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The 2020s, the decade of taking everyone seriously but not literally

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!


10 thoughts on “The 2020s, the decade of taking everyone seriously but not literally

  1. The reality is more and more facts exist only in the service of polemic.

    Can’t this can be a good thing if it furthers the rectification of facts even though that will not be the intent?

    The 1619 Project is a sort of diving rod.

    In his current column, David Brooks bemoans the failure of journalists to get the public to understand which “events” are important and why. This failure is a good thing if one believes in freedom of thought and scholarship.

    The only part of the issue that I can’t understand is why so many people, who are aware, or should be aware, that professional journalism is in its death throes, came to the “defense” of the NYT. Not in the sense that I defend the publication of the 1619 Project, but in the sense that they intimate that the paper and its reputation had been “used” or captured by some alien group that was not really a part of “The Times.”

  2. To be fair, Razib, you do sometimes play a role in the web focusing on the ideological story about the American cultural left rather than the calmer reality. Here, you could explain that the Times in the link you posted calmly responded with the facts and writings their interpretation is based on.

  3. I’ve read two of the interviews on the World Socialist Web of the historians (Woods and McPherson), and am not surprised that the more materialistic left is a large source of the critique of flabby identity politics. The Oakes interview should be interesting since its his recent Lincoln-Prize winning work that is most contradicted. His project was to (re-)explain how an anti-slavery movement arose to challenge slavery within the framework of the Constitution. It was an important ideological point to this group that slavery was _not_ in the Constitution (freedom national/ slavery local) and that there was room for anti-slavery national politics that could lead to the end of slavery.

    Not too long ago it was Southern apologists that obfuscated the role slavery played in the Civil War, but now its the critical theorist on the left.

  4. Here, you could explain that the Times in the link you posted calmly responded with the facts and writings their interpretation is based on

    i would describe 1619 project as *the new york times* readers’ imagining of what history writing is like, not real history writing. anyone who reads them and has read american history is perplexed where this is coming from.

    it’s kind of like a ‘buckle-up kiddos’ twitter thread in prose form.

  5. I was hopeful that Serwer’s article would at least be critical of The 1619 Project, but I had severe doubts given how The Atlantic has been trending over the past few years, taking a Slate/Buzzfeed worldview. Back when Trump was in his first few months in office, and the Middlebury protest with Charles Murray and near-riot at UC Berkeley involving Milo happened, they were reasonably clear that these sorts of events were bad, First Amendment, the answer to speech is more speech, and so on and so on. I can’t imagine them writing that today, the best we’d get is “Ok, so maybe they’re wrong, but it’s undoubtedly good to fight racism so just think of the BIG picture”, i.e., the kind of thing Serwer is doing in this article about the NYT. Not surprised, but still sad. Not sure what broke The Atlantic into the sort of cowardly, anodyne, and sadly predictable progressivism it’s become from what it was not even 5 years ago.

    Anyone care for betting odds on whether, in 2 years, Serwer will be writing about how caring about facts, rather than big picture narratives, is a hallmark of white supremacy culture? And that he was wrong to even give a voice to white supremacists like McPherson and Gordon Wood?

  6. I’ll be honest, while I don’t contest your take strongly, especially on increasingly partisan nature of ostensible factual dialgoue, I’m actually *slightly* more optimistic in late 2019 than say 2015 that people who kind of burble on about this sort of “The economic advantages of the West were built on the riches of imperialism, colonialism and slavery, which was all about extracting profit and nothing else, and not built on unique institutions, scientific progress, etc!” will get checked by people who understand more about economic history, economic development, history of development of civic institutions, how European colonial imperialism actually operated and where it was and was not different, etc.

    Back then in the mid-10s, there were lots of people who seemed to be expounding the above sort of “Everything is built on imperial colonialism and slavery” ideas, and I could tell there were lots of people around who thought this wasn’t quite right and didn’t really make sense, but less knowledge about *why* exactly it didn’t make sense and fear of being branded as an “apologist”. I get the sense that things are a *bit* better today in terms of people knowing why those arguments crediting the Great Divergence / Great Enrichment to colonialism, imperialism, slavery, etc don’t really work, and that there is less of an appetite for even young “Woke” types to go down that route (if they’re reasonably smart). My read might be wrong here, this is the impression I get from changes in discussion of these topics in fairly geeky online circles, when the dialogue veers into history, barring those which have essentially total “censorship” (scarequotes because they are of course privately run websites). But maybe certain media classes will be very resistant to any such changes of tack.

  7. The fact that it’s being incorporated into school curriculums doesn’t help Serwer’s slant.
    I just did half of “Did America have a Christian founding?” a few weeks ago. It was bad.

  8. I read the first blurbs about the 1619 project, and I said to myself. This sounds like the sort of B$ that is dished out by third rate professors in fourth rate Oppression and Grievance Studies programs, or perhaps the real life models for the barbershop hangers on in the Barbershop movies.

    Do you remember Black Athena? There is some really silly stuff floating around out there. And there are plenty of grievance mongers who are revving up to use it next fall.

    Since the Democrats cannot find a plausible black candidate they will need to stoke the base to get adequate turnout in the presidential election.

    I think it all battle field prep work for next years election.

  9. I have less than zero sympathy for the McPhersons of the world, much less the Serwers. They are the ones who have spent their lives “uplifting” Negroes, and who devote much time in the adulation and promotion of any supposed magic Negroes they find, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. Their chickens have come home to roost and now they are scrambling about while whining about the chicken poop in their living rooms. Leaving aside the fact that the said approach does not, and will not work, it is supremely arrogant. It is condescending and injurious to individuals, and is nothing more than the implementation of a modernized version of the white man’s burden.

    As to the historical importance of slavery, I would have difficulty finding a working class white that does not think that the establishment of the Peculiar Institution was the worst economic and political historical event affecting their lives. The price paid by working class whites for slavery will not get any press, except indirectly by Razib’s frog Nazis.

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