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Misplaced blame

Using 1619 for propaganda in 2020

The Oscar festivities Sunday night included a commercial for the biggest historical gambit of the past year, the “1619 Project” of The New York Times. Princeton historian Allen Guelzo says it “is not history; it is conspiracy theory. The 1619 Project is not history; it is ignorance”—and you can see by Guelzo’s use of semicolons that he’s an academic who normally doesn’t scream. 

Guelzo and many other scholars are complaining about the 1619 Project, named after the tragic year slaves from Africa first arrived in Virginia. The project teaches that America’s 18th-century founders fought a revolution “to ensure that slavery would continue.” The project, in its own words, shows slavery was part of “the brutality of American capitalism … low-road capitalism … winner-take-all capitalism … racist capitalism.” 

As if there’s not only enough hate-America teaching in public schools, some educators are jumping on this crooked-wheel bandwagon. Chicago Public Schools announced that each of its high schools will receive 200-400 copies of the Times’ glossy 1619 Project publication, whereby students will learn that America relishes not only modernity and democracy but also “barbarism … cruelty … totalitarianism.” 

Some backstory on the use of such loaded terms in a newspaper that once used understated prose: The Times has figured out a way to have both the appearance of moral principle and the accretion of financial principal. While its editors and writers rage, rage against the Trump machine, the newspaper’s decisive move further to the political left has won it many new readers and millions of dollars. The Times had already lost most of its conservative subscribers, so it alienated few as it picked up numerous Trump-haters.

The 1619 Project is a case study in how, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Last month prominent historians James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Sean Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes charged that the 1619 Project reflects “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” The NYT turned down their request for corrections. These and other liberal or moderate historians recognize the evil of slavery but stand against attempts to minimize not only its horror but its continuing effects. 

Allen Guelzo’s 2012 book Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War & Reconstruction is a thoughtful account of the war and its aftermath, so I value his judgment: “The 1619 Project is not history: it is polemic, born in the imaginations of those whose primary target is capitalism itself and who hope to tarnish capitalism by associating it with slavery.”

Guelzo said the NYT effort views “slavery not as a blemish that the Founders grudgingly tolerated with the understanding that it must soon evaporate, but as the prize that the Constitution went out of its way to secure and protect. The Times presents slavery not as a regrettable chapter in the distant past, but as the living, breathing pattern upon which all American social life is based, world without end.” 

That’s no exaggeration. The 1619 Project is a case study in how, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail: “Why doesn’t the United States have universal health care? The answer begins with policies enacted after the Civil War. … Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our prison system. … The sugar that saturates the American diet has a barbaric history as the ‘white gold’ that fueled slavery. … What does a traffic jam in Atlanta have to do with segregation? Quite a lot.”

So, given the many reasons we are disunited concerning health insurance, is the biggest one white fear that “free and healthy African-Americans would upend the racial hierarchy”? Yes, we need criminal justice reform, but is the main problem that “a presumption of danger and criminality still follows black people everywhere”? 

Since my own Ph.D. is in American studies and I’ve written half a dozen American history books, I feel able to weigh in on this. Seems to me we’re seeing an NYT attempt to squeegee not only the present but the past as well, and drip what remains down the captive throats of teenagers forced to study a bigoted high-school curriculum.

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  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Thu, 02/13/2020 08:43 am

    One of your best articles Marvin.

    We need to have an understanding of capitalism, an appreciation for it and perhaps a little horror of it as well.

    Capitalism is simply the ability for the individual to have self expression based on their ability to develop commerce - kind of a natural consequence of the American emphasis on individual liberty and self expression. We should appreciate the fact that it is not based on pedigree, title or any other factor but simply on the individuals ability to develop commerce and rewards them for it. This is the way that it is superior to other forms of economies such as communism or solcialism.

    However, we also need to understand that capitalism has also been very twisted at times in our own history - exploitation of many ethnic groups, yes including the African Americans but MANY other groups including the Chinese railroad workers, the slave ships that brought indentured "enslaved" servants from Ireland/Scotland, the Italians, Polish, Mexican farms laborers, etc. We need to have a broad and balanced view of capitalism - that like many of man's other systems has its merits and failures.

    One thing that this country needs to get better at is its understanding of itself. One-half and two-thirds of white immigrants to the American colonies between the 1630s and late 1700s came under indentures. Indentured servants could not marry without the permission of their master, were sometimes subject to brutal physical punishment and did not receive legal status from the courts. As the demand for cheap labor grew the colonies realized the problems of indentured servitude and landowners turned to African slaves as a more profitable and ever-renewable source of labor and the shift from indentured servants to racial slavery began. Recent research has shown that most enslaved persons in the Americas before 1700 were Indians.The push for cheap labor has extracted a large toll on American society. Just ask the Chinese railroad "workers".