KLAVAN: Why The Whole Premise Of The 1619 Project Is Absurd

This is not a good-faith national reckoning. It’s a call to insurrection.

People walk past the front of the New York Times building on November 21, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

It should not come as news to anybody that the history of America’s founding is under attack. More and more, the enemies of our regime tell us explicitly what they want: to defame, erase, and replace the heroes of our country’s origins. The most barefaced example of this is of course The New York Times’s 1619 Project, a series of essays on race in America whose architect, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has made clear that her work is “not a history. It is a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative and, therefore, the national memory. The project has always been as much about the present as it is the past.”

In other words, factual truth matters less to Hannah-Jones than hypnotizing the public, through artful rhetoric and ceaseless repetition, into believing that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA in this country.”

These efforts to unseat the American Founders, to make us ashamed of men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, have been amplified by the Pulitzer Center and fed into the curricula of schools across the nation. The buildings burning in our cities, the statues torn to the ground, are a perfect illustration of what Hannah-Jones and the ruling classes who have empowered her want: to persuade our people to hate and destroy themselves and one another. Small wonder Hannah-Jones herself took gleeful ownership of the riots not long after they began.

Among the many bitter ironies in all this, it is particularly appalling to consider the premise of the 1619 Project, the reason why it is so supposedly “necessary.” The New York Times wants us to believe that without Nikole Hannah-Jones, our nation’s history classes and patriotic celebrations would involve nothing but senselessly jingoistic, uncritical and unmerited pride. As if all Americans did was gloss over the painful moments of their past and shrug off the injustices in their history.

In fact, our moments of greatest patriotism have often been moments of deep introspection and agonizing self-criticism. From Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural to Frederick Douglass’s Fourth of July Oration, the great men of America have always been quite ready to acknowledge the darker moments of our racial history — in terms far more searing and eloquent than Hannah-Jones could ever muster.

That did not stop them from celebrating the true greatness of the nation without fear or qualification.

Indeed, it is because they took a hard, clear look at the country’s shortcomings that our greatest statesmen could say, as Douglass did, that “The principles contained in [the Declaration of Independence] are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”

It’s a childish fallacy to imagine that American patriotism comes at the cost of ignorance about our history.

There is an interesting moment in Beowulf, the great heroic poem of warriors and heroes, which speaks to these concerns. After the hero has slain Grendel, the shadowy ogre who was terrorizing the feasting-halls of the Danish king Hrothgar, there is a great feast of celebration. Hrothgar’s minstrel sings a song to accompany the merriment, and you might expect that what he would sing is a rollicking tale of Danish triumph. But instead, he sings a complex and tragic song of victory won at great cost, of Danes who rose up against the Frisian king Finn. Finn is married to a Danish woman, Hildeburg, and so every death on both sides is a misery to her — she loses not only her Frisian husband and son, but her Danish brother. “Flame devoured them all, hungriest of spirits, all that in that place war had taken of either people: their glory had passed away.”

Even the great war ballads of old were not thoughtlessly triumphalist. But the song of Finn isn’t meant to diminish the greatness of the Danes, the way the 1619 Project is meant to diminish the greatness of America. Instead, it shows that truly patriotic history can celebrate a people even as it acknowledges the difficult moments of the past.

Before Nikole Hannah-Jones ever put pen to paper, no patriotic American who has fully embraced our nation’s founding principles would deny that slavery was a moral atrocity. That’s because America at its core is not racist, and neither are the overwhelming majority of Americans. The whole idea that there is some vast conspiracy to paper over the sins of our history was ridiculous from the moment the Times published it. Our patriotism, and our country, are strong enough to take criticism. It’s propaganda we can’t take, and rioting, and gleeful desecration of our cherished founding.

There was never any need for the 1619 Project at all, and we will be better off the sooner we consign it to the ash heap of history where it belongs.

More from Spencer Klavan: Cancel Culture Isn’t New. John Milton Saw It Coming.

Spencer Klavan is host of the Young Heretics podcast and assistant editor of the Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind. He can be reached on Twitter at @SpencerKlavan.

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