Friday, April 11, 2008

the odious machine

Ron Silliman, who knew Mario Savio fairly well in Berkeley, tells me that Savio did not seek out his leadership role in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement - that he was shy; that he would rather, finally, have been studying his Philosophy. Anyway, his FSM work certainly distorted his life. He had a history of heart trouble and (since this blog is not official biography, nor history, etc.) let's just speculate that the heroic role and its aftermath shortened his life as well. He died at 53 in 1996.

In my own top ten list of great speeches, somewhere up around 5th is Savio's brilliant, stirring, apparently improvised speech on Dec. 2, 1964, spoken from Sproul Plaza in front of Berkeley's main administration building. I have always been stunned by the aptness of his analogy between the big research university (the way it used to treat its undergrads--and to some degree still does) and the factory machine.

I admired this because Savio is turning around the metaphor Berkeley chancellor Clark Kerr already used to describe postwar higher education: it was, said Kerr proudly and patriotically, a "knowledge factory."

I admired the speech even more when I learned that Savio's father was a machine punch operator.

"There is a time," he said, "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 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."

In my 1950s site, I've reproduced the New York Times obituary.