by Greg Mayer
Last August the New York Times Magazine launched what it called the “1619 Project“. The project’s promoters wish to change the general understanding of American history, and to have their view of American history adopted by schools. The project has generated a wave of backlash from historians. (The Times‘ Project is run by journalists, not historians.) While being sympathetic to some of the Project’s ideological goals, historians have decisively refuted many of the factual claims that are key to the Project’s interpretation. (We’ve discussed the Project in previous posts here at WEIT: here, here, and here, with links to some of the historians’ critiques.)
Not all historians are critical though, and Alexander Lichtenstein, an historian at Indiana University, has published an article criticizing historians who are not on board with the Project. In terms of history, two things stand out to me about the claims of the Project and its defenders. First is their claim that the American Revolution was about saving slavery from the British Crown, which was about to abolish it. (This isn’t the case.) Second, the Project wholeheartedly adopts, of all things, a neo-Confederate view of the Civil War: the war was about state’s rights, or Northern aggression, or some such; but not slavery. But of course the war was about slavery, and the Times here is actively undoing the valuable work it did with its Disunion series. That effort, marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, did much good in furthering understanding of the war, and, by republishing the secession ordinances, made it clear what the South went to war for.
But perhaps even more striking than dubious historical interpretation and factual errors is the ideology that pervades the defense of the Project: it is racialist and, apparently, capitalist. The racialist part is clear, and perhaps not surprising. Victoria Bynum, of Texas State University, San Marcos, one of the critics of the Project, and a target of Lichtenstein, has responded directly to him, writing on her blog:
Despite your [Liechtenstein’s] disclaimer that “in principle” being white should not “invalidate” the views of 1619 critics, in fact the skin color of historians critical of the 1619 Project has been scorned (and far worse) over and over again in the Twitterverse—by historians as well as the general public—as the preeminent reason for discrediting our views.
But Lichtenstein isn’t even right about the critics being white. Of the several critiques gathered by the World Socialist Website (WSWS; more on that below), one was by the well-known political scientist Adolph Reed of the University of Pennsylvania, who is black; Lichtenstein doesn’t mention him. Of the critics, he was one of only two I had heard of before (the other being the even more well-known, and white, James McPherson).
[Addendum, 4.ii.2020. I already knew Reed’s work, and knew he was black. The WSWS posted photos of all the people it interviewed about the 1619 project, but I hadn’t made any note of their apparent race at the time. Going back and looking, I now see that two of the eight interviewees are black- Adolph Reed and Clayborne Carson. That 1/4 of the interviewees were black completely puts to the lie Lichtenstein’s claim that “all of these historians are white.” (He might want to complain that Reed is a political scientist, so he doesn’t count, but that’s hair-splitting that I’m not buying.)]
Lichtenstein makes much of the fact that it is the WSWS that has published a number of critiques, noting “The animus of the Fourth International types seems clear”. I don’t know Lichtenstein’s economic policy views, and perhaps his disdain for the WSWS stems from some internal debate among leftists. (I once met a rather haughty and disdainful Trotskyist myself!) But I don’t know why it is brought up. Marxists of most stripes are not racialists—seeing class as at least equally important as race—and thus would not be expected to endorse a racialist project. Furthermore, the historians interviewed by WSWS are not all, or even mostly, Marxists. (The WSWS, like Bynum, has replied to Lichtenstein’s piece.)
Adolph Reed, however is a Marxist, and as such it is not surprising that he has been a fierce critic of racialism. He, along with Brian Leiter (a white Marxist, for those racialists keeping score), have characterized identitarianism in general (which Leiter derides as “diversity blather“) as a capitalist tool for distracting attention from what is really afflicting society. As Leiter wrote in a defense of affirmative action, since “diversity” would “increase productivity”, it was “good for capitalism”. Reed, noting the disconnect with what the real problems are (which, in his view, include a concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a very few; I concur), put it in a way that highlights, if not heightens, the contradictions:
. . . society would be fair if 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources so long as the dominant 1% were 13% black, 17% Latino, 50% female, 4% or whatever LGBTQ, etc.
So while Reed shows that criticism cannot be dismissed because critics are white, and a number of the white critics show that criticism cannot be dismissed because critics are Marxists (or perhaps the wrong kind of Marxist), a new piece at Reason by John McWhorter, an African American linguist at Columbia University [JAC: He’s also a liberal], shows that black non-Marxists can be critics, too. (I did not know of McWhorter before seeing this piece; he writes frequently for the Atlantic.)
McWhorter, following the criticisms of Bynum, Reed, and others, accepts that the central premises of the 1619 Project have been shown to be false. What he discusses is how—because we are in a post-truth society where facts must be bent to the demands of group identity and membership—the Project may well succeed:
The verdict is in: The idea that America’s real founding was in 1619 does not wash. And yet, it will be considered a mark of sophistication to pretend otherwise.
Since last August, The New York Times has asked us to consider that America’s real founding was not in 1776 but in 1619, when the first Africans were brought to these shores. Nikole Hannah-Jones teaches that the Revolutionary War was fought mainly not to escape British tyranny, but out of fear that British tyranny was about to threaten the institution of slavery.
Stimulating proposition, but professional historians, as modern academics about as enlightened on issues of race and racism as any humans on the planet, have politely but firmly declared that the facts simply do not bear out this take on our nation’s founding. Gordon Wood and others wrote careful and authoritative pieces to this effect, and more recently Sean Wilentz has penned a careful response to the inevitable pushback. Unless fact is not fact, unless documentation is forgery, no unbiased observer could read Wilentz here as partisan or as even swayed by subconscious racism. [Emphases added.]
He endorses the view that epistemologically challenged ideologies may usefully be compared to religion:
Only this perspective can explain how serenely professional historians’ takedown of The 1619 Project will be ignored. Of late, social justice warrior ideology has been deemed a new religion by many writers, Vox writer Matthew Yglesias’ term “The Great Awokening” being especially apt. The 1619 idea is an almost uncanny embodiment of this new way of thinking.
For one, note the suspension of disbelief we are expected to maintain. Supposedly the Founding Fathers were trying to protect slavery, despite never actually making such a goal clear for the historical record, and at a time when there would have been no shame in doing so. What are the chances that this supposed revelation would have slept undiscovered until now, when for almost 50 years, humanities academics of all colors have been committed to their socks to unearthing racism in the American fabric? Can we really believe that a group of journalists writing for the Times has unboxed such a key historical revelation from reading around, that no one else of any color has chosen to trumpet in the mainstream media for decades?
The insistence on maintaining the 1619 idea is rooted in a pervasive modern notion that when evaluating race issues, it is a form of intelligence and morality to duck truth when it is inconvenient to a victimhood-focused construct. W.E.B. Du Bois tackled the Dunning School with facts; today people sensing themselves as his heirs insist we accept alternative facts. Yet, to point out that neither Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, nor Martin Luther King Jr. would see this as progress renders one a heretic. This is one more thing we must overcome.