March 31, 2020

Has The New York Times Lost Faith in America?

Elie Wiesel always carried his U.S. passport. Justice Hugo Black kept a copy of the Constitution in his pocket. And at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Gold Star father Khizr Khan waved a pocket-sized Constitution at then-GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, asking him, “Have you even read the United States Constitution?” 

Wiesel, Black and Khan — a Holocaust survivor, a former Ku Klux Klansman turned liberal Supreme Court justice and a Muslim-American patriot — cherished the power of those documents and the ideas they convey. As Rev. Martin Luther King  Jr. explained in his 1963 “I Have a Dream”  speech, “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” essentially were “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

In the politically correct world of 2020, it has become hip to trash the redemptive poetry of those words and the expansive power of those ideas. Instead of seeking to more fully realize King’s “promissory note,” too many reject America’s not-yet-fulfilled ideals as fundamentally flawed. They confuse the art of writing American history with the act of indicting our predecessors by defining them by their worst deeds and ignoring whatever good they contributed.

Welcome to the 1619 Project.  

In August 2019, The New York Times marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship to our shores by reinterpreting American history. With its impressive reach, it created an instant spin, a new shorthand for reducing American history from an unsteady march of progress to a stagnant swamp of crimes, forever cursed by America’s irredeemable original sin: racism. And with characteristic hubris, it chose not to mark the project as opinion, initiating the development of curricula and other learning aids to conquer classrooms.

Leading American historians have critiqued the 1619 Project, correcting the writers’ false claims that the American Revolution was launched to perpetuate slavery and that Abraham Lincoln was racist. Despite their impeccable credentials, they have been dismissed and denigrated as “white historians.” Lest one think their criticism is merely political, their liberal and anti-Trump credentials are as impressive as their academic bona fides.

From America revised to America Reviled
As with most totalitarian expressions of political correctness today, a constructive idea taken to its extreme becomes destructive. Most historians today acknowledge that racism still haunts the United States. The New York Times’ claim that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of the country,” makes racism immutable — and America unfixable.

It is true that at one time, the study of American history was too “red, white and blue” and far too simplistic, formulaic and romanticized. This was an America that rarely faltered and never failed. As the Southern historian C. Vann Woodward wrote in the 1950s, the America of that era was a country that had “simply never known what it means to be confronted by complete frustration.” This shallow rendering helped create a country that believed, as Woodward wrote in his 1960 book, “The Burden of Southern History” “history is something unpleasant that happens to other people,” and reduced discussions of the past to toasts celebrating America’s defining ideals: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It is true that at one time, the study of American history was too “red, white and blue” and far too simplistic, formulaic and romanticized.

In 1968, the chaotic year that saw the King and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations, the Vietnam quagmire, race riots, street crimes, and campus chaos, Woodward eulogized “the legend of national innocence [and] invincibility.” America started rewriting its past. 

By 1979, Frances FitzGerald, who had made her reputation reporting from Vietnam, analyzed the sanitized textbooks that peddled the American legend. In “America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century,” FitzGerald showed that historians were finally, belatedly, balancing American history and the contemporary American conversation, warts and all.

FitzGerald’s demand for a complex, honest accounting echoed the stereotypical baby boomers’ trajectory from conformist to rebel. She warned that, “bland fictions, propagated for the purpose of creating good citizens, may actually achieve the opposite: they give young people no warnings of the real dangers ahead, and later, they may well make these young people feel that their own experience of conflict or suffering is unique in history and perhaps un-American.” 

While applauding the progress, FitzGerald noted that partisan rivals kept turning history into “propaganda for their version of the social good.” Rejecting history by polemics, she proclaimed: “To teach history with the assumption that students have the psychology of laboratory pigeons is not only to close off the avenues for thinking about the future; it is to deprive American children of their birthright.”

A year later, with exquisite timing, a radical Boston University professor named  Howard Zinn hit the progressive jackpot, writing a mega-bestseller that made him very rich. The book was about the very poor and oppressed. With more than 2 million copies sold, “A People’s History of the United States” probably changed more people’s understanding of American history than any other textbook.

They confuse the art of writing American history with the act of indicting our predecessors by defining them by their worst deeds and ignoring whatever good they contributed.

Born in 1922, Zinn was the son of Jewish immigrants. Growing up, he recalled living “in all of Brooklyn’s best slums.”  An aspiring bourgeois Bolshevik, he recalled a police beating at a Communist rally that knocked the liberalism out of him. Rather than believing “in the self-correcting character of American democracy,” Zinn became “a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country — not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root.”

Seeking an “uprooting of the old order,” Zinn wrote history about “a world of victims and executioners” from the bottom, up. He emphasized “the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex.” Zinn also highlighted “the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system.”

As movies such as Oliver Stone’s nihilistic, overly-conspiratorial 1991 take on the John F. Kennedy assassination replaced Hollywood’s Disney-fied version of history, Zinn’s blockbuster textbook went Hollywood. “You wanna read a real history book?” Matt Damon’s character challenges his therapist, played by Robin Williams, in “Good Will Hunting” (1997). “Read Howard Zinn’s ‘People’s History of the United States.’ That book’ll … knock you on your ass.” 

Even as it became a go-to book in high schools and colleges, many historians dismissed it. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. branded Zinn “a polemicist, not a historian.” The co-editor of Dissent, Michael Kazin, declared “A People’s History” “bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable ….”

More recently, the intellectual historian Wilfred M. McClay wondered, “Why learn what the Wilmot Proviso was, or what exactly went into the Compromise of 1850, when you could just say ‘we had this original sin of slavery’?” 

Forty years after his work appeared, Zinn has led America into an ideological wilderness. Like most of the spies who saw the Biblical Zin in Numbers 13 as no more than a “land that devours its inhabitants,” The New York Times’ 1619 Project legitimizes, popularizes and mainstreams Zinn’s cynicism. Caricatured as a doomed patient riddled with the cancer of racism, America revised becomes America reviled.

The 1619 Project: It all “dates back to slavery”
I regret criticizing a project conceived with good intentions, that made millions feel included and triggered an historian’s dream — nationwide debates about what America’s history means to each of us. But The New York Times’ attempt to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative” rests on an absurd foundation of distortions and exaggerations.

The opening salvo claims “our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.” No. The fact that our ideals are not yet fulfilled doesn’t make them fundamentally untrue. The project’s initiator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, makes demonstrably incorrect and even upside-down claims that the American Revolution was fought to perpetuate the slaveocracy and that Abraham Lincoln was more white supremacist than anti-racist. Her essay ends by lamenting that “all the black men and women in my family … never got ahead.” She won a 2017 MacArthur Foundation Genius Award and is a New York Times staff writer. 

While these massive expressions of support for American Jews are unprecedented, American Jews have long countered this country’s few Jew-haters by appealing to Americans’ better angels.

Most absurd are the disproportionate claims in essay after essay that every American ailment “dates back to slavery.” It’s “the brutality of American capitalism” and “poor health outcomes.” It’s concentrated power, gaps in wealth, traffic jams and the NBA’s dynamics. “No aspect of the country … has been untouched by the years of slavery.”

Really? 

Consider the article about professional basketball. Seeing “much of what transpires … through the lens of race,” we learn that the “word ‘owner’ … dates back to slavery.” According to the article, each player had “little control over his destiny,” being “dumped or traded on a whim.” This goes “beyond money. It’s about power, history and the long quest for black self-determination,” tracing a long, sad line “to the modern NBA from antebellum slavery.” Yet, those words also describe lily-white baseball’s dynamics long before Jackie Robinson integrated America’s national pastime in 1947.

The new American nihilism indicts but doesn’t explain
In a Jan. 22 article in The Atlantic, Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz, an ardent defender of former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and zealous foe of Donald Trump, asserted that  the central problem is “A Matter of Facts.” A bigger problem for historians, though, is that it’s intellectually uninteresting. Rap sheets listing American crimes are as boring as cavalcades of American successes. Turning racism into the singular cause of so many American problems is as reductionist as celebrating liberty as the all-healing, all-American wonder drug.

Both extremes sidestep the central mystery of American history which our new sensitivity to America’s shortcomings has highlighted. In 1975, Yale’s Edmund Morgan framed the question deftly. “American Slavery, American Freedom” tackled the “central paradox of American history,” namely, how could the very Virginians who enslaved so many have invented these extraordinary ideas and structures dedicated “to human liberty and dignity.” Morgan concluded that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison protected freedom so effectively because they lived with unfreedom so intimately. Tellingly, on the eve of the American Revolution, Washington cautioned that “the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood, or inhabited by Slaves.”

Morgan was no less moral than the 1619-ers and no less sensitive to racism’s devastating costs. He wasn’t absolving the slaveholding Founders. Rather, he explained how people who collaborated in something so evil also could also unleash the words, ideas, and frameworks that created so much good.

Beyond its intellectual emptiness, this new American nihilism poses a paralyzing ideological threat. This misreading of American history offers too pinched a reading of America itself. Demonizing America far too much rather than romanticizing America just a little takes the pressure off the dominant power structure while squashing those subversive catalysts in America that have saved the country from its worst self over the centuries. If America can’t be reformed, why bother trying?

Our country’s history of continuously expanding its hopes and dreams, and of consistently broadening every citizen’s rights and improving the quality of life offers basic training in what Norman Vincent Peale in 1952 called the power of positive thinking. Nations that doubt themselves stagnate, crushing their weakest members. Nations that dream of being better than themselves stretch, redeeming one and all.

Once upon a time, in a not-yet-“woke,” New York Times, cultural critic Leon Wieseltier wrote in 1984, “A culture is nourished by myths, not by facts. The historian finds facts and dispels myths.” Perhaps the balance we seek will come as a result of realizing that a country whose history is never critical lacks brains; a country whose myths never inspire lacks soul.

Inherently un-Jewish, implicitly anti-Jewish?
Especially in our skeptical age, thoughtful historians can prop up collective memories credibly. This especially is true for Americans and Jews because both histories are amazing, whatever their misfires. The sins, traumas and challenges reinforce ideals, values and achievements. 

Jews shift; we don’t wallow. We celebrate our wins while mourning our losses, without being defined by them. Rabbi David Hartman repudiated the “moral narcissism” of defining ourselves only as victims, or competing in the victimology sweepstakes popular on campus, assuming those who suffered most now can be the most insufferable. Using “Sinai” as shorthand for Judaism’s and Jewish history’s inspirational, aspirational, moral, ethical and ritual package, Hartman wrote in 1982, “We will mourn forever because of the memory of Auschwitz. We will build a healthy new society because of the memory of Sinai.”

That is the zen of Passover, Purim, Hanukkah and even of Tisha B’Av. The name of the book of Torah we currently are reading, “Shemot,” (Exodus), reveal the Jewish approach to overcoming slavery and appreciating history in all its complexity. Shemot highlights the individual’s power to do good, to individuate when possible and bond together as necessary. Without ignoring slavery’s horrors, Shemot affirms history isn’t stagnant: It’s progressive, toward freedom.

This is the Zionist way, not just the Jewish way. We respond to hatred as tree-planters, not just firefighters. We defend ourselves when forced, but choose to build, celebrate, stretch and live. That’s the secret to Israel’s success. We understand  as — Zionist thinker Beryl Katznelson taught in “Revolution and Tradition” in 1934 — “that People are endowed with two faculties — memory and forgetfulness. We cannot live without both. Were only memory to exist, then we would be crushed under its burden. We would become slaves to our memories, to our ancestors … . And were we ruled entirely by forgetfulness, what place would there be for culture, science, self-consciousness, spiritual life?”

Offering a reading of Passover far richer and three-dimensional than 1619’s simplifications, Katznelson confessed, “I know no literary creation which can evoke a greater hatred of slavery and love of freedom than the story of the bondage and the exodus from Egypt. I know of no other remembrance of the past that is so entirely a symbol of our present and future as the memory of the exodus from Egypt.”

The fact that our ideals are not yet fulfilled doesn’t make them fundamentally untrue.

Spirited 1776ers versus dispirited 1619ers
Today, we must practice what we’ve preached for millennia. As anti-Semitism in the U.S. surges, too many American Jews only see America’s few, marginalized anti-Semites instead of our country’s anti-anti-Semitic majority. As awful as it was to see the goons of Charlottesville, Va., and hear Donald Trump’s hesitancy, no act of anti-Semitism in American history was ever so widely repudiated in so many different corners of U.S. society — until the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October 2018. And the pain of that massacre triggered mass moments of kindness toward Jews from sea to shining sea.

While these massive expressions of support for American Jews are unprecedented, American Jews have long countered this country’s few Jew-haters by appealing to Americans’ better angels. Cesar Kaskel lobbied Lincoln to rescind Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s General Order No. 11 in 1862 expelling “Jews as a class” from parts of the South during the Civil War. Lincoln responded, and Grant spent the rest of his life regretting and repenting. Aaron Sapiro sued automaker Henry Ford for spreading anti-Semitic libel. Embarrassed and eventually forced to apologize, Ford shuttered his hate-spewing Dearborn Independent weekly newspaper in 1927.

These and countless other blows against bigots banked on the spirit of ’76, not the dispirited 1619ers’ approach. Most Jews treated America as having more Lincolns than Fords — and Americans usually have lived up to our expectations and our shared, defining American ideals.

Perhaps the balance we seek will come as a result of realizing that a country whose history is never critical lacks brains; a country whose myths never inspire lacks soul.

For American Jews, the twisted ahistorical spin of the 1619 Project is particularly damaging. Defining the United States of America as inherently racist is inherently un-Jewish and implicitly anti-Jewish. Treating America as an irredeemable villain clashes with American Jewry’s constant celebration of our many successes. If America is one big, criminal enterprise, then anyone who succeeds — and especially any group that celebrates its successes — is not hard-working or talented or even lucky, but criminals who should be found guilty of their crimes. Beyond raining on our parade, the mass indictment implies you can win only by joining the bad guys and becoming an oppressor yourself. 

Dismissing Jewish fears about anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism on campus, or Jew-hating street crimes because Jews supposedly have “white privilege” renders our problems invisible. It also treats us as culpable. The way “white privilege” is used against Jews stereotypes all Jews as white and rich. It’s particularly infuriating because when it was cool to be white, we weren’t deemed white. Only now do some of our critics condemn us as “white” because it’s uncool.

We respond to hatred as tree-planters, not just firefighters. We defend ourselves when forced, but choose to build, celebrate, stretch and live. 

Few have acknowledged the ideological damage the misreading of American history causes, especially among America’s students — our future. This assault on American history assails Americanism itself. Treating America as one big crime scene brings out the worst in us not the best in us; it’s a recipe for torpor, not progress. Lincoln understood this when he appealed to “the better angels of our nature.” King (barely mentioned in the 1619 Project) understood this when he had “a dream that one day, this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed.”

In this existential battle between the spirited ’76ers and the dispirited 1619-ers, idealism clashes with a paralyzing defeatism. To win, we should mobilize all of our storytellers, from history professors to Hollywood screenwriters. We need to recall the boring, plain-vanilla decent people as well as the extraordinary reformers and leaders. We need thoughtful, critical, yet constructive histories, and sweeping romantic movies and miniseries.

Temperamentally, let’s juggle different thoughts, impressions and realities. Let’s keep expanding those ideals and living those values, not just remembering old heroes, but becoming new ones. We must be constructively infectious pathbreakers and dreamers who help define us all by the best we can be — not the worst sins our ancestors ever committed.

That, after all, is truly our birthright.


Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University in Montreal and author of “The Zionist Ideas.”