SQUEAKY WHEEL: Speech and Spectacle

Toni Mester
Friday September 15, 2017 - 01:28:00 PM

Mario Savio is dead but I’m not. Having outlived this eminent contemporary and residing in Berkeley for the past 45 years, I feel compelled to reflect on his legacy and influence, now that the right wing has ironically and provocatively donned the free speech mantle. 

In December 1964, when Savio climbed on a car in Sproul Plaza and gave his now famous “operation of the machine” speech, I was a senior at SUNY Albany, looking for a place in graduate school. The free speech movement at Cal was covered widely in the press and had a special meaning for us, linked by far-reaching national events and those parochial to Albany State. 

In March 1963, our campus had been rocked by a small brouhaha that pitched the Greeks against the independents, including two circles of my friends – a group of English majors who published an underground rag called suppression and the officers of Forum of Politics, a sanctioned organization that received student activity funds to sponsor speakers on public affairs. Our most eminent guest had been Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited in October 1961, when I was privileged to meet her backstage. 

We independents saw ourselves as intellectuals and non-conformists in opposition to the mainstream student leaders whom we viewed as goody-goodies. We flaunted our pretensions, wore berets and black stockings like Greenwich Village beatniks, and hung out in a corner of the school cafeteria known as “the cave.” But our true mettle as upholders of individual rights came after a basketball tournament in Cortland, when some tipsy team followers celebrated a victory by pissing from a table in a bar. The President of Cortland State complained to ours, and all hell broke loose on campus, a front-page editorial in the State University News asking, “What has happened to the morals of our college students?” 

The student judiciary Myskania held closed-door hearings and reported to the administration, which reprimanded the fraternity members involved but suspended one of our friends. Furious about violation of due process, we retaliated by bringing in the ACLU and forcing the reassignment of the Dean of Men. 

By the time that the free speech movement at Cal began to make national headlines, Albany State had gotten a taste of controversy. In the early 1960’s the campus was still located downtown, near the seat of state government. We sat in at the capitol in support of anti-discrimination bills with the local chapter of CORE, hosted the Freedom Singers to raise money for SNCC, and sponsored debates. One of the face-offs featured liberal James Burkhart (Americans for Democratic Action) and conservative Fulton Lewis III (Young Americans for Freedom), who traveled the lecture circuit debating “Which Way America?” They were two well-mannered elite white guys having a polite discussion, the kind of forum currently held at the Commonwealth Club and probably the wish of UCB Chancellor Carol Christ. 

The free speech movement didn’t exist in a vacuum but developed from the struggle for racial integration, which progressive students considered the most pressing political enterprise of our generation. Mario Savio was a civil rights activist, having joined the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi. 

Beneath this struggle, a cultural upheaval was brewing, stoked by drugs, sex, and rock ’n roll. At Albany State, a predominantly white working class school, the free speech movement was seen as a protest against the administration acting in loco parentis. The Cortland case was just one more example of self-righteous middle-class morality and its paternalistic restrictions. The dormitories had curfews, even on the weekends, and most of our crowd moved out as soon as we could, age 21 or earlier with parental approval. So emancipated, my roommate and I rented an apartment on Western Avenue in our junior year and began our lives as adults. 

Reading from the archives of the student press, I’m struck at the quality of my educational experience in Albany, which was then a state teachers’ college making the transition to a university. For those in the education program, mostly the children and grandchildren of European immigrants, tuition was free because it was expected that we would teach in the public high schools. We had an inferiority complex comparing our school with the Ivy League, but our newspaper was not only well written and comprehensive, but also reveals a thoroughly engaged campus community. I had many fine teachers and two great ones: Mary Grenander and Harry Staley; in fact the Albany State archives are named after M.E. Grenander, who taught my freshman composition class, one that I will never forget. We read The Oresteia of Aeschylus and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and wrote essays that still inform my ideas about justice. And that was only the beginning. By the time I got to Staley’s famous class on James Joyce, I had been involved in rigorous intellectual exercise for three years. 

The excellence of the Albany State English department must have been well known because I got into all three of the graduate schools I applied to: Cal, Wisconsin, and Michigan, where I finished an MA, having decided against Cal for fear of distraction. Using my late father’s life insurance to pay for a final year of higher education, I didn’t expect another bite of the apple. When I finally arrived in Berkeley in 1972, I had already started my career. 

Mario Savio also picked up graduate degrees and taught math, philosophy, and logic at Sonoma State but died relatively young at 53, over twenty years ago. He left behind a reputation for courage and conviction that influenced a generation from coast to coast. We can only imagine what he would think about the current roster of speakers on the Cal campus and the spectacle surrounding them. 

Political Theatre 

During the first weekend of December 2014, I took a mini-vacation to Seattle to see the LBJ plays by Robert Schenkkan: All the Way and The Great Society, performed back to back on Sunday. The Seattle Repertory Theatre was sold out, packed with people my age entranced by Jack Willis’ brilliant portrayal of the complex and conflicted man who presided over this country during the turbulent years between the assassination of Jack Kennedy in November 1963 and the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. At the end of the evening, we rose in unison and cheered, in appreciation of the performance and celebration for having survived the maelstrom of the sixties just reviewed on stage. In all my years of theater going, this was the loudest sustained ovation from an audience, a stunning exultation and catharsis. I wobbled back to my hotel room and turned on the late news. 

In Berkeley, the worst of three days of protests against events in Ferguson, Missouri were culminating in a riot carried on Seattle television and probably across the country. It was the oddest feeling of alienation, having just witnessed a dramatic enactment of the 1960’s, compressed into six hours, and then watching the coverage of events in Berkeley from afar. It reminded me of the unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, when I was a caseworker in Brooklyn, and brought back the smash-up at the Democratic National Convention later that year. A group in the office considered making the trip from New York to Chicago when a colleague from the windy city warned us off, so we went to the shore instead and watched the horror on TV. 

Political power flows from the optics, a trend that started with the election of JFK who knew how to talk to the TV cameras, while Nixon looked uncomfortable and therefore incompetent. Marshall McLuhan supplied insights on how media influences opinion and popular culture in his many books that explained and shaped the practice of persuasion. He died in 1980 at the advent of the internet, but he inspired other communications experts in the field of internet studies. 

A little acknowledged theorist who is getting more attention is Guy Debord, the author of The Society of the Spectacle (1967) and his group the Situationist International, who took part in the 1968 uprising in Paris. The full translated text is available on-line, as well as an illustrated summary on the HyperAllergic site, which calls it a “polemical and prescient indictment of our image-saturated consumer culture…. the everyday manifestation of capitalist-driven phenomena; advertising, television, film, and celebrity.” 

Although Debord was a Marxist, his analysis pertains to spectacle performed by all kinds of political actors, hawking fake news or not. Conservative opinion makers like Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos’ and Steve Bannon can be seen as right-wing situationists, their energies funneled into disruption, provocation, and monologues that enrapture like theater rather than inspire like debate, more entertainment than information. Political disruption, whether from the left or the right, focuses on caricatures of the other, enemies that emerge in a process of projection and objectification. If students want exposure to discourse on social problems, perhaps they should stop spending money on celebrity lecturers and return to a Socratic discussion of “Which Way America?” 

What’s happening is not free speech; it’s expensive. The cost to the City of Berkeley and UC to police these speeches and counter-protests is astronomical, money that could be better spent. These publicity stunts masquerading as educational events depend on a predictable response from the gullible who have learned little from history and eagerly play the role of extras in mob scenes anticipated by the right. When Ben Shapiro accuses the university of harboring “campus thuggery” and his adversaries react like thugs, they perform his script, a self-fulfilling prophecy and feedback loop that has little to do with speech and everything to do with spectacle, televised unrest that only serves the forces of reaction. The campus Republicans know exactly what they are doing, trying to make the left look as bad as possible to keep the Democrats from capturing Congressional seats next year. 

The Trump administration is a disaster, and Steve Bannon a has-been; he and the rest of these right-wing provocateurs are best ignored, deprived of the publicity they crave. 

As for Ben Shapiro, he is mired in contradiction. Nobody exists in this world devoid of ethnic roots, and he is as guilty of identity politics as those he excoriates. Students should learn to be proud of whatever their heritage and get on with the business of preparing for a productive life. 

The Vietnam War Returns 

The Ken Burns long awaited 18-hour series starts Sunday night on PBS at 8 and runs for two weeks. It’s going to take a strong stomach to watch this, because while we survived, many friends and family did not. 

The Vietnam War lasted twenty years and had profound effects, which hopefully the film will bring into perspective. Despite all our protests, ultimately the Vietnamese ended the war by winning. Academic communities coped through the teach-in. Students were struggling to learn, absorbing knowledge, and their professors were actively engaged as mentors. One of the most disturbing incidents was the Kent State shooting in 1970 because a school campus was considered a haven and a retreat. Tragically, we have become accustomed to school shootings, almost 200 since Sandy Hook. As a result, most Americans now see cops on campus as a safety measure, not militarization. 

Maybe after The Vietnam War, the teach-in will make a comeback, and students will return to the work at hand, savoring their precious years in higher education, building a foundation for a future that will create social benefit and save the planet. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.