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‘We’re just destroying ourselves’: H.R. McMaster courts controversy at SIG event

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Former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster promoted a wide range of conservative talking points at a small Stanford in Government event on Wednesday attended by roughly a dozen students.

Among his theories, McMaster said that today’s curriculum of “self-loathing” in schools may advance critical race theory (CRT), which he called “a form of racism itself,” and warned of growing terrorist threats in Afghanistan.

A 40-year-plus-old academic movement originating in legal studies, scholars of CRT investigate the social constructs that uphold racist behaviors and structures in society. In recent months, it has become the subject of conservative scrutiny, though the academic understanding of CRT often differs from its portrayal by critics and in the media. Though the body of thought has found increasing popularity in contemporary politics, discussions of multiculturalism, ethnic studies and identity politics have often been conflated with the academic concept.

The 1619 Project from The New York Times, a publication that McMaster described as “a lost cause” and gripped by orthodoxy, often draws Republican criticism and generates condemnations of CRT as a whole. Recently, legislators passed bills in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee attempting to ban teachers from introducing discussions of racism, sexism and other such concepts.

Advanced by “a curriculum of self-loathing” in modern educational settings, CRT, according to McMaster, makes empathy between Americans trickier, and in so doing, “we’re just destroying ourselves.” According to Education Week, fundamentally CRT does not necessarily say all white people are racist or create division. “The disagreement springs from different conceptions of racism,” it reads. “CRT thus puts an emphasis on outcomes, not merely on individuals’ own beliefs, and it calls on these outcomes to be examined and rectified.”

Facing the specter of the 2020 general election, it was not unusual to see ex-White House officials and political advisers sharing their accounts of the Trump administration over the years, often with a disapproving tone. McMaster was an exception to this pattern. Although he met often with Trump during his tenure, explaining global conflicts and providing options to best serve national security, he was generally not known to publicly endorse or condemn certain socio-political positions, and his Wednesday talk marked a divergence from previous appearances.

In his recent book “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World,” McMaster espouses similar beliefs and prefaces his writing by saying, “This is not the book that most people wanted me to write.” Instead of a tell-all about his time in the Trump administration, he said that he wanted to write something “that might help transcend the vitriol of partisan political discourse.”

Still, McMaster is no stranger to controversy. The retired Army lieutenant general and Hoover fellow has incrementally shared various extreme perspectives with the Stanford community times before, defending the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in an academic debate and disparaging China’s COVID-19 response in March and April of last year, respectively. 

Terrorism studies experts at the time challenged the notion that the maximum-pressure campaign in Iran was working, arguing that the tactic is an erratic strategy that hurts the Iranian people without leading to positive change in the Iranian government.

On Wednesday, he put forward another seemingly extreme claim, arguing that jihadist terrorist organizations are more dangerous today than they were on September 10, 2001, while advocating in favor of increased military intervention in the Middle East. While numbers alone might support the argument, there has only been one instance of a successful organization-sponsored jihadist foreign attack on the U.S. post-9/11 — when Mohammed Al-Shamrani fatally shot three people at the Naval Air Station Pensacola on Dec. 9, 2019.

Most U.S. attacks by jihadis are by individuals, not organizations such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, according to data from New America, a non-partisan think tank. Individual jihadis have killed 107 people in the U.S. since 9/11. One hundred fourteen people have fallen to right-wing extremist attacks, 17 to ideological misogyny, 12 to Black separatists and one to a left-wing extremist attack.

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Matthew Turk ’24 is a desk editor for The Stanford Daily. He leads the mobile app development team as well and expects to major in computer science. Matthew has participated in several technical and financial internship programs. From January to May 2021, he worked with the frontend development team at Blocklight Analytics in his hometown of Chicago and was the engineering fellow at The Texas Tribune this past summer. His debut novel, An Invincible Summer, went on sale in stores in February. Ask Matthew about astrophysics, football and the automotive industry. Contact him at mturk ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.