Why We Do History

by Kevin Curry-Knight

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Recently, a friend of mine – a Nietzsche scholar – posted on social media that he wished all of those engaged in arguments over antiracism in history education would read Nietzsche’s essay “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.” The friend didn’t elaborate, but I respect his judgment and have been following the rancor around attempts to make history education more anti-racist, whether we should tell US history with more eye toward the centrality of slavery and racial apartheid, or keep things as they are. I followed my friend’s advice, and I’m glad I did.

The overriding point in Nietzsche’s essay – and what I later confirmed was the point of my friend’s post – was that we should always keep in mind that history is a human project engaged in for thoroughly human reasons. Says Nietzsche:

Our need for history is quite different from that of the spoiled idler in the garden of knowledge, even if he in his refinement looks down on our rude and graceless requirements and needs. That is, we require history for life and action, not for the smug avoiding of life and action, or even to whitewash a selfish life and cowardly, bad acts. Only so far as history serves life will we serve it. [1]

What bugs me, as well as my Facebook friend, is that so much debate on how we should teach history is conducted by sides who are sure that they’re disagreeing only about what the facts of the matter are. We need to teach the way the past really happened, our side does that, and while we’re interested solely in objectivity, the other side distorts history in service of a partisan agenda. [2]

The problem with that is that as Nietzsche (and historiographers like Hayden White) are here to remind us, history is a narrative about the past told by and for people. People – the tellers and receivers – have interests. These historical narratives go – and must go – beyond recounting of facts: which facts are important and which are irrelevant? How do the facts fit together? What purpose do I have for even telling this, rather than another, story? How should I stage my telling? As such, telling history must always be as much a narrative and literary project as a scientific one.

To drive the point home before getting back to Nietzsche, when a doctor asks your medical history, or an adoptee their family history, or we teach US history to school children, the purposes of the parties are vital. The type of doctor you are seeing and what you are seeing her about will help inform whether you tell her your dental history, and will also inform how the doctor makes sense of the history you tell her (and whether she wanted you to include your dental history). If the adoptive parents know that the child’s father was a mass murderer, it may give them pause about whether or how to tell the child their family story, and their telling will surely affect how the child thinks of himself.

Whether and how much to talk about racial injustice as part of the US project? The purposes of the history tellers and the audience is similarity relevant. What does the school or district want history to do? Inspire reverential patriotism? Instill in students a sense of social justice? Cause students to give up on the American project altogether? Inspire them to dream for something new?

Nietzsche discusses three ways we can read history and apply it to life. First, we can read history monumentally. By this approach, history can either inspire those living in the present to be thankful for inheriting such a glorious past, or something like it’s opposite, where monumental history becomes “the disguise in which their hatred of the mighty and the great of their time parades as satisfied admiration of the mighty and the great of past ages.” Depending on how it is done, monumental history can inspire a love for the present or a scorn for its fallenness.

Antiquarian history, says Nietzsche, venerates the antique because it is antique. It treats “everything old and past which has not totally been lost sight of… as equally venerable, while whatever does not approach the old with veneration, that is, the new and growing, will be rejected and treated with hostility.” In some sense, antiquarianism is a conservatism solely for the sake of conservatism.

Lastly, there is the critical approach to history; here is where things get interesting. The critical historian:

must have the strength, and use it from time to time, to shatter and dissolve something to enable him to live: this he achieves by dragging it to the bar of judgment, interrogating it meticulously and finally condemning it; every past, however, is worth condemning—for that is how matters happen to stand with human affairs: human violence and weakness have always contributed strongly to shaping them. It is not justice which here sits in judgment; even less is it mercy which here pronounces judgment: but life alone, that dark, driving, insatiably self-desiring power. Its verdict is always unmerciful, always unjust, because it has never flowed from a pure fountain of knowledge; but in most cases the verdict would be the same were justice itself to proclaim.

To shatter and dissolve something to enable him to live? That surely fits the critical approach to history, the one we can easily recognize in, say, the 1619 Project. Put more emphasis on the centrality of slavery and racial apartheid in history books and school curriculum, they say; and while that does mean shattering some comfortable myths we’ve been telling about history, it is in order that we might live to transcend that racially unjust inheritance. Is that project worthy? It depends on whether you think that retrieving the past, continuing the present, or creating some different future is where you want things to go.

But Nietzsche reminds us that all history, not just the critical historian’s, involves forgetting. “All acting requires forgetting, as not only light but also darkness is required for life by all organisms. A man who wanted to feel everything historically would resemble someone forced to refrain from sleeping, or an animal expected to live only from ruminating and ever repeated ruminating.” Does the antiquarian revere every historical artifact simply because it is one? He can’t, as there is only enough time in the day. Surely, he also has a reason for revering historical artifacts, and figuring out those reasons will tell you what historical artifacts will be less appreciated than others.

Maybe harder to see is how the monumental historian forgets. To make something into a monument, you must forget; namely, all the things that could disqualify that thing from your reverence. If the 1619 Project wants us to forget that, as economist Glenn Loury often points out,  black people in the United States are the richest people of African descent ever to live on the earth (from fear that this will make it easy to be complacent about racism injustice), its critics forget in the opposite direction. They believe that the best hope for good citizenship is proper reverence for the United States and what it has done. To do that, we must also forget in order to live. To live as a reverential patriot requires forgetting – at least not holding in your mind too long or too seriously – the idea that your land of the free was, to others, a land of systematic and ruthless bondage, a land where they were raped, beaten, lynched, and whose continued bondage was an inspired cause for half of the nation.

Clint Smith has a good illustration of how both sides are “guilty” (as if it is possible not to be) of convenient forgetting in his book How the Word is Passed. Here, he is talking to Niya Bates, a historian working with Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate to make its historical narratives about the founding father as accurate and rich as possible. Smith and Bates discuss those who believe the estate focuses too much on Jefferson’s deep ties to slavery. Says Bates:

Yes, he contributed great things. Yes, he gave us the Declaration of Independence, and the university where I got my degree, but he also owned people. He owned ancestors of people I know. That’s reality. I think in order to really understand him, and to fully understand him, you have to grapple with slavery. You have to grapple with [physical] violence [Smith’s brackets, not mine] and psychological violence. We would not be doing justice if we did not tell those stories.

The question, in some sense, is “Which Jefferson are we wanting to understand? What is our purpose for understanding him?” Proponents of critical histories like the 1619 Project might say that to understand America, we need not only to understand but appreciate how bound up with that project race-based slavery was, and this is the best way to understand how we should relate to today’s America. Thus, we need to understand that Jefferson. The monumental approach of, say, the 1776 Unites Project might reply that while we should acknowledge that Jefferson, he is peripheral to the understanding of Jefferson that most properly serves the history we need to convey: the history of Jefferson as author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and President of the United States.

To Nietzsche’s point, we cannot just teach all the facts about Jefferson. We must always be selective about which facts to teach, which of those to emphasize relative to others, and which to forget entirely. (We can teach that slavery happened, but deciding how central or inextricable it is to the American project, or what relevance it has to today’s racial disparities involves, but goes beyond, deciphering what the facts are.)

Critics of the 1619 Project aren’t advocating that we forget slavery and racial apartheid when teaching about American history. And no proponents of the 1619 Project advocate that we forget to teach about the Declaration of Independence, that the Union won the Civil War, and how far America has come on the issue of race. But each side wants to downplay certain true aspects of American history that do not fit the impression they want their telling to give. Each wants to emphasize other equally true aspects that helps them make their point. Human purposes (and forgetting in their service) is always and irreducibly a part of that project.

It is also worth noting that as a student of the history of education, I can assure you that historiography and history-curriculum-building has always been this sort of battleground. From battles over whether schools should, in Benjamin Rush’s phrasing “convert men into republican machines,” to battles over how “Anglican” our narratives of American history should be, or how to teach both Northerners and Southerners about the Civil War, we always select and forget as a part of how we tell history in schools. Heated debates about history and patriotism in schools simpler to current ones captivated the chattering classes as recently as the 1990’s. History is indubitably a political project, and mandating that kids learn about it in schools that teach to government standards just adds political grease to that fire. We’ve been here before; well be here again.

Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah defines a nation as “a group of people who think of themselves as sharing ancestry and also care about the fact that they have that supposed ancestry in common.” History, especially in the schools of the nation, will surely impact how “we” think about our nation (and the quotes are meant to indicate my skepticism that the citizenry of nation states are anything short of molded into a homogeneous “we”). Should we, as the 1619 Project risks doing, acknowledge that we really don’t have such a shared common national experience? If we do that, will it serve to inspire the redress of wrongs that might make possible such a shared national experience? Or will it, as critics fear, spell the splintering and possible destruction of a nation that was great until we told the citizens it wasn’t?

My friend’s social media challenge leads me to one final place: time to reread Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay to the 1619 Project. What is she trying to remember, and what is she trying to forget? No doubt she is the very image of Nietzsche’s critical historian, but what is she willing to shatter and dissolve in order to live? Live how? Here’s what I find.

After telling a story about her childhood, and her perplexity at why her father would fly an American flag as a black man, she tells story after story of American white supremacy rearing its head, how it repeatedly knocked black people down but never fully counted them out. In stark contrast to what critics say about the 1619 Project’s necessary contempt for America, she finishes by recounting how these stories have helped her better appreciate her Americanness. “We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all” (26). Shattering in order to live.

In light of Hannah-Jones’s statement, I’ll give Nietzsche the last word:

Let us call them the historical men. Looking into the past urges them toward the future, incites them to take courage and continue to engage in life, and kindles the hope that things will yet turn out well and that happiness is to be found behind the mountain toward which they are striding. These historical men believe that ever more light is shed on the meaning of existence in the course of its process, and they look back to consider that process only to understand the present better and learn to desire the future more vehemently.

Notes

[1] All quotations from Nietzsche’s essay are from: Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the advantage and disadvantage of history for life. Hackett Publishing, 1980.

[2] In this case, there is certainly some dispute about what the facts really are. And I’ve been persuaded by some of the criticisms of the 1619 Project to believe that its critics are right that it gets certain facts – some large, some small – wrong. But even so, there are many points in the Project that are not factually in dispute, and much of the public rhetoric – even when it is framed as a dispute over the facts – ends up being about how to interpret those facts into the proper narrative that our history books should tell. That the debate isn’t solely about facts makes it hard to see why what one thinks about the project lines up too neatly with political affiliation.

122 comments

  1. While I agree in the abstract, I think the 1619 Project and Nikole Hannah-Jones — a hack and grifter in the mode of Di’Angelo and Kendi — is a poor example.

    1. That’s why I took the understandably risky move in note 2 of saying that for the purposes of THIS essay, I want to lay aside the questions of factual accuracy in the 1619 Project. My sole purpose here is to argue that from what I see, the real debate that we are culturally having but not explicitly having isn’t about whether we should teach the facts, but what facts we should (and shouldn’t) teach FOR WHAT PURPOSES.

      Besides being motivated by my friend’s suggestion that all sides read some Nietzsche, I was motivated by what I think is too negative a read of what the 1619 Project’s goal necessarily is. Too many conservatives believe that the goal MUST be to tear America down, and I think it is quite difficult to read Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, much less some other essays in the collection, as motivated by that goal.

      1. I read most of the relevant material when the thing landed and then more, after Jones’ laughable Pulitzer Prize.

        I stand by my assessment. It’s shit. And there is a substantial scholarly opinion that it is shit.

      2. And let me reiterate, so it doesn’t get lost, I largely agree with the essay in the abstract. I just think that 1619 is a bad example, because it is bad history, independent of any consideration of the various types you catalogue. And because NHJ is such an obviously demagogic type — reading all of the correspondence surrounding 1619, as well as her social media commentary demonstrates that beyond any doubt — one is distracted away from the abstract point with which, again, I agree.

  2. In addition to my philosophy degrees, I have a degree in History, and 1619 is just flat-out bad history, even before you get to the question of the different forms history may take. It’s also entirely unnecessary, given that this history of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, etc. is part of virtually everyone’s core education and has been for quite a long time now. Indeed, it even was, when I was in elementary school and high school in the 1970’s and 80’s.

    The whole thing is just a part of the very strange cultural moment we are in, where we seem to have to teach everyone the history of the US since WWII all over again, as their current reactions and activisms make little sense relative to the actual course our history took.

    1. It’s the paradox of the activist. The more successful you are in your cause, the more irrelevant you make yourself. For an entire generation who make their identity around the push for social justice, it doesn’t look good on their C.V. to say things have never been better than right now.

    2. “It’s also entirely unnecessary, given that this history of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, etc. is part of virtually everyone’s core education and has been for quite a long time now. Indeed, it even was, when I was in elementary school and high school in the 1970’s and 80’s.”

      Not sure I agree with that. First, these curricula vary by state, and a VERY recent study in the NYT showed that the same textbook adopted for Texas and California varied WIDELY in how it depicted the same events. Second, I am not sure the dispute is over WHETHER these things are taught, but more about how they are taught and what type of importance is placed on them. When I learned about slavery in school, my recollection is that we learned that it happened, that we fought a civil war that ended it (not really going much into the idea that half the country fought to retain it) and that here we are today. Yet, quite a few historians argue that slavery was an absolutely central piece of the American economy and cuture, and thus that maybe this needs to be taught as more central a plot to the American story.

      1. Can’t agree with this, I’m afraid. With regard to textbooks across the country, this will be the case no matter what “projects” are published in the NYT. The fact of the matter is, this dimension of our history is taught, overwhelmingly, as part of the standard curriculum and has been for decades.

        And to suggest, at this point, today, in the current climate, that it isn’t presented as a terrible evil or given enough emphasis just isn’t credible. Sort of like the suggestion that the most left-wing, progressive, everyone-twist-themselves-into-pretzels-to-create-more-diversity university departments in the country are in fact shot through with horrific, institutional racism. No one not already in the grip of this stuff buys it or ever will. And the more and harder its pushed, the worse race relations will get, not the better. So in addition to being false, it’s strategically stupid if one is progressive and wants better race relations.

        The traditional liberal civil rights project has been an enormous success. That it is not complete is unsurprising given when it started and for how long slavery and Jim Crow lasted, but for people to act as if we were living 60 years ago represents either ignorance of the facts or a cynical and manipulative political posture. [With regard to the young, I suspect it is the former, and with regard to hacks like NHJ, I suspect it is the latter.] And both maturity and perspective require that we understand that like all complex things having to do with people, these kinds of evils will never entirely go away, regardless of what we do, and that in a liberal society, people are allowed to be shitty and rotten and bigoted in the their consciousness and private associations. All that we can do is insist on — and enforce — norms of individual public behavior and institutional openness and fairness.

  3. I have been teaching history since the 80s and what Dan says is certainly true. Critical race theory is certainly not interested in the actual course of history any more than American nationalist were.

  4. We are all Lewisians now with our possible worlds that are seemingly ‘real’. To reject what happened or to absolutely refuse to criticise it because it is part of the national myth of origin is a common dyad in a lot of countries. Reject 1789, 1916 – you vile heretic, cast doubts on the Magna Carta: not to be borne. Let’s get on with the cards we have been dealt and make the best of them and have a period of benign amnesia. Come back to history when we have all calmed down.

  5. Nikole Hanna Jones, a journalist with no formal training in history, attempted to foist off the fraudulent claim that the cause of the American colonies’ war for independence was the preservation of slavery. Despite the Times’s push for use of the 1619 Project in schools, she was prepared to let that vile slander stand until it was exposed and refuted by real historians. She then changed some of the published text to steer away from her thesis without ever acknowledging its invalidity. That is not the work of a scholar, or even of an honest journalist.
    As for claims that CRT merely seeks to “correct” current educational norms—to get it right: CRT advocates don’t care about getting it right. The 1619 Project was as much a conscious counterfeit as southern historians’ concoction of the noble Lost Cause, yet the same people who condemn that latter defend the former. The 1619 Project was the camel’s nose under the tent in the long march toward deranging the study of US history and US education generally.
    Whatever the history of “comfortable myths” in US education, it is decades in the past, overcome by Howard Zinn’s rat’s-eye point of view in the nineties. The “comfortable myths” justification is the camouflage for smuggling CRT into US classrooms. There is currently little or no monumental or antiquarian history at any level of education in the US, and even if there were, it would not be corrected by motivated and tendentious propagandists such as Hanna-Jones.
    Someone on this website once said that a country that hates its history can’t survive. For Hanna Jones and the rest of the CRT crowd, hatred of the US is the goal.

  6. Dan, with your permission I want to go off-topic.

    I am a keen reader of The Ethicist column on the NY Times. I sometimes disagree with Kwame Anthony Appiah but always enjoy his insights and analysis. In fact it would be boring if I always agreed.

    I would like to suggest that you host a similar column, on a monthly basis, on The Electric Agora and call it, for example, The Agoracist, an Ethical Debate. It would operate in a similar way, with a question that represents an ethical dilemma, submitted by one of the readers.

    But what would be different is that the question would be independently submitted to two of your essayists who would independently write a short analysis of the ethical dilemma. In this way we would get two contrasting viewpoints and this is sure to generate a lot of discussion.

    I am willing to take on one of the ethical analyst roles(once, occasionally or regularly) and I suggest that my good friend, EJ, take on the role of the other ethical analyst. It is well known that we have sharply differing views on many subjects and this will result in the dilemma being more deeply explored from contrasting viewpoints, with an edge, that is bound to be interesting.

    You would need to solicit, collect and curate a list of ethical dilemma questions, from your readership, to be submitted, one at a time, to EJ and myself. I am also willing to help this in this task and would love to involve EJ in this. We could also independently create our own lists of ethical dilemmas and submit them to you and you would choose which one to analyse/debate. Our analyses would need to have a limited word length, which you should specify. Each of us would separately write our own analyses without having seen the other’s analysis. Naturally we can later make rebuttals in the comments section.

    I am making this proposal publicly so that we can see if it has any appeal and can gain traction.

    1. I’m afraid I don’t have the time to add any new features now. We are struggling to manage what we’ve got and are in the process of adding a fourth podcast. Our escalating annual readership also has greatly increased the number of unsolicited submissions I receive, in which I am currently somewhat drowning.

      Can reconsider the issue around Christmas, when we see where things are. Certainly, it is a good idea, in principle.

        1. It’s a very good idea. Will likely do it, once I can catch my breath. The situation with my folks in NY is also terrible, and COVID is surging like crazy where I live, because the locals won’t get freaking vaccinated. So, I’m holding on by my fingernails right now.

          1. It is tragedy upon tragedy. I really feel for you and wish you the very best.

        2. Last year’s numbers (rounded):

          88,000 Unique Visitors
          235,000 Views

          The year before:

          89,000 Unique Visitors
          209,000 Views

          This with almost no advertising whatsoever, other than the occasional pick up from Leiter or other very heavily trafficked places.

          1. That is so encouraging. There is an important place for the public intellectual and it is great that you are fulfilling this need. I congratulate you.

  7. In Ezra Klein’s joint interview of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hannah-Jones says: ” the entire reason the 1619 Project had to exist in the first place is that we have been willfully opposed to grappling with who we are as a country.” This falsehood would be laughable were she not so influential. Who is the undifferentiated “we”? Not most reputable American historians since at least 1967 when I entered college. Not the people who developed American history curricula for my children’s public schools in a near-suburb of Boston in the 1990s and aughts. Not, I’m confident they would say, Nikole Hannah-Jones herself. Nor, I’m equally confident, many, many others, known and unknown.

    Hannah-Jones also says: “” your whole idea about democracy actually comes from Black resistance.” But inspirational as Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, and the rest of the civil rights movement were, neither their political struggles nor pre-civil-rights-era black “resistance” is plausibly the source of most Americans’ “whole idea about democracy”.

    Is it that Hannah-Jones wants to be taken seriously but not literally? It doesn’t matter. The conclusion I draw is that, at best, her project is a distraction from the legitimate and important need to under the present as the product of a non-idealized, fact-based history (recognizing all the caveats that flow from Nietzsche’s article. At worst, she is a serious obstacle.

  8. …the spoiled idler in the garden of knowledge, even if he in his refinement looks down on our rude and graceless requirements and needs.

    I just loved this sentence. It says so much so elegantly, even though I count myself as a “spoiled idler in the garden of knowledge” who looks down on the “rude and graceless “.

  9. All nations derive their strength, unity and cohesion from a shared narrative myth that provides meaning, significance and purpose. The primary source of this narrative myth is the localized retelling of historical memories.

    The decline of a nation starts with the degradation of this narrative myth. It destroys meaning, erodes significance and weakens purpose. When this happens there are no winners and ideological gloating is an ephemeral joy.

    1. I tend to agree. A country that hates or has contempt for its own history and founding generation will not survive. One would think this is such obvious, rudimentary psychological wisdom that it wouldn’t need to be explained.

      And that does not preclude approaching history critically.

      1. How about Germany?

        It was the most militaristic nation in Europe, capable of the worst atrocities, the Holocaust.

        After World War 2, they changed the Constitution, the national anthem and the flag (I believe). I imagine that the history books no longer laud Prussian militarism, the Kaiser, blood and iron, not to mention the Third Reich.

        They reinvented themselves as a prosperous, non-aggressive, non-militaristic, environmentally conscious democracy with decent social welfare programs.

        I know nothing about the 1619 project and so I’ll not opine about it, but the U.S. needs to come to terms with its violent history, slavery, the masscres of the Native-Americans, imperialistic policies in Latin America, etc. and to grow up, as Germany has done. I believe that half of the U.S. has grown up: Biden is an adult, but almost half voted for Trump, that is, for a child. Sometimes in the maturation process there is an over-reaction against parents and the 1619 project may be an over-reaction, but that’s part of the process. It’s the other side of “Make America Great Again”.

        1. Sorry SW, but I think the comparison with Germany is singularly inapt. Those circumstances bear no resemblance to the problems of today.

          Consider that Germany suffered one of the most catastrophic defeats of all time. The structure of Germany was ground down to pulverized dust. For geopolitical reasons the Allies urgently reconstructed Germany in their own image. This was done by pouring that pulverized dust into the moulds of a democratic, liberal state, provided by the British, French and American Allies. This was no growing up but the forcible remoulding of a nation through the high pressure, injection moulding process.

          The extremes of catastrophic defeat and forcible remoulding transformed their psyche, for the time being at least. The Germans were eager participants in this process because it offered them psychic redemption.

          1. There was an article in the Guardian maybe a year ago, comparing Germany with the United Kingdom and suggesting that Germany, unlike the United Kingdom in times of Brexit, jingoism and Boris Johnson, is now a grown-up nation that faces its problems like an adult, with an adult leader Angela Merkel.

            So, however Germany “grew up”, they did. Maybe imagine Germany as a criminal nation that went to prision and came out a good person.

            I know that there are fascist or proto-fascist demagogues in Germany, but they don’t have the popularity that Trump does. That almost half a nation votes for Trump indicates to me that that nation needs to grow up.

            It’s not a question of right or left. There are demagogues on the right and demagogues on the left. Merkel is a conservative and Biden is a liberal, but both are grown-ups.

          2. S.W.

            I think that is a matter of narrative too. If I was the kind of person who was inclined to vote, sure I would have gone with the grown-up Biden over the dangerous child Trump. In 2016 though I would have had to go with the not yet dangerous child Trump over the far more dangerous grown-up Hilary whose basically-rigged nomination would have been a slight to democracy we never would have gotten past.

        2. In order for your statement to really have meaning though your going to have to define the term “come to terms”, as it stands it is just kind of a vague aphorism. Coming to terms can mean anything from “teach children to be more civil to others” to “recognize white people are irredeemably evil”. Ultimately it will get back to the topic of the essay, how to write want to interpret facts and what narrative do we want to derive from that?

          I don’t think Germany is un-apt comparison, but actually in a positive way. If we’re looking to Germany as an example of a country that redressed its past and changed for the better I don’t see how America is different. After WW2 we eliminated systemically racist laws, expanded voting and coving rights, instituted race-based welfare programs, and one of the most prominent features of the new liberal orthodoxy is a hyper-concern with minority representation and visibility in society.

        3. A very odd example, this. Germany only became a unified country under Bismarck, and while certainly there has been plenty of warranted de-Nazification of the country, I am not under the impression that they’ve gone back and villainized Bismarck or the other important figures of “early Germany.” Certainly there is disagreement as to Metternich, but my sense is that he is credited in good part as one of the creators of modern diplomacy.

          I’m also not sure Germany is some sort of special case in Europe, which is endemically anti-Semitic across the board. My grandfather’s family on my father’s side fled Ukraine *to* Germany, because it was much *less* anti-Semitic and more cosmopolitan than Eastern Europe and Russia.

          And the more that I think about this example and the history of nations more generally, the less I think of the sort of revisionist history involved in things like 1619 is, as it represents a fundamentally simplistic, black and white, essentially adolescent view of countries and the world more generally. Every nation with any substantial, long-reaching history is going to be a story of good and bad and terrible and better and three steps forward and two steps back, and any serious history will reflect that, rather than some simplistic narrative, whether celebratory or villainizing.

          1. Thanks. Neiman says it much better than I can and knows much more about the subject than I do.

          2. When I say Neiman knows more about the subject than I do, I don’t mean that I agree with every sentence. You can pick out stupid sentences in just about every text you come across. You’re right that Trump’s election is not mainly due to ignorance about the U.S. racial past. However, I believe that Neiman explains well the differences between the German and the U.S. approach to past national mass crimes.

          3. Gosh, I couldn’t disagree more with this article. The characterization of what Americans know and the evidence/argument free “if Americans knew about their country’s racial past, they wouldn’t have elected Trump” is beyond stupid. Is the suggestion that the millions of black Americans who voted for Trump don’t know it either?

            The essay reminds me why I no longer read the New Yorker.

          4. I am not sure Neiman is on that solid of a ground in her analysis, but let me ask just one question in response.

            She wants to compare American Slavery to the Holocaust as an example of a country engaged in a great moral evil, and their differing modern reactions to it, but there is actually a much more direct comparison to be made. Why not compare America’s dealing with its slave past to others countries part in the Atlantic Slave trade? The slave trade was a vast network. It involved dozens of modern countries including European(including Germany), African, Arabic, and North American. What is the narrative being taught in these countries as to their part in slavery? Are there other countries we can look to and emulate in how they deal with their past involvement in slavery?

          5. Because seriously engaging with the idea that not just “whites” but “people of color” were actively part of the slave trade takes us off narrative.

          6. Dan:

            “Gosh, I couldn’t disagree more with this article. The characterization of what Americans know and the evidence/argument free “if Americans knew about their country’s racial past, they wouldn’t have elected Trump” is beyond stupid. Is the suggestion that the millions of black Americans who voted for Trump don’t know it either?”

            If we’re just going to cherry-pick statements and declare them ridiculous, I don’t understand how you think you, here, this, fall outside of that. Black people don’t have some inherent knowledge of slavery and sensible inferences from that to present politics that exempt them, in considerable enough numbers, from being wrong. It is not baked into them to make the right decisions because they still know slavery. Which is why a lot of largely black and conservative-adjacent men liked Trump. They don’t recognize and don’t care how he’s playing into a southern strategy that would directly disenfranchise them. This is a thing that happens in history. In reading about the Haitian revolution recently, involving people very directly concerned with slavery, it’s made clear to me that one’s race does not determine the course or legitimacy of one’s decisions in these matters. People can sway back and forth for any variety of reasons. Did the many blacks or mixed race people not know the history of Saint Domingue when they unwittingly took part in Napoleon’s attempt to reimpose slavery? No, but they talked themselves into a devil’s pact for other reasons.

      2. I suppose that part of the point of my essay is that I do not see ‘contempt for its own history’ as something the 1619 project is per se doing, and when I see peope (particularly conservaties) interpret it that way, I suspect that it can only be because they believe patriotism must come from de-emphasizing bad parts of US history so that we can better extol the good parts.

        Honestly, when I read the 1619 project, I see that one COULD get that impression, but one can just as easily – maybe more easily if we take the authors at their word – a story of hope, a story of people whose very existence should be seen as an example of the very American ideals we say we admire, hope that in doing that, we could become more American still.

        1. If you actually read and digest all the things NHJ has said about the project — and she’s said a lot — it should be quite clear why “taking her at her word” is a foolish thing to do. But beyond that, the history itself is shit. The central premise of the entire project is demonstrably false, and this has been shown by multiple, highly regarded historians.

          When perceptions are as wildly opposed as ours are — I find the project execrable and contemptible and representative of the worst current cultural trends, while you see it as a story of hope and love for America — what prospect is there that the country at large is going to come together around these issues?

          I’m starting to think a second go around with Trump — or someone worse — is almost inevitable at this point. It seems that things will have to deteriorate much farther before the country is finally jerked into reasonableness, moderation, and emotional maturity. [If it ever is.]

          But a country in which the available sides are NHJ or Trump will not last long. At this point, I view both as a kind of national suicide cult. What’s so strange and pathetic is that self styling “progressives” don’t see the extent to which, like Hamas and the Israeli far Right, they and Trump are in a death dance together.

          1. Dan:

            “The central premise of the entire project is demonstrably false, and this has been shown by multiple, highly regarded historians.”

            What do you take the central premise to be? I took it to be that slavey was one of our founding sins with traceable, substantial legacies lasting up to the present day, that it has had a deep, still-relevant impact on the arguments over the definition of our nation.

            “But a country in which the available sides are NHJ or Trump will not last long. At this point, I view both as a kind of national suicide cult. What’s so strange and pathetic is that self styling “progressives” don’t see the extent to which, like Hamas and the Israeli far Right, they and Trump are in a death dance together.”

            Sorry, but this is lunacy. Trump has radicalized the GOP squarely towards authoritarianism, encouraged an insurrection based on a stabbed-in-the-back myth he continues to peddle, nearly got us in a war with Iran as a PR stunt, actively disrupted measures to address climate change as the world boils and our children’s future looks increasingly bleak, and through disastrous policy and propaganda during a global pandemic contributed to the needless deaths of at least over a hundred thousand Americans. We are talking literal death cult. NHJ was mean to the founders and thinks slavery is more relevant to some of our present political problems than you do. She was also dishonest about editing out the claim that 1619 was “the founding” of the country. She is also annoying on Twitter. I don’t know what kind of buckets and buckets of vaseline you’ll need to slather this slippery slope to get us anywhere in the vicinity of death cult. Trump thinks that patriotism is crushing protestors and overthrowing the laws of the country to put himself in power indefinitely. NHJ thinks that patriotism is like that of her flag-flying father who sees this as the country where he and his ancestors fought to make this country a more just and equitable place.

            I can’t take this as anything other than misguidedly centrist hyperbole that levels completely unleveled contraries to make themself feel all the better an exemplar of The Golden Mean. Yes, you fall between two people. Absurd statements also fall somewhere in between sometimes.

          2. Zac,
            Dan said
            “The central premise of the entire project is demonstrably false, and this has been shown by multiple, highly regarded historians.”
            and you replied with the question:
            What do you take the central premise to be?

            The central premise of scholarship should be to uncover, tell, analyse and understand the truth of the matter(as far as that can be determined). Anything else is a grave disservice. It is not and should not be a confessional act of contrition and repentance. See your priest for that. Dan is a scholar.

            Your extended rant against Trump does nothing to add to our understanding of this, nothing whatsoever. I am sure it is a great emotional release to be able to say these kinds of things, but this is a philosophy blog where our central tenet should be thoughtful understanding. Your comment, and others, by the way, do not measure up to this standard.

            I can’t take this as anything other than misguidedly centrist hyperbole

            I would describe Dan as a centrist liberal progressive. There is nothing misguided about being a centrist, whether left or right leaning. In fact we need a large body of centrists, of both flavours, that acts as a buffer between the extremes of the left and the right. They are the essential repository of what being American means. They are the centre of gravity of the nation. Destroy that and the nation spirals out of control as it oscillates between its extremes.

            … to make themself feel all the better an exemplar of The Golden Mean.

            Wrongful attribution of motives is a singularly bad debating tactic.

          3. Peter Smith:

            “The central premise of scholarship should be to uncover, tell, analyse and understand the truth of the matter(as far as that can be determined). Anything else is a grave disservice. It is not and should not be a confessional act of contrition and repentance. See your priest for that. Dan is a scholar.”

            This doesn’t really address what the central premise of the 1619 Project. As for the “confessional act of contrition”, I’m not clear what you’re talking about. NHJ saying she was naive to dismiss her dad’s patriotism? Uh, sorry, it’s a piece of journalism about history and she put herself into it. This is not uncommon and not even unorthodox considering the likes of Hunter S. Thompson. Yes, Dan is a scholar. Of philosophy. Well?

            “Your extended rant against Trump does nothing to add to our understanding of this, nothing whatsoever. I am sure it is a great emotional release to be able to say these kinds of things, but this is a philosophy blog where our central tenet should be thoughtful understanding. Your comment, and others, by the way, do not measure up to this standard.”

            Your double-standard is showing. I’m only responding to Dan’s rant (a comment, not some peer-reviewed paper) saying that Trump and NHJ are part of mutually assured death cults. Is it only good for the goose? In his case however, he was just speaking in generalities, which we’re all free to do … in a comment … but I disagreed with the substance. I actually brought evidence to the case as to who was and wasn’t credibly accused of being in a death cult. Presumably scholars use evidence.

            “I would describe Dan as a centrist liberal progressive. There is nothing misguided about being a centrist, whether left or right leaning. In fact we need a large body of centrists, of both flavours, that acts as a buffer between the extremes of the left and the right. They are the essential repository of what being American means. They are the centre of gravity of the nation. Destroy that and the nation spirals out of control as it oscillates between its extremes.”

            Dan is a conservative Democrat. That’s fine, but that leaves him prone to his own biases and in this case I think those biases have led him to make an outlandish comparison. I made my argument for it and you haven’t engaged a single point.

            “Wrongful attribution of motives is a singularly bad debating tactic.”

            You said NHJ was my priest. Who’s coming at this in bad faith again?

          4. Zac,
            I’m only responding to Dan’s rant
            A rant is a rant is a rant. It has no place on a thoughtful blog. The further problem is that your rant became ugly in a personal way. That is just not useful . Why don’t we just agree that a thoughtful, respectful debate is desirable? And then set about realizing that goal. You could start with apologizing to Dan.

            Dan is a conservative Democrat. That’s fine
            So you are changing your criticism. First he is “misguidedly centrist“, now he is a “conservative Democrat” . Which is worse? In the vocabulary of leftists the term conservative is one of extreme opprobrium.

            Why is it even necessary to describe Dan in these terms? Once again you add nothing to the debate. Why don’t we just agree to drop the unsavoury practice of heaping opprobrium on our interlocutors? You could start with apologizing to Dan.

            You said
            … to make themself feel all the better an exemplar of The Golden Mean.
            I replied
            Wrongful attribution of motives is a singularly bad debating tactic.
            You replied with obfuscation
            You said NHJ was my priest. Who’s coming at this in bad faith again?

            You are accusing Dan of insincerity or hypocrisy but there is no trace of that in his writings. Uninformed speculation about his motives adds nothing useful to the debate. Attributing mal fides to another person is a common debating tactic but it only reveals the weakness of the accuser’s position.

            I repeat again, wrongful attribution of motives is a singularly bad debating tactic. Please don’t do it. You could start with apologizing to Dan.

          5. Well, for one thing, I did not “rant.” For another, don’t worry about me. I really could care less whether Zac thinks I’m insincere or a hypocrite or whatever else.

          6. Actually, a conservative democrat would be a centrist, since “conservative” is being used as an adjective here. A conservative democrat would be one who is on the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, that is, in the political center.

            I’m a leftist and I don’t use the word “conservative” to indicate extreme opprobium, but to describe someone’s political position. Don’t generalize about people’s motives, especially when you criticize others for doing that.

            Leftists are as objective and as rational as rightwingers and centrists are. There are fanatics in all parts of the political spectrum. The British-Pakistani leftwing intellectual Tariq Ali speaks of the “extreme center”, those in the center who are as dogmatic, fanatical and sectarian as those on the extreme left and right.

          7. Peter Smith:

            “A rant is a rant is a rant. It has no place on a thoughtful blog. The further problem is that your rant became ugly in a personal way. That is just not useful . Why don’t we just agree that a thoughtful, respectful debate is desirable? And then set about realizing that goal. You could start with apologizing to Dan.”

            Dan has gone on rants in this very thread, has maligned the motives of his opponents, and has made very personal accusations against them. Godspeed to him. People should feel free to vent their passions on a subject. And sometimes people’s motives should be questioned. I think his focus on positioning has steered him into making an outlandish claim here. I think he’s grown-up enough to deal with that accusation or, as he’s doing, shrugging it off. I’m certainly not doing anything as inflammatory as calling him a hack and a grifter (literally Dan’s first comment).

            “So you are changing your criticism. First he is ‘misguidedly centrist’, now he is a ‘conservative Democrat’ . Which is worse? In the vocabulary of leftists the term conservative is one of extreme opprobrium.”

            I think “I’m between these two death cultists” gambit is a misguidedly centrist move. Yes, I’m using that pejoratively by virtue of the word “misguided” but I’ve been clear about why I think it’s misguided and made my case (still unaddressed). I’m not using “conservative Democrat” pejoratively — hence “That’s fine”. That’s just what I consider the most accurate description. He used to be a Republican, wrote for the National Review, and it sounds like he was largely alienated by the evangelical turn in the party. Seems more like the party leaving him rather than him having any conversion that pushed him significantly to the Left. And it shows in the majority of his political posts. He leans more towards the conservative end of the party which, yes, is around the “center” of our political spectrum here.

            “You are accusing Dan of insincerity or hypocrisy but there is no trace of that in his writings. Uninformed speculation about his motives adds nothing useful to the debate. Attributing mal fides to another person is a common debating tactic but it only reveals the weakness of the accuser’s position.”

            I don’t think Dan’s being insincere or hypocritical here. I think his grand narrative about himself and these two people and his fixation on positioning has clouded his judgment on this point. Happens to the mightiest of us, Peter.

            I do think you’re being hypocritical here and holding me to a shifting double-standard. I don’t think it’s purposeful. I just think you’re partial to Dan and lean conservative yourself so find my rants more reflexively distasteful. Que sirrah.

          8. I’m going to ask everyone to get back to the subject, which is Kevin’s essay, not my political orientation. I’m also going to ask people not to start fighting, or I will close the discussion.

          9. Zac:
            An American insurrection without guns, an absurd idea. It was a coup de selfies

  10. Here are the sentences in which your point lies:

    “To Nietzsche’s point, we cannot just teach all the facts about Jefferson. We must always be selective about which facts to teach, which of those to emphasize relative to others, and which to forget entirely. (We can teach that slavery happened, but deciding how central or inextricable it is to the American project, or what relevance it has to today’s racial disparities involves, but goes beyond, deciphering what the facts are.)

    Critics of the 1619 Project aren’t advocating that we forget slavery and racial apartheid when teaching about American history. And no proponents of the 1619 Project advocate that we forget to teach about the Declaration of Independence, that the Union won the Civil War, and how far America has come on the issue of race. But each side wants to downplay certain true aspects of American history that do not fit the impression they want their telling to give. Each wants to emphasize other equally true aspects that helps them make their point. Human purposes (and forgetting in their service) is always and irreducibly a part of that project.”

    The point you and your friend find in Nietzsche is a point no serious, reflective person would deny if dialectically prodded. (So, yes, if either an advocate of 1619 or one of 1776 denies it, he’s not worth listening to.) So, when you or your friend invokes Nietzsche to make the point, you can only be doing so for more playful reasons than for simply making the point. Hence question: Why invoke Nietzsche here?

    (Whether the point you and your friend find in Nietzsche is actually Nietzsche’s point is another matter entirely.)

    1. AS,
      (Whether the point you and your friend find in Nietzsche is actually Nietzsche’s point is another matter entirely.)

      Yes indeed. It is the arguments that were presented that matter, not how we variously interpret Nietzsche. Some of the commentators have been going down a rabbit hole.

      1. Kevin is using Nietzsche to provide three premises:
        1) Nietzsche establishes three categories through which we can conceive history.
        2) Nietzsche suggests that history needs active forgetting to progress in the direction of a useful narrative.
        3) Nietzsche establishes the principle that history ought to be useful to the life of a people.

        The premises are only partially correct. Nietzsche “establishes” these categories only to punch holes in them; that should be a cause of concern. And Nietzsche isn’t terribly interested in any life of “a people,” a notion he ultimately mocks It is always the creative individual that concerns him.

        The second premise is especially problematic, as I remark in another comment. For Nietzsche, such forgetting is both necessary and inevitable, on the one hand, and yet still a choice for those with the insight and will to overcome the history they inherit.

        All this strips Kevin of central premises to his argument, and also establishes a Nietzschean perspective quite critical to the 1619 Project he is arguing for.

        Don’t blame me or Dan or Animal Symbolicum for this, Kevin opened the door to it. As I remarked, he not only used Nietzsche as a frame, which could easily have been set aside, but as a figure, as central to his argument. Without Nietzsche, the argument comes across as rather weak. I get, and even to some extent respect, the argument, but it lacks the force needed for persuasion.

        We have a choice – to wallow in the victimization of slavery and racism, or to celebrate the overcoming of these. From a Nietzschean perspectives (not mine, but one which I respect), both are mythic tropes; but the former enervates, the latter energizes. Which do we wish to make true?

  11. The 1619 project aside, I think the essay makes the highly pertinent and cogent point that history is a story, a narrative told for a purpose. To say history is simply objective factual reporting is not only simplistic but guts history of its purpose – to express the values of a people. Stories express those values in (emotional) ways that are unavailable to any other form of communication. It is those values that essentially define a group/nation. I think it’s these values that are the protagonists in the historical narrative, and to dispassionately focus solely on the identity of the individual players and what they did is superficial. What ideas/values passionately motivated our cultural hero’s actions? How are we the people who now currently make up the group/nation embodying (or not) those values? That is the agenda of historical story telling. Such an agenda should be overall constructive and in the service of the group in terms forming a more perfect union. I judge the historian/story teller in this light.

  12. I have been noting since the late ’80s, the academic Far Left has been helping to pave the way towards a right-wing authoritarianism for many years now. This wasn’t so bothersome back then, when they kept their conversation among themselves in academic journals and university libraries, and when “Fascism” could still be used as a term of art for an abstract possibility. But now American fascism has a face, Trump’s, and a name, the Republican Party, and a probable future, as the Republicans come to power again and cancel the possibility of competitive elections and thoughtful alternative policies. It is certainly possible that such circumstance will simply moot such discusssions as this, and even possible that certain perspectives will simply be banned from public education, and possible from the academy itself. It can happen here.

    And now, when the academic Left brings their case before the public beyond their journals and libraries, they think they will affect laws and change minds; when all they are doing is providing fodder for unnecessary culture-wars and driving larger audience shares to Fox News.

    I would add that the discussion here seems to be taking place in a cultural vacuum – as if there are not novels to read, films to see, documentaries on television, music to listen to – all revealing the painful truth, not only about slavery but about race relations in America.

    Kevin notes: “First, these curricula vary by state, and a VERY recent study in the NYT showed that the same textbook adopted for Texas and California varied WIDELY in how it depicted the same events. Second, I am not sure the dispute is over WHETHER these things are taught, but more about how they are taught and what type of importance is placed on them.” What he doesn’t seem top realize is that the first point mitigates the claims he wishes to make on the second point. Education certainly does not depend on a nationally established curriculum; it varies region by region, state by state, school by school, teacher by teacher. This is clearly a matter of change from the roots up via change of hearts and minds, not a matter of imposition top-down via laws and public shaming.

    Why will earnest young people not try to learn practical politics and persuasive rhetoric? Ultimately, as America completes its slide into actual fascism, cancel culture will only have proven to have cancelled itself.

    1. That’s right, exercises like 1619 actually set back the cause of critical history, they don’t advance it. NHJ has done more to hurt the cause of critical examination of America’s racial history than anyone on the Right.

  13. Kevin –
    I strongly object to the use made of Nietzsche here. The Use and Abuse of History for Life is a difficult text, and using quips from the first 11 pages or so is utterly misleading. In fact Nietzsche is saying something opposite – or rather apposite – to what you or your friend are having him say. Ultimately he reveals himself as an admirer of “monumentalist” history, and the example of one (and for Nietzsche it will always be down to the individual) who uses history for life is revealed in his fourth Untimely Meditation, Richard Wagner In Bayreuth (which he later had cause to regret).

    “And now ask yourselves, ye generation of to-day, Was all this composed for you? Have ye the courage to point up to the stars of the whole of this heavenly dome of beauty and goodness and to say, This is our life, that Wagner has transferred to a place beneath the stars?

    Where are the men among you who are able to interpret the divine image of Wotan in the light of their own lives, and who can become ever greater while, like him, ye retreat?”

    That’s what it really looks like.

    The Untimely Meditations need also to be historically contextualized (ironically, given Nietzsche’s attitude) They are meditations on a fairly common theme at the time, in the wake of Germany’s triumph in the Franco-Prussian war. Germany had long looked to French culture with admiration; but it wasn’t German culture that one the war, it was its militarism in command of industrialized arms manufacture. Meanwhile, scholars of the day continued to insist that Germany was the ‘end of history,’ the completion of the European journey beginning in Greece and Roman, and enlightened first through Christianity and then through the Reformation, and finally – that is, at the end – through the Deutsche Aufklarung For Nietzsche, this was a pretentious joke that trivialized the achievements in the War, but also moved to foreclose the future of creative thinkers and artists.

    Now, I admit this is oversimplification – but it is a thumbnail sketch of the real text in its context, and not a Hallmark Greeting Card cherry-picking of cheery lines from Uncle Friedrich – and does any of this sound anything like the OP here?

    And the problem is that you’ve made the mistake of using Nietzsche as both frame and figure. Take his thought of the OP and there’s little left besides a letter to the editor of the NYT, “I support the 1619 Project.”

    And I confess here I know little about that project. Like Dan, I remain a liberal committed to Civil Rights and integration. When I bother with more adversarial or even separatist positions on the Left, I must insist – what is the end game? Or i it simply a perpetual conflict between the races?

    1. I too wanted to object to the invocation of Nietzsche here, but before I did, I wanted to hear what Kevin or his friend had to say about why they chose him as a mouthpiece for what is actually a widely recognized point.

      1. My friend, a Nietzsche scholar, likely gave the advice – and I took it – because he and I think that Nietzsche’s articultion of these three ways history can aid life are instructive for their ability to articulate some of the vantage points we think discussants around the 1619 project are getting at.

        You and others say that this is an obvious point I am making. To this group, maybe it is. But what I notice in discussions around the 1619 Project is that everyone on all sides seem to couch their argument solely or primarily by appeal to “we just want to teach what really happened, rather than propogandizing as the other side is doing.” If the point is obvious, it rarely shows up with any directness in those discussions.

        1. Thanks for replying to my comment. I’d like to restate some things I seem to have failed to make clear. (1) I don’t think, and I didn’t mean to imply, that the point you find in Nietzsche is *obvious*. It takes some relevant experience and some good-faith reflection on that experience (guided by good-faith discussion) to see. (For example, anyone who has, in good faith, made, and reflected on making, course syllabi should realize that reasoned selectivity with an eye toward making some impression or other is the order of the day.) It’s not an easy point: otherwise Weber likely wouldn’t have found it crucial to discuss it in his The Methodology of the Social Sciences. But it is rather widely acknowledged by those who’ve thought about these things. (2) Thus, as I tried to make clear, if the extremes in the 1619 discussion couch their arguments in terms of “just teaching what really happened” and present the only alternative as propaganda, then either they’re disingenuous, their enthusiasm has made them lose control of their rhetoric, or they don’t know what they’re doing.

        2. “[H]e and I think that Nietzsche’s articultion of these three ways history can aid life are instructive for their ability to articulate some of the vantage points we think discussants around the 1619 project are getting at.”

          This helps me understand your position better — thank you.

    2. “and using quips from the first 11 pages or so is utterly misleading.”

      I can assure you that the quotations that found its way into my piece are not solely from the first 11 pages. Even if they were, unless it is your positoin that the first 11 pages of 70 or so page essays probably contain nothing of significance, then I’m afraid I don’t understand your point.

      ” In fact Nietzsche is saying something opposite – or rather apposite – to what you or your friend are having him say. Ultimately he reveals himself as an admirer of “monumentalist” history”

      I surely did not say anywhere in the piece anything against a monumentalist reading of history, and yes, I’m perfectly aware that he thinks more monumentalit readings/doings of history was a good thing for the time. The points I was makingn in the piece was nothing like what you say, nor was it even to come down in favor of one type of historical reading of history. The point was more humble, to use how Nietzsche describes both the monumentalist and critical modes of history to shed light on what I think are the differences in opinion about whether the 1619 Project is patriotic or not, and if so, how.

      1. Kevin,
        I referenced the first eleven pages, because that was all there was at the link you provided. A complete version can be found at http://la.utexas.edu/users/hcleaver/330T/350kPEENietzscheAbuseTableAll.pdf.

        The opening of the essay is, and its seeming accessibility is part of what makes this essay so difficult. It sounds like N. intends to do a systematic categorization of the pursuit of history studies. In fact, I suggest, it represents the diagnosis of a problem that N. intends to unravel, growing ever more vituperative as he does so. Is it not evident by the end that N. has no patience for historical scholarship except insofar as it provides raw material for the creative invention of the future by great artists, poets, architects, composers, etc. – individuals who have looked to the past only so as to acquire mastery over tropes with which to invent the future? You ask after the uses of forgetting. But N. has indicated what he means by this in his previous essay Truth and Lying in the Extra-Moral sense – forgetting that the words we use all originated in tropes that came to be shared as cliches until it was forgotten that they were ever tropes. Shared language originating in subjective experience. In historical terms – and this makes N. a dangerous thinker, whatever one makes of him – this means building whatever happened in the past into a myth that, through forgetting, becomes the accepted story. The importance of this is that the truly creative individual can then rediscover the myth in such a way that the future becomes open to re-invention, which is the continual embrace of life, not a wallowing in accepted stories.

        Again, I haven’t read much of the 1619 Project. But I do know that the Nietzsche who thought along such lines would have little sympathy for the celebration of victimization that the academic Left has engaged in for at least 40 years, especially concerning issues of “race” – scare-quoted because it is a trope that has been used in a series of myths. Some of these are close to what has happened, some are parodies of reality. Among the latter is the whining over victimization. We need black creators, we need black thinkers who embrace the overcoming of slavery and racism. And we have them. That’s why I tried to draw attention to the cultural productions surrounding us in the various arts. Education doesn’t just take place in schools. (Indeed, these days, one wonders if one can get an education in the schools!)

        I apologize for writing so stridently, but I really believe you have blind-sided yourself here. “The point was more humble, to use how Nietzsche describes both the monumentalist and critical modes of history to shed light on what I think are the differences in opinion about whether the 1619 Project is patriotic or not, and if so, how.” That’s exactly what I object to. If I am anywhere near right, that these descriptions are intended as diagnostic of a problem, then such use of them borders self-parody. From a Nietzschean perspective, isn’t this whole debate about the “patriotism” of the 1619 Project something of a joke?

        Discussions of ‘race’ issues deserve better than this. Discussions of Nietzsche, and what we can rightfully learn from him, deserve better than this. One can certainly quote Nietzsche epigrammatically – indeed, his writing invites this. But one has to be on a sure footing, and Nietzsche’s sometimes convoluted writing style makes that difficult. Often, when we think we are laughing with him, we find two paragraphs later that we have been laughing at ourselves all along.

        1. This is exactly right. Nietzsche not only would have rejected, but would have had utter contempt for the motives and ethos behind things like the 1619 Project and other contemporary “progressive” causes.

  14. A question on the topic of American history: do US school students read — or at least learn about — Frederick Douglass? His very readable autobiographies seem to me to offer great insights into many aspects of his time.

    Alan

  15. I have a question for anyone familiar with the actual details of the 1619 Project. One of its more controversial claims was the the preservation of slavery was a central motivating factor behind the Revolution. What are the actual arguments it used to assert this? It seems strange because slavery was still legal in the U.K. and it’s abolition there roughly mirrors the time line of it’s abolition in the Northern U..S which abolished it in roughly a generation after the revolution.

    1. It is in the opening article by Hannah-Jones: “Our Declaration of Independence,signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims
      that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights […] But the white
      men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for […] fully one-fifth of the country….one of the
      colonists’ favorite rhetorical devices was to claim that they were the slaves – to Britain…As Samuel Johnson…quipped, ‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?’…one of the primary reasons the
      colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery….The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery…The Constitution contains 84 clauses. Six deal directly with the enslaved and their enslavement, as the historian David Waldstreicher has written, and five more hold implications for slavery…”.

      Waldstrecher’s book is Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification [2009]. The “Great Compromise” in the drafting of US Constitution (“three fifth’s rule etc) is what garners the support of the southern delegates, who according to newspaper articles of the time were unnerved by the British 1772 Somerset v. Stewart case. You can read the pro and con reviews of Waldstrecher via Google Scholar. My opinion, based on what I read, was that one can safely argue that it is a factor, and I don’t think Hannah-Jones over-eggs it, though her essay is strong on rhetoric.

      Hannah-Jones’s is just the intro. Several of the other articles are by historians eg from the New History of Capitalism crowd, who are rehashing economic history eg

      Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton,
      Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams,
      Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told.
      Calvin Schermerhorn. The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815–1860.
      Beckert and Rockman. Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development.

      And, in response to critics,
      https://equitablegrowth.org/working-papers/the-contribution-of-enslaved-workers-to-output-and-growth-in-the-antebellum-united-states/

      From a review of Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development

      Where Marx seemed to place slaving in the primitive accumulation of capital stage—the stage of land grabs, enclosure movements, and precious metal extraction—slavery’s capitalism presents slavery as innovative, adaptable, and modern, even in its brutality. Where modernization theorists tend to see expanding markets and liberalization proceeding hand in hand—progress toward utopia—slavery’s capitalism sees markets and exploitation proceeding
      hand in hand—“progress” as dystopia. Where world-systems theorists see the cotton kingdom as the typically brutal and extractive frontier that makes the civilized metropoles possible, slavery’s capitalism sees the cotton kingdom as
      civilization’s core—the place where its values and interests are most consistently exposed. While it is too early to know, slavery’s capitalism may never generate an explicit theorization, partly because it is nonteleological: in its conception, capitalism does not lead to revolution, or freedom, or progress; capitalism leads to more capitalism.

      Maybe y’all already knew all this.

      1. Thanks.

        I don’t know enough about U.S. history to argue either in favor or against the thesis outlined above, but it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched or implausible to me.

        At this point I don’t quite understand what all the fuss is about the 1619 project if what is said above sums it up.

        Maybe someone can explain what is so controversial about it and why so much out-cry against it.

        1. The underlying moral of the project is that slavery was the basis, the grounding of the American Founding. This is false and slanderous. And a lot of people dislike revisionist histories in which their countries are slandered and villainized. I am one of them. And if the Democrats don’t distance themselves from NHJ style revisionism and are identified with it, they will lose the next Presidential election, even worse than they lost in 2016.

        2. “We hold these truths to be self evident…”

          Those hardly seem the words one would invoke if one was declaring independence for the purpose of enshrining slavery. Some have rationalized this hypocrisy by the cheap trick of saying blacks weren’t “men” in so many words. But, the reality was more likely that greed was at the rotten heart of the endeavor and those that were opposed had no choice but to compromise and acquiesce in order to form a nation from whence many such as Jefferson also succumbed to greed and the convenience of it all.

          That the Founder’s hallowed and earth changing words in the Declaration and Constitution were but solely shams to conceal the real intent of independence (slavery)is the distorted view of history that the 1619 Project would have us believe.

          No matter how you shake it or bake it, the foundational core of history has to be facts. Otherwise, who are we fooling?

  16. If the 1619 Project wants us to forget that, as economist Glenn Loury often points out, black people in the United States are the richest people of African descent ever to live on the earth

    They are also the least corrupt, least crime ridden, least oppressed “people of African descent ever to live on the earth“. Having lived in three African countries I have been witness to this simple truth.

    As an UnAmerican I can only look on with admiration at what the American project has achieved.

    Racism and slavery have been endemic evils of the human species for thousands of years. The American nation inevitably inherited these conditions. They should not be judged by their inheritance. Instead they should be judged by what they did with their inheritance.

    And what they did with this unfortunate inheritance is an occasion for pride and admiration. Ending this inheritance was a long and difficult process fraught with many problems. But they did end it, even if there is a continuing aftermath.

    The American people were unique in the purity of their vision of a democratic and liberal nation. Getting there was difficult, but they have. Sharing that vision with the less fortunate among them was even more difficult because of the deep, continuing effects of their inheritance. But they have got there.

    And so this UnAmerican can only express deep admiration for what has been achieved. And your history should reflect this, not destroy a feeling of well deserved pride. Of course there still are problems and people of good will should continue the work to overcome these problems.

    In the course of overcoming these problems you should draw strength and pride from what you have already achieved.

    I am less sanguine about your conduct of your foreign policy but that is another debate for another time.

    1. I am also disturbed by what looks like the rapid descent of Americans into amoral, hedonist, solipsist narcissism. This is potentially a game changer that could fracture the American project. I hope not, because the shock of that fracture would reverberate through all our worlds. As you can see, this UnAmerican admires your past but has reservations about your future. Again, another debate for another time.

      1. Can’t help you there, Pete – Love me some hedonism! If we can teach the world how to get drunk and fuck, all the better!

        But the true solipsistic narcissists are the fascists of the Trumpist party – and they are willing to slam down on non-Christians if that satisfies their Evangelical cultists.

        So do we want a nation of choice or an authoritarian control over our will? I’d rather have the hedonists – let them choose. The alternative is the jack-boot. My father was wounded at the Bulge fighting that. I’m still fighting it. Any reasonable person should.

        1. I’m still fighting it. Any reasonable person should.

          When one half of America defines the other half of America as being the enemy you are in serious, indeed, terminal trouble.

          Essentially this is the problem of the history project, you are defining fellow Americans as the enemy. From a distance I can only look on sadly, gobsmacked by the sight of a once proud dog trying to eat its own entrails while at the same time trying to pleasure itself.

          1. The divisions in the U.S. are not a problem of definitions.

            There was a horribly bloody civil war fought over the question of slavery. Trump tried to steal the last election by dishonest claims of fraud. His supporters stormed the capitol building with the aim of lynching Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats.

            Those divisions correspond to very real differences in values and political principles and are not going to disappear because someone changes their defintions.

          2. I’m replying to Peter Smith who spoke about how one half of America defines the other.

            You really seem to always assume that I comment with the worst possible motives. Maybe I should take a vacation from this blog.

          3. Not at all. WordPress’s layout makes it hard to tell to whom you are replying, in a thread. Didn’t realize it was directed towards someone else.

            Also, what you claim I assume is just false. You could ask, rather than mind-read.

          4. The other day you accused me of arguing for the sake of arguing and I had to explain that I wasn’t arguing for the sake of arguing and detail the motives behind my arguments.

          5. Yes, I said that, after how many rounds around the argument? It’s hardly like it’s the first thing I said to you. And I explained why I said it. And when you explained further, I said “I don’t know what we’re arguing about, then. I’ll drop it.”

            Seems like a perfectly normal exchange to me.

          6. Maybe I should take a vacation from this blog.

            Nah, don’t do that, we would miss you!

  17. “Ms. Hannah-Jones had asserted:
    ‘Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade … [S]ome might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.’

    This claim—that the American Revolution was not a revolution at all, but a counterrevolution waged to defend slavery—is freighted with enormous implications for American and world history. The denunciation of the American Revolution legitimizes the rejection of all historical narratives that attribute any progressive content to the overthrow of British rule over the colonies and, therefore, to the wave of democratic revolutions that it inspired throughout the world. If the establishment of the United States was a counterrevolution, the founding document of this event—the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed the equality of man—merits only contempt as an exemplar of the basest hypocrisy.

    How, then, can one explain the explosive global impact of the American Revolution upon the thought and politics of its immediate contemporaries and of the generations that followed?”
    – David North, Introduction to The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the Racialist Falsification of History, from the World Socialist Web Site https://www.wsws.org/en/topics/event/1619

    After review of remarks by sympathizers, conservatives, journalists and academics attempting to remain neutral, I found the discussion at the avowedly Trotskiyite WSWS the most compelling, exactly because of their “Old Left” positioning as champion of the rights of workers, regardless of ethnic heritage.

    “And while the pandemic rages, the structures of American democracy are breaking down beneath the weight of the social contradictions produced by a staggering level of wealth concentration in a small fraction of the population. The 2020 presidential campaign was conducted amidst fascistic conspiracies, orchestrated from within the White House, to establish a dictatorship. The old adage, “It Can’t Happen Here,” coined in the 1930s during the ascent of fascism in Europe, has been refuted by events. “It is happening here” is a correct description of the American reality.

    In the midst of this unprecedented social and political catastrophe, requiring a united response by all sections of the working class, the New York Times has devoted its energies to promoting a false narrative that portrays American history as a perpetual war between the races. In this grotesque distortion there is no place for the working class or for the class struggle, which has been the dominant factor in American social history for the past 150 years, and in which African-American workers have fought heroically alongside their white brothers and sisters. The extreme social crisis triggered by the pandemic, and the desperate conditions that confront tens of millions of working people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, constitute an unanswerable indictment of the reactionary premises of the 1619 Project.:” (North, Ibid.)

    Whatever my disagreements with Marxists, even Trotskyites – and there are many – I find this an insightful critique of the misguided direction of much “identitarianism” of the academic Far- Left. We need to bring people together, not tear them apart – before the divisive forces on the right make any politics on the left mere complaint under authoritarianism.

    1. History is complicated.

      There’s no reason why a revolution or a war for independence can’t be fought for democratic ideals on a certain level and for slavery too. We admire ancient Athens, even though they had slaves.

      I don’t believe that the possible fact that one important motive behind the U.S. movement for independence was to protect their investment in slavery negates the positive elements in that movement just as the guillotine, for example, does not negate the positive elements in the French Revolution.

      I realize that many people see history as if it were a 1950’s Hollywood movie, with good guys and bad guys, but while at times in history there are outright bad guys, for example, Hitler and outright good guys, let’s take Martin Luther King, in most historical situations there is an ambivalent mixture of good motives and bad ones, good actions and bad actions.

      1. False dilemma. Either we accept NHJ’s ludicrous claims about the American founding or we live in a 1950’s Hollywood movie.

        And of course history is complicated. That’s the whole bloody point.

        1. The thing that puzzles me about all of this is that the events leading up to the American revolution have been intensively studied for a very long time. Scholars have picked over the detailed evidence for tens of decades. Surely a settled consensus was arrived at a long time ago?

          I can understand that some scholars wish to distinguish themselves by adopting a contrarian stance that defies established scholarly consensus. And I can understand that emotional, ideological motives can give added impetus.

          But at the end of the day, contrarian, attention getting, ideologically motivated scholarship should not trump well established and careful scholarship that evolved over many decades.

          I simply find it hard to believe that the great majority of scholars should get things so completely wrong when there is abundant and clear cut evidence.

          1. Of course they have been known for a long time. Credible historians know very well that slavery was not the foundation or ground for the American Revolution. That’s why I described 1619 as “shit history.”

            As I said earlier, America’s sins have been part of the standard curriculum in public schools for a very long time now. The revisionist efforts we are seeing now are 100% political and have nothing to do with teaching better history.

          2. I suppose that in a well studied field crowded with first class scholars it is difficult for the mediocre to stand out from the crowd. I imagine these sorts of claims are good for op-ed articles and book sale promotions. That is all ersatz scholars can hope for.

            They earn some kind of ephemeral fame. But that is fatal because it attracts the attention of serious scholars who soon rebut them.

          3. The study of history, as a conversation, will always involve the biased perspectives of those engaged in it. For instance, this remark by David North, the avowed Trotskyite I quoted: “:the class struggle, which has been the dominant factor in American social history for the past 150 years” – this is clearly biased in favor of North’s ideological commitments. But at this point, noting that does not negate it. Because what we expect of those studying history is that 1) they respect the basic documents from the past with which they have to work, and 2) they respect the reasonable implications of those documents within their historical context. That means, for instance, we cannot deny that the original US Constitution initially legitimated slavery, but nor can we deny that the Emancipation Proclamation was a radical rejection of that legitimization which completely altered what would become the history of the United States. So when I read further into David North’s text, I can allow his ideological biases, which I can accept or deny given my own biases, and which I can discuss and debate according to his and my own interpretative skills – as long as he respects the documents and their implications within their given contexts.

            i think it is becoming more clear, as this discussion develops, that (as with similar right-wing efforts to ‘Christianize’ America’s founding) the 1619 Project has real problems in terms of the respect the authors show to the original documents and their in-context implications. The legitimization of slavery in the Constitution is clearly temporal and temporary, tactical rather than strategic – a mistake, but not definitive or absolute (Madison and Hamilton could simply have declared that citizenship only accrued to white people; I think South Africa actually did, or at least to some extent, in some legally structural ways.) And the Emancipation Proclamation cannot only be an act of military strategy – or in the context it would only be really bad ‘military strategy,’ since it drove a stake into the Southern back-up plan, to return to the norms of 1860, thus necessitating a ‘battle to the death’ resolve on their part.

            So, yes, there can be strenuous disagreement between those who study history,as to how to interpret the documents with which they work. But there are limitations, without which the conversation of that study simply falls apart and goes before the public as political activism rather than as attempt to establish shared narratives.

      2. I find it rather difficult to believe that in the absence of chattel slavery on the American continent, there but for that one element, the lofty ideas of equality, democracy and fair representation wouldn’t have motivated that which transpired. These ideas were not concocted in boardrooms as contingencies to the bottom line but permeated the land and parlors of the lay and intellectual alike.

        Does anyone think that Thomas Payne was hornswoggled into believing this opportunity to start the world anew was based on the base desire to perpetuate human bondage?

        1. I haven’t read the 1619 articles, but if they claim that there was some kind of conspiracy and that all of the principle participants in U.S. independence participated in it, then it’s nonsense.

          As you say, Paine was a sincere radical Democrat. Franklin was too and I’m sure there were others. I’m a bit rusty on U.S. history.

          However, you might question the motives of the slave owners such as Washington, Madison and others from the south who may have seen an opportunity to insure a better future for their business concerns.

          So from what I know so far, I’d say that if the 1619 crowd claim that the only motive of all the main actors in U.S. independence was to protect the institution of slavery, then it’s delusional and not worthy of appearing in the New York Times, which was once supposed to be a great newspaper. On the other hand, if they claim that some of the main actors were concerned about protecting their investments in plantations worked by slaves, then it’s worth further investigation.

        2. How much of the impetus for the revolution came from the South and how much from the North? The traditional narrative that comes down to us is that it was largely centered in the North. Only 4 of the original 13 colonies were later CSA states. That’s why Hannah-Jones thesis seems odd to me. If the desire to preserve slavery was a major factor in the revolution than most of the states and players involved didn’t do that tremendous of a job in preserving it.

  18. > capitalism leads to more capitalism.

    Modulo non-sustainable ecological crises, this unfortunately seems to be true. To paraphrase the (Marxist) economic journalist Doug Henwood, ‘Marxists have been predicting the collapse of the rate of profit for so long, that it already should be negative.’ And as (the intellectual provocateur) Slavoj Zizek famously said, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’

  19. If the above represents Hannah-Jones actual argument I would say her argument lacks nuance where it is most pertinent. Again I believe if one compares the timeline of the abolitionist movements in Britain and the Northern U..S they are very similar. NHJ seems to be conflating attitudes and laws in the North and the South when obviously a direct comparison is ridiculous. The economic argument is on much surer ground as concessions had to constantly be made to the wealthy slave owners of the South, but Hannah-Jones seems to be purposely avoiding the idea that slavery was at all contentious in America in the late-18th century.

  20. > Not at all. WordPress’s layout makes it hard to tell to whom you are replying, in a thread.

    There’s a wordpress commenting system that automatically numbers each comment, so any given comment can address itself to any other comment by mentioning its number.

    Look at https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/

  21. I think a good read, in this regard, is Douglas Murray’s book The Strange Death of Europe
    https://www.amazon.com/Strange-Death-Europe-Douglas-Murray/dp/1543625487 . Douglas Murray is associate editor of The Spectator.

    He says

    Europe [has] lost faith in its beliefs, traditions and legitimacy. Countless factors have contributed to this development, but one is the way in which Western Europeans have lost what the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno famously called the ‘tragic sense of life’.

    Yet all the time we skate over, and sometimes fall into, terrible doubts of our own creation. More than any other continent or culture in the world today, Europe is now deeply weighed down with guilt for its past. Alongside this outgoing version of self-distrust runs a more introverted version of the same guilt.

    Cultivated self distrust and hatred

    Had it been possible to discuss these matters some solution might have been reached. Yet even in 2015, at the height of the migration crisis, it was speech and thought that was constricted. At the peak of the crisis in September 2015 Chancellor Merkel of Germany asked the Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, what could be done to stop European citizens writing criticisms of her migration policy on Facebook. ‘Are you working on this?’ she asked him. He assured her that he was.2

    This sounds so familiar, “lost faith in its beliefs, traditions and legitimacy“, “now deeply weighed down with guilt for its past“, “Cultivated self distrust and hatred“. Note also the same tactic of silencing of critics.

    Does any of this matter? The answer depends on your view of the function of a nation and what makes its function possible. At the very minimum there needs to be a sense of solidarity powerful enough to overcome the innate instincts of people to attend only to their own needs.

    From Wikipedia “Solidarity is an awareness of shared interests, objectives, standards, and sympathies creating a psychological sense of unity of groups or classes.[1][2] It refers to the ties in a society that bind people together as one.

    When solidarity is dissolved the nation goes into free fall. Right now we have a truly dramatic example of this with the crisis in Lebanon, see this BBC report, “Lebanon’s Descent into Darkness
    https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-middle-east-57988693

    In Lebanon, medicine, electricity and fuel are scarce.
    The country is in the grips of one of the world’s worst economic crises in more than a century.
    Its currency has collapsed and it is estimated that more than half its people can no longer afford enough food.

    I am not suggesting this will happen in the US. Its institutions are too strong. But they can be greatly weakened. With the decline in solidarity will come increasing polarization that will paralyze political will. This is a self perpetuating phenomenon that starts to feed on itself. When that happens there is a danger the country will enter a death spiral as has just happened in Lebanon. But now my crystal ball gets murky on the subject. I think I will return it to Harry Potter for a refund.

    1. On January 6, a deranged president urged his followers on to an attempted overthrow of a legitimate election, which would have effectively reduced the Constitution to mere cant for the use of propaganda purposes. The Republican Party, at least at the level of its leadership and national government officials, is bent on continuing that effort and bringing that president back to the White House, possibly for life. Fox News, Newsmax, and other right-wing media already control the minds of Trump’s followers and a large part of the base of the Republican Party, using classical propaganda and ‘brain-washing’ methodologies – through constant re-iteration of lies, false narratives, outright denials of self-evident reality (unless one accepts the illusion that January 6 was simply a group of tourists visiting the Capitol Bldg.) Trump spent four years weakening the institutions said to be “too strong;” right now, Europe’s political and social institutions are probably much stronger.

      “Granted, Democrats do not want to get sucked into the debate about race, but if they neglect to respond to Republican demagoguery and descent into anti-American authoritarianism, they will lose and, worse, fail to defend the ideal of multiracial democracy. They must reset the culture wars on their own terms.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/08/how-democrats-win-culture-war/

      I think most people writing in comment here agree that the wretched story of slavery, and the troubled history of race relations in the US ought to be brought before the public with greater force and more widely discussed. The question is how to do this in a manner that invites the public to rethink biases and recognize that the fear and hatred insisted upon by the right – hour after hour across their media outlets – is what is truly divisive and dangerously so.

      1. EJ,
        First, understand that, as an outsider, I don’t have a dog in this fight of conservatives vs liberals, except in one respect, I am thrilled that a Catholic(Biden) is the President. Although sadly I must conclude this is a case of too little, too late.

        From my perspective American conservatives and liberals are equally dreadful. The last American president that I admired was Bill Clinton, despite his more than questionable sexual morality.

        The tone of your comment illustrates my point of view quite nicely. You demonize the conservatives in extreme language while I know that they demonize you in the same way. But who are the demons? I suggest that they reside in each of you. You have allowed your inner demons to beat the better angels of your nature into submission.

        You say
        The question is how to do this in a manner that invites the public to rethink biases
        but how is that possible given the nature of your own language? Heated language serves only to confirm pre-existing biases, not to change them. Is that what you want?

        From my remote perch on the southern tip of Africa I see the rather bizarre process of two competing Overton Windows tearing apart the soul of America. This is so depressing. I think I had better learn to speak Chinese. There is a lot to admire about Confucianism.

        1. On January 6, Donald Trump urged his followers to engage an insurrection against the democratic processes guaranteed in the Constitution, and they obliged. Violence, damage to public property, injury and death followed.. That is not a demonization, that is a statement of fact. No “whataboutism” or “both sides have a point” or Overton Window nonsense changes that reality. Until that reality is properly confronted, admitted and accounted for, the United States will be in danger of slipping off a cliff into a dark authoritarian domain that was once thought unimaginable here. Some of us are trying to stop that from happening.

          1. EJ, you can carry on gnawing at your bone but it is past, over. It is history and the culprits are being punished, as well they should. Let the rule of law triumph. Time to move on and address underlying issues.

            You pointed to the real issue when you said
            The question is how to do this in a manner that invites the public to rethink biases

            I replied with a question of my own:
            how is that possible given the nature of your own language? Heated language serves only to confirm pre-existing biases, not to change them“.

            You want the public to rethink its biases. I agree, but please note the word you use – “rethink“.

            Do you see the irony? You are saying we should appeal to thought(I agree) but instead you practice heated rhetoric. Now seriously, do you really think your brand of heated rhetoric is useful? Do you honestly think this is the way to change people’s pre-existing biases?

        2. Peter Smith:
          A curious experience watching a Netflix documentary called ‘Sherpa’ about the landslide that killed 15 sherpas as they crossed an icefall on Everest to set up a forward camp. The organisers wanted the show to go on but the sherpas were refusing to pass over the area where their co-workers had been crushed. One of the paying members (American) of the group (100,000 U.S. fee) suggested that the organiser should talk to the ‘owner’ of the sherpas to get them moving again. This was 2014 before the present sensitivity ( I speak ironically) developed.

          Why has the BBC scarcely covered the recent mayhem in South Africa? Is it that they are afraid of being called racist if they tell the truth: S.A. is on the way to being a failed state. We can’t criticize the A.N.C. ; that was Mandela’s outfit and he was a saint.

          Certain people feel the occult forces emanating from Florida. They require a exorcist. Let the pea soup flow! Biden is in and out of dementia and may not make the full term. If there is any systemic racism in America it’s affirmative action. Douglas Murray is one of the chattering classes with a limited acquaintance with the working classes. There is much more resistance to covidology than is reported.

          Nietzsche had his eye on philosophers and their rationalisations:

          As little as the act of birth comes in­to con­sid­er­a­tion in the whole pro­cess and pro­ced­ure of hered­ity, just as little is “be­ing-con­scious” op­posed to the in­stinct­ive in any
          de­cis­ive sense; the great­er part of the con­scious think­ing of a philo­soph­er is secretly
          in­flu­enced by his in­stincts, and forced in­to def­in­ite chan­nels. And be­hind all lo­gic and its seem­ing sov­er­eignty of move­ment, there are valu­ations, or to speak more plainly,
          physiolo­gic­al de­mands, for the main­ten­ance of a def­in­ite mode of life.

          And what is this mode of life, being cosy perhaps? Have many academics come out against the present panic fear? Professor James Hankins has:
          https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2021/08/ten-things-i-learned-from-the-pandemic

          1. Conspiracy theories do not replace reasonable discussions about shared concerns. Wild assertions without evidence may be satisfying to the believer, but are also unhealthy. Influence by instincts (hardly limited to philosophers) has forced a definite channel, but it seems to lead some into a swamp of ill will and bad faith.

          2. Hi OMB,
            A curious experience watching a Netflix documentary called ‘Sherpa’
            That looks interesting, I should watch it. I sympathize with the Sherpas. Their deeply held values should be respected.

            Why has the BBC scarcely covered the recent mayhem in South Africa?
            I thought that they did cover it quite fairly, even if briefly. The BBC has to cover a lot of bases and I suppose that SA is just not that important.

            S.A. is on the way to being a failed state.
            In my dark moments I fear that this will happen, just as it did in the rest of Africa. But I am more optimistic for what I think are good reasons. I won’t elaborate here because that would take us far off topic.

            We can’t criticize the A.N.C. ; that was Mandela’s outfit and he was a saint.
            Don’t worry about that, we subject them to vigorous criticism internally. He was a saint with a tarnished halo. I remember him addressing the workforce at my company and being astonished at the mean vindictiveness of his speech. But OK, politicians tailor their words according to their audience so I can cut him some slack. He did after all achieve something of a miracle, and that is a necessary qualification for a saint.

        3. Peter,
          you are just misguided about the current American political reality. Trumpism is not past. The only underlying issue is whether we’ll end up with a democratic republic that struggles through, whatever its faults, or a Trumpist authoritarianism. Your refusal to confront this, to label evidence based argumentation concerning the dangers we face as “heated rhetoric,” only indicates how little you grasp of the events of January 6, its history, its continued unraveling.

          And I would certainly be happy to “let the rule of law triumph,” but the Republicans have largely refused to do so, which apparently you haven’t been paying attention to.

          It is a mistake – on your part, on Kevin’s part, on the part of Republicans and leftists, to assume that we can go back to the way things were before Trump began his efforts to cripple our democratic institutions.

          I recognize that we live in a media-defined ‘reality’ much of the time, so I have one last suggestion:

          https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCpYCxV51bykhMY-wSUozQRg – these former Republican operatives have a sense of what is really going on here. They may be the few who do.

          “You are saying we should appeal to thought(I agree) but instead you practice heated rhetoric.” This is simply not true, and at this point, I’m bowing out.

          1. Hi EJ,
            at this point, I’m bowing out.
            Yes, we have rather abused Dan’s hospitality 🙂
            Thanks for an interesting conversation. Good night.

  22. As I said yesterday, I’m a bit rusty on U.S. history.

    So I decided to check out the attitudes of some of the major actors in the U.S. struggle for independence.

    I started with Washington, a southern slave owner. I expected to find a proto-KKK member.

    I skimmed the Wikipedia article about Washington and I found another Wikipedia article on Washington and slavery.
    That article informed me that Washington had doubts about the morality of slavery and in his will freed all his slaves upon his death or that of his wife, whichever occurred first.

    Now if a southern slave owner such as Washington, one of the leaders of the independence movement, freed all his slaves in his will, it just doesn’t make sense that he (and other like him, many of which saw him as a role model) would rise in arms against England to protect slavery.

    So I wonder, doesn’t the New York Times have a fact checker, who, like me, can take 10 minutes to skim a Wikipedia article on Washington to see if his main motive was to protect slavery before the NYT publishes the 1619 project? I imagine that the New York Times has scores of fact checkers, all of them having graduated from Harvard, Yale and Stanford, with record high grades. So something fishy is going on here.

    1. I think you have identified the problem. The NYT has scores of fact checkers who graduated from Harvard, Yale, and Stanford with record high grades. There is a sense that in journalism today fact-checking doesn’t mean making sure everything is true, it means making sure everything is “true”.

    2. Let me correct a mistake I made above. Washington’s will free the slaves upon his death or that of his wife, not “whichever occurred first” as I wrote, but whichever occurred last.

      His wife freed them immediately after Washington died because she didn’t want a bunch of people around her who were waiting for her to die in order to obtain their freedom. Once again that shows that at least Washington’s wife didn’t buy into the narrative about how happy the slaves were to be enslaved.

  23. The future is not what it used to be – Robert Graves, from A Private Correspondence on Reality.

    We all stand, at every moment of our lives, poised on the precipice of the future, wondering what awaits us in the abyss. We have no choice but to continuously step into the abyss, boldly or hesitantly, to the left or to the right, but step we must. We look backward for clues to what is to come. We look for comfort, for guidance and warnings of danger.

    There is one principle that guides all of us into the future, that is the principle of cause and effect. It is the basis of science, life and existence. We first encounter it as infants and from then on every experience confirms the validity of this principle. Science confirms it with uncanny exactitude while life veils this with uncertainty and ambiguity. Even so, cause and effect, or the principle of sufficient reason(PSR) always operates. All effects that we observe in the present have causes in the past that yield to the application of reason.

    This is why we do history. We look backward for clues to what is to come, looking for comfort, for guidance and warnings of danger. And when we study history we use the Principle of Sufficient Reason, whether we know it or not, to analyze the messages contained in history.

    From this we derive the hope, the determination and the purpose that will sustain us in the uncertain journey into the future. These are the fundamental reasons we do history, which underlie the superficial explanations of Nietzsche. The principle of sufficient reason does not care about monuments, veneration or criticism(Nietzsche’s classifications).

    These three approaches are the products of the analyst’s favoured viewpoint and therefore necessarily contain the biases of the analyst. They are an inevitable part of our nature. But we can (1) resist our biases and we can (2) correct for our biases.

    1) We resist our biases by cultivating intellectual virtue and by the thoroughgoing application of the principle of sufficient reason.

    2) We correct for our biases by exposing our reasoning to the critical examination of others and then engaging in the resulting debate(the well known adversary principle in law). And this is why the prevailing mood of silencing is such a toxic, malevolent manifestation. It silences the debate, does not permit adversaries and thus allows biases to go uncorrected.

    1. Coincidentally, I happen to be rereading Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848. published in 1962.

      Hobsbawm, a Marxist and at the time he wrote the book, a member of the British Communist Party, speaks of the
      United States during the period referred to above as a “revolutionary state”.

      How the left has changed since 1962!!!

    2. That article leaves something to be desired:

      “The point for both is that America’s DNA, whatever its content, is unchangeable.”

      This is flatly wrong. NHJ writes:

      “At 43, I am part of the first generation of black Americans in the history of the United States to be born into a society in which black people had full rights of citizenship. Black people suffered under slavery for 250 years; we have been legally “free” for just 50. Yet in that briefest of spans, despite continuing to face rampant discrimination, and despite there never having been a genuine effort to redress the wrongs of slavery and the century of racial apartheid that followed, black Americans have made astounding progress, not only for ourselves but also for all Americans.”

      She has her cynicism, but she’s adamant about the progress in civil rights that have occurred. It’s the reason she chides herself for naively scoffing at her father’s patriotism, and why she finds its legitimacy in the genuine and substantive changes (huh, changes) for the whole nation brought about through black engagement in the American experiment. I mean, even if we go back to the metaphor, since the author is all about milking metaphors, DNA isn’t singular or immutable. NHJ is basically arguing that black people are an important part of the American DNA. Or if we recognize the fact that DNA is nothing if not activated by the environment, that black Americans have engaged it for the better.

      She goes on to do a lot of centrist-baiting [callback] but I’m not sure to what purpose. She says that NHJ agrees with racists (or reformed racists in Derek Black’s case) that America was founded on white supremacy, and doesn’t really address the latter claim. I’m sure she would grant that NHJ agrees with racists that South Africa was founded on white supremacy, but that’s not really relevant to the claim in question. She also says that the 1776 authors mouth supposedly Left-sounding talking points by extolling Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and MLK, people who are universally extolled in mainstream discourse. Is that not just a gimme? They also throw shade on John C. Calhoun, who hemorrhages defenders, in defense of an anti-Leftist talking point on identity politics. Is that just not a gimme in service of a culture war? This sounds less like exploitable contradictions within a position to find a common ground than right-leaning pundits trying to exploit easy talking points for their benefits. This was also the strategy of fascists. There were socialists in the Nationalist Socialists at one point, but it was eventually a brand for, on some level, trying to appeal to former Communists and Social Democrats.

      But that gets to my underlying problem with the piece. She’s still stuck inside the metaphor and won’t admit it. Blue pills have settled for a pleasing reality. Red pills have settled for cynical reality, though they still might get their rocks off on this reality-picture. She argues for a purple pill, but I feel that rocks are still getting off, and that the metaphor is paving over any substantive discussion. I do not care about red or blue or purple. (I must be such a Dolezal.) She says that the NHJ agrees with racists that the American founders were very, very racist and that the 1776 authors give lip service to MLK. But so what? What comes of this blind positioning? Empty talk of “sides” and “colors”.

      She then goes on to quibble with the American Historical Association and its statements on recent events, and calls hypocrisy when the AHA criticizes attempts by lawmakers to legislate history while saying “Knowledge of the past exists to serve the needs of the living,” which I invite everyone to read in context:

      https://www.historians.org/divisive-concepts-statement

      Nowhere do I see in this statement the postmodernism she derides. It seems perfectly in keeping with her concerns and does not make any outlandish statements about knowledge or perspectives or whatever comes with the postmodern dogwhistle. She is reaching, reaching. (Do you object to anything in that statement, Dan?) She herself says:

      “Both the Left and the Right want to oversimplify history to advance contemporary political agendas, such as atoning for the sins of the past or unifying the nation. These are not scholarly agendas, and it damages the public interest for scholars to cooperate with them.”

      If this is supposed to suggest the Right is genuinely devoted to unifying the nation, well, ok. I am skeptical. I would also note for all she attempts to underline the partiality of the Left and the Right in a knee-jerk way, she’s quick to accuse reference to any use as a de facto abuse of history while simultaneously invoking a use of it. “They claim to make use of history for socially beneficial ends!’ OK. “I claim to make use of history for socially beneficial ends!” [See above.] OK. Maybe we’re all concerned about the use of history and some (left, right, or center) are liable to use and abuse. This settles on the emptiness of the central metaphor. She has not found some fulcrum, some more objective, some no-place position. Red pill says people who believe otherwise are deluded. Blue pill says that people who believe otherwise are deluded. Purple pill … believes people who believe otherwise are deluded. And considering how refined her sense of purple is, I’d reckon a great, great deal of us are in The Matrix. Well, I must be Neo. Because I’m sure I’m right.

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