Sunday, October 18, 2020

Speaking Truth to the 1619 Project

I have as yet said very little about the now infamous New York Times 1619 project. This absurdly arrogant attempt to rewrite American history has been roundly rejected by all serious scholars as ideological propaganda. 

To offer substantive comments I would have had to read the document and to study the history. I am confident that it was junk thought, and, as the saying goes, life’s too short.

Bret Stephens produced something of a firestorm when he took the author Nikole Hannah-Jones to task in The New York Times itself. As he described it, the project seems to have been an application of Black Liberation Theology, the kind that has been preached by Rev. Jeremiah Wright to people like the Obamas. If you believe that Barack Obama, who found the message compelling for two decades, overcame it by offering a twenty-minute speech, you are gullible beyond imagination.

Stephens describes the project’s thesis:

… it seeks to dethrone the Fourth of July by treating American history as a story of Black struggle against white supremacy — of which the Declaration is, for all of its high-flown rhetoric, supposed to be merely a part.

A dialectical struggle between oppressed blacks and white supremacists, white capitalists, white patriarchs. Obviously, this imposes a narrative on history-- it is, among other things, a sign of feeble mindedness. The Times has plenty of room for Hannah-Jones and none for Bari Weiss. It tells you more than you wanted to know about the paper’s current management.

Many historians have bravely stepped forth to explain that Hannah-Jones knows nothing about history. But, consider an intriguing thesis, offered by Kay Hymowitz, writing in the City Journal. She explains that America is not exceptional for having enslaved people, but that it is exceptional for having led the movement to abolish slavery.

Leftist bigots will tell you that it does not matter, but, in truth, Hannah-Jones’s assertions are historical fictions. Among them, her profoundly ignorant assertion that slavery in America was uniquely brutal and that had never existed anywhere in the world before.

Hymowitz summarizes:

I’d like to propose adding another reason to close the book on the 1619 Project: it is based on a twisted notion of American exceptionalism. America’s “brutal system of slavery [was] unlike anything that had existed in the world before,” Hannah-Jones writes. “Enslaved people were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently.” Brutal? Yes. Unlike anything that existed in the world before? Seeing how far this is from the truth is the only way to make sense of the contradictions and perplexing compromises of the American Founding that trouble us so much today.

The factual truth, she continues, was that slavery was commonplace; it existed nearly everywhere.

In fact, slavery was a mundane fact in most human civilizations, neither questioned nor much thought about. It appeared in the earliest settlements of Sumer, Babylonia, China, and Egypt, and it continues in many parts of the world to this day. Far from grappling with whether slavery should be legal, the code of Hammurabi, civilization’s first known legal text, simply defines appropriate punishments for recalcitrant slaves (cutting off their ears) or those who help them escape (death). Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament take for granted the existence of slaves. Slavery was so firmly established in ancient Greece that Plato could not imagine his ideal Republic without them, though he rejected the idea of individual ownership in favor of state control. As for Rome, well, Spartacus, anyone?

Slavery was not unique or indigenous to European whites. It was practiced around the world, by people of color:

Slavery was a normal state of affairs well beyond the territory we now call Europe. The Mayans had slaves; the Aztecs harnessed the labor of captives to build their temples and then serve as human sacrifices at the altars they had helped construct. The ancient Near East and Asia Minor were chockfull of slaves, mostly from East Africa. According to eminent slavery scholar Orlando Patterson, East Africa was plundered for human chattel as far back as 1580 BC. Muhammad called for compassion for the enslaved, but that didn’t stop his followers from expanding their search for chattel beyond the east coast into the interior of Africa, where the trade flourished for many centuries before those first West Africans arrived in Jamestown. Throughout that time, African kings and merchants grew rich from capturing and selling the millions of African slaves sent through the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean to Persians and Ottomans.

And, wherever it was practiced, slavery involved treating people as property. Thus, the American practice was more the rule than the exception. This does not justify it in any way, but it does show Hannah-Jones to be wildly misinformed or simply dishonest:

Make no mistake, though: slaves were always considered property to be traded, bought, and sold. For millennia, wherever people were buying and selling things, slave markets existed. “Slaves were the closest thing to a universal currency in trading centers,” observes Steven Johnson in his recent book about piracy, The Enemy of All Mankind. Joseph Pitts, an English boy seized by Barbary pirates in the seventeenth century, wrote of a Cairo market: “The slaves are examined much like animals; buyers are allowed to check their teeth, muscles, and stature to get an idea of the overall health of a slave.” David Brion Davis explains: “While African slaves did grueling labor on sugar and cotton plantations in the Americas, European Christian slaves were often worked just as hard and as lethally—in quarries, in heavy construction, and above all rowing the corsair galleys themselves.”

What was unique to Anglo-Saxon civilization was the movement to abolish slavery:

Though it took more than a century and a horrific civil war to emancipate slaves in the United States, the abolitionist movement was a white Western invention. Other parts of the world remained wedded to slavery well into the twentieth century: slavery was legal in Ethiopia until 1942, in Saudi Arabia until 1963, and Mauritania until 1980. Today, one reads reports of slavery in Mauritania, Sudan, and in Islamist quasi-states in Iraq and Nigeria. As much as 15 percent of the population of Mauritania may be enslaved, according to the BBC. Estimates of those in bondage today run as high as 1 million people, mostly women and children.

A little perspective is a good thing. Correct information is a good thing. The New York Times is now trying to save face. It will take quite some time for it to live this down.


Sam L. said...

She's obviously not read the Bible, wherein the Egyptians enslaved the Jews, and the Romans who enslaved pretty much everyone else... But HEY!, it's the NYT, and it gives me one more opportunity to day that I despise, detest, and distrust the NYT. (The WaPoo, too!)

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Hymowitz aside, I went to the link for Bret Stephens’ piece, and the final paragraph is telling:

“All the more so as journalists, in the United States and abroad, come under relentless political assault from critics who accuse us of being fake, biased, partisan and an arm of the radical left. Many of these attacks are baseless. Some of them are not. Through its overreach, the 1619 Project has given critics of The Times a gift.”

Wrong again, Bret. The Leftist duplicity of the American mainstream Enemedia is a feature, not a bug. Most of the “attacks” journalists face are not baseless. The coverage of Donald Trump is a self-evident disgrace.

I’ve come to despise Bret Stephens as much as I do everyone else at the NYT. Regardless of their their labeling (Stephens, Brooks and Douthat are supposedly “conservative” voices), they all have a uniform condescension — a sneering tone — with everything they write. And it doesn’t stop there. The “conservative” intelligentsia (Kristol, Will, Goldberg, Williamson, et al) are just as bad. What are they conserving? National Review is a joke, with the same problem — a snotty, snobby attitude toward 90% of the country, whom they view as gauche and effectively unworthy of, well, much of anything. You know... the people in flyover country. The losers left to live in the neoliberal hell the Ruling Class hath wrought. Excepting themselves, of course.

Journalism (the chattering class) has no credibility today. They are still harkening back to “the good of’ days,” a bygone era of standards and status not seen in 50 years. The 1619 Project was Nikole Hannah-Jones’ high watermark, and it was a bald-faced lie. Stephens spends most of his column apologizing for it, heaping more praise (as if more praise is necessary). Anything to avoid being called a racist meanie. That’s where journalism finds itself today. That’s who Bret Stephens is. And it’s not baseless.

trigger warning said...

Not to put too fine a point on it, Hannah-Jones is an ignorant twit. Her [ahem] contribution merely rises to the level of restating in more-or-less complete sentences the "Brief History of Civilization According to 'Rev' Al":

"We [Subsaharan Africans] taught philosophy and astrology and mathematics before Socrates and them Greek homos ever got around to it. Do some cracker come and tell you, 'Well my mother and father blood go back to the Mayflower,' you better hold your pocket. That ain't nothing to be proud of, that means their forefathers was crooks."
--- "Rev" Al Sharpton, 1994

It's worth noting that serial liar and tax cheat Sharpton served as President Lightworker's "Ambassador to the Black Community" (WSJ, 2010). Intellectual birds of a feather...

Anonymous said...

It proves that either the author is trying to use this to extort OR that Charles Murray was right.

ErisGuy said...

Quick quiz everyone: when was slavery abolished in Europe?

Answer: in France, Belgium, Netherlands,... and West Germany with the overthrow of the National Socialists in 1945. In Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia...and Russia with the overthrow of the International Socialists in 1991.

The USA fought two wars to end slavery, one in 1861 and one in 1941.