Notes & Comments June 2020
The dark side of farce
On The 1619 Project’s Pulitzer Prize.
Karl Marx did not make many witty remarks. But his oft-quoted observation that history tends to repeat itself “first as tragedy, then as farce” is a mot for the ages. We thought of that line directly when we got the news that Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times had received a Pulitzer Prize for the lead essay in its series of pieces and related initiatives known collectively as “The 1619 Project.”
In January, we reported on The 1619 Project. It was, we said, “a stupefying race-based fantasy about the origins of the United States.” We quoted the essay by Hannah-Jones, who claimed that “[O]ne of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Indeed, according to Hannah-Jones and her fellow fantasists, America was started and perpetuated as a “slavocracy.” The entire country, they asserted, was built on the “system of slavery” inaugurated when the first English privateer carrying African slaves hove into view off the coast of Virginia in August 1619.
The idea that the American Revolution was fomented in order to protect slavery is simply ridiculous.
Eminent historians from the Left, Right, and Center lined up to repudiate this racially charged distortion of American history. That included the World Socialist Web Site—and let us insert a notional exclamation mark here—which ran long interviews with James McPherson and Gordon Wood, among the most distinguished historians of the American Founding. Neither was consulted by the perpetrators of The 1619 Project. Both recoiled from its distortions, simplifications, and outright falsehoods. McPherson trod delicately but nonetheless concluded with the brutal assessment that The 1619 Project provided “a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery.” Wood concurred and went further. The idea that the American Revolution was fomented in order to protect slavery is simply ridiculous. On the contrary, Wood noted, “it is the northern states in 1776 that are the world’s leaders in the antislavery cause. . . . The Revolution unleashed antislavery sentiments that led to the first abolition movements in the history of the world.”
Princeton’s Allen C. Guelzo, writing in City Journal, echoed these sentiments. “The 1619 Project,” he wrote, “is not history: it is polemic, born in the imaginations of those whose primary target is capitalism itself and who hope to tarnish capitalism by associating it with slavery.”
But truth does not matter when there is a political agenda to be advanced. Considered as an intellectual artifact, The 1619 Project has been thoroughly, utterly discredited. Considered as a call to action, however, it has gone from success to success. In January, we noted that “various public school districts, including some in Chicago” had announced that they would supplement their curricula by distributing copies of The 1619 Project to students. We didn’t know the half of it. As we write, the wildly tendentious, historically dubious tenets of The 1619 Project have been insinuated into the curricula of more than 3,500 school districts across the country. There is more to come, including new calls for race-based “reparations” on the basis of the falsehoods promulgated by The 1619 Project. All this is the tragedy.
The farce is now upon us. Quoth the Pulitzer citation:
For a sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay for the ground-breaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.
Deeply personal and egregiously false. Among the Times’s allies in this effort to revolutionize the teaching of American history on the basis of a malign racialist fantasy is The Pulitzer Center, which declared that it was “proud to be the education partner for The 1619 Project.” All the news reports noting the participation of the Pulitzer Center were careful to point out that it was unaffiliated with the Pulitzer Prizes. Not officially, perhaps. But with the news that the Times had awarded itself a Pulitzer Prize for the lead essay from the 1619 Project, the façade of independence cracked.
“Awarded itself”? Isn’t there an independent committee that decides who and what institutions receive what prize? Of course there is. It’s just that it is controlled—de facto, if not de jure—by the Times and a handful of like-minded entities. Which of course is the reason that the Times has accumulated so many of them. The last time we visited the paper’s offices was many years ago, back when it was on West Forty-third Street. The hallway full of photographs of Pulitzer winners was impressive. There they all were, from Walter Duranty, the Times’s man in the Soviet Union under Stalin, on down. “[A]ny report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda,” Duranty wrote at the height of Stalin’s forced famine in the early 1930s. Nikole Hannah-Jones will make a fitting addition to that gallery.
There is a sense in which the Pulitzer Prizes and The New York Times deserve one another. When they are not giving awards to anti-capitalist, racially charged fictions masquerading as history—or tendentious politicized fictions like their “investigations” into non-existent collusion between Donald Trump and “the Russians,” for which they awarded themselves a Prize last year—they are giving them to twisted new-age self-dramatizations such as The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care, by Anne Boyer, “An elegant and unforgettable narrative about the brutality of illness and the capitalism of cancer care in America.” The “capitalism of cancer care”?
But the real lesson of the Times’s new Pulitzer is that something can be farcical without being funny—or, more to the point, it can be farcical while still being malicious. It was absurd that a piece of something so disreputable and intellectually bankrupt as The 1619 Project should be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. But the sad if almost incredible truth is that in some quarters such an award still confers prestige upon the recipient, as even publishing in The New York Times does, or so we are told. And that is the problem. Guelzo was doubtless right when he noted in The Wall Street Journal recently that while those associated with The 1619 Project will wave the Pulitzer as “credibility insurance,” “credibility isn’t the same as truth.” Indeed. But the question is whether truth even comes into consideration in what passes for mainstream journalism today. That is part of the farce.
Back in January, we wondered whether “an unintended collateral benefit of this malign folly will be—finally, at last—to dissolve the vestiges of that prestige and expose the [Times] to the condign contempt of the public whose trust they have so extravagantly betrayed.” Alas, the Pulitzer Prize argues against that happy eventuality. As a writer for The Federalist noted, giving the Times a Pulitzer Prize for a part of The 1619 Project “gives schools one more excuse to hate America.” For the Times and its allies, we suspect, that is reason enough to celebrate. Who cares about truth?
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 10, on page 1
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