Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Denying the grandeur of the nation’s founding—Wilfred McClay on 1619: "Most of my students are shocked to learn that that slavery is not uniquely American"

Does [the 1619 Project] put forward the hypothesis that the introduction of these 20 individuals—who many scholars argue must have been indentured servants rather than slaves, since there was no provision for chattel slavery in the English common law—is to be taken to represent the nation’s real beginning,
asks Wilfred McClay in Commentary (thanks to the American Conservative's Rod Dreher, via Instapundit) —
and thereby to supersede the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, among many other conventional items, in understanding and accounting for the nation’s creation?

Does it mean that the existence of those elements we associate with American exceptionalism, such as individualism, political democracy, constitutional liberty, economic freedom, egalitarianism, inventiveness, and so on, are somehow to be attributable to slavery?

 … Be that as it may, we can say this much: Considered strictly as an exercise in historical understanding, and in deepening the public’s understanding of a profound issue in our national past, the Project represents a giant missed opportunity. It passes over the complex truth in favor of an exaggeration bordering on travesty. And if it has any influence, that influence will be as likely as not to damage the nation and distort its self-understanding in truly harmful ways—ways that will perhaps be most harmful of all to Americans of African descent, who do not need to be supplied with yet another reason to feel cut off from the promise of American life.

 … But to acknowledge that slavery and its effects have been woven deeply and indelibly into the fabric of American society, and will always be a part of the American story, is one thing. To say that they represent the predominant forces shaping American life down to the present—that is quite another.

There are two fundamental sets of questions, then, to be asked of the 1619 Project.

First, are its fundamental assertions plausible? Do they rest on a solid and uncontroversial scholarly basis? Is there an evidentiary basis at all for saying that “everything exceptional about American history” rests upon slavery?

The second set of questions involves what we are to make of the New York Times’ decision to take on this project in the way that it has. Is it the proper role of a journalistic organization, especially one as powerful as the Times, to promote and advocate for a particular interpretation of American history? Do such actions constitute responsible journalism? Do they contribute to the solution of our current problems through the introduction of honest, unflinching, and fair-minded consideration of the issues raised by the American experience with slavery?

Or are they doing something far less creditable, less balanced, and more polemical, using a distorted and one-sided account of our history to intervene in our current political wars, in ways that can only broaden and deepen those conflicts, and turn them into far worse forms of warfare?

The answer to the second set of questions will depend on what we conclude about the first set. And with them the Project seems to go astray almost immediately.

To begin with, there is an implication running through much of the 1619 Project that slavery is a subject that somehow is rarely if ever spoken of in American history. It would be hard to imagine a more absurd claim.
 … Here we come to an example of a real failure in our educational system, something that the Times could actually help address. Most of my college students come to class without any larger context for their understanding of American slavery. They compare the realities of American life against an abstract standard of perfection and find them wanting. Moreover, they believe that slavery is uniquely American, and uniquely Southern, and that freedom and prosperity are the default position of the human race.

They are shocked and disbelieving when they are told that slavery has existed all over the world, in most cultures and most time periods of human history, and that it has in fact been more the rule than the exception in human history. They do not know that the Greeks, the Romans, the Vikings, the Byzantines, the Ethiopians all embraced slavery. They are shocked to learn that American slavery was exponentially more humane than that of, say, Brazil, and that the American portion of the slaves imported from Africa was only about 4 to 5 percent of the total number imported to the Western hemisphere. They are shocked to learn about the role of Islam in the propagation of slavery. They are shocked to know that slavery still exists openly today in countries such as Mauritania, and our vaunted agencies of international governance do little to nothing about it.

Will the 1619 Project bring these facts to light? Will it seek to give us a better- informed perspective on the uniqueness of the liberty and prosperity and order that we enjoy, and the obstacles in our own history that we have managed to overcome to get where we are? Will it point out that the United States did not create slavery, did not create racism or racial prejudice, that these things are as old as human history and are the default position of human nature, absent some strong countervailing moral force; but that the United States, while having a history that is touched by these evils and while having participated in them, is also a country that has a larger history of which it can be proud, a history of seeking to overcome such things?

It could indeed do that, if it chose to. But that is not what it has chosen to do.

Instead, the Times has chosen to link the commemoration of 1619—a project that in itself is indisputably worthy and important—with a highly questionable scholarly agenda and an equally questionable journalistic one. It uses 1619 as a pretext for other things. I have no idea whether the political gambit of attributing comprehensive bred-in-the-bone racism to the overwhelming majority of Americans can be successful. I doubt that it can, but who knows? But I do know this:

Rooting the nation’s institutions in 1619 not only becomes a way of denying the grandeur of the nation’s actual founding a century and a half later, and of the institutions, including the world’s oldest constitution, that were established then; and of denying the nation’s immense moral progress since that time, and its capacity for even greater progress. Even more important, it becomes a massive distraction, a way of not thinking constructively about the problems that face us, and the changes that could bring progress. Do we really want to continue down that road? I hope that we won’t. But the example being set by the New York Times is far from encouraging.
Related: Pulitzer Prize Winner James McPherson Confirms that No Mainstream Historian Was Contacted by the NYT for Its 1619 History Project

• Gordon Wood: "The Revolution unleashed antislavery sentiments that led to the first abolition movements in the history of the world" — another Pulitzer-Winning Historian Had No Warning about the NYT's 1619 Project

• James Oakes on 1619: "Slavery made the slaveholders rich; But it made the South poor; And it didn’t make the North rich—So the legacy of slavery is poverty, not wealth"

1619, Mao, & 9-11: History According to the NYT — Plus, a Remarkable Issue of National Geographic Reveals the Leftists' "Blame America First" Approach to History

1619: Wondering Why Slavery Persisted for Almost 75 Years After the Founding of the USA? According to Lincoln, the Democrat Party's "Principled" Opposition to "Hate Speech"

Who, Exactly, Is It Who Should Apologize for Slavery and Make Reparations? America? The South? The Descendants of the Planters? …


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Kepha said...

Sigh. It is the luxury of a large, successful nation to fancy itself the center of the earth and fountainhead of everything worth mentioning. My older sibs went to school in an era when American education was very self-congratulatory. They went into the SIlly 'Sixties believing that Americans could do anything from building nations in Southeast Asia to ending poverty at home. They exite that decade believing Americans had done everything from teaching corrution to Far Eastern officialdom to teaching torture to the heirs of the Spanish Inquisition in Latin America.

I have run into graduates of Yale Law School who believe that all the Indians of the Americas spoke Quechua as their lingua franca, that Marco Polo introduced the cultivation of wheat to China, and that the Filipinos are a Spanish-speaking people. I'm not surprised that Mr. McClay found that his younger and more isolated students believed slavery was uniquely American.