low angle view of stars and stripes on american flag against blue sky

True patriotism, especially of the American variety, comes from questioning the history you were born into. We should all keep this in mind as we question some of the fundamentals of the American story — and we should ask ourselves not whether these reconsiderations are justified, but why there aren’t more of them.

Revisionist history serves many useful purposes, and for the most part it should be encouraged — even though many particular revisionist claims turn out to be wrong. The natural human state of affairs is a kind of complacency and acceptance of the status quo. If historians sometimes write a bit too sharply or speculatively to capture the audience’s attention, it is a price worth paying. At any rate, the audience tends not to take them literally or to pay close attention to their more detailed claims.

I was recently at a dinner party with a number of highly educated, well-known Washington, D.C., pundits. Not even many of them had read through the entire New York Times 1619 Project — so how much attention might the broader American public be paying? At the same time, many people know that the role of slavery in American history is being re-examined, and that this has become an issue in our culture wars, and some states are introducing or passing legislation to regulate how history should be taught in schools.

Whatever your views on the underlying issues, the overall impact of the 1619 Project is much more important than its errors, such as overstating the extent to which slavery financed American capitalism.

As a teenager, I read Charles Beard’s “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.” Beard argued that the real motives for approving the Constitution often were selfish, as many backers wanted to make sure their government debt holdings were paid off. As it turns out, the hypothesis does not entirely hold up, and the importance of this once-influential book has faded.

As a young reader, I knew to approach books skeptically. Beard nonetheless encouraged me to try to understand institutions more deeply, to look for hidden and possibly selfish motives behind political actions. For me his book demystified many of the Founders, even if not always for the right reasons. In short, the book was great for me, and I didn’t stop loving the United States or its Constitution.

I also read a broad swath of largely left-wing revisionist books criticizing U.S. foreign policy, ranging from William Appleman Williams to Gabriel Kolko to David Horowitz. A lot in those books turned out to be wrong, and some of the more simplistic interpretations were never plausible to begin with. Still, what an entire generation took away from those books was not some particular view about the Open Door Policy or the motives behind the Yalta agreement. It is that American foreign policy, and in particular American wars, should be questioned rigorously and skeptically.

The problem is that the revisionism isn’t diverse enough. A few issues — most of all those raised by Critical Race Theory — get caught up in the culture wars and are debated above all others. I agree that we should devote more time and attention to America’s disgraceful history of slavery and race relations, and I have incorporated that into my own teaching.

Still, other matters are being neglected. The longer trajectory of U.S. foreign policy is hardly debated, or what that history should mean for current decisions. There is plenty of carping about “the deep state,” but actual history has fallen down a memory hole, including the history of U.S. intelligence agencies.

It gets worse yet. According to one recent survey, 63% of the American public is not aware that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Ten percent had not heard of the Holocaust at all. Or consider the treatment of Native Americans, which was terrible and produced few heroes. Yet American soul-searching on this history seems to be minimal.

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Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution.

(5) comments

MF

Here’s my interpretation of the 1619 Project. In America we need to improve our history curriculum to include a more complete and accurate picture of black history.

Skittish

Can you give an example in American history and specific lessons learned that would make a difference today that “white people” don’t know and would that difference be such that it would help “black people”? An appropriate response isn’t “Do your own research”, because I have already. If you are making an assertion, the burden is on you to provide the evidence and analysis. I don’t make claims and then demand others “do your research” to prove me wrong, especially since proving a negative is very difficult.

So far as I’m concerned, the contention that white people just don’t know history is a strawman by the race hustlers. There isn’t anything I am aware of in history that if “white people” knew it and the lessons it taught that could be applied today that would raise that portion of black culture that is so obviously dysfunctional. In other words, some “blacks” just want to deflect and blame a history that doesn’t exist for their current cultural deficiencies. It has been very well acknowledged in the last year that being white is viewed as a bad thing: nuclear family, emphasis on scientific method, being on time, delayed gratification, etc.. That I can tell, it is other blacks as a group that are the greatest threat to black progress, not any one else. Blacks don’t need “White Jesus”.

Skittish

Here's a my interpretation of The 1619 Project: Everything is racist, racism built this country, and if you are white you are an admitted racist or an unadmitted racist. The Declaration of Independence was primarily written to preserve slavery, but this doesn’t pass basic logic if one actually reads The Declaration of Independence. Read it in today’s paper. Also, Britain didn’t free slaves in overseas colonies until 1833, 57 years after we declared independence. Preserving slavery wasn’t even on the radar screen, but the 1619 project writer doesn’t care about basic details. Consequently The United States of America, (the most successful country on earth to integrate many different cultures) is nothing but systemically racist. The 1619 project is about couching an agenda of prejudice and racism as something pseudo-historical.

Second, the author, an economist who should know how to interpret statistics, misrepresents the “63% of the American public is not aware that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.” This was a survery of adults under 40, who didn’t know the more accurate number of Jews murdered was around 6 million. He makes it sound like the majority of the entire public is unaware of the Holocaust. So, yeah, we really should question those who wish to revise history with an agenda to promote racism, hate and prejudice.

Finally to state the obvious. There are many today who wish to paralyze those on the dark end of the skin tone spectrum with fear of the light toned bogeyman. It’s called race hustling. Those who practice race hustling, such as BLM, COBLA, Peacekeepers are the true enemy. They wish to instill fear and anger for their own benefit and sense of importance. The vast majority of “white people” really don’t care about your melanin content, as it melanin itself has nothing to do with who you are as a person. It may be an approximate indicator of the culture you grew up in, but even in “white culture” there is tremendous variation among individuals. The choice is up to you: continue to let your skin tone define you and live in fear or, my preference, be confident in who you are and learn about people as they are. Wolves come in all kinds of sheep's clothing and is not a “white vs black” issue.

BuckeyeDuck

Ah yes, once again proclaiming it's the race hustlers and the folks of color who are at fault for racism today, and years past. Such a denier claiming of course "I'm comfortable in my own skin". Are you really from this country?

Skittish

From my perspective, "blacks" display all the the racism and prejudice in today's society.

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