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.