Hillsdale, MI. A recent board meeting produced an epiphany about reactions to state governments’ shelter-in-place orders. When I suggested that we should test the waters with a little defiance of state orders and see if police would enforce the rules in the institution about which we were meeting, another member insisted that we should comply. The response seemed to come from little thought or even amusement at what might be a playful recommendation of defiance or a Keystone Kops response. I recognized it immediately and the penny dropped. It was the reaction I had seen so often in public school classrooms from teacher’s pets: Conformity is always the right course. Rocking the boat is disruptive. Teachers and principals know what’s best.

This was Lisa Simpson, the classic teacher’s pet. Conversely, my suggestion was Bart Simpson’s class clown, the one who at least thinks he sees the folly if not the limits of legitimate authority. All of a sudden I was transported fifty years back in time. Even as I tried then to be a good Protestant boy thanks to not wanting to disappoint godly parents, I had a sense when authority overreached. Principals sometimes tried to show their power and smooth school functions by petty rules that could easily be ignored when no one was watching. And if the person watching was a hall monitor, whether student or volunteer mother, boy did many of us know these were laughable enforcers of order.

Speaking of fifty years of history, the anniversary of the Kent State shootings is an occasion to contrast the pandemic’s Lisas and Barts. At the New Yorker, Jill Lepore reminds readers of the degree to which Americans used to praise protesters:

Students on college campuses had been protesting the war since 1965, beginning with teach-ins at the University of Michigan. By 1970, it had seemed as though U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam was finally winding down; now, with the news of the invasion of Cambodia, it was winding back up. Nixon, who had campaigned on a promise to restore law and order, warned Americans to brace for protest. “My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home,” he said. “Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed.”

Nixon’s Cambodia speech led to antiwar protests at hundreds of colleges across the country. Campus leaders called for a National Student Strike. Borrowing from the Black Power movement, they used a black fist as its symbol. The number of campuses involved grew by twenty a day. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but others were violent, even terrifying. In some places, including Kent, students rioted, smashing shop windows, pelting cars, setting fires, and throwing firebombs. In Ohio, the mayor of Kent asked the governor to send in the National Guard.

Nixon hated the student protesters as much in private as he did in public. “You see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses,” he said the day after the Cambodia speech.

Of course, many Americans disapproved of the protests and supported Nixon’s prosecution of the war. Lepore adds:

For all the talk of tragedy in the nation’s newspapers and magazines, a majority of Americans blamed the students. They’d had it with those protests: the destruction of property, the squandering of an education. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. servicemen were fighting in Vietnam, young people who hadn’t dodged the draft; most of them came from white, blue-collar families. Kent State students were shattering shop windows and burying the Constitution and telling National Guardsmen to go fuck themselves? Four dead in Ohio? Fifty thousand servicemen had already died in Vietnam, and more were dying every day. 

The parallels between protests five decades ago against a president and war and today’s protests about state level shelter-in-place rules are rough and perhaps forced. But governors like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer (among others) have compared the contest with COVID-19 to a war and asked Michiganders to make similar kinds of sacrifices (not by working in an auto-manufacturing-plant-turned-armaments-manufacturer but by sitting at home and streaming television series). We have, sort of like during the Vietnam War, foreign policy experts informing the public about numbers, curves, outcomes, and the significance of defeating communists. We have some protesters at state capitals who resent government policy at least as an infringement on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And we have anti-protesters, some of whom do not display bumper stickers, “Love It Or Leave It,” but “Go Home or I’ll Die” (held by people wearing health care apparel).

Fifty years ago, Bart’s suspicion of authority was admirable (though not funny) to many journalists and thought leaders. Today, Lisa’s desire to please political and scientific authorities receives plaudits from many in the media.

It comes in two forms. One is to allege protests against state governments are funded by right-wing wealth. This reporter, in fact, quoted one source who said that the De Vos family was a financial backer of the Lansing protests. The story did not confirm the quotation. More recently, this story linked shelter-in-place protests to an impulse on the Right similar to the Tea Party and the conservative advocacy group, Freedom Works. The journalist reassured readers that this was a fringe movement because most Americans are Lisas:

Most Americans will never shrug off social-distancing guidelines and take to the streets. The protests are unpopular, even among (non-MAGA-hatted) conservatives. But, after speaking with the organizers of multiple Facebook groups, Burghart found that being well-liked by the average citizen is not one of their goals. “It’s not about the public,” Burghart says. “They are laser-focused on moving legislators.” According to Naison, the main power of the “white resentment ethos” that drives events like anti-lockdown protests is to elect. Last week’s events are just a modern permutation of an identity crisis with roots very deep in America’s individualist history.

Imagine writing that about students who protested the Vietnam War or who were beaten by Mayor Daley’s Chicago police force at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Imagine even listening to the dream team of policy intellectuals who planned and defended the Vietnam War during the Johnson administration and thinking skepticism and protest were simply part of a “white resentment ethos.”

The other way to discount COVID-19 protesters is to shame them as popular author and radio talk show host Mitch Albom recently did:

But the Michigan I know, while entitled to practice its First Amendment rights, doesn’t defy common sense by clustering together during a virus pandemic that can spread itself through someone’s breathing.

The Michigan I know understands that if you catch this disease, no matter how young or old, there’s a chance, as front-line nurses and doctors keep saying, that you’ll walk into an emergency room on your own, and be in intensive care an hour later. And no gun will save you.

The Michigan I know can endure more than a month of inconvenience. We are tougher than that. Sure, we may not like that our golf courses are closed, we can’t put a motorboat in the water, we can’t shop for paint or seeds, and our lawn maintenance companies aren’t supposed to work — all things you could argue we can safely pursue, and you might be right — but we’re also smart enough to see that such things are not the fires of a revolution.

The Michigan I know can read the news. It can see that, despite a president incessantly bragging about how many tests we’ve conducted, we’ve barely tested 1% of the American population. In Michigan, we don’t have anything close to widespread testing. And without widespread testing, you don’t really know what you’re fighting. Or where.

The Michigan I know understands that. It understands if the state were to reopen too soon, we could reignite this virus to the point we just left: people dying in hallways, hospitals overwhelmed, bodies stacked in spare rooms, front-line medical and police forces decimated by infections, and a death rate that grows more horrible by the day.

I wonder if the Michigan Albom knows was so compliant in following the government and its recommendations for stopping the spread of Communism. If you remember the Students for A Democratic Society, the Port Huron Statement, and protests in Ann Arbor during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement, you might also remember that America had a lot of Bart Simpsons who were skeptical of and laughed at public officials who instituted highly debatable policies and overreached when trying to justify them.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Kent State — you give the impression that all of the kids who died were rioters. They were not. The protests were peaceful, and two of the kids who were killed were just walking to class. Nixon encouraged the governor of Ohio to order the National Guard to open fire on unarmed protestors. And yes, the country largely blamed the kids, including the innocent ones, for getting killed. That’s a shame on the country, not the victims.

    Vietnam in general: the protestors wanted to stop a stupid, unnecessary war. If you’re going to argue they were wrong to do so, then you have to argue that the war in Vietnam was a good idea. Can you do that?

    Anti-lockdown protests: Do you think Covid-19 exists or not? Have we taken necessary precautions? Specifically with respect to the protests in Michigan, would you be so sanguine about heavily-armed black men breaking into a legislative session in, say, Georgia, and demanding changes to the citizens’ arrest laws and investigations of police killings? (And yes, I do think your defense of these protesters is based in racism and a belief that one’s position in the hierarchy is based on birth and not merit.)

    • Karen? seriously? Does Covid-19 exist? Seriously? I don’t like teacher’s pets. How is that racist.

      • 1. The protests are mostly by bosses who want their employees back at work without taking necessary precautions. Bosses in this country are, like the protestors, almost entirely white. Their employees, especially in the service industry, are mostly not. Taking the side of the white people against the not-white people is racist. Of course, for a conservative, being called racist is a million times worse than actually BEING racist, so my sin of calling you what you obviously are makes you angry instead of introspective.

        2. Your dislike of ‘teacher’s pet’s’ has a context. There is a disease that has no treatment that kills about 3 -5 % of the people who get it and is fantastically contagious. You seem to think taking precautions against spreading it is unnecessary and ‘teacher’s pet’ behavior. So, do you think it exists or not?

  2. This is a clever parallel, Darryl. If I was aware of any of evidence suggesting that even just a discernable minority of those protesting in Lansing, Harrisburg, Topeka, etc., have been motivated by, as SDS was, not just a hatred of the Vietnam War (or, by analogy, of the stay-at-home orders), but also by a desire to make America a more communal, decentralized, egalitarian, and peaceful place, as opposed to–as one might reasonably conclude on the basis of the protestors’ signs–a desire to be allowed to freely engage in activities every bit as consumer-capitalist-friendly as that which you imply Governor Whitmer and others to be shilling on behalf of, I might consider it a serious parallel too.

    • You have a point here, Russell, but recall that much of the protesting stopped after the draft ended. The war continued for another couple years, but there weren’t nearly as many protests.

      Note: this observation affects Dr. Hart’s argument as well. I was going to post something to that effect but you responded before I had the chance to.

    • This is a meaningless statement. It does matter what, exactly, is being resisted and how it’s done. Would you have supported the “Massive Resistance” against civil rights in the 1960’s? White people did that as a defense of their particular, local customs. Their local customs were wrong and evil, but they were local.

  3. “At the New Yorker, Jill Lepore reminds readers of the degree to which Americans used to praise protesters…”
    Revisionist history.
    “Of course, many Americans disapproved of the protests”
    Massive understatement. Who did the public support in the hard hat riots? Not the “students”. Just because the protestors have dominated cultural institutions for the last half century doesn’t mean we have to turn our brains off and rewrite history.
    Vietnam protests were done by middle to upper class white kids who didn’t want to get drafted. Fair enough, who does? But let’s not valorize them, or overlook the fact that the completely immoral student deferment process was racist, classist, etc (ha ha, yes I can throw the left’s rhetoric back at them), or that it led to the destruction of excellence in the university system through grade inflation (“But Professor, if you give me an F for not going to class all semester I’ll flunk out and Nixon will send me to Vietnam!”), etc.
    Our problem now is that generation has destroyed all civic institutions, so we get idiotic “you can’t tell me what to do, so I’m going to do whatever you tell me not to, because that totally proves I’m an independent adult” nonsense.
    PS. Actually, this is all sound and fury signifying nothing. These protests are trivially small. They do indicate larger frustrations and skepticisms, but the overwhelming number of people are pulling together and doing what they think they can to support their community. It’s quite admirable. Unfortunately there are no non-government institutions left other than big businesses to try to harness any of that.

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