Free Speech Movement’s 50th Anniversary


Today the Free Speech Movement turns 50 years old. If you’ve ever bothered to read a book, watch a documentary, or even had a chance to visit U.C. Berkeley to see where the Free Speech Movement started, you know that one of the most famous speeches at the initial 32 hour demonstration came from Mario Savio. A passionate young man all of 22 years of age (actually, he turned 22 in December of that year) took to the microphone and gave an incredibly passionate speech that was not rehearsed nor really scripted. Here’s probably the most famous quote:

… But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to be — have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product! Don’t mean — Don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings! … There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

Well, that kind of passion is certainly stirring. I know I was pretty impressed the first time I saw a recording of it. But it misses the mark about what the Free Speech Movement was about. Yes, there was bottled up anger that one’s future had been decided by the “machine” of the University — an entity that could act as if it were a parent to the student — just look at what in loco parentis is about. Savio’s speech was not only an expression of feeling frustrated about large, impersonal forces that are in control over the lives of people, but also about how universities are adjuncts to Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Government.

That kind of libertarian rebellion didn’t split along the left-right political divide. Rather, it became a kind of generational critique that manifested in the New Left and the New Right. While left-leaning political movements that came out of the Free Speech and Civil Rights era were squashed by a combination of forces like the federal government, The FBI, state governments, local police, in-fighting, and university administrators, right-leaning groups were in the shadows and able to do their own thing with the rise of the Goldwater candidacy in 1964.  Add to that the firebrands who were fueled on an intellectual diet of The Sharon Statement, Barry Goldwater, and eventually Ronald Reagan, and one sees the New Right had more institutional acceptance than the New Lefty movements.

More people who were on the left hand side of the spectrum went into academic work than those who were on the right. Those on the right seemed to gravitate to one of the Big Bads that both sides were leery of: Big Government. Yes, while New Leftish people went into academia and found career acceptance there, New Rightish folks found career success working to make government ineffective for all but those interest groups they agreed with — namely Big Money and the religious fundamentalists.

Nowadays, when looking at the long shadow of each faction of the Free Speech Movement, it’s interesting to see the libertarian streak in each, and how its played out over the last 50 years. When people describe themselves as libertarians these days, it seems to be just a code word for Republicans who like the smoke pot (I give credit to a comedian on the Alex Bennett show back in the late 90s/early 2000s for that line). For lefties, if you say you’re a libertarian, you have to qualify it by adding “left” or “bleeding heart libertarian” and that probably means that you’re not a douchebag who really does care about people other than yourself.

Not to be too snarky in closing, but I wanted to point you to another speech that Mario Savio gave in December 1964 when the Free Speech Movement was able to get support from U.C. Berkeley’s academic senate about the FSM’s demands. Have a listen to Savio talking about what the aims of the movement were:

Listen to Savio’s speech by clicking here

If conservatism means to “go back” to some other form or fashion of a thing, then I think Savio is right about the initial goals of the Free Speech Movement. However, those who were younger than Savio and his ilk, were radicalized by the war in Vietnam and the violence that befell some of the icons of the era.  Many of them had no wish to go back to anything that represented a system of repression liberals and conservatives in positions of power were using against them.  On the other hand, New Right groups did want to go back to another time when their ideals supposedly flourished.  Unfortunately for them, that place and time never existed.

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