Home/Rod Dreher/Wokeness Comes To West Point

Wokeness Comes To West Point

West Point warriors-in-training -- or Social Justice Warriors? (VisionsOfAmerica/Joe Sohm/GettyImages)

I received the following e-mail today from an alumnus of the United States Military Academy at West Point. I am redacting the reader’s name to protect privacy:

I hate to pile on to the theme of academics at prominent universities attempting to shut down intellectual inquiry in the name of anti racism, but this is another example of the trend that needs some wider exposure.  The Left wing mob is coming for the service academies, and by extension, our nation’s very ability to defend itself from external enemies.  As a West Point graduate (class of 2017) and a longtime reader of your blog, I thought I should bring this to your attention as yet another example of the madness that is afflicting our country’s elite classes.
This letter needs some background explanation.  It’s not like the Princeton Putsch that you described.  The faculty at West Point are probably the most conservative of any public university in the country.  I can attest to the academic openness and respect for free debate during my time at the school (2013-2017).  The student body is (or was) generally conservative in an institutional sense.  They are not right-wing fire-breathers.  Cadets were pretty evenly divided about Donald Trump’s election.  From what I could observe, so were the faculty.  The Academy’s response to the unrest that has torn the United States apart in the last few months–spearheaded, I might add, by Lieutenant General Darryl Williams, the Academy’s first black Superintendent–was measured and appropriate for the amount of division in our country.  This is not an attempt by people currently in power to shut down debate by other academics.
It is quite the opposite.  It is an effort by young leaders in the United States Army to force the Academy to bow to the Woke Cult and make the Anti-Racism the central feature of the Academy’s curriculum. This policy statement was apparently drafted by a group of recent Academy graduates (classes of 2018 and 2019).   These graduates all came from the top tier of the ranks of the Academy’s cadet leaders.  Two recent valedictorians and First Captains signed this manifesto.  (Other past First Captains include Douglas MacArthur, John J. Pershing, and William C. Westmoreland.)  The other cadets all held high-ranking positions within the Corps of Cadets.  They are the cream of the crop of the Army’s future leaders, the guys and gals that will become generals one day and will be expected to lead America’s sons and daughters in combat.
Their actions are akin to those of the Red Guards in Maoist China.  They are agitating to tear the Academy apart from the ground up and reorient its mission around Anti-Racism.  The fact that our country’s future leaders believe in this nonsense is a sign that our military is in trouble, and cannot be relied upon either to defend our country or to safeguard the interests of all Americans in the performance of their duties.
I don’t expect you to read this entire document or understand completely what’s going on here, but the plain English of it is easy enough for everyone to understand.  Even so, I’ll add in a few notes for context on this document.
I knew some of these cadets personally and professionally in the performance of my duties, but not well enough to be able to speculate about their motives.  The document is filled with concrete policy proposals to address what its authors see as a major problem at West Point.  The effect of these policy proposals is to cede control of the Academy’s entire curriculum from the ground up to black cadets in the name of Anti-Racism.  It is replete with so-called ‘examples’ of racism at the Academy, but most fall apart on close inspection.  Minimally they do not substantiate the charge that West Point needs to be fundamentally reformed to address it.  I interpret most of these anecdotes as pure innuendo and hearsay, totally devoid of context, and not indicative of an institutional problem (they were nearly all sourced from an online anonymous survey).  They would not pass muster for any journalist attempting to investigate them.  It is filled with buzzwords about ‘heteronormativity’, ‘Protestants’, ‘imperialism’, ‘Christianity,’ ‘white supremacy’, ‘Black bodies,’ and the like. I doubt that the writers of this document know anything at all about any of these things, but of course that will not abate their righteousness in pursuit of their holy cause.
This document as a whole constitutes wholesale moral blackmail of the Academy, its graduates, and its present-day leadership.  It consists almost entirely of a recitation of black grievances against whites, with a few token gestures to ‘Latinx’ and ‘Asian’ minorities, but nothing more, probably because it didn’t occur to the writers of this document that there might be more to American history than their single-minded focus on racism.  I should note that the Academy is currently led by a black man (LTG Williams, himself a graduate with many years of honorable service) and that the Corps of Cadets itself has been led by black people (Simone Askew in 2018 and EJ Coleman in 2016) twice in the last five years.  Black cadets are represented at the Academy in greater numbers than their proportion of the population.  Of course, none of this is enough for the Woke Mob.
Do not take comfort in the security which has hitherto been afforded to our nation by our armed forces. We have not been tested against a real enemy in many generations.  When we are, leaders like this will not be able to stand in the field of battle.  You have been warned.

The reader attached a 40-page formal proposal, which you can read in its entirety here. The submission has set off a “comprehensive review of all matters involving race” by the West Point’s Inspector General’s Office, according to Army Times. Here’s the cover letter for the proposal:

And here is a summary of their demands:

I encourage you to read the whole thing. I have a few comments on the text.

  1. This jumped out at me in the signatories’ opening remarks:

Though our recommended actions carry applicability in eradicating many forms of bias and discrimination at West Point, such as sexism, ableism, fatphobia, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and classism, the remainder of this proposal will focus on addressing anti-Black racism as a first step on a long journey—a journey toward an anti-racist West Point.

It is amazing to me that the rising generation of the nation’s military elites have swallowed grievance culture. Do you think the cadets at China’s equivalent of West Point are knotted up over “ableism,” “transphobia,” and “fatphobia” in their ranks?

2) The more you read, the more you realize that these cadets’ minds have been colonized by an ideological virus. To read about individual cadet’s professed experiences of racism at West Point is painful — if they’re telling the truth. The answer to that is to find out who harassed them racially, and hold that person or those people accountable. The answer is to make it clear that there will be consequences for mistreating people on the basis of race. But that’s not good enough. According to the critical theory mind virus,  if you are not affirmatively “antiracist,” then you favor “white supremacy.” What is “antiracism”? Ibram X. Kendi, the lead advocate of “antiracism” and author of How To Be Antiracist, defines it like this:

The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is “anti-racist.” What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism. This may seem harsh, but it’s important at the outset that we apply one of the core principles of antiracism, which is to return the word “racist” itself back to its proper usage. “Racist” is not—as Richard Spencer argues—a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—and then dismantle it.

James Lindsay breaks this down:

This definition, which does not merely mean “against racism,” as one might assume of the term, is absolutely standard in Social Justice. In fact, it reflects the core tenet of critical race Theory that racism is ordinary and pervades everything. As may be seen in Kendi’s use of the word “inequities,” antiracism is to be thought of in terms of equity, not equality.

In critical race Theory, it is simply impossible for racism to be absent from any situation. One may be actively racist by perpetuating racial prejudice and discrimination against non-white people (particularly black people), or passively racist by failing to notice racism in oneself or others and thus failing to address it. Both of these are bad. One can only be “antiracist” by noticing racism all the time, in every person and every situation, even when it is not readily apparent (or a fair reading of the situation—see also, close reading and problematizing), and “calling it out.” This is understood to have the effect of making racism visible to everyone and enabling it to be dismantled (see also, consciousness raisingcritical consciousness, and wokeness).

The identification of racism against non-white people in any situation is always possible and rarely, if ever, falsifiable because it does not have to be intentional or conscious (see also, impact versus intent). For example, if a black customer and a white customer entered a store at the same time, and the white sales assistant approached the white customer to offer help first, this could be identified as racism because it prioritized the white person’s needs (see also, centering). However, if the sales assistant approached the black customer first, this could also be identified as racism because it could be read as indicating a distrust of black people and unwillingness to have them browse the shelves unsupervised. The shop assistant’s perception of her own motivations are irrelevant, and, to be a conscientious antiracist, she would need to admit her racism and pledge to do better.

In fact, the antiracism approach would start from the following assumption, as phrased by critical race educator Robin DiAngelo (author of White Fragility): “the question is not ‘did racism take place?’ but rather, ‘how did racism manifest in this situation?’” (Source.) As such, the racism of the shop assistant in the preceding example—and, more specifically, the racism underlying and defining her interactions with the customers—is fully assumed, though probably hidden (see also, mask).

Antiracism is the name for the practice she is expected to undertake under a Critical Social Justice paradigm in order to critically examine herself, the interaction, her past behaviors, her privilege and positionality within society (and its relevance—see also, intersectionality), as well as her motivations (including, especially, unconscious ones), and to find that racism and then abhor it so that she might fulfill her pledge to “do better.” To fail to do this is taken as a form of complicity—another manifestation of her racism—which is in need of critical examination under an antiracism program, and is very deeply Theorized as such (see also, white equilibriumwhite fragilitywhite comfortwhite innocencewhite ignoranceracial contractanti-blacknessactive ignorancepernicious ignorancewillful ignorancefalse consciousness, and internalized dominance).

The thing you have to understand is that “antiracism” is not what you think it is! It is an Orwellian construct under which an incredibly destructive ideology travels. To repeat: if you are against racism, that doesn’t make you an “antiracist.” You have to be against racism in exactly the way they tell you to be. 

3) Check this out:

Require that humanities and social science courses add lessons and blocks of instruction dedicated to teaching the history and writings of marginalized people. This includes discussing not only Black history, but the history of Latinx, Asian, and other ethnic identity groups in this country. This includes discussing the history and impact of colonization on countries across the world and the United States’ role in imperialism. These lessons must center the work of marginalized groups to ensure their experiences are accurately understood by students. Require each course director to publish proofs that there are no Black scholars in their spaces if they choose to reference none.

I’m actually not against instruction teaching to future military leaders the negative effects of US colonialist policies, but I do not in any way, shape, or form trust the Woke to give a fair, balanced, accurate portrayal of this.

4) Ashley Salgado, one of the signatories, writes that she

looked to my Commander for guidance on how to address recent events in our formation. Though his remarks were genuine, they closed the conversation to any further discussion. He urged our Soldiers to remember the uniform they wear, as if to insinuate that they had to mute their voices because of the U.S. Army insignia on our chests.

Well, yes, you do have to mute your voice at some point because you are a soldier, and soldiering requires deep bonding. If I were a Russian or Chinese psyops officer, I could think of no better way to destroy US military cohesion than to encourage its officer corps to immerse themselves in critical theory and grievance.

Again, I encourage you to read the entire proposal on your own. I have no idea how representative it is of the way most cadets at West Point think about all this. People who are closer to West Point than I are in a better position to judge the accuracy of the West Point reader’s claim that the letter’s signatories “are agitating to tear the Academy apart from the ground up and reorient its mission around Anti-Racism.” But if you know anything about the ideology of antiracism, and how protean it is, morphing to encompass all aspects of life, you cannot possibly be sanguine about its manifestation among leading cadets at West Point.

Here, from the long letter, is a section by 1st Lt. Joy Schaeffer, lamenting that she was not indoctrinated into antiracist ideology by West Point:

The extent to which West Point fails to prepare white Cadets to understand racism and white
supremacy is acutely evident in my experience there as a white woman. Although I graduated as the
valedictorian of my class, I left woefully unprepared to create inclusive environments in future
diverse teams.

I graduated having learned about the importance of diversity and inclusion, but never about the
difference between them. I thought simply having people of many backgrounds was enough to
satisfy both. I didn’t understand the effort required as a leader to ensure that Black service members
feel valued, included, and heard, without having to minimize their Blackness.

I graduated without an understanding of how racism differs from prejudice, or the extent to which
racism is exacerbated by systems of power.

I graduated without an understanding of how I could still be racist, despite my best intentions and
the fact that I have always espoused the equality of all people.

I graduated with a degree in history without understanding the straight line that runs directly from
slavery through sharecropping, lynching, mass incarceration, and police brutality.

I graduated celebrating “how far we’ve come” instead of recognizing “how far we have to go.”

I graduated knowing that my whiteness is a culture, but still oblivious to the ways in which it
structures my interactions with people of color.

I graduated without an understanding of how to identify and call out microaggressions, and that my
silence in the wake of them enables greater acts of racism.

I graduated without an understanding of how to sensitively engage in discussions about the
discrimination experienced by Black people in the Army.

I graduated understanding the concept of white privilege, but not about the specific ways in which it
actively and passively contributes to the continued marginalization of people of color.

I graduated with an expectation that Black people should educate me on racial matters, without
knowledge of how this sense of entitlement to Black labor is premised on my white privilege.

I graduated having learned about the historic “white man’s burden,” but without uprooting my own
white savior complex.

I graduated aware of implicit biases, but not of how they contribute directly to the same systemic
racism that killed George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and too many
others.

I graduated without ever hearing the term “anti-racism.”

She is angry that West Point didn’t teach her how to identify and stand up to microaggressions. This woman, who will presumably be responsible for leading troops in some capacity into battle, is aggrieved by microaggressions. It boggles the mind. What she and her fellow signatories are calling for is political commissars at West Point. In the Red Army, “political commissars” were the officers who maintained political control and indoctrination within military units.

You know how conservatives like to reassure themselves that the US military is a basically conservative institution, and that it will in some sense defend ordinary people from woke militants if they were ever to come to power in the US Government? Wonder what those people think about this 40-page challenge to West Point authorities, from within the cadet corps. While West Point’s Inspector General is looking into the charges of systemic racism at West Point, I hope he is also planning to look into the extent to which the cadet corps is being subverted by this toxic ideology. I know it’s a lot to expect from members of Congress, but it would be nice to hear from them that they are concerned about West Point producing not warriors capable of defending America, but Social Justice Warriors divided against their country and themselves.

UPDATE: I can’t quit laughing at the idea that a person who went to the US Military Academy to be trained in the fine art of making war is bitching because they didn’t teach her how to spot microaggressions.

UPDATE.2: Reader Jakob Knickerbocker says to relax:

As usual, readers of this blog are overreacting. I’ll tell you what’s going to happen: The left-tenant signatories above are going to go to their respective platoons and find that most of their Soldiers (and especially their platoon sergeants, with 10+ years in) don’t give two s***’s about their feelings, don’t have respect for the fact that they graduated West Point and aren’t impressed by the fact that they were “student OIC of rugby” or whatever it was they did. For all that, they above signatories will also find that part of their job is looking for the virtues in Flyover Country specialists when they have to recommend them for Army Achievement Medals after the summer field exercises; they’ll also find that they need to send the kids who, in his office time, wears a MAGA hat at the bowling alley, to a leadership school because, well, who else will lead?

The ambitious signatories will probably try to make it in combat arms because it’s hard to make it all the way to the top without being an infantry officer, or armor officer, or artillery officer or some sort of officer who does kinetic stuff. After the new physical fitness requirements are introduced, this will be easier for the three male signatories than the females. Some of the females will probably try their hand at it, but it will be harder for them and most of them will probably finish their careers as captains or battalion commanders in less ambitious branches (transportation or medical supply, anyone?)

However, some of them will try to stay on in combat arms and, to their surprise, they will find that the vast majority of their soldiers are (the horror, the absolute horror) WHITE DUDES who are into Crossfit, death metal, shitty American beer, six-month marriages to strippers with hazy allegations of domestic abuse and unsustainable indebtedness after spending another $1000 to add another skull to the arm-sleeve tattoo. When headed into an environment like that, these cadets are probably cruisin’ for a bruisin’.

UPDATE.3: A veteran writes:

A quick item in response to Jakob Knickerbocker’s note to you on what woke USMA grads will find upon entry into the Army. Accept for the sake of argument that he’s completely right about the mass of soldiers and their blue-collar, working-class ways. (He is not nearly as right as he presents — there are plenty of woke enlisted among the Gen-Z recruiting base — but he is broadly right.) What he misses is that all this is completely irrelevant. The gatekeepers for an officer’s career aren’t his soldiers — except in an oblique sense — but his superior and rating officers. At company and battalion level, which is to say roughly the first decade of an officer’s career, this doesn’t get too political — except inasmuch as the officer in question avidly implements and openly supports whatever social fad comes down the chain of command. (You can see this in action with the array of Pride-month social-media postings from American military units and personnel.) In the second decade of an officer’s career, as he moves upward to the brigade, divisional, and combatant-command levels, the politics become very important. To emphasize, I don’t mean the partisan politics — smart officers don’t do open party affiliation except at the terminal phase of their careers — but the social politics.

By the time an officer hits O-6 or above — that’s an Army / Air Force colonel, a Navy captain — his career is entirely dependent upon affirmative approval of the DC consensus. The Congress of the United States votes on these promotions, and anyone thinking it’s pro forma should think again. You see this in action outside of promotions: witness the recent decision by both the uniformed and civilian military leadership to quietly distance itself from the lawful law-and-order mission following bad press in the Lafayette Square debacle, or witness the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs telling the Congress that he is open to renaming longstanding United States Army bases. Neither action emanates from any meaningful demand of the rank and file — I can tell you firsthand, as a Fort Polk veteran, that no one knew, and still fewer cared, who Leonidas Polk was. It does, however, emanate from the meaningful demands of DC-class readers of The Atlantic.

That’s who is in charge of national security these days.

All of which is to say, these woke O-1s, O-2s, and O-3s are very plausibly the future of the United States Army. Their signaling is only partially about USMA: it is much more about marking themselves for the careermakers in DC — within and outside of the formal Army — and benefitting from it accordingly. An O-6, O-7, or O-8, who knows very well that his political superiors in the DC-groupthink cohort love BLM, is going to see professional advantage for himself in reaching down into the organization for BLM-supporting O-1s, O-2s, and O-3s. They’ll get — quietly, informally — preferential assignment, advancement, and exposure. And eventually they’ll be in charge.

Americans need to understand.

UPDATE.4: I’ve received two more letters about this post, one from a graduate who still serves, and one from a current West Point professor. I’ve published them in a new post, to bring this issue back to the top of the queue.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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