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