Not your 1960s protests

Barton Swaim writes,

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.

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11 Responses to Not your 1960s protests

  1. collin says:

    The Vietnam War was stupid, but the protest movement was stupid in its own way.

    There was a stupid things in protest but does the Vietnam war end without the protest. Or probably a better question is would have Vietnam another 2 – 3 years without the protest? (Maybe students should protest Afghanistan War for an example.) I think it does to honest so I don’t think it is

    1) The Vietnam War was exceptionally popular in 1964 with approvals over 60%.

    2) Even with negative approvals by 1968, nobody wanted to lose the war and it still lasted until 1973/1975. Listening to Nixon in 1968, the goal was to still win the war that Johnson did not fight properly.

    3) Does the media start to question Washington politics as quickly without the protest? Does Walter Cronkite state Vietnam was not going to be a victory in 1968? Do the newspaper sniff out the Pentagon Papers in 1971? Long term I see the protest working.

    4) There was a big generational support for the war since the earlier generations won WW2 against the Nazis and Japan. Vietnam on paper should have been easier compared to those enemies.

    5) We forget how much Cold War politics played in the 1960s. It really bothered this nation to ‘lose’ Cuba to the Russians and numerous South American nations were in the middle of communist revolution. (Probably cost Nixon the 1960 election if you think about it.) My opinion if the US avoided Vietnam, which falls to communist China in ~1966, we end up sending troops to Bolivia (or somewhere else) in the Johnson administration.

    6) I believe that Vietnam was also started because the US confidence and economy were booming and this was started by an over-confidence of a nation. Just like Iraq in 2003. The odd thing about Iraq War 2 is we should declare a victory, Iraq is a democracy and oil production is up!, even if you disagree with the war itself.

  2. Jeff R says:

    I was watching the NCAA tournament yesterday while trying to answer a few emails, so when the games ended and 60 Minutes came on CBS, I didn’t notice at first. Anyway, I wound up watching 10-15 minutes of it and I can confirm the Parkland kids who got the whole Enough! thing going via some Twitter hashtags and youtube videos (not exactly the Selma standoff, kiddies) were all but recommended for beatification and the Congressional Medal of Honor by CBS’ reporters. Fun times, if only because I haven’t watched a television news show in years and I forgot how idiotic they are.

  3. Phil H says:

    I worry that this post contains arguments of the form: “if you protest against orthodoxy, you must be perfect in your arguments, background, and independence of thinking, otherwise you are culpable.”
    If Bartom Swaim and you (Arnold Kling) are right, and the children who protested gun violence are not completely independent thinkers; and are not taking much risk; does that make them wrong?
    If the protesters against the Vietnam war were no smarter or better motivated than anyone else, does that make them not brave? Or does it make them wrong?
    In many ways, arguments based on the purity of the children protesting are a kind of reverse ad hom. Making a straight ad hom argument against them isn’t much of an improvement.

    • asdf says:

      If your goal was to prevent a similar tragedy you would look into things like:

      1) Why wasn’t this guy arrested when there was plenty of evidence to do so beforehand?

      2) Why did so many law enforcement personal that were physically there not intervene?

      And the answers you would get would be very anti-progressive and un-PC.

      Gun control, meanwhile, doesn’t appear to be a driving issue behind these sorts of events. Nor is it the more pragmatic way of attacking the problem.

      One gets the impression that its a bunch of kids being told to do something to protect a narrative and then doing it. If they succeed it seems unlikely to improve things.

      If you have sloppy thinking and little skin in the game your thinking is more likely to be wrong then someone with good information and incentives to be correct.

      • Larry says:

        “One gets the impression that its a bunch of kids being told to do something to protect a narrative and then doing it. ”

        1. Because they are kids does not make them wrong.
        2. If you had just been shot at and seen your friends killed, wouldn’t you have a good motive to try and make things better?
        3. Yes the police screwed up.
        4. But if AR-15s and other semi-automatic weapons were not freely available the tragedy would not have occurred. Maybe a waiting period and required training would be a good idea.

  4. Handle says:

    It’s hard to take any protest or demonstration seriously if there’s really no expected risk or downside, that is, no exercise of courage or bravery involved, and no real sacrifice, not even a day’s wages or leave balance. That kind of costless performative signalling is ridiculous. The Ice bucket challenge was kind of silly too, but at least one had to get uncomfortably cold and wet.

    It’s even more absurd when the “protesters” are just doing something they already want to do, like play hookey, and having a socially acceptable excuse for that and even being praised for it by high status elites is very much icing on the cake.

  5. Tom G says:

    The final part of the article is important:
    “high schools are places of intense conformity. Fear of exclusion cripples and terrorizes its young victims; often you can see it on their faces. They do and think what they’re told.”
    This is further PC indoctrination, attempting to create obedient followers of the PC cult.


    It was good that the US fought in Vietnam, and mostly won. In 1973, with the Paris Peace and separation, which would have duplicated the N/S Korea and shown another example of successful S. capitalism vs much less successful N. communism.

    It was a terrible disgrace that, after winning, the newly elected big Dem majority in Congress decided, in 1975, to NOT support the S. Viet gov’t, the US ally, when the N. violated the peace. The US Dems, against the pleas of Pres. Ford (Nixon already gone), voted to allow the commies to win.

    As the Dems allowed the (Rus-) commies to win in Vietnam, the (Chi-) commies of Pol Pot won in Cambodia and had the worst genocide of my life, 25% of Cambodians murdered, over 2 million. Because commies are evil AND good America refused to fight against them.

    How many would have to be murdered before you would think it was good to fight against the slaughter? The Vietnam war was a proxy war against expansionist communism, one we decided to allow our ally to lose.

    In a similar question, how many Americans would have to die in the Civil War before you think Northern victory was not worth it? (For me, about 2% — pretty close). Lincoln was great, but the war was terrible terrible terrible.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      The Vietnam war was a proxy war against expansionist communism, one we decided to allow our ally to lose.

      Agree with the first, but I think the second is wishful thinking. In fact, if you believe Ray Locker’s Nixon’s Gamble, Nixon himself had pretty much decided the war was unwinnable when he assumed office. But “cutting and running” was unacceptable geopolitically or domestic politically. So he tried to hang on and use the war as leverage for the “opening to China” and for “detente” and strategic arms agreements with the Soviet Union. The war could be lost as long as the USA had hung in there and not shown it was “a pitiful helpless giant” and as long as there was a “decent interval” between a peace settlement and the North Vietnamese takeover.

      It’s a very interesting book, and I thought Locker treated Nixon fairly.

    • Larry says:

      “This is further PC indoctrination, attempting to create obedient followers of the PC cult.

      It was good that the US fought in Vietnam, and mostly won….”

      Sounds to me like you’ve gotten a bit of PC indoctrination, too.

      Just remember Vietnamese are still dying from leftover US bombs and mines and agent orange.

  6. Faze says:

    My high school anti-Vietnam war protest got me kicked out of my public high school and threatened with arrest. I had to finish HS at a sad night school. Finally graduated college five years later than my peers. I caught up eventually, career-wise, but that HS fracas had long-term consequences.

    Looking back, I can see that we were fashionably self-righteous and ignorant little so-and-sos and I kind of resent those adults who led us on.

  7. Charles W. Abbott says:

    Great post and a good discussion. Too bad there aren’t more comments.

    In Jim Carroll’s _The Basketball Diaries_, a truly odd book (I read 30 years ago, still remember fragments) he mentions that he was at the anti-war protests largely to get laid. (This would have been in Manhattan, sometime after Tet. Check the math.) He’s an unreliable narrator, but the point is valid.

    = – = – = – =

    It seems to me that this discussion suffers from nominalism. We need to separate “protests” and “walkouts” into smaller analytical categories, just the way the Greek language has four words for our noun “love.”

    in _The unheavenly city_ Edward Banfield did something like that for the urban riots of the 1960s, in a chapter entitled “Rioting mostly for fun and profit.”

    The school walkouts might be…”administratively tolerated walkouts.” Even if not sponsored or promoted, they seem to be tolerated where I live.

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