The 1619 Project: Yes, Clear Away the Spin
The evolution of America’s role in the world also demands critical scrutiny.
The Fairfield Swamp Fight—engraving, 1853 (Wikimedia Commons)
If you thought that the 1619 Project unveiled by the New York Times in 2019 was a one-and-done news event, you erred. On that score, a long essay in the most recent issue of the Times Magazine should remove any lingering doubt. It’s past time, declares the magazine’s editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein, “for the nation as a whole to reckon with a new history that acknowledges oppression, exploitation, and racism.” The 1619 Project exists to promote that reckoning.
So for our nation’s most influential publication, 1619P is more than a mere story. It is a cause, laden with moral significance and requiring continuous nurturing. The passion, conviction, and certainty that inform the enterprise are striking. The project carries with it a whiff of the Old Left that enjoyed its heyday from the mid-1930s to the late-1940s. Only true believers need apply and second thoughts are neither encouraged nor permitted.
As Silverstein writes in his updated brief for 1619P, the project aims to provide “a clearing away from spin,” thereby enabling Americans “to see the past from a more propitious perspective.” As used in this context, the term propitious means “the way we here at the Times see things.”
Fifty years ago, by publishing the Pentagon Papers, the Times exposed deceptions and falsehoods that had paved the way for the Vietnam War. At the time, it seemed like a big deal. Yet viewed in retrospect, it was small beer. Take 1619P at face value and the Times is now intent on exposing the entire American enterprise as fraudulent. For all the talk of freedom and democracy, the abiding themes of the American experiment have been racism and resistance to racial oppression. This is historical revisionism on a stupendous scale.
Revisionism requires a congenial environment—conditions conducive to questioning established verities. In that regard, 1619P is very much of the moment. Had Hillary Clinton been elected president in 2016 instead of Donald Trump, Times editors might have been less sure of themselves in declaring the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in colonial Virginia as “our point of origin.”
Candidate Clinton subscribed to no such view. In accepting her party’s nomination, she identified 1776, not 1619, as the start point for what she called “the story of America.” The white males who embarked upon the Revolution, she said, “were drawn together by love of country, and the selfless passion to build something better for all who follow.” For Clinton, the fact that several of the most prominent Founders owned human beings did not even qualify for mention—an omission that did not prevent the Times editorial page from endorsing her for president.
It took Trump and Trumpism to subvert this traditional narrative of a nation making good, however fitfully, on the promise of liberty and justice for all. Of course, myriad other stress-inducing factors also played a role in creating the 1619P moment, among them the climate crisis, a murderous pandemic, economic uncertainties, a porous border, race-related street protests, and extraordinary dysfunction on daily display in Washington. Throw in the Stalinist demands for conformity embedded in extremist versions of critical race theory along with the spread of cancel culture on college campuses and you have the makings of a fight unlikely to end anytime soon.
Where all this leads is not entirely clear. Writing in the Times Magazine, Silverstein suggests that the “the loss of [historical] consensus means we’ve finally arrived.” Others might wonder whether a nation that cannot agree on its own collective past might have arrived at the brink of its own dissolution.
In the interim, allow me to offer this suggestion to Mr. Silverstein and his colleagues: Widen your horizons. If the aim is to clear away the spin, then surely the 1619P critique cannot be limited to domestic matters. The evolution of America’s role in the world—which not infrequently carried a racialist tint—also demands critical scrutiny.
Call it the 1636 addendum to 1619P. That was the year when Anglo-American colonists in Massachusetts and Connecticut embarked upon a war of choice against members of the Pequot tribe with the temerity to obstruct colonial expansionism. The subsequent hostilities ended in a decisive victory, i.e., in the near extermination of the Pequot Indians, with the few survivors subsequently sold into slavery.
As with the arrival of the first African slaves in Virginia, this was by no means a one-off event. The Pequot War inaugurated a pattern of coercive expansionism—frequently advertised under the banner of liberation—that has continued down to the “forever wars” of the present moment.
Indeed, on the very date that the Times Magazine carried Silverstein’s tribute to 1619P, the paper’s front page reported on an American airstrike in Syria that had killed an estimated 70 civilians, a bloody event that the U.S. military then endeavored to cover up.
According to Silverstein, 1619P aims to bring Americans to a more truthful understanding of who they are. 1636P is needed to do much the same, albeit in a different arena. If slavery and racism are great sins, then so too are imperialism and militarism. Here’s looking to the Times to embrace the cause.
Andrew J. Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.