A Canadian reader sends this extraordinary letter. I had no idea this was going on in Canada:
I have lived in Canada my whole life and have only visited the United States a handful of times, but like most of my countrymen, I am riveted watching the rapid cultural and political decline of your nation. I am by no means an anti-American. I have a deep respect and admiration for the culture and people of the United States and strongly believe that your country has endowed civilization with some of its greatest cultural treasures, from George Gershwin to Scott Fitzgerald to Duke Ellington.
These past few days I have read your posts on the New York Times’ 1619 series and have agreed with the comments that you and Damon Linker have made on the matter. As a Canadian, however, the Times’ exercise in self-flagellation is all too familiar. I suspect many Americans think little of Canada and her affairs, yet I would suggest that the similarities of the two countries yield interesting cultural contrasts. I submit that the institutions of my country have pursued the severance of national bonds with far greater alacrity than have the institutions of yours. There is one divisive activity that (as far as I know) has not yet spread to the US, but that is ubiquitous in Canada. In my opinion it far eclipses 1619 in its destructiveness. It is worth bringing to your attention given your present work on totalitarianism. The practice is called a “territorial acknowledgement” and is a kind of ritual statement read before public events, and whose purpose is to rewrite our country’s history.
Both of our post-Christian nations have adopted some variation of PC-SJW-Wokesterism as their civic religions, although the precise character varies between us. In your country, the omnipresent legacy of slavery has given rise to John McWhorter’s “anti-racism.” In Canada, however, many citizens (especially millennials) have adopted what one might call “Aboriginalism” as their sect. To put it simply, this religion is an extreme romanticisation of the people and societies of pre-contact Canada – that is, pre-1534 – and extreme demonization of everything that has happened since. Per this religion, pre-1534 Canada was a kind of Eden inhabited by peoples who possessed none of the flaws of the rest of humanity. You can find a splendid and exhaustive description of this new civic religion in a piece by Jonathan Kay published in Quillette. (Rather than my term “Aboriginalism,” Kay refers to the phenomenon as the “cult of the noble savage.”)
Sometime around 2015, universities started to preface events with what is now called a “territorial acknowledgement.” In an acknowledgement, the speaker lists the various aboriginal tribes that lived on or near the speaker’s present location, and thanks those tribes for allowing him to use the land. Below is the official statement for Canada’s largest city, Toronto, taken from the city’s website:
We acknowledge the land we are meeting on is the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. We also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit.
If this sounds rather religious, you would be correct. Compare the statement above to the last lines of the Nicene Creed (BCP):
We acknowledge one baptism
for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
“Acknowledgments” present a disgustingly warped historical narrative in which groups of peaceful peoples were violently overrun by murderous Europeans. In the words you used to describe 1619, a territorial acknowledgement “radically and ridiculously oversimplifies history to make the historical narrative fit 21st century political requirements.” Canada’s early history undoubtedly includes violence between Europeans and Aboriginals, but it also includes a complex web of military, political, and trading alliances. As an example of the abstruse history of Aboriginal relations in Canada, to this day some reserves choose to fly the Union Flag rather than the Maple Leaf. For a comprehensive illustration of the flawed history and blatant lies embedded in territorial acknowledgements, I would urge you to read this National Post article by Peter Shawn Taylor, in which he dissects each of the claims made in the statement for Waterloo, Ontario.
These statements are now omnipresent. Children in schools are required to recite them at the beginning of each day, business meetings open with them, they are read before football and hockey games, and concerts and lectures invariably begin with one. Returning to the original discussion of the dissolution of national bonds in our countries, the damage that these statements cause is incalculable. The effect is to present Canada as an illegitimate, criminal state, whose population has no right to live in this hemisphere. Saddled by this original and irremediable sin, non-Aboriginal Canadians can do nothing but confess their wickedness, ask for forgiveness, and pledge to help “decolonize” the country (i.e. raze our institutions). To make matters worse, it is now common practice in Canada to refer to all non-Aboriginals as “settlers.” An intruder in one’s own home! If we are to agree that a nation should seek to create a civic-minded population that loves its country and is devoted to her service and betterment, acknowledgements have the reverse effect: they breed a people who hate their country and are committed to its eradication. Even worse perhaps than these statements in public, many government functions are now prefaced by an acknowledgement. Have we considered fully what it means to have a government whose officials take the ideological position that the state they govern should not exist?
This phenomenon is an excellent example of the “soft totalitarianism” you are writing about. Territorial acknowledgements help to reveal ideological dissenters not through their actions but through their silence. Were one to fail to recite an acknowledgement before speaking, he would out himself as a “racist” or an “apologist for colonialism.” At my workplace, virtually all employees include the text of our region’s statement at the bottom of emails. I choose to omit one, and the omission is conspicuous. Finally, acknowledgements invariably begin with the pronoun “we,” assuming total ideological adherence.
The question remains: why is self-loathing now a standard feature of Anglophone nations? I would be curious to hear your thoughts on this and to see if you know of anything comparable to these acknowledgements in your country.
I had no idea. But now clarity dawns, regarding the 1619 Project and its aims to “reframe” American history. Whether its advocates recognize this or not, the project is about delegitimizing the American nation.
I strongly urge everyone to read at least the opening essay of The 1619 Project, by Nikole Hannah-Jones. It is a beautiful piece of writing. In it, she recounts the horrible cruelties of slavery, and not only of slavery, but of the manifold ways in which black Americans have been treated down through the centuries by the white majority in the United States. The facts are there, and cannot be denied. It is a powerful narrative, and it is inextricable from the story of America. But is it the essential story of America? Is it the most important story about America? That is the claim the Project makes by establishing America’s founding in 1619 (the year the first Africans arrived in North America), not 1776.
Judging by the essays in the New York Times Magazine issue that inaugurated the Project, the Project is going to cast its critical eye across many aspects of contemporary American life, and link them to slavery. Here’s a key graf from an essay about how American capitalism was born on slave plantations:
Today modern technology has facilitated unremitting workplace supervision, particularly in the service sector. Companies have developed software that records workers’ keystrokes and mouse clicks, along with randomly capturing screenshots multiple times a day. Modern-day workers are subjected to a wide variety of surveillance strategies, from drug tests and closed-circuit video monitoring to tracking apps and even devices that sense heat and motion. A 2006 survey found that more than a third of companies with work forces of 1,000 or more had staff members who read through employees’ outbound emails. The technology that accompanies this workplace supervision can make it feel futuristic. But it’s only the technology that’s new. The core impulse behind that technology pervaded plantations, which sought innermost control over the bodies of their enslaved work force.
Huh. You know, I can remember when I was a 13-year-old, and I got fed up with doing my chores, telling my father that I felt like a slave in my own house. He was just like an overseer! I’m joking, but the point is, if you’re determined to see all social relations through a particular ideological construct, you risk losing yourself in associational fallacies (that is, saying that because A shares some qualities with B, that A is therefore B).
In his essay, Jamelle Bouie compares contemporary Republican Party political strategies to slavery. Now, no one can plausibly deny the racial element in GOP electoral strategy. But who can deny the same thing in Democratic strategies? That’s how politics in a pluralistic, multiracial democracy works. Are there morally objectionable aspects to what the GOP has done, and is doing? Probably so. But where does one draw the line between a political party doing what normal political parties do, and morally illegitimate (because racist) actions? Bouie concedes in his final paragraph that the line is not always clear, but it’s all racism anyway:
You could argue that it has nothing to do with race at all, that it’s simply an aggressive effort to secure conservative victories. But the tenor of an argument, the shape and nature of an opposition movement — these things matter. The goals may be color blind, but the methods of action — the attacks on the legitimacy of nonwhite political actors, the casting of rival political majorities as unrepresentative, the drive to nullify democratically elected governing coalitions — are clearly downstream of a style of extreme political combat that came to fruition in the defense of human bondage.
Lesson: deep down, the Republican Party is the party of slavers, and those who identify with the Republican Party, and vote for them, are white supremacists.
A couple other essays: Jeneen Interlandi writes that the reason the US doesn’t have universal health care is … slavery. Seriously. What other conclusion can one draw from this other than that the only reason people opposed universal health care is racism?
Kevin Kruse’s essay blaming traffic congestion in Atlanta on racism (therefore slavery) makes some undeniably true points about how interstate highway design was laid down in some places (like Atlanta, but I know this was also true in Dallas) with the idea of creating a boundary between white and black communities. It was also true, as Kruse notes, that these major highways were planned to run through the poorest communities — which were usually black. But isn’t that how it always is — that the poor get shafted? If a city was all white during the interstate highway system planning, you can be sure that the poorest white people would be the ones whose neighborhoods were bulldozed, precisely because they didn’t have the political and economic resources to fight it. Isn’t this as much about class as race? Kruse writes:
Earlier this year, Gwinnett County voted MARTA down for a third time. Proponents had hoped that changes in the county’s racial composition, which was becoming less white, might make a difference. But the March initiative still failed by an eight-point margin. Officials discovered that some nonwhite suburbanites shared the isolationist instincts of earlier white suburbanites. One white property manager in her late 50s told a reporter that she voted against mass transit because it was used by poorer residents and immigrants, whom she called ‘‘illegals.’’ ‘‘Why should we pay for it?’’ she asked. ‘‘Why subsidize people who can’t manage their money and save up a dime to buy a car?’
So, nonwhite suburbanites oppose public transit too — and the white woman quoted here did so explicitly on class grounds. Does that not complicate the narrative?
Anyway, you see what I mean here. What the Times is openly trying to “reframe America history” (in the words of NYT Magazine editor Jake Silverstein) to make the story of African-Americans the core narrative. Not just a core American history narrative — which it certainly is — but the core American history narrative. I don’t know any other way to interpret the meaning of changing the founding date of America from 1776 — the Declaration of Independence — to 1619, the beginning of slavery.
If you can tar contemporary phenomena you dislike — capitalism, the health care system, the lack of public transportation, the Republican Party — with the legacy of slavery, you can demoralize your political opponents and delegitimize their positions. You can even declare them un-American. It is commonly heard on the left that the only reason people vote for Trump is “white supremacy.” In his town hall address to his newsroom, Times executive editor Dean Baquet recently saidthat the newspaper
this week will publish the 1619 Project, the most ambitious examination of the legacy of slavery ever undertaken in [inaudible] newspaper, to try to understand the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump. And that means trying to understand the segment of America that probably does not read us.
You see? Donald Trump was elected because of white supremacy. This is the story that Blue America is telling Blue America about the rest of the country. That is the purpose of The 1619 Project.
Cultural memory is what a nation tells itself about itself. The Czech emigre novelist Milan Kundera has written, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” This is a universal constant. The struggle of black Americans against white supremacist power was a struggle of memory against forgetting. But the struggle of any people against power is the same contest. What does it mean to be an American? What is America? There will never be a settled narrative because it’s impossible to tell all stories. The narrative will unavoidably change over time. What counts as the “canonical” national narrative is not set in stone, and we shouldn’t expect it to be.
But who we imagine ourselves to be today shapes who we will become tomorrow. If The 1619 Project were merely about expanding our common understanding of the American origins, who could object? It arrives, though, in the midst of an epic culture war over who we are, and who we are going to be. The Left, broadly speaking, has embraced and affirmed identity politics (“I would argue that identity politics is exactly who we are and exactly how we won” — Stacey Abrams). A reader this morning sends in this article defending ethnic studies in the classroom; this excerpt is a good summary of what left-wing identity politics seek to do pedagogically:
Ethnic studies classes combine analyses of systems of power, privilege and inequality with multiple histories, literatures and contemporary issues. They encourage critical thinking and tackle the historical origins and contemporary patterns of racism, often combining analyses of race, class, nation, gender and sexuality. Pedagogically, they are known for challenging conventional ways of teaching that position students as passive receivers of knowledge. Instead, students are treated as knowledge producers and change agents, and classrooms often extend beyond the school gates where students learn from and work with various communities. These applied approaches to teaching and learning bring education to life and better position students to envision and work toward societal transformation.
There are a lot of ideological assumptions baked into this, but the most important one is that these classes are about “societal transformation.” The Times, working with the Pulitzer Center, has a classroom curriculum based on the project already worked out, and ready for downloading. The question you have to ask about the Project is: What are people supposed to do if they become convinced that slavery is the basis upon which America was founded?” Our old friend Karl Marx famously wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
That’s what’s going on with The 1619 Project and the philosophy behind it. As Peter Shawn Taylor writes in his National Post piece criticizing Canada’s ritual recitation of atonement for dispossessing aboriginals:
Repeat something often enough, and people start believing it’s true.
His point is that Canadians are being instructed through this secular liturgical act into an ideology that delegitimizes their nation. Similarly, if a majority in the US accept the ideological claim that the American founding is illegitimate because of slavery, then they will affirm the destruction of the institutions and (secular) creeds that bind us as a nation, and their replacement with something else.
If that’s what Americans want, then they should have it. But I believe most Americans have no idea that this is what’s going on. It is not progress towards truth and justice to replace one ideological reading of history — in which the Founding Fathers were secular saints — with a competing one in which the evils of slavery and white supremacy define everything.
Land acknowledgements are also becoming a way to control legitimate debate and compel speech. In a recent vote, the Ontario Medical Association rejected making a land-acknowledgement statement prior to their meetings as a meaningless form of tokenism. Dr. Nel Wieman, president of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada, instantly denounced this decision as proof that “privilege and racism” run rampant throughout the doctors’ group. Once you had to do something explicitly racist to be declared one. Now anyone who chooses not to fall in line with current political fashion can be smeared with this horrible epithet.
We have already seen critics and skeptics of The 1619 Project smeared as racists, or at least (in the case of some commenters of this blog), it has been suggested that racism is the real reason for resisting the Project’s conclusions. If you spend any time, as I do, reading what the progressive dogmatists say, you know that this is standard operating procedure for them. Any opposition must be isolated and stigmatized as bigoted and a justification for violence. We know this is how it works. It’s a highly effective strategy. I just heard about an small Christian academic conference at which participants defending traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality were charged with having the blood of LGBT people on their hands. See? To resist the progressive point of view is to ally yourself with murdering bigots. If you don’t think that the ideological goal of the Project will require smearing all those who fail to fall in line with it with the horrible epithet “racist,” you are naive.
Let me be as clear as I can about where I stand on the Project. I agree that the realities of slavery have not been taken as seriously as they should have been in our history, and that it is right to educate ourselves and future generations about slavery, and about the historical experience of Americans of African descent. This is not incidental to the American narrative, but a core part of it, and always will be.
However, I reject that slavery is the defining event, or phenomenon, of American history. In the opening of his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln said that “our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln was speaking at the killing field of a great battle in a war to end slavery — a war that ultimately arose over the question of whether or not all men — not just white men — were created equal, and entitled to the benefits of liberty within the new nation. Lincoln gave his own life as a result of that war. And yet, as Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in her essay, Lincoln was not woke. He held prejudices against black people too. I could be wrong about this, but the impression that I get from reading these essays is that the wickedness of racism is so overwhelming that it obviates any of the founding ideals of this nation.
If that’s true, then what holds us together? What reason do we have for supporting the American order, flawed as it is? The Canadian reader whose e-mail I quoted at the beginning wrote of the aboriginal atonement ideology common now in his country’s public life:
The effect is to present Canada as an illegitimate, criminal state, whose population has no right to live in this hemisphere.
It seems clear to me that the effect in the US of the mainstreaming of this radical (= at the root) challenge to American history will be to convince Americans that everything about their way of life, and anything that resists the progressive interpretation of history, is illegitimate, and that non-progressives — especially whites — have no right to do anything but comply with the societal transformation progressives are engineering for us.
I was talking recently with a friend who is on staff at a Christian college where progressive ideology and practice is steadily eroding the traditional beliefs and ideals of the institution. He tells me that there is significant opposition among the faculty to the Great Awokening being implemented by the administration, but nobody dares to speak out, because they don’t want to be called bigots. He writes about this process:
I’ve become convinced that the changes are incremental at first, and no one says anything because they are small changes and it doesn’t really hurt anything. But over time they add up, and the next thing you know the school has drifted so far there is no way to pull it back in and anchor it. Gradually, and then suddenly.
There is no creature more gutless than a middle-class white Christian confronted with the contempt of liberals. He is so desperate to have their approval, or at least to avoid their contempt, that he will sit quietly while his institutions are destroyed, secretly hoping that Somebody Else will defend them. But that’s a story for another day.
Anyway, what that academic said about how wokeness is conquering his own institution, is how it’s going to happen here in America, absent resistance. This is how it is happening. This is at its core a struggle for cultural memory, and who has the power to define it. I do not want my children to receive a potted narrative of their nation that in any way diminishes the evil of slavery, or the historical struggles and contributions of African-Americans. Their mother and I have worked to make sure they understand this. But I also do not want them to receive a potted narrative of their nation that wrongly diminishes the achievements of their nation, and attributes to its founding ideals and its institutions a unique evil that portrays America as a nation conceived in sin, and dedicated to the proposition that white people are supreme over all others.
In conservative intellectual circles, there is now a serious critical reassessment of liberal democracy and its ideals. This is a worthwhile project, one with which I deeply sympathize (and for the record, I don’t believe that conservatives can engage in this task but deny progressives the right to interrogate the foundations of liberal democracy from the Left). My friend Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failedraises the question about whether or not the Founding was fatally flawed because of its Enlightenment understanding of human nature. I think his diagnosis is correct, and that he raises hard questions about the future of our liberal democracy. His critique is, yes, radical, based on a theoretical critique of Enlightenment assumptions.
But even though I sympathize intellectually with many of these right-wing critiques, I also recognize that classical liberalism, for all its flaws, emerged in part to solve problems that the ancien regime could not. We should be very, very careful about abandoning these ideals and their forms. Deneen does not do as many of these progressives do, and portray the Founding as somehow illegitimate because conceived in moral corruption. He does not interrogate history for the sake of arriving at conclusions that drive society towards transformation. And he does not stigmatize those who disagree with his approach as bigots, or advocate a massive journalistic project dedicated to explaining to progressives why the people who vote in problematic ways are motivated by white supremacy. (This, by the way, is why you can’t understand The 1619 Project apart from what Baquet said about it in that town hall meeting.)
Let me close by posting again a passage from the British academic Eric Kaufmann’s review essay of Ryszard Legutko’s book The Demon In Democracy. Though Kaufmann does not share Legutko’s pessimism about liberal democracy, Kaufmann’s agrees with Legutko that wokeness — that is, contemporary left-wing identity politics — is totalitarian:
Having experienced the communist regime first-hand, he is well-placed to spot the symptoms of ideological tyranny today. Anything which stood in the way of the forward march of socialism was labelled by communists as ‘reactionary’, ‘bourgeois’ or ‘idealist’. Like today’s progressives, he says, they believed that familial, ethnic, national and religious traditions were obstacles to the revolution – atavisms to be overcome and ultimately dismantled.
Numerous artists and intellectuals jumped aboard the express, eagerly suppressing their rational faculties. Alongside the party apparatchiks, these ‘lumpen intellectuals’ constituted the shock troops of the socialist movement. Average citizens stepped into line to avoid harassment and intimidation.
Arguments no longer revolved around truth, but were judged by their fidelity to the tenets of the secular religion. You were either with the movement or against it – those who tried to straddle the middle ground were denounced by socialists as ‘bourgeois’. The dishonest ‘slippery slope’ charge was repeatedly laid by communists to indict moderate opponents seeking some form of compromise between competing positions. Those on the opposite side of the debate were deemed ‘dangerous’ rather than incorrect.
History, the socialists believed, was moving inexorably in the direction of ‘progress’, and the role of the vanguard was to vanquish those standing in its way. Sound familiar? Anyone exposed to the power of the cultural Left in today’s liberal institutions, where ‘because it’s 2019’ is a killer argument, will recognise this. In communist Poland, the millenarian vision was the worker’s paradise.
What is the vision that woke progressives want to achieve for America? Will we not fully expiate the sin of slavery until we have universal health care, ubiquitous public transportation, no Republican Party, and … what? How do the identity-politics progressives propose that we live together in this fractious nation, especially given that the religion that once united us is dissolving? If we don’t have a common religion, and the national myth of the American founding is reframed as a malicious lie that aids and abets contemporary bigotry, what then?
Do they not realize that this kind of thing is throwing gasoline on the sparks of white nationalism? Woke progressives say, “America was founded as a white supremacist nation” — and white nationalists agree!
Do these progressives even think about this? Do they worry that by burning down the slavemaster’s house, they might be burning down the structure of America itself — and that this destruction stands to release terrible evils that none of us can contain? Where will we shelter then, having destroyed the Republic’s structures in the hearts and minds of its people?