Was the 1619 Project Squandered By Its Falsehoods?

By this point in time, reactions to Nicole Hannah-Jones’ “1619 Project” have largely been divided into two camps. One camp is filled with history scholars who have pointed out that her claims are largely false, baseless and ahistorical. The other camp doesn’t care much about facts or history because they like, or at least feel compelled to like lest they be called racists by their dear friends, the message.

That the New York Times “quietly” changed one of the most ridiculous claims, which Hannah-Jones denied making to her discredit, either proved the point or proved nothing, depending on how dedicated to the secular religion of social justice one was. But is there a middle ground, where one can appreciate the “message” without getting hung up on the boldly false assertions that will make up the curriculum in woke school districts? Nicholas Guyatt tries to find it.

Instead, 1619 continued to resonate, not least in the extraordinary uprisings that followed the killing of George Floyd in May. With the project now seeming prophetic rather than heretical — or perhaps prophetic and heretical — a new line of argument emerged. Just after Mr. Trump’s impromptu conference on American history last month, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz criticized both the conference and the project, writing that historians may one day conclude that they were “closely matched symptoms of the same era, feeding off each other.”

This context should trouble historians, and anyone who cares a whit about facts. Should fake history “resonate”? Does Trump’s attention, and the knee-jerk outrage it invariably evokes, have any bearing on what is historically factual? Would a reinvention of historical fact be any more or less true if George Floyd survived or Trump, for once, kept his yap shut?

Although Professor Wilentz had previously expressed support for 1619’s ambitions, he now presented Mr. Trump’s version of American history and the Times project as equidistant from evidence and historical truth. Americans should set aside “ideological distortion” on both sides and choose “legitimate historical writing” instead. Mr. Stephens does something similar in his recent column. Despite the noble goals of the project, its “overreach” has allowed Mr. Trump and his supporters to argue that what the president calls “fake news” is now promoting fake history: “As unbidden gifts to Donald Trump go, it could hardly have been sweeter than that.”

It’s unclear how one measures the distance between competing false claims of historical truth, although it certainly opened the door to Darth Cheeto seizing upon Hannah-Jones’ “ideological distortion” to promote his own.

Historians of good faith and excellent method can and should explore these questions without fear or rancor, or at least without any more rancor than academics usually generate when they quarrel with one another. But in the loudest criticism of 1619 has been a level of vitriol that is neither productive nor scholarly. Professor Wilentz told The Washington Post that, when he first read Ms. Hannah-Jones’s lead essay, “I threw the thing across the room.” His Princeton colleague Allen C. Guelzo has dismissed the project as a “conspiracy theory.” Prominent critics have looked to shut down the project’s assertions rather than engage with them, and have even suggested that the project’s authors bear some responsibility for the president’s endless culture wars.

As the woke tear down statues of Lincoln and rename schools because “George Washington” is too traumatic a name to endure, a very serious question is raised about how to deal with the reimagination of history through the lens of the moment’s ideology. Is this something to “engage” with, as Guyatt suggests?

Compromise has its virtues at times, but can facts be compromised? There may be time when it’s unclear whether an assertion is fact, but can any legitimate argument be made that a known and undisputable fact can be turned into a quasi-fact, or perhaps even an alternative fact, in order to engage with a reinvention of reality to accommodate an ideological belief?

The other day, legal pundit of the left, Ian Milhiser, twitted;

Fun Fact: The only reason there are two Dakotas is because Republicans split Dakota territory into two states because they wanted four senators instead of just two.

This came in response to Senator Corwyn’s twit that a 104-seat Senate is at stake in the election, so Ian was trying to deflect Corwyn’s point by arguing that the Republicans did it too. Tu quoque, because it’s Ian. Except Ian’s “fun fact” was all fun and no fact.

Cool story, but not true.

Was there a compromise to be had? Was it wrong to point out that Ian’s claim was simply false rather than “engage” with it?

There is a strong argument to be made that American history has been “whitewashed,” its warts covered by red, white and blue banners and facts distorted in the name of patriotism to create a sense of unity and purpose. Just as it’s wrong for the 1619 Project to have attempted to create its own false history, is the false history of American exceptionalism taught to our children any less false, any better?

While the old arguments about the moral unity of the American past will continue to generate fierce headwinds for future scholars who follow in the project’s footsteps, the extraordinary public interest in 1619 has suggested something truly profound: that Americans have the capacity to think differently about their history. In this sense, the 1619 Project has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its creators.

That the 1619 Project shook up our accepted belief in the patriotic narrative and made historians and groundlings alike come face to face with our failure to teach, and hence to remember, the horrible things that happened during the birth of a nation, it not only succeeded, but proved its worth to the cause of truth in history. That it was not true, however, can’t be ignored. The difference may be that when choosing between two false narratives, whether they’re “equidistant” or just both untrue, we would do well to engage with the truth rather than be left to pick between fairy tales.

18 thoughts on “Was the 1619 Project Squandered By Its Falsehoods?

  1. Dan

    “Is this something to “engage” with, as Guyatt suggests?”

    I’m in the Army, where “engage” means “to destroy (or at least attempt to destroy), ideally with overwhelming weapons fire.” So, yes, that sounds (metaphorically, lest I be thought to be advocating violence) good to me.

  2. Alex Sarmiento

    Is there any evidence that the death of Floyd had anything to do with racism to begin with? Resonance after resonance

      1. johnburger2013

        But, isn’t that the problem with “1619”? If it is not historical, then what is it? If the American identity did not begin in 1776 but 1619 when the first slave ships arrived in what was then the New World, and that underlying position is false, then what is being promoted is not history but ideology offered as incontrovertible truth absent context. It is creative writing and intellectual adventure. If that is the case, then it has no place as a central tenet of US history.


  3. Alex Sarmiento

    While it is true that “patriotic” history can also be considered whitewashing history , it is also true that patriotic history is actually normal and common for the overwhelming majority of countries. It is not really that toxic and could be healthy in most cases. Yet, patriotic history is unnecessary for a country like the US. Factual, uncolored, objective history reveals not only ugliness but also real progress and beauty that should evoke some patriotism and optimism by itself. IMHO

    1. SHG Post author

      The virtue of a patriotic version of history is that it engenders caring and support for one’s nation, which is necessary for a nation to survive and thrive. And for the same reason, a fantasy history that denigrates a nation for the benefit of an interest group is destructive to that national spirit.

      And yes, even with a cold recounting of the bad, ore real history is remarkably good.

  4. Corey

    Any debate about American History these days brings to mind what David Meyer Lindberg said on this blog a few years ago.

    “We might as well admit it: the United States is pretty exceptional in that it started from a position of unprecedented liberty, then, in defiance of the experience of other countries, improved as time went on. When Rosenberg and his intellectual fellow-travellers condemn America for having had to address its own shortcomings instead of being made perfect, like Jesus’ robe, it’s clear their arguments say a good deal more about them than they do about the nation.”

    I suspect we’d all be able to find more common ground when it comes to viewing our own history if more people kept this in mind.

  5. Rengit

    Even if Millhiser’s invention were true, and putting aside that Millhiser, were he alive in 1889, would probably have been a pro-black enfranchisement, pro-tariff Republican, wouldn’t it be trivial? All the states are artifacts of arbitrary historical occurrences. The original 13 Colonies were inherited from land grants given out by Royal Charter, a monarchy that we rebelled against and declared independence from. West Virginia didn’t want slavery in its territory like the rest of Virginia, but slavery ceased to exist less than 5 years later. The portions of Alabama, Mississippi, and the Florida Panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico are where they are because of the West Florida Controversy.

    None of that means that these currently existing states are invalid or irrational today, nor that their existence invites the type of naked “I want my way” behavior Millhiser is advocating today.

    1. SHG Post author

      The Massachusetts Bay Company agrees, which Ian would no doubt see as an example of the abusive Citizens United.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    The problem with the 1619 Project is that it is a work of propaganda and not a work of history. Nicole Hannah-Jones and her collaborators began with a preconceived message and twisted or made up facts to fit their message. True historical research, like science starts with a question or hypothesis and follows the facts wherever they lead, instead the 1619 Project ignored all contrary information about abolitionism, opposition to slavery outside the South, and other forms of labor exploitation as contrary to the narrative. The questions raised by the 1619 Project are worthy but the project itself is irretrievably tainted.

    1. SHG Post author

      There are various args about when one views history through a clear and honest lens, but none of them endorse something like the 1619 Project, which (as you say) is pure propaganda masquerading as history.

    2. Rengit

      A 1619 Project that focused on the story of slavery from 1619 until 1776 (or 1789, discussing its role in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution) would have been illuminating and shed new light on not only the colonial period, but also black history and the attitudes of the founding generation towards slavery; namely, that most viewed it as an institution naturally on the way to extinction, much like monarchy, aristocracy, clerical privileges, and serfdom were in their own generation, but were too personally or politically compromised or too cowardly to actually do anything about it.

      Instead, we got melodramatic noise about “true founding”, freshman-level provocative essay ideas about “reframing”, and falsehoods-by-omission about Great Britain wanting to abolish slavery as a cause for the Revolutionary War and Abraham Lincoln being scarcely different from Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens.

  7. Harvey Silverglate

    My take on the Times’ 1619 Project is that The New York Times should go back to being a newspaper, rather than a history textbook. It should follow its own motto — “All the NEWS that’s fit to print” — rather than all of the interpretation and political arguments that it can get away with. The paper already is having a big problem reporting the news without editorializing in its news stories; it seems incapable of limiting its political views to its editorial page(s) and its opinion columns. The problem of the Times extending its reach well beyond its abilities is exacerbated by publishing a whole magazine-length history text.

  8. Harvey Silverglate

    My take on the Times’ 1619 Project is that The New York Times should go back to being a newspaper, rather than a history textbook. It should follow its own motto — “All the NEWS that’s fit to print” — rather than all of the interpretation and political arguments that it can get away with. The paper already is having a big problem reporting the news without editorializing in its news stories; it seems incapable of limiting its political views to its editorial page(s) and its opinion columns. The problem of the Times extending its reach well beyond its abilities is exacerbated by publishing a whole magazine-length history text.

    1. SHG Post author

      As if it’s not bad enough to have Trump screaming “fake news” at every unflattering tidbit, it offends me deeply that the NYT does whatever it can to prove him right.

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