The Racism and Incoherence of the 1776 Commission

It is extremely difficult to fully address the myriad problems with Donald Trump’s Conservative 1776 Commission on the teaching of history. The document is a mixture of racism, attacks on liberal and letting movements, selective history, un-nuanced evidence taken out of context, and intentionally misleading use of historical figures. There are numerous internal contradictions. Additionally, it attempts to separate the “good historical movements” from the bad ones without ever acknowledging that conservatives opposed nearly all of the “good movements” identified in the piece. Here are some of the biggest problems:

Politics, not education: From the get to, the document sets itself up as a political document, not an educational one. In the first sentences, it proclaims that “Americans will never falter in defending the fundamental truths of human liberty proclaimed” in the Declaration of Independence. Little more than a meaningless, hyperbolic statement of American exceptionalism, this statement has no place in a document about teaching history. The report also argues that there is a single, correct narrative about our history that should not be applied to modern political division: “The facts of our founding are not partisan.” It then proceeds to engage in a highly partisan telling of American History, attacking anyone who posits a different interpretation of the past as dangerous and radical.

One Big Happy Family: Throughout the document, the commission argues that there is one unified American people, critiquing any effort to look at the different experiences of people based on their race, class, gender, etc. They repeatedly say things like, “the American people have ever pursued freedom and justice,” without ever recognizing that some groups had greater access to freedom and justice than others and some were denied freedom and justice altogether. More importantly, they purposefully ignore that the struggle for freedom and justice for some (Native Americans, African Americans, Women, the poor, immigrants, homosexuals) was a struggle against OTHER AMERICANS who wished to preserve an unequal status quo. In their telling of U.S. History, the wrongs are abstract evils that simply exist, as opposed to systems of power kept in place by some segments of the nation who were in power. In fact, they attack those who do acknowledge this reality as engaging in divisive “identity politics,” a major target for attack throughout the report.

They also use this idea of a single unified people to make some claims that are dropping with American Exceptionalism. For example, they claim that “all the good things around us — from the physical infrastructure, to our high standards of living, to our exceptional freedoms — are direct results of America’s unity, stability, and justice…”. There are some major problems with this claim. for one, our infrastructure is in complete disrepair. In regard to the standard of living, it is pretty clear that there are huge differences in the standard of living being experienced by different groups in this country when it comes to healthcare, wages, housing, etc. It is also untrue to describe our freedoms as exceptional. There are many other countries that have comparable amounts of freedom.

Using Radicals to Attack Radicalism: Throughout this report, the commission uses carefully selected quotes, taken out of context, from radical figures in U.S. History to attack radicalism, including Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King, and Frederick Douglass. They also name-drop Mark Twain, while failing to mention that he was a passionate opponent of American Imperialism attacked by Conservatives as un-American, and Woodie Guthrie, who was a socialist/communist (depending on how you define these terms) who was hated by Conservatives.

They used the fact that Douglass, Stanton, and King all used the words of the Declaration of Independence as a vehicle to advance their movements as a way to prove that the ideas of the Declaration are timeless and universal. Of course, no one really denies these points. What the 1776 commission fails to mention is that all three of these activists (who were attacked by Conservatives as dangerous radicals at the time) brought out the Declaration to show that, in reality, America had failed to live up to its claims. They were using it to point out the hypocrisy of OTHER AMERICANS during their lifetimes and during the writing of the Declaration.

They take their misuse of Dr. King further than the others, as they use a few of his least radical statements, while totally ignoring his more radical statements, as a way to attack other Civil Rights leaders during the 60s and today. This is a comment technique used by Conservatives who choose to pretend that Dr. King was anything other than a radical left figure that critiquing the entire American system, including racism, economic inequality, and overseas materialism. In fact, the FBI considered him one of the most dangerous men in American, surveilling his every move, and compiling a 14,000-page file on him. They accused him of being un-American, linked him to communism, and claimed he was influenced by the Soviets. In fact, Dr. King was so radical that roughly 75% of Americans had a negative opinion of him at the time of his death. All of King’s radical leftist is erased so that he can be used as a sledgehammer to attack other, less beloved, activists.

Defend the Founding Fathers at all Costs: Much of the document is framed as a defense of the founding fathers who were slave owners. In fact, slavery is listed as one of the key threat to American Democracy, but the real threat, according to the document, are those who want to remind folks that many of the founding fathers were slave owners. Here, the authors of the report end up speaking out of both sides of their mouths, arguing that we cannot hold them accountable to our ideas (for example, slavery is bad) while simultaneously claiming that they (including the slaver owning ones) were opposed to slavery deep down. Somehow, the report argues that this is better, when in reality, it proves the very hypocrisy they hope to deny.

In regard to the various compromises around slavery in the Constitution, the report argued that the founders had to compromise on this in order to keep the country united. The report treats slavery like some sort of abstract outside force that the founders had to compromise with. In doing so, they fail to address the reality that the founders were compromising among themselves. Slavery wasn’t some abstract force; it was something many of the founders supported and participated in, even if they claimed it was wrong in some of their writings.

Fascism, Communism, and PROGRESSIVISM, oh my!?!: The report also lists key threats to American Principles, such as slavery, fascism, communism, and progressivism. While progressivism (1900–1920) is certainly open to criticism, the idea that it could be listed with these other topics is outrageous. Of course, the report ignores the elements of the Progressive Era that would be very popular with most Americans, such as the fight were higher wages, ending child labor, democratic reforms like referendums and electing Senators, and women’s suffrage. Rather, they focus on one particular element of some forms of progressivism of that era and apply it universally to the entire movement; that element is expertise and technocracy, which they later linked to the “deep state.” This is even more atrocious (and intentionally so) because the term progressive has made a comeback in modern politics among more left-leaning Democrats.

What is History? Perhaps the biggest flaw in the report is not any single factual mistake or inaccuracy, but it’s total failure to understand what history is. The commission endeavors to convince us that there could be a single narrative that is simply “true” history. Any serious student of history knows this to be ridiculous. History is, as historian Eric Foner, “how the present chooses to remember the past.” It is also the creation of the historian. As historian Howard Zinn, a constant target of attack by 1776 Commission, no history book can contain a full telling of everything and every perspective of the past. By necessity, historians have to make chooses about what to include and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what to de-emphasize. When historians do that, regardless of their political beliefs, they make decisions based on their values. This process, and the debate that takes place among these different historians, is the work of history. That is why there are so many different books on every conceivable topic. The commission's problem is that they are not trying to add a new voice to the discussion. They are trying to claim that there is only one narrative, and thus, should be no discussion. For all their attacks on Howard Zinn and his radical perspective, conservatives always fail to mention that Howard Zinn was very open about this. In his seminal work, A People’s History of the United States, Zinn explicitly states that he is choosing to tell a version of history from the perspective of the oppressed. To their credit, the 1776 commission does (perhaps accidentally) also explain their goals and perspective: they want to make students patriotic by telling stories about great Americans.

Here a Strawman, there a Strawman: One of the most effective techniques used in the report is a fictionalization of those who want to teach a dangerous, insidious, anti-American version of history. The report simply invents a shadowy cabal of evil people who want to teach that American is evil. These Identity Politics (which the document defines in absurd ways) advocates, or activists, that “demean America’s heritage” are the constant targets of attack in the report. They come from evil universities, which are “hotbeds of anti-Americanism” and are responsible for all the division and “violence in our cities.” These bad-actors are trying to push “propaganda” and “indoctrination”, unlike the 1776 commission which is simply trying to teach one, undeniable truth that is the single version of American history to which they subscribe.

Paper versus Reality: The report claims that the teaching of history should focus “almost exclusively on primary sources,” while avoiding the “unfiltered biases and agendas” of modern historians. While the use of primary documents (written during the time period being discussed) is a huge part of any good history program, it cannot be used exclusively. For one, the primary documents will also contain the biases of the authors and reflect their agendas. Now, the 1776 commission wants to do this because they want students to read the Declaration of Independence and discuss how wonderful the ideals were WITHOUT examining the degree to which America lived up to those ideals. They want to focus on words on paper, not reality.

Dissent is okay, but also, shut up! The document mentioned several times that it is okay to mention the bad things about American history. However, the bulk of the document is an attack on those who do so.

These are just a few of the major problems in the new 1776 Commission Report. Sadly, this kind of education is already the norm in many k-12 classrooms, despite their claims that radical history is being taught all around. The battle over how we teach history is not just about the past. It is about the present and the future. As George Orwell said, whoever controls the present controls the past. Whoever controls the past controls the future. I strongly encourage you to read the full document yourself.

Ron Widelec is a high school history teacher in New York City and a progressive activist.

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