Many Americans are having a hard time coming to grips with the bizarre transformation that has come over their country in recent years. It is almost as if they went to sleep a few years ago thinking they lived in a stable multi-ethnic democracy only to wake up to learn that their country had turned into the land of white supremacy, structural racism, genocide, and environmental rape. The most extreme anti-American rhetoric from the 1960s is now the norm among progressives and the institutions they control, from schools and colleges to prominent newspapers and television networks. The terrorists of the 1960s, decades in hibernation, have awakened to take control of America.
Several writers, including Roger Kimball, Victor Davis Hanson, and (currently) Christopher Rufo, have tried to explain how this happened. Rufo’s excellent new book, America’s Cultural Revolution, gives an account of the New Left’s “long march through the institutions” over the decades and shows how the radicals adopted that strategy in the 1970s when their efforts to bring off a violent revolution collapsed around them. Critics who have reviewed or commented on Rufo’s book claim that this account is exaggerated: there are no links, they say, between the radicals of 1969 and progressives today working as college professors, journalists for The New York Times, or talk show hosts for MSNBC.
One clear piece of evidence in favor of Kimball, Hanson, and Rufo can be found in The 1619 Project, the much ballyhooed enterprise of The New York Times purporting to prove that the United States originated on the basis of racism, slavery, and exploitation. That is the unadulterated rhetoric of the 1960s extremists, taken from the writings of the Weatherman faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) led by the likes of Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, and other radicals of that era.
In 2019, The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to The 1619 Project, organized and edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones and published in commemoration of the four-hundredth anniversary of the arrival in 1619 of the first slaves in the British colonies in North America. The essays published in that issue asserted several controversial propositions, for example, that the American Revolution was fought mainly to defend the institution of slavery; that slavery was the original source of American wealth and the cornerstone for the development of American capitalism; and that, for these reasons, the “real” founding of the United States occurred in 1619 and not in 1776. The project was quickly packaged into a book, a television series, and a history curriculum for high school students. Ms. Hannah-Jones received a Pulitzer Prize for her introductory essay and her work in organizing the project.
The Project has come in for withering criticism from distinguished historians who maintain that many of these claims were false or wildly exaggerated, and not backed up by evidence. In a letter to the Times in 2019, Gordon Wood, James McPherson, and many other distinguished historians pointed to several errors in the essays and asked the paper to consider correcting some of the Project’s more extreme claims. They highlighted in particular the dubious assertion that the Revolution had been fought to maintain the institution of slavery, and they suggested that the Times seemed to be promoting leftist ideology over historical accuracy.
Many others have waded into the controversy, attacking one or another of the Project’s claims about the Revolution, the development of American capitalism, the real origins of the American republic, and the role of slavery as the source of American wealth. President Trump appointed an advisory commission to investigate the claims of The 1619 Project, the conclusions of which were published as the “1776 Report.” Though the Times has backed off on some of these points, the paper continues to promote The 1619 Project as “an ongoing initiative” designed to offer a new approach to American history.
Those critics of The 1619 Project were more accurate than they may have realized: it reads like an ideological screed lifted from some far-left group out of the 1960s. This criticism, it turns out, is not at all far-fetched.
One source of The 1619 Project was probably a manifesto published in 1974 by the leaders of the Weatherman Faction of the SDS, among them Ayers and Dohrn (former terrorists, now retired university professors). Titled Prairie Fire (a reference to Mao’s favorite aphorism that “a single spark can start a prairie fire”), the book called upon radicals to adopt a two-pronged strategy involving the march through the institutions along with occasional acts of targeted violence in the form of riots, strikes, and demonstrations in order to rally allies and weaken the overall system. The group maintained its revolutionary goal of overthrowing the American system, but had concluded that its campaign of violence would not work after its leaders were forced underground after they conspired to bomb government buildings (including the U.S. Capitol) in retaliation for the war in Vietnam and police crackdowns against radical groups. The SDS manifesto has had surprisingly wide influence in circulating radical doctrines and inserting them into mainstream institutions.
Prairie Fire anticipated the key idea behind the Times’s project when the former identified 1619 as the year the first slaves landed on North American shores, labeling that event as the original source of racism and white supremacy in the United States. As the SDS authors wrote:
The U.S. invented a new kind of racism and a more horrible form of slavery. The institutionalizing of white supremacy created a structure to divide the white worker and small farmer from the Black slave. Coupled with the economic bribe of white privilege, it is the corner-stone of U.S. history, the rock upon which capitalism and imperialism have been erected.
These were two of the key claims made in the SDS manifesto – that slavery was the cornerstone of American history, and the original model for American capitalism in that it was based on the buying and selling of human beings for profit.
Slavery, according to Prairie Fire, also institutionalized white supremacy (“white privilege”), along with racism, as instruments for giving whites a stake in the system while making sure white workers did not side with blacks. The SDS radicals coined the term “white privilege” some fifty years ago to assert that whites today still maintain economic benefits inherited from slavery. That term has been circulated anew in recent years, perhaps lifted from Prairie Fire, to support claims for reparations for slavery.
The central themes in The 1619 Project were plainly identified fifty years ago by the SDS radicals, and it is not a stretch to suggest that the key authors of the Times’s project lifted these ideas from Prairie Fire. After many decades, the Times appears to be disseminating ideas into the mainstream that were first articulated by SDS terrorists in the 1960s and 1970s. When Rufo writes in his book that radical rhetoric from the 1960s has taken over The New York Times, he can point to The 1619 Project as the best evidence for his case.
Prairie Fire also called for a “people’s history” of the United States as a means of awakening Americans to the reality that their prosperity today is based on past crimes of racism and genocide. The authors of the manifesto developed a brief sketch of such a history in Prairie Fire, highlighting the purported evils committed by white Americans over the centuries. Slavery played a large role in this history, along with racism, conquest of the Native Americans, theft of their property, imperialism, exploitation, and much more. The rape of the continent began with Christopher Columbus, and has continued to this day. Prairie Fire was not much read in its day, but the authors hoped that others might pick up its ideas and develop them further for popular consumption and influence.
That seems to be what happened. A few years later (in 1980), Howard Zinn, a radical historian influenced by the 1960s, published his own People’s History of the United States that resembled but added detail to the SDS outline. The table of contents for Zinn’s book reads as if it copied the outline provided in Prairie Fire. The book argues (like The 1619 Project) that the European discovery of America brought with it slavery, racism, and genocide, which in turn shaped the development of the United States. His book was written to challenge the “glorification” of the American past, and to bring about a silent revolution in America in which enlightened workers, women, and minorities would take power of the nation’s institutions, much in the way advocated by the authors of Prairie Fire. Zinn’s book, despite its many flaws, became a best-selling history textbook widely used in schools and colleges across America.
The radicals of the 1960s lost the battle of ideas long ago, but have now won the war for America—at least for the time being. Their ideas are now entrenched in many of the nation’s key institutions, as evidenced by the success of Zinn’s book among history teachers and the commitment of The New York Times to The 1619 Project—both of them lifted from that long dormant manifesto published in 1974 by the SDS.
There can be little doubt where today’s progressives found their ideas, and where they want to take the rest of us—that is, to a dystopian country run by zealots who hate America and what it has long stood for. It is a good question whether Americans today can fight back and defeat them as they did in the 1970s and 1980s in new circumstances in which the New Left has won control over so many important institutions.