Adam Serwer in The Atlantic argues that The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts. This is in response to some controversy because several eminent historians on the Left (there are hardly any historians on the Right in any case) published a pretty strong critique of the 1619 Project. If you don’t know the names, you should (at least if you ever have thoughts about American history).*
But even before I saw Serwer’s piece I assumed he would write something in The Atlantic that basically said what he said. This is a game of tribes, and there is no way Adam Serwer of The Atlantic was going to write anything that was negative about Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times Magazine. In the game of middle-school lunch-table cliques, the fashionable glossy intellectual magazine set is always going to close-ranks against academic nerds. It’s a matter of professional honor and interest.
I think a shorter version of Serwer’s argument is that the 1619 Project isn’t a work of academic history, but a form of writing that exists to engage and reorient the questions, perspectives, and direction, of the broader public discussion. On its own, this is not an unreasonable position. But I doubt any fair-minded individual would agree that Serwer would accept this argument for positions and viewpoints he disagreed with on the merits. That is, “let’s look past the facts in this case, and focus on the bigger picture….”
If tasked to do such thing I could write a Serwer-like piece about David Barton’s stupid books, such as Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth. But most people writing for The Atlantic or The New York Times Magazine would laugh because punctilious attention to facts would matter. After all, facts and reality are important when the arguments are those you disagree with!
Sean Wilentz, one of the historians criticizing the 1619 Project, has been written recently about changing his mind about issues relating to the early American republic (slavery and the Founding). Whether you agree with Wilentz or not, this sort of attitude betrays a positivistic pretention. That the evidence is ultimately the measure of all things in his priority of things.
This traditional attitude is on the wane. The reality is more and more facts exist only in the service of polemic. Assertions of academic pedigree or standing exist only to buttress arguments from the authority for one’s own side, never to forward an understanding of the underlying issues at all. This is clear because it is so common today for polemicists to assert a lie, and call that lie good because the lie is in the service of good is good.
If you begin with the assumption of bad faith, you are probably on solid ground.
* Though I am not on Sean Wilentz’s “side” in The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, everyone should read the book!