a walkout is supposed to be an act of rebellion, of resistance. It involves risk. Like a strike at a factory—if you participate, you might get what you want or you might lose your job. The Enough! walkout was a safe gesture, honored by our governmental and cultural authorities. The national news media—consider the lavish coverage in the New York Times—practically begged the kids to go through with it and heaped praise on them when they did.
Pointer from the WSJ. The way I would put it is that a real protest is an act of disagreeableness. It is not an act that primarily attracts the agreeables.
Let me reminisce a bit.
1. Around 1966 or so, my middle school in the tony suburb of Clayton, Missouri invited a performance by a group called “Up with People!” Their songs were upbeat and patriotic. They were trying to steer young people away from becoming hippies or war protesters. I hated the assembly, and I let other students know that I didn’t like having an agenda thrust on me like that. It was traumatic for me because a beautiful female classmate sneered at me, “Arnold, you have no soul.” It was an episode that marked me as a disagreeable.
2. The biggest cause for protest at my high school was the demand by students for a smoking lounge. It was not my cause, but lots of students fought for it, and they won. So if you think that the 60’s was all about peace and civil rights, think again. At Clayton High School, it was about a smoking lounge.
3. I remember writing a long editorial in favor of gun control for the high school newspaper, but it’s hard to pinpoint when. I want to say it was after Robert Kennedy was assassinated, but that would have been the end of my freshman year, and I don’t think I became involved with the newspaper until at least a year later.
4. It was actually during high school that I peaked as a radical. I lost my radical edge when I went to college. The Swarthmore radicals scared me, because they either seemed cult-like (this was when Lyndon Larouche called himself Lyn Marcus and was a Marxist and he recruited heavily at Swarthmore) or just not very logical in their thinking. I wanted them to be more intellectually sophisticated than I had been in high school, and it seemed more like the opposite. The bottom line is that I just didn’t connect on a personal level with any of the campus radicals.
One factor in my de-radicalization is that I arrived on campus prepared to re-think my entire personality. I had become aware that my high school persona wasn’t working well for me socially, and I made a conscious effort to be less sarcastic and hard-edged.
The group of friends I fell in with as a freshman had very left-wing views, but politics was not their focus. They were more into folk dancing (and I was not–that came later) and classical music (again, I did not really share that interest, but what little classical music I own goes back to chamber music that I saw my friends perform). If I had been more agreeable, I might have at least joined them for dancing.
Come to think of it, my freshman-year friends were very strongly on the agreeable end of the spectrum. In hindsight, I think I fell in with them because unconsciously they represented the direction I wanted to take myself, and it was exciting because they made me feel like it was working.
In my junior year, I took the first of several economics seminars with Professor Bernie Saffran. Bernie was not out to champion any one political view. He wanted to be friends with everyone in the economics profession, and in that he was very successful. He did his graduate work at Berkeley, where he be-friended many young liberals who later achieved very high status within the profession, including Peter Diamond, Laura Tyson, and George Akerlof. Yet his own views were mildly conservative, and in class he had more praise for Milton Friedman than for Paul Samuelson. Although many of his students went on to become prominent left-of-center economists, more than one of us ended up differently. Jeff Miron comes to mind.
On the whole, my memories of my political self in high school are more negative than positive. The Vietnam War was stupid, but the protest movement was stupid in its own way.