Different Narratives

A recent poll of 1,000 American undergraduates found that of those who self-identified as Republicans, 74% were very proud to be American, as compared with only 8% of self-identified Democrats (https://www.thecollegefix.com/poll-8-of-democratic-college-students-74-of-republican-college-students-very-proud-to-be-american/). These results reflect profoundly different perspectives on our past.

One narrative, advanced by mainstream historians since the nation’s birth, casts American history as a story of the triumph of freedom over tyranny through the American Revolution, followed by a gradual dawning, punctuated by the Civil War and the Civil Rights Acts, of a shared understanding that all adult Americans must equally possess the same unalienable individual rights that the founders had proclaimed with only white men in mind. The other, relying on revisionists beginning with Howard Zinn and most recently embodied by the 1619 Project produced by The New York Times, describes the same history as a tale of ineradicable racism, brutal conquest and exploitive capitalism.

These narratives serve different purposes. One instills in us a sense of gratitude for the heroic efforts of those from whom we have inherited the world into which we were born, the other teaches that those of us who identify as Democrats accept the revisionist perspective are morally superior to those who established, built and defended the nation, and to those (deplorables) who don’t share that perspective.

Let’s take it as a given that both narratives are mostly accurate as to the specific facts from which their conclusions are drawn. Consider, for example, the fact that the first enslaved person arrived in Virginia in 1619. While slavery is readily cast, on left and right, as America’s original sin, the centrality of that sin to our subsequent successes, or to the broader thrust of the development of American culture, is highly debatable.

More to the point, such historical facts as are indisputable are taken out of their historical contexts to make points in furtherance of present-day agendas. In the more “modern” revisionist histories, little mention is made of the parallel facts regarding slavery that in 1619 human bondage was, and had always been, a global phenomenon, and that it was children of Western Civilization’s enlightenment – enlargers of the same ideas that had inspired our Revolution, who would eventually take the lead in stamping slavery out worldwide. Little mention, too, is made of the roughly 400,000 Union casualties of the Civil War, the underlying cause of which was the South’s unwillingness at that time to abandon slavery.

As to agendas, the executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, has been quite explicit that the 1619 Project was initiated in an effort to push the nation’s political dialogue into what might best be described as Trump-unfriendly territory. Indeed, Baquet’s Times has been busy for some time with agenda-driven historical revisionism (another notable recent example: an article a few months ago claiming that Russian women enjoyed better sex under communism – an article that surely belongs in the NYT hall of fame for soft-on-communism puffery, along with Walter Duranty’s award winning, and flatly wrong, denials of the Soviet-engineered holodomor), hardly the sort of thing one expects to find in a publication nominally devoted to the timely and accurate provision of news. Such attempts to recast our perspectives on history, like the biases on view daily in The Times’s choices of topics for, and obvious slants in, front page news articles, cater to the mindsets of that paper’s self-consciously elite and ‘woke’ (a usage I despise, fwiw) readership rather than representing any sort of objective reporting.

In narrative-driven history, as in biased reporting, what’s important to the author isn’t so much ‘what happened?’, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions, as ‘what do I think is important about what happened, or’ (if I’m a publisher) ‘that my readership wants, or doesn’t want, to hear about it?’. For examples of agenda-driven editorial selectivity, scan the NYT or the Washington Post any day soon for mentions of the fact that unemployment among African-Americans is the lowest that it has ever been, as compared with their previous wall-to-wall coverage of the imaginary Russia collusion or their current obsession with the nonexistent Ukraine quid pro quo.  

As to our history, is it more important to focus on the fact that there was slavery in the American colonies, and then in our newly independent nation or that the founders established revolutionary principles regarding individual rights for themselves that were eventually extended to all? The answer, I think, depends on whether your own emotional needs and political agenda are better served by denigrating the accomplishments of our forebears or by coming to terms with the magnitude of what they accomplished.

By rebelling against the English king on the basis of principles of individual liberty the founders planted a seed that would grow far larger than they could have imagined – in terms of the wider application of the principles for which they had risked their lives, the attraction those principles held for people from around the world and the prosperity that the industry and creativity that liberty drew out of the American people delivered.       

My own perspective, as will surprise no regular CH readers, is that we should feel immense gratitude to those who came before us. We were born into a world of great freedom and prosperity that they were far more responsible than anyone else for having created. Were they perfect? Of course not! But their moral failings were the product of a very different time and the fire that those men and women lit illuminates the world.

The progressive narrative, on the other hand, dims the light of universal individual liberty. By focusing exclusively on the moral shortcomings of the founders and the nation they built, judged by today’s standards, and soft-pedaling the failings of communist nations, it serves a political agenda at variance with the American Idea – an agenda that posits that individual rights must be curtailed and the state must play an ever larger role in determining the courses of our lives.

M.H. Johnston     

P.S., Here’s a fantastic summary of the factual and interpretational mistakes of the 1619 Project.

2 comments to Different Narratives

  • Jeff C.  says:

    If America is such a horrible racist nation, why do millions of black and brown people want to come here, even if they have to do it illegally?

  • John Primm, MPM  says:

    Jeff C., you raise the $64 question. Mark, another home run.

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