The humiliation of Western history (Frank Furedi)

  • From the NYT to British schools, powerful institutions are waging war on the past. 
  • One powerful proponent of the dogma of awareness-raising is The New York Times, the most influential newspaper in the US. In August 2019, it decided ‘to speak truth to power’ by launching the 1619 Project, an ongoing initiative, featuring essays and other contributions, which maintains that the year 1619, and not 1776, is the true origin of the US. This, the project argues, is because the US was founded for the purpose of entrenching slavery, and 1619 was the year African slaves first arrived in Jamestown. All subsequent US history is therefore shaped by this founding, enslaving moment.
  • From this distorted vantage point, the American Revolution is presented not so much as a War of Independence, but as a selfish attempt to preserve the exploitative and oppressive legacy of 1619. The famous founding assertion that ‘all men are created equal’, and are entitled to ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’, is denigrated as mere cover for the practices of a group of unprincipled and dishonest slave-owners.

  • Unlike previous initiatives designed to encourage people to look critically at uncomfortable truths about their past, the 1619 Project offers a ‘take it or leave it’ version of history. Its aim is not to criticise existing historical narratives about the US. It is to negate and even morally annihilate the very foundation on which the US was built. As the NYT put it: ‘Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written. Black Americans fought to make them true. Without this struggle, America would have no democracy at all.’
  • In rejecting the founding ideals of liberty and equality as false, the 1619 Project strips America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, of every shred of moral authority. It also erases the profound contribution the American Revolution made to the development of the Western ideal of freedom.

  • The 1619 Project does not offer any new insights into the past. Rather, it seeks to contaminate the past and render it toxic. Indeed, one of the main contributors to the project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, admits that its principal objective is not to shed light on the past, but to undermine the moral authority of the present. ‘I’ve always said that the 1619 Project is not history’, she writes. ‘It is a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative and therefore national memory. The project has always been as much about the present as it is about the past.’
  • Clearly for Hannah-Jones, the objective of the project is to alter America’s historical memory in order to gain control of the national narrative. Through this control over the national narrative, the NYT, like most other leading educational and cultural institutions in the US, is attempting to reinforce its cultural hegemony. The NYT’s webpage on the project even declares that ‘a re-education is necessary’. It is a chilling exhortation, more like something you would hear in a prison camp rather than a news organisation.

  • Not that influential public- and private-sector supporters of the project are too concerned by the grim totalitarian spectre invoked by the idea of ‘re-education’. On the contrary, they seem to be all for it. For example, to demonstrate its support for the project, the Pulitzer Center awarded Hannah-Jones one of its prestigious prizes, and launched a 1619 Project curriculum to promote its narrative in schools. Several US school districts have now adopted the NYT’s re-education project, presumably in order to teach children to regard the founders of their nation with shame.

  • Hollywood celebrities have also rushed in to demonstrate their support for the project. For instance, Oprah Winfrey, backed by entertainment company Lionsgate, teamed up with Hannah-Jones to bring her message to an even wider audience. The attempt to cancel Western culture and gain control of historical memory has rarely been so explicit or so mainstream.
  • A society cannot exist without possessing an understanding of where it comes from. That people still need history to know who they are is demonstrated by the 1619 Project and other initiatives designed to contaminate a people’s national memory. After all, these projects do not only aim to re-educate people – they also aspire to offer them another version of history. It is just that the history they offer fosters a climate of guilt and shame towards the past and undermines people’s confidence in the way of life into which they were born.
  • Those who zealously seek to pollute the past are very much devoted to gaining total cultural hegemony in the present. This is not just an intellectual exercise, however. The metaphorical vandalisation of the past justifies the actual vandalisation of statues and national monuments. At present these powerful and influential cultural warriors, from the NYT to various other cultural and educational institutions, have proved remarkably successful in forcing their opponents on to the defensive. They have a project. Those who seek to uphold the legacy of human civilisation do not. Defeating this cultural blitzkrieg will require much more than is currently on show.