Thursday, June 10, 2021

The 1619 Project Bomb: Profit Not Racism Was The Driver Of Slavery

amgreatness |  Despite her previous acclaim, Nikole Hannah-Jones didn’t really come to the attention of many Americans before August 2019, when the New York Times published “The 1619 Project.” This special issue of the New York Times Magazine was devoted to the thesis that America was founded on black oppression and white supremacy. It put Hannah-Jones’ particular genius on display. She edited the collection of articles and wrote the lead essay, under the expansive title, “Our democracy’s founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written. Black Americans fought to make them true. Without this struggle, America would have no democracy at all.” I think it fair to say that as editor she gave the project its particular tone: stylish, in-control, aggressive, laced with a thread of self-pity and a larger weave of self-aggrandizement, thin-skinned, and in a peculiar way, heedless. She was determined to say what she wanted to say, regardless of the facts, but she was also determined to assert that her story was accurate to the bone. 

That was a contradiction, and it was a time bomb. Sooner or later people were going to notice that among those many confident assertions, some were iffy, others very doubtful, and some completely false.

Beyond the three-sentence title of her lead essay, Hannah-Jones took other liberties. Perhaps most famously, she wrote, “One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” This is not true. Indeed it isn’t even a little bit true, and the leading historians of colonial America from around the world quickly pointed this out. They did so politely by writing to the newspaper’s editors; they did so individually, and as joint signers of letters; they published their dissents. But receiving either no answer or only firm rebuffs, they collectively stood back. Not only was the Times determined to keep its fabrication intact, but the great majority of American historians either turned stone silent or capitulated.

Alex Lichtenstein, editor of the American Historical Review, wrote a widely read post in January 2020, “1619 and All That,” in which he dismissed all the historical criticism of “The 1619 Project” as “a public scuffle between journalists and members of our profession.” The “1619 Project,” he said, is an interpretive framework “that many historians probably already accept—namely, that slavery and racism lie at the root of nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.” Lichtenstein gave a permission slip to historians who didn’t want to be bothered with the inconvenience of maintaining historical accuracy on the matters at hand. 

Why would people who devoted their professional lives to the truth-telling of history go mum when presented with one of the most publicized historical falsehoods in decades? Why especially as that falsehood was being adapted rapidly to school curricula across the country? Plainly this is a matter of racial politics having invaded the history profession. For some, that is a positive development: promoting greater attention to slavery and the oppression of blacks is such a worthy goal that historians should gracefully overlook whatever journalistic lapses may have marred the great work of popularizing the cause. For others, the racialist agenda is something to be feared. To criticize “The 1619 Project” or Nikole Hannah-Jones was and still is to court professional friction or perhaps even ostracism.

But that may be changing. The glare of attention is making it harder for people to avoid the shoddiness of the work.

Dissenters

Originally, it fell mostly to outsiders to draw attention to what the Times had perpetrated. The World Socialist Website was among the publications to take the lead. This Marxist organization had the foresight to invite a collection of prominent historians to be interviewed about “The 1619 Project,” and to publish these in easily accessible form. Thus, we heard early on from James McPherson, James Oakes, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, Richard Carwardine, and Clayborne Carson, among others. The editors of World Socialist Website, David North and Thomas Mackaman, and some of their associates added their own analyses, which, despite being freighted with their Marxist views, were impressively steadfast in separating fact from fiction. North and Mackaman eventually gathered their interviews and analyses into a book, The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the Racialist Falsification of History

At bottom, North and Mackaman oppose the idea that the basic conflict in American history is to be found in racial antagonism. They stick to the Marxist thesis that it is really about class. At least this gives them a place to stand outside the racial hysteria of our moment in history, and from that position they soberly take in the parade of historical absurdities that Hannah-Jones and her peers at the Times have served up and that the journalistic and educational establishments continue to celebrate.

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