The liberal columnist Damon Linker tears the NYT’s slavery-is-everything project to pieces. For those just now tuning in, the “1619 Project” is a massive effort by the Times to — in the words of an introduction by the NYT Magazine — “tell our story truthfully.” The newspaper means America’s story. In the view of the newspaper, slavery is the central event in American history. The founding of America did not simply entail slavery; it WAS slavery. Excerpt from Linker’s column:
Now, there is a lot to admire in the paper’s presentation of the 1619 Project — searing photographs, illuminating quotations from archival material, samples of poetry and fiction giving powerful voice to the black experience, and gripping journalistic summaries of scholarly histories. Much of it is wrenching, moving, and infuriating. The country’s treatment of the slaves and their descendants through the century following emancipation and, in some respects, on down to the present was and is appalling — and the story of how it happened, and keeps happening, is extremely important for understanding the United States. Bringing this story to a wide audience is a worthwhile public service.
Yet that isn’t the point of the 1619 project. The point, once again, is to “reframe American history” so that this appalling history stands at the very center of who we are as a country. Achieving that goal has required the Times to treat history in a highly sensationalistic, reductionistic, and tendentious way, with the cumulative result resembling agitprop more than responsible journalism or scholarship. Putting aside any pretense toward nuance or complexity, the paper has surrendered to the sensibility of left-wing political activists. The result is unpersuasive — and a sad comment on the state of our country’s public life.
Throughout the issue of the NYTM, headlines make, with just slight variations, the same rhetorical move over and over again: “Here is something unpleasant, unjust, or even downright evil about life in the present-day United States. Bet you didn’t realize that slavery is ultimately to blame.” Lack of universal access to health care? High rates of sugar consumption? Callous treatment of incarcerated prisoners? White recording artists “stealing” black music? Harsh labor practices? That’s right — all of it, and far more, follows from slavery.
Linker goes into detail about how shallow and ideologically driven this project is. The silliest essay of the bunch, says Linker, is one by a Princeton historian who blames slavery for Atlanta’s traffic jams. The best essay, in Linker’s estimation, examines the capitalist foundations of slavery, but radically and ridiculously oversimplifies history to make the historical narrative fit 21st century political requirements. (When I read it, I thought, “Did this author never hear of the “dark Satanic Mills,” as Blake called them, of England’s Industrial Revolution?) In Linker’s estimation, that piece “turns historical scholarship into propaganda for a left-wing political movement.” More:
And the 1619 Project is all about advancing a radical political agenda. The message it aims to convey is clear: The United States is and always has been, from its very origin, a racist country infected by a white supremacist ideology that has birthed and nurtured institutions and systems — from Congress to capitalism — that systematically disadvantage black Americans. Political actors of the present have a simple choice: They can either embrace (invariably left-liberal or socialist) policies that will begin the process of dismantling these pervasive forms of structural injustice — or they can oppose doing so and ensure that the injustices continue, with toxic racism remaining where it has been for the past four centuries, at the very center of American life. Those are the choices.
You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.
Linker points out that in the leaked transcript of the in-house town hall meeting chaired by executive editor Dean Baquet, the Times’s top newsroom leader did not question an unnamed questioner’s assertion that “racism is in everything,” and instead assured the questioner that next year, race was going to be central to the newspaper’s coverage.
What an astonishing capitulation of journalistic standards to political expedience! We now know without a shadow of a doubt that the most influential news organization in the nation, and probably even the world, is operating on an algorithm that forces the multifarious complexity of events in the life of this diverse nation to conform to left-liberal race dogmas.
Imagine what it’s like being a reporter or an editor at the Times, and disagreeing with this radical assessment of American history, and the approach the newspaper ought to take to reporting and analyzing the news. Would you have the courage to speak out? Of course you wouldn’t: they’d demonize you as a racist. You’re either part of the solution, or part of the problem.
If the black executive editor of the Times won’t even challenge the extreme assertion that “racism is in everything,” and ought to dictate how the newspaper does its job, why should you take that risk?
The Times just blew their credibility with anybody who doesn’t already agree with them. They’re not even trying to be objective. This is useful to learn, but I’m afraid it’s more serious than you readers who don’t give a fig about the Times and its ways understand. That newspaper, more than any other, both shapes and reflects the views of the American cultural elite. As I’ve written here often, the Times sets the agenda for other leading American media outlets, in part by framing what the media pays attention to. This extraordinary narrative — that the point of America from its very founding was slavery and racism — is now being injected into the mainstream.
This is totalitarian. In the book I’m working on now, I find that most of the factors that Hannah Arendt cited as pre-totalitarian — especially the radical isolation of individuals — exist in our present culture. But there are two important differences: surveillance technology is far, far more advanced than under communism or fascism, and has been far more integrated into daily life; and the anti-liberal ideologies of wokeness are taking over the leading institutions of American life (e.g., academia, media, corporate life). We are in a much more perilous situation than many people understand.
The UK academic Eric Kaufmann writes that wokeness really is totalitarian. Citing with approval Ryszard Legutko’s great little book about how much contemporary left-wing politics resembles what people suffered under communism, Kaufmann writes, of that parallel:
Arguments no longer revolved around truth, but were judged by their fidelity to the tenets of the secular religion. You were either with the movement or against it – those who tried to straddle the middle ground were denounced by socialists as ‘bourgeois’. The dishonest ‘slippery slope’ charge was repeatedly laid by communists to indict moderate opponents seeking some form of compromise between competing positions. Those on the opposite side of the debate were deemed ‘dangerous’ rather than incorrect.
History, the socialists believed, was moving inexorably in the direction of ‘progress’, and the role of the vanguard was to vanquish those standing in its way. Sound familiar? Anyone exposed to the power of the cultural Left in today’s liberal institutions, where ‘because it’s 2019’ is a killer argument, will recognise this.
You can see this in the Times‘s editorial decision to interpret all things according to the ideology of woke racialism. Insert “dialectical materialism” or “scientific socialism,” and you see what’s happening.
To be clear, Kaufmann criticizes Legutko’s book for judging liberal democracy too hard. Simply put, he says Legutko errs by saying that this kind of thing is inevitable in liberal democracy, when, on Kaufmann’s view, it’s rather a perversion of liberal democracy. But Kaufmann says the embrace by liberal institutions of wokeness helps destroy confidence in liberalism:
Legutko’s book can be read as a psychiatric report into the damage Left-modernism is doing to the cause of liberal democracy outside the West. Every time an athlete who appears to be a man wins a women’s sporting competition, Hollywood overdoses on wokeness at an awards ceremony, or an activist stages a hate-crime hoax, the prestige of liberal democracy suffers. New weapons are handed to opponents of liberty in authoritarian societies. Those who champion the rational form of liberalism based on equality of treatment and procedural liberty can now be accused of trying to transform the culture and ethos of their society.
All of which places a responsibility on sensible western liberals to push back the ideologues who would sacrifice centuries of hard-won liberties on the altar of utopia.
That’s what Damon Linker did in his column. Look what that’s getting him. This is typical. He doesn’t deny slavery was horrible and significant; he denies that it is the universal explanation for America. But hey, you’re either part of the solution, or part of the problem. It’s clear that problematic Damon Linker is an Enemy Of The People.
It’s one thing to say #1619Project isn’t good.
It’s another to say, as @DamonLinker says, that its “cumulative result” is like “agitprop more than responsible journalism or scholarship.”
This is what FASCISTS say about history they don’t like. https://t.co/ZmGpQ0MLzd
— John Stoehr’s Editorial Board (@johnastoehr) August 20, 2019
UPDATE: Reader Sancho comments:
As a historian who teaches at a college in a deep red area of the nation, I run into a fair amount of the “American exceptionalism” view of History that sees American History as largely an exercise in patriotism that glorifies America and paints the founding fathers as demi-gods of sorts who brought freedom to the world. Of course, this is a highly simplistic version of the past that has strong political overtones and is more myth than History. This 1619 project is essential a left-wing version of “American Exceptionalism,” with America cast not as a unique force for good in the world, but rather a unique force for evil, with slavery as the root of that evil. As with its right-wing counterpart, left-wing “American Exceptionalism” is highly simplistic political propaganda dressed up as History. Linker’s critique is spot-on. The attack on him that Rod references is as tedious as it is predictable.
While I tend to resist views of American History that posit any one thing as the lodestar of American History, if I had to chose one, it would be immigration and not slavery. After all, with the exception of those with pure Native American ancestry, who are a small minority, all Americans have immigrant ancestry. Immigration has shaped America more profoundly than slavery and racism.
Finally, on the popular political level, the 1619 project strikes me as a loser in comparison to right-wing “American Exceptionalism.” Sure, both are very skewed, overly moralistic and highly misleading versions of American History. However, if Americans have to choose between a fairy tale that praises our nation as fundamentally good and a fairy tale that attacks it is fundamentally evil, my bet is that they’ll take the good fairy tale.