Leftists Attack The ‘1619 Project’
In the “Idea Laundering” post the other day, I mentioned an excellent interview on the World Socialist Web Site with Princeton historian James McPherson, one of the top Civil War scholars in the nation, in which McPherson tore apart The New York Times‘s ballyhooed “1619 Project.” That project, as regular readers will recall, is a massive effort by the newspaper to “reframe” (its word) the American founding around slavery. In the interview, McPherson basically argued that the project’s claims are woke nonsense. Excerpt:
Q. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer and leader of the 1619 Project, includes a statement in her essay—and I would say that this is the thesis of the project—that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”
A. Yes, I saw that too. It does not make very much sense to me. I suppose she’s using DNA metaphorically. She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.
But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.
The WSWS has published a second interview with a leading US historian, Brown University emeritus professor Gordon Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the American Revolution. He’s even tougher on the 1619 Project than Prof. McPherson. Excerpts:
Q. Let me begin by asking you your initial reaction to the 1619 Project. When did you learn about it?
A. Well, I was surprised when I opened my Sunday New York Times in August and found the magazine containing the project. I had no warning about this. I read the first essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which alleges that the Revolution occurred primarily because of the Americans’ desire to save their slaves. She claims the British were on the warpath against the slave trade and slavery and that rebellion was the only hope for American slavery. This made the American Revolution out to be like the Civil War, where the South seceded to save and protect slavery, and that the Americans 70 years earlier revolted to protect their institution of slavery. I just couldn’t believe this.
I was surprised, as many other people were, by the scope of this thing, especially since it’s going to become the basis for high school education and has the authority of the New York Times behind it, and yet it is so wrong in so many ways.
Q. Can you discuss the relationship between the American Revolution and the institution of slavery?
A. One of the things that I have emphasized in my writing is how many southerners and northerners in 1776 thought slavery was on its last legs and that it would naturally die away. You can find quotation after quotation from people seriously thinking that slavery was going to wither away in several decades. Now we know they couldn’t have been more wrong. But they lived with illusions and were so wrong about so many things. We may be living with illusions too. One of the big lessons of history is to realize how the past doesn’t know its future. We know how the story turned out, and we somehow assume they should know what we know, but they don’t, of course. They don’t know their future any more than we know our future, and so many of them thought that slavery would die away, and at first there was considerable evidence that that was indeed the case.
At the time of the Revolution, the Virginians had more slaves than they knew what to do with, so they were eager to end the international slave trade. But the Georgians and the South Carolinians weren’t ready to do that yet. That was one of the compromises that came out of the Constitutional Convention. The Deep South was given 20 years to import more slaves, but most Americans were confident that the despicable transatlantic slave trade was definitely going to end in 1808.
Q. Under the Jefferson administration?
A. Yes, it was set in the Constitution at 20 years, but everyone knew this would be ended because nearly everyone knew that this was a barbaric thing, importing people and so on. Many thought that ending the slave trade would set slavery itself on the road to extinction. Of course, they were wrong.
I think the important point to make about slavery is that it had existed for thousands of years without substantial criticism, and it existed all over the New World. It also existed elsewhere in the world. Western Europe had already more or less done away with slavery. Perhaps there was nothing elsewhere comparable to the plantation slavery that existed in the New World, but slavery was widely prevalent in Africa and Asia. There is still slavery today in the world.
And it existed in all of these places without substantial criticism. Then suddenly in the middle of the 18th century you begin to get some isolated Quakers coming out against it. But it’s the American Revolution that makes it a problem for the world. And the first real anti-slave movement takes place in North America. So this is what’s missed by these essays in the 1619 Project.
Wood says that “slavery grows stronger after the Revolution, but it’s concentrated in the South,” but something radical happened in the North after the Revolution: there, “the massive movement against slavery was unprecedented in the history of the world. So to somehow turn this around and make the Revolution a means of preserving slavery is strange and contrary to the evidence.”
One more quote from the interview:
Q. The 1619 Project claims basically that nothing has ever gotten any better. That it’s as bad now as it was during slavery, and instead what you’re describing is a very changed world…
A. Imagine the inequalities that existed before the Revolution. Not just in wealth—I mean, we have that now—but in the way in which people were treated. Consider the huge number of people who were servants of some kind. I just think that people need to know just how bad the Ancién Regime was. In France, we always had this Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities view of the society, with a nobleman riding through the village and running over children and so on. But similar kinds of brutalities and cruelties existed in the English-speaking world in the way common people were treated. In England, there must have been 200 capital crimes on the books. Consequently, juries became somewhat reluctant to convict to hanging a person for stealing a handkerchief. So the convict was sent as a bonded servant to the colonies, 50,000 of them. And then when the American Revolution occurs, Australia becomes the replacement.
I don’t think people realize just what a cruel and brutal world existed in the Ancién Regime, in the premodern societies of the West, not just for slaves, but for lots of people who were considered the mean or lowly sort. And they don’t appreciate what a radical message is involved in declaring that all men are created equal and what that message means for our obsession with education, and the implications of that for our society.
I hope you will read the whole thing. Wood is defending the radicalism of the American Revolution. His socialist interviewer, Tom Mackaman, underscores that point, saying that the American Revolution was certainly not a socialist revolution, but in its time, represented a world-historical step forward in humanity’s liberation.
WSWS published a third interview with a professional historian, James Oakes of New York University, who thinks The 1619 Project is what you get when “neo-liberalism” meets “liberal guilt.” More:
Q. The formulation that behind debates over race are struggles over power struck me in relationship to the present as well, and in particular the promotion by the 1619 Project of racialist politics, which is certainly once again a cornerstone of the Democratic Party.
A. Here I agree with my friend Adolph Reed [black political scientist at Penn — RD]. Identity is very much the ideology of the professional-managerial class. They prefer to talk about identity over capitalism and the inequities of capitalism. We have an atrocious wealth gap in this country. It’s not a black-white wealth gap. It’s a wealth gap. But if you keep rephrasing it as black-white, and shift it off to a racial argument, you undermine the possibility of building a working-class coalition, which by definition would be disproportionately black, disproportionately female, disproportionately Latino, and still probably majority white. That’s the kind of working-class coalition that identity politics tends to erase.
Q. Can you address the role of identity politics on the campus? How is it to try to do so serious work under these conditions?
A. Well, my sense is that among graduate students the identitarians stay away from me, and they badger the students who are interested in political and economic history. They have a sense of their own superiority. The political historians tend to feel besieged.
The reflection of identity politics in the curriculum is the primacy of cultural history. There was a time, a long, long time ago, when a “diverse history faculty” meant that you had an economic historian, a political historian, a social historian, a historian of the American Revolution, of the Civil War, and so on. And now a diverse history faculty means a women’s historian, a gay historian, a Chinese-American historian, a Latino historian. So it’s a completely different kind of diversity.
On a global scale the benefit of this has been tremendous. We have more—and we should have more—African history, Latin American history, Asian history, than we ever have. Within US history it has produced narrow faculties in which everybody is basically writing the same thing. And so you don’t bump into the economic historian at the mailbox and say “Is it true that all the wealth came from slavery,” and have them say, “that’s ridiculous,” and explain why it can’t be true.
Q. Another aspect of the way the 1619 Project presents history is to imply that it is a uniquely American phenomenon, leaving out the long history of chattel slavery, the history of slavery in the Caribbean.
A. And they erase Africa from the African slave trade. They claim that Africans were stolen and kidnapped from Africa. Well, they were purchased by these kidnappers in Africa. Everybody’s hands were dirty. And this is another aspect of the tendency to reify race because you’re attempting to isolate a racial group that was also complicit. This is conspicuous only because the obsession with complicity is so overwhelming in the political culture right now, but also as reflected in the 1619 Project. Hypocrisy and complicity are basically the two great attacks. Again, not a critique of capitalism. It’s a critique of hypocrisy and complicity. Here I agree with Genovese, who once said that “hypocrites are a dime a dozen.” Hypocrisy doesn’t interest me as a critique, nor does complicity.
By now it ought to be clear why the World Socialist Web Site is savaging The 1619 Project. But if you’re still missing the point, here’s the WSWS editorial that explains it. Excerpt:
Despite the pretense of establishing the United States’ “true” foundation, the 1619 Project is a politically motivated falsification of history. Its aim is to create a historical narrative that legitimizes the effort of the Democratic Party to construct an electoral coalition based on the prioritizing of personal “identities”—i.e., gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, and, above all, race.
Hannah-Jones does not view Lincoln as “the Great Emancipator,” as the freed slaves called him in the 1860s, but as a garden-variety racist who held “black people [as] the obstacle to national unity.” The author simply disregards Lincoln’s own words—for example, the Gettysburg Address and the magisterial Second Inaugural Address—as well as the books written by historians such as Eric Foner, James McPherson, Allen Guelzo, David Donald, Ronald C. White, Stephen Oates, Richard Carwardine and many others that demonstrate Lincoln’s emergence as a revolutionary leader fully committed to the destruction of slavery.
But an honest portrayal of Lincoln would contradict Hannah-Jones’ claims that “black Americans fought back alone” to “make America a democracy.” So too would a single solitary mention, anywhere in the magazine, of the 2.2 million Union soldiers who fought and the 365,000 who died to end slavery.
Boom! Thank you for mentioning the Union dead, whose sacrifice for the defeat of the Confederacy is demeaned and dismissed by the Times ideologues.
Heaven knows that I’m no socialist, but it’s clear that they correctly understand that the woke left’s obsession with identity politics, and the total capitulation of liberal institutions (like the media, and universities) to left-wing identity politics, makes it much harder to build the kind of coalitions necessary to defeat what they see as capitalist exploitation. In fact, in his interview, Oakes, a top historian of 19th Century America, talks about how in the years before the Civil War, the Democratic Party in the North, in an effort to hold on to power, embraced racism in a strong way. If they broke with the Southern Democrats, they would lose national power … but if they endorsed slavery, they would alienate their voters. So they tried to split the difference by affirming racist views and policies, while not endorsing slavery.
Did you know this? I did not. In fact, in all three interviews, I learned things about American history that I had not known. I’m grateful to the WSWS for having the fortitude to seek these scholars out for interviews. Mind you, these three men are at the top of their field, so you have to wonder why no mainstream journalists bothered to reach out to them to get their takes on the 1619 Project — especially given that they explain in detail why its premises and conclusions are so absurd.
To be fair, conservative journalists (like me) could have done this, and now that I’ve seen the excellent work Tom Mackaman has produced from his interviews, I’m kicking myself for not coming up with the idea myself. I wonder why no other conservative journalists did? (If they did, then I apologize — I’m not aware of it.) Thinking about this, I suspect there is a certain demoralization here, or, less pejoratively, prudence. If any conservative publications addressed the 1619 Project when it debuted, they denounced it as an identitarian ideological project (I certainly did), but may also have figured that it was pointless to go after it further, as nobody inclined to believe in the Project’s mission and claims would pay the slightest attention to criticism from the Right.
That’s not an excuse, but it is, I think, an explanation. What’s more, I suspect that a certain fatalism has settled in among conservatives on these matters — that is, a feeling that identity politics ideology has captured the institutions so thoroughly that fighting back can seem futile.
For liberal journalists and commenters, it’s easier to understand why they wouldn’t think to search out the opinions of leading historians who criticize The 1619 Project: because either they agree with the Project, or they don’t want to be seen disagreeing with it. Just today I was talking with a friend about the WSWS essays, and told him that the 1619 Project, which he had not seen, was an attempt by the Times to say that slavery is at the core of the American founding. My friend said that even if the trio of scholars is correct about the fatal flaws in the Project, it is no bad thing for us to spend more time thinking and talking about slavery.
I strongly objected. I think this is emotivist and therapeutic. For one thing, is there any topic in American history that we talk about more than slavery and the Civil War? This is understandable, as along with the Founding, the Civil War, which resolved the slavery question, is the central event of US history. Our two most consequential presidents are Washington and Lincoln, because of that. But how we think about slavery, especially in historical context, matters immensely. As Orwell and others who wrote about 20th century totalitarianism said, whoever controls a culture’s collective memory controls the culture. The New York Times is sending the 1619 Project material all over the country, to high schools. It is an identity politics project, and it matters that this is how the Founding of America is going to be learned and remembered by a new generation. These interviews explain why.
The socialists who put out WSWS understand that something vital for their movement is at stake here. If identity politics, and not class conflict (as Marxists say) becomes the standard by which we understand the American founding, then socialism will not get very far in America. To be sure, many, and maybe even most, contemporary American socialists also accept without objection all the usual identity politics stances. (The late Italian political theorist Augusto Del Noce had an explanation for this, saying, in essence, that the failure of Marxist economics by the 1960s caused a new generation of leftist to take up cultural politics instead.) I don’t see how on earth these identity-politics socialists are going to put together the kind of class-based political coalition that can win out over capital. Capitalists know this too, which is no doubt why they’re so heavily invested in “diversity, inclusion and equity.”
My guess too is that the socialists who run that website might have figured that being on the Left might have gained them more credibility among left-liberals, and shielded them from the kind of attacks conservative critics of the 1619 Project would have received. Well, surprise! Here’s one of the responses to the socialists’ challenge from 1619 Project founder and director Nikole Hannah-Jones:
Trump supporters have never harassed me and insulted my intelligence as much as white men claiming to be socialists. You all have truly revealed yourselves for the anti-black folks you really are.
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) November 27, 2019
Anyway, look, by all means read the three interviews on the radical website. Lots there to think about — things you wouldn’t have heard or read in our woke liberal media. I wonder if the leadership of the Times will bother to read these interviews. And please, you think too about what small magazines and websites bring to our public debate and discourse. They — we — sometimes see things invisible to the mainstream, and say things that are taboo to them.
UPDATE: Wow, wow, wow. A reader sent me scholar Wilfrid McClay’s devastating takedown of the 1619 Project in the October issue of the conservative Commentary magazine. By all means read it. Excerpts:
Considered strictly as an exercise in historical understanding, and in deepening the public’s understanding of a profound issue in our national past, the Project represents a giant missed opportunity. It passes over the complex truth in favor of an exaggeration bordering on travesty. And if it has any influence, that influence will be as likely as not to damage the nation and distort its self-understanding in truly harmful ways—ways that will perhaps be most harmful of all to Americans of African descent, who do not need to be supplied with yet another reason to feel cut off from the promise of American life.
None of which is to deny that it is entirely fitting and proper to observe, with solemnity and respect, and no small measure of remorse, the 400th anniversary of this event. Nor can anyone familiar with the record of American history deny that slavery is one of that history’s central themes in our nation’s past—a brutal institution that existed in contradiction to the nation’s highest ideals, whose consequences we have had to work very hard to overcome, and have yet to overcome completely.
But to acknowledge that slavery and its effects have been woven deeply and indelibly into the fabric of American society, and will always be a part of the American story, is one thing. To say that they represent the predominant forces shaping American life down to the present—that is quite another.
Will the 1619 Project bring these facts to light? Will it seek to give us a better- informed perspective on the uniqueness of the liberty and prosperity and order that we enjoy, and the obstacles in our own history that we have managed to overcome to get where we are? Will it point out that the United States did not create slavery, did not create racism or racial prejudice, that these things are as old as human history and are the default position of human nature, absent some strong countervailing moral force; but that the United States, while having a history that is touched by these evils and while having participated in them, is also a country that has a larger history of which it can be proud, a history of seeking to overcome such things?
It could indeed do that, if it chose to. But that is not what it has chosen to do.
Instead, the Times has chosen to link the commemoration of 1619—a project that in itself is indisputably worthy and important—with a highly questionable scholarly agenda and an equally questionable journalistic one. It uses 1619 as a pretext for other things. I have no idea whether the political gambit of attributing comprehensive bred-in-the-bone racism to the overwhelming majority of Americans can be successful. I doubt that it can, but who knows? But I do know this:
Rooting the nation’s institutions in 1619 not only becomes a way of denying the grandeur of the nation’s actual founding a century and a half later, and of the institutions, including the world’s oldest constitution, that were established then; and of denying the nation’s immense moral progress since that time, and its capacity for even greater progress. Even more important, it becomes a massive distraction, a way of not thinking constructively about the problems that face us, and the changes that could bring progress. Do we really want to continue down that road? I hope that we won’t. But the example being set by the New York Times is far from encouraging.
The whole thing is a must-read. The details in the McClay essay about slavery scholarship are brutal to the 1619 Project’s premises.
The reader who sent the McClay essay is a university professor, who said:
What is truly remarkable, though, is how silent the historical profession has otherwise been about this subject. These three very senior, very distinguished historians have stepped forward, and they deserve enormous credit for that. So do the devoted Marxists who run this website, and care so much about historical truth. But otherwise…..