“The ‘1619 Project’ is filled with slovenliness and ideological ax-grinding”

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by Greg Mayer

The New York Times‘ ‘1619 Project’, and the critical reaction to it, has drawn attention here at WEIT a number of times. The diversity of the sources of criticism has been notable, ranging across the traditional political spectrum from left to right. In another salvo from the right, conservative political commentator George Will attacks the project in a new column in the Washington Post. The occasion of Will’s critique is that, incredibly, the lead writer of the project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize! (As Brian Leiter notes, the Pulitzer people have not covered themselves with glory in their awards for “Commentary”.)

As his headline (in the title above) shows, Will attacks both the historical account given by the project, and its motivations. He selects “three examples of slovenliness, even meretriciousness, regarding facts”. The examples chosen are the significance of a British offer of freedom to slaves who would flee to the British army; Lincoln’s views on emancipation and enfranchisement; and the role of whites in “the long struggle for freedom and civil rights”. (With regard to the latter, one of the things that seems to me to be most ahistorical about Hannah-Jones’ account is its elision of the Civil War. What is most striking about slavery in America is that it was ended by a war in which hundreds of thousands died—”every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword“. And the Union Army– with full credit to the free blacks and escaped slaves that rallied to it, and whose martial exploits had such salubrious effect on enfranchisement– was overwhelmingly white.)

While noting the Times‘ loss of journalistic credibility for embarking on a “political project”, and its “ideological ax-grinding”, Will mostly addresses the historical facts (or lack thereof). In a commentary at New Discourses, the claim is made that “facts” are not at all the point of the 1619 Project. (New Discourses is a new website by the “grievance studies” scholars, which Jerry has previously noted.)

From the New Discourses article on the ‘1619 Project’ (first sent to me by reader cesar):

Of some note, understanding the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project more or less necessarily begins by observing that it is not history, but the kind of pessimistic and hyperbolic historiography that is typical of critical race Theory. This makes it necessary to observe that a fundamental pillar of critical race Theory is historical revisionism—the rewriting of history in a way that tells it from the preferred and cynical narratives of critical race Theory. This renders the 1619 Project firmly within the realm of seeking to rewrite history (especially American history) to promote its cynical, anti-liberal agenda. Indeed, the project posits the history of the United States as little more than a long series of strategic moves by which white racism—especially anti-black racism—was established and has been and remains maintained as an ordinary and permanent feature of (American) society (see also, interest convergence). Indeed, critical race Theory sees racism and white supremacy as integral components of the very fabric of society (particularly American society) that is therefore urgently in need of deconstructing, disrupting, and dismantling (see also, liberationism and Neo-Marxism).

The importance of the point about the 1619 Project not being a serious attempt at historical understanding but a project within critical race Theory is beyond calculability. This is because the standard approach to challenging the 1619 Project’s bogus claims and attempt to roll itself out into our society and educational system is to challenge its historical legitimacy, and this is unfortunately a necessary part of engaging with it. The trouble is, because the 1619 Project neither is history nor claims to be history, this necessary activity is ultimately severely limited in its purposed utility.

Will’s tactical error, by this analysis, is that he challenges the project’s historical claims, while the project’s promoters do not even acknowledge that facts and argument count. New Discourses goes on:

Under critical race approaches, established historical methods, having largely been devised by white people working in a “white” cultural context are understood as merely “white history.” This will be understood to be imbued with all of the biases of whiteness, including failing to understand its own bias (see also, white ignorance and willful ignorance) and thus unconsciously working to maintain itself and its dominance (see also, internalized dominance and privilege). Thus, according to the worldview that informs the 1619 Project, there is no way to adjudicate between one historical narrative and another except by referencing the identity politics of systemic power and determining how one’s positionality has led to the creation or adoption of any particular narrative (see also, Foucauldian).

Under the critical approach characterizing the 1619 Project, there is also no need to hold oneself to rigorous academic methods or procedures, including peer review, for these would be assumed to be corrupted by “white” biases as well. Therefore, it is not only consistent with the critical ethos of the 1619 Project to exist outside of academia, it is strongly advantageous to it because it calls into question the entire process by which it can be authoritatively criticized.

The 1619 Project suffers from this “anti-epistemology”— instead of a theory of how we know things, it is a theory of how we can’t know anything.  (Such theories are always hoist by the petard of self-reference, but that’s for another day.)

Interestingly, in this week’s New York Times Magazine, their ethics columnist, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, comments on another dysfunctional epistemology, that of anti-vaxxers. He writes:

This doesn’t work with epistemic dissidents. Whether they fixate on climate change, the moon landing or vaccines, they distrust authority, including scientific authority. (Maybe they think that the medical establishment has been suborned by big pharma or bamboozled by ideology.) They know that beliefs have changed in the past and think they have a special insight into which of our current mainstream beliefs are the next to go. They have invariably rabbit-holed into a detailed counterreality.

I love the term “epistemic dissidents”—it’s a nice way of capturing that the argument isn’t about whether this or that is true, but about whether “facts” or rational arguments are even relevant. (It also is very close to “epidemic dissidents”, which is very appropriate, perhaps unwittingly, for the world’s current pandemic.) Note that Appiah, correctly, associates views primarily from both the left (vaccines) and the right (climate change) with this dysfunctional epistemology. Although we’ve had occasion to note the affinity of the Republican party for anti-science, I’ve also argued that wokeism (of which the 1619 Project, a sort of anti-history, is an exemplar) is conceptually perpendicular to the traditional left-right axis of American politics, and Appiah’s choice of examples makes the same point for the larger phenomenon of “epistemic dissidents”.