October 11, 2011

Rage Against the Machine

In December of 1964 I stood in a crowd at the University of California at Berkeley where the student protest movement that shook the sixties and beyond was about to begin.

That day, and the days that would unfold after it across the decades, began with an extrordinary speech by the late Mario Savio, a passionate and tragic man. The speech he gave that day at 22 years of age was, in many ways, the peak moment of his short life. Still it was a moment many would wish they had in their own life. It set in motion many things, some good, some not so good, and some evil. For me it was a speech I would never forget, for better or worse.

It is, I think, a speech that speaks more to our era today, and more broadly, than the incident and world that was its focus when it was given. Like many great speeches it is subject to interpretation, misinterpretation, appropriation and revisionism. What it means now is not exactly what it meant then except in a more far reaching manner than perhaps Savio knew or intended. But then again perhaps he did know and did intend. Give a listen and see what you think.

I've never forgotten Savio's speech and, off and on in my own small way, I've tried to incorporate its sentiments and attitudes into my life through all manner of changing circumstances.

Today, in Daniel Greenfield's "Winning the System" I found an echo of these words from a time more than 46 years past. Reading them I thought about how far we've come from the America of those years and, at the same time, how much we've veered away from the direction of those dreams, preferring to have the experience of freedom and miss the meaning of liberty.

At the same time, in reading Greenfield's thoughts and finding the echo of that long ago December embedded in them, I think that perhaps, after all, the end is not yet and that enough stout hearts and able hands remain to steer the ship away from the lee shore:

All that's left is stopping the machine. That doesn't mean violent revolution, it means determined political change. The Tea Party was the first step of that change. It was extraordinary because for the first time in a long time, outrage at the operation of the machine brought massive numbers of people together around the country. Their principled stand was doomed to be muffled because the system has no interest in shifting power away from its institutions and toward the people. But it's only the beginning.

[In the elections of 2010 we saw that] a giant was slowly waking.

The task of the left is to complete its machine before the giant wakes. Our task is to wake the giant and point him at the machine. In that way the last three years have helped us more than they have helped the left, which could have made the same gains if it had waited and taken it more slowly. They put a face on the machine and that was their mistake. Now they're trying to take it back by putting Wall Street's face on the machine.

We will fight the good fight this election, and with the help of G-d may we win it, but it's the machine that is the real war. We cannot count on an Andrew Jackson to tear apart the machine for us. That will most likely come when the giant wakes and finds the continued operation of the machine so intolerable that he tears it apart. When the day comes that the machine advances and finds its path blocked by millions of people who are determined to stop it from operating then the people will have won over the system. And then the system can be scaled down to human level again. -- Winning the System by Daniel Greenfield

To repeat the nub of Savio's speech:

"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! You can't even passively 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!"

Well, maybe.

But there's a lot of power -- and even a prayer -- packed into that last small word in the last sentence: "May. Be."

Posted by Vanderleun at October 11, 2011 9:32 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

The Daniel Greenfield piece is excellent. Read the whole thing, as they say.

I read the Wiki entry for Mario Savio, but I'm still unclear about the context. What exactly prompted him to give that impassioned speech?

Posted by: rickl at October 11, 2011 11:31 PM

To most in those crowds it never occurred to them how natural they themselves were to become that machine, now exponentially increased in authority, because they were already raised in it. The organizers always knew.

Most people remain puzzled that there is a great difference between freedom and liberty. But I do think you are right. The Tea Parties are an honest man's search for rediscovering enduring greatness. I have never been witness to a time, or read of one, where some part of the public was so far ahead in leading it's own leaders.

Posted by: james wilson at October 12, 2011 12:03 AM

Who among the candidates last night understood that it is the machine that exists between us and the freedom we seek? Any? All? Is there one person that many think of us think was capable of leading us against the machine? How many of the candidates belong to, are part of, the machine?


Posted by: Sandy Daze at October 12, 2011 4:39 AM

I'm a huge Daniel Greenfield fan. Thank you both for the education on Savio. If free speech was his main cause, then I know a few bleeding hearts in the bad habit of comparing conservatives to "Hitler" who could use a reminder. In light of the recent ESPN knee-jerking, the Hitler/Nazi thing is kind of getting on my last nerve. Thanks again!

Posted by: RedCarolina at October 12, 2011 9:32 AM

Wonderful to see how that all worked out, eh? The free speech movement started CA on its way to perdition. But I expect the law of unintended consequences would no doubt escape a mathematician, indeed, most academics.

Posted by: chuck at October 12, 2011 10:55 AM

I used to think the Canadian system was somewhat dysfunctional because the federal power here seemed so weak in comparison to the powers of the provinces. But now I see this distribution of power as a great strength for democracy because the "machine" is much smaller when it is just the size of a province, as opposed to citizens being encompassed by a machine the size of the federal government.

I think the U.S. has made a big mistake by allowing the federal government to now hold such sway over the states. There needs to be a greater focus in the U.S. on states' rights in order to cut the machine back down to size. A good example is education. It used to be a state function, but now the federal government's Department of Education has usurped much of that function because of regulations and funding.

Posted by: Gloria at October 12, 2011 11:45 AM


Yes, education could be a force of change in the right direction in many ways. I recall maybe one class on U.S. government and nothing stuck because they had succeeded in pre-filtering out details and principles of interest, as if everything in the books was of equal significance. In other words, a flat and brain-numbing curriculum.

7-12 grades should be loaded with classes that help kids contrast local, state and federal powers and know of the historical shifts in those powers. Isn't this really more important than the contrast between Republicans and Democrats? The early framers of our public education system-- Peabody et al.-- knew well that the system they were designing would serve the essential function of instilling an American outlook and camaraderie in all of its subjects. Training young people toward the middle as it were. Fine and well as far as it goes. But it doesn't go far enough unless we are content to relinquish our powers to the machine. Any machine.

Posted by: Hannon at October 12, 2011 2:00 PM


There's nothing quite like being called Nazis by a bunch of National Socialists who don't like successful Jews and businesses whose output is not directed, or outright controlled, by the state.

Posted by: monkeyfan at October 12, 2011 4:40 PM

The best thing about Savio's speech is it gave us Gerard.

Posted by: Velociman at October 12, 2011 5:09 PM

Yes, well, when we stop the machine, and eventually build a new one, the money men will be waiting there to buy it, won't they?

Posted by: SWRichmond at October 12, 2011 5:24 PM

Money men didn't build the machine, SW, money men built the Federal Reserve, and the revolutionaries built the machine twenty years later. It was not done with money, it was done with rhetoric. Now they have both. Whatever great interests existed before that time never constituted a machine.

Posted by: james wilson at October 12, 2011 8:11 PM

What also strikes me is his voice. You don't hear voices like that anymore. He sounds more like something from the 40's or 50's that what I think of as the 60's (I was born in 1968). Definitely not the "voice of the neuter". He speaks authority that seems almost foreign. You don't hear that much either these days. Then again, the immediate circumstance that prompted him to speak with such eloquence is so distant and small his passion seems unwarranted. Thanks for exposing me to this, and your current interpretation Gerard.

Posted by: Count Grecula at October 12, 2011 9:29 PM

Buckley spoke to people too.

Read it.

Posted by: notquiteunBuckley at October 12, 2011 9:44 PM