Rethinking the 1619 Project

Great journalism can result in lousy history.

I strongly commend Sarah Ellison’s Washington Post featureHow the 1619 Project took over 2020.” It’s a thorough and balanced look at a controversy that has been escalating for quite some time. And it’s especially praiseworthy for its balance and fairness despite the twin challenges of being about a rival newspaper and, frankly, being written by a white woman.

My take on the whole thing is rather bland: the 1619 Project was simultaneously a journalistic tour de force and a stark example of why professionally trained scholars are better historians than journalists. Nikole Hannah-Jones deserved her Pulitzer for putting together the most important journalistic feature of the calendar year and sparking a necessary conversation on not only the 400th anniversary of slavery in America but at a particularly fraught time of race relations in the country. And, yet, armed with a zeal to embellish an already powerful story—and, frankly, not enough knowledge of history—it made a series of wild and unsupportable claims.

Dean Baquet is absolutely right to stand by Hannah-Jones’s work and to let Bret Stephens and others debate it on the paper’s editorial pages. And Hannah-Jones is wrong to treat criticism of factual errors—often by sympathetic Black scholars—as racially motivated. The insinuation that Stephens and the academic historians are trying to “put me in a long tradition of [Black women] who failed to know their places” is outrageous and unseemly, unbefitting a journalist of her stature.

Further, the Times‘ surreptitious edits to the text to soften or remove several overbroad or flatly erroneous claims—and Hannah-Jones’ deletion of a massive number of texts where she doubled down on them and used the power of her massive platform to shame those who dared call her out—are simply dishonest. Even lowly political bloggers eschewed that practice as unethical two decades ago.

Again, though, the overall thrust of the Project was a tremendous value add to the conversation. While I thought the significance of 1619 well-known—indeed I was telling undergraduate American government students that “America had slaves before it had Pilgrims” a quarter-century ago—bringing the power of the New York Times and its many digital platforms spread the word.

Further, while I tend to side with Stephens that 1776 is more representative of 1619 of the “true” founding of America, I never took issue with the boldness of the opposite claim. Provocative is good in polemic, garnering attention for the argument. But, in their zeal to drive the point home, they too often misrepresented fringe arguments as mainstream and outliers as the norm.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Academia, Education, Media, Race and Politics, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. I’m kind of torn. I don’t really support or endorse the sentence (written by Hannah-Jones) “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery”. Well…I’ll have more to say about that in a bit.

    And, reading Wilentz’ criticism, it seems as though he’s never heard of Somerset v. Stewart, a court judgement in 1776 that denied the putative owner of James Somerset, Charles Stewart, the ability to literally or figuratively put Somerset in chains on British soil and transport him back to America.

    This is precisely what the Fugitive Slave Act required Northern States to do, and their reluctance to do that was a major contributor to the Civil War. It is my understanding that this decision was a motivator for secession for some of the slaveholders in America, and of course, they were often also the political movers and shakers in their states.

    I’m surprised Wilentz doesn’t mention this. Now, was Britain “deeply conflicted” about slavery at the time? That’s kind of judgement call. I don’t rightly know. Maybe Wilentz is right to push back at this phrase, but to call this factual error is also an exaggeration.

    I think that for some Americans, this decision (Somerset v. Stewart), was a primary motivator in supporting the Revolution. Was that true for a lot of Americans? Or just a few of them that had amassed a lot of political power. My most careful reading of what Hannah-Jones writes is that it supports the idea that this was a primary motivation for some Americans, who happened to be important.

    Of course, she’s trying to write in such a way to attract attention and engages people’s emotions – which is to say she isn’t writing for academic journals. For me, I would have liked her to mention this, and see if she could find sources in the writings of Americans which reference it. But that’s maybe historical research, and not journalism, which operates on a pretty tight schedule.

    ADDENDUM: I see, reading more that Danielle Allen pretty much said what I said or would say, only better, before me, and with more authority behind her. So yeah. What she said.

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  2. MarkedMan says:

    After giving you the business on the Emoluments case on another thread, I come over here to find you concisely expressing my very views on the 1619 brouhaha. You must be a noble genius after all ‘-)

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Jay L Gischer: She represents that as a major motivation when, as Wilentz points out, it simply wasn’t. Not only was abolitionism not yet a thing in Britain in 1776 but the later movement was actually inspired by American thinking.

    Again, this is what frustrates me. The Project is 100% right that slavery had an impact on far more decisions than most people understand. But they overreach to make damn near EVERYTHING about slavery.

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  4. I get that it’s frustrating, but most of the world is not made up of academics like you are (and I once was).

    I am glad for Danielle Allen’s comments. They seem much better grounded than Wilentz’.

    And at the same time, we need to get that this is one sentence, or one paragraph of the whole work. Which is hyped in a way that can be understood in terms of the emotional impact the topic has. I would mostly say about it (the 1619 project) that I have learned a lot and it’s a discussion well worth having, even though I maybe don’t agree with every particular.

    I think that’s an important note. We can get stuck on a particular point we don’t agree with, even while endorsing the project and its goals overall. It’s kind of similar to “nutpicking”. But with topics like this, I personally prefer to make my headline be about my broad agreement, rather than the details I don’t agree with.

    Especially on the Internet, where nobody seems to remember who you are or what you believe from one day to the next, I’ve found it important to signal my top-level views and values quite plainly before diving into details I don’t agree with.

    It’s kind of irritating that I would have to do this – it is broad evidence of atomization and alienation – but my writing lands a lot better when I do it.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @Jay L Gischer: I gather that there are a significant number of errors covering multiple periods, not simply the one assertion about the causes of the Revolution.

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  6. Modulo Myself says:

    The 1619 Project was asking real questions with some wrong data about what America is. By and large, after the Civil War everything IS about race or empire in America and by the 1950s domestically all race. Good jobs for white people, government-backed suburbs for white people, schools for white people. Then the 60s happened and after the 60s white people literally ended up tossing aside the New Deal and post-war subsidization of the middle class rather than share it with black people.

    American history filled with annoying speeches and the founding fathers and tedious political debates about how to govern a country at a time prior to industrialization can’t explain any of this. It’s quite possible that the Founders just don’t matter at all in American history. Even the Revolution is kinda pointless, except for the private property angle. Maybe there’s a very good reason why the Confederate flag can be found everywhere, one stronger than say the desire not to be tyrannized by England.

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  7. Northerner says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    By and large, after the Civil War everything IS about race or empire in America and by the 1950s domestically all race.

    It was all about race before — mainly the stealing and holding of half a continent from the indigenous people. That applies to Canada and Mexico as well as the United States.

    North America is basically stolen land. That’s such an uncomfortable truth (as the saying goes) that its ignored even more than slavery.

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  8. gVOR08 says:

    You mention a small issue, NYT changing the story. They seem to have a habit of making online edits to published content without noting a revision. Is this normal or acceptable journalistic practice?

    The big example that comes to mind was reporting that Clinton said Russians were backing Tulsi Gabbard when she in fact said Republicans. When others noted the error, the online story was quietly revised with no note that it had been updated.

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  9. Kathy says:

    @Northerner:

    It was all about race before — mainly the stealing and holding of half a continent from the indigenous people. That applies to Canada and Mexico as well as the United States.

    Well, there’s still Central and South America, too.

    But there are differences also. Mexico’s Spaniard overlords did not set out to eradicate the natives, nor were they forcibly moved elsewhere by independent Mexican governments. Most of the population is “mestizo,” meaning of European (mostly Spaniard) and native heritage. And we even had an indigenous president (and dictator), Benito Juarez.

    But, yeah, the whole hemisphere was stolen. We agree on that.

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  10. An Interested Party says:

    I wouldn’t have guessed that James would have such a favorable view of the 1619 Project…of course he has shown that he’s not today’s typical conservative…the pushback from many conservatives against this project has been fierce…I suppose there is a middle ground between them and some of the assertions of Nikole Hannah-Jones where the truth lies…the bottom line is that race plays an incredibly important role in this country, from before its founding well through to the present day…

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  11. grumpy realist says:

    What infuriates me about the 1619 project is that they had such a good idea….then blew it by being sloppy.

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  12. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Ok, I’ve sided with the liberals mostly on this blog but I have to parts ways here. There is no such thing as “stolen land” in the context of nation state conflict. It’s a ridiculous concept–especially when even the “native” americans it was allegedly ‘stolen’ from–don’t believe the land can be ‘owned’ they way white westerners conceptualize it.

    When it comes to nation states–you either can possess and defend land–or you can’t. End of Story.

    The larger point however, is that we know through DNA analysis that the “natives” (who came from Asia BTW) were not the original America’s–which means they also “stole” land.

    The even larger point–is Im sick of revisiting slavery–and frankly Jim Crow. Perhaps its my military background and time with Special Forces–but I will not accept anyone casting the black experience in a way that doesn’t keep me in the driver’s seat. I have agency and a brain–it’s not about what other people are doing–Its about what I’M doing and/or will do.

    Obviously, my opinion is a minority opinion in the Black community but I wish it wasn’t. When I graduteda a prominent HBCU to enter spaces filled with white people–I anticipated encountering a lot more smart people than I actually did. I couldn’t believe it–on average the IQ distribution was pretty much the same as in the black community. And these are the people supposedly keeping us down–well that’s only partially true. What’s mostly true–is that we have the ability to make choices that lead to better outcomes. I’ve mentioned it before that the reason we even had “Jim Crow” is because the post-reconstruction generation of freed slaves were handling business with such astounding success that white people knew they had to do something. The Black community writ large needs to channel more of this generation and the civil rights generation than our generations of enslaved ancestors. When you come from a marginalized community–history is a tool to plot out your desired future. I’m not planning on being anyone’s slave so I have no interest in anything other than a cursory knowledge of slavery. Post-Reconstruction history or civil rights history–more please.

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  13. Modulo Myself says:

    The larger point however, is that we know through DNA analysis that the “natives” (who came from Asia BTW) were not the original America’s–which means they also “stole” land.

    Pretty sure Clovis DNA has proved that Native Americans are the descendants of Clovis culture. As far as ‘stolen’ land goes, yeah whatever, except for the fact that white America vibrates to the tune of private property as a natural right preceding everything known to mankind, and yet gave zero shits about taking what they could get through force. There’s also the weird fact that in the aftermath white American invented the western, which is like a victorious Nazi Germany inventing a genre in which noble Aryans are consistently attacked by shtetl-based partisans in the Ukraine.

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  14. Modulo Myself says:

    The even larger point–is Im sick of revisiting slavery–and frankly Jim Crow. Perhaps its my military background and time with Special Forces–but I will not accept anyone casting the black experience in a way that doesn’t keep me in the driver’s seat. I have agency and a brain–it’s not about what other people are doing–Its about what I’M doing and/or will do.

    And the 1619 Project wasn’t dealing with Fred Hampton or James Boggs. It was a positive We spin on racist American history filled with positivity. That’s the grim irony: it was meant to be a replacement myth aimed at a country filled not with mindless mediocrities but with misguided tortured souls who just needed to be exposed to the truth.

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  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Jim Brown 32:
    I agree. Jews teach the Holocaust, and we take no shit on the Holocaust, but that’s not something we need to be reminded of constantly. It’s not the whole story, it’s not the definition of a people, or the most inspirational bit.

    If I were writing Black history I’d focus less on slavery – while of course acknowledging its horrors – and write more about music. What African-Americans did with music stands with the Italian Renaissance and the golden age of Greece. This has been a century-long eruption of creativity and originality that is even more astonishing when you realize there were no Medicis, no popes providing patronage. Robert Johnson had no sponsorship deals. (Well, Satan.) The entire world, from Tokyo to Barcelona to Memphis sings along with, dances to, aspires to emulate the intellectual property of diaspora Blacks.

    Just tell the truth about history. Lay it out there as honestly as you can, and in the history of any people you’ll find tragedy and accomplishment. Tell both stories, don’t push the narrative to make a political point, just tell the whole truth.

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  16. Lounsbury says:

    @Jim Brown 32: Well it is overdone to say that native Americans throughout the two continents did not have land ownership concepts, but at the same time … conquest is conquest and the whole Lefty-white idealisation trending to Noble Savage

    Yes the Americas are all conquered lands. And as human beings and not idealisations, it is more than evident from the history that is known, the native Americans whose lands were conquered themselves were not innocent of bloody conquest (perhaps less land than resource centric, but this is merely a nuance of modes of production).

    In the end all lands root in “stolen.” Beni Adam Beni Adam – people are people, over-clocked bloody chimps.

    Demythologising conquest is reasonable but wailing and weeping about Stolen Lands and engaging in Noble Savage narrative is merely changing the nature of historical distortion.

    @Modulo Myself: The DNA story for the populating of the Americas to date shows at least two distinct waves. But one merely needs to look to firm historical record to have more than ample evidence that like any human population and contra the Noble Savage mythologisation (out of guilty conscience certainly) native populations were quite adept at conquest and really bloody dispossession, whether South and Central American empires or the states of North America.

    Demythologise the conquest, ugly as it was, but wailing and ash-cloth is absurd.

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  17. James Joyner says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    American history filled with annoying speeches and the founding fathers and tedious political debates about how to govern a country at a time prior to industrialization can’t explain any of this.

    You’re conflating history as taught in primary and secondary schools with what professional historians do.

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  18. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08:

    You mention a small issue, NYT changing the story. They seem to have a habit of making online edits to published content without noting a revision. Is this normal or acceptable journalistic practice?

    Ordinarily, newspapers, including the NYT, go to great pains to issue corrections for even minor mistakes like misspelling a name. In the online world, the traditional practice is to do so right on the page, usually set off in italics. Note, for example, the absurd “correction” they put atop Tom Cotton’s op-ed.

    At OTB, my practice is to simply correct misspellings and the like, especially if I catch them myself, without calling attention to the fact. But, even as a lowly blogger, I don’t go back and change the opinions I expressed or make significant corrections about factual errors without calling attention to the original mistake.

    Going back and softening or removing bold assertions that were the cornerstone of the project is very, very bad form.

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  19. James Joyner says:

    @Northerner:

    North America is basically stolen land. That’s such an uncomfortable truth (as the saying goes) that its ignored even more than slavery.

    I honestly don’t think this is “ignored.” Nor, for that matter, is slavery. Even when I was in grade school—in Houston, Texas no less—forty-odd years ago we were studying those events. Nowadays, we’re more harsh in our assessments of them but it’s long been acknowledged.

    What 1619 was trying to do was highlight just how many aspects of modern American life was tied to the institution. And, again, I think that’s a valuable project.

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  20. James Joyner says:

    @An Interested Party:

    I wouldn’t have guessed that James would have such a favorable view of the 1619 Project…of course he has shown that he’s not today’s typical conservative…the pushback from many conservatives against this project has been fierce…I suppose there is a middle ground between them and some of the assertions of Nikole Hannah-Jones where the truth lies

    At the end of the day, I’m an intellectual who believes in vigorous debate as a means of getting us closer to said truth.

    Aside from the racism, I understand why garden variety conservatives hate the Project. It attempts to make a lie out of the notion that the Declaration of Independence is our real founding document and that we’ve moved ever closer to its aspirations. And, as noted, I tend to side with Bret Stephens that this conventional interpretation is more true than false.

    But conventional, non-racist conservatives are often blind to the realities of white privilege and structural racism. Why, we desegregated schools in 1954 (we didn’t but that’s the belief) and ended discrimination in 1964 and 1965. That’s a long time, man! Get over it!

    The 1619 Project is a valuable corrective to this. But its leader is a bit sloppy and, frankly, too strident about how she markets it. She would gain more converts with a softer approach.

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  21. Northerner says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    When it comes to nation states–you either can possess and defend land–or you can’t. End of Story.

    Other than personal convenience, why do you differentiate that from anything else? ie, either you can defend your property (house, car) or your freedom (slavery or dictatorship), or your health/life or you can’t.

    In terms of the first nations, yes they came from Africa by way of Asia. But who did they steal North America from, if no one was here?

    In terms of not owning land, true, except that the European settlers claimed ownership, which in practice meant forcing the concept on those who didn’t have it originally.

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  22. Northerner says:

    @James Joyner:

    I agree there’s more awareness now of the theft of a continent, and there’s always been in academic circles. But in popular culture I think Jim Brown 32’s sense that taking land is natural is as common as the notion that slavery is natural was a couple of centuries ago — ie if you can’t defend your land (or your freedom) then you deserve to lose it.

    Its interesting how different cultures divide what is a right from what isn’t. For instance, in most of the developed world health care is considered a right, while for many Americans if you can’t protect your health (via paying for medical care or healthy food — or I guess staying in lockdown) then you deserve to pay the price.

    On a side note, I’m always intrigued that the same rugged individuals who are against nanny states with their public health and welfare programs simultaneously want a strong police force– shouldn’t rugged individuals be able to protect themselves from criminals?

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  23. Kathy says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    It’s a ridiculous concept–especially when even the “native” americans it was allegedly ‘stolen’ from–don’t believe the land can be ‘owned’ they way white westerners conceptualize it.

    That’s not exactly true. I may not recall this correctly, but it was more a notion that a land owner did not have ownership of the wild plants and animals in their property, as well as that many lands were collectively owned by a tribe or clan rather than a person.

    But beyond that, Europeans took over land by armed conquest through the whole hemisphere. This may be how things were, and certainly Europeans were not shy about conquering other Europeans back then (or ever, really, until fairly recently), nor were the big empires like the Aztecs and Incas assembled through peaceful trade and persuasion. But it wasn’t a friendly act by any means.

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  24. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Northerner: So, relationship citizens have with each other through government are different than the relationships between nation states. They dont’ have to be but that’s the world we live in.

    But acknowledging your point–I believe this is also true in the micro sense as concepts such as private property rely on civic buy-in and enforcement of norms. We make agreements between each other as citizens to have time to pursue other things outside of personal defense–but, as we see with the current administration, norms can change. Im glad for the safety net of civil law but understand that human failings can change the current paradigm to something different. At the end of the day–either I can defend my possessions (either individually or thought making alliances etc) or I can’t.

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  25. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Northerner: Deserve is not a good word to characterize my view. I don’t believe that because a Gazelle is too feeble to run from a Lion that it “deserves” to die. These are things that simply happen–its the natural order. A Lion “loses” more than it “wins”–but it does win.

    Human beings cannot completely vacate their base animal nature–because we are in fact an animal lifeform. We have agency to moderate our base instincts for common good–but that doesn’t and will never always be 100%.

    The Native Americans didn’t deserve to lose and the Invaders didn’t deserve to win. They engaged in conflict–one team won–the other lost. The NA’s were great warriors and I have the upmost respect for them–culturally and politically, their inability to form a larger alliance and their slow adoption of new technology was their undoing. It happens. See–every empire/civilization ever

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  26. Northerner says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    I disagree with the morality (not necessarily yours, I mean the one inherent in that kind of world view), but it certainly fits what happens. It also applies equally to slavery and genocide and a lot of other crimes — in practice if you can’t defend yourself bad things can happen. I guess I’m just hoping that we’re moving beyond that, just as each individual in our society no longer has to be able to protect themself from anyone stronger than them because of laws and police.

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  27. Gustopher says:

    1619 is at least as accurate as my high school history books.

    @Michael Reynolds:

    If I were writing Black history I’d focus less on slavery – while of course acknowledging its horrors – and write more about music.

    Slavery is really more of a subject for White history anyway. Along with the Trail of Tears, Donald Trump, and I’m sure there were some good things too.

    Black history is just getting started, and I’m eager to share power because holy shit have we fucked things up on our own.

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  28. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “Tell both stories, don’t push the narrative to make a political point, just tell the whole truth.”

    Wow. It’s that simple? Who knew? Generations of historians all over the world are slapping palm to forehead — if only they had thought of that!

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  29. wr says:

    @James Joyner: “The 1619 Project is a valuable corrective to this. But its leader is a bit sloppy and, frankly, too strident about how she markets it. She would gain more converts with a softer approach.”

    I wish this were not so rare — your ability to hold these two separate and seemingly somewhat contradictory ideas at the same time. Yes, it is valuable; yes, its leader is flawed and has lent some of those flaws to the project.

    Some on both sides — even commenters here! — seem to want to dismiss the entire project either because of those flaws, or because they believe it goes too far in some areas. But that applies a standard to it that we apply to almost nothing else in our culture… maybe because what it’s saying is so disturbing to our self-image.

    So, one academic to another, I’d like to thank you for this nuanced, wise approach. Of course now you will be banned from the internet forever, but that’s the price!

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  30. Michael Reynolds says:

    @wr:

    Wow. It’s that simple? Who knew? Generations of historians all over the world are slapping palm to forehead — if only they had thought of that!

    You know, @wr, your snark would be so much more effective if you weren’t so clearly wrong. Do you actually believe that historians have been universally devoted to telling the simple, unshaded truth? Historians down through well, history, have generally been in the employ of various governments. Every Roman emperor had his own pet historian. So did the popes, and the kings, and the tyrants and the conquerors. Do you think objectivity was their guiding principle?

    But set aside ancient history, do you think Southern historians who favored slavery or promoted the Lost Cause were telling the simple truth? How about Nazi historians? Soviet historians? You think maybe historians quite often tell the story they’re paid to tell? Have you heard of historiography?

    I know it irritates you that I spin my lack of formal education as a virtue. But it’s for moments like this, when you, an educated man, should understand, but don’t.

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  31. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I’m honestly unsure what you’re arguing here. Historians are human beings with agendas. But the nature of the profession is to unearth facts and provide arguments around them, citing sources so that others may judge said arguments. Done with any integrity at all, that means acknowledging that there’s a lot we don’t know.

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  32. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    Sometimes you’re just kind of naive. Do I need to go through and start linking to allegedly reputable historians who were apologists for the Confederacy? Do you think that’s accidental? They were really trying hard to tell the unshaded truth, but no, somehow, gosh darn it a heapin’ helpin’ of lost cause bullshit snuck in. There are historians who are holocaust-deniers, FFS.

    History is a story. People who write stories know what story they’re telling. They shade the truth. They twist the truth. They straight up lie, although more often they just omit anything inconvenient. Speaking truth to power tends not to be very lucrative.

    Let’s say it’s 1960. UVA is looking for a new chair of the history department. They can give the job to the person who rigorously researched slavery and showed the full depravity of the South. Or they can give the job to someone who wrote a glowing ‘history’ of Bobbie Lee. Who do you think gets the job? The one who condemns a great many of the college’s alumni, or the guy who pats them on the head? Show me an honest history of Robert E. Lee written prior to, say, 1960.

    Physicists and mathematicians may be all about fact-finding, but historians? Please.

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