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History Unplugged Podcast

with Scott Rank

Why the 1619 Project is Dangerous and Should Be Totally Rejected

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The biggest and most controversial historical debate in 2021 is the 1619 Project. Released last year in a special issue of the New York Times Magazine, it is a collection of articles which "aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of [the United States'] national narrative.” More specifically, it claims that the United States is fundamentally and irrevocably racist. Slavery, not the Constitution or 1776, are at the core of American identity. It reviews slavery not as a blemish that the Founders grudgingly tolerated with the understanding that it must soon evaporate, but as the prize that the Constitution went out of its way to secure and protect.

Specific claims include the following: the Revolutionary War was fought above all to preserve slavery, that capitalism was birthed on the plantation, and features of American society like traffic jams or affinity for sugar are connected to slavery and segregation.

The project was condemned by historians from left to right. Princeton historian Allen Guelzo said that “the 1619 Project is not history; it is conspiracy theory. And like all conspiracy theories, the 1619 Project announces with a eureka! that it has acquired the explanation to everything.” Fellow Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has circulated a letter objecting to the project, and the letter acquired signatories like James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes, all leading scholars in their field who object to very basic factual inaccuracies in the project.

Despite the 1619 Project’s numerous historical inaccuracies, the project has spread like wildfire. The creator Nicole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for Commentary. Hundreds of newspapers have endorsed it. Most concerning, public schools began incorporating into their curricula early this year. The Pulitzer Center helped turn the 1619 Project into a curriculum that’s now taught in more than 4,500 schools across the nation. It threatens to destroy civics education as it has been taught for generations in K-12 education. History teachers, under such a program, would abandon the narrative of the Civil War, emancipation, and the Civil Rights movement. Instead, they would ask students how societal structures perpetuate the enslavement of black people.

Today’s guest is Dr. Mary Grabar, author of “Debunking The 1619 Project: Exposing the Plan to Divide America.”

She provides an extensive look at the divisive and false tactics used to associate America with the exact opposite values of its founding.

This episode is different because I am explicitly endorsing the argument of this author and denouncing the 1619 project. I almost never do this because I don’t want to tell you, the listener, how to think. Rather, I let a guest present his or her arguments, make the case as best as possible, play devil’s advocate when needed, but ultimately provide the best historical raw material so that you, the audience, and be the judge.

I’m making an exception with the 1619 project because I think the arguments are so poorly constructed, juvenile, and political in nature that they don’t deserve the dignity of being taken seriously. Normally, I would ignore such poorly crafted arguments, in the same way that I wouldn’t have on a guest who says that aliens built the pyramids, or that a German U-Boat sunk the Titanic. At the risk of being political, I think that the 1619 project is at the same intellectual level as UFO conspiracy theories. The problem is that it has elite support. But the effects of 1619 are seeping into public school curricula. The date of 1619 is entering public consciousness. This is only because of politics, because the political claims of the project line up with the political beliefs of certain teachers, Pulitzer committee members, and others.
November 30, 2021
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Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to scottrankphd.com.
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