THE 1619 CONNECTION: Woodward's book is a bit Dick-and-Jane!

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 21, 2020

So too with the Project?: Last month, we broke down and purchased Bob Woodward's latest best-seller, Rage.

After that, we tried to read it. We only got so far.

Woodward's books tend to be written on something like fourth-grade level. We refer to the Dick-and-Jane sentence structure, but also to the lazy standards of evidence and proof the reporter brings to his various tasks.

Full disclosure! We bought the Kindle version of Rage, for $14.99. Certain electronic evidence suggests that we gave up after reading page 198 of 452, an effort which had taken us to "Location 2722 of 8448."

Woodward's books have a certain grade school "story hour" feel. We gather around and listen to Woodward tell us a string of vastly sanded and simplified tales.

His conclusions may not be wrong, but his route to those conclusions is vastly smoothed and sanded. We'll have to admit that we get a somewhat similar feeling when we read the featured essay for the New York Times' ballyhooed 1619 Project, the somewhat unusual plus-que-journalistic undertaking which was unveiled last year.

That featured essay was written by Nikole Hannah-Jones, an experienced journalist who, based upon the standard metrics, has had a very substantial career.  

Hannah-Jones graduated from Notre Dame in 1998. In 2003, she earned a master's degree in journalism from UNC. Her career took her to ProPublica in 2011, then on to the New York Times in 2015.

As a journalist, she has received some of the highest honors possible. The leading authority on the topic tells us this:

Hannah-Jones is a 2017 award winner of the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Award." The award cited her “ Chronicling the persistence of racial segregation in American society, particularly in education, and reshaping national conversations around education reform.”

In 2019, Hannah-Jones launched a project to re-examine the legacy of slavery in the United States, timed for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia. Hannah-Jones produced a series of articles for a special issue of The New York Times Magazine titled The 1619 Project. The ongoing initiative began August 14, 2019 and "aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative"...

In 2020, Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her work on the 1619 Project. The award cited her “sweeping, provocative and personal essay for the ground-breaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.”

We'll guess that very few journalists have ever won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award and a Pulitzer prize. On a slightly cynical note, we'll throw in this observation:

She won these awards for saying the things our tribe's current ruling elites most deeply want to hear. Though this doesn't necessarily mean that her work lacked merit.

Briefly, a personal note:

At this site, we spent a great deal of time on a lengthy report Hannah-Jones prepared for ProPublica in 2014. 

Her report concerned the segregation, integration and desegregation of the Tuscaloosa city schools, a very complex topic. 

We can't recall the ultimate assessments we drew concerning the journalistic merits of her lengthy piece. If memory serves, we came away thinking that she had criticized the city's (black) leadership class for reaching certain decisions which were forced upon them by the backwash of our nation's brutal racial history.

We're working from memory there. That said, the lengthy piece was thoroughly reported and full of information. 

On balance, we can't say we're inclined to spill with praise for Hannah-Jones' featured essay for The 1619 Project. Indeed, as we've reread it in recent weeks, it has made us think of Rage.

The essay revisits aspects of our nation's brutal racial history which everyone already knows and has known for a very long time.  As is currently fashionable, it seeks to retell this brutal history as if no one has ever been willing to tell it before.

To our ear, it also tends to tell this history in a type of "TV miniseries" way. Brutal history is simplified to the point of possibly being simplistic. 

The stories read like YA fiction, with a hint of invidious group division thrown in. Consider what's said to have happened here:

HANNAH-JONES (8/14/19): Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.

The very first person to die for this country in the American Revolution was a black man who himself was not free. Crispus Attucks was a fugitive from slavery, yet he gave his life for a new nation in which his own people would not enjoy the liberties laid out in the Declaration for another century. In every war this nation has waged since that first one, black Americans have fought—today we are the most likely of all racial groups to serve in the United States military.

Did Crispus Attucks "give his life for" this country? There's a treacly feel to that construction which modern upper-end discourse loves, and frequently seeks to reward.

That said, constructions like that are more commonly found in books for third or fourth graders. For the record, it isn't clear that they're instructive, appropriate or helpful even there.

Our nation's conventional history crawls with stories like that. As every schoolchild once knew, Nathan Hale is said to have said, at the time of his execution, that his only regret was that he had but one life to give for his country.  

As is almost always the case in such matters, it seems that no one really knows what Hale actually said. Whatever! Smoothed and sanded hero tales have always been popular with us rubes, and Hannah-Jones' account of Attucks' death seems to follow the yellow brick road which leads to grade school accounts of heroism.

In this case, the imagined heroism is especially pleasing because it's imputed to "a black man who himself was not free." As in standard grade school narration, he isn't just "the first person to die for this country"—he's the very first person to die for this country! That almost comes before first!

To our ear, Hannah-Jones simplifies such stories throughout, dumbing us down as she serves us helpings of current approved tapioca. Such work is now amazingly common on the front pages of our major upper-end newspapers.

To our ear, Hannah-Jones also tends to overdo it in the direction of the one "racial" group being greater than all the rest. But that's a story for a whole different era, for an era which isn't in love with invidious "identity" structures.

Woodward's book struck us as Dick and Jane. So does Hannah-Jones' essay. 

That said, she's telling us liberals, and our liberal elites, the stories we love at this juncture. There's nothing especially new about the basic history which anchors her piece—Before the Mayflower was a major book in the mid-1960s—but she almost seems to be suggesting that no one has told it before.

Sometimes, Hannah-Jones makes us think of Woodward's book. It's when she and her editor were forced to contemplate corrections of apparent errors that we saw the kind of work which defines the modern age.

We'll discuss those non-correction corrections tomorrow. For today, one last point concerning the life and death of Attucks:

The leading authority on Attucks' life and death offers a much less simplistic account. (We weren't present at the time to give you a first-hand report.)

That authority's account of that life and that death almost seems to be drawn from the real world of  human experience. 

By way of contrast, Hannah-Jones gave us something perhaps a bit more like a novel. Rightly or wrongly, the corps then gave her its top prize.

Tomorrow: Douglass' (Maryland) childhood


58 comments:

  1. No one cares about this trivia outside of the tiny class of high-end journos-academics. These shepherds of distraction are the servants of plutocracy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Academics don't serve plutocracy. That's why the first thing any dictator does is attack academics. The purpose of the press is to afflict the comfortable. All the squealing Somerby does suggests that he fits into that category himself.

      According to Somerby today, the problem with the 1619 Project is that it is written in language that too many people will understand.

      The danger is that if the average reader of the NY Times understands the 1619 Project, then they will also understand what BLM is about (and many already do, judging by polling), and trump will no longer be able to frighten people into voting Republican using race. This isn't a distraction Gloucon, it is subversive to conservative goals (and conservatives serve the plutocracy, not writers about the role of slavery in our nation's founding and subsequent struggles).

      Delete
    2. These most evil and horrific events happened within the lives of every living person, yet few care. Think of the absurdity of focusing on 1619 or 1770 when recent crimes of the Pentagon and Wall St banksters go undiscussed, and the perpetrators walk among us free and even admired!

      Delete
    3. Are the crimes of today's bankers worse than the crimes of bankers during the Great Depression? Does Gloucon understand that we nearly had a revolution in the early 1900s (read The Iron Heel by Jack London, for example) because of unequal distribution of wealth? Does Gloucon know about the screw-ups involved in distribution of the Salk vaccine?

      It only seems like today's troubles are worse because (1) they are affecting us personally, and (2) the details of the past remain unknown. That is the point of the 1619 Project -- to make the past relevant to today's problems. And yes, people alive today do care about it.

      Delete
    4. When is the NYT going to sponsor the "2003 Project" about the worst war crime in US history, which their own reporting helped lie us into?

      Delete
    5. 1:24,
      Glaucon X only cares about things which effect him. That's why he's so willing to abandon protecting the rights of the "identity politics" crowd, in order to focus on things that are more important (to him).

      Delete
    6. The 2008 bankster caused financial crisis disproportionately devastated black wealth. The white woke 'community' doesn't know that part of history, or doesn't want to know it. They've been given their marching orders to go battle over obscure bits of history from 250 years ago. If you're really good at it, parties in The Hamptons could be a part of your future!

      Delete
    7. I get it -- no one knows about anything except you. And no one can support more than one cause at a time.

      Delete
    8. Prosecuting white collar crime, and sentencing the perpetrators to prison, in general population, will do wonders for prison reform.

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    9. That's a Catch-22. You have to have reform of criminal justice before you can convict such perpetrators, in order to motivate prison reform.

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  2. A debate going on right now is whether the USA is a good country or a bad country. The falsified 1619 history is offered as evidence that the USA is bad. It's being taught to children in some of our schools. That makes the 1619 history quite important and significantly pernicious.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When you get to 3rd Grade, this will all start to make sense to you.
      In the meantime, enjoy pre-school, and don't forget to bring a blanket for nap time.

      Delete
    2. Where is the debate going on whether the USA is a good country or a bad country? Who is having this debate?

      Delete
    3. It's bad enough liberals with their identity politics ended slavery, but now they want to gloat about it in the NY Times.

      It's no wonder my parents, staunch Democrats who worked on the McGovern campaign, voted for Obama TWICE, and really do exist as far as you know, are voting for Trump this time.

      Delete
    4. Where does Joe Biden's latest ad "America" fit into this debate? He not only says America is good but that people are good too, regardless of their party.

      Delete
    5. Debates as to whether the USA is a good country or a bad country are started by propagandists in order to head off any discussions of nefarious or illegal conduct on the part of our entrenched power systems.

      Fox News 101

      Delete
    6. But surely Moses parted the water and Jesus rose from his grave. Idiots like David in Cal and Gloucon X deserve the ridicule they get whenever they attempt to write their nonsense comments.

      Delete
  3. "Woodward's books tend to be written on something like fourth-grade level."

    Somerby's reading level seems to be somewhere between Woodward and Wittgenstein. Doesn't he understand that if you want to attract more readers, you lower the reading level. Woodward isn't aiming his work at the Pulitzer Committee or at wonks. He wants to convince Trump voters and for that you have to dumb things way down.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "[Woodward] wants to convince Trump voters and for that you have to dumb things way down."

      Both hilariously wrong about Woodward's target audience, and also a spiteful backhand at those stupid Trump voters.

      Thanks for the mordant chuckles!

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    2. 7:53 you seem to think you know more than you actually know. Now, where have I sensed that before?

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  4. "She won these awards for saying the things our tribe's current ruling elites most deeply want to hear. Though this doesn't necessarily mean that her work lacked merit."

    When has this NOT been true, of anyone.

    Somerby wants us to know that he regards her awards as affirmative action payoffs by the left to appease African Americans. He won't come out and say so, since he is a huge coward, but it is obvious from his wording that this is the implicit message we are supposed to get from his dog whistles, accompanied by pro forma denials of the exact message he wishes us to receive.

    This is why Somerby is a huge asshole. Good thing he lives safely in the white part of Baltimore.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Does anyone really expect people to care about what happened in 1619 or 1770? I doubt one in ten Americans could give you a coherent summary of the last two decades. Who remembers that the nation's top politicians lied us into a war in 2003 that has cost us $6 trillion? How many can recall that those same politicians let Wall St banksters gang-rape the economy and wreck the economic lives of millions of people in 2008?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You've never been to a VFW meeting, I assume from this.

      Delete
    2. When is the NYT going to sponsor the "2003 Project" about the worst war crime in US history, which their own reporting helped lie us into? It looks like they wait four hundred years to discuss American crimes. So I guess we’ll see this 2003 (Iraq war crime) Project in the year 2403. The vets who got their legs blown off for nothing will have to wait. Meanwhile, you can set them straight about Crispus Attucks.

      Delete
    3. I believe it was Somerby who was trying to “set us straight” about Crispus Attucks.

      Delete
    4. Gloucon, this is a liberal blog. None of us here voted for George W. Bush except David in Calif. and perhaps the other conservative trolls.

      The equivalent to the 1619 Project would be a project to deal with Islamophobia in our society, and I would support that. And you don't have your script straight. Those vets lost their legs for oil, not for nothing. And you want to watch coming off too much like a Saddam supporter.

      Delete
  6. "The leading authority on Attucks' life and death offers a much less simplistic account. (We weren't present at the time to give you a first-hand report.)"

    The link goes to Wikipedia. Nothing there contradicts anything said by Hannah-Jones.

    If you stick to the bare-bones, then controversial details cannot be picked apart by motivated critics (such as Somerby). The point remains, uncontested, that the first man to die in the event that marked the American Revolution (the Boston Massacre), was African American.

    Somerby should have read down to the sources and noticed the obvious pride with which Attucks has been embraced by black artists. It matters TO BLACK PEOPLE that they have been instrumental in the founding of this nation, not simply underdogs in our history. That is part of what it means to make history more inclusive.

    Somerby dislikes it that Hannah Jones is telling a story, but what else are people's lives? We have beginning, middle and ends and we hope that our lives have meaning and that we have made progress during the intervening years between birth and death. Narrative structure comes from the structure of human lives and you cannot talk about human endeavor without it taking that form. Somerby's repeated complaint that Hannah Jones has written a story shows his misunderstanding of both history and journalism. But he won't care about that. His purpose is only to undermine the trend toward inclusion of the details purposefully omitted since our founding.

    In a similar vein, a commenter yesterday wanted to deliberately omit the details of women's contributions to invention, culture and commerce, in order to portray men as superior. White people have done the same thing and it makes them look just as ridiculous to anyone with a grasp of the details of history.

    It isn't that Hannah Jones has omitted details, as Somerby claims. It is that she has emphasized the wrong ones, in his opinion.

    ReplyDelete
  7. The early voting numbers and enthusiasm gap spell a Trump victory. Better to be prepared than blindsided. Every anecdotal conversation I've had even with Democratic family members reveals a shift to him away from a perceived "crazy" left. Whatever, my 401K is looking good anyway.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are wasting your troll breath here.

      Delete
    2. 1:21,
      Is it Russia this time, or are Trump voters still super-keen on white supremacy?

      Delete
  8. Erasing recent and ongoing crimes(that serve the current plutocracy) and dredging up ancients ones (dead plutocracy) is Standard Operating Procedure by the shepherds of distraction.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Except that there is at this moment a large wealth gap, an educational gap, crime victimhood gap, just to name a few, between blacks and whites. Voter suppression of blacks is ongoing and is an explicit effort from John Roberts on down. It is an ongoing crime perpetrated on blacks by the “plutocracy” that stems from American history. You can’t relegate racism to a “dead” past.

      Delete
    2. There a large wealth gap, an educational gap, crime victimhood gap, just to name a few, between blacks and Asians too. How does the NYT talking about Crispus Attucks help close any of these gaps?

      Delete
    3. Are you seriously asking how shining a light on uncomfortable truths helps anything? One has to acknowledge they exist and complain about them and make them part of the “discourse.”

      There is also a big gap between whites and Asians, but what does that have to do with the historical inequalities imposed upon blacks?

      One can oppose the “plutocracy” but also recognize that racism is real and is furthered by the plutocracy, and that the NYT 1619 project doesn’t necessarily serve some cynical political agenda.

      Delete
    4. "There a large wealth gap, an educational gap, crime victimhood gap, just to name a few, between blacks and Asians too."

      Ha-ha, good point: not to mention the Jews.

      Why not take liberal-hitlerian ideology to its logical conclusion.

      Delete
    5. @ MH: OK, so the plutocracy (NYT) wants to show us that they recognize "that racism is real." So what? Do you seriously think they will ever sponsor a journo-academic project about closing those wealth gaps you mentioned? Plutocracy loves gaps! The NYT sells ads for $10K Rolex watches. Does that sound like an organization that's interested in closing wealth gaps? Their sole concern is "Project Plutocracy." We help them when we get lured into their distractions that are focused on trivia.

      Delete
    6. The NYT didn't buy any of those watches, did they?

      Delete
    7. Nobody is distracted by identity politics; it is in fact one of the most effective political tools. The NY Times has little to no relevancy to today's discourse; having said that, the 1619 Project is perfectly admirable and so obviously harmless to goals of equality and equity.

      Delete
    8. Like any other social entity, I don't believe the members of the so-called plutocracy are all alike. For example, what about all of those billionaires who have pledged to donate half their wealth to charity? That group, founded by Bill & Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett (who all happen to be bridge players), has already done significant good with their wealth. I believe they are sincerely interested in closing wealth gaps since their work is aimed at reducing poverty worldwide.

      And no, I don't own a Rolex or any other "luxury" item. I do like an occasional Godiva chocolate.

      This is not an argument in favor of plutocracy but a suggestion to avoid so much sloganeering.

      Delete
  9. “To our ear, Hannah-Jones also tends to overdo it in the direction of the one "racial" group being greater than all the rest.”

    One’s “ear” often hears what it wants to hear. And if Somerby’s essay is about what he hears, as opposed to what Hannah-Jones
    actually wrote, then how to persuade him otherwise?

    It’s probably futile to point out that Hannah-Jones isn’t saying “blacks are better than whites”, though that is Somerby’s childish and insulting takeaway. She quotes WEB DuBois:

    “As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “Few men ever worshiped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries.” Black Americans had long called for universal equality and believed, as the abolitionist Martin Delany said, “that God has made of one blood all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth.” Liberated by war, then, they did not seek vengeance on their oppressors as Lincoln and so many other white Americans feared. They did the opposite. During this nation’s brief period of Reconstruction, from 1865 to 1877, formerly enslaved people zealously engaged with the democratic process.”

    Was DuBois saying “blacks are better than whites?”

    Hannah-Jones is saying that the black struggle for freedom and equality is central to American history. It has constantly forced America to confront its failures and to try to live up to its own stated ideals.

    I often wonder if those ten years teaching black kids in Baltimore had any effect on Somerby.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Whites believe that they would seek revenge for being wronged, the way white people wronged those they enslaved. Part of the fear that white people feel toward blacks is generated by their own belief that they would be violent toward an oppressor, if places were reversed. Fear of reprisal motivated a lot of oppressive behavior both during slavery and Jim crow years. That is Jordan's thesis in "White Over Black".

      Tacitus said: "It is human nature to hate him whom you have injured."

      I think blacks are better than whites if they have learned to deal with oppression without seeking revenge. Ta-Nehesi Coates talks about the anxiety that black men feel as a constant fact of their lives -- fear of random violence and police interference, fear of unexpected slights and genuine wrongs. How must it be to never be able to fully relax in white society?

      Blacks are better than whites if they can overcome this pervasive fear and become their best selves, succeed in career and family life, despite it.

      It may be that at some level, white people understand the superiority that comes from dealing with social adversity for 400 years. Perhaps Somerby's reaction against the idea of such superiority comes from his own belief that he failed those black kids, and that's why he rejects both identity politics and the nobility that comes from suffering.

      I agree with Hannah-Jones that it is good for our country to be forced to live up to its own ideals. I think we all should want that to happen. Perhaps the widespread support for BLM arises from the hope we feel about the possibility of change that will benefit us all.

      Delete
    2. "I think blacks are better than whites." You've really got your work cut out for you. I wish you success.

      Delete
    3. As a white male, I take no issue with the notion that "Blacks are better than whites". It certainly does not motivate me to make snarky and inconsequential comments in response.

      Delete
    4. Ask any cop that shoots a black guy. They'll tell you all about black men's superhuman strength and quickness.

      Delete
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