“Who controls the past controls the future.”
Since George Orwell published his jarring novel 1984, Big Brother and the Thought Police have sat uncomfortably in the back of our minds. None of us want to live in Oceania, but a recent development in the news media suggests that there are some who would wish that fate upon us. The New York Times recently launched The 1619 Project, which seeks to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding.” Why 1619? Because that is the date that the first slaves arrived in America. Just for reference, that would be like dating Germany’s founding to the Holocaust or Rwanda’s to the 1994 Genocide. This reframing is justified because, in the NYT’s view, “nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional grew out of slavery.”
I would never downplay the seriousness of America’s history with slavery. This country faced a long and difficult struggle to rid our society of the evil of slavery. As the worst blight on our collective history, slavery has had long-lasting negative effects on multiple parts of society. Nonetheless, there is a long list of problems with The 1619 Project (not the least of which is the fact that Spanish colonists in Florida had slaves as early as 1526).
First of all, The 1619 Project nullifies our incredible accomplishments in furtherance of racial equality. African American professor Walter Williams points out that “black Americans have made the greatest gains, over some of the highest hurdles, in the shortest span of time than any other racial group in mankind’s history.” The NYT doesn’t think so. The 13th Amendment, the courage of Frederick Douglass, and the Civil Rights Movement apparently don’t matter to the NYT. The name of Martin Luther King, Jr. – a global hero of justice and equality, two topics on which the NYT regularly and passionately pontificates – is mentioned once (in a footnote). Notice that King didn’t condemn the American founding, nor did he label the country’s parts based on race and drive a wedge between them. King was powerful precisely because he avoided doing those things.
Second, The 1619 Project’s own racism is exhibited by the fact that it only focuses on black people. It doesn’t include a myriad of other races that were also mistreated by Americans. What about the Japanese after WWII? What about the Irish Catholics in the 1800s? The Native Americans, of all people? Do they matter to the NYT? And if the NYT wants to define us by our failures, why stop here? Why not define us by the Trail of Tears? Korematsu v. United States? Why don’t those failures get a newspaper feature?
Third, The 1619 Project ignores the realities of economic history. It claims that capitalism – yes, the same capitalism that has led to a level of global economic growth never duplicated by any other system – is only understood in light of the slave plantation. This assertion is laughably incorrect. If anything, history shows us that the coercion inherent in slavery is more akin to the feudalist societies of medieval Europe than it is to capitalism. It is difficult to see how the NYT’s argument survives in light of this history. However, it becomes less difficult when placed against the backdrop of the distributivist and socialist economic viewpoints of the NYT’s preferred 2020 presidential candidates.
Fourth, The 1619 Project ignores constitutional history. The NYT acts as though racism was somehow an outflow of the Constitution. However, racism has always been directly contradictory to the principles outlined in the Constitution. In fact, Americans were so deeply convicted by those very principles that they fought a civil war to defend them. Our constitutional principles were the basis for emancipation! Yet the NYT continues to assert that “black Americans fought alone.” This claim is strange, though, for it would seem that the thousands of white Americans who died fighting for the freedom of black Americans would suggest otherwise. As professor Lucas Morel has pointed out, not a single black justice was on the Supreme Court that decided Brown v. Board of Education, nor was there a black majority in Congress to pass the 13th Amendment.
Fifth, the 1619 Project is an openly-admitted attempt to rewrite history. One would think that such an established newspaper – one that prides itself on uncovering “the hard truth” – would have uncovered the hard truth about what happens when we try to rewrite history. George Orwell certainly did. His portrayal in 1984 of a world in which the past is constantly rewritten to serve the interests of the political elite is sobering, to say the least. (Hence the Orwell quote that began this article). However, since the NYT appears to have missed this monumental chunk of history, here are a few samples of those whose company it has chosen to keep.
- Joseph Stalin. Stalin rewrote history books to force his ideological views into reality.
- Adolf Hitler. The Third Reich, which burned books by the pile, was, in the words of concentration-camp survivor Primo Levi, “a war against memory.”
- North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. I am sure this one needs no explanation.
- Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan is currently rewriting history books to exclude any mention of the 1920s Turkish massacre of Armenian Christians.
- The NYT itself reported in 2006 that the Chinese government was rewriting history books to remove the any mention of the Communist Revolution. There was almost no mention of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in those books.
- Other examples of attempts to rewrite history include denials of the Holocaust, the burning of libraries (most recently by ISIS in Iraq), denial of WWII war crimes by the Japanese government, and more.
The 1619 Project, however, is not just a rewriting of history. It is an attack on the principles that undergird this republic, on the lives sacrificed during the Civil War, and of the common ground that Americans can find in their constitution. We shouldn’t be coddling the next generation by protecting them from the uncomfortable realities of the past; we should be letting them confront those historical difficulties in order to develop judgment and awareness. If what the NYT times really wants is progress toward racial equality, shouldn’t it be focusing on how we can learn from our mistakes rather than miring us in a revisionist, self-congratulating distress over how bad our mistakes were? Or maybe that’s not what the NYT really wants. Maybe it hopes to force the reader into a false choice between supporting its preferred 2020 presidential candidates or being relegated to the category of “racist.”
According to the NYT, the evil of slavery is the defining characteristic of what it means to be American. Not separation of powers, not the first successful democratic republic in history, not freedom of speech, not our ground-breaking legislative process, not the longest-lasting codified system of government in world history. No – we are only relevant because of our worst failure. Imagine raising a child that way. The reality is that focusing on racism isn’t going to help us. Holding fast to the principles that have made the United States the world’s most successful governance experiment, however, might. And speaking of principles, The 1619 Project perfectly reflects the American trend away from guiding principles. We have become an issue-driven society, not the principle-based society that the survival of our republic requires. The focus is only on rights, not responsibilities – the telltale sign of a society that has begun to take for granted the freedoms it has been entrusted with.
A common argument against these principles goes something like this: “Some of the founders had slaves, so therefore the Constitution is bad.” But how do the personal faults of the founders make the Constitution less relevant? Does the fact that you may mistreat others or do any number of other bad acts mean that your worldview is meaningless? And what about the fact that the abolishment of slavery was premised on the very constitutional principles that this argument maligns? We must separate the people – who were certainly flawed, as we all are – from the principles that have been the most revolutionary forward leap in world history.
We have a decision to make. We must hold onto something to bind our country together through this time of intense polarization. Will it be racism? Or will it be the foundational principles that built us? You choose. The NYT already has, and in doing so, it has issued a sobering reminder that Orwell may not have been just a novelist – he may have been a prophet, too.