In his excellent work, Afgantsy: The Russians In Afghanistan, 1979-89, former British ambassador Rodric Braithwaite quoted a journalist who addressed the challenge of civic courage under the Soviet system. Vladimir Snegirev wrote:
“One can hardly demand civic courage from people who lived in the [Leonid Brezhnev] era of stagnation and mouthed the standard phrases expected from them. Let everyone look into himself and, if he can, let him remember where, when, how, on what occasions he hid behind a falsehood, failed to stand up for the truth, didn’t oppose injustice. No doubt all of us can draw up our own secret list.”
The outspoken journalist’s words applied not only to life in the Soviet Union, however. Disturbingly, they apply today in Virginia and the United States of America. Specifically, the absence of civic courage at the Virginia Military Institute during 2020 accounted for the forced resignation of an honorable and outstanding VMI superintendent – General J.H. Binford Peay III.
During the neo-Marxist cultural revolution in America today, the revolutionaries understand the power of language and its usefulness in changing a society’s thinking and behaviors. Jeff Deist of the Mises Institute writes:
“While [George] Orwell so thoroughly explained how words are stripped of meaning and implicitly redefined, economist and political theorist Friedrich Hayek’s understanding of language helped explain the more explicit and outright commandeering of language we face today. Like Orwell, Hayek was prescient about the corruption of language to serve political ends – and in fact foretold . . . the modern political orthodoxy termed “social justice.”
Deist further explains that social justice, which is “both undefinable and unattainable,” has become “the animating feature of political rhetoric.” That contrived, divisive ideology “presents words as empty vessels to be filled with the latest political meaning, moving from jargon into outright propaganda.”
Thus, a small number of unkind words or acts on the part of individuals – in some cases racist, but in others merely thoughtless – become “systemic,” “structural,” or “institutional” racism. (While unkind, racist, or thoughtless words or actions ought not be dismissed or considered acceptable, many times they have nothing to do with any system, structure, or institution.)
Such corruption of language to serve political ends was precisely what then-Governor Ralph Northam achieved with his infamous letter of October 19, 2020. Reinventing his political persona in the wake of a blackface scandal in 2019 that nearly forced him to resign, Northam used a single unserious but unkind word spoken by an upper class white cadet to a black VMI Rat – during a heated moment of Rat training – to present what he called “the clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism at [VMI].” Northam included several other isolated incidents, but the white cadet’s so-called threat formed the centerpiece of Northam’s accusations and was dutifully repeated ad nauseum by the legacy media, led by the Washington Post’s Ian Shapira.
(The white cadet used the word “lynch,” which I’ve dealt with at length in the Abbeville Institute, https://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/was-there-a-real-lynching-threat-at-vmi/. When a VMI official contacted me about my commentary, he did not refute the analysis but wanted to move on to more recent matters.)
Days after Northam issued his false official statement against Peay and VMI, the superintendent took the dignified step of resigning. There was barely a whimper in his defense by the Institute’s leadership. Tellingly, ten days after Northam’s letter the VMI Board of Visitors (BoV) voted to remove the statue of Lt. Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson from its honored position on post. As Snegirev had written years earlier, they “hid behind a falsehood [and] failed to stand up for the truth.”
In June 2021, the flawed report of Northam’s “independent” investigation of racism at VMI nonetheless provided evidence of Peay’s prudent leadership the year prior:
“While cadets used to take the Cadet Oath at the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park, GEN Peay announced on July 29, 2020, that he was moving the location for the Cadet Oath to an on-post location at VMI.”
“He also announced that the celebration of New Market Day on May 15 would be broadened to honor all VMI alumni who have died for their country and that the parade would be retitled as the VMI Memorial Day Parade.”
Both were measured reforms, but Northam’s interference precluded the opportunity to assess their effect.
By 2022, VMI had changed – perhaps fundamentally – having embraced the identity politics embedded in divisive, Diversity-Inclusion-Equity (DIE)-infected programs and formats. Also by then, the BoV – for reasons best explained by them – decided to honor General Peay with the New Market Medal, the Institute’s highest recognition.
In April 2023, VMI Alumni Agencies announced an upcoming booklet highlighting General Peay’s career. The work emphasizes Peay’s unstinting commitment to excellence, integrity, and developing leaders; his “demand for civility and professionalism” and “the importance of barracks culture.” A former BoV president stated, “People everywhere trusted him. . . . His reputation for integrity, for being a straight shooter, was unmatched.”
Yet this is the same man Northam accused of permitting an “appalling culture,” whom VMI’s BoV and Alumni Agencies failed to defend. Silence is consent. In 2020, Institute leaders failed the test of civic courage. Now they seek to honor the same man, while pretending that 2020 has gone down the Orwellian “memory hole.”
Only three logical options are available:
1), VMI’s leaders now realize they were the unwitting tools of (language-perverting) neo-Marxists who confused them into thinking Peay actually had permitted a culture of structural racism at the school, and they seek to restore Peay’s public image;
2), VMI’s leaders knew all along that Northam’s accusations were false but they lacked the civic courage to speak forthrightly in the moment of crisis, now seeking to honor the superintendent they failed to defend; or,
3) Northam was right about the school’s appalling culture, for which Peay deserved to resign or be fired; in which case the Institute’s leaders today are engaged in brazen hypocrisy, perhaps for financial gain.
Sadly, none of these three options speak well of VMI’s leaders of the last three years.