Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
The New York Times 1619 Project: Revisionist History That Doesn’t Belong in Our Schools
In August 1619, a ship appeared on the horizon near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans who were sold to the colonists. Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Nicole Hannah-Jones declares that:
“No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.”
The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019 and aims to frame the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative. In the view of Hannah-Jones, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.” She argues that 1619 was the real date of America’s founding — not 1776, with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In her view, defending slavery was one of the motivations for the American Revolution itself.
Many public school systems are now considering the use of the 1619 Project in the teaching of history. It has already been embraced by Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Buffalo, New York, despite the fact that it has been sharply criticized by leading historians. Prominent historians wrote a letter to The Times expressing dismay at the factual errors found in the project’s materials. They said, for example, that the Project’s contention that the American Revolution was launched “in order to ensure that slavery would continue” was completely wrong. Among the historians signing this letter were Gordon S. Wood, James M. McPherson, Sean Wilentz, and Victoria Bynum.
The 1619 Project ignores the fact that slavery has a long history and is hardly unique to America. Indeed, it does not mention the role of African slave traders who sold the African slaves captured by African chiefs, often in battle, to the Europeans. From the beginning of recorded history, until the 19th century slavery was the way of the world. Slavery was a prominent feature of life in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Do the authors of the 1619 Project understand that in 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was written, slavery was legal every place in the world? To condemn the Founding Fathers for not having eliminated slavery at that time is to condemn them for not having done something which had never before been done in history. This is comparing colonial America with a 21st century ideal of perfection, not with other places in the real world in that era.
In fact, the Framers of the Constitution created the freest country in the world at that time. They established religious freedom and separation of church and state at a time when European countries persecuted religious minorities. They established freedom of speech and of the press, also unique ideas at that time. Being imperfect human beings, they could hardly have created a perfect society. But, even then, the leading figures who established the country recognized that slavery was an evil, and many at the Constitutional Convention wanted to eliminate it.
What is historically unique is not that slavery was the accepted way of the world in 1787, even sanctioned by Christianity, but that so many of the men of the American colonies of that day wanted to eliminate it — and pressed vigorously to do so.
Historians Nathaniel Weyl and William Marina write:
“When the Federal Convention met in May 1787 to form a Constitution for the United States, a significant minority of the delegates were staunch opponents of slavery. Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were ardent abolitionists. John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice, was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. . . . Rufus King and Gouverneur Morris were in the forefront of opposition to slavery and the slave trade.”
One of the great debates at the Constitutional Convention related to the African slave trade. George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent plea for making it illegal:
“This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British Government constantly checked the attempt of Virginia to put a stop to it. The present question concerns not the importing of slaves alone, but the whole Union. The evil of having slaves was experienced during the last war. Had slaves been treated as they might have been by the enemy, they would have proved dangerous instruments in their hands.”
More than this, declared Mason:
“Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. . . . Every owner of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country.”
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the principal charges made by Thomas Jefferson against King George III and his predecessors was that they would not allow the American colonies to “outlaw the importation of slaves.” This, unfortunately, was not adopted. Even a slaveholder such as Jefferson understood the evil of slavery. In his autobiography, he wrote:
“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of life than that these people are to be free.”
In Notes on The State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote:
“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it. . . .”
In the end, in order to secure all 13 colonies in the new nation, the question of slavery was postponed. This decision may be criticized, as it has been over the years. Many of the Framers felt they had set in motion an opposition to slavery that would bear fruit in the future. James Wilson of Pennsylvania declared:
“I am sorry that it could be extended no further, but so far as it operates, it presents us with the pleasing prospect that the rights of mankind will be acknowledged and established throughout the Union. . . . The lapse of a few years and Congress will have the power to eliminate slavery from within our borders.”
Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut stated:
“Slavery, in time, will not be a speck in our country. Provision is already made in Connecticut for abolishing it. And the abolition has already taken place in Massachusetts.”
The U.S. Constitution is unique in history. It established a system of government which was based upon the realities of human nature and attempted to learn the lessons of the past. The Framers knew that change would be necessary, and incorporated an amending process. They established a system which has lasted for more than 200 years — the oldest system of government in the world today. With all its faults and shortcomings, ours has been the freest society in the world’s history. It has welcomed men and women of every race, religion, and nation to its shores to be equal citizens. Being flawed human beings, we have mistreated black Americans, Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans and others. Yet, we have sought to move beyond these injustices and we have slowly moved toward the equality which is our ideal. We ended segregation and today black Americans hold every conceivable position in our society. We have elected a black president twice and, despite continuing problems with racism, we now have black mayors in Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other major cities. There is no position in American society to which black men and women cannot aspire.
American history is complex. The Founding Fathers were committed to building a new civilization that would become a model for the rest of mankind. James Madison wrote, “Happily for Americans, happily we trust for the whole human race, they (the Founders) pursued a new and more noble course.”
In announcing its 1619 Project, The New York Times said it wanted to “tell our story truthfully.” But American history, and the history of every other nation and civilization, is many-faceted.
All of us want to tell our story truthfully. This should involve its good and unique contributions, not only its weaknesses and shortcomings. Focusing only on slavery and questions of race leaves a great deal of our recent history out of the picture. Man’s history in Europe, Asia and Africa is filled with examples of racism, religious bigotry, and slavery. In the 19th and 20th centuries, European countries — England, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal — occupied countries in Asia and Africa and, in some cases, slaughtered tens of thousands of their inhabitants. With all its imperfections, America represented something new in the world. Thus far, The 1619 Project seems not to understand this reality.
The Dangerous Assault on Free and Open Discussion and Debate
The world has a long history of stifling free and open discussion and debate. In the 17th century Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer and physicist, offered evidence that the earth traveled around the sun. The Catholic Church and other scientists of his day believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Galileo, accused of heresy, was forced to recant and was imprisoned by the Inquisition.
Today, with our Constitutional guarantee of free speech, men and women cannot be put in jail for expressing unpopular points of view. Still, they are being silenced in other ways.
Professor Stephen Hsu of Michigan State University was pressured to resign as Vice President of Research and Innovation because he conducted research that found that black police officers were just as likely to shoot blacks as were white officers. The research found:
“The race of the police officer did not protect the race of the citizen shot. In other words, black officers were just as likely to shoot black citizens as white officers were.”
For political reasons, the author of the study sought its retraction.
The U.S. Department of Education warned UCLA that it may impose fines for improperly and abusively targeting a professor, Lt. Col. A. Jay Peris, for disciplinary action over the use of the n-word while reading to the class the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” that contains this statement, “. . . when your first name becomes ‘n——’ your middle name becomes ‘boy,’ no matter how old you are.” Referring to civil rights activists, King wrote: “They have languished in . . . roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as ‘dirty n—— lovers.”
On July 4, a letter was issued by hundreds of faculty members at Princeton University. It begins with the following sentence: “Anti-blackness is fundamental to America.” In the view of Professor of Classics Joshua T. Katz, “The letter calls for eliminating academic freedom via a committee that would review all publications for racist thought (racism defined by the committee).”
Students at Marymount Manhattan college are seeking the termination of Theater Arts Professor Patricia Simon. The reason: She appeared to briefly fall asleep during an anti-racist meeting held on Zoom. Simon denies the allegation, but a Marymount student, Caitlin Gagnon, started a petition campaign accusing Simon of ignoring “racist and sizeist” actions. The petition quickly got roughly 2,000 signatures.
At times like this it is important to remember George Orwell’s observation that, “Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.”
It is not only in the academic world where freedom of thought and open debate are under attack. Our newspapers also are becoming part of what critics call the “cancel culture.” In July, Bari Weiss, an opinion editor and writer at The New York Times, resigned after she found herself the victim of bullying for “wrong thinking.” This closely follows the resignation in June of her boss and editorial page editor James Bennet, who was pushed out after his section published an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), in which Cotton advocated using military force to quell violent protests.
Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker asks:
“How could a newspaper intent on airing differing opinions and diverse voices decide that a sitting U.S. senator’s viewpoint didn’t measure up? Allowing a senator to espouse thoughts one might find objectionable is exactly the point of the op-ed page. The walk-back had less to do with standards and more to do with the simple fact that Cotton thought the ‘wrong’ thing.”
In her letter to New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Bari Weiss said that there may well be many among the Times staff who are concerned as she is about the cancel culture, but they dare not say so in public. “If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy,” she wrote, “they and their work remain un-scrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderstorm. Online venom is excused as long as it is directed at the proper targets.”
In Kathleen Parker’s view:
“Sulzberger, too, is likely cowed by the wrong-think police. So is corporate America. So are our institutions of higher education. Most have decided it is not worth the risk of certain punishment to challenge the orthodoxy of the relentless left. But it is . . .”
Ironically, Bari Weiss is herself a part of the cancel culture. A strong supporter of Israel, she categorizes Jews who call for Palestinian rights and oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as being “as dangerous as white nationalists.” In her book on anti-Semitism she said that Jews who oppose Zionism “are as deeply opposed to Jewish interests as many of our community’s enemies.” Even when she was a student at Columbia University, she tried to have Palestinian professors removed from the faculty.
Andrew Sullivan, a columnist for New York Magazine, was forced to leave his position because staff members “believed my columns were physically harming them.” Sullivan takes conservative positions on many subjects, but is vocally opposed to President Trump and is openly gay. Independent thinking, however, is no longer in demand. Noting that the intolerance of dissenting views, that is now widely present in academic life, has made its way to journalism, Sullivan says, “We all live on campus now.”
Fortunately, a reaction to the cancel culture is growing. More than 100 writers and scholars of a variety of points of view have signed a public letter decrying the cancel culture and the rising intolerance of opposing views. Among the signatories are J. K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie, David Brooks, and Malcolm Gladwell.
The letter, which appeared in Harper’s Magazine, declared that, “The free exchange of information and ideas, which is the lifeblood of a liberal society is lately becoming more constricted.” Censorship often characterized the right wing, as in the McCarthy era. It is now increasingly coming from the left, the letter declares, with “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
At the present time, the letter notes that:
“Editors are fired for printing controversial pieces, books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity, journalists are barred from writing on certain topics, professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class. This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”
Assaults on free speech do not only come from the left. President Trump has gone to court twice to try to prevent publication of books critical of him: one by former national security adviser John Bolton, the other by his niece, Mary Trump. In both cases he lost, and the First Amendment prevailed. The president has also put a chill on free speech by regularly referring to journalists with whom he disagrees as “enemies of the people.”
Those on both the left and right who seek to stifle the voices of those on the other side of major public issues misunderstand the nature of a genuinely free society. In “On Liberty,” the 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill writes:
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still move those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose. What is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”
The Framers of the U.S. Constitution valued free speech. The assaults on speech that we now see — from various points on the political spectrum — show us how much we have departed from their respect for a diversity of opinion. We have had moments in our history like this before. They were brief and we moved beyond them. Let us hope that the same is true today.
We Need Police Reform — Not Defunding or Abolition of the Police
There is no doubt that American society needs major reform of how our police departments operate. The killing of George Floyd and other unarmed black men and women indicates a serious problem. The response to these real problems, unfortunately, has led some to advocate not the real reforms that are necessary but the defunding of the police and, in some cases, abolition of police departments entirely. While the Minneapolis City Council and New York’s Mayor De Blasio may think there is merit in such ideas, few others do. The vast majority of Americans, of all races and both political parties, recognize the necessity of the police.
Prof. Steven Pinker of Harvard notes that:
“If the police are indiscriminately crippled, whether it be by defunding them, or simply making them more reluctant to intervene, then the rates of violent crime will go up. . . . They have in the last couple of months. Far more people are killed at the hands of their fellow civilians than by the police.”
Even the concept of abolishing the police, argues Pinker, is “stark raving mad” because “it means that we leave people to defend themselves with private armies and mafias and vigilantes and gangs of thugs.”
When it comes to policing and crime, black attitudes elude simple explanations.
Polling within the black community shows that respondents express disgust with police racism, but support for more funding for the police. A 2015 Gallup Poll found that black adults who believed police treated black people unfairly were also more likely to desire a large police presence in their local area than those who thought police treated black people fairly.
A 2019 Vox poll found that despite being the racial group with the most unfavorable view of the police, most black people supported having more police officers in their community. A June 2020 Yahoo News/YouGov survey, taken after the killing of George Floyd, found that 50 percent of black respondents still said, “We need more cops on the street,” even as 49 percent of black respondents said that when they personally see a police officer, it makes them feel “less secure.”
Last year in Baltimore, more than 300 people were killed, almost all of them black, as were the killers. John Hudgins, a columnist for the Baltimore Sun, writes that:
“This is a devastating plague acutely affecting black communities across the country. We must realize that some black people are a much greater threat to other black people than the Ku Klux Klan or the White Citizens Councils. The number of blacks gunned down in the streets by other blacks parallels our memories of the many blacks lynched in communities across the U.S. after Reconstruction. This is a devastating plague acutely affecting black communities across the country.”
According to Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey, the best scientific evidence available shows that police are effective in reducing violence. Those who argue that police have no role in maintaining safe streets are arguing against strong evidence, Sharkey points out. One of the findings in criminology is that putting more officers on the street leads to less violent crime.
After the unrest around the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, police officers stepped back from their duty to protect and serve; arrests of all kinds of low-level offenses dropped, and violence rose. Criminologists Juston Nix and Scott Wolfe, writing in The Washington Post, note that:
“We have enough research evidence to be concerned about the immediate impact of drastic budget cuts or wholesale disbanding of police agencies. Crime and victimization will increase.”
They state that if this were to happen:
“More people will arm themselves . . . the increased crime will disproportionately harm minority communities. Cities that have more police officers per capita tend to have lower crime rates.”
They argue for community-oriented policing which has been shown to reduce crime and improve communitywide satisfaction.
The reason we need police — or government itself — is because of the essence of human nature. John Adams declared that, “Whoever would found a state and make proper laws for the government of it must presume that all men are bad by nature.” In The Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote:
“What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal restraints on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and then in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
If men were angels, those who call for defunding or abolishing the police might have a strong case. Since men and women are imperfect by nature, it is essential that we live in a society in which all are protected. The latest polls show that two-thirds of Americans oppose the campaign to defund the police. They understand that real reform of the police is necessary and it is to reform that we should turn our attention. *