As a retired Marine officer and a recovering academic, I’ve long maintained that we need military officers whose mental and moral horizons transcend the institutions they serve as well as the partisan politics of the day. I was heartened to learn that we have such an officer in our current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley. On June 23, Milley was attacked at a congressional hearing over the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) to Army cadets at West Point.
Forget the old stereotype about career soldiers having shiny shoes and empty heads. “I do think it’s important for those of us in uniform to be openminded and to be widely read,” Milley stated. “I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military ... of being ‘woke’ or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there.”
I would remind readers of two things: First, to study a theory is not to present it as unquestionable dogma akin to the precepts of the old “Baltimore Catechism” I had to memorize in Catholic school. I presume West Point cadets are free to debate and question the relevance of CRT to improving race relations in the Army and in our society at large. Second, Milley was referring to “woke” in the pejorative sense used as a putdown by those on the far right. In their view, the “woke” rub our noses in major and minor instances of injustice and discrimination our society refuses to recognize or resolve. The “woke” seek to raise our consciousness in order to shame us into accepting their far-left agenda—or so some conservatives believe.
Stuff and nonsense! The opposite of “woke” is to be oblivious or insensate. To my mind, that describes the state of the conservatives railing against CRT. I’m reminded of what those discomfited by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s were wont to say: “Our colored” — the polite term back then — “were perfectly happy until these outside agitators got to them.” No, they were not happy. And they are unhappy still.
I am further reminded of the paranoid people who used to worry that fluoridated water might be a communist plot to weaken our minds. Now such people are decrying CRT as a communist plot to indoctrinate our children and to exacerbate division within our society. The supposed evidence for that is twofold: The leading proponent of CRT, law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, is a self-described Marxist, and CRT does focus on class divisions within our society. What some don’t understand is that to be an academic Marxist is not to be a communist. Communism is an imperfect, totalitarian application of the political theories of Marx and Lenin. Academic Marxists merely believe our history, politics, and artistic expression can best be understood in terms of socioeconomic class competition and conflict. And anyone who believes America to be a classless society is living in the apocryphal Never-Never Land of American Exceptionalism.
The irony is that CRT is never going to be taught in its entirety in our elementary and high schools. It is an academic construct, and to be sure, its premise is questionable. Its jargon is off-putting. For instance, it is grounded in the premise that “race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of color” (CNN).
Granted, our attitudes and preconception regarding groups that differ from us physically are culturally constructed, but those cultural constructions proceed from the recognition that certain minority groups do look different from the rest of us. We are not a colorblind society, and the extent to which people of color continue to be, or even to feel, discriminated against is a legitimate topic of discussion in our classrooms. The point is to open a dialogue and to promote mutual understanding. Regrettably, some private schools are riding the reactionary wave of so-called “patriotic education,” which washes away the stains of our past and holds the continuing complaints of minorities to be unfounded or exaggerated. That is indoctrination, not education.
As for General Milley, I find it ironic that pundits and politicians who profess such reverence for our military are now denouncing him for gainsaying their hysteria over CRT. For my part, I applaud the general for establishing that the much-maligned “military mind” can be, and should be, an open mind. Shiny shoes, yes; empty heads, no!
A former enlisted Marine and a Vietnam veteran, Palm retired from the Marine Corps as a major and went on to an academic career. He lives in Forest and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.