Like Forrest Gump, I have witnessed a few key historical events close up, though I lay no claim to having played any meaningful role in them, nor even having grasped their significance at the time.
So the recent flurry of news stories about the muzzling of Milo Yiannopoulos – a trendy alt-right provocateur whose paid appearance at UC-Berkeley was cancelled in February after some left-wing student tantrums – stirred in me nostalgic memories of a somewhat similar time a half-century ago when I had one such brush with Big Doings.
In both cases, a central issue was our freedom as Americans to speak out, no matter how despicable or contemptible or even “unpatriotic” the words might be.
Until recently, baiting transgenders, Muslims and people of color had made Yiannopoulos a pretty good living – along with being an editor at Breitbart News, the love child of racist/sexist Steve Bannon, now Donald Trump’s right-hand man in the White – ahem – House. (Of course, Yiannopoulos’ fortunes have since taken a downturn – Breitbart canned him, a book deal was scotched and an appearance at CPAC, the annual orgy of the right wing, was cancelled after recordings came to light that showed him condoning pedophilia.)
So anyway, let’s return for a few minutes to those wonderful days of Yesteryear, in this case 1964 – the Autumn of Our Discontent in Berkeley, Calif., just a few years before the Summer of Love (another countercultural phenomenon to which I was privy) was proclaimed just across the bay.
Dubbed the Free Speech Movement, the happening’s protracted labor and birth occurred on the same campus where its demise has now been prematurely pronounced. I’d arrived a few weeks earlier – an aimless, rootless college dropout from Boulder, Colo., who was looking for some meaning in life, or maybe just a good relationship, or at least a good time. Politics, left or right, was a ways down on my list of passions. But when I couldn’t get day-labor jobs, I found the campus an ideal spot to hang out – dirt-cheap food in the cafeteria, a great library and friendly fellow travelers.
The hub of the university’s universe was Sproul Plaza, a huge paved courtyard with a giant fountain at the end of Telegraph Avenue, where crowds of students and non-students – the likes of me – mingled and traded sophomoric insights, a sort of Platonic vision of what higher education was supposed to look like. (How could it be otherwise, Socrates?)
For the politically inclined, the plaza, teeming with young impressionable minds and boundless energy, had for many years been an ideal recruiting spot to pass out information and propaganda. But what with the civil-rights unrest down South and the Vietnam War heating up, university officials had caved to political pressure and banned advocacy and fundraising activities on campus – which quickly proved to be like throwing a match into flammable liquid. After all, many young guys who were vulnerable to being drafted for cannon fodder found a lot of personal appeal in the anti-war sentiments.
In defiance of the ban, Jack Weinberg, a dedicated left-winger, set up a card table in the plaza that balmy October for CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) to distribute material and solicit funds. He was promptly arrested and stuck in the back of a campus police car that had unwisely driven onto the plaza – a very bad strategic move, since the vehicle was immediately surrounded by a horde of indignant students who refused to allow its departure.
I lived a few blocks away and soon became aware of the hubbub, which I found interesting, though not inspirational in any political sense.
For the next two days Weinberg remained in situ, eating peanut-butter sandwiches passed through the car window and occasionally relieving himself in a bucket. Outside, students continued to hold the vehicle immobile. The top of the car was transformed into a speakers’ platform, and fiery oratory continued night and day from a host of free-speech supporters, most notably Mario Savio, who became a leader of the movement. The impasse quickly became national news and “negotiations” were conducted between student representatives and the administration.
As I said, my part was only as a witness, someone there to eat the free sandwiches being passed out while agreeing that authority sucked and war was bad.
Finally a compromise was reached and Weinberg was released with no charges filed. However, the fire he had lit continued to burn brightly for months, as masses of adamant if peaceful protesters staged sit-ins and rallies to demand a change in university policy.
Then one day in early December, it came to a head. I was sitting along Telegraph a few blocks down from Sather Gate when a low rumble grew into a loud roar as row after row of motorcycle cops in riot gear rode by, part of a larger force assembled to clear the plaza. It was like a scene out of a Cocteau movie.
The mass arrest of about 800 demonstrators was quickly accomplished (with no violence, fortunately) and the “suspects” were all released on their own recognizance a few hours later.
But their victory had been achieved. In January, UC-Berkeley’s freshly installed chancellor announced new policies that recognized their right to freedom of expression.
Thus the Free Speech Movement was born, and it has since been remembered proudly as part of Berkeley’s heritage. Until, that is, Yiannapolous’ invitation to speak there was canceled in the name of public safety. Berkeley, it appears, no longer stands for free speech.
It’s unfortunate. Because now, all these decades later, I like to believe I’m a bit more mature in my views and a little less confused. And this much has become clear to me:
Suppressing speech or any form of non-violent expression only lends credibility to those being gagged. In some instances, such as the civil rights and anti-war movements, the results of the gagging ultimately proved positive for society. Government attempts to smother dissent only created an echo chamber that helped nurture the protests into a din heard round the world, hurrying the notion of white supremacy and the domino theory of monolithic Communism onto the dung heap of history.
When speech is anti-civil rights instead of pro, however, it’s very tempting to want to muzzle the speakers. Don’t let the neo-Nazis, the anti-Semites, the Muslimophobes spew their rhetoric and we’ll have a better world – that’s the thinking. But it’s wrong. As the saying goes, we wouldn’t need a First Amendment if no one said anything objectionable. And it’s better if even poisonous views can be heard in the open rather than allowed to flourish in secret. Sunshine remains the best disinfectant.
As far as Yiannapolous, shutting him up only increased his power to draw likeminded bigots to gatherings like CPAC (at least until his apparent ambition to become president of the Man-Boy Love Club was exposed and he became radioactive).
No, free speech wasn’t dealt a deathblow by not allowing him to spout his garbage, but it did make lefties look like they have a double standard.
Milton said it best: “Let her [Truth] and Falshood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.”
That’s a lesson that should be remembered at Berkeley and everywhere else. David Long writes from Cortez, Colo.