“Wokeism,” America’s new civil religion, draws on elements of neo-Marxism, critical race theory, social justice and identity politics. Its adherents believe it will lead to a more just society. Its detractors, on the other hand, believe its “cancel culture” will push civil society to the brink. And, for the “woke,” either will do.
The roots of my own unlikely cancellation go as far back as 1987, when Jesse Jackson marched Stanford students up Palm Drive to a rhythmic chant of “Hey, hey, ho, ho! Western Civ has got to go!” The next year, I joined the advisory council of its Graduate School of Business where I was soon invited to fill a one-year faculty vacancy. To everyone’s surprise (including my own), I returned every fall for the next three decades to teach four courses to a generation of exceptional MBA candidates.
Then, last year, before a student-politician boldly posted that “White people need to be eradicated,” I was summoned to respond to an equally disturbing complaint over having “triggered” woke students. Because I didn’t think I’d done anything worthy of the summons and because I had received the distinguished teaching award from students, a “Silver Apple Award” from alumni and been appointed to a faculty chair, I wasn’t worried. Alas, I’d misjudged my peril.
Years after Jackson’s campaign to eliminate Stanford’s requirement to study Western civilization, an Iowa-born, New York Times reporter, Nikole Hannah-Jones, developed what she titled “The 1619 Project.” In it, she presented America as founded on slavery and stained by perpetual bigotry.
With boosts from the Pulitzer Foundation and from George Floyd’s tragic death, her social justice message struck a nerve. However, when a number of historians debunked the pseudo-history, Hannah-Jones repositioned her essay as “a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative.” She followed up with a New York Times Magazine article headlined “What is Owed” making a case for reparations, consistent with her 1995 letter to the editor in Notre Dame’s “The Observer,” in which she likened Christopher Columbus to Hitler.
With police departments defunded, monuments vandalized and cities torched, Dr. Seuss was soon condemned as racist, Mr. Potato Head scheduled for gender reassignment and free speech restricted by social media oligarchs. So, it wasn’t a surprise to see social justice warriors on the previously welcoming Graduate School of Business campus.
Content of character vs. color of skin
In a class I teach, students objected when guest CEOs claimed to have been “color blind.” When I volunteered that I, too, had resisted hiring based on skin color, gender or quotas, and had relied, instead, on character, competence and commitment, some students were offended. To understand why those “triggered” would object to standards of character and competence being added to the emergent holy grail of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), I turned to one of my own daughters.
Sensing my bafflement at the outrage, she immediately wrote back:
“I have known you my entire life, and I know by your words and deeds that you value all people of all races, ethnicities, and genders. I know you are constantly impressed and inspired by immigrants and their amazing stories of courage and perseverance. I’m proud of the work you’ve done. If this younger, “triggered” generation pushes out of their lives all who seek to improve their understanding, teach them, and open their minds to broader ways of thinking, it will be to their detriment.”
I’d taught my kids – and, until now, my students — that talent, character and competence are evenly distributed across every demographic. In response to my determination to be on the lookout for leaders without regard to identity, an offended gender-studies major wrote that she’d not known “whether to scream or throw up.” After all, it had been nearly 60 years since Martin Luther King had dreamt of the day when the content of one’s character mattered more than the color of one’s skin. But, by the time that day happily arrived, “wokeism” had hijacked his dream, re-elevating skin color over character.
As demands for skin-color diversity were broadened to include gender and sexual orientation, a student notified me that I’d called on more men than women in two (of four) classes. Knowing that I was no respecter of persons — whether by gender, race, sexual orientation or anything else — I moved ahead with the course, suddenly aware that my interactions with students were being catalogued by identity.
Soon, a Black Lives Matter advocate asked, of all things, whether I would stand for the American flag. To provide context for my decision, I shared a story. As a toddler, I’d seen my mother take a call from the Department of Defense announcing that her fighter-pilot brother had been killed. Honoring her grief, I’d chosen to stand for the flag under which my only uncle had offered the ultimate sacrifice. The student’s response was presented as an irrefutable argument; my choice was “racist.”
Furthermore, in this woke new world, my professional experience was no longer relevant because of the race and gender I’d been assigned at birth. Despite having created tens of thousands of jobs, promoted women and minorities, and coached scores of entrepreneurs, I was deemed an “oppressor” in the catechism of “wokeism.” Furthermore, the penance for being raised in a “systemically racist” society — founded on millennia of Greek, Roman and Judeo-Christian antecedents, no less — was submission, and, if resisted, cancellation.
The reason behind such tyranny came into focus for me when Condolezza Rice, former secretary of state and current director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, told me she’d shared with her students that the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (9/11’s architect) had felt like “having Erwin Rommel under lock and key.” The blank looks on the faces of her very bright students revealed that they had never heard of WWII’s famous Desert Fox.
Until then, I’d traced the enmity to activists like Jackson and Hannah-Jones. Now, I could see that it also stemmed from students having swapped an education for indoctrination. Those enlisted as social justice warriors had avoided the lessons of history, missed out on refining skills that might have allowed them to judge assertions and denied themselves the insights required to make wise trade-offs.
Because such uninformed activism brought with it a minefield of woke hostility, I kept to myself any reservations I harbored about critical race theory, gender fluidity and climate alarm. And, when Stanford’s math department proposed achieving “racial equity” by eliminating AP math (as racist, no less), I also kept quiet. Instead, I hoped my hardscrabble climb to CEO might inspire those who saw themselves as victims of inequity. Ironically, those who strained to label my uphill journey a product of “white supremacy” were often the very beneficiaries of woke preferences.
To understand this recipe for canceling predecessor generations, I spoke next with Stanford military historian Victor Davis Hanson. Because Hanson had written the following, I wanted his help in gracefully handling the oppressor-victim theme:
“We should not… allow a current affluent, leisured and pampered generation to hijack the past, and damn it to perdition. (They have) not earned the right to… cancel… those of the past who won Gettysburg, or built the Hoover dam, or produced a Liberty ship every week.”
While Stanford had long nurtured a remarkably diverse and admirably inclusive community, it nonetheless rejected Hanson’s counsel in favor of a now fashionable “institutional racism.”
When Graduate School of Business faculty were further instructed to avoid “racist and xenophoic (sic) rhetoric and actions against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community,” I found myself wondering if the addendum were a virtue-signaling accusation, or if it were based on something I’d simply never encountered in all my years at Stanford. And, when the facts behind subsequent murders (of a Capitol police officer and 10 Colorado shoppers) contradicted de rigueur narratives, I wondered if the time had come to move beyond racial memes.
Apparently not. With free markets also labeled “racist,” those of us with responsibilities outside the ivory tower began to feel our “diversity of optic” (based on long experience) had been dismissed in favor of a “diversity of identity” (rooted in ideology). So, while I care deeply about Stanford University, and like and admire its president, provost and business school dean, I was beginning to feel isolated.
Their deference to selective diversity led me to reflect upon a meeting I’d conducted in Berlin as chairman of JetBlue Airways. After the meeting, I’d taken a stroll down Unter den Linden to the Bebelplatz, 500 yards to the east of Berlin’s famous Brandenburg Gate. It was at that plaza, on May 10, 1933, that newly empowered Nazi officials had orchestrated the burning of “objectionable” books. Later dubbed “The Night of Shame,” the conflagration eventually contributed to Germany’s liberal democracy turning a blind eye to Kristallnacht, the Holocaust and an appalling rationale for war.
While loath to compare such a long-ago shame with how I was currently feeling in Palo Alto, of all places, I remembered being impressed that, in Berlin, the survivors of that era’s cancellation had later inserted “stumbling stones” between pavers to ensure that all who followed neither forget, nor repeat, that calamity.
As I traversed the once-riven capital city, the ground-level reminders had provoked in me a surge of optimism. Surely, the world would avoid the sort of conflict for which my own father had gone to war. Surely, everyone realized by now that banning books, restricting free speech and stoking fear would lead to tragedy. And, just as surely, America would eventually reject totalitarianism, even in its “wokest” form.
Yet, here I was, only three years later, 6,000 miles to the west of Berlin, sensing I was perilously connected to a prior generation’s intolerance. Adding to my anxiety was a discovery that my grandchildren’s generation were being scheduled to view an honorable heritage through a lens cleverly manufactured to provoke shame.
Forced to consider moving to a less hostile teaching environment, I heard from former students. One female “of color” offered that, of all her professors, I’d been the most supportive of women and minorities. Another confirmed that the majority of his classmates felt silenced by the threats of a racist label. One student even scolded me for having allowed “the slings and arrows” of the woke to achieve their hoped-for effect.
I smiled wanly to see that Prince Hamlet had somehow survived Jesse Jackson. I, on the other hand, had failed utterly to anticipate the distorting polemics of identity politics. The script advanced during America’s annus horribilis had pitted race against race, gender against gender, and generation against generation, all risking a degradation of spirit worse than any virus.
As a former CEO, it seemed to me that the narrative had gone well beyond gaining political or market advantage. It had even exceeded antifa’s hope for French-Revolution-style anarchy. In fact, by 2021, it looked like a bold attempt at a hostile takeover of mankind’s best hope for peace and prosperity.
This conclusion led me to contrast two Americans best known for their connections to societal breakdown — a mid-19th-century Abraham Lincoln and a mid-20th-century Saul Alinsky. I selected Lincoln because he’d guided America through a civil war, and Alinsky because his dream had been to provoke civil unrest by inciting those he called the “have-nots” against those whom he called the “haves.”
President Lincoln’s observation of America’s vulnerability mirrored community organizer Alinsky’s precondition for a successful revolution. Thus, the warning attributed to Lincoln that “America will never be destroyed from the outside; if we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves” was the basis for the race and class warfare Alinsky welcomed by rewriting history, inciting envy and “canceling” a large portion of the population.
Whereas Martin Luther King had called upon our “better angels” to subordinate our differences to shared values and, thus, to overcome what Condi Rice called our nation’s “birth defect,” Alinsky chose to repudiate King’s redemptive dream. If he could get people to ignore e pluribus unum (America’s motto since 1782), he might be able to overcome the spirit under which the nation had thrived.
By 2020, the pandemic had offered activists a unique opportunity to cleave the nation along identity and tribal lines, skirting the 238-year-old aspiration that had been Alinsky’s steepest obstacle. Using a fear of cancellation to silence half the population, SJWs dismissed the steady social progress that was the trademark of the world’s most successful multicultural society. Instead of celebrating the progress flowing from our commonalities, they fomented division by pointing to historical injustices.
Between a pandemic, racial tensions and the absence of a Lincolnesque figure to bind up our wounds and bring us together, America was, indeed, vulnerable. As its citizens awakened to the soft tyranny promoted during the pandemic, many felt betrayed by institutions they’d once admired and leaders they’d once trusted. And, for my part, I discovered that the experience I’d had with cancellation in the academy was being repeated all across the nation.
While I may well survive, America will not survive the rewriting of its history, the violation of its Constitution and the abandonment of the freedoms it has promised to citizens of all political persuasions, ethnicities, genders and orientations. No matter our differences, unless we preserve free speech, secure our Constitution and re-enthrone individual responsibility over victimhood, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will be unable to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
And Alinsky’s vision will have canceled Lincoln’s.
Joel Peterson is the Robert L. Joss Professor of Management at Stanford University, the former managing partner of the Trammell Crow Company, the former chairman of the board of Overseers of the Hoover Institution, the former chairman of JetBlue Airways and the founder and chairman of Peterson Partners, a sponsor for a quarter century of more than a dozen funds covering private equity, venture and real estate investments in hundreds of companies and real estate projects across the nation and throughout the world.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Nikole Hannah-Jones as Nicole Hannah-Smith. It has been corrected.