impose a false and misleading history on our children.
The 1619 Project is the Times’ attempt to manipulate and recast history to mark the start of the United States as 1619, when the first chattel slave ship arrived. In the Times’ rendering, everything of importance emanates from that event and from slavery.
The central thesis of the 1619 Project, that the colonial rebellion against the British was an attempt to protect slavery against abolition was false, as demonstrably shown by left- and left-leaning historians, and was quietly withdrawn. The rest of the project born of that falsehood pushes on. The Times is pushing this rewrite into secondary and elementary school curricula.
We have covered the sordid travel of 1619 Project many times before, including how its lead author Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the effort, admitted that it is narrative writing, not history:
- ‘1619 Project’ Lead Writer Pushes Conspiracy Theory About Fireworks in New York
- Oprah, Lionsgate Pick Up Disgraced NYT ‘1619 Project’ for Film, TV
- NYT’s ‘1619 Project’ Founder Once Wrote Whites Were ‘Bloodsuckers’ in Black Community, Equated Columbus to Hitler
- 1619 Project Creator Admits “It Is Not A History” But a Fight “to Control the National Narrative”
- NY Times and Nikole Hannah-Jones Quietly Dropping Central Claims of 1619 Project
- Scholars Call on Pulitzer Board to Revoke Prize Given to 1619 Project Author Nikole Hannah-Jones
Stephens masterfully has noted the many flaws of the 1619 Project — the oversimplification, the ideologically determined historical conclusions, and the impropriety of journalists playing historians:
If there’s one word admirers and critics alike can agree on when it comes to The New York Times’s award-winning 1619 Project, it’s ambition. Ambition to reframe America’s conversation about race. Ambition to reframe our understanding of history. Ambition to move from news pages to classrooms. Ambition to move from scholarly debate to national consciousness….
But ambition can be double-edged. Journalists are, most often, in the business of writing the first rough draft of history, not trying to have the last word on it. We are best when we try to tell truths with a lowercase t, following evidence in directions unseen, not the capital-T truth of a pre-established narrative in which inconvenient facts get discarded. And we’re supposed to report and comment on the political and cultural issues of the day, not become the issue itself.
As fresh concerns make clear, on these points — and for all of its virtues, buzz, spinoffs and a Pulitzer Prize — the 1619 Project has failed….
None of this should have come as a surprise: The 1619 Project is a thesis in search of evidence, not the other way around….
The larger problem is that The Times’s editors, however much background reading they might have done, are not in a position to adjudicate historical disputes….
Stephens goes through a litany of problems with the reporting in the 1619 Project quoting historians who have excoriated the project. Read the whole thing, I don’t want to end up reprinting the entire column. Here’s a short example from the column:
[Princeton Historian Sean] Wilentz’s catalog of the project’s mistakes is extensive. Hannah-Jones’s essay claimed that by 1776 Britain was “deeply conflicted” over its role in slavery. But despite the landmark Somerset v. Stewart court ruling in 1772, which held that slavery was not supported by English common law, it remained deeply embedded in the practices of the British Empire. The essay claimed that, among Londoners, “there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade” by 1776. But the movement to abolish the British slave trade only began about a decade later — inspired, in part, Wilentz notes, by American antislavery agitation that had started in the 1760s and 1770s. The list goes on.
Stephens’ most stinging criticisms are beyond the inaccuracies, and to the agenda:
Almost inevitably, what began as a scholarly quarrel became a political one.
About a month before the project’s publication, [NY Times Editor Jake] Silverstein reached out to the Pulitzer Center to propose a 1619 curriculum for schools. Soon thereafter, the project was being introduced into classrooms across the country.
It’s one thing for a newspaper to publish the 1619 Project by way of challenging its subscribers: After all, they pay for the product. It’s quite another to become a pedagogical product for schoolchildren who, along with their parents, in most cases probably don’t subscribe. This was stepping into the political fray in a way that was guaranteed to invite not just right-wing blowback, but possible federal involvement.
That’s exactly what has happened. When “1619” was spray-painted on a toppled statue of George Washington, many people took angry or horrified notice. When Hannah-Jones tweeted that “it would be an honor” for the summer’s unrest to be called “the 1619 riots,” the right took notice again. For many, the 1619 Project smacked of fake history coming from the “fake news” — with results that were all too real. As unbidden gifts to Donald Trump go, it could hardly have been sweeter than that.
But even beyond the inaccuracies and the agenda, Stephens unravels the deceptive (my word, not his) way in which the entire goal of the 1619 Project was quietly altered.
Those concerns came to light last month when a longstanding critic of the project, Phillip W. Magness, noted in the online magazine Quillette that references to 1619 as the country’s “true founding” or “moment [America] began” had disappeared from the digital display copy without explanation.
These were not minor points. The deleted assertions went to the core of the project’s most controversial goal, “to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.”
That doesn’t mean that the project seeks to erase the Declaration of Independence from history. But it does mean that it seeks to dethrone the Fourth of July by treating American history as a story of Black struggle against white supremacy — of which the Declaration is, for all of its high-flown rhetoric, supposed to be merely a part.
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?”
Now compare it to the version of the same text as it now appears online:
“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?”
In an email, Silverstein told me that the changes to the text were immaterial, in part because it still cited 1776 as our nation’s official birth date, and because the project’s stated aim remained to put 1619 and its consequences as the true starting point of the American story.
Readers can judge for themselves whether these unacknowledged changes violate the standard obligations of transparency for New York Times journalism. The question of journalistic practices, however, raises deeper doubts about the 1619 Project’s core premises.
Completely understated, and devastating.
There’s a lot more I haven’t excerpted. Read the whole thing.
The reaction was predictable. The NY Times journalist union attacked Stephens, in a tweet that now has been deleted, for going against others at the NY Times:
There are plenty of predictions that Stephens will go the way of Bari Weiss, quitting in disgust at the hostile work environment. I don’t know if that’s likely or not. Whatever the outcome of Stephens tenure at the Times, and regardless of what else he has written with which I disagree, he did a public service in exposing the 1619 Project for what it is: An agenda-driven attempt to impose a false and misleading history on our children.
After this post went live, the NY Time Editor mentioned in Stephens’ column released a statement from the publisher of the NY Times standing by the 1619 Project.
Our publisher AG Sulzberger shared this statement on the 1619 Project with employees this evening pic.twitter.com/wu7JeqhY3N
— Jake Silverstein (@jakesilverstein) October 12, 2020
1619 Project was exposed for the fraud it is, now the boss is trying to placate the hurt feelings of those responsible for this embarrassment of journalism https://t.co/HhT8hBbBl7
— Legal Insurrection (@LegInsurrection) October 12, 2020
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