Last week, a little pamphlet of the working man called the New York Times announced a new initiative in moral enlightenment for the great mass of ignorant Americans. The “1619 Project,” as it’s called, “aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story.”
Those with questions about this exercise in revisionism are being cast as bigots who just hate that America’s “paper of record” is acknowledging our “real past.” Right. Because if there’s one thing Americans don’t hear enough about, it’s how evil and racist their country is.
The Times is asking for more than a “re-examination” of the country’s history. The editors are not really looking to “explore” anything in earnest: they’ve already reached their conclusions, assumed to be obvious and beyond dispute. Here is a declaration from the nation’s leading newspaper that the Founding as we understand it is illegitimate, that America needs to be fundamentally re-imagined and reconstructed.
No serious person would disagree that American slavery was a disgraceful system, or that racial disparities persist today. But what, exactly, do the revisionists expect to keep the nation together once the ancien regime has been abolished? One hears very little about that.
The 1619 Project, like so many other efforts by the Left, is vague about what it hopes will replace what it’s looking to tear down. Once we’ve stripped away America’s history, founding, and heritage, what remains exactly? A bunch of ideas? How do you make a country out of that? Every people has its ways and its philosophy, but a country is more than just an idea.
The Left loves to say that America is an idea, since that conception facilitates their ambitions of restless national transformation—perfection of America as a rationalist project, not a political community situated in a physical landscape. Leftists want to strip almost everything that makes a nation a tangible society with some hope of stability and happiness—borders, sovereignty, morals, past—and reconstruct their notion of utopia from the remnants.
What do the leftists at the Times and in the universities really have in mind when they ask Americans to ditch 1776? It’s more than a small tweak. It’s more than a minor correction, clarified by moral hindsight and new information that will improve the country while leaving the fundamentals intact.
What exactly is being proposed here? Is it a step toward the perfection of liberalism, of this Republic, or a call to tear the whole thing down and start over again? Paging Patrick J. Deneen: is this what liberalism being consumed by its own contradictions looks like? Is it necessary for liberalism, at last, to destroy this liberal Republic because the starting point wasn’t liberal enough?
One nation, under reason! No doubt, the Left imagines their future as the true realization of America’s Founding: a nation stripped of all hierarchies, all distinctions. They would say 1776 was no revolution; it was a cynical effort by land-owning white males to protect industrial-scale human bondage. What is required is more like 1789.
While ambitious, this project is not the product of the masses. It speaks with the voice of popular authority, while heaping scorn on the hoi polloi.
Like the French Revolution and the bloodiest revolutions since, it came from above, not below; it expresses the will of an elite, articulated through decades of intellectual labor—work now refashioned in popular form and sold by our new pop-academy shops at the major newsrooms and woke publishers to the reading public. It is work that remains strange to the average citizen, but which is imagined to serve the common good. Like much else that has trickled down from academia, its de-colonialist shibboleths have become more familiar to the average Joe, but retain nevertheless the suspicious odor of their origins in the Ivory Tower, where fanciful projects come with no costs, because they exist only in the abstract.
There is nothing unusual about a bougie newspaper having a liberal agenda, but it is remarkable how open the Times is about the paper’s degeneration into a propaganda organ of the critical-theory arm of the academy. The Times is still a newspaper, not an academic journal. Its job, so they say, was to let people know what’s happening in the world, not to instruct them for their moral benefit. No longer.
It is a feature of the Left’s projects that, while pretending to benefit the downtrodden, they work to advance the interests of the well-connected. Like the Left’s push to abolish citizenship, the effort to rewrite America’s history comes at the detriment of the majority of citizens, who are thereby deprived of the sovereignty of their Republic, now regarded as illegitimate at its inception.
The Left can pretend that this is some common sense, long-overdue reform, but outside a cloistered bubble in the academia-media-publishing complex, common sense dictates that we not throw our country away because a bunch of journalists and professors decided that we must. This is another deceptive, destructive call to arms, presented as an innocuous program in social justice that all decent people support.
Ivory Tower revisionism always looks a certain way: it makes outrageous demands on those it looks to persuade—or, rather, command—while pretending to be much more modest in its actual ambitions, and however smart or intellectual it may sound, reasonable people can sense that they’re being conned. This particular project is the result of decades of academic efforts to delegitimize and fundamentally re-imagine the American Republic.
Americans could be expected to do away with Columbus, perhaps, remote as he was to the Republic’s founding. But to expect us to abolish the Fourth of July? Good luck with that.