Nitpicking and political muscle won't prevail in the end
True story: I asked my 10 year old niece what she learned in school this year. “Our country was really mean to the Native Americans. We took their land and killed them.” Learn anything else about the US? “Yes, we still use mean stereotypes of the native Americans.” Anything else about America? “No that’s it.” Now, perhaps she was taught more, but that was her takeaway and it was 100% of what she retained about her country. She happens to go to a very nice private school in a major city.
This is what conservatives are against. These kids are being taught a purely oppressor-victim narrative of the country with zero context of the greater success of the American project. They don’t seem to learn that despite all its warts, this was truly a revolutionary project in terms of human freedom and equality and is essentially unparalleled in human history. That context is wiped away and we teach only the negative parts while forgetting that those very negative parts, while mostly an exception in America, were generally the norm for most people all over the globe for most of human history.
If we teach a generation of kids that our country has been a history of pure evil and oppression with no redeeming qualities, I guess progressives think the kids will remedy the oppression. Conservatives see a generation of radicals that will hold deeply anti-American sentiments with no sense of there being anything valuable worth preserving. This, of course, can only lead to the decay of the nation.
There just has to be a balance. We have many things worth preserving while still having things we need to improve upon. Reasonable people should be able to agree on this.
Look around your society. All told, it’s a pretty good society. It’s better than virtually every society that’s ever existed. Certainly, it’s far better than Bangladesh, where my dad grew up. Fundamentally, (American) conservatism posits that (1) we don’t really understand how our society got to be as successful as it is; and (2) that we should be extremely careful about changing it because we risk breaking it. It’s the applied version of Chesterton’s Fence.
What conservatives fear about a liberal retelling of history, that focuses only on the negatives and not on the positives, is that it will convince kids that the system as a whole needs upheaval and change. And conservatives think that’s bad not because it’s bad for conservatives, but because they think that upheaval would be bad for America.
Concrete example: I’m a conservative precisely because I’m an immigrant of color. When I look around America I see people with virtues lacking in the people back home, and system of government that’s produced remarkable stability and prosperity. In particular I see a system that has enabled many successive generations of immigrants to achieve parity with the original Anglo Saxon founders of the country, including non-white immigrants like Latinos and Asians: https://academic.oup.com/qje/article/135/2/711/5687353.
The success of America at being a multi-ethnic democracy is unparalleled. Even in Europe with its robust welfare states immigrants who look like me are stuck in generational poverty. But in America we’re richer than white people!
I’m afraid of you liberals breaking that.
The 1619 Project gets too much respect here. I think the idea of "provocation" or "great journalism" elides how such assertions are accepted as fact by people who want to be on the correct, moral side of contemporary issues. To take just one example, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from highly educated people that the urban police in America originate from slave catchers. People actually believe this stuff, and it is important to push back and call out the propaganda where it is, perhaps especially for those of us who are liberals. The conservatives should not be the only ones out there fighting this fight (and messing it up while they're at it).
Douthat's view is correct, and to imply he is nut-picking is wrong. There is a large and growing strain of leftist activists who are anti-American, who want to divide, who do not agree with classic liberalism - freedom of conscience, religion, speech - and believe all this can be solved with a turn toward socialism. The use of a racial wedge is merely a tool and not the goal.
As evidence, I submit the Democratic primary where the leftists were out-of-step with actual Black people's in supporting and enforcing a more radical set of policies, whether under the Bernie or Warren (rather than Biden) candidacy. And again in the NYC mayoral election, where the true left mobilized to oppose the Black candidate. The use of race is a tool for a rising left that is fighting classic liberalism, a market economy, and, yes, the origins of the US.
I don't see why Matt's take is incompatible with Ross's. Most conservatives genuinely have moved toward the center in their understanding of American history and are concerned about an "over-correction" that actually leaves kids (who aren't really wired to add nuance to a one-sided story by themselves) with the impression that America is a pretty fucked up place. Also conservatives don't like the idea of progressives taking over the curriculum and painting history as a war of good guys vs bad guys, where the bad guys are always the conservatives. Imagine that!
Just to re-up my Haidt stan cred, progressives also don't seem to recognize that the conservative enthusiasm for the American myth is a deeply-held moral perspective for them. Being American is a core part of their identity for many of them much like being a member of a minority racial group is for other people, one of their biggest sources of personal and collective pride. Toppling a statue of George Washington in protest would stir up the same feelings of disgust and offense in many of them as toppling a statue of MLK in protest. It's personal. They take pride in standing up for the foundational values of America in the face of an army of an army of progressive-socialist-communist-anarchists who would burn it all to the ground. When they watch Star Wars, we're the Empire. When they read history, we're the "Democrats" who fought to protect slavery (I know, it's dumb). We're the Maoists holding struggle sessions. We're the angry protesters opposed to judging people on the content of their character instead of the color of their skin. We're their bad guys. Simple as that. You can point out all the ways they're wrong (there are plent) but if you can't accurately see us through their eyes, you'll never understand what's actually behind the outrage.
Matt seems to have missed the main objection I've heard from conservatives about critical race theory.
The driving force of the right's outrage is the goal of the CRT project and its advocates. Their stated goal is to upend the centuries old enlightenment values that underpin our modern society. At its core, it's a stunningly illiberal project that's counter to centuries of American values.
Specifically, CRT seeks to eliminate our tradition of elevating certain individual rights above those of the collective. It assesses everyone it encounters based on their immutable characteristics, rather than based on their individual characteristics. It seeks to categorize and divide people by their immutable characteristics. It attacks our sense-making apparatus at its core by all classifying all truth relative and by disrupting the processes we use to establish what's true.
Are conservatives interested in winning the history wars or the midterm elections? My money is on the latter and all the CRT boomer moral panic is just getting the base riled up to put republicans into the house and senate.
Most US pop historiography falls victim to a major analytical error and this is no exception. Americans have a tendency to center the US in the global historical narrative and to treat other countries as peripheral to our development. This is always evident in the crappy history books that conservative journalists write (see Brian Kilmeade, Bill O'Reilly) and as much as I am more inclined to support 1619, it is no different.
For instance, the Desmond article is interesting so long as you steadfastly refuse to recall that global capitalism was driven by the British and that the US replicated its conditions until they begin to diverge post WW1. Quite simply, racial discrimination can not adequately describe a system that developed with the US, at best, as an interesting sideshow. His point about the 'financialization' of Slavery via bank bonds implies an interesting historical materialist argument about the subsuming of human cruelty to a capitalist system, but that is basically the exact opposite of the point he tries to make (that the cruelty created capitalism).
More broadly, these writers (with the exception of Kruse, whose work is appropriately narrowly focused) are not historians or even journalists who normally write about history. That's why all these articles read like term papers from someone taking an elective class.
The 1619 project is actually a really interesting set of articles, but it is not conservatives' fault that the creators decided to try and turn it into a curriculum and a 'reimagining of US history.' It deserves to be criticized the same as "Killing Lincoln."
I think Matt's comments on the 1619 Project are generally spot on -- some of the essays are truly wonderful, and I loved NHJ's paean to her father's patriotism. But what I object to (and what Matt calls merely "sloppy") is the focus on slavery and race relations as the monocausal explanation of American history. Slavery was *the* cause of the American Revolution. America's national wealth was basically built on cotton and slavery. These are not sloppy statements; they're deeply wrong. Were they really really important? Sure! But history is a complex phenomenon, and making such wild claims paints you as a fanatic, not an educator.
It's the fanaticism in this debate (on both sides, but most definitely on the woke side) that I find most disturbing. We need a much more richly detailed history taught than heretofore has been done, but we have to understand that every thread we pursue is just one more -- some more important than others -- in the American tapestry.
"the U.S. Constitution, which not only endorses slavery..."
Let us look at the objects for which the Constitution was framed and adopted, and see if slavery is one of them. Here are its own objects as set forth by itself: — “We, the people of these United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.” The objects here set forth are six in number: union, defence, welfare, tranquility, justice, and liberty. These are all good objects, and slavery, so far from being among them, is a foe of them all. But it has been said that Negroes are not included within the benefits sought under this declaration. This is said by the slaveholders in America — it is said by the City Hall orator — but it is not said by the Constitution itself. Its language is “we the people;” not we the white people, not even we the citizens, not we the privileged class, not we the high, not we the low, but we the people; not we the horses, sheep, and swine, and wheel-barrows, but we the people, we the human inhabitants; and, if Negroes are people, they are included in the benefits for which the Constitution of America was ordained and established. But how dare any man who pretends to be a friend to the Negro thus gratuitously concede away what the Negro has a right to claim under the Constitution? Why should such friends invent new arguments to increase the hopelessness of his bondage? This, I undertake to say, as the conclusion of the whole matter, that the constitutionality of slavery can be made out only by disregarding the plain and common-sense reading of the Constitution itself; by discrediting and casting away as worthless the most beneficent rules of legal interpretation; by ruling the Negro outside of these beneficent rules; by claiming that the Constitution does not mean what it says, and that it says what it does not mean; by disregarding the written Constitution, and interpreting it in the light of a secret understanding. It is in this mean, contemptible, and underhand method that the American Constitution is pressed into the service of slavery. They go everywhere else for proof that the Constitution declares that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; it secures to every man the right of trial by jury, the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus — the great writ that put an end to slavery and slave-hunting in England — and it secures to every State a republican form of government. Anyone of these provisions in the hands of abolition statesmen, and backed up by a right moral sentiment, would put an end to slavery in America.
Conservatives are the bad guys of American history.
This is the most productive argument we could be making IMO. Well-crafted arguments in other directions just keep bringing us back to a place where people who identify as conservative hate the rest of us for not being American enough.
Excellent post. The 1619 Project was terrific journalistic history. And it did initially overreach in its point about the revolution being motivated by the protection of slavery. But that point was in part retracted, and it made people consider slavery as a contributing factor.
Jill Lepore's "These Truths" is excellent history as history and does a terrific job of looking at American history through the lens of marginalized groups. It does so in a way that is nuanced and in the end hopeful. Highly recommend as a great book to read, especially now as these history battles rage on.
I am very skeptical of the argument that "conservatives" are uniquely the inheritors of everything bad in this country. I think this is a self serving view and one that does not take seriously the fact that conservative/liberal takes on little coherence and meaning the further back we go in time. The coalitions were *really* different back then and our conceptions of what is conservative, liberal, or progressive do not really map well when we delve into eighteenth century history.
I think Douthat's column really did articulate well the underlying political/emotional stakes of the 1619 project. Matt's interpretation strikes me as a little bit of a jump, though an interesting one to consider.
However, I am willing to bet money that if Matt showed this column to any prominent Black writer, Nicole Hannah-Jones included, they would retort "NO, Matt. Everyone's hands are dirty when it comes to the brutalization of Black people. Not just conservatives." Hence why I think Matt's formulation is a little off the mark.
I really don't know what entertains me more. The threads that are in response to posts that are related to urbanism, housing, and transportation, where comments seem to be unaware of just the basics of MY's world view and some of the foundations of it--congestion isn't solved by more highway miles, NIMBYs are bad, etc., or the threads in response to the American politics where there's a mass of conservative comments arguing in a parallel universe where their concerns about the ongoing effort of the left to destroy America and all that it holds dear, and apparently things like Trump and January 6th never happened.
“The sheer volume of criticism that’s heaped just on a couple of lines from Hannah-Jones’ essay shows the extent to which conservatives are mad about the project (because they rightly perceive it as bad for the right) but don’t really have the goods to debunk it.”
There are whole books written in response to the project: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B083ZJM14R/. Obviously shorter critiques would focus on the easiest-to-explain falsehoods — not to mention the most inflammatory — like those in NHJ’s introductory essay. And whether or not conservative criticism is good or right, the project has been panned by scholars across the political spectrum.
I think there is fatigue on the right about having their values and stories not only constantly challenged but mocked. I used to love watching John Stewart tease the more absurd examples of right-wing anything on the "The Daily Show" but now I see this is what got Trump elected - conservatives were tired of being made fun of and wanted to "own the libs" more than anything. The media and entertainment complex has far more influence on the daily lives of Americans than wonky policy details, which is what Trump deeply understood.
Of course, this is the nature of the liberal versus conservative dynamic - the liberal pushes change faster than the conservative wants to allow it. That tension actually works well when it's balanced (go slow to avoid unintended consequences), but media and social media have labeled this dynamic a "catastrophe" rather than the way of the world that it has been for much of the progress of history. Why? Ratings and clicks, sadly.