Home/Rod Dreher/Woke Totalitarianism Wins A Big One

Woke Totalitarianism Wins A Big One

Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones (Photo by Brent N. Clarke/FilmMagic, via Getty Images)

Some commenters on this blog think I’m way out of line saying that the totalitarian threat in the US comes much more from the left than the right. Didn’t I see the men with rifles in the Michigan statehouse? (Yes, I did — and I criticized them.) Those men, however out of line they were, are nothing compared with the power of liberals in academia and media to change the narrative of American history. This is what totalitarianism does. It not only tries to control your actions — that’s what authoritarianism is — but it tries to control the way you think. It does so by demolishing established cultural memory, seeking to replace it with new, ideologized ones — and demonizing anyone who disagrees with the official story, however falsified it is.

Here’s an important example. In 2019, The New York Times, the world’s most influential newspaper, launched “The 1619 Project,” a massive attempt to “reframe” (the Times’s word) American history by displacing the 1776 Declaration of Independence as the traditional founding of the United States, replacing it with the year the first African slaves arrived in North America. Let’s be crystal-clear here: The most powerful media source in the world decided that Americans should stop believing that the Declaration of Independence represents the nation’s founding, and instead accept that the real birth of American happened in 1619, when the first African slave arrived in North America.

No serious person denies the importance of slavery in US history. But that’s not the point of The 1619 Project. Its goal – through newspaper stories and essays, and an elaborate educational project involving schools — is to clear away the foundations of America’s national identity by rewriting its history to emphasize the experiences of the African-American minority. There is nothing wrong, and much right, with highlighting the role African-Americans played in the drama of the nation’s history. But progressives marching through classrooms and newsrooms today are rewriting history to serve an ideological agenda of reallocating power.

The implications for the 1619 Project’s claim are radical. No fair-minded American can deny that slavery is a central fact of US history. We have collectively understood the Civil War primarily as a savage fraternal conflict to determine whether the ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution applied to all Americans, or excluded black ones. The drama of American life, from generation to generation, has emerged from the conflict between our founding ideals, and our struggle to live them out more perfectly, within the limits of our own human fallibility.

The 1619 Project, however, denies that those ideals were anything other than a façade for white supremacy. By this twisted reckoning, Confederate slaveholders were more authentically American than Northern abolitionists. Bull Connor, the notorious Alabama police chief who turned police dogs on Civil Rights marchers, was a truer patriot than Martin Luther King.

The Times spread this story in acres of print on its pages, and in educational documents widely distributed in schools. Some prominent historians – including some well-known liberals — demolished the 1619 Project’s core claims in interviews with a socialist website. They blasted project manager Nikole Hannah-Jones’s wild assertion that the colonists broke from Britain to preserve slavery, Hannah-Jones dismissed them with a tweet. In it, she cast racialized suspicion on their objections because they are white:

Teachers in hundreds of schools, including in Chicago and Washington, DC, have ordered 1619 Project educational materials. The Pulitzer Center says it has put The 1619 Project into 4,500 classrooms. The highly ideological account of American history will serve one goal: advancing identity politics, and the quest for power through identifying and demonizing outgroups despised by the Left. This is a textbook case of seizing and rewriting cultural memory for the sake of achieving power. If we do not possess the historical knowledge to know when we are being bamboozled; if we are too intimidated by allegations of bigotry to object; or if we simply don’t care about the past — then how can we resist the imposition of cultural amnesia?

If we can’t resist the rout of our cultural memory – if ideologues in power rewrite the past – then our future as a nation and a civilization will be in doubt.

Progressive history projects like the 1619 Project’s propaganda serve the larger goal of advancing the perceived political interests of the left’s preferred classes – often racial and sexual minorities — over others. To paraphrase Marx, in the past, historians and educators tried to interpret history in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.

The American news media is deeply complicit in this woke totalitarian project. As I have written in this space, last year Zach Goldberg, a political science PhD student at Georgia Tech, did a deep dive on the LexisNexis database, the world’s largest database of publicly available documents, including media reports. He searched the archives using progressive buzzwords that one sees everywhere in media today. What he found was jaw-dropping.

• In 2010, the number of articles mentioning the phrase “diversity and inclusion” was fewer than 1,000. In 2017, there were over 15,000 such articles.

• In 2010, there were 500 articles using the word “whiteness”. In 2017, there were well over 2,000. In the same period, the mentions of “critical race theory” – an academic concept teaching that “race” is a social construct created by white people to maintain their dominance – tripled.

• There were almost no articles with the term “unconscious bias” in 2010; in 2017, there were 6,000.

• In 2010, there were around 200 articles mentioning “white privilege.” In 2017, they topped 2,500.

• In The New York Times alone, the number of articles using the word “privilege” skyrocketed from 500 in 2010 to 2,400 in 2017. There was a similar trebling of the number of Times articles mentioning “discrimination” in that time period, and a quadrupling (from 180 to 800) of articles using the term “social justice.”

• The social justice jargon term “marginalized” didn’t exist in the Times in the year 2000, and in 2010, was used shy of 200 times. But in 2017, it appeared over 600 times in the paper of record. In 2010, the word “racism” appeared in the Times around 150 times; in 2017, there were 2,500 Times pieces mentioning racism.

Why do I bring all this up today? Because Nikole Hannah-Jones, director of the 1619 Project, won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her introductory essay to the project. That is, the most elite award in American journalism, awarded by journalists to other journalists, went to a discredited historical project that amounts to woke propaganda.

If that’s not amusing enough, look at this:

The Pulitzer Center is a sponsor of The 1619 Project. Surprise! The project’s lead writer won the Pulitzer Prize. To be fair, Pulitzer judges are not employees of the Pulitzer Center, but are leading US journalists. Still, the mutual pud-pulling here is pretty phenomenal. There has not been a more ideologically driven major award since the Nobel Peace Prize committee gave Barack Obama the 2009 award for not being George W. Bush.

The importance of today’s Pulitzer win for this woke pseudo-history is that it signals how deep the woke-totalitarian instincts go within the established US media. It’s a sign that the elite of American media do not care about truth when journalism supports a woke ideological goal.Mathematician James Lindsay explains why The 1619 Project is such an important project in the social justice warrior campaign. Excerpt from his Social Justice Encyclopedia entry (emphases are in the original):

The importance of the point about the 1619 Project not being a serious attempt at historical understanding but a project within critical race Theory is beyond calculability. This is because the standard approach to challenging the 1619 Project’s bogus claims and attempt to roll itself out into our society and educational system is to challenge its historical legitimacy, and this is unfortunately a necessary part of engaging with it. The trouble is, because the 1619 Project neither is history nor claims to be history, this necessary activity is ultimately severely limited in its purposed utility.

The 1619 Project’s deeper goal is not so much to rewrite history as it is to introduce an alternative narrative about history, one that offers a different—and critical—reading of history. It is therefore a project aiming not to inform or educate but to induce a critical consciousness about race and racism (see also, critical theory). That is, the goal of the project is to make it impossible to think of the founding of the United States without including ideas of both slavery and institutionalcultural, and structural racism. In some sense, then, showing up with historical facts to the battleground of the 1619 Project is a bit like showing up to a gun fight with a knife.

Critical analyses often have this purpose at their core. Their objective is, more than anything, to generate polarizing debate around themselves, which increases their potency. The strategy is simple. A critical counterstory such as we have in the 1619 Project is forwarded with the express purpose of generating debate around its validity and the critiques it raises. The next step is to characterize that debate in terms of the power dynamics critical theories exist to attempt to disrupt and dismantle: oppressor versus oppressed. So the authoritative history is cast as an oppressive narrative that upholds systemic power and oppression, and the critical revisionist counterstory is cast as a self-defensive alternative that can liberate the relevant victims from those systems of power and the injustices they create. People are therefore forced to pick a side not between truth and falsity—which are irrelevant to the politics of the critical agenda (see also, reality)—but between siding with oppression or liberation from oppression.

The reason for this unfortunate state of affairs is that within Theory (see also, postmodernismFoucauldian, and Social Justice), the very concept of truth is rejected, and everything is made out to be a matter of warring narratives (see also, racial knowledge). From the perspective of critical race Theory, not only is there is no objective telling of history; no such thing can exist, in principle, even in reasonable approximation. There is merely your history and my history, white history and black history, and so on, and our own cultural biases inform all such narratives and are embedded in all methodologies that create those “narratives” (see also, epistemetruth regimeknowledge(s), and ways of knowing).

You may have missed earlier this year a Politico column by historian Leslie Harris, an African-American woman, who says that when she was asked by the Times to fact-check the 1619 Project’s claims, she warned them that Nikole Hannah-Jones was flat-out wrong to claim that American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery — but they blew her off. Naturally, Harris says in her column that the greater villains are conservatives who complain about the 1619 Project. But it does go to show how Pulitzer Prize-winner Nikole Hannah-Jones wasn’t going to let truth get in the way of the story she wanted to tell — and neither were her editors. In March, the Times kinda sorta changed its tune on that disputed point in the face of historians’ criticism. Hannah-Jones won her Pulitzer anyway.

It’s fine for conservatives to snicker over this ideologically loaded award, but I’m telling you, as a professional journalist, this is a big deal within the circles of academics and opinion leaders. It’s the kind of thing that provides an imprimatur of establishment respect for left-wing, racially charged pseudo-history that openly declares its goal to be discrediting the founding myth of the United States. If America was born for the purpose of defending slavery, then it has been a fraud from the very beginning. Not, as most of us have been taught, a flawed experiment in liberty — one that we fought a Civil War, and then had a Civil Rights Movement, to amend, and that each generation must struggle to bring to greater perfection — but thoroughly corrupt from the inception.

This claim, which has been shown to be factually unsupportable, is now what the Pulitzer Prize committee — the cream of US journalism and academia — believes is worthy of journalism’s highest honor. And now this woke, America-hating lie will almost certainly be taught in even more American schools, because hey, it won a Pulitzer Prize. The elites are validating themselves and their own woke worldview.

This matters, folks. This matters infinitely more than a bunch of neckbeards carrying guns in the Michigan legislature. Those men look frightening, but they are essentially powerless. These people, the Pulitzer judges, and the Times fabulists, hold the power that matters most: the power to rewrite history in the minds of future generations, in this case to fit a left-wing racialist ideological narrative.

We do not need to be told lies for the sake of holding us together as a nation (and denying or downplaying the role of slavery and racism in US history is a form of that kind of lying), but at least one can see the rationale for it. But what is the rationale for telling lies that tear America apart along racial lines? When I think of the Pulitzer judges, and the American media elites who are training the young to hate the ties that bind this country together, this passage from Arendt’s Origins Of Totalitarianism comes to mind:

The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.

Substitute “their country” for “civilization,” and there you have it.

UPDATE: You may recall that the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded the 1932 Pulitzer Prize to Walter Duranty of the Times for his fake reporting that covered up Stalin’s famine. 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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