Historically, US presidential elections were dominated by competing views on economic and social issues. No longer. This approaching election has increasingly been consumed by a cultural conflict, at the heart of which is a war over American history. But this is no mere disagreement over the precise details of what happened three or four centuries ago. It is a battle for the very soul of the United States.
The principal battle is being fought over the founding of the US. As we will see, this is best captured, by, on one side, the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which contends America was founded when African slaves first arrived in Jamestown; and, on the other, President Donald Trump’s mooted 1776 Commission, which reasserts the traditional, would-be inspiring narrative of revolution and independence as America’s founding moment.
All of this raises questions of the utmost importance. Why has America’s founding become such a vital issue in the 21st century? And, more broadly, how should humanity engage with the legacy of its past achievements?
The erosion of the boundary between the present and the past
History has rarely appeared more alive than it does in the West today. Even before the Black Lives Matters protests this summer, protesters had been treating symbols of the past, be they building names or statues, as if they were living things. Some protesters even claim that these inanimate objects pose a threat to their wellbeing, with some Rhodes Must Fall campaigners at the University of Oxford claiming that merely walking past Cecil Rhodes’ statue is traumatic. Many more treat these symbols of the past as if they are living adversaries, against whom every act of vandalism or toppling is a vital act.
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You could see something of this when activists pulled down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol earlier this year. They did not simply want to topple it. They wanted to defile it, humiliate it, debase it. And so they pulled it down, and then dragged it along the street before throwing it into the river. It was almost as if they were parading the corpse of a hated tyrant before his liberated people, rather than a statue of a long-forgotten slave-trading merchant who died 300 years ago.
This captures something about the nature of these protests against historical symbols. Those involved – so emotional, angry and overwrought – appear to have lost sight of any distinction between the present and the past. And they are not alone. Indeed, the erasure of the boundary that separates the present from the past is one of the most important, if rarely acknowledged, cultural phenomena of the 21st century.
This can be seen in the way our present moment, marked by Brexit and Trump, is all too frequently seen by its critics in terms of the 1930s – as if there is little-to-no difference between then and now. It is difficult to pick up a newspaper today without encountering references to the Second World War, the fall of the Weimar Republic, or the rise of fascism. The reason for this form of historical revivalism is simple enough. Opponents of Trump, Brexit and so on are using symbols of past evil to discredit their present-day opponents.
This has led to a form of fantasy-driven radicalism, whereby leftist Don Quixotes tilt endlessly at Nazi windmills. But at least Don Quixote only harmed himself by fighting imaginary enemies. Today’s delusional crusaders, with Antifa to the fore, are far more insidious and dangerous. In their eyes, every white person enjoying a meal in a restaurant is a potential fascist, and therefore a legitimate target for violent anti-fascist action.
This attempt to demonise contemporary opponents through historical association should be understood in relation to the attempt to demonise history itself. That’s why those trying to topple statues, for instance, are not merely trying to rid the world of certain physical objects. They also want to purge it of what they see as the past evil with which those objects are associated. It does not matter whether the object in question is a flag, a statue, or even a song. If it connects the present to the now demonised past, it becomes an object of vilification.
Banishing the ‘bad old days’
Debates about history are usually confined to academic and cultural circles. But not at the moment. History has rarely been more politicised, or more politically significant, than it is right now. The reason for this is that the Western cultural and political establishment has become estranged from its past. So much so, in fact, that it perceives many present-day problems as the product of a past or history that it would like to jettison. Think, for example, of Brexit, and the swiftness with which numerous establishment commentators and politicians blamed it on the electorate’s nostalgia for the British Empire. This does not just speak to the anti-Brexit crowd’s political illiteracy. It also shows how even those in positions of cultural and political power are willing to confuse the present with the past.
This estrangement from society’s historical legacy transcends conventional political divides. Even mainstream conservative thought in the West has become emotionally disconnected from the past. Thus, in response to several racist incidents at football matches back in 2012, the then Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, could declare that ‘we will not let recent events drag us back to the bad old days of the past’. His use of the phrase ‘bad old days of the past’ was telling. Rather than just reference historical football hooliganism specifically, he talked of the past in general as a problem. It suggested that as far as he was concerned there was little worthwhile to ‘conserve’ from Britain’s past. And Cameron is far from the only conservative political leader in Europe who imagines the past as ‘the bad old days’ (1). Which raises a troubling question: if even conservative politicians adopt a dim view of their nation’s history, is it any surprise that others will seize the past and use it as a weapon against the present?
It is worth noting that the metaphor of the ‘bad old days’ is often deployed as a corrective to the supposed nostalgia of, say, Brexit or Trump voters. It is a way of ridiculing them as simple and gullible people, who, unlike their arch critics, still believe the past has some value. Take Cas Mudde, an academic critical of Brexit, Trump and so on. ‘Populists will pine for an imaginary, whitewashed past’, Mudde writes, ‘until politicians offer a credible future’. This critique of nostalgia does not merely warn people of the problem of living in the past; it also seeks to delegitimate the values and customs that the past might still generate. The irony of Mudde’s position sticks in the craw. He accuses populists of whitewashing the past, yet he is all too happy to indulge in a bit of inverted white-washing himself, painting the past as little more than an unending story of oppression and hypocrisy.
The narrative of the bad old days is dominant now. Warnings accompany reruns of TV shows, even those made as recently as the 1990s or 2000s. Museums present their exhibits as sources of colonial shame. Everywhere one looks, history appears as little more than a toxic tale of racism, misogyny, abuse and degradation.
There has been very little opposition to the narrative of the bad old days. Schools encourage young people to be ashamed of their ancestors. Universities conjure up the past for students as an amoral story of power and domination. And they do so without being challenged. Having won this very one-sided battle over the past, the different wings of the identitarian movement are now using this war against the past to discredit their present-day opponents. And none are doing so with more sophistication than the New York Times is with its 1619 Project. This project doesn’t only politicise history; it also attempts to stain the moral status of the institutions of America.
The war for the soul of America
In the mainstream media, Trump is often accused of starting a culture war, or of using history to portray himself as a ‘defender of American heritage’. So, earlier this month, when Trump declared, at a White House Conference on American History, that ‘our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding’, he was again denounced for trying to stir up a culture war.
What Trump’s detractors overlook is that it was not him who started this current phase of the culture wars. That honour falls to the 1619 Project, which was launched by the New York Times on 14 August 2019. By the time Trump delivered his speech, more than a year later, the 1619 Project had won the support of most of Hollywood, and Nikole Hannah-Jones, its lead author, had been awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.
Trump was not starting anything. He was responding, in this case to the head of cultural steam built up by the 1619 Project. No doubt he sensed that what had begun as a demonisation of America’s past had mutated into a political ideology, one that was now mobilising unrest and protest throughout the US. It was no longer just history at stake. It was the soul of the nation.
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Because make no mistake – the New York Times’ 1619 Project has played a vital political role in today’s political unrest. It has done nothing less than devalue and criminalise the founding of the United States.
As the 1619 Project’s title suggests, it claims that the year 1619, and not 1776, is the true founding year of the US. This, the project argues, is because the US was founded for the purpose of entrenching slavery, and 1619 was the year African slaves first arrived in Jamestown. According to this inaccurate version of the past, the actual founding of the US in the American Revolution was a selfish attempt to preserve the exploitative and oppressive legacy of 1619. In this way, the contribution of the American Revolution to the development of the ideal of freedom is erased from history. The Declaration of Independence and the US’s then remarkably advanced liberal and democratic constitution are implicitly renounced as slave-owners’ charters.
Most significantly, the 1619 Project is a self-conscious attempt to contaminate the traditions and undermine the foundation underpinning the American way of life. It is therefore a profound political attack on the present. Indeed, Hannah-Jones herself admits that its principal objective is not to shed new light on the past, but to undermine the moral authority of the present. ‘I’ve always said that the 1619 Project is not history’, she writes. ‘It is a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative and therefore national memory. The project has always been as much about the present as it is about the past.’
Indeed. This is a project devoted to the toxification of the past in order to delegitimise the present-day institutions of the US.
The 1619 Project erases the boundary not just between the present and the past, but between truth and fiction, too. In 1619, the African slaves, like many white people sent to Virginia, in fact became indentured labourers, not slaves. This is not a nitpicking distinction. It shows that it is wholly inaccurate to claim that the US was founded to entrench slavery. Other eminent historians have also drawn attention to the numerous liberties the 1619 Project has taken with the facts. Such has been the level of historical criticism levelled at the project that the Times edited out its claim that 1619 was the ‘true founding’ of America. Hannah-Jones went so far as to deny, on CNN, that she had ever intended to replace 1776 with the new founding date of 1619. The project’s casual approach to historical fact shows just how politicised and cynical the whole thing is.
Trump himself took issue with the project’s attempt to portray America’s foundation as being based on ‘oppression and not freedom’. He countered, saying that the Declaration of Independence ‘set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, secured civil rights, defeated Communism and fascism, and built the most fair, equal and prosperous nation in human history’.
The aim of Trump’s 1776 Commission is clear. It aims to counterbalance the gloomy take on America’s past now taught in American schools. ‘We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms’, he said, ‘and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country’.
But it is unlikely that, by itself, the 1776 Commission can match the cultural power of its opponents. After all, the educational establishment is extremely hostile to the teaching of what sounds like patriotic history. ‘It’s disgusting’, was the predictable reaction of Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, to Trump’s speech. Others said Trump’s version of the founding ‘revolv[ed] around white males’. For educators brought up on a diet of identity politics, denouncing dead white males is something of a quasi-religious duty.
Still, although it was only one speech promising a single commission, Trump’s comments do represent an overdue attempt to join the battle for America’s soul.
In a sense, the attention the 1619 Project has drawn to the question of America’s foundation is to be welcomed. Why? Because virtually every issue raised in the course of the current phase of the culture wars is ultimately linked to the view that one takes towards the authority of foundation.
The Latin term auctoritas refers to what can best be characterised as foundational authority. Authority that is foundational is that to which a decision or opinion can be referred back as a source of legitimacy. Throughout much of modern history it is the absence of precisely this foundational authority that has haunted public life. Political instability and institutional fragility are symptoms of societies that lack an authoritative foundation on which to draw.
The founding of the US and its articulation in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution is arguably the most successful example of the act of foundation in the modern era. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt regarded the founding of America as a unique event, not just for Americans, but for humanity as a whole. In her essay ‘Founding Fathers’, she wrote that the challenge of realising freedom demanded a ‘new foundation’, a demonstration that humanity ‘can begin something altogether new’. Arendt observed that:
‘the question of the foundation of a republic was how to preserve this spirit, the revolutionary spirit, how to find lasting institutions which could prevent this experience from being the experience of only one generation’
The preservation of the spirit of foundation was successfully realised in the Constitution of the United States.
As Arendt explained, the difference between the American constitution and those of postwar Europe, ‘which were given from above, usually by experts’, is that ‘the foundation’ was ‘an event’ that was ‘absent everywhere except in America’.
What makes the US Constitution so unique is that it has been revered almost ever since it was enacted. Arendt remarked that:
‘One is tempted to conclude that the remembrance of the event itself – a people deliberately founding a new body politic dedicated to freedom – has shrouded the document in an atmosphere of reverent awe and shielded it against the onslaught of time and circumstances’
‘One also is tempted to predict that the authority of the republic will be safe as long as the act itself, the beginning as such, is remembered as the promise it holds out, and was meant to hold out, for all those who, by virtue of birth, enter earthly life as beginners.’
Arendt wrote ‘Founding Fathers’ in 1963. At that point in time, her optimism about the future of the republic was justified, because the normative underpinning of the US’s foundation was rarely questioned. Those who questioned the dark moments of American history – such as the practice of slavery, or certain racist policies – did so on the grounds that they violated the norms of freedom and equality enshrined in the Constitution itself. The Constitution was therefore seen as a corrective to, say, racial oppression, not as its embodiment.
Today, however, the promise of America’s foundation is under constant attack. Too many in the US are losing touch with the idealism, and the spirit of freedom and democracy, that inspired the founding of a new world. That is why, contrary to Arendt, the republic is no longer safe. The toxification of the act of America’s foundation, by cultural and educational elites and self-styled radicals, is corroding the legitimacy of its constitution and institutions. The decay of the republic, the detachment of its present from its often inspiring past, will not only affect the people of America. For America’s founding is a central part of the intellectual and moral legacy of all of humanity. That is why those of us watching events in America from afar have every reason to join the battle for the soul of America.
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