September 22, 2007

The wheels of the machine go round and round, round and round...

Mario Savio was a physics grad student when he gave his electrifying speech on the Sproul Steps (now called the Mario Savio Steps) on December 3, 1964. I sometimes think that the odd mixture of mechanical images and poetics owes its structure to the duality of his intelligence: a fierce moral warrior and a brilliant mathematical mind. Not to mention courage. "There is 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..." "Heart" and "part" rhyme; but the rolling periodicity of the sentence is pure poetry anyway. And it was extemporaneous. "...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."

The peroration (there was a little more after this, so I use the term correctly, I think) is emblazoned on a placard, with a picture of wild-haired (but not scruffy) Mario above it, in the Free Speech Movement Cafe on the Berkeley campus. You can buy a panini in there, and a Free Trade coffee, and look at the undergrads text-messaging, listening to their IPods through ear buds, talking on the ubiquitous cell phones, tapping away on their laptops. What is going on in the country now is infinitely worse than the issues Mario Savio was concerned about, but he was always a canary in a coal mine, as the quote in the masthead demonstrates. I think of him in the same way I regard Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain, two other visionaries who saw that America was becoming badly out of balance in the contest between God and Mammon. The students are concerned about other things, how to compete in a "global economy" and building on the peerless academic records they needed to get into Berkeley in the first place. Those obsessive and compulsive habits, absolutely essential for the elites in our society, provide an inertial guidance system that propels them through school without the derailing distractions of "issues" and "protests." Those were the "indulgences" of Mario's (and my) generation. Yet everything has its price. We've allowed an authoritarian regime to run the country into the ground, to traduce the Bill of Rights, to fight endless, nonsensical wars, to waste all its treasure by directing most of the money to war profiteers and cronies. That's what the Bush Administration is doing, you know. That's their business plan. They own the machine and that's the way they run it. And who is around to tell them the machine cannot be "worked" that way? Mario died fairly young. No one took the torch from his hand.

The Democratic Congress possesses a powerful spanner to throw into the works, a crowbar to jam into the wheels and cogs and levers of the machine. They could say that Bush can't have any money for his colossal exercises in mismanagement and brutality. That's all they would have to do. How much less courage would that require than Mario's bravery in standing up for the rights of Berkeley students to organize Freedom Riders for the Civil Rights Movement on the Cal campus? That's what he was doing, you know. It was not some idle question of being able to "speak freely" on the campus that animated his movement. The Regents didn't like what he was doing because they sympathized with the racism of the Deep South. Think about that for a moment. Mario was up against that kind of obscurantism and bigotry. Don't believe for a moment that the California of 1964 wasn't capable of such attitudes. He took it on. How amazed he would be that the modern Democrats, with so much more power, with the whole country behind them, with the "passive" strategy available of simply not scheduling a vote on funding -- can't "indicate" to the Little Emperor that the game is up.

Wherever you are, Mario -- you did what you could, brave spirit. It sure as hell isn't your fault. No one can say you didn't have the courage of your moral convictions.

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