Friday, April 02, 2010

Scott Saul: A Body on the Gears -- On Mario Savio

A Body on the Gears: On Mario Savio
By Scott Saul
The Nation

In the fall of 1964, with the Free Speech Movement roiling the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, 21-year-old Mario Savio felt, with some pride of ownership, that "this little place had of the central places on the planet." Four years later, Savio was falling off the map--living a few miles from campus in the West Berkeley flats, working on the assembly line of an electrical parts firm and caring with his wife for their infant son, who'd been born with severe developmental problems. The man the New York Times had dubbed "the archangel of student revolt" was finding shelter in quiet anonymity. Even the FBI, which named Savio one of fifteen "key activists" in early 1968 and investigated his bank accounts, phone accounts and workplace, concluded in a report that maybe he wasn't such a key activist anymore.

Yet the distinctiveness of Mario Savio--the particular tone and accent he lent to the New Left in its first years--is disclosed in a small set of details from this same FBI report. Savio, it seems, had taken to listing his phone number under false names (or what the Bureau called "aliases") in order to avoid harassing calls. In the phone book, Mario Savio was by turns José Martí, Wallace Stevens and David Bohm--which is to say, a late-nineteenth-century Cuban revolutionary-exile and poet who admired the US tradition of free speech yet scourged American imperialism; a Modernist poet who married philosophy and imagination ("We seek/The poem of pure reality, untouched/By trope or deviation, straight to the word"); and a theoretical physicist who, after helping Robert Oppenheimer develop the atomic bomb, defied the House Committee on Un-American Activities and lost his professorship at Princeton as a result.

The assortment of names plots the wide arc of Savio's ambitions and identifies the tensions he struggled to master. Savio was a revolutionary and civil libertarian, logician and poet, scientific observer and self-aware partisan--and in his heyday a virtuosic extemporizer who seemed not so much to perform all these identities as to incarnate them. He was, in short, an icon of possibility for his generation of student activists; and so it's a great historical riddle, tinged with pathos, why he was, in Berkeley in 1964, the lightning rod of his time and, almost immediately afterward, a man who couldn't conduct the energy he'd summoned.

Robert Cohen dedicates much of Freedom's Orator, his absorbing and even-keeled biography of Savio, to this very question, peeling back the layers of myth that have enveloped Savio and the Free Speech Movement while substantiating their achievement. By necessity Freedom's Orator is a dual biography of a man and his movement, and almost half the book follows less than four months of Savio's life, the pivotal fall semester of 1964. The FSM ran what we might call a textbook student-activist campaign in that interval--if we overlook the fact that the textbook didn't exist yet. President Nixon's 1970 Commission on Campus Unrest termed militant student protest "the Berkeley invention," and rightly so, since the FSM pioneered the use of civil rights strategies of direct action in a university setting, demonstrating how such disruptive tactics could mobilize a majority of students and even win the sympathies of a formerly passive faculty.

The FSM had the benefit of a cadre of experienced organizers, many seasoned like Savio in civil rights work, and a university administration that couldn't shoot straight. What began as a seemingly minor dispute over civil liberties on campus--could students hand out political literature on a twenty-six-foot strip of land owned by the university?--spiraled quickly into a battle royal in which the meaning of the university and American liberalism seemed to be at stake. The central events have since passed into '60s legend: the seizure of a police car, wherein thousands of students surrounded a police cruiser holding an arrested civil rights activist, immobilizing it for thirty-two hours while speaker after speaker used the car's roof as their podium; the December 2 sit-in, wherein almost 800 students were arrested after occupying Sproul Hall, the central administrative building, to protest disciplinary action against four movement leaders; and the December 7 Greek Theatre incident, wherein Savio walked onstage to speak to the assembled student body and was immediately grabbed at his throat and arms by police and dragged offstage--an administration fiasco that UC president Clark Kerr called "an accident that looked like fascism."

In all these events, Savio played no small part in the theater of protest. It was he who first mounted the roof of the police car, taking off his shoes so as not to dent it--a quite sincere act of decorum, though not one that prevented him from comparing the police to Adolph Eichmann (they all "had a job to do"). It was Savio who, before the sit-in, famously urged students to put their "bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and...make [the machine] stop"--updating Luddism for the age of the Organization Man. And it was Savio who, at the Greek Theatre, publicly offered his own body to the cause, making his "machine" speech seem much more than mere metaphor.

Savio's gift for decisive action earned him the admiration of many students but the queasy attention of many faculty and administrators: it was one thing to read Sartre and Camus in philosophy class and quite another to apply existential ideas of moral engagement to the Berkeley campus, which they considered a far cry from France under German occupation. Intellectual historian Henry May, who chaired Berkeley's history department at the time, offered this revealing assessment:

Always extreme but never sectarian, at times Messianic--and to adult ears--often skirting the edges of the ridiculous--Savio is the only leader who seems to represent a new genre.... In terms of religious and quasi-religious precedent, modern existentialism seems closer than Tolstoyan non-violence. What Savio was demanding [in his "machine" speech] was something like an existentialist acte gratuit, a gesture of self-identification.

Despite his condescension, May was correct to emphasize how a kind of existential humanism--one that saw alienation as a tragic face of modern life, large bureaucracies as the machinery of quiet death and individual rebellion as a profound form of self-fulfillment--suffused Savio's rhetoric. His "machine" speech turned on the sense that men and women, by their nature, revolt against being turned into "a bunch of raw materials," to be "bought by some clients of the university, be they the government, be they the industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone!" "We're human beings!" he ended emphatically.

Just a few years later, Savio's recourse to ideas of universal human nature would seem imprecise if not presumptuous: how could one person--especially a young white American college student, bound seemingly for a life of middle-class prosperity--speak for every man and woman around the globe? Then again, why not? At the time, Savio's language tapped into a deep reservoir of aspiration and emotion, calling together all those "people who have not learned to compromise, who for example have come to the university to learn to question, to grow, to learn." In some quarters, such people would be known simply as "nerds"--and in fact, one sociological study of Berkeley undergraduates in 1964 concluded that a key variable separating FSM supporters from their opponents was GPA. (More than half of those with a GPA of B+ or better were self-designated radicals, while only one-tenth were conservatives.) Savio's rhetoric allowed these young people to recognize themselves as a community with higher motives than liberals like Clark Kerr, who was not only the UC president but also the nation's foremost labor-management negotiator, and therefore an expert in the art of compromise. Savio's nerds, by contrast, were proudly impractical: they were those who would "die rather than be standardized, replaceable, and irrelevant."

To Read the Rest of the Review Essay

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