Why Are Conservatives So Threatened by the 1619 Project?

It has been fascinating to observe the reaction from conservatives to the 1619 Project recently launched by the New York Times. As a reminder, here is how it opens.

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. In the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.

A common theme in the reaction of conservatives to this project is to assume that telling our story truthfully is somehow an attack on Donald Trump. For example, Dinesh D’Souza, the man who has spent the last few years blaming Democrats for the oppression of African Americans and claiming that it is the Republican Party that has always fought for freedom, said that the 1619 Project was a “political hit to discredit Trump and his base.” It is always interesting to watch Trump’s enablers assume that any honest conversation about racism in America reflects badly on the president, even when he’s not mentioned.

But there is another reaction to the 1619 Project that is even more revealing about the mindset that is at the heart of conservatism today. Newt Gingrich called the project propaganda worthy of Pravda, Cal Thomas referred to it as an “attempt to shape history to fit its own biases,” and Jeffrey Lord told Sean Hannity that “what the New York Times is engaged in is the Stalinizing of American history…The left wanted to do a total rewrite of American history and remake the story that we’re founded in racism. It’s all about race.”

In one sense, these conservatives are right. The New York Times described this project as an attempt to “reframe the country’s history.” That is because, following the Civil War, the remnants of the Confederacy attempted to “whitewash” our history. In an article titled, “Lee Surrendered, But His Lieutenants Kept Fighting,” Elizabeth Varon quoted this poem “by the black poet Charles R. Dinkins, in which Lee addresses his defeated army with the following charge.”

When fails the sword, the better way
Becomes the soldier’s part to play;
The south will whip the north some day
With ink and pen.

These competing versions of our country’s history reminded me of a speech I read recently by Walter Brueggemann. He is a Christian theologian, so his observations are couched in the context of the Bible, but they capture exactly what we are witnessing today. He talked about something called “ideological totalism,” that “intends to contain all thinkable, imaginable, doable social possibilities. That totalism always wants to monopolize imagination, and it wants to monopolize technology, so that there are no serious alternatives that seem on offer.”

Brueggeman finds that kind of totalism in the biblical stories about the monarchy of Solomon and suggests that it was the Old Testament prophets who challenged the system.

So what you have in the Old Testament, when you read the royal history, is the managers of extraction who tend to operate with unambiguous memo. And disrupting that are these poetic voices that are dangerous and subversive and oppressive, because they are voices that come from outside the totalism and that refuse to accept the totalization as normative.

The prophetic task, as Brueggeman sees it, is to first of all, identify the totalism. The second task is “to identify the contradictions that put us on the route to death, because one can see that we now live in a society that is engaged in its self-destruction.” Here is how he described that back in June of 2018, long before the New York Times initiated the 1619 Project.

[W]e might pay attention to the book by a Christian Baptist, The Half of It Has Never Been Told, which makes the compelling argument that the wealth of the United States basically is grounded in slavery. So if you think about the things that go around cheap labor and slavery, what you come up with is regressive taxation, high interest rates, stacked mortgage rates, and debt — so you can imagine the way we are helping college students get into insufferable debt, which assures that they will be willing workers in the extraction system for all of their working life. Plus, the fact that we have to recognize that this system is committed to the deregulation of banks and all sorts of deregulation, that lets creation be exploited. Deregulation really means the unleashing of predatory forces against the vulnerable.

The reason so many conservatives are threatened by the 1619 Project is that the story the authors tell is prophetic. It challenges the totalism on which their entire world view has been constructed. It is their mindset, which monopolizes imagination and stifles alternatives, that lays the groundwork for authoritarianism.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.