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Why Did the 1619 Project Cause Such Outrage?

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It’s been amazing to watch the outrage over the 1619 Project. That Trumpers are disgusted is fairly predictable, though one would hope that they would have just ignored it. But no, the teaching of history has always been central to the culture wars. What’s more bemusing is the uniting of class-not-race socialist historians (Adolph Reed) with aging conservative white male historians (Sean Wilentz, Gordon Wood) to undermine the project’s claims. One can critique the framing of the 1619 Project. In fact, one should. It’s a place to start for rethinking American history. But the idea that it is some sort of outrage against historical knowledge is just not true. A lot of historians are a bit flummoxed by all this. The historian Nicholas Guyatt thinks about all of this in the Times.

Historians of good faith and excellent method can and should explore these questions without fear or rancor, or at least without any more rancor than academics usually generate when they quarrel with one another. But in the loudest criticism of 1619 has been a level of vitriol that is neither productive nor scholarly. Professor Wilentz told The Washington Post that, when he first read Ms. Hannah-Jones’s lead essay, “I threw the thing across the room.” His Princeton colleague Allen C. Guelzo has dismissed the project as a “conspiracy theory.” Prominent critics have looked to shut down the project’s assertions rather than engage with them, and have even suggested that the project’s authors bear some responsibility for the president’s endless culture wars.

What’s going on here? In part, I think, the answer is gate-keeping. The project’s critics were clearly upset by its arguments, but does anyone think that the same essays published in another venue would have created anything like this reaction?

There is also something generational about this sense of horror at the storming of the citadel: among liberals of a certain age, The Times has a sacred status in American life. Some of the project’s liberal critics are also accustomed to shaping the national conversation on the American past. That The Times would have published the project without the benefit of their expertise clearly came as a shock. “I had no warning about this,” the distinguished historian Gordon S. Wood told the World Socialist website about 1619. “No one ever approached me.”

But the visceral reaction is also an acknowledgment that the 1619 Project radically challenges a core narrative of American history. Liberals and conservatives alike have imagined the story of the United States as a gradual unfolding of freedom. The Declaration of Independence is the seed of equality which eventually flowers for every American; white people — from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Abraham Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson — are indispensable allies in the work of racial progress.

The 1619 Project finds this narrative wanting. Its authors describe a nation in which racism is persistent and protean. White supremacy shapeshifts through the nation’s history, finding new forms to continue the work of subjugation and exclusion.

I think this is exactly rate. The true elites are unwilling to deal with the fact that their profession is not a bastion of elitism anymore and that people are not going to defer to them. I mean, I have heard from multiple people that Gordon Wood used to refuse to acknowledge the existence of his female colleagues at Brown, so let’s be clear about who we are talking about here and what kind of elitism this is. Moreover, a lot of us, especially those who are around 50 or under (though plenty older than that too) simply do not accept the narrative that the United States is some great country that is a beacon of light to the world or whatever. It just doesn’t play. It’s an insult to our knowledge of the past. It’s pure propaganda and ideology. And so to question the rightness of the American Revolution or the pureness of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson is just beyond what a lot of these aging elite historians can handle.

It’s an interesting time to be a historian. A sad one too since the field is dying on the vine because no one hires historians anymore and we will lose so many stories and so much knowledge as time goes on unless universities change their priorities. But in this case, it’s quite something to witness.

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