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The New York Times Magazine’s new 1619 Project, the first installment of which was published last week, marks a watershed in American journalism. It is billed as nothing less than an attempt “to reframe the country’s history.” Centering the month of August 1619—when the history of American slavery began with the arrival of fifty Africans on a Portuguese slave ship at Jamestown, Virginia—as the “true founding” of America, the effort draws together essays and interactive features from journalists, sociologists, activists, and historians, as well as a collection of poetry on the black American experience. The subjects discussed so far range widely, from the political economy of slave plantations, the history of race and medicine, and patterns of urban segregation to the history of minstrelsy and cultural appropriation, but the thread that ties it all together is a core argument: that the United States was literally founded on white supremacy.
Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay is one of the most fiercely patriotic pieces of writing I have ever read. It is a patriotism not of hagiography but of struggle.
The project’s outlook is not one of racial pessimism, however—the sort of fatalism that Ta-Nehisi Coates has sometimes been accused of. Nikole Hannah-Jones, 1619’s organizer and editor, makes this point very clearly in her powerful introductory essay. She cites her own family history as a testament to the promise of American democracy: her father, born in the county in Mississippi with the highest number of lynchings in the country, went on to serve in the U.S. Army and proudly flew the American flag in front of the Iowa home of her youth. “Black Americans,” she concludes, are “foundational to the idea of American freedom. . . . It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy”—by moving America towards the fulfillment of the ideals professed in the Declaration of Independence. Her essay is one of the most fiercely patriotic pieces of writing I have ever read. It is also true. Hers is a patriotism not of hagiography but of struggle, born of an honest reckoning with a usually brutal American past. Like the rest of the project, her essay asks the public to confront the full weight and abiding significance of American history, not in order to undermine the idea of America but in order to fulfill it.
One might imagine that this patriotic vision—of a flawed United States, to be sure, but a democratic experiment that still can be redeemed—could find supporters on the right. But the most visible conservative response has been unmitigated outrage. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich dismissed 1619 as “propaganda.” Right-wing blogger Erick Erickson suggested that the project was a deliberate incitement to revolution. Other conservatives have insisted that the real goal of the project was to shame whites, disrupt American unity, and portray the United States as a uniquely evil force in the world—to undermine both its political and moral legitimacy. Some pointed out that other countries have done bad things, too.
None of these “critiques” stands up to even a cursory reading of the project. Why are so many conservatives incapable of confronting this history without perceiving it as a threat?
There are at least three reasons.
The 1619 Project asks the public to confront the full weight and abiding significance of American history—not in order to undermine the idea of America, but in order to fulfill it.
The first is that American conservatism has a fraught relationship with equality, racial or otherwise. The 1619 Project makes the case, among other things, that racial hierarchy is inimical to true freedom. But there is a deep legacy in conservative thought of viewing freedom and equality as incompatible—not just in philosophical treatises, but in the day-to-day ideological framing that forms the bread and butter of conservative commentary, from magazines and Fox News to talk radio. In the mid-1960s Harry Jaffa and Frank Meyer engaged in a series of dueling essays in National Review on this question. Meyer, a notorious racist who opposed desegregation, wrote in one of his essays that Jaffa incorrectly “chooses to base his critique of American slavery on the proposition that the American polity is in its essence dedicated to equality.” But “freedom and equality are opposites,” Meyer baldly replied, with a formula that still resonates. “The freer men are the freer they are to demonstrate their inequality.” This is the same basic principle that guided William F. Buckley’s infamous 1957 editorial “Why the South Must Prevail,” in which he argued that, the question “of the rights of American citizens, born Equal” aside, the “White community in the South is entitled to take . . . measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically.” In his own 1619 contribution, Jamelle Bouie refers to this very argument of Buckley’s: “It is a strikingly blunt defense of Jim Crow and affirmation of white supremacy from the father of the conservative movement.” Buckley later moved away from his explicitly segregationist stance, but its ghosts still haunt much of conservative thinking.
The second reason is that many conservatives are deeply invested, not just politically but also intellectually, in the defense of the kinds of explicitly racist power arrangements that the 1619 Project criticizes. Take Gingrich, who represented a largely white suburban Atlanta district that was the direct beneficiary of the transit-based segregation that the historian Kevin Kruse writes about in his 1619 essay. Gingrich holds a PhD in history from Tulane University; his 1971 dissertation was a full-throated defense of the infamously brutal Belgian colonial record in Congo. On its second page, the future congressman stresses the need for “awareness of the good as well as the bad aspects of colonialism,” suggesting that “the colonial powers performed a painful but positive function in disrupting traditional society” of “the natives.” The same year that Gingrich submitted his dissertation, Ronald Reagan, in a phone call to Richard Nixon, sneered at “those monkeys” representing the newly independent African countries at the United Nations, calling them “cannibals” and saying “they are still uncomfortable wearing shoes.” In his 1957 editorial defending segregation, Buckley compared the situation in the American South to the British in Kenya, who were then facing an anti-colonial uprising. “The choice,” Buckley said, “was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism.”
For conservatives, national unity can be maintained only through reverence for America’s founding myths.
The third reason is that conservatives revere history as a source of incontestable authority, as opposed to a storehouse of fallible human experience, susceptible to analysis and critique. This manifests itself in a variety of ways. There is the legal doctrine of originalism, a more or less uniquely American form of legal doctrine that interprets constitutional matters solely through the lens of what the adjudicator concludes the original drafters of the U.S. Constitution meant. Originalism—whether cashed out in terms of “original intent” or, as Antonin Scalia preferred, “original meaning”—is predicated on the belief that the Constitution ought to be read mainly through the lens of the intention of its drafters unless it has been amended by the democratic procedures the Constitution specifies. Yet Southern conservatives in the 1950s complained that the Reconstruction amendments, passed by Congress and ratified by the states in the 1860s, are invalid or otherwise unconstitutional because the Southern states at the time were subject to military occupation and black political rule. As one legal critic of originalism argued in a law review article in 2010, “the traditional normative case for originalism does not hold water when applied to the Fourteenth Amendment.” The Reconstruction amendments abolished slavery, guaranteed equal protection under the law, and established universal male suffrage, all of which the original Constitution pointedly did not seek to do.
Meanwhile, Federalist writer Benjamin Weingarten concluded on Twitter that the 1619 Project was intended to “delegitimize America.” Erick Erickson and conservative legal commentator Ilya Shapiro made similar comments, with Erickson going so far as to lament that
If the land in which the United States was founded has been tainted by racism since the 1600s and everything derived therefrom is therefore tainted, then the US is illegitimate, the constitution is illegitimate, and revolution is the answer —
What Weingarten, Shapiro, and Erickson share is a fundamental belief not so much in actual history as in national myths: they view them as a necessary component of American national unity. The Founding Fathers, perhaps with an element of divine inspiration, came together to build, in Shapiro’s words, “mankind’s grandest experiment in human liberty and self-governance.” To suggest that those Founders were flawed—or even worse, that the American experiment, whatever its professed ideals, has in practice consistently failed to deliver genuine peace, prosperity, and democracy to the people who live here—is an invitation to anarchy. National unity can be maintained only through reverence for, and the defense of, America’s founding myths. It’s that, or the abyss.
The long and ongoing struggle to turn the ideals of America into reality is the greatest unifier of all.
The alternative to this restrictive conservative vision of national unity can be found in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay. Many conservative critics have completely missed the point, even when it seems they are just on the cusp of getting it. John Daniel Davidson, writing in The Federalist, for example, complained that while she “argues persuasively that African Americans are the true believers in America’s Founding ideals”—note the capitalization of “Founding,” which suggests a religious dimension to the term—“but also that they are dupes because the ideals are a lie.”
It is difficult to imagine a more tortured accusation. It is undeniably a lie that those ideals were ever applied to the majority of people living in the land that would become America in 1776. Hannah-Jones’s point, indeed the whole point of the 1619 Project, is that black Americans—who have been held by so many whites to be “the obstacle to national unity”—have through centuries of struggle and protest “helped the country live up to its founding ideals.” This courageous optimism of the 1619 Project is bracing: rather than look away from the inconvenient truth that the man who wrote that “all men are created equal” owned his wife’s half-siblings as slaves, even engaging in a sexual relationship with one of them, it chooses to center those historical realities even while affirming that, yes, all human beings are created equal. And that the long and ongoing struggle to turn that aspiration into reality is the greatest unifier of all.
David Austin Walsh is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia. He is currently writing a book on the relationship between the far right and the conservative movement in the United States in the twentieth century. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Dissent, among other publications, and he tweets @DavidAstinWalsh.
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