Times Change—or Stephens’ Suicide Note? (Updated)

It is worth taking a second look at Bret Stephens’s extensive takedown of the New York Times‘s egregious 1619 Project on Friday. My understanding from a longtime Times person I know is that one of the unwritten rules is that you never criticize a colleague in print—especially on the editorial pages. And yet Stephens names names and takes prisoners:

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.” . . .

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?”

And this part has now been scrubbed, without acknowledgement from the Times editors. Stephens goes on to make an extensive case for the grotesque distortions of the 1619 Project, and extends the beatdown:

It should have been enough to make strong yet nuanced claims about the role of slavery and racism in American history. Instead, it issued categorical and totalizing assertions that are difficult to defend on close examination.

It should have been enough for the project to serve as curator for a range of erudite and interesting voices, with ample room for contrary takes. Instead, virtually every writer in the project seems to sing from the same song sheet, alienating other potential supporters of the project and polarizing national debate. . .

Then there was an essay in Politico in March by the Northwestern historian Leslie M. Harris, an expert on pre-Civil War African-American life and slavery. “On Aug. 19 of last year,” Harris wrote, “I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones … repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America.”

None of this should have come as a surprise: The 1619 Project is a thesis in search of evidence, not the other way around. . .

Sure enough, Times world is not happy:

So, has Stephens just written his suicide note to the Times, leading to the same fate as Bari Weiss and James Bennet? Perhaps, but I have another hypothesis. Bari Weiss mentioned months ago that she knows there are many Times staff in the senior ranks and in management who are terrified of the young and intolerant wokeratri the paper has foolishly hired, and I think it is possible that someone high up at the Times gave Stephens the green light to push back internally against the indefensible embarrassment that is the 1619 Project.

UPDATE—Confusion at the Times:

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