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Misplaced Blame: Using 1619 For Propaganda in 2020

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AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File

This year's Oscar festivities 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.

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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