If you haven’t yet seen the film Mr. Jones, please do. It’s based on the true story of Gareth Jones, a young Welsh journalist who risked his life to expose the 1930s Ukraine famine engineered by Stalin, and that took the lives of up to 12 million Ukrainians. Stalin aside, the villain of the story is Walter Duranty, the New York Times‘s Pulitzer-winning Moscow correspondent, who deliberately lied about the famine to shield Stalin from Western accountability. In the Times article in which he consciously lied to discredit Gareth Jones’s reporting, Duranty acknowledged that things were not perfect in the Soviet Union, but the great things that Communists were trying to achieve there were worth it. He used the memorable phrase (repeated in the film): “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
In his masterwork about Stalin’s imposed famine on Ukraine, “Harvest of Sorrow,” Robert Conquest has written:
As one of the best known correspondents in the world for one of the best known newspapers in the world, Mr. Duranty’s denial that there was a famine was accepted as gospel. Thus Mr. Duranty gulled not only the readers of the New York Times but because of the newspaper’s prestige, he influenced the thinking of countless thousands of other readers about the character of Josef Stalin and the Soviet regime. And he certainly influenced the newly-elected President Roosevelt to recognize the Soviet Union.
What is so awful about Duranty is that Times top brass suspected that Duranty was writing Stalinist propaganda, but did nothing. In her exposé “Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Times’s man in Moscow,” S.J. Taylor makes it clear that Carr Van Anda, the managing editor, Frederick T. Birchall, an assistant managing editor, and Edwin L. James, the later managing editor, were troubled with Duranty’s Moscow reporting but did nothing about it. Birchall recommended that Duranty be replaced but, says Taylor, “the recommendation fell by the wayside.”
When Duranty of his own volition decided to become a special correspondent on a retainer basis for the New York Times, the newspaper published an editorial reassuring its readers that his reputation as “the most outstanding correspondent of an American newspaper during all the years of his faithful and brilliant work at Moscow will remain unimpaired in the slightest degree by the change now made.” This about a man whom Malcolm Muggeridge, the Manchester Guardian correspondent and Duranty’s contemporary, described as “the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in fifty years of journalism.”
The Times has in recent years forthrightly acknowledged that Duranty was a fraud. As the movie makes clear — and in this it is true to the historical record — is that Duranty’s apologies for Stalin were quite influential in convincing the US to help the Soviet Union, including officially recognizing the Bolshevik government. Duranty did not mind breaking eggs, in terms of using journalism to tell lies, to make an omelet that served his political ends.
In our time, the New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has been celebrated as the genius behind the Times‘s 1619 Project, which is an attempt to — in the Times‘s word — “reframe” American history around slavery. No longer should 1776 be considered the year of America’s birth, but rather 1619, the year the first African slaves were brought to the New World. Jones won the Pulitzer Prize this year for her work on the project. It is based on a fundamental historical falsehood — a malicious and destructive one too: that the purpose of America was to preserve slavery.
A number of historians — none of them conservatives — called Jones and her team at the Times out on this lie (see here for a list of some of the names, and their criticism). This is a lie that could have tremendous consequences. As Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, himself a man of the left, has said:
“To teach children that the American Revolution was fought in part to secure slavery would be giving a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what the American Revolution was all about but what America stood for and has stood for since the Founding.”
But Jones’s lie is politically useful in advancing the identity-politics goals of progressives. Oprah Winfrey and Lionsgate are going to make a series of films and feature television shows based on the 1619 Project. They are changing the cultural memory of Americans, in a way that deceives people about what America was, and is. Nobody can possibly deny that slavery was a terrible stain on this nation, but it is an evil whose existence stood as a rebuke to the Founders’ ideals. It took a Civil War to finally end the malignant institution — but it did end, at the cost of between 600,000 and 750,000 American lives.
Anyway, Nikole Hannah-Jones is now crawfishing:
This is key:
The fight here is about who gets to control the national narrative, and therefore, the nation’s shared memory of itself. One group has monopolized this for too long in order to create this myth of exceptionalism. If their version is true, what do they have to fear of 1619?
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) July 27, 2020
Wait … what? There is only one national narrative about American history? All white people have a single story to tell about this country? What kind of college-freshman bull is that?
Conor Friedersdorf objected:
I fear anyone, regardless of viewpoint, getting to *control* “the national narrative” or “the nation’s shared memory of itself,” as there is no one correct narrative or shared memory–in a diverse, pluralistic country, unanimity requires coercion + preference falsification https://t.co/tSxrEwaItb
— Conor Friedersdorf (@conor64) July 27, 2020
This is correct. It brings to mind a 1989 essay the black critic Stanley Crouch wrote about Do The Right Thing-era Spike Lee. Excerpts:
But Lee, whose truest gift appears to be comedy, either lacks the intelligence, maturity, and the sensitivity necessary for drama, or hasn’t the courage and the will to give racial confrontation true dramatic complexity. At heart, he is for now a propagandist, one who reduces the world to a shorthand projected with such force that the very power of the projection itself will make those with tall grass for brains bend to the will of the wind. Though there is much cleverness, the film has no feeling for the intricacies of the human spirit on any level other than that of fast-food irony, no sense of the trickiness of both good and evil, none of the emotional scope that brings artistic resonance. Do the Right Thing, for all its wit, is the sort of rancid fairy tale one expects of the racist, whether or not Lee actually is one.
That naïveté, like an intellectual jack-in-the-box bumpkin, periodically popped up through the Black Filmmaker Foundation’s ceremonies. There was much talk of “controlling our images,” a term suggestive of the worst political aspects of black nationalism, one far more dangerous if taken in certain directions than, say, expanding our images. Such “control” without attendant intelligence and moral courage of the sort we saw so little of during the Brawley farce or rarely hear when Louis Farrakhan is discussed, will make little difference, since the problems Afro-Americans presently face extend far beyond the unarguable persistence of a declining racism. Intellectual cowardice, opportunism, and the itch for riches by almost any means necessary define the demons within the black community. The demons are presently symbolized by those black college teachers so intimidated by career threats that they don’t protest students bringing Louis Farrakhan on campus, by men like Vernon Mason who sold out a good reputation in a cynical bid for political power by pimping real victims of racism in order to smoke-screen Tawana Brawley’s lies, by the crack dealers who have wrought unprecedented horrors, and by Afro-fascist race-baiters like Public Enemy who perform on the soundtrack to Do the Right Thing.
Read the whole thing. It’s interesting to think of Crouch’s lacerating criticism of Lee — which was a brave thing for any critic, especially a black one, to have done back then — in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Anyway, the goal of the 1619 Project — as stated by NYT Magazine editor Jake Silverstein — is to “reframe” American history around 1619 as the founding year of the nation, not 1776. No serious person denies the horror of slavery, or its importance to American history. If that’s all the 1619 Project was about — drawing attention to the importance of slavery, and the black experience to American history — who could complain? What makes the 1619 Project stand out is its radical claim that the point of America’s founding was to enslave Africans.
It is simply not true. The reason we’re talking about it now is that Sen. Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, is sponsoring legislation that would prohibit the use of federal tax dollars to teach the 1619 Project in American classrooms. Whether or not such legislation is wise is certainly debatable. What’s caused the ruckus is this section from a story in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette:
In the interview, Cotton said the role of slavery can’t be overlooked.
“We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction,” he said.
Instead of portraying America as “an irredeemably corrupt, rotten and racist country,” the nation should be viewed “as an imperfect and flawed land, but the greatest and noblest country in the history of mankind,” Cotton said.
This is being wildly misconstrued as some sort of justification for slavery. What Cotton is saying simply is that the United States could not have existed if the non-slave states had not agreed to accept the slave states. It was a doomed compromise, a one we eventually had to go to war over, but it launched the country. Cotton is pointing out the tragic nature of the compromise that made America possible as a nation united under the Constitution. He is not defending slavery, which would be as insane morally as it would be politically. He is repeating a similar point that Abraham Lincoln made in an 1855 letter to Joshua Speed, a friend of his who owned slaves:
You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union.
Do you see?
Damon Linker is not buying Nikole Hannah-Jones’s revisionist claim that she sees the 1619 Project as simply adding one more perspective to the mix:
The 1st page of the 1619 Project declares “it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.” How? By “refram[ing] American history,” treating 1619 as “our nation’s birth year,” & by placing slavery “at the very center of our national narrative.” That is not a call to pluralism. https://t.co/BfKg3QKyRb
— Damon Linker (@DamonLinker) July 27, 2020
It’s not hard to see why Duranty knowingly lied to protect Stalin: he believed that what the Soviet Union stood for — worldwide communism — was so important that the lives of Ukrainians, and the truth about their deaths, were not worth as it. As Fidel Castro would later say of his own communist revolution, history will “absolve” the victors of the eggs they broke on the way to making the omelet. I don’t think that Hannah-Jones is consciously lying. I think she really does believe this fairy tale. What’s hard to figure out is what Hannah-Jones and her supporters want to see come from it. What is their omelet? It will be the undoing of this nation if people come to believe that it is true. Is that what she’s after? If not that, then what?
UPDATE: Reader Sancho comments:
As a historian, and as I’ve said before on this blog, Ida Bae Wells’ [Nikole Hannah-Jones] complaint about the myth of American exceptionalism is misplaced. One of the many, many problems with her 1619 Project is that ironically, it is simply another version of American exceptionalism. In the standard version of American exceptionalism, America has allegedly been a “city on a hill” from the very beginning. And today, America is a unique country, a force for good in the world like no other. America’s values and institutions are seen as a model for the rest of the world. It is no accident that the standard version of American exceptionalism dovetailed with neoconservativism. On the other hand, the 1619 Project simply inverts this and posits America as founded on the evils of slavery and racism, evils that in one form of the other have supposedly been central to America’s character from the beginning and make America a uniquely negative country. It is also worth pointing out that the 1619 Project is not entirely new. Howard Zinn’s awful book “A People’s History of the United States” paved the way for her years ago. American exceptionalism in all of its forms, either the neoconservative “city on a hill” version or the left-wing version of America as the devil nation that Bell and Zinn peddle, is simplistic, highly selective, ideologically driven, teleological nonsense. It is the very opposite of how best to engage with the past and make sense of it. History is complicated because human beings are complicated. Anyone who tries to make it a “just so” story should be viewed with skepticism.
I appreciate this comment. I hadn’t thought of the issue that way: America as either uniquely good among the nations, or uniquely evil among the nations. It’s just cartoonish, either way.
UPDATE.2: A reader writes:
These omelettes have been made before. One is called Haiti. Zimbabwe is another. Since the end of Apartheid, South Africa has been a hopeful counterexample, but its not looking good there either. They now have rolling blackouts, and white farmers have been attacked. Last year Annette Kennealy was beaten to death in her home in the Limpopo province of RSA for calling attention to injustices against white farmers there.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Southern Africa – some months, all told, through the years. I love it. But the same ideology gaining momentum in our country (anti-white racism underwritten by Marxism) is what enmiserated millions of blacks and whites all over southern Africa. ZANU, the ANC, FRELIMO (in Mozambique)… all were Marxist racists. In shouldn’t need saying, but of course the evil that those chaps perpetrated doesn’t justify whatever evils white rule may have perpetrated before, but that’s not what’s at issue. Two wrongs don’t make a right etc. etc.