The editors of the New York Times Magazine refused to publish the full text of the following letter in either its print or its online editions.
Editor 28. June 2018
New York Times Magazine
The New York Times Building
620 Eighth Avenue
New York, NY 10018
Thomas Chatterton Williams’ profile on me derides the APRA Foundation Berlin’s policy of fact-checking articles on my work pre-publication as an “impossible condition.” Actually it is a successful policy we have had in place for over twelve years that ensures the factual accuracy of texts on my work. He is “astonished” by my “insistence that senior staff members at a national magazine walk [me] through their understanding of what a ‘fact’ is.” Actually my insistence consisted in – as he earlier stated – “want[ing] to make sure that we were all in agreement about what a ‘fact’ was.” This would be one good example of our different understandings of what a “fact” is: For him there is no factual difference between senior staff members at a national magazine walking me through their understanding of what a “fact” is, and our making sure that we are all in agreement about what a “fact” is. For me there is quite a large factual difference between these two: whereas the former would be a ridiculous exercise, the latter is a useful preliminary, given that such agreement clearly cannot be presupposed.
Here are some other instances in which we would disagree about what a fact is:
(1) He quotes John Bowles’ claim that I (as the Mythic Being) “cruised white women and staged a mugging, among other things, in order to force viewers to ‘question how popularly held stereotypes affect perception.’” This is a factually false account of my motives in performing these works, and it was false when John Bowles originally published it. A true account is available in my “Notes on the Mythic Being I-III,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, Volume I: Selected Writings in Meta-Art 1968-1992 (MIT Press, 1996). I contended in “Art Criticism Essay Suggested Guidelines” that whether or not a person has a particular motive is a matter of fact that can best be ascertained by consulting that person. Williams chose to consult John Bowles’ book instead.*
(2) He states that “Piper ended up graduating near the top of her program [at Harvard].” According to my graduate advisor, Professor Roderick Firth, I tied one other student, who is now the chair of the Harvard Philosophy Department, for the highest grade point average in my class – i.e. I graduated at the top of my class, not near it. This conversation is documented in my “Passing for White, Passing for Black” (1992). It would be useful to know what source Williams consulted for his statement.
(3) He ascribes to me the “decision no longer to show exclusively with other artists of color.” This implies that I once did “show exclusively with other artists of color.” But this is false on two counts: First, I never did show exclusively with other artists of color. Most of the other artists I have shown with have not been artists of color. So it is factually false that I made a decision to no longer do so. Second, my decision was not to stop showing with artists of color, but rather to stop showing in racially segregated exhibitions, i.e. those comprising only African American artists. I detail my reasons for this decision at some length in my Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir, which Williams read. Whereas he would equate “artists of color” with “African American artists,” I would conform to common usage in identifying the latter as a subset of the former.
(4) He claims that in Escape to Berlin, I “accus[e] members of the [Wellesley] philosophy department, the administration and the board of campaigns of harassment, vandalism and, ultimately, trying to kill [me].” I do no such thing, and nothing of the kind will be found in the pages of Escape to Berlin. In connection with this claim, I spent several hours with the New York Times Magazine fact-checkers on the distinctions between killing someone and causing them to die; between necessary, sufficient, contributing, and precipitating causes; and between accusing someone of trying to do something and stating a belief about their motive for doing something.** So Williams’ disregard of the factual differences that these distinctions mark reveals another juncture at which we disagree about what a fact is.
There are several other such junctures in Williams’ essay. But perhaps these suffice to suggest that achieving agreement on what a fact is can be a useful preliminary for establishing factual accuracy that is less “strikingly unreasonable” than he thinks. After all, journalistic freedom of the press is not the freedom to say just any old thing one pleases. It is the freedom to say what is true.
*The New York Times Magazine editors refused to correct this error on the grounds that “[i]n Thomas's article, it is clear to the reader that this is a quote from Bowles and therefore his own interpretation, rather than your own. The text of the quote itself is accurate.”
** The New York Times Magazine editors refused to correct this error on the grounds that “we believe that Thomas's interpretation that you accused Wellesley of "ultimately, trying to kill" you is a reasonable reading of this passage from "Escape to Berlin": ‘I still think The College wants me dead; that it will want this even more once this memoir is published; and that, with its powerful international political and corporate connections, it will find a way to make this happen. [emphasis not in original]’.”
The editors were so intent on discrediting my narrative in Escape to Berlin that they overlooked the glaring howler that forms the centerpiece of Williams’s essay.