I gave up reading the New York Review of Books many years ago. I felt that I had served my time, having picked through countless issues of that house organ of arch, mandarin leftism in preparation for writing an essay on the magazine called “A Nostalgia for Molotovs,” an expanded version of which found its way into my book The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America.
So it was a bit like old-home week when a friend called my attention to “History Bright and Dark,” a long review essay by Adam Hochschild of two categorically different accounts of America and its founding principles: the online “1776 curriculum” put together by Hillsdale College for grades K-12, and the six-part Hulu documentary series on the “The 1619 Project” narrated by its genius loci, the New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones.
I probably had encountered Hochschild’s writing at some point but did not recall his name. A little digging revealed that, in 1976, he co-founded Mother Jones—remember that magazine?—and has long been a stalwart in the stable of reflexively anti-American journalistic indignation.
There are no surprises in Hochschild’s 4,000-word essay. The “bright” side of the spectrum is represented by the 1776 curriculum, but by “bright” Hochschild means willfully, untruthfully naïve, if not, indeed, something more malevolent.
The opposite side, the “dark” side, is filled by Hannah-Jones’ “1619 Project.” Hochschild gives a rather sanitized version of that darkness, equating it essentially with the condign anger that should greet exploiters and oppressors, of which Hochschild’s America, like Hannah-Jones’, is brim-full. There is one important sense in which Hochschild softens or lightens the darkness narrative of the “1619 Project,” however, for he never quite acknowledges that the twin theses of that exercise in racialist revisionism are 1) America was founded as “a slavocracy” and 2) the American Revolution was fought to perpetuate the institution of slavery—preposterous notions both.
What interests me about Hochschild’s essay, though, are not his conclusions but his rhetoric. It can almost go without saying that Adam Hochschild will find anything having to do with Hillsdale College distasteful while, by the same token, he will find much to praise in anything enjoying the imprimatur of a star Times journalist who despises America. All that we can take as given. What is at least mildly interesting is how he deploys his animus.
At least since Donald Trump made his fateful trip down the escalator of Trump Tower in 2015, the Left has delighted in charging people it doesn’t like with the tort of issuing “dog whistles” to their followers. A “dog whistle” is a signal that, inaudible to most of us, will be instantly recognized by those in the know. Thus various NeverTrump crusaders accused Trump of issuing all manner of anti-Semitic or racist “dog whistles” to his followers. The irony is that, of all the things for which one might legitimately criticize the former president, being antisemitic or racist are conspicuously missing. A less racist or antisemitic person than Donald Trump would be hard to find.
Moreover, Donald Trump is too straightforward, too blunt an instrument, to have recourse to rhetorical dog whistles. But left-wingers, who specialize in what Freud called “projection,” are experts at the practice, as any honest person who can pronounce the phrase “Russian collusion” well knows.
One of Left’s favorite dog whistles is the term “Christian,” which is deployed not as a neutral descriptor but rather as an ominous epithet. Thus a recent piece about Hillsdale in the New Yorker is titled “The Christian Liberal Arts School at the Heart of the Culture Wars.” “Christian” in this context is a slyly loaded word, meant to suggest something nearly feral or at least distinctly unenlightened and, as Nancy Mitford might have said, definitely “Non-U.”
Like most colleges in this country that were founded before the 20th century, Hillsdale has ecclesiastical roots. Specifically, it was founded as a Baptist (and abolitionist) institution. What distinguishes it today from an institution like Yale, say, or Harvard is that it is not ostentatiously hostile to Christianity. Hillsdale caters to students of many faiths and no faith. It is not now a religious school, as say, Thomas Aquinas College is, though it identifies itself on its website as “small, Christian, classical liberal arts college.” It is just not an anti-religious school, which is something else. But by identifying Hillside as “Christian,” Hochschild’s intent (like the intent of the writer for the New Yorker) was to introduce a clanging dissonance.
Hochschild’s essay is full of such dog whistles. Our panel of experts has identified 57 separate clarion calls in these two short paragraphs from near the beginning of the piece. I’ll call out just a few.
Hillsdale is a small Christian [noted] school in Michigan whose campus has a shooting range [!] and statues of Ronald Reagan [can you believe it?] and Margaret Thatcher [it gets worse and worse]. It is known for its deeply conservative [not just ‘conservative,’ mind you, but fever-swamp stuff] worldview, expressed in online courses that it claims [don’t trust, but do plant a claim to verify] 3.5 million students have taken; in a Washington outpost, the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, which hard-right [hard-right!] activist Ginni Thomas [readers can be expected to know which Thomas she is married to] helped establish; and in teacher-training seminars, a nationwide network of charter schools, and close ties [close ties] with red-state governors and education departments [extra credit: why is that worse than having ‘close ties’ with blue-state governors?]. Florida, for example, offers a $3,000 bonus to schoolteachers who take a Hillsdale-designed civics training course. When President Donald Trump [Voldemort reference], furious at The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project and its portrayal of slavery as central to American history, appointed a 1776 Commission to promote ‘patriotic education’ [why the scare quotes?] its chair was Hillsdale’s longtime president, Larry Arnn. Other Hillsdale alumni were sprinkled throughout the Trump administration [you can almost hear Hochschild utter quod erat demonstrandum].
More recently, Hillsdale officials have been helping Governor Ron DeSantis [an embryo Voldemort, possibly a new Trump in waiting] review textbooks and revise Florida’s school curriculum. When DeSantis appointed half a dozen new trustees of New College of Florida, the honors college of the state university system, whose reputation for liberalism exasperated him [was it the liberalism or the insanity that exasperated him?], one was a professor and dean from Hillsdale [ah ha!]. These trustees ousted New College’s president, and DeSantis’s chief of staff said he hoped the campus would now become a ‘Hillsdale of the South’ [what could be worse?].
What Hochschild manages to communicate, less by direct argument than the careful scattering of such politicized breadcrumbs, is that Hillsdale, and hence its curriculum, is inherently tainted.
On the plus side, Hochschild could not have picked two views of America that are more in opposition than Hillsdale and its 1776 curriculum and the “1619 Project.” The opposition is somewhat occluded by Hochschild’s political project—to denigrate Hillsdale—but it shines through clearly enough.
Hillsdale’s 1776 curriculum views the American founding and its subsequent elaboration as a monument to ordered liberty, economic opportunity, and human flourishing. It doesn’t paper over the mistakes and blemishes that feature in America’s history. It includes, for example, a frank discussion of slavery. “Americans,” the curriculum says, must understand that “the ideas at the heart of their country were undermined by slavery; but they must also learn how heroic Americans committed to America’s founding ideas made great sacrifices and sometimes gave their lives, so that these ideas of liberty and equality might prevail over the dehumanizing tyranny of slavery.” The basic message is that America (to quote the title of a new history of the United States by Hillsdale professor Wilfred McClay) is a “land of hope.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones thinks otherwise. Her America is a fetid swamp where the primary, almost the only, facts revolve around race and its key monument, slavery. Slavery was abolished in this country in 1865, more than 150 years ago, after a long and bitter war that cost some 700,000 lives was fought to end it. The legacy of the racialist attitudes that legitimized slavery lingered on for years. But for many decades now the demand for racism on the Left has greatly exceeded the supply. This has made racialist warriors like Hannah-Jones furious. But it doesn’t make her views any more attractive or the false history she peddles any more accurate.