Op-Ed: Mizzou Redux, 1970
(For the use of the membership only)
by Craig Ladwig
I have been waiting for one of the many famous graduates of the Missouri School of Journalism to step forward and explain the difference between the protests of the early 1970s and what occurred this week. It is left to me, a graduate-school washout there, to take a stab at it.
The first thing you need to know is that the clenched fists you saw being waved defiantly in front of the television cameras belonged to the spoiled youth of entitlement. They were demonstrating nothing higher than their own ignorance and self-serving interest.
No, I’m talking about my generation of Mizzou protesters . . . five decades ago. By comparison, what went on a few days ago in Carnahan Quad was the sincerest expression of a noble zeitgeist — eventually tragic, perhaps, but we will get to that in a moment.
In the winter of 1970, I enrolled at the storied journalism school, having dutifully rubbed the nose of Benjamin Franklin’s bust in the library upon my arrival. I came via a middling outstate undergraduate school where I had had plenty of time to take part in my share of anti-war protests/parties. There was an unscheduled stopover at Chu Lai, Vietnam, redirected by the local draft board after a bit of grade trouble.
One sunny afternoon — have you ever noticed how student protests are blessed with good weather? — while heading for my part-time job as an opinion surveyor for the sociology department, I passed a huge anti-war demonstration. The biggest of the year, it was said. I may have lamented, if only for a second, that I couldn’t join in the fun of protesting . . . well, of protesting me.
My rounds in the dormitories that afternoon found to my surprise many students in their rooms studying, even as the bullhorn anti-war chants drifted excitedly across campus from the quad. In my six-year college career, I had never personally seen a student studying when there was something better to do, let alone something historically profound with constitutional import. It certainly had never crossed my mind.
These were the serious people, I now understand, the ones who would later build the Internet, complete the national highway system, conceptualize big-data marketing, engineer the Wall Street boom, become pillars of their churches and synagogues — who, in short, would make my generation’s mark. The others, the ones on the quad that winter day, stood in contrast, ending their “anti-war” protests not when the war ended but when their conscription did.
The Hemingway view is that every generation knows there will be a moment when it must rise to its destiny, to do its duty. When we are young, we like to think we can choose that moment, that duty. Many of my generation like to flatter themselves that their moment was the Vietnam War protests and that moment was well met.
Which brings us back to the young people on the Mizzou quad the other day trying desperately to define their own moment, to have someone recognize their worth, their dignity — to escape the insecurity, the silliness, of youth.
Only there wasn’t any moment, only a theater of the absurd: A mysterious poop-stika, vague racial slurs shouted from a pickup truck somewhere off campus, hysterical misreports of a KKK invasion, an oppressed student-body president worth $20 million, a communications professor willing to summon force to squelch communication.
Heather MacDonald captured the pathos in her Nov. 9 article for the City Journal:
“There is no evidence that the University of Missouri denies equal opportunity to its black students; those black students, like every other student on campus, are surrounded by lavish educational resources, available to them for the asking on a color-blind basis. The university’s faculty and administrators are surely among the most prejudice-free, well-meaning group of adults in human history. Thousands of Chinese students would undoubtedly do anything for the chance to be ‘systemically oppressed’ by the University of Missouri’s stupendous laboratories and research funding.”
And Matt Hennessey expanded those thoughts a day later in the same magazine:
“They don’t know much about Thomas Jefferson, except that he owned slaves, and thus the mere mention of his name invalidates their identities. They know only outrage. They feel only pain. A college freshman in 2015 was 11 years old when Barack Obama was elected president. What themes has he absorbed? The United States is an unjust nation in most respects. Capitalism is a rigged system that only benefits the already rich. If you’re a black man in America, you will be railroaded into prison as soon as you leave school.”
The realization that our society has failed these young men and women — and they in turn have failed it, at least for the moment — is now inescapable. The witness of a college president, a professor and a chancellor, the supposed adults in this tableau, resigning to sinecure, heading for high grass, is despicable.
They left their students with what may be a tragic misconception that there is a path to glorious victory, one granting uninterrupted success, “safe” space and an end to hurtfulness, not to mention social conscription, injustice and all manner of slight. All that is required is to show up on a nice day for an outing on the quad to loudly delineate your particular wishes, nay, demands.
Here is the troublesome part: If reality doesn’t cooperate, these students seem ready to give up on Western civilization, which their schools have taught them so little about, quite ready to try the default setting of the Third World, the Clockwork Orange.
While you wait to see how that works out for them, know that somewhere on the Mizzou campus there are other students in dorm rooms much as I found their grandfathers 50 years ago — studying. They are asking no favors and telling no lies, working hard in preparation for playing a constructive role in their society, however imperfect they may find it.
Those students can be excused for feeling confused and hurt right now, even disrespected and systemically oppressed. But they won’t be asking that their exams be canceled or that any marginal performance be forgiven. Show-me hats should be off to them. I know mine is.
Craig Ladwig, formerly a columnist and editorial writer for the Kansas City Star, is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.