THURSDAY, OCTOBER 22, 2020
...that the Times played the same old games?: In print editions, The 1619 Project made its debut on Sunday, August 18, 2019.
The project debuted in a special edition of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. The materials had appeared online four days before.
According to the leading authority on the project, that special edition of the magazine contained ten essays, a photo essay, and a collection of poems and fiction by an additional 16 writers.
An introductory essay was written by Jake Silverstein, the magazine's editor. What if we were to tell you that the essay started like this?
SILVERSTEIN (8/18/19): 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?
So began the attempt, by a bunch of upper-end journalists, "to tell our [nation's] story truthfully,” apparently for the first time. No one else had done that!
So began Silverstein's essay. We'd have to say it was already time to call in the logicians.
In that passage, Silverstein seems to make an ardent claim. He seems to say that a very familiar assertion—the claim that "1776 is the year of our nation’s birth"—can now be seen to be "wrong."
He seems to say that the nation's "true birth date" was actually August 1619! He seems to make that ardent claim, but a careful reader might say that he actually doesn't.
Subscribers, let's be fair! Silverstein doesn't exactly say that the familiar old fact is wrong. He merely asks a question:
What would happen, or what we would think, if he were to tell us it's wrong?
In this pointlessly roundabout way, Silverstein started to set the historical record straight. We think of the way Judy and Mickey and the rest of the kids decided to put on a show in the silly old Judy-and-Mickey movie, Babes in Arms.
The kids at the New York Times had decided to put on a show. But where would the logicians come in? The logicians would come in here:
Silverstein never exactly said such a thing—but to many, he may have seemed to say that 1776 isn't the nation's "true birth date."
Logicians might have warned us rubes to beware of such words as "real" and "true."
Silverstein's ardent language has created many pointless debates about when the nation's true founding really occurred. Logicians might have stated the obvious:
There's more than one way to imagine or discuss a nation's history. It's silly to get into pointless disputes about when the "real" birth occurred.
Silverstein was ardent that day, though in a fuzzy manner. He hadn't said that 1619 was the true birth date. He'd merely given that impression.
If Mickey and Judy were staging a show, they were off to a fuzzy start. And how odd! If you read Silverstein's introductory essay today, this is the way it now starts:
SILVERSTEIN (12/20/19): 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?
Today, Silverstein imagines himself telling us something much more limited.
Today, he imagines himself telling us that "the moment that the country’s defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619." He no longer imagines himself telling us that a certain extremely familiar factual claim is "wrong."
Today, Silverstein almost seems to be saying that 1776 actually is "the year of our nation’s birth!" Of course, because he's retained his highly ornate "what if we were to tell you" construction, he doesn't actually say that either!
At any rate, the song-and-dance about the "true birth date" is mercifully no longer present. Silverstein has simplified his original opening statement.
After the 1619 project appeared, Silverstein's apparent opening claim—the apparent claim that 1776 isn't the nation's "true birth date"—stirred up a lot of opposition.
As of today, that apparent claim is gone. As to when and why that passage was dropped, we have no idea.
That said, the original passage seemed to make a very large, rather ardent claim, and it stirred a large fuss. The new passage is vastly harder to argue with.
Almost everyone would agree—the presence of slavery formed one part of a massive "contradiction" which dogged our nation's history. It isn't hard to agree with that claim. The claim is almost blindingly obvious.
Of course, since very few people would disagree with that claim, it's hard to see how The Project is "finally telling our story truthfully," the grandiose claim the Times seemed to be making when this hodgepodge emerged. So it goes when the kids get excited and decide to put on a big show.
Silverstein has amended the first paragraph of his original work. As a general matter, there's nothing wrong with doing something like that.
In this case, the change to the original text has slid by without an appended statement of correction or clarification. But so it has gone as Silverstein and Nikole Hannah-Jones have corrected and "clarified" their original ardent work in fuzzy, fudged and disingenuous ways, often insisting that they've done no such thing.
Consider Hannah-Jones, the founder of the project and the author of its introductory essay. In her original text, she ardently claimed this:
HANNAH-JONES (8/18/19): Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery...
The colonists decided to declare independence because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery! That "fact" had been "conveniently left out of our founding mythology," the ardent founder of the project declared.
But is that an actual fact? Did the colonists declare independence to protect the institution of slavery? Was that "one of the primary reasons" for their decision?
Major historians disputed the claim. In the end, Hannah-Jones and The Project decided to relent, or at least to give that appearance.
Hannah-Jones inserted a tiny "correction" into her text, while leaving a much longer set of disputed background claims intact. Silverstein authored a slippery "Editor's Note" which vastly downplayed the nature of the issue and the size of the correction.
In this way, the journalists motored ahead. "Finally," someone was "telling our story truthfully!"
More absurd was Hannah-Jones' recent decision to eliminate a whole set of tweets in which she'd repeatedly said that 1619 represented the "true founding" of the nation.
The decision to delete these tweets followed more recent claims by Hannah-Jones, in which she insisted that no one had ever said such a thing.
When Judy and Mickey would put on a show, the show would always go well. In this case, the gang at the Times moved with remarkable speed to put a vast project into effect, saying, with substantial ardor, that "it is finally time to tell our [nation's] story truthfully."
Mommy and Daddy had been lying about our story! As they've done so many times about so many other issues, the boys and girls at the New York Times decided to tell us the truth.
No one had tried to do it before. While they were at it, they even decided to create a school curriculum, a matter we'll turn to tomorrow.
The hubris lying behind this project is wide and deep and vast. The children decided to tell us the truth; No one had done it before!
Once they started telling the truth, they seemed to make a lot of mistakes. As usual, they've played a set of slippery games in coming to terms with that fact.
Our nation's brutal racial history lies at the heart of our national story. There's nothing new about that statement. Everyone knows that fact.
That said, a bunch of enormously "privileged" babes in arms decided to give the nation a show. We aren't big fans of their work. More on that tomorrow.
Tomorrow: Recalling Frederick Douglass, on the eastern shore
To read more about this dreck: The history of the project's bungling takes us down a series of long, winding roads. So too with its slippery, disingenuous reactions to criticism.
If you want to read more about this meshugas, we'll recommend that you click the links at Bret Stephens' recent column. You might also review Sarah Ellison's report in the Washington Post about the project's controversies.
We'll especially recommend this detailed thread by The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf, one of the nation's most careful journalists. One problem—he repeatedly links to Hannah-Jones' tweets, and those tweets have now been disappeared.
As always, a basic point prevails:
Creating confusion is amazingly easy. Critiquing confusion is hard.