A Brief History of the History WarsBreaking News
tags: history, 1619, 1619 Project
Rebecca Onion is a Slate staff writer and the author of Innocent Experiments.
The 1619 Project—the New York Times Magazine’s ambitious special issue arguing for an expanded 400-year history of America centering the story of slavery and its repercussions—has apparently made many leading conservatives very angry. My colleague Ashley Feinberg has assembled a summary of their reactions, from (she paraphrases) “It makes me feel bad about my country” to “Everybody’s already heard about slavery.” It’s a veritable panoply of pique.
The backlash is … interesting … to watch, but it’s worth noting that this is old soup, warmed over. After Jamelle Bouie (who has a great essay in the 1619 Project on racism and anti-democratic thinking) and I published our Slate Academy podcast project on the history of American slavery in 2015, we assembled a taxonomy of the negative reactions we received. I spied some familiar statements in the conservative backlash to the Times’ effort. Ilya Shapiro: “Slavery is a human sin, not a uniquely American one”; Erick Erickson: “The Times … minimizes or undermines the cost white people paid to free slaves”; Newt Gingrich: “Slavery was AND IS terrible (there are slaves today who need liberating).”
Four years ago, Bouie and I struggled to find words to describe these types of responses to the very mention of American slavery. They’re not quite myths? Not quite lies? In the end, the umbrella description I liked best was “misdirection”—the word encapsulates why tweets like these are so annoying and upsetting. Liberals feel obligated to correct these statements with (strong) arguments and (correct) facts, none of which will ultimately persuade these people to rethink their positions. For the sake of our collective cardiovascular health, we would do better to recognize these skirmishes over American history—in which conservatives demand that a positive vision of our nation’s past, studded with successes, inventions, and “great men,” take pride of place in our public culture—as recurrent episodes in a particular decades-old front of the culture wars. That way, we could stop wasting our good faith on old, dead-end conversations.
To see how long the right has been refining this approach, you could look back to January 1995. That month, under political pressure, the Smithsonian canceled a planned exhibit marking the 50thanniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was to be held at the National Air and Space Museum. The proposed exhibit of the Enola Gay—the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber that, piloted by Paul Tibbets, dropped the atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” on Hiroshima in August 1945—drew criticism starting in late 1994, when the Air Force Association, unhappy with the planners’ slant toward thoughtful and away from celebratory, released a draft script (label copy, images, an artifact list) to the media. The curators and historians who were putting together the exhibit fought their critics for a few months, before radically revising the exhibit to be much blander and more patriotic. The curator of the Smithsonian’s aeronautics department at the time said of the conflict between the two groups: “Do you want to do an exhibition intended to make veterans feel good, or do you want an exhibition that will lead our visitors to think about the consequences of the atomic bombing of Japan? I don’t think we can do both.”
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