Edit: On January 20th just after his inauguration, President Joe Biden issued “Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities through the Federal Government,” which will review the impact of Federal programs on underserved communities. It also rescinds Executive Order 13958 which called for the publication of the “report” I review below.
Yesterday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the White House published their “The 1776 Report: The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission.” The announcement was sufficiently banal that I almost did not realize how truly insidious this thing was. I nearly scrolled right past to make some pithy remark about the Trumps refusing to host the traditional coffee reception at the White House.
“1776 Commission — comprised of some of America’s most distinguished scholars and historians — has released a report presenting a definitive chronicle of the American founding, a powerful description of the effect the principles of the Declaration of Independence have had on this Nation’s history, and a dispositive rebuttal of reckless “re-education” attempts that seek to reframe American history around the idea that the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.” — White House Releases
If not for a tweet from the Citizens for Ethics I might have walked past this particular deeply racist rabbit hole.
After all, the announcement can be characterized as somewhat incendiary, but the Commission itself becomes what it claims to refute. In all but substance it is ordinary and well-disguised. It blends in. You don’t notice initially how insidious it is because it is banal. It is fascist myth-building camouflaged as a textbook. It is another piece of evidence for Hannah Arendt’s thesis.
While the announcement claims that the most “distinguished scholars and historians,” have written it or contributed to it, it neither bears any scholar’s name — or any authorial indication at all for that matter — nor is it written in the notable style of any “distinguished … historian,” who might have been tapped to take part. Through a CNN report I have discovered that the chairs of the commission are Larry Arnn and Carol Swain both of whom have distinguished academic careers despite having published some seriously questionable content.
I therefore, do not expect this report to be academically rigorous and based on my initial skim it does not include reasonable citation and has been formatted to look like a child’s introductory textbook.
The commission which created this report was — unsurprisingly — convened via an Executive order. (Executive Order 13958 — Establishing the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission.) The fact that an Executive order was used to convene a commission is not really a big deal in and of itself, but the problem is everything else involved in this.
The first issue is the title. In 2019 the New York Times launched it’s 1619 Project which provides resources to students, teachers, historians, and the average American to learn about the impact of slavery on our nation, culture and history. It’s pretty clear based on Trump’s own comments that the title of this Commission is meant to be a rebuttal of the 1619 Project. (It is additionally interesting that the Trump administration tried to counter the 1619 Project via funding given that the resources are free to access and use.)
The second issue is the timing. This Executive order was issued November 2, 2020. The 2020 Presidential election which Trump lost was completed on November 3rd and due to the number of absentee ballots and early voting conducted in concert with the registration drives it should have been reasonably clear to both Trump and his administration that they were unlikely to be elected to a second term. Within the order there are deadlines. For instance it calls for the formation of the commission by March 2, 2021 and asks that a report “which shall be publicly disseminated,” be produced “within 1 year of the date of this order.” Said report I believe is the “1776 Report,” but otherwise this Executive order basically called for a racist assessment of our history to be provided by the commission and then implemented into school curriculums despite the fact that Trump and his people pretty much knew they were not going to remain in power.
But the order that deeply concerned me was that to “advise and offer recommendations to the President of the United States Semiquincentennial Commission.” Said commission will be involved in plans well before 2026 when the anniversary is meant to be celebrated, but 2026 is not even in this coming Presidential term. Had Trump been elected in 2020 — barring abdication or impeachment and removal — his final term would have ended January 20, 2024. 2026 will fall either in Joe Biden’s second term or — barring exigent circumstances — the first term of the 47th President of the United States of America. With normal Presidencies and normal Executive orders this all would be simply an administrative matter, but in such a clearly fascist document the mention of this Commission existing in its current form through to 2026 implies that Trump believed he or one of his disciples would still be President that far into the future.
This brings me to my third concern about this Executive Order. This is pretty clearly fascist national myth building and an attempt at widespread indoctrination. There are problematic passages throughout, but the sixth paragraph opens with the words “As these heroes demonstrated, the path to a renewed and confident national unity is through a rediscovery of a shared identity rooted in our founding principles.” That would be fine if the referenced heroes, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., were not being referenced with the very cynical intent of warping their legacies and appropriating their historical authority for an overtly authoritarian intent. Without a shred of irony the paragraph continues, “Without our common faith in the equal right of every individual American to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, authoritarian visions of government and society could become increasingly alluring alternatives to self-government based on the consent of the people.”
The final big problem with this is that the point of both the commission and Executive order is pretty overtly meant to impose a white supremacist friendly curriculum in American education. This is brainwashing. The text tries to present the case such that any argument against it is an argument against historical accuracy, equality, and critical thought, but because the facts don’t support the argument it all falls apart pretty quickly. But while this is easily dismantled it is still an Executive order and it is still arguing — albeit fallaciously — from a position of power. I doubt very much that most of the women burned to death by witch hunters were actually witches, but that does not change the fact that they were killed in a remarkably cruel manner.
But as mentioned in the opening of this article this report was released on MLK day. Whatever the previous intent had been the timing of this release was clearly done to inflict pain for no reason on Americans of colour particularly Black Americans, women, and the majority of Americans who actually do believe in equality and support our constitutional democracy. I have faith that Biden will either overturn this Executive order or populate the commission with scholars who can faithfully explain the period of the American Revolution and founding. But, as some white supremacists are trying to have this adopted as is into their curriculum and taught to children who do not yet have the critical thinking skills to deal with it, I do find it necessary to properly dismantle it.
My intention for this article is to carefully read through this “report” if it can be called that and explain its shortcomings. From my initial skim the report is based largely on logical fallacies and the standard white supremacist playbook. I expect there will be historical revisionism to be addressed.
There’s nothing truly terrible about the introductory section. Some of the language it quotes from the Executive order whence it came is unnerving and fascistic, but devoid of that context it would just be a standard political approach to history. It flirts very close to the definition of propaganda, it reads less like a White House report and more like a elementary school project, and there does not seem to exist the use of citations, but if I hadn’t read the Executive Order with it’s clearly fascistic language and intentions I would understand this introductory section as simply and attempt to be inspiring written by someone who has never done that before.
What is concerning particularly in context is the inclusion of quotes from Abraham Lincoln and the famous picture of Martin Luther King Jr. during the Million Man March. This appears to be a polemic set up. I suspect the argument will be that a person who disagrees with the illiberal and anti-American theses put forth in this report is arguing against Lincoln and King.
The Meaning of the Declaration
Before I begin reading this section I have to say I’m a bit shocked that whoever wrote this thinks they can create an articulate apologia to the Declaration of Independence in four pages. I won’t pretend that the Declaration of Independence is particularly complex. It is not. But four pages is not sufficient to give its history or even its “meaning.”
In fact, the author did fail to properly address or even touch on the “meaning” of the Declaration of Independence. This section is meant to be about that and the argument I believe is meant to be that no one person is imbued with a divine right to rule, but that nativism and systemic discrimination is acceptable as long as it was considered relatively normal with few dissenting voices at the time of our nation’s founding.
I was lulled into a sense of complacency with the introductory section. As I said, if one ignores the Executive order and the President who signed it, there is nothing truly objectionable or even thoroughly wrong about the introductory section. That much cannot be said of this section.
In no particular order, the section doesn’t really address the Declaration of Independence choosing instead to linger on a single short quote from Federalists 2 without examining the context in which the Federalist Papers were actually written.
The historical basis is just bad. At one point the author insists that “ancient philosophers,” — defining neither “ancient” nor “philosopher” — saw ‘wisdom as title to rule,’ but it’s not cited and doesn’t really make sense in the argument. I would guess that the author is referencing Plato or possibly Sophocles, but even for “philosophers” who actually did say or write that context is crucial. Plato’s Republic was written for a reason. One can’t simply lift quotes and expect it to go unchallenged. But the author hasn’t even done that. At the end the historical revisionism takes on a whole new extreme with the author suggesting that religious war did not exist prior to Christianity and also there was no difference between religious and “profane” law. Somehow in the space of a single paragraph the author covered an entire millennium, suggested it occurred only in the course of about three hundred years, and missed the entire point of their own argument.
But the final concern which I will address is the subtext. I am not truly convinced that this author is sufficiently cunning to actually write subtext and it is possible that its existence is simply a manifestation of the author’s bias, but it does seem to exist. Unlike in the introduction where the existence of women in the American Revolution was tacitly acknowledged, this section is replete with erasure. It repeats that ‘men are created equal’ with the implication that women are not. Additionally, there is a nod to the 18th century neo-Classical (or medieval if you like, several philosophies played into this concept) idea of the order of the family, state, and church being hierarchical in all manner, natural and necessary. There is also a complete and I do think intentional erasure of Native Americans with the words “its people have shared a history of common struggle and achievement from carving communities out of a vast, untamed wilderness …” And lastly, I thought it was quite sneaky calling Algernon Sidney a “republican,” and not defining that that is as or possibly more different as Abraham Lincoln’s Republicanism was from present day American Republicanism.
A Constitution of Principles
What I have not yet noted, but what has been true throughout the entirety of this “report,” is that pictures and notable quotes are scattered throughout. These are not necessarily relevant to the text. I think they are placed aesthetically. I however bring it up because the formatting does become questionable. On page 6, after some very poorly structured arguments — also a problem in the previous sections — the author attempts to quote Thomas Paine. Paine’s quote does appear at the top of page 7, and in blue italics, but just after the colon announcing Paine’s quote is another quote from Alexander Hamilton in red italics in a bigger font size.
Also on page 7 is a portrait of Frederick Douglas who is not mentioned in the text of page 7, did not live at the time of the events being discussed on page 7 and is not mentioned again until page 12.
This section is actually quite chilling. Again, read devoid of context it’s just a poorly written bit of partisan historical revisionism, lacking a discernible thesis, and given to exclusion and poor formatting. But in context, the thesis is very clear. This report was released on January 18th just twelve days after Trump’s attempted coup d’etat. Moreover, as I noted above the deadlines in the Executive order and the timing of the order itself are somewhat inscrutable. The best theory I can discern for the argument of this section in particular is that it was written with the assumption that the coup would succeed and that there would be a need to reframe the terroristic antics of the Republican Party and put down any resistance. There is an attempt in this section to imply that popular sentiment is both wrong and dangerous which really doesn’t make sense unless you’re trying to justify keeping a man in power who lost his election. I am relieved that Republican scholarship appears to be as pathetic as its terrorism.
On the theme of pathetic scholarship, besides an enigmatic thesis if we don’t assume the worse, there are also a number of vagueries and outright errors in this section. Most notable is calling the Federalist Papers, “the Federalist.”
Possibly the weirdest part of this section is its very partial coverage of the Bill of Rights. It briefly mentions the Ninth Amendment. Then it explains the First Amendment not as Freedom of Speech or of the press, but as freedom of religion. It then tacks freedom of speech onto the end of that description without really explaining and after a relatively long exposition on the importance and nuance of religious freedom. And then it mentions the Second Amendment, but avoids quoting it and does not argue or explain how the text led to the somewhat hysterical conclusion. After that there is no further discussion of the Bill of Rights. The section ends with no mention of the third through eighth and tenth Amendments. Given the clear political biases of the author I am confused as to why there is no mention of the tenth at least.
Challenges to America’s Principles
The first notable problem with this section can be found in the Table of Contents. Slavery, fascism, racism, and arguably communism are all indeed “challenges” to American “principles.” But for one if we are going to accept communism as one of these problems we need to also accept that taken to extremes capitalism has been a constant source of inequity in the United States. Given that both this “report” and the Republican platform rail against regulation particularly that pertinent to the economic system, if we are expected to accept the excesses of unchecked communism as it leads to fascism and genocide then we need to also accept that the excesses of unchecked capitalism do the same thing. With that in mind we could then understand and even agree with the apparent suggestion here that the “challenges” which impede our nation are essentially the genocide and systemic devaluation of non-white, non-male Americans.
We could, except the section headings also include “Progressivism,” and the phrase “Identity Politics,” alongside racism. I will be interested to see what the argument against progressivism is, but given that Martin Luther King Jr. characterized himself as a progressive and the introduction spent so much time propping him up as it’s supposed intellectual ancestor I cannot imagine it will be terribly impressive. As for identity politics, or — as it is used here — the politically correct way of erroneously claiming “reverse racism,” Stacey Abrams wrote the short but succinct last word on this matter. Having linked it I hope I will not have to return to this issue, but I suspect I shortly will.
On reading the introduction to this section my enumerated fears from above were confirmed. The author has the temerity to list alongside positive progressive changes like abolition, Civil Rights, and suffrage “anti-Communism,” and the “Pro-Life Movement.” I’m not entirely sure what he means by “anti-Communism,” but I am relatively certain it’s stupid, but I am very aware of the openly misogynist anti-healthcare movement that absurdly and counterintuitively calls itself “pro-life.” Said movement was mentioned in the Republican Platform of 2016 along with a resolution to add a Constitutional Amendment which would have effectively eliminated women’s personhood under US law. It would be safe to say that if I had any respect for this author it is now eliminated.
I’m rather relieved the author has recognized slavery as a bad thing. I wasn’t sure he would. I’m not, however entirely relieved nor can I in any way exonerate him. The author has recognized that slavery is wrong and so not only attempts to absolve the founding fathers of any culpability, but also attempts to argue that everyone else was doing it and that the United States lead the charge to abolition. Neither of these claims are anywhere approaching wholly accurate and the second required the author to mostly ignore the Civil War.
Slavery has existed throughout human history and does exist still today, but the practice of slavery in the United States was particularly cruel, based on arbitrary “racial” distinctions, justified via pseudoscience and moralistic nonsense, and continued in legalized form well after it was abolished in most of the rest of the world.
Moreover, while I am happy to understand the “Founding Fathers” as complicated men the fact is that they did own slaves and several of them despite recognizing the hypocrisy, did not even free their slaves on their death.
As it turns out this entire section is a slight of hand. The author clearly wanted the reader to think he was talking about progressivism as we know it today and as it is defined by Martin Luther King. Instead he’s talking in part about the Progressive Era which spanned the ten years from 1896 to 1906. His argument seems to be that regulatory law is bad. But he doesn’t provide any actual evidence to back up the claim and regardless of what the Republican Party Platform of 2016 may claim, regulatory law is just regulatory law. In fact, the “process tradition,” is often created and overseen by what may be described as technocrats. The author’s insistence that they are just bureaucratic is corrupt.
I guess the danger of asking an actual fascist to explain why fascism is bad is that their explanation is likely going to be replete with revisionism and inaccuracies. The author argues that fascism died in 1945 which would be “cute,” except the subject is fascism. The author also downplays Hitler’s role in fascism blaming most of it on Mussolini which isn’t unearned but also very silly. The author also tries to equate progressivism with Mussolini’s political agenda which is “not even wrong.” There’s more in this very short section that is extremely wrong, but in addition to not even mentioning the Holocaust the author implies that American forces immediately hopped to and defended the world — which apparently was doing nothing of import at the time — from the forces of evil. As much as I detest the British historical revisionism regarding World War II I really have to note that the United States did not enter WWII until the bombing of Pearl Harbor and in fact turned away Jewish refugees many of whom as a direct result of being rejected by the United States died in the Holocaust. And the United States was incredibly terrible to Black veterans of the war which — at the risk of oversimplifying a la author of this “report,” — lead inevitably and thankfully to the Civil Rights Movement.
As a first generation Hungarian-American I am very uncomfortable to have to defend communism, but here we are. There are plenty of actually reasoned arguments to make against communism in an argument that it threatens American security. This — like the sections on slavery and fascism —is where the author has managed to fail in spite of it being a rare instance where the facts are actually on his side.
The crux of the argument is that communism is at its base imperialistic, violent, and atheistic. There are arguments to be made in support of that. The reason my grandparents fled Hungary was because the Soviets had extended their empire into a country which rejected them and were violently suppressing dissent. So the author is not wrong, but he manages to not actually state any facts. He then implies that academics and intellectuals are communists. As an academic and intellectual, I take umbrage at that.
This section also includes the phrase, “America won because the Soviet Union was built upon a lie,” which I find unintentionally hilarious.
RACISM AND IDENTITY POLITICS
Shockingly the author does briefly admit that Jim Crow laws were problematic. As with the erasure of the Holocaust there’s no mention of the continued terrorism committed on Black Americans and other people of color including but not limited to voter suppression, lynching, random searches, constant harassment, police shootings, an unequal judicial system, an unequal healthcare system, and redlining, but at least he does admit that poll taxes are bad.
From there the section instantly devolves. As with all racists the author quotes MLK’s “I Have a Dream,” speech to the exclusion of all of MLK’s other work and then makes the erroneous claim that said speech proves Civil Rights has gone too far. The author seems to understand the issue is systemic discrimination resulting in generational wealth, health, and influence gaps but sees no reason to correct any of this.
The Task of a National Renewal
As with the previous section, the subsection headings here are deeply concerning. Before reading I cannot really issue judgement, but the language here smacks of indoctrination and fascist myth building. I should also note as a scholar that it is very frustrating that the United States will not offer public funding for scientific research into — for example — gun violence. There are restrictions put on academics, but these restrictions come largely if not exclusively from conservative voices dissatisfied with facts and empirical evidence.
The introduction to this section further convinces me that this “report,” was written with the assumption that Trump’s attempted coup would succeed.
THE ROLE OF THE FAMILY
This author fell into the very neo-classical/medieval presumptions about family and state I expected him to plummet into. He also seems to assume that families may only exist as “nuclear families.” Rather than dwell too long on this not even sophomoric drivel I would like to simply recommend an introduction to Anthropology course for anyone seduced by this nonsense.
I suspect each subsection will increase in stupidity. This one is definitely dumber and more hypocritical than the last and I thought we’d reached the zenith. In any case, the author is saying that indoctrination is wrong, whilst promoting indoctrination. He also implies that American history is not taught in school. I honestly do not remember learning anything but American history in American school so I can’t imagine what he’s on about but he’s also dictating from the Executive Branch of the Federal Government that only state and local governments should be responsible for curricula. From an incredibly partisan position he also disdains partisan opinions.
A SCHOLARSHIP OF FREEDOM
In this section the author conflates being silenced with honest critical peer review and the requirement in academia for integrity. The problem here is that the facts do not support the author’s feelings or confirm his feelings of superiority or — ironically — victimhood and he is therefore attempting to make an argument to reject them. Fortunately, there is a reason this author is clearly not accepted in academic circles. His arguments are terrible and have no factual basis.
THE AMERICAN MIND
This sub-section is baffling. It opens with a call for myth-building, then it refutes all its previous claims about Americans not knowing anything about our history by claiming that we love it and read histories on it constantly, and then it calls for American artists to make American art despite the fact that American media is the reason American culture is internationally ubiquitous.
REVERENCE FOR THE LAWS
Twelve days after a would be tyrannical authoritarian twice impeached leader who believes he is above the law told a mob of white supremacist terrorists to attack the United States Capitol in his name and kidnap and murder any elected officials disloyal to him he had his own administration publish this report which states, “no one is above the law, and no one is privileged to ignore the law,” and decries both mob and tyrannical rule.
The conclusion is not terrible. Once again I am deeply concerned that the context was meant to be the success of Trump’s coup and the overthrow of American government, but if we ignore that crucial part of this then the conclusion is a bit trite and simple, but otherwise relatively inoffensive.
A Note in Regard to the Appendices
I am as of the present moment, unwilling to subject myself to further intellectual dishonesty. At a later date I may return to dismantle what must be dismantled of the appendices in whatever this thing is, but for now the reader will have to do with a short note.
The first Appendix appears to be simply a copy of the Declaration if Independence. I am confused why a second Appendix with the Constitution and Bill of Rights could not be included, but given the title of this “report,” I won’t belabour the point. However, the first appendix lends a gravitas to the other three which is entirely undeserved. While the entirety of this “report” is a quasi-factual and historically revisionist partisan screed reeking of white fragility and racist paranoia the appendices appear to be more of the same. I find myself resultantly somewhat put out that my Facebook rants have not been similarly published.