Here Come the Thought Police

Political correctness has struck the Virginia Military Institute. Eight cadets are under investigation for wearing inappropriate attire to a Halloween costume ball. Two cadets dressed in pink as winged fairies, one painted himself black and wore a loincloth, and three–the ones who evidently stirred the greatest response–donned swastika armbands and gave the Nazi salute. Now student investigators are pondering punishments ranging from verbal admonishments to grueling solo marches. (See the story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.)

Let me make it very clear: I don’t find anything remotely amusing about Nazis. War crimes and genocide are not funny. Neither do I find anything amusing about poking fun at half-naked, South Sea savages, or gays (assuming that’s who the cadets dressed as fairies had in mind).

But do tasteless adolescent pranks really require institutional chastisement? It’s one thing to have actually committed war crimes as a servant of the Third Reich. It’s another thing to wear a Nazi armband and espouse the Nazi ideology–acts that, as offensive as they are to most Americans, are protected by the right to free speech. It’s another thing entirely to wear a swastika to a costume party and pretend to be a Nazi. Juvenile? Sure. Insensitive? No question. But was the act so egregious to warrant a punishment more serious than the social opprobrium of the offenders’ fellow students?

I don’t think so. The people we should worry about aren’t adolescent cadets with a lousy sense of humor. It’s the scolds–the true heirs of the totalitarian Nazis–who would convert expressions of undesirable thought into punishable offenses.

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  1. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs

    Those same VMI cadets could have just stayed in their room, drinking to excess, and watched tasteless and insensitive sketches and cartoons on the Comedy Channel–with no possibility of punishment.

  2. Chris Brancato Avatar
    Chris Brancato

    I read this on Drudge and the article has a definate negative spin. These cadets will likely be tried in the court of public opinion.

    I think it’s easy to draw a conclusion about their behavior without the context it was performed in.

    Since when is bad taste anything but that?

    Should the school sanction them? I’m not sure. It do think if fair to say that some of my acts as a college student varied only in there was not an availabity in rapid media.

  3. {I guess we wouldn’t have this type of a problem if the House of Delegates would only pass the proposed anti-bullying legislation.}

  4. Chris Brancato Avatar
    Chris Brancato

    Ouch…now that’s personal. I’ll pass on the slap down you so deserve for that one.

  5. by James Spady, member R-IMC editorial collective
    Email: james (nospam) (unverified!) 31 Jan 2005
    How the VMI cadets defended and condemned the Nazi uniforms, blackface, and homophobic costumes at their Halloween Party in October 2004 and what it might mean…
    “Get a life!” “Give me a break!” And “you have too much time on your hands” was the attitude of many of the VMI cadets who wrote comments to the Richmond Indymedia piece last Thursday that featured photos of cadets in Nazi uniforms, in blackface, and mocking homosexuality. They and those who wrote-in comments like “i give props too those soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines!!!” conformed to the nasty expectations many readers had of the cadets’ attitude.

    See the original article:

    Other comments, however, revealed disagreement about the costumes within the ranks of the cadets themselves. The commentary here and at, which picked up the story from AP, showed the culture of uniformity at VMI at its worst, demonstrating that students had been disturbed by the displays yet for whatever reason they had mostly kept quiet until the story broke at Richmond Indymedia. That stifling has been a persistent problem at VMI, and one that discredits its current martial culture as anti-democratic.

    Something approaching a majority of cadets now become civilians and begin working lives—sometimes as the bosses of others. Of those who do join the military, most if not all will become officers, a fact the cadets themselves are most proud of. In either case, it is obviously important to criticize how the military academy’s culture handles dissent. As “Concerned Cadet” wrote: “leaders of troops, businesses, and many American institutions all participated in the many customs of VMI.”

    Dissent was clearly present during the Halloween party. Some students viewed the jokes as offensive, or perhaps not even as jokes, and said as much, demanding the Nazi-clad youth leave. Among the comments cadets made at Richmond Indymedia, at least three anonymous writers wanted the IMC readers to know cadets had been “pissed off” about the display:

    “James” said “one of my friends at the school is Jewish and very strict in his faith. When he saw the Nazi uniform he spoke out. He was not alone and many other people said something until the people in the nazi uniforms left the festivities.”

    “Mike” wrote “I’d just like to point out that the majority of the corps here was appalled at the nazi costumes. Many of us were just as pissed off as the rest of you, so don’t assume that we’re an institution that supports this kind of behavior.”

    “Rat” wrote “Most cadets acknowledge that the irresponsible and immature actions of a FEW cadets were inappropriate and ruined the night for the rest of us.”

    But for some reason, possibly because they don’t much care what other cadets think, and possibly because they don’t even speak with cadets that disagree with them, many cadets wrote anonymously with scorn, laughter, and delight. And a clear sense that they would do it all over again:

    “Lt. Dan” wrote “Hell yeah..i give props too those soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines!!! i mean who gives a shit if they dress up as nazis, gays, and faries. at least one day they will be serving our country and preserving the Freedoms, such as FREEDOM OF SPEACH!!! HOOOOOOAH!!!! Silverfox75 out.”

    “h” claimed “there are numerous Jewish and even African and Middle Eastern cadets at VMI who saw no problem.”

    “Cadetskiier” wrote “We have African, Asian, Hispanic, Kenyan, Puerto Rican, Polish, Hungarian, German, and homosexual cadets within our walls, none of which were offended in the festivities during Halloween.”

    “Concerned Cadet” wrote “To my knowledge the cadets present at the festivites did not express anger or resentment and laughed at the jokes.”

    It’s worth noting that VMI lost its bid before the Fourth Circuit Court to reinstate its nondenominational prayers in part because the court did not believe the prayer was voluntary. VMI had argued that cadets did not have to say or even listen to the prayer, but the court had found that the disciplinary regime of the institution would tend to undermine any true choice. In other words, the culture of the place undermines freedom of choice by design and would not necessarily allow for even tepid, silent, dissent from the prayer tradition. Since VMI was a public school… no prayer.

    The obvious disagreement between these cadets about the Halloween costumes just as obviously did not get a significant airing at the school. Why? Perhaps because of the disciplinary culture of the place, which has experienced some substantial dissent but remains quite unaltered. But in recent decdes, the student body has changed a lot and most VMI students no longer join the military. These students–or rather a handful of them–could force changes.

    Remember that it was a woman who wanted to join VMI—not a critic—who brought the suit in 1989 that forced VMI to admit women. And in the more recent prayer case, when the Supreme Court refused to hear VMI’s appeal, letting the lower court ban stand, it closed a case that had begun with VMI student dissent.

    Two cadets had asked the administration to change the prayer, but had been refused. A student chaplain had commonly recited the prayer shortly after cadets entered the dining hall. The prayer always concluded with the phrase, “Now, O God, we receive this food and share this meal together with thanksgiving. Amen.” When the objecting students were refused by VMI administration, they rather boldly sued.

    Why did none speak out more forcefully about the blackface and the Nazis? I can hear the howling of the VMI barracks at my merely asking that question. As one commentator to R-IMC wrote last week, it’s a matter of “free speech,” so shut up (and get a life). I’m sure there still are many people at VMI who also believe the prayer was a matter of free speech for those wishing to pray (and make others listen). But the Courts disagreed and stopped it. The courts are not an option this time, nor should they be. Clear sunshine can change the VMI culture.

    So, taking the side of the cadets who opposed Nazi dress in the barracks, why did this not become a campus issue in 2004? Short answer is nobody wanted to force it, I guess. But why would it require pushing to get it aired? I don’t know.

    But there was a uniformity of text and content in many of the cadets’ declarations about the virtues of the school. And I wonder if it is not excessively difficult for students to criticise the institution’s culture forcefully enough to effect changes. It’s not just that so many declared the place or themselves exemplars of “honor,” “discipline,” and “virtue” (to offer their own words). How they described the identity of the place—its narrative and historic function–seemed daunting and narrow. Several posts described a handful of the school’s illustrious former graduates. To some non-VMI readers it seemed like they worked from a script as several different cadets cited the same WWII hero, a cadet killed in the civil rights struggle, and the captor of Saddam Hussein. Repeated so many times and in such similar fashion, these comments look like heroic legend. And as their bitterness showed, you don’t mess with heroic legend. People get angry and defensive.

    Cadet “Jeff” wrote, seeming to think his remarks made the bigotry of the blackface immaterial, that he had “heard many racial jokes… but when it comes down to it one cadet (Johnathan Daniels) laid down his life to save a young girl’s… during trials for a civil rights movement.”

    And “Unknown” wrote: “What the hell does any of this have to do with any
    of you? Why should you complain about something that goes on in barracks. You do not live here. It does not concern you. If people would just go about there own business and quit worrying about what other people do, there wouldnt have been a hitler, because he wouldnt have cared what the jews did. Stay the hell out of our business and we will stay out of yours!” Certainly, the millions of Jews killed in the holocaust would find this remarkable and naieve logic. It was not noise against anti-semitism but silence that fed the politics of the final solution.

    The most amazing thing about this situation, after the costumes themselves, is the silence that followed for months. The apologists inside and outside the VMI cadet corps will say it’s because the whole thing does not matter. But it does matter and it did to some who were there.

    Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore argued against the Supreme Court’s decision not to her the appeal of the prayer case. When he lost he declared in language that the cadets defending the costumes used. “It is disheartening that while American soldiers are fighting for our liberties in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, our young men and women training to be soldiers and leaders at VMI are prevented from praying for their safety as a body,” he said.

    Kilgore’s remark shares with some of the cadets a very conformist logic. Kilgore feels that only prayers offered “as a body” can be effective: perfect unity. The apologist cadets declare that nobody was offended by the blackface or the Nazi uniforms: perfect unity. From students at a school that prides itself on conformity to discipline we are told that silence—at a prayer or at a party—means comfort. These particular cadets did not hear any objections and therefore they didn’t exist. None of your business. VMI is a “family,” a “brotherhood.”

    The administration, which authorized this party and must have some idea of the attitudes of some of the students, did not hear anything and therefore it did not exist. They set the tone for much of the student culture. It is against their policies that former students have had to protest, to sue, to change. And in my opinion the problem rests just as profoundly with the administration of such a profoundly undemocratic school culture that so stridently lauds itself as a guardian of the Republic.

    This site is still here, cadets. Use it. There’s plenty of argument here. There’s anonymity. And there’s no censorship.

    Parts of this story dealing with the prayer case—especially the quotes—based on an AP story from April 26, 2004.
    For women at VMI see Philippa Strum, Women in the Barracks: The VMI Case and Equal Rights (U. of Kansas Press, 2004).

  6. Diesel Avatar

    I think it's easy to draw a conclusion about their behavior without the context it was performed in.

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