Greta Thunberg didn’t quite win her heat, but Nikole Hannah-Jones of the 1619 Project (literally) took the gold in hers. Shortly after the teenage Swedish climate expert was again nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, following a 2019 defeat, 1619’s “NHJ” stepped forward to accept the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction commentary. Make no mistake: while in different lanes, the two activists were running in the same race — the social justice left’s all-out bid for capture of the major Western institutions of discourse. The victory of at least one of them is troublesome, meriting discussion here.
To state the obvious, the reason 1619’s win bothered me wasn’t that the Project’s essayists are Black, or “pro-Black.” I’m both Black and a big fan of Black success myself. In fact, I’m a founding member — along with Bob Woodson, Clarence Page, Taleeb Starkes, Carol Swain, Glenn Loury, and others — of the popular Black-led “1776” initiative, which seeks to offer Black Americans a way forward to success not defined by appeals to past victimhood. There are hundreds of Black Americans I would have loved to see win a Pulitzer, or a similar discipline-specific award in their own field: most of those I just mentioned for a start, along with John Sibley Butler, John McWhorter, Jason Riley, Tom Sowell, and Orlando Patterson and Cornel West over on the left side of the fence. Sowell, alone, should be an annual contender for a whole passel of national awards.
The key, relevant question as re 1619 is: “What on Earth made it possible to overlook such flaws and give the Project a top-five national award?”
It is also not a great source of irritation that many members of 1619 disagree with me ideologically. That habit, while doubtless a bad one, is remarkably common in American academia. A widely cited Econ Journal Watch study by Tony Quain and Daniel Klein found that, among professors willing to provide this information at 40 representative universities, Democrats outnumbered Pachyderms roughly 12 to 1: 3,623 to 314. Liberal-to-conservative ratios ranged from 33.5 to 1 in History and Sociology to 4.5 to 1 in the “friendliest” field of Economics. While many are gol-durned Red Communists, by no means are all of these scholars fools. Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, who famously signed a formal letter calling for the impeachment of Donald J. Trump, is one of the USA’s leading historians of both the American Revolution and Jacksonian democracy. Gordon Wood, an equally renowned expert, has literally given interviews on slavery and the Civil War to the World Socialist Web Site. While perhaps ideological rivals, both of these men would be worthy contenders for virtually any American award — and both are on-the-record critics of 1619.
What is aggravating about 1619 is very specific: the Project represents (1) flawed scholarship that is (2) being promoted by political partisans for specific ideological reasons. As a reasonably fair man, I will note that this charge is levied against nearly every controversial work on right or left that makes it into the mainstream conversation, and I hesitated to make it here. The multiple foundational flaws of 1619, however, make it almost unavoidable. Most notably, as has been widely discussed elsewhere, Hannah-Jones’ keystone essay for the Project claimed that a “primary” motivation for the American colonists in rebelling against Great Britain was the desire to protect Black slavery — alongside of or rather than taxation without representation, conflicts over French and Indian war debt, and literal armed exchanges like the “Boston Massacre.” This claim was almost universally attacked by historians, including some of those just mentioned — unsurprisingly, given that slavery was legal in Britain in 1776, and would not be banned in the Empire’s overseas colonies until 1833, 57 years after the Revolution kicked off. Faced with such facts, the New York Times issued an Editor’s Note “clarifying” and essentially correcting the assertion on March 11, 2020.
Hannah-Jones’ bizarre allegation about the morally malicious motivations of our Minutemen hardly stands alone as a false or debatable assertion made by the Project. Across one or more of its essays, the Project also claims that slavery largely built the wealth of the United States — ignoring the backwater status of the feudal antebellum South, the horrific 610,000-man toll of the Civil War, and the immigration-driven 11,796 percent increase in national GDP ($15 billion to $18.64 trillion) between 1865 and today. The Project contends that Black people for the most part “fought back alone” against racism and discrimination — ignoring the fact that the Civil Rights Act was passed by a 99 percent white Senate and signed into law by the distinctly non-West African Lyndon Baines Johnson. For good measure, one 1619 essay even claims that “segregation caused your traffic jam.” In exurban Chicago: really now? Motivated largely by NHJ’s “Revolutionary War” claim, but quite possibly also by the combined weight of arguments like these, 1619’s own fact checker recently wrote a remarkable and hilarious essay for Politico, headlined, “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project; The Times Ignored Me.”
The key, relevant question as re 1619 is: “What on Earth made it possible to overlook such flaws and give the Project a top-five national award?” There seem to be two answers here: (1) the soft bigotry of low expectations and (2) the desire to find “scientific” justification for a massive proposed shift in the national direction of the USA. As a Black man, I find the first of these realities both patronizing and surprisingly common. While leftists accuse conservatives of racism almost as an involuntary bodily function (“Jogging Has ALWAYS Excluded Black People”: New York Times), there is a mounting body of evidence showing that a contemptuous, paternalistic bigotry is at least as common on left as right.
A major, well-done recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that white liberals tend to engage in “competence downshift” (i.e. dumbing down almost everything they say) when talking to Blacks, while white conservatives do not. It is difficult to believe that such attitudes (“But they were trying so HARD!”) did not affect Pulitzer’s decision to honor 1619. To ask a one-sentence question: would any of you bet on the nation’s top journalism award going to a project that was the subject of both a clarifying Editor’s Note and a published critique from its own fact-checker, during the two months before the award ceremony, if the author were a white guy?
While this sort of double standard is annoying, the second motivation behind the promotion of 1619 by those in positions of power is genuinely frightening. Obviously, the argument that virtually every aspect of American culture — capitalism, non-single-payer health care, even how we drive and the amount of sugar we eat — is a direct result of chattel slavery is a boon to those (Congresswoman Omar comes to mind) who often seem to see America as evil, and who certainly want to change her dramatically. If the USA lacks single-payer health care not because only 31 percent of Americans favor it (Pew 2018), but rather because of a disregard for human life ushered in under slavery, establishing a more European model quite arguably becomes a moral imperative. Similarly, if aggressive capitalism is a legacy of Black enslavement — something Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and particularly Singapore would be shocked to discover — moderating the whip-scarred current system is an immediate ethical necessity.
Those backing 1619 are openly making those arguments as often as they can, to listeners as young and impressionable as possible. The Project has already developed a professionally packaged grade school curriculum in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, which can be examined here. This curriculum has already been adopted by some 3,500 school districts, including adoptions district-wide by the city of Chicago and the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. The curricular website for 1619 makes no real attempt to hide the Project’s end-game goals, at one point asking the question, “What is national memory, and how can we change it?”
The attempt by “social justice” activists to use conventionally respectable institutions such as the Pulitzer Center or the Pulitzer Prize Committee to mainstream radical ideas like 1619’s is not something conservatives are imagining, it is not a matter of coincidence or accident, and it is not limited to the field of journalism. The influential Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci long ago argued that leftists — who are hardly likely to dominate enterprise business, the military, sport, agriculture, or organized religion under most circumstances — should focus on seizing control of the institutions of “discourse,” to promote an alternative “hegemony” to middle-class norms. To a very significant extent, this appears to have occurred across multiple fields in the modern West, so that major awards and prizes of recognition go to the most “woke” works rather than the best.
In 2019, for example, the obscure South Korean comedy Parasite beat out — among other films — Ford v. Ferrari, Joker, Little Women, and 1917 to win Best Picture at the Oscars. This was an especially remarkable achievement given that Parasite was filmed entirely in Korean and only subtitled in English; the film grossed less than $12 million in the USA. Just two years before that, The Shape of Water, a film focused on a sexual affair between a disabled woman and a hominid fish — hard to get more edgy and niche than that — smoked Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Lady Bird, and even Get Out. Even recent listings of Nobelists and Nobel Peace Prize finalists sometimes show similar patterns: Greta Thunberg nearly claimed the award in 2019, President Obama won it just months into his presidency in 2009, Yasser Arafat took one home in 1994 … and so on.
What is to be done here? Well, first, we can laugh. Those on the political right and center — which is often to say, out in the real world — tend toward a dry and witty cynicism. While this is often presented as a weakness, it can be quite useful in the context of popular absurdity. Obviously, normal taxpayers should work to recapture existing institutions and build new ones. And, in fact, this is happening already in the arena under discussion. The Black-run and pro-American “1776” project boasts a lineup of home-run hitters at least on par with 1619’s (Bob Woodson? Glenn Loury? Clarence Page?) and will be marketing our own curriculum to major school districts before long. But, while that fight continues, there are worse strategies than keeping a level head and remembering that it is not you going nuts.
Many opinions held by the social justice warrior set are amplified by their near-control of mass media, but are shared by virtually no Americans. On a lark, I recently used anonymous Twitter polls to ask a diverse and fairly representative group of followers their positions on some woke points of faith — biological males who identify as women should be allowed to play women’s sports, upper-middle class people of color are oppressed, and so on. Very consistently, I found that only 2 to 3 percent of those to privately respond agreed with these theses, whatever they might say in public. Similarly, most people know that The Shape of Water is not a better and more watchable movie than 1917 (or Black Panther), and that the American Revolution was not fought to prevent freedom, and for that matter that potential Nobelist Thunberg is not also a world-leading expert on COVID-19.
When the organs of culture say things that frankly seem insane, my honest suggestion would often be: turn off the damn TV for a bit, pour and sip a Scotch, and never let yourself become confused enough to forget America’s real birthday — July 4, 1776.
Wilfred Reilly is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University and the author of the books Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About, Hate Crime Hoax, and The $50,000,000 Question. His research interests include international relations and the prevention of war, contemporary American race relations, and the use of modern quantitative methods to test “sacred cow” theories such as the existence of widespread white privilege. He can be reached on Twitter at @wil_da_beast630.