by Bruce Thornton
Rewriting history to pave the road to 1984.
Last week the New York Times embarrassed itself twice. First, a transcript was leaked of editor Dean Baquet’s exhortation to reporters that the Russian-collusion fiction having been exploded, they now needed to focus on the endemic “racism” and “white supremacism” of Trump and his supporters in order to defeat the president. Next, as the “theory” behind this partisan journalistic “praxis,” the self-proclaimed “paper of record” announced the “1619 Project,” a series of articles and essays showing “that nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.”
Both incidents definitively reveal that the cultural bacilli that erupted during the Sixties have at last destroyed the minds of some of our most prestigious and powerful institutions. More important, such a degradation of history is one of the preconditions for the plague of tyranny.
The first point to make is that neither the blatant bias of the Times––nor its aim “to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 [the year the first black slaves came to America] as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story”––is new. Like most of progressivism, both are manifestations of the zombie ideology that for nearly a century has been attacking our political and social order.
The political bias of the media, especially the New York Times, was apparent even before the Sixties. The dispatches of the Times’s man in Moscow from 1922-1936, Walter Duranty, were shameless in their studied mendacity about communist terror, and their groveling special-pleading for the Stalinist regime and its engineered famines, gulags, and show-trials. Continuing the tradition, in the late Fifties, as Humberto Fontova points out, the Times featured the reporting of Herbert Matthews, who propagated whoppers of Duranty-level useful idiocy. Fidel Castro–– who, as Fontova notes, “at the time led a KGB-sponsored terrorist group in Cuba known as the July 26th movement”––according to Matthews “has strong ideas of liberty, democracy and social justice. This amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic, and therefore anti-communist.” Later Che Guevara would admit in his diary, “Much more valuable to us than military recruits were recruiting American reporters to export our propaganda.” And Castro said, while pinning a medal on Matthews, “To our American friend Herbert Matthews with gratitude. Without your help, and without the help of the New York Times, the Revolution in Cuba would never have been.”
The Sixties exposed the media’s leftist tendencies even more widely. The major newspapers and the networks clearly were biased in their coverage of Vietnam, especially the 1968 Tet Offensive, a disaster for North Vietnam and the Viet Cong that was peddled as a defeat for the U.S. In 1971 the Times published an edited version of the so-called Pentagon Papers, a classified history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967. Since the history didn’t include the devastating defeat of the Tet Offensive, or General Creighton Abrams’ subsequent successful correction of the tactical blunders documented in the Pentagon Papers, the publication was a political act intended to stoke the left’s animus against the war that they had peddled as a “neocolonial” assault on an indigenous “nationalist revolution” against a “fascist” regime and its U.S. overlord, rather than an effort to contain the communist aggression supported and funded by the USSR and China. This biased reporting helped foster the widespread misleading idea that the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam. No, the military won the war, and it was the politicians who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, egged on by a biased media.
Throw in Watergate, the vicious partisan coverage of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and now Donald Trump, and the “1619 Project” takes its place as just the latest iteration of a mixture of rank partisan bias with distorted history.
And the history showcased in the “1619 Project” is no more novel than is the long history of partisan reporting. Take the Times’s rationale for the project and its “re-examination” of U.S. history in order to put slavery at the “center of the story”:
Out of slavery––and the anti-black racism it required––grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, [and] its income inequality[.]
I know the “re-examination” is nothing new, because I was in college during the Seventies when all these claims about slavery and race that the Times has made with the zeal and moral preening of the convert were already old hat and staples of the curriculum. And it was plain that this “revisionism” was mostly a myth-history serving an ideological program. For revisionists, black Americans were an internal colonized people exploited by whites, and the victims of indelible white racism and institutions aimed at perpetuating “white supremacy.” Therefore, black advancement and full freedom depended on a revolutionary transformation of a corrupt political and social order.
This program contradicted the premises of the Civil Rights movement, which correctly held that black Americans were, as much as whites, the rightful inheritors of American and Western civilization, unjustly denied the full benefits of the Constitution and the Bill of
Rights, and deserving of equal access to our country’s institutions and traditions. They worked through the country’s judicial and legislative institutions to achieve reforms like Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the Great Society legislation a year later. These changes and the transformational improvement in black lives that followed are a rebuke to the revisionists’ politicized narrative based on dubious racialist and leftist ideologies.
More important, the Times project reveals the sort of historical sensibility one usually finds in callow high school students. Facts are cherry-picked to support the narrative; context is ignored to simplify the narrative; the universal reality of humanity’s penchant for violence is disregarded to support the narrative’s utopian pretensions; and presentism, the reduction of all past history to the sensibilities and values of us arrogant moderns, is indulged to give the narrative a spurious moral superiority. That’s why today we are constantly berated about European and American slavery, and hear nothing about the pioneers of African slavery: Muslim Arabs, some of whom still practice slavery today. Or why we don’t hear about the movement to abolish slavery led by British Christians, who prevailed upon the British government to use the British Navy to shut down the trans-Atlantic slave-trade.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for that level of historiographical sophistication from the left. For the Times, to paraphrase the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “Project 2016 is the narrative, sir. When the narrative becomes the fact, print the narrative.”
Finally, and most important, the rewriting of history and the abandonment of historical facts to suit ideological and political aims is one of tyranny’s most important tools. In 1984 George Orwell famously described how politicized history legitimizes tyrannical power: “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death . . . . And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past' ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”
But equally dangerous as saying something didn’t happen, is ignoring or distorting or simplifying what did happen, which is exactly what has corrupted history in our own times. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Times’s distorted history supports its progressive political agenda in order to serve a party that frankly calls for socialism and dismantling the Constitution’s checks on abusive power; and for the expansion of centralized, concentrated power and its reach into our private lives––the first steps on the road to tyranny and the contraction of our political rights and freedom.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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