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1619: The Year Gaslighting Was Invented
There's been some bickering regarding the 1619 project lately. I have to admit that I'm extremely confused about this controversy. Nikole Hannah-Jones was the progenitor of this endeavor (and she won a Pulitzer for it) and it was designed with a teaching curriculum in mind. I never bothered reading it when it came out, but if you had asked me to summarize it a month ago, I would've said something like:
"This essay aims to argue the essence of this country is far more tied to slavery than people are willing to admit. To wit, the American revolutionary war was actually a racist endeavor intended to fight plans by the British Empire to end slavery. Therefore, the founding of this country should not be considered 1776, but instead it should be 1619 when the first boat of slaves arrived in this country."
Not everyone was on board with these thesis, including what you would have assumed were sympathetic historians, and the entire thesis received some very strong pushback. What is important to note is that the criticism was squarely aimed at refuting the idea that "racism and racial conflict as the essential feature and driving force of American history". Around March of this year, NYT made some changes in the form of a "clarification".
The whole thing took a weird turn starting about a month ago, Hannah-Jones has been vocal that she never argued that the year 1619 was actually "the true founding" of this country, but instead it was all intended to be a rhetorical exercise. People clearly remembered otherwise, but when they went to the NYT page for the receipts they found out that segments have been stealth-edited to get rid of this offending language. When people pointed this out, Hannah-Jones had some very bizarre responses.
Yesterday, Bret Stephens (of bedbug fame), wrote an op-ed on this issue in the NYT:
In a tweet, Hannah-Jones responded to Magness and other critics by insisting that “the text of the project” remained “unchanged,” while maintaining that the case for making 1619 the country’s “true” birth year was “always a metaphoric argument.” I emailed her to ask if she could point to any instances before this controversy in which she had acknowledged that her claims about 1619 as “our true founding” had been merely metaphorical. Her answer was that the idea of treating the 1619 date metaphorically should have been so obvious that it went without saying.
She then challenged me to find any instance in which the project stated that “using 1776 as our country’s birth date is wrong,” that it “should not be taught to schoolchildren,” and that the only one “that should be taught” was 1619. “Good luck unearthing any of us arguing that,” she added.
Here is an excerpt from the introductory essay to the project by The New York Times Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, as it appeared in print in August 2019 (italics added):
“1619. It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?”
Now compare it to the version of the same text as it now appears online:
“1619 is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that the moment that the country’s defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619?”
In an email, Silverstein told me that the changes to the text were immaterial, in part because it still cited 1776 as our nation’s official birth date, and because the project’s stated aim remained to put 1619 and its consequences as the true starting point of the American story.
Regarding the 1619 project as a whole, it always struck me as an elaborate "neener-neener" on American history.
I have no love for the Founding Fathers who owned slaves. Whatever flowery prose they concocted about the virtues of human liberty were completely meaningless when they kept other humans in bondage and when we have direct genetic evidence that they raped some of them. And despite being libertarian adjacent, I also don't have a ton of sympathy for the American revolutionaries. I think their complaints largely were either self-serving or overstated. I consider how other British colonies have turned out (New Zealand, Australia, Canada, etc.) and they're rather amazing countries on many metrics compared to the United States despite not having gone through a revolutionary war which killed close to 200,000 people.
So I hold no delusion about the United States having spawned from any particularly noble set of circumstances. But I'm still at a loss on what to do with the 1619 project, assuming it's true for the sake of argument.
I am definitely sympathetic to the idea of reparations in general but I own up to the criticism about how meaningless the endeavor becomes the further back in time you go. The Spectator had a masterclass brilliant parody article on this topic when it alleged discrimination detrimental to "Indigenous English" in favor of the Normans. The 1619 project doesn't even try to address it, but in fact makes the problem even worse by going back in time even further.
All that we're really left with is "So you like America? Well did you know that it's Bad?"
But this latest development has been especially frustrating trying to follow, because I can't comprehend people's motivations here. 1619 was in the title, and virtually every eminent historian who responded was specifically refuting the claim that 1619 should be considered the "true founding" of the United States. But after some pushback, the author of the project is claiming that never happened, and her and her editor are engaging in what I can only describe as some acrobatic hair-splitting to try and rework the narrative. The reason I find this so confusing is trying to figure out why they're running away so enthusiastically from their eponymous flagship which brought about a Pulitzer. Are they concerned about the election or something? I really don't get it.