17 October 2014

Forty years ago this month, a young man named Mario Savio, 21 years old, climbed on top of a car in Berkeley, Calif., and let fly with a stream of incendiary rhetoric, and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement was born.

            I'll skip the next chapters and go straight to "forty years later," meaning Oct. 7, 2004, when a fellow two years older than Savio would have been if he hadn't keeled over a few years ago, clambered onto a chair at the corner of Telegraph and Bancroft, right outside the entry to the University of California at Berkeley and let fly with a stream of rhetoric that would have been a lot more incendiary for the crowds in Sproul Plaza if Lenni Brenner had remembered to bring a bullhorn.

            These days, the Free Speech Movement is comfortably, maybe too comfortably, installed on the Berkeley calendar as an annual event where FSM veterans look back on the Sixties (initial phase), hold panels on such topics as -- I'm quoting from the Fortieth Anniversary program, which stretched across four days -- on "the FSM: Its Genesis, Meanings and Consequences" and seek to hector youth for their lack of revolutionary zeal.

            I agreed to join Lenni for some curb-side ranting, not only because he's an old friend but also because Berkeley survivors of that period whose judgment I respect say Lenni Glazer, as he was known then, was the fiercest and most mesmerizing speaker, holding crowds spellbound at that that same corner of Telegraph and Bancroft, day after day, till the university seized an opportunity to have Lenni put away in the state prison at St. Luis Obispo for three long years. These days he's as fiery as ever, though mostly at the other end of the country, in New York.

            I was glad, I told the modest throng, to be able to speak at an FSM event on the very day when the newspapers were testifying to the potency and profitability of free speech, as uttered by the radio shock jock Howard Stern, who had just been signed up by Sirius, a satellite radio company for $500 million. There's money in talking dirty about girls.

            Russians have a toast to "those who went before." You drink to the dead, though you don't clink glasses. Stern, I said, was standing on the shoulders of many who "went before," who had sacrificed much that he might enjoy his $500 million for speaking freely about sex. There was Lenny Bruce, harried mercilessly by prosecutors and cops across the country. Times were tougher still in the Forties and Fifties when men like Gershon Legman, Jake Brussel and Samuel Roth (who published the first excerpts of James Joyce's "Ulysses" in the United States) all served prison terms after prosecutions by the Post Office.

            Free speech counts most when it's most risky. In their debate the other night, both George Bush and John Kerry proclaimed their undying allegiance to the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. Both swore they stood foursquare for liberty, which was hard to listen to with a straight face (like 98 percent of the rest of the "debate") since both deemed the Patriot Act a splendid thing. Of course the Patriot Act embodies the notion that there are indeed times when free speech is too risky.

            Lenni was holding my legs so I wouldn't fall off the chair, and I sensed from the slight pressure of his hands that he wished I might descend to the sidewalk so he could wheel on his next speaker, Jack Heyman of the Longshoremen's Union at the Port of Oakland. Not so long ago, Jack and his comrades received a very painful expression, in the form of rubber bullets, of the current view of free speech and the right to assemble peacefully, as entertained by the Oakland Police Department and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.

            So I wound up my hoarse rhetoric with some jabs at the Left, as mustered in Berkeley for the FSM anniversary. Probably some 90 percent of them are dedicated "Anybody But Bush" zealots who have, with varying degrees of venom, been denouncing Ralph Nader for presuming to exercise his rights of free speech, as an independent candidate in the presidential election.

            Flowers of the Sixties, now gone sadly to seed, have been coursing round the nation's courthouses, challenging Nader's efforts to get on state ballots. The older crowd hates Bush, that's for sure. But they hate Nader more. So here was the great irony. Most of those mistily honoring the FSM don't much care for free speech when it looks as though it might be risky, might inconvenience their favored candidate, even though the favored candidate, John Kerry, wants to fight a better war than Bush in Iraq and then march on to Teheran.

            So much for Sixties radicalism. Not everyone's gone to seed, to be sure. There's Lenni, who finally got me off the chair, and actually there are many, many more who understand the importance of the third word that comes after Free Speech, namely Movement. Without a movement you have nothing, and you've built nothing. That's what the ABB "leftists" don't understand now. Nov. 3 will be a bit late in the day to start looking for one.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.