The 1619 Project: down, but far from out

Despite sustained criticism, this wretched New York Times initiative is still being promoted in schools.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Topics Politics USA

Since its launch in August last year, the New York Times’ 1619 Project has been challenged over its accuracy and integrity. The latest blow comes from within the Times’ own pages. Bret Stephens, a conservative-leaning op-ed columnist, wrote that ‘for all of its virtues, buzz, spinoffs and Pulitzer Prize – the 1619 Project has failed’.

The 1619 Project seeks to revise American history with a tendentious thesis: it claims that 1619, the year that 20 Africans arrived in the English colonies, and not 1776, marked the beginning of America, its ‘true founding’. According to the Times, the US was forged to preserve slavery, not the freedom and equality promised by the Declaration of Independence. America is a racist nation by design, and thus illegitimate, says the 1619 Project.

In his Times piece, Stephens tries to be balanced, praising the project’s ‘ambition’. But he is ultimately damning, saying that the 1619 Project is a ‘thesis in search of evidence’ and an attempt to establish a ‘capital-T truth of a pre-established narrative in which inconvenient facts get discarded’. Most of all, Stephens accuses Times writers of abandoning proper journalism, and playing at being historians. ‘The larger problem’, he writes, ‘is that the Times’ editors, however much background reading they might have done, are not in a position to adjudicate historical disputes’.

Stephens’ blast caused uproar among Times staff. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer for the 1619 Project, was furious, saying the criticism was racial: ‘These efforts to discredit my work simply put me in a long tradition of BW [Black Women] who failed to know their place’, she tweeted. The New York Times Guild (employee union) also took to Twitter to slam Stephens, writing: ‘It says a lot about an organisation when it breaks it’s [sic] rules and goes after one of it’s [sic] own. The act, like the article, reeks.’

Well, it says a lot about a newspaper when its employees do not know the difference between ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ – twice in one sentence. Not only was this tweet embarrassing for America’s leading newspaper, it also showed journalists demanding that management censor and punish a fellow writer. As it happens, the union’s response was entirely in keeping with the woke sensibilities and behaviour of the Times newsroom. In June, employees exploded in a social-media hissy-fit after the Times published an op-ed by Republican senator Tom Cotton. That led to James Bennet, the opinion-page editor, losing his job. And these same employees, who are now so upset about Stephens for breaking the ‘rules’, had no hesitation in going after Bari Weiss, a Times editor who was the subject of persistent harassment and personal attacks for expressing traditional liberal views. Given the Times’s management’s record of bowing to the demands of the woke, Stephens may be the next one out the door.

It is hard to think of a high-profile journalistic initiative that has received as much incisive and sustained criticism, from academics, politicians and many others, as the 1619 Project has. While the project’s defenders try to portray these attacks as politically partisan, as just another round of the culture wars, the criticism has come from across the political spectrum, from both conservatives and traditional liberals.

Soon after publication of the 1619 Project, leading authorities on American history spoke out and exposed its multiple factual errors and unsupported assertions. Five prominent historians penned a letter to the Times in December 2019, arguing against the project’s ‘displacement of historical understanding by ideology’. One was Sean Wilentz, a liberal historian at Princeton and author of No Property in Man, which explores the issue of slavery and the founding fathers. Wilentz recently told the Washington Post about his initial reaction to Hannah-Jones’ lead essay: ‘I threw the thing across the room, I was so astounded, because I ran across a paragraph on the American Revolution, and it was just factually wrong.’ Indeed, Wilentz and others find the essay’s central claim – that the colonists’ primary motivation in fighting the American Revolution was to maintain slavery – to be patently false.

In the face of this criticism, Hannah-Jones and Jake Silverstein, the project’s editor-in-chief, refused to issue corrections and declined to engage in debate. The Times, said Silverstein, had ‘concluded no corrections are warranted’. Then in March, Leslie Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University and a fact-checker for the Times, revealed she had identified numerous errors when reviewing the 1619 Project, but the Times ignored all of them. Harris, who is sympathetic to the project’s mission, told the Times that the statement ‘the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America’ was false. In response to Harris, the Times added a ‘clarification’ to Hannah-Jones’ essay, saying that ‘some of’ the colonists wanted to protect slavey – yet even this revised formulation is misleading and has little support among historians.

The Times has clearly been feeling the pressure, and has been trying to back off from its most controversial claims. A few months ago, Hannah-Jones claimed conservatives were distorting the 1619 Project, because she ‘does not argue that 1619 is our true founding’. In an interview on CNN, she repeated the point. But Hannah-Jones is trying to rewrite history. As Conor Friedersdorf, writer for the Atlantic, has documented, there is abundant evidence in Hannah-Jones’ public speeches and writing that she has argued for 1619 to replace 1776 as America’s founding.

A few weeks ago, historian Phillip Magness, writing in Quillette, discovered that the Times had surreptitiously edited the digital version of the project’s text to remove the phrase ‘our true founding’. The Times provided no explanation why it had amended copy so central to the project’s goal of ‘refram[ing] American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year’. It just went down the Orwellian memory hole.

Recently Hannah-Jones sought to defend herself. ‘I’ve always said the 1619 Project is not history’, she wrote: ‘It is a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative and therefore national memory. The project has always been as much about the present as it is about the past.’ The reality is that her work is neither history nor journalism – it is narrow propaganda. As she herself admits, she is using and trashing the past to advance her particular agenda in the present.

Hannah-Jones also makes clear that the purpose of the 1619 Project is to make war on the past in order to undermine America’s national story, which is centred on the promise of freedom and equality. And it’s working. Over the summer, rioters spray-painted ‘1619’ on a toppled statue of George Washington. Then, to a New York Post headline that read ‘Call them the 1619 riots’, Hannah-Jones tweeted in response, ‘It would be an honour. Thank you.’

Last month, at a White House conference on American history, Trump lambasted ‘the New York Times’ totally discredited 1619 Project’. Unfortunately, as much as it deserves to be, it has not been ‘totally discredited’. That is because large swathes of the American cultural elite are fully on-board with the outlook of the 1619 Project.

Take the leaders of the Times, a giant and influential cultural institution. They decided to turn this initiative from a series of essays into a ‘Project’ in the first place. And while the Times may now appear to be on the defensive, the project continues to be widely promoted far beyond the Times itself. There will be an upcoming series of Oprah Winfrey-produced films and a multi-series of books based on the 1619 Project, published by Random House. And, by awarding the 1619 Project its prize, the Pulitzer Committee gave it its elite stamp of approval.

Most worrying of all is the Times’ attempt, in conjunction with the Pulitzer Center (which is unaffiliated with the prize), to bring the 1619 Project into classrooms. Schools in Buffalo, Chicago, Washington DC and elsewhere have already announced they have adopted the project’s curriculum, with the Pulitzer Center claiming that 3,500 classrooms across the country are using its materials. This includes a lesson plan that calls for ‘all grades’ to read Hannah-Jones essay ‘in full’. In other words, an essay for a project that Hannah-Jones herself insists is ‘not a work of history’, is being taught as historical truth to thousands of impressionable young people.

The Times’ latest moves to downplay the more strident aspects of the 1619 Project are really a divide and conquer strategy. On the one hand, it wants to keep liberal opinion-makers onside, so it tweaks the project to make it appear less radical. And it can then claim only Trump and conservatives are opposed to the 1619 Project. On the other hand, the 1619 Project is free to roll full-steam-ahead into schools, and indoctrinate children into thinking they should be ashamed of their country, and that all black kids are victims, all white kids are oppressors.

Despite its latest setbacks, then, the 1619 Project is unlikely to fade away. To think it might is to underestimate the extent to which the American cultural elite has abandoned the country’s founding ideals and embraced a divisive and dangerous identity politics. Its members already believe America’s past is shameful, and that its people should feel guilt and express remorse. The 1619 Project has found an all-too-receptive audience.

We should not underestimate what is at stake here. The 1619 Project wants to delegitimise the US’s founding principles, and the universalist Enlightenment tradition from which they emerged. We shouldn’t confine our opposition to such a destructive objective to the media. It must be opposed in our schools, our universities and our wider communities, too. The good news is that we have a much more inspiring, unifying and truthful story to tell than do the divisive ideologues of the 1619 project.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

Picture by: Getty.

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