interesting times

The New York Times Has Abandoned Liberalism for Activism

Photo: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

“Our democracy’s ideals were false when they were written.”

I’ve been struggling with that sentence — the opening statement of the introductory essay to the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project on the legacy of slavery in America — for a few weeks now.

It’s a very strange formulation. How can an enduring “ideal” — like, say, freedom or equality — be “false” at one point in history and true in another? You could of course say that the ideals of universal equality and individual liberty in the Declaration of Independence were belied and contradicted in 1776 by the unconscionable fact of widespread slavery, but that’s very different than saying that the ideals themselves were false. (They were, in fact, the most revolutionary leap forward for human freedom in history.) You could say the ideals, though admirable and true, were not realized fully in fact at the time, and that it took centuries and an insanely bloody civil war to bring about their fruition. But that would be conventional wisdom — or simply the central theme of President Barack Obama’s vision of the arc of justice in the unfolding of the United States.

No, in its ambitious and often excellent 1619 Project, the New York Times wants to do more than that. So it insists that the very ideals were false from the get-go — and tells us this before anything else. Even though those ideals eventually led to the emancipation of slaves and the slow, uneven and incomplete attempt to realize racial equality over the succeeding centuries, they were still “false when they were written.” America was not founded in defense of liberty and equality against monarchy, while hypocritically ignoring the massive question of slavery. It was founded in defense of slavery and white supremacy, which was masked by highfalutin’ rhetoric about universal freedom. That’s the subtext of the entire project, and often, also, the actual text.

Hence the replacing of 1776 (or even 1620 when the pilgrims first showed up) with 1619 as the “true” founding. “True” is a strong word. 1776, the authors imply, is a smoke-screen to distract you from the overwhelming reality of white supremacy as America’s “true” identity. “We may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy,” Hannah-Jones writes. That’s a nice little displacement there: “some might argue.” In fact, Nikole Hannah-Jones is arguing it, almost every essay in the project assumes it — and the New York Times is emphatically and institutionally endorsing it.

Hence the insistence that everything about America today is related to that same slavocracy — biased medicine, brutal economics, confounding traffic, destructive financial crises, the 2016 election, and even our expanding waistlines! Am I exaggerating? The NYT editorializes: “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed … it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.” Finally! All previous accounts of American history have essentially been white lies, the NYT tells us, literally and figuratively. All that rhetoric about liberty, progress, prosperity, toleration was a distraction in order to perpetrate those lies, and make white people feel better about themselves.

There’s no question that Americans have deliberately avoided the brutal truths about slavery, and it is undeniably important that the full horror of that hideous regime be better and more widely understood. A special issue dedicated to exposing the racial terror-state in America before and after Reconstruction is extremely worthwhile. I wasn’t brought up here, but I can easily believe that high-school history literally whitewashes the historical reality, and still minimizes the evil. Taking that on is God’s work. Equally, Hannah-Jones’s essay is deeply moving about the faith in America that African-Americans, with little reason, clung to for so long. Vital too is recognizing that African-Americans are the most American of anyone in this country (apart, of course, from Native Americans). Her account of her father’s dedication to his country brought a lump to my throat — as did her own recognition that she was once wrong to condescend to his patriotism.

One wonders, though, if her father saw no promise in the white Americans he served with in the military, or in white Americans’ participation in the struggle for racial equality, and whether his patriotism, like his daughter’s, was only about African-Americans’ struggle against oppression (subsequently copied, according to Hannah-Jones, by every other minority) — and not, say, about Americans of all races defeating Nazism, or of all races ending slavery, or winning civil rights. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his first memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, mocked his own father for this kind of naive patriotism, viewing him at one point as “an acolyte of that peculiar black faith that makes us patriots despite the yoke. So he worshiped JFK, got amped off old war movies.” It was only later that Coates Senior saw the truth that the plight of African-Americans “was not a tumor to be burrowed out but proof that this whole body was a tumor, that America was not a victim of great rot but rot itself.”

It seems to me that the New York Times’ editors and reporters want to say this, but not quite so explicitly. So the issue is riddled with weirdnesses like the opening sentence. 1619 is the “true” founding at one point, and then only “as important as” 1776 at another. The original ideals were false, and then the country was founded on “both an ideal and a lie.” It’s as if liberal editors reined in radical writers but couldn’t do so coherently, and lost the plot at times. Which is a good way of understanding the NYT as a whole right now, and the internal conversation that took place in the office soon after.

In a NYT town hall recently leaked to the press, a reporter asked the executive editor, Dean Baquet, why the Times doesn’t integrate the message of the 1619 Project into every single subject the paper covers: “I’m wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting … I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting. And so, to me, it’s less about the individual instances of racism, and sort of how we’re thinking about racism and white supremacy as the foundation of all of the systems in the country.”

It’s a good point, isn’t it? If you don’t believe in a liberal view of the world, if you hold the doctrines of critical race theory, and believe that “all of the systems in the country” whatever they may be, are defined by a belief in the sub-humanity of black Americans, why isn’t every issue covered that way? Baquet had no answer to this contradiction, except to say that the 1619 Project was a good start: “One reason we all signed off on the 1619 Project and made it so ambitious and expansive was to teach our readers to think a little bit more like that.” In other words, the objective was to get liberal readers to think a little bit more like neo-Marxists.

The New York Times, by its executive editor’s own admission, is increasingly engaged in a project of reporting everything through the prism of white supremacy and critical race theory, in order to “teach” its readers to think in these crudely reductionist and racial terms. That’s why this issue wasn’t called, say, “special issue”, but a “project”. It’s as much activism as journalism. And that’s the reason I’m dwelling on this a few weeks later. I’m constantly told that critical race theory is secluded on college campuses, and has no impact outside of them … and yet the newspaper of record, in a dizzyingly short space of time, is now captive to it. Its magazine covers the legacy of slavery not with a variety of scholars, or a diversity of views, but with critical race theory, espoused almost exclusively by black writers, as its sole interpretative mechanism.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that view deserves to be heard. The idea that the core truth of human society is that it is composed of invisible systems of oppression based on race (sex, gender, etc.), and that liberal democracy is merely a mask to conceal this core truth, and that a liberal society must therefore be dismantled in order to secure racial/social justice is a legitimate worldview. (That view that “systems” determine human history and that the individual is a mere cog in those systems is what makes it neo-Marxist and anti-liberal.) But I sure don’t think it deserves to be incarnated as the only way to understand our collective history, let alone be presented as the authoritative truth, in a newspaper people rely on for some gesture toward objectivity.

This is therefore, in its over-reach, ideology masquerading as neutral scholarship. Take a simple claim: no aspect of our society is unaffected by the legacy of slavery. Sure. Absolutely. Of course. But, when you consider this statement a little more, you realize this is either banal or meaningless. The complexity of history in a country of such size and diversity means that everything we do now has roots in many, many things that came before us. You could say the same thing about the English common law, for example, or the use of the English language: no aspect of American life is untouched by it. You could say that about the Enlightenment. Or the climate. You could say that America’s unique existence as a frontier country bordered by lawlessness is felt even today in every mass shooting. You could cite the death of countless millions of Native Americans — by violence and disease — as something that defines all of us in America today. And in a way it does. But that would be to engage in a liberal inquiry into our past, teasing out the nuances, and the balance of various forces throughout history, weighing each against each other along with the thoughts and actions of remarkable individuals — in the manner of, say, the excellent new history of the U.S., These Truths by Jill Lepore.

But the NYT chose a neo-Marxist rather than liberal path to make a very specific claim: that slavery is not one of many things that describe America’s founding and culture, it is the definitive one. Arguing that the “true founding” was the arrival of African slaves on the continent, period, is a bitter rebuke to the actual founders and Lincoln. America is not a messy, evolving, multicultural, religiously infused, Enlightenment-based, racist, liberating, wealth-generating kaleidoscope of a society. It’s white supremacy, which started in 1619, and that’s the key to understand all of it. America’s only virtue, in this telling, belongs to those who have attempted and still attempt to end this malign manifestation of white supremacy.

I don’t believe most African-Americans believe this, outside the elites. They’re much less doctrinaire than elite white leftists on a whole range of subjects. I don’t buy it either — alongside, I suspect, most immigrants, including most immigrants of color. Who would ever want to immigrate to such a vile and oppressive place? But it is extremely telling that this is not merely aired in the paper of record (as it should be), but that it is aggressively presented as objective reality. That’s propaganda, directed, as we now know, from the very top — and now being marched through the entire educational system to achieve a specific end. To present a truth as the truth is, in fact, a deception. And it is hard to trust a paper engaged in trying to deceive its readers in order for its radical reporters and weak editors to transform the world.

Understanding Drag Queens

Among the stranger aspects of the current intra-conservative ideological war is a phenomenon around which an entire recent debate swirled: Drag Queen Story Hour. In the recent debate — for want of a better word — between Sohrab Ahmari, representing the Trumpy post-liberals, and David French, a Reagan-style fusionist, it was a rare moment of agreement. They both took it as a premise that Drag Queen Story Hour — a relatively new trend in which drag queens read kids stories in local libraries — was a problem they both wish didn’t exist. Ahmari was, let’s say, a little more exercised about this than French but neither ever explained exactly why Drag Queen Story Hours are, in fact, a key symptom of the collapse of Western civilization, or, in Ahmari’s astonishing description, “demonic.”

I assume Ahmari believes that drag queens are some kind of sexual thing, entirely inappropriate for children, and a vehicle for undermining sexual morality or childhood innocence or the sexual binary. Or they’re all predatory pedophiles. Or something like that. Now I’ve never attended a DQSH (and I’ll take a wild guess and suspect Ahmari hasn’t either), but I do know a bit about drag queens. Up here in Provincetown, I live among them. And let me proffer the possibility that both French and Ahmari have no idea what they are talking about.

In essence, drag queens are clowns. They are not transgender (or haven’t been until very, very recently). They are men, mainly gay, who make no attempt to pass as actual women, and don’t necessarily want to be women, but dress up as a caricature of a woman. Sure, some have bawdy names, and in the context of a late night gay bar, they can say some bawdy things. But they’re not really about sex at all. They’re about costume and play; their clothes and hair are exaggerated, over-the-top parodies of women’s appearance; their makeup is often cray-cray, their wigs absurd. They also reinforce, rather than undermine, gender norms in a weird, over-the-top way. And they’re supposed to be funny, surreal, larger-than-life. In Provincetown, where they walk the streets in full outfits in the light of day, they get a simple reaction from passing straights and families and children: first a look of surprise, then a little bewilderment, even embarrassment occasionally, but almost always followed by a giggle or a smile or a laugh. Then they want their picture taken with them. Quelle horreur!

Children love drag queens the way they love clowns or circuses or Halloween or live Disney characters in Disney World. It’s dress-up fun. When my young niece and nephew, both under ten years old, came over to Ptown one year, I took them to see Dina Martina, a legendary comic master of the art. They loved it, laughed constantly through it, and were genuinely entertained. They were particularly amused when Dina turned around and she had back hair visible above her dress.

The idea that they were being exposed to anything sexual or inappropriate is absurd. When I was a kid in Britain, there was a tradition every Christmas, and there still is, of going to a pantomime, a campy theater production loosely based on a fairy-tale, where a central figure will be a man dressed up fantastically as a woman — the Wicked Witch or the Evil Godmother or other misogynist grotesqueries. It’s not a strip show, for Pete’s sake. It’s a laugh, designed for the entire family. And yes, Dave Chappelle, the sanest man in America at the moment, is right. Men dressed obviously as women are first and foremost funny.

So how on Earth is this a sign of the cultural apocalypse? These clowns read children’s stories to kids and their parents, and encourage young children to read books. This is the work of the devil? Please.

What is there in the Gospels, in any case, that even suggests that this could be evil? How can reading to kids in a silly costume offend God? Yes, the church does say that men and women should become one flesh etc. and it affirms the complementarity rather than interchangeability between men and women. Fine. But what has that to do with dressing up as the opposite sex to perform comedy? Show me where in the Magisterium it says that drag queens reading to kids is “demonic”, Sohrab. Seriously, show me.

And get a grip.

Brexit Blindness

One of the frustrating aspects of reading the U.S. media’s coverage of Brexit is that you’d never get any idea why it happened in the first place. Brexit is treated, automatically, as some kind of pathology, a populist act of wanton self-harm, an absurd idea, etc etc. And from the perspective of an upstanding member of the left-liberal media establishment, that’s all true. If your idea of Britain is formed by jetting in and out of London, a multicultural, global metropolis that is as lively and European as any city on the Continent, you’d think that E.U. membership is a no-brainer. Now that the full hellish economic consequences of exit are in full view, what could possibly be the impulse to stick with it?

I get this. I would have voted Remain. I find London to be far more fun now than it was when I left the place. But allow me to suggest a parallel version of Britain’s situation — but with the U.S. The U.S. negotiated with Canada and Mexico to create a free trade zone called NAFTA, just as the U.K. negotiated entry to what was then a free trade zone called the “European Economic Community” in 1973. Now imagine further that NAFTA required complete freedom of movement for people across all three countries. Any Mexican or Canadian citizen would have the automatic right to live and work in the U.S., including access to public assistance, and every American could live and work in Mexico and Canada on the same grounds. This three-country grouping then establishes its own Supreme Court, which has a veto over the U.S. Supreme Court. And then there’s a new currency to replace the dollar, governed by a new central bank, located in Ottawa.

How many Americans would support this? How many votes would a candidate for president get if he or she proposed it? The questions answer themselves. It would be unimaginable for the U.S. to allow itself to be governed by an entity more authoritative than its own government. It would signify the end of the American experiment, because it would effectively be the end of the American nation-state. But this is precisely the position the U.K. has been in for most of my lifetime. The U.K. has no control over immigration from 27 other countries in Europe, and its less regulated economy has attracted hundreds of thousands of foreigners to work in the country, transforming its culture and stressing its hospitals, schools and transportation system. Its courts ultimately have to answer to the European Court. Most aspects of its economy are governed by rules set in Brussels. It cannot independently negotiate any aspect of its own trade agreements. I think the cost-benefit analysis still favors being a member of the E.U. But it is not crazy to come to the opposite conclusion.

More to the point, the European Economic Community has evolved over the years into something far more ambitious. Through various treaties — Maastricht and Lisbon, for example — what is now called the European Union (note the shift in language) has embarked on a process of ever-greater integration: a common currency, a common foreign policy and now, if Macron has his way, a common central bank. It is requiring the surrender and pooling of more and more national sovereignty from its members. And in this series of surrenders, Britain is unique in its history and identity. In the last century, every other European country has experienced the most severe loss of sovereignty a nation can experience: the occupation of a foreign army on its soil. Britain hasn’t. Its government has retained control of its own island territory now for a thousand years. More salient: this very resistance has come to define the character of the country, idealized by Churchill in the country’s darkest hour. Britain was always going to have more trouble pooling sovereignty than others. And the more ambitious the E.U. became, the more trouble the U.K. had.

As I said, I would have voted Remain. But I understand the legitimate arguments to Leave, and also would have respected the result of a referendum which attracted more votes than any general election in history. In 2016, both sides insisted that this was it: a clear and irrevocable choice. And when Leave won the referendum, it was incumbent to honor that result, as had been the case when a referendum in 1975 backed membership. That’s what democracy is: the peaceful acceptance of political defeat. And that’s why the refusal of the elites to accept their defeat would be a very mixed blessing. Staying in the E.U. — either formally or informally (as in the May compromise) — is a slap in the face to democracy. The right and parts of the rust belt left will see this as a function of an elite conspiracy to defy the will of the people, and they will radicalize still further. It was a mistake to hold the referendum. But it’s a deeper and more dangerous one to ignore its clear result.

And that is Boris Johnson’s core case: the people decided, the parliament revoked Article 50, and so it is vital for democracy that the U.K. exit without any continuing hassle or delay. If parliament is seen as dismissing the result of the referendum, then the parliament will effectively be at war with the people as a whole, and he will rally the people against them. It’s near perfect populism. His job is to get what the people voted for done, despite the elites. And if that is the central message of the coming election campaign he will not only win, but handily.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Times Has Abandoned Liberalism for Activism