From remarks delivered by 2022 Bradley Prize winner Wilfred M. McClay in Washington on May 17:
Would a serious country so completely lose perspective on its own past that it would entertain the idea that the nation was founded on slavery, rather than on the ideals that have made it a beacon to the rest of the world? And would a serious country think it appropriate to teach its children that the nation’s past is best understood as a parade of horrors, to which the most appropriate response is not pride but lacerating shame? . . .
Nobody wants an account of the American past that is sanitized. We are all too aware of our many faults, and most of us understand the importance of owning up to them.
But what we have wanted and needed instead is an account that places those faults in proper perspective—that understands them in much the same way that we understand every flawed but admirable person we have ever known and loved. . . .
We need to become a serious country again. And to do that, we need to believe in ourselves again, believe in the reason we have been placed here, as a land of hope for a world that needs hope more than ever. We need to understand that a world without America will be immeasurably diminished, both in material and spiritual terms, and that we have no choice but to live up to the responsibilities that come with our many blessings. Our history can be an enormous resource in that endeavor.
The work will not be easy. . . . But it will be much harder to live with ourselves, and with the rebuke of the future, should we shrink from the challenge. And once we understand what is at stake, we may feel a certain exhilaration that comes of knowing what is being demanded of us.
Friday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed HB 7 into law, the first bill in the country banning deranged “corporate wokeness” and racist Critical Race Theory from being used or taught in the workplace and public classrooms. In a press briefing on the new law, DeSantis said:
“We are not going to use your tax dollars to teach kids to hate this country or to hate each other. We believe that every single student matters, every single student counts. We are not going to categorize you based on your race. We are not going to tell some kindergartener that they are an oppressor based on their race and what may have happened 100 or 200 years ago. And we’re not going to tell other kids that they are oppressed based on their race. Don’t let anybody that you can’t succeed in this state. Everybody can succeed.”
The law also bans manipulative lessons making students “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” because of past actions “in which the person played no part” committed by members of the same race or sex. Predictably, by Monday five plaintiffs had filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of Florida (where I live) using the Jacksonville firm of Sheppard, White, Kachergus, DeMaggio & Wilkison (904-356-9661), and arguing that the new law violates their First Amendment Right to indoctrinate children using insane racist woke ideology.
Teacher’s unions also seem to have in interest in ending the law, for some reason. President of the Florida Education Association teachers’ union Andrew Spar criticized the law, explaining “the full, fair facts of history are part of a high-quality education.” High-times advocate and inexperienced Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried chirped, “this bill is a vile attempt to erase our country’s history, censor businesses and schools, and whitewash history.”
Sounds like I need to read some of Mr Podhoretz’s books! mrossol
The Wall Street Journal, By Barton Swaim,
There was a time—roughly from the mid-1960s to the rise of Donald Trump in 2015—when the American right was more or less definable. No more. Major political parties are always riven by internal disputes, but even during George W. Bush’s second term, at the nadir of the Iraq war, the Republican coalition seemed to hang together better than it has these past six years. Mr. Trump’s candidacy was a sign of that fracturing rather than its cause, but his presidency wasn’t marked by unity in the GOP.
Quite the opposite. A significant faction of the party now advocates aggressive industrial policy as a means of alleviating social ills wrought by “unregulated” capitalism. Another demeans the party’s traditional predilection for hawkish foreign policy as an obsession with “forever wars.” The right’s leading media personalities, meanwhile, would rather talk about the latest cultural outrage—an androgynous Mr. Potato Head!—than explain the perils of turning social welfare into a middle-class entitlement.
Are the challenges facing conservatives really so different from what they were 50, 60 or 70 years ago? Most of the architects of postwar conservatism aren’t around to ask anymore, but Norman Podhoretz—editor of the Jewish intellectual magazine Commentary from 1960 to 1995 and one of the founders of neoconservatism—is 91 and as talkative as ever. I visited his book-laden Upper East Side apartment last month with the vague premonition that he might have something to say about the fractured state of American conservatism.
My timing was good. The day before, voters had elected a Republican governor in a state most observers considered blue, and indisputably blue New Jersey had come within a few percentage points of doing the same. “I wasn’t sure they were still out there,” Mr. Podhoretz says. Who? “The ‘deplorables,’ ” he says, gesturing quotation marks as he employs Hillary Clinton’s famous term from 2016. “I really didn’t know. If the results had gone the other way, I wouldn’t have been that surprised. Our troops were not as visible, at least to me, because the media and the culture are all on the other side . . . The other side has won the culture—that’s one battlefield—but they haven’t yet won the polity. That’s very encouraging.”
Mr. Podhoretz says he uses the word “deplorables” loosely, to mean Americans of all classes who refuse to be told what to do and how to live by the nation’s well-heeled progressive elite. “The question for me was whether the sources of health and vitality I used to know existed in this country were still there. I fell in love with Americans when I was in the Army. I was born in Brooklyn; I lived in England”—Mr. Podhoretz studied English literature at Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship in the early 1950s—“but I hadn’t been to very many places in my country. Being in the Army, you get shuffled around. That’s where I discovered Americans. Especially the deplorables. They were great.”
This is a theme, aside from the word “deplorables,” that runs through Mr. Podhoretz’s first memoir, “Making It” (1967). In the Army in 1953-55, he wrote in that book, “usually my closest friends were back-country Southern boys, real rednecks.” (As a Southern redneck myself, I marked the passage in pencil many years ago.) “They’re sane,” he says to me. “They know there’s something wrong, let’s say, when a guy says he’s a girl. They look at that and say, What are you, f— crazy?” He waves as if to suggest this is only one among many instances of insanity. “All that stuff.”
He contrasts these deplorables with something like what the Russians called the “intelligentsia.” “The intelligentsia thought it was wrong that people who’ve made a lot of money in business should be our leaders,” he says. “They resented it. They were not being accorded the power they thought they deserved. But as time went on, they were accorded more and more power—and they stayed resentful. The intelligentsia in America is still resentful.”
This gets us to the subject of Mr. Trump. Mr. Podhoretz’s admiration for the 45th president, when it crept out a few years ago, surprised some observers on the left and right. Hadn’t Mr. Trump harshly criticized the Iraq war, which Mr. Podhoretz fervently supported? Yes, but the pre-eminent themes of Mr. Podhoretz’s journalism were always gratitude to the United States and skepticism of credentialed experts.
“I was, to begin with, anti-anti-Trump,” he says. “I was not crazy about the guy. I had never met him, and still I’ve never met him. But I thought the animosity against him was way out of proportion and, on the right, a big mistake. I went from anti-anti-Trump to pro-Trump. . . . I still think—and it’s been the same fight going on in my lifetime since, I would say, 1965—I still think there’s only one question: Is America good or bad?”
He pauses, leans back in his sofa chair, and restates the formulation. “A force for good in the world—or not?”
Mr. Podhoretz was only 30 when he became editor of Commentary, then a magazine of the left. Over the next several years he began to reject the Marxian attitude of his fellow New York intellectuals. “I broke with the left mainly because of its anti-Americanism. When you’re hanging around with people, you hear things they don’t say in public. I knew what they thought, what they didn’t say except in private. And what they thought was horrendous to me.” Each of his four autobiographical books—“Making It,” “Breaking Ranks” (1979), “Ex-Friends” (1999) and “My Love Affair With America” (2000)—is in some way an account of his estrangement from the left as a consequence of its refusal, as he saw it, to embrace the U.S., its history and its culture.
His essays in Commentary, not only on domestic politics and foreign policy but also, perhaps especially, on literature, were always distinguished by a graceful pugnacity. He takes bold positions, expresses them fluently, and hits hard. So his description of conservative voters as “troops” didn’t surprise me. “It’s a war, in my view,” Mr. Podhoretz says. “Many people are reluctant to see it in those terms. I mean, people say it’s a lot like 1858 and so on, but I don’t see it as a prelude to a civil war and 600,000 Americans dead. That’s not my meaning. But spiritually it’s a war.”
The term “culture war” has been thrown around for 30 years, but Mr. Podhoretz takes the martial metaphor seriously: “We’re in a war, and it’s a war to the death. Now they actually admit it. They used to pretend. Not anymore. ‘Dissent’ was the real patriotism—so being against America meant you were for America, if you remember all that. Now they’re happy to say what they think.”
The left wants to win, he says, but “I’m not sure anymore what our side wants. The right, as I used to understand it, no longer exists. So you’ve got one very clear side, and one very muddled side.”
Would it be accurate to say that the right’s muddled state consists in a division between those who understand that we’re in a war and those who don’t? A sizeable contingent of the right, such as it is, still believes that solid reporting, thorough scholarship and careful argumentation will win the respect of their ideological adversaries on the basis of fairness and merit. Is that way of thinking a failure to understand the nature of the conflict?
“I think so,” Mr. Podhoretz says. “And I think Trump was the only guy who understood the situation in those terms, whether by instinct or whatever.”
What about Mr. Trump’s claim, during the 2016 campaign, that the Bush administration “lied” to justify an invasion of Iraq? “That was one of the main things that kept me from becoming pro-Trump,” Mr. Podhoretz says. “And I still get very angry on that whole business. First of all, it’s not true. It’s also crazy. Why would they lie about weapons of mass destruction? If they were lying, they knew they would be exposed a week after our troops got in. So what was the sense of it? Nobody was lying. Seventeen intelligence agencies, something like that, thought Saddam was hiding them.”
Here Mr. Podhoretz laughs. “Look,” he says, “Trump is a type of person . . . there’s a wonderful Yiddish slang word: bulvan. A bully, doesn’t care, crashes through. Trump’s bad side is a necessary accompaniment to his good side.”
Mr. Podhoretz doesn’t like everything about the populist right. “I heard Tucker Carlson the other day call neoconservatives ‘cowards.’ That’s funny—I never met any neocons who were cowards.” (The term “neocons” in this context refers broadly to those who hold the view that the U.S. and the world are better served by the assertive use of American power abroad.) He takes up the Fox host’s taunt: “I served in this country’s military. Did Carlson? I don’t think so.”
Mr. Trump’s behavior after the 2020 election notwithstanding, Mr. Podhoretz has no apologies. “Maybe Trump’s outlived his usefulness, I don’t know,” Mr. Podhoretz says. “And the way he gave away Georgia”—he means the two Jan. 5 runoff elections that cost the Republicans the Senate majority—“was pretty hard to forgive. But if I thought he could win, I wouldn’t hesitate to vote for him.”
Mr. Podhoretz keeps returning to the theme of war, a war made necessary, in his view, by the anti-Americanism of the political left. Is the hatred of America worse than it used to be? “Unquestionably,” he says. “The left of the 1930s, which was the first time it had significant power and influence, was anti-American to begin with. But it had an alternative—the Soviet Union.” The U.S.S.R. turned out to be a disappointment when it allied with Hitler in 1939, although some on the left never gave up on Russian communism. “Then, after the war, especially in the 1960s and later, they had a series of alternatives—Cuba one week, Mao’s China the next, or Nicaragua, or North Vietnam, or whatever.” The left liked Sweden for a while, he laughs, but Sweden has a market economy. “And”—he laughs again—“somebody found out about the suicide rate.”
But now, he notes, there’s no alternative, no pretense that some other place does things better. “This ‘woke’ business—critical race theory, Black Lives Matter, all of it—is just pure anti-American hatred. And I think [its proponents] would admit that. Which is why I keep saying it’s a war. If you don’t understand that, you don’t know what the hell is going on.”
What about the claim that the war is over, and the right lost? Mr. Podhoretz points out that things were pretty bad for conservatives in the late 1970s, but the reaction was explosive. Magazines like Commentary, he thinks, changed the way intellectuals and academics thought about welfare and foreign policy: “People used to accuse me of being self-important when I said this, but the change in the political culture that the neoconservative movement helped to foster was a necessary precondition for the election of Ronald Reagan.”
That can happen again? “It could.”
Maybe, after all, the right’s internal divisions aren’t fatal. Mr. Podhoretz notes that Henry Kissinger, “who used to call me his worst enemy,” is now a close friend. So, until his death in 2008, was William F. Buckley Jr. , with whom Mr. Podhoretz had several fierce disagreements. Wars, including “spiritual” ones, tend to force co-belligerents back into the same camp.
“People make everything complicated,” he says, “when mostly it’s simple.”
In the world of infotainment, every media brand needs its star. And nowhere is that more true than with one of today’s most influential outlets, the New York Times. In the space of just five years, the Times has succeeded in propelling its stellar asset, Nikole Hannah-Jones, to the rarified heights of celebrity journalism, lending her magnum opus, the 1619 Project, a sanctified glow. But just over two years since 1619 was launched, all that threatens to come tumbling down: the Project has become tainted by a series of errors and inaccuracies — some of which seem to have been committed wilfully.
There’s something uniquely fascinating about the persona of the journalist who betrays his or her professional ethics. There is no medical malpractitioner of historic notoriety, no lawyer so inept or corrupt that their infamy elicits international derision a century later. In fact, it might be only in the field of espionage that we find a parallel. The reason is that, like a nation’s spies, a citizenry loans journalists its most precious asset: trust. This is even more true in secular societies where social institutions take on the characteristics of religious bodies, guiding belief and shaping public perception of reality.
In this context, no American journalist has endured the same level of historical contempt as Hannah-Jones’s most notorious New York Times predecessor, Walter Duranty. One of the reasons Duranty’s name still echoes in the halls of ignominy is because his betrayal was of such an epic nature. He was not only the Times’s top Russia correspondent during the most important period of Russian-American relations in a century (namely, the very early days of the Soviet regime) but a celebrity intellectual.
Duranty’s star had risen so high that when the United States government officially recognised the Soviet Union in 1934, he was chosen to accompany its soon-to-be ambassador to the US — and escorted the newly minted American ambassador from DC back to Moscow. Indeed, it was Duranty himself who had advised Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then at the end of his presidential campaign, that US recognition of the new Soviet regime was the correct course of action.
But that was no shock. Three years earlier, around the time that international headlines were beginning to report on a famine unfolding in the Ukraine, Duranty had reported the very opposite. It wasn’t simply that he downplayed the famine, which Robert Conquest estimated killed upward of five million people in two years; he actively denied it.
What’s often missed when discussing Duranty, however, is the intentional nature of his malfeasance. When the Times came under pressure from the Ukrainian-American community in the early Noughties to return the “Duranty Pulitzer”, the paper’s publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., went against the recommendation of a historian hired by the Times to assess the matter. The historian recommended (unsurprisingly) that the Times should return the prize. Sulzberger refused, chalking Duranty’s cover-up to nothing more than “slovenly” reporting.
But Duranty, an Oxford-educated polyglot, was anything but slovenly. The truth of the matter could be far more disturbing, and can be found in a statement Duranty had made years earlier. In June 1931, while visiting the US embassy in Berlin to renew his passport, Duranty made a remark to a State Department official so significant that the official recorded it verbatim and entered it into the State Department record: “In agreement with the New York Times and the Soviet authorities,” Duranty told the American diplomat, “[Duranty’s] official dispatches always reflect the official opinion of the Soviet government and not his own.”
We might be tempted to think that a correspondent of a previous century would have little to do with the most celebrated journalist of the present day. Certainly, it is inconceivable that anything can compare with Duranty’s attempts to deny the Ukraine famine — and the deaths that followed. But the parallels between Duranty and Nikole Hannah-Jones seem hard to ignore. Like Duranty, Hannah-Jones has become the New York Times’s marquee reporter, her public profile taking on celebrity proportions. Hannah-Jones, like Duranty, is as often the subject of headlines as the creator of them. And, of course, there’s the Pulitzer Prize both she and Duranty won relatively early in their respective careers. But perhaps more than any of these factors, the tone and tenor of the subject matter each reporter covered set the stage for a spectacular rise and, at least in Duranty’s case (for now), an equally precipitous fall.
In her first major piece for the New York Times Magazine, where she was a staff writer, Hannah-Jones focused on school segregation — and did so through the lens of her own experience as a mother of a school-aged child. The 2016 article, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City”, placed Hannah-Jones herself squarely at the centre of the all-encompassing topic of race relations in America.
The 10,000-word piece launched Hannah-Jones into that rare elite which consists of reporters who become the focus of a larger reportorial arc. Just a week after it was published, the Times covered Hannah-Jones in an article that was part of a “Times Insider” series. Called “‘Surreal’: A Reporter Is in the Center of a Story She Covered”, the piece was written in the first person by Hannah-Jones and offered a look into the sausage factory of producing a culturally resonant piece for the New York Times. By October 2017, the Times was trumpeting Hannah-Jones in rockstar-like terms, running pieces about her with headlines such as “The Best of Nikole Hannah-Jones”.
And then came 1619, which made her as close to a household name as a journalist can in America. From an Oprah-backed film and TV production deal to appearances on NPR’s Fresh Air and The Daily Show, a talk with Moonlight creator Barry Jenkins to a 1619 book and accompanying children’s book, Hannah-Jones experienced the dazzling embrace of America’s corporate culture machine.
Crucially, like that of Walter Duranty, Hannah-Jones’s celebrity has had the effect of coating her journalism with a lacquer which shields it from the buffeting forces of criticism. What unites that criticism, from both sides of the political aisle, is something fundamental to any work of journalism: accuracy. While some conservative outlets have attacked the 1619 Project on ideological grounds, the dozens of academics and many journalists who joined the debate intoned with a simple and hard-to-dislodge idea: the 1619 Project was not simply factually flawed, but deliberately, as Phillip Magness, one of the Project’s most vocal critics, put it, it amounts to “the sacrifice of scholarly standards in the service of the ideological objective”.
In the New York Times Magazineissue dedicated to the 1619 Project, there are the subtle but significant problems, such as the mischaracterisation of America’s early economy, which the Project emphasises was built on slavery, when, according to scholars who participated in the debate, slavery played a relatively minor role compared to the Northern industrial and commercial economy. Then there are the arguments that, when taken at face value, are simply absurd, such as the causal connection the Project draws between slavery and modern-day traffic jams in Atlanta or America’s love of sugary treats.
It’s the deeper claims of the Project, however, and specifically those made by Hannah-Jones herself, which are the most problematic — and which most closely tie Hannah-Jones to Duranty. The publication of a piece by Politico by Leslie Harris, a professor of African American history at Northwestern University, months after the 1619 Project was launched, identified the rot at the heart of the Project: “On August 19 of last year I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times, repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact-checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America.”
This claim, that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery is the fulcrum on which Hannah-Jones’s argument swings. The reason is that the 1619 Project was not simply predicated on the the idea that slavery was of consequence to American history; that is a claim most (if not all) of the Project’s most vociferous critics would not have objected to. Instead, the thesis of the 1619 Project is that America is rooted in slavery. In pursuing this mission, what Hannah-Jones attempted to do is not simply “reframe” American history (as one of the introductions to the 1619 Project claimed) but rework reality.
It’s this attempt to edit history that most closely unites Hannah-Jones’s project with that of Walter Duranty. In both cases, historical realities were tarred over in order to make way for a new narrative. But beyond the personal failings of Duranty and Hannah-Jones, there is a larger and more significant connection between the two journalists. And that, of course, is the New York Times.
It is no coincidence that two largely successful attempts to alter history and edit reality have been carried out under the aegis of the New York Times. While Duranty and Hannah-Jones took centre stage, the platform essential to each was provided by America’s self-described paper of record.
As with any corporate-backed endeavour, a costly investment such as 1619 is undertaken only when there is a likely outcome of commensurately rich rewards. This is what we so often miss about major corporate news organisations such as the Times, which is far less significantly a newsroom built on a system of editorial practices than it is a reputation, a social construct, that produces trust — as well as a business mechanism that monetises that trust and processes it into power.
This model applies equally to the denial of the Ukraine Famine and the creation of the 1619 Project. The case of the former is explained by the drive to be positioned at the very centre of the swirl of power, influence and profit presented by the nascent, rapidly industrialising economic power of the Soviet Union that was quickly modernising the agrarian economy of tsarist Russia. The USSR was a massive market of 150 million people that for nearly two decades since the revolution had been restricted to US corporate interests.
With the 1619 Project, the New York Times’s business interests are just as decisive a factor. The Times’s management is well aware that it has to replace its audience of ageing liberals with young adherents of progressive ideologies impassioned enough to pay for the digital subscriptions that are at the heart of its business model. For the Times, this is a matter of existential significance. As a New York Times Company vice president has explained, one of the aims of 1619 is, according to NiemanLab, to “convince more of its 150 million monthly readers to pay for a subscription”.
This makes good sense considering that over a third of the Times‘s revenue now comes from digital subscriptions — and nearly two-thirds of the Times’s American audience is made up of millennial and Gen Z readers. Print subscriptions, meanwhile, are in “steady decline”; advertising is falling by close to (and sometimes more than) double digits each year.
Like all dynasties, the Sulzbergers, the billionaire family that controls the New York Times, are, in part, motivated by financial self-interest. But in the current cultural environment, where a movement of ideological upheaval is at work, it is power as much as money that lies behind what is the most significant journalistic endeavour of the past decade. The Times’s progressive turn (like that of so many American brands) is more top-down than bottom-up; it is a quest for influence rather than principle. The Times knows which way the wind is blowing and in a raging storm why not sail downwind?
The only problem with this approach — in business as much as in life — is that it doesn’t work. As Captain MacWhir in Joseph Conrad’s novella The Typhoon shouts through the raging storm to the story’s young protagonist: “They may say what they like, but the heaviest seas run with the wind.” In its cynical embrace of progressive politics, the Times runs the risk of capsizing in storm waters it mistakenly believes it can control.
The same may well be true about Nikole Hannah-Jones. To her credit, unlike Walter Duranty, Nikole Hannah-Jones does not appear to be a passenger enjoying the cushy ride of celebrity. From all appearances, she is a true believer who is not just willing but eager to make the necessary sacrifices to bring about her vision of justice in the world. Whether that makes her more or less problematic than Duranty, only time will tell.