Free Speech My Ass: The Berkeley CharadePosted: September 25, 2014
Sol Stern: The Unfree Speech Movement
How did this Orwellian inversion occur? It happened in part because the Free Speech Movement’s fight for free speech was always a charade.
“I realized years later that this moment may have been the beginning of the 1960s radicals’ perversion of ordinary political language, like the spelling “Amerika” or seeing hope and progress in Third World dictatorships.”
Sol Stern writes: This fall the University of California at Berkeley is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, a student-led protest against campus restrictions on political activities that made headlines and inspired imitators around the country. I played a small part in the Free Speech Movement, and some of those returning for the reunion were once my friends, but I won’t be joining them.
“‘Tenured radicals,’ in New Criterion editor Roger Kimball’s phrase, now dominate most professional organizations in the humanities and social studies.”
Though the movement promised greater intellectual and political freedom on campus, the result has been the opposite. The great irony is that while Berkeley now honors the memory of the Free Speech Movement, it exercises more thought control over students than the hated institution that we rose up against half a century ago.
“Unlike our old liberal professors, who dealt respectfully with the ideas advanced by my generation of New Left students, today’s radical professors insist on ideological conformity and don’t take kindly to dissent by conservative students.”
We early-1960s radicals believed ourselves anointed as a new “tell it like it is” generation. We promised to transcend the “smelly old orthodoxies” (in George Orwell’s phrase) of Cold War liberalism and class-based, authoritarian leftism.
Leading students into the university administration building for the first mass protest, Mario Savio, the Free Speech Movement’s brilliant leader from Queens, New York, famously said: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. . . . . 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.”
“Visits by speakers who might not toe the liberal line—recently including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Islamism critic Aayan Hirsi Ali —spark protests and letter-writing campaigns by students in tandem with their professors until the speaker withdraws or the invitation is canceled.”
The Berkeley “machine” now promotes Free Speech Movement kitsch. The steps in front of Sproul Hall, the central administration building where more than 700 students were arrested on Dec. 2, 1964, have been renamed the Mario Savio Steps. One of the campus dining halls is called the Free Speech Movement Café, its walls covered with photographs and mementos of the glorious semester of struggle. The university requires freshmen to read an admiring biography of Savio, who died in 1996, written by New York University professor and Berkeley graduate Robert Cohen.
“by contrast, one of the honored speakers at the Free Speech Movement anniversary rally on Sproul Plaza will be Bettina Aptheker, who is now a feminist-studies professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz.”
Yet intellectual diversity is hardly embraced. Every undergraduate undergoes a form of indoctrination with a required course on the “theoretical or analytical issues relevant to understanding race, culture, and ethnicity in American society,” administered by the university’s Division of Equity and Inclusion.
How did this Orwellian inversion occur? It happened in part because the Free Speech Movement’s fight for free speech was always a charade. The struggle was really about using the campus as a base for radical politics.
I was a 27-year-old New Left graduate student at the time. Savio was a 22-year-old sophomore. He liked to compare the Free Speech Movement to the civil-rights struggle—conflating the essentially liberal Berkeley administration with the Bull Connors of the racist South…(read more)
Mr. Stern is a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. This op-ed has been adapted from a forthcoming article in the magazine.
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