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Thirty Years Later: Reflections on the FSM
On November 15, 1995, at the invitation of historian Barbara Epstein, Mario Savio gave a talk on the FSM to the History of Consciousness Department colloquium at UC Santa Cruz. Mario did not have a prepared text for this talk, but-as was his usual practice-worked from notes and spoke in an extemporaneous fashion. Capturing on paper Savio's uniquely dialogic style of speaking is like trying to cover the concert of a jazz musician or singer by transcribing the notes they hit. What follows is not a full verbatim account of the speech but a somewhat abridged version that faithfully relays its central ideas and, we hope, a good deal of its texture.
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I'd like to share with you some ideas about how my consciousness, my piece of collective consciousness and that of my friends, developed. We had our beginnings in the 1940s and 1950s. [I was born in] 1942. I was a war baby. But spiritually speaking, [our consciousness formed largely] in reaction to the 1950s. It was in reaction to the 1950s that we did the kinds of things that we did.
[The television sit-com] Roseanne recently had a program where [Roseanne Barr] did Roseanne of the 1950s. It's really quite remarkable because Roseanne's caricatured version of the 1950s is in some ways the pretend world that we were reacting to. Now it had some darker things in it too, and they didn't make their way into the Roseanne episode, but I thought [overall her rendering of the 1950s] was really wonderful. Here on the tube, this major [source] of information is disseminating stereotypes of the left. It's interesting because most of the media that disseminate stereotypes disseminate stereotypes of the right. And now, it would be nice if we could get beyond the stereotypes, but at least we should have some of ours up there, not always theirs. So I loved it. It was really marvelously done.
The fact that Roseanne could do that and that it would be very popular, canned laughter and all, means that it is no longer possible to be, to unself-consciously accept being, "normal." You see the fifties were "normal." The fifties are bizarre, but they were the last normal decade, [when] everything was still just in place the way it ought to be. The man thought he was in charge, the woman let him think that while making certain decisions in the house (she took care of the kids, made sure they were all washed and went to school, everything went just right), and the only black man they knew was the one who came around collecting money for charity. And that was what happened in the episode. It was tremendous.
That was the last normal decade. Those were the last normal people. [Today] there are hardly any normal people left. And I think that's really significant. Bill Clinton is not normal because after all he is married to Hillary and Hillary is not normal, right? That is, she's not part of that normal world, thank goodness. And Newt Gingrich is not normal. He's less normal but certainly not normal. It's now the case that even people in positions of power are clearly [not normal]. Here's a president playing the saxophone. There's something really abnormal about it. All of us who grew up in normal times know that that's so. That's really quite significant. It's no longer possible to be unself-consciously normal. We are in a very strange period of transition. In periods that are not periods of transition, everybody's normal, right? Now, hardly anybody is.
How did such a strange state of affairs begin? You could imagine back, say, in the time of the Reformation: you want your own church? Abnormal, right? You see, that kind of a revolutionary situation is where the abnormal, the crazy people, people who want their own church, get to have one. And I can just imagine, coming out of the church that I came out of, how it must have made the cardinals really go ballistic that any of [these reformers, who] previously would [have been dismissed as] kooks , would be in charge of a kingdom or a principality. You know, this crazy person nails these theses to the door of the church, and soon there were people saying, "That's great! Go for it Luther!"
But we are in that kind of strange situation now. That is one of the reasons that the right is so "strong" now. They're not strong because they are actually strong. They're strong because the world is not any longer the normal world that they're trying to preserve. That's why we call them "reactionaries." They're trying to go [back] into the nineteenth century. But we're much closer to the twenty-first. They seem stronger than they are because they recognize [that they are losing ground]. Why, for example, are they so gung ho for family values? Because most of the families aren't like those families of the fifties. Even the ones that are as close as possible are not really like that. I think it's important to keep that in the back of one's mind when we feel really oppressed by how strong they are, just think how weak they actually are. And one clear example of that to bear in mind is the following: Colin Powell is going to run as a Republican.... I was gearing up to decide whether I would vote for the first time for a Republican ... because the country could use a black male president. I mean it's fantastic. Fortunately I didn't have to make that decision. But look, all of these right-wing Republicans up on a stage, a whole phalanx of them, denouncing this Republican. Denouncing him. That's not a sign of strength. That is a sign of terrible weakness. Why would they have to do such a thing? They were afraid. Why? They are trying to pull us back from what they imagine is sort of a pit, [a loss of their own institutions]. Trying to pull us back, and here they think, "We've got it, we've got the Republican Party," and they realize they can lose it just like that. They're very scared. So the situation may not be quite what it seems to be. How did it get this way?
Well, I'll tell you how it got this way for me. I grew up as a Catholic. I was an altar boy. I was going to be a priest. Now obviously the eldest son in an Italian Catholic family, a person who would become a priest if anyone was going to be-and I was going to be that person. My two aunts are nuns. I came into it from liberation theology. I read things that probably most people in this room have not read. I read [Jacques] Maritain, I read [Emmanuel] Mounier, I read things put out by Catholic Worker people; I was very much immersed in that sort of thing. And that was how I came at it. By virtue of my Catholicism and the particular character it was taking, for me a major decision was whether to be a priest. Therefore I was not a careerist. I couldn't be a careerist. I had something more important to do. I was trying to save my soul. And I made pacts with myself repeatedly. "If you can just believe these things, then you will have to apply to become a Jesuit." That was the image I had-a romantic image. But the point is, I certainly could not become a careerist.
Now it turns out that from various other paths, many people I met at Berkeley were in the same situation. Not all Catholics-mostly not. But they, for one reason or another, were in some kind of peripheral relationship to the society, not really able to put career first but rather to put ideas first. There were a remarkable number of people there at that time of that kind. And not just at Berkeley. Some of them were from Jewish families, some from Protestant families even, which is really remarkable to me because I don't think of there being that many Protestants in America because where I grew up [Queens, New York] there were only Catholics and Jews. But in any case, I understand there are a lot of Protestants in America and we, in fact, encountered some. And in any case, whichever background they came from, they were not set on being careerists. The ideas actually mattered. For me it was because of the reasons I've described, but for others with different backgrounds it would have been for other reasons. That was a significant part of that time. And maybe one of the reasons it was possible was because they were prosperous times. It's harder to eschew an excessive concern with career when you want to make sure you have one, right? We knew, no problem, you can get student digs for thirty-five dollars. Astonishing. So one didn't worry about the material world. One could afford to be above the material world, and a lot of people at that time really were, and I think fortunately.
We also were the first generation to grow up under the threat of the bomb. That actually was special. We were the first generation to do that. They exploded them on the [TV] tube. See, they hadn't yet put them [under] the ground. Periodically there would be an explosion of the hydrogen bomb or the latest device there, chow, boom! Right on the news. And I remember even as a little child they had us ["take cover"] under desks. There were periodically drills in the schools as I was growing up in the fifties and you would go under desks. Now, I ultimately took degrees in physics, so even then I asked myself questions like "Will it actually do the job?" And I made up these stories. Maybe it's the flash, so maybe the desk could keep me from going blind. You try to think, "What could this wooden desk [do to protect me in a nuclear attack]?" So I would actually try to think, what would it do? and I never raised the issue with the teacher. I mean, one could, right? One could say, "You know, I don't want to make a big thing about this, but will it really work? Could you maybe explain it to me?" But I did think about it, you see. Lots of people did. One of the reasons they put [fallout shelters] underground was because people were super scared. People were more scared of the bombs than of the Commies. [Even people] like me, coming from a background where, [for] Catholics of a certain kind, J. Edgar Hoover was a person to take seriously as an intellectual almost, from a sort of a Catholic point of view. So, in other words, the Commies, I knew, were bad. I later met some and discovered they were very warm human beings, but it took me a while. But the bomb, you knew that was bad, right? So that was part of the background.
And then, part of the background for me and, I think, for others was the Holocaust. I'm not Jewish but I saw those pictures. And those pictures were astonishing. Heaps of bodies. Mounds of bodies. Nothing affected my consciousness more than those pictures. And those pictures had on me the following impact, which other people maybe came to in a different way. They meant to me that everything needed to be questioned. Reality itself. Because this was like opening up your father's drawer and finding pictures of child pornography, with adults molesting children. It's like a dark, grotesque secret that people had that at some time in the recent past people were being incinerated and piled up in piles. I saw those pictures. I couldn't believe them. And I thought as a [high school] kid looking at those pictures: "If this really happened, then everything must have changed." Germany must absolutely have been a transformed government-from sinners to saints. They must actually have rooted out the possibility of such a thing happening-totally rooted it out-[and] have totally transformed society where even the least possibility that anyone could do anything bad again is prevented just from the fear of what once happened. Otherwise this couldn't be real. It must be a fake. I mean how could it possibly [be]? But I knew it was real. And this affected me more than any other single thing. I started to get the idea that people weren't really coming completely clean about things. In other words, that there was almost a conspiracy not to tell the truth to oneself, even on a mass scale. Because I knew that if the kind of transformation that would have to have happened in Germany, reflective of taking these pictures seriously, [actually happened,] we'd know about it. You'd hear about it on the news: "German chancellor just nominated for sainthood," or something like that. Some sort of absolutely astonishing things would be happening in Germany if there were any human response to these heaps. So it's clear that that hadn't happened, and that's [the] point. And that was the thing that started me questioning everything about reality. It was really those pictures. And I'll bet you that those pictures had such an effect on thousands and thousands of people, whether they were Jewish or not. This is not the good that comes out of the bad-à la Saint Augustine-that justifies the Holocaust. But this is the good that comes out of the bad because we've got to get on into our next millennium or something. Those pictures had an impact on people's lives. I know they had an impact on mine, something not as strong but akin to a "never again" feeling which Jews certainly have had. But non-Jews had that kind of feeling, too.
In the midst of all this, the Civil Rights Movement exploded. To me that was very important at that moment because I had had this confrontation with the ideas of the Holocaust. I was not a careerist. I was someone who took good and evil exceptionally seriously. I had two aunts who were nuns. I could have been a priest. And, suddenly, there's the Civil Rights Movement. And since I'm breaking away from the Church, I see the Civil Rights Movement in religious terms. [In the] Civil Rights Movement there were all those ministers; it was just absolutely rife with ministers, bristling with ministers. And so, to me, this was an example of God working in the world. Allying myself in whatever way I could with that movement was an alternative to the Church because I couldn't actually believe those [biblical] stories. Not that things couldn't have happened that way, but there seemed to be lots of reasons to think maybe they hadn't happened that way. I couldn't bring myself to believe the religion I was born into on a factual basis. But the spirit of "do good" and "resist evil" was an important part of my religious upbringing. I saw [that] present in the Civil Rights Movement-and I wanted to ally myself with that. I believe that thousands of people from different religious points of view who no longer believed in their religions literally still kept with them that germ of truth, part of which is do good and resist evil. And for them the Civil Rights Movement was the thing they were waiting for-a real counterbalance to the evil that they had seen or imagined, to the bombs exploding and [telling people], "This is just normal; we have to protect ourselves from the Communists and so we create a weapon that could destroy the world."
Excerpted from The Free Speech Movement Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California . Excerpted by permission.
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The Many Meanings of the FSM
Part I. Roots
Thirty Years Later: Reflections on the Free Speech Movement
From Freedom Now! to Free Speech: The FSM’s Roots in the Bay Area Civil Rights Movement
Holding One Another: Mario Savio and the Freedom Struggle in Mississippi and Berkeley
Part II. Experience: Fall 1964
War Is Declared!
My Life in the FSM: Memories of a Freshman
Gender Politics and the FSM: A Meditation on Women and Freedom of Speech
Recollections of the FSM
A View from the South: The Idea of a State University
Endgame: How the Berkeley Grads Organized to Win
A View from the Margins
Dressing for the Revolution
The "Rossman Report": A Memoir of Making History
The FSM and the Vision of a New Left
This Was Their Fight and They Had to Fight It: The FSM’s Nonradical Rank and File
Faculty and Clergy
On the Side of the Angels: The Berkeley Faculty and the FSM
Reginald E. Zelnik
From the Big Apple to Berkeley: Perspectives of a Junior Faculty Member
Lawrence W. Levine
When the FSM Disturbed the Faculty Peace
The Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the Campus Ministry
Fall of 1964 at Berkeley: Confrontation Yields to Reconciliation
Part III. Legal and Constitutional Issues
Constitutionally Interpreting the FSM Controversy
December 1964: Some Reflections and Recollections
Robert H. Cole
The FSM: A Movement Lawyer’s Perspective
Part IV. Aftermath
Mario Savio and Berkeley’s "Little Free Speech Movement" of 1966
The Limits of Freedom: Student Activists and Educational Reform at Berkeley in the 1960s
Julie A. Reuben
The FSM, Berkeley Politics, and Ronald Reagan
W. J. Rorabaugh
Mario Savio’s Second Act: The 1990s
Part V. Thoughts about Mario Savio
Mario Savio and the Politics of Authenticity
Lynne Hollander Savio
Mario, Personal and Political
Elegy for Mario Salvio
On Mario Savio
Mario Savio: The Avatar of Free Speech
Reginald E. Zelnik