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Tuesday, January 04, 2022

A thorough critique of the 1619 project

 Exactly a month ago, I did a post critiquing the defense of the 1619 Project that Jake Silverstein of the Times published to commemorate its new book version.  An historian of slavery and the Civil War period named James Oakes has now published this extremely telling critique of the whole project on a fairly obscure, traditional leftist web site called Catalyst.  Oakes brings to bear a lifetime of study of the issues involved and a real command of the literature on the politics and economics of slavery that has been written over the last century.  I recommend to all interested readers that they read the long piece in detail, but I will summarize what he had to say quickly.

1. The centerpiece of the project--the idea that the it presents a new view of slavery that has only emerged since black scholars got their seat at the academic table in the last few decades--is ridiculous, and an insult to earlier generations of white and black scholars who in fact had investigated the same issues very thoroughly.  Some of the project's arguments have already been raised and rejected based upon evidence.

2.  The project is political, not historical or even journalistic, presenting a very slanted view of history designed explicitly and admittedly to bolster a case for reparations for black Americans.

3.   The project's assertions about the importance of slavery to the pre-1861 American economy are badly overblown, and the sources that the authors cite often do not bear them out.

In a similar but much less wide-ranging criticism of the 1619 Project, the historian Sean Wilentz recently detailed how difficult it had turned out to be for him and other skeptical historians to register their concerns in a mainstream historical journal.   This piece was published on a web site in the Czech Republic.  Oakes's piece should be coming out in the New York Times Magazine as a full-scale rejoinder, or in the New York Review of Books or the American Historical Review or the Journal of American History--but it isn't.  The critics, who include some of our most eminent and accomplished historians, are being marginalized, while the book version of the 1619 project has shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.  That is another reason that I am linking this article and asking readers to circulate it further.  We need to make clear that this new imperial regime has no clothes.


PJ Cats said...

Dear Prof. Em. Kaiser,

I found this an interesting read. My focus would be on the last paragraph, in which Oakes states that the original cause of slavery was the 'capitalist revolution' that followed the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660. In his final paragraph Oakes even goes so far as to say that "The problem, all along, was capitalism itself". To me this screams for further explanation. What is this 'capitalism' that Oakes writes of? What is this 'capitalist revolution'? Must we conclude that the British monarchy, lasting from 1660 to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, was solely responsible for all that followed re slavery? I accept all the points relating to the debate of the 1619 project, but this I find really troublesome and murky. Stating that "the problem, all along, was capitalism itself", sits, to me, in the same category as "God is everywhere", as an explanation of things.

Bozon said...


As PJCats' remarks begin to suggest, Oakes is apparently a classic modern Whig historian, criticizing another Whig account, the NYT 1619 Project, a postmodern Whig, account.

This is Whig modern versus Whig postmodern intramuralism, all utter nonsense really.

All the best

David Kaiser said...

Oakes is a lefty, not a whig. Traditional leftists were the biggest critics of the project from the start.

Bozon said...

Thanks for your helpful note.

The way I use the term Whig is in a loose tradition from say Collingwood, Butterfield, J C D Clark, etc.

It has been called, rather unfairly in my view, revisionist, because partly in reaction, primarily but not solely, to the prevailing and blinkered so called Enlightenment radicalism since before the beginning of the 18th Century.

Iit may not be a use of the term whig which is to your taste.
I think I can understand that.

All the best

Energyflow said...

Reality is based on available information. Rumsfeld talked about " unknoown unknowns". The old saw went that in darkest Africa pre colonial times unbaptized and " ignoorant" people uppon death would land in purgatory. North Korea has created a culture of fanatic leader worship. US and other Western MSM giants work in tandem with liberal institutions to mold the minds of society One coukd become cynical but this wasprobably normal throughout history as elites owned production, military and press, religion. Matrix film comes to mind. Buddhism or hinduism speaks of maya or illusion. Maybe democracy or realization are similar and must be constantly reconquered by challenging asumptions of the group consensus which perhaps leads us lemming like over the cliff. Perhaps best advice is to not read much written after you were born to avoid current bias. I know you write for Time magazine, have to sell mainstream books and get interviews. As a badge of honor into your old age perhaps an hinest opinion will get you cancelled and your books destroyed or banned. One can only hope for such an honor in times where critical thought is a sign of eccentricity. I hope this will reverse itself but economic concentration determines freedom of thought and signs are not good in this respect.

Bozon said...


Here is a reference for UK laws more onerous and dangerous than those of T e amherst Common language Guide you have previously discussed.

Hate speech laws in the United Kingdom, Wikipedia.