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Turmoil at the New York Times

As you have already heard, no doubt, Bret Stephens lambasted the New York Times’s1619 Project on Friday. Here’s an excerpt:

‘Out of slavery — and the anti-Black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional,’ writes Silverstein.

Nearly everything? What about, say, the ideas contained by the First Amendment? Or the spirit of openness that brought millions of immigrants through places like Ellis Island? Or the enlightened worldview of the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift? Or the spirit of scientific genius and discovery exemplified by the polio vaccine and the moon landing? On the opposite side of the moral ledger, to what extent does anti-Black racism figure in American disgraces such as the brutalization of Native Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act or the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II?

Monocausality — whether it’s the clash of economic classes, the hidden hand of the market, or white supremacy and its consequences — has always been a seductive way of looking at the world. It has always been a simplistic one, too. The world is complex. So are people and their motives. The job of journalism is to take account of that complexity, not simplify it out of existence through the adoption of some ideological orthodoxy.

This mistake goes far to explain the 1619 Project’s subsequent scholarly and journalistic entanglements. 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.

Given how many historians have now criticized the 1619 Project, I didn’t think Stephens’s column would make much of a stir. Folks on the left, and Stephens’s colleagues, could have dismissed it with a dishonest shrug. Instead, the New York Times’s Guild hit back on Saturday. “It says a lot about an organization when it breaks it’s [sic] own rules and goes after one of it’s [sic] own,” the organization tweeted. Glenn Greenwald unpacks the absurdity of that statement.

There’s more. The Guild apologized on Sunday. “We deleted our previous tweet. It was tweeted in error. We apologize for the mistake.” Ben Smith—the Times’s media columnist—tweeted that apparently someone at the Guild posted the original tweet “without any internal discussion, causing a furor in Slack and drawing heated objections from others in the Guild.”

There’s still more. Yesterday, the newspaper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, came out swinging in defense of 1619 and Nikole Hannah-Jones in a memo to staff: “I do welcome Opinion’s role in hosting a wide range of views, including those that challenge our work. This column however, raised questions about the journalistic ethics and standards of 1619 and the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones, who inspired and drove the project. This criticism I firmly reject.”

Oh, dear. What a silly mess. Meanwhile, New York Times readers were mostly supportive of Stephens—at least according to the letters the organization decided to print in yesterday’s paper. Larry Beck from La Mesa, California, however, decided he was going to be “that guy,” writing : “as to a ‘founding’ birth date, everyone got it wrong. It wasn’t 1619 or 1776. Because, as the nation celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day this week (Oct. 12), we remember there were already people living on the continent before colonizers, and later the enslaved, arrived.” You know what? Good for you, Larry from La Mesa. The old debates were so much better, weren’t they?

Speaking of The New York Times, read this “interview” with David Gallipoli-Jones, the New York Times correspondent for The New York Times, which is now almost too close to the truth to be funny—almost.

In other news: A simplistic view of the past is part and parcel of a simplistic view of the present. Robert Royal explains: “A remarkable shift in how we view human history has become dominant since my book first appeared. For the past two centuries, there had been a widespread belief in human progress, driven by science, technology, and pragmatic uses of reason. There remained some sense that great men—Columbus, Isaac Newton, and Thomas Jefferson among them—could alter the course of history. Much of that understanding simply melted away in the anti-Western ideological triumphs of the past 50 or so years. Columbus has become, for many today, a blank slate on which to project the loves and hatreds of our time: Euro-centrist, racist, imperialist, ‘genocidal maniac,’ and so on. An otherwise sober historian has even tried to portray him as a kind of Don Quixote figure who read too many chivalric romances in his youth . . . But there’s worse. The Enlightenment belief in ever-advancing progress—unreliable, incomplete, and deluding a vision though it was—has been replaced by a crushing materialism, joined incoherently with visions of a technologized human future. There’s no better example of the process than the worldwide success of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), which dismisses virtually all of history as a mere prelude to a post-human future that seems to leave him and his millions of readers untroubled, though untethered to anything recognizably congenial to Homo sapiens.”

Sally Thomas reviews A. M. Juster’s first volume of “serious” poetry since 2003: “Wonder and Wrath is an apt title for a collection that both marvels at and rails against human frailty.”

Acclaimed jazz pianist, Tadataka Unno, was attacked by teens in a subway station in New York. He is unable to perform for the foreseeable future, and his wife just had a baby.

Gary Saul Morson revisits Chekhov’s short stories: “No writer understood loneliness better than Chekhov.”

The story of MI9: “MI9’s work was twofold. First, to get information and gadgets into the camps, and to servicemen prone to capture. The gadgetry is said to have inspired ‘Q Branch’ in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. Secondly, to set up ‘lines’ along which escapers and evaders could be passed, mainly into Spain or direct to Gibraltar from Marseilles. One of these, the ‘Pat’ line, proved so effective that it could get downed airmen back to England from northern France via Madrid and Gibraltar in 12 days . . . Helen Fry has over the years devoted much study to British intelligence in the war and has mined the recently opened MI9 files deeply. Several recent books have shone light on the heroic part women played in the story of intelligence, and Fry illuminates their role even more — their lead, indeed, in the various escape lines, especially in Italy, and also, for the first time, something of their role in the interrogation of returnees, the principal source of escape and evasion intelligence. She is at pains to emphasise the wider intelligence value of MI9, hitherto underplayed.”

Photos: West Virginia

Poem: Dana Gioia, “Psalm to Our Lady Queen of the Angels”

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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