The Silver Anniversary of the FSM (1989)

by Michael Rossman

         [Written shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake shook Berkeley and the drama in Tiananmen Square shook the world,]

         Five years ago, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, students at Berkeley organized a week-long program of commemoration. The event was a spectacular success: 10,000 attended a moving and insightful rally, concerned as much with the future as the past; and thousands more came to the talks, panels, poster show, and music that continued through the week.

        That was October, 1984. We were then only five years along in the social ravages and repressed climate of the Reagan Era. In commemorating their heritage, Berkeley's students evoked the FSM's spirit among themselves, and revitalized the campus. The next spring, a vigorous anti-apartheid movement developed, pushing the reluctant University towards divestment; and reawakened energies flowed less dramatically into ecological and environmental activism, Central American solidarity, and other progressive concerns.

         Now we are ten years into the Reagan Era, enduring the slow fallout of its consequences, more devastating than even the earthquake to come. We're half-way through the FSM's twenty-fifth anniversary; and I look at my phone, as a grizzled veteran of that bright era, and wonder why no-one has called this time. What's up with the kids at Berkeley, did Reagan's gang win? Has the climate of cultural repression finally worn even Berkeley's students down to private and a-historical concerns, leaving their residual activism splintered in specialized branches -- with no focus for a broader community of concern, no sense of pride in a living heritage of passionate and intelligent activism, no common sense of this being as vital a part of their education as anything technical they can learn?

        Is this reading too much into the silent phone? Mind you, I'm not begging for a call. Like most veterans of the FSM, my life is too busy already with its own affairs. Still, the silence is eloquent. So far as I've heard, students have no interest in the FSM's silver anniversary; and faculty aren't organizing anything directly instructive, beyond getting someone to talk to a class or two. True, a commemorative art project is afoot; but its impetus came from faculty and farther afield. And the Daily Californian has given even this only routine coverage, missing the chance to run a substantive series of articles and interviews on the FSM and its consequences-- not to exhume and parade a dry fragment of history, but to examine anew the light of its meaning through the lens of the present.

         Hey, what are you folks doing up there on campus? What are you learning about, and how? Last week the earth broke here, repressed energy lurched forward, shook the foundations. Today you're all learning about plate tectonics, the local faults, aware that it's coming again. Twenty-five years ago the social earth broke here, released energy lurched forward, shook the foundations. Today, who cares, as the deep stresses gather again?

         The FSM's shock-wave was felt across the nation, around the world, reverberated reinforced for decades. Did tears come to your eyes, or a chill down your spine, when the TV showed you the Goddess of Freedom and Democracy borne high by student hands in Tiananmen Square, with Free Speech in a foreign script, before the tanks ran them down? Or is this only the sentimental quavering of a few historical relics like me? Don't you understand? We're here to tell you that whenever you make a gesture of meaning outside yourself, commit your share of spirit to something that works for the whole, for a central good and welfare, then your small action reverberates in the human cosmos down time, even if the TV doesn't bring you such dramatic proof.

        The current that flowed incandescent through the FSM and on through Prague, Paris, and other such stations to Tiananmen Square, flows still in Sproul Plaza. You can feel its hum, something deeper than the buzz of everyday politicking and culture in the plaza, if you sit down in a quiet corner and think about the history of this place where you have come to learn awhile, your place in it, its place in you. The hum is not a mystic echo of past chanting crowds out there. It is softer, organic, somewhere inside yourself. You are history, you make history through what you do, even you, even now. The time is always now.

         Meanwhile the deep stresses gather in the social earth. The Black "underclass" is condemned more ruthlessly by the structural economy than ever before. The homeless multiply (in my youth there were no beggars.) Financeers are gutting the economy, the forests and fish are disappearing in greedy haste, the revolution in information media is slipping over the brink of authoritarian potentials, our government can't stop trying to run the world, let alone retool for peace; and so on. You know all this will wrench your life, more profoundly than any great tremor of the earth, as you scurry for a job and then for things to gird against the growing insecurity, the evisceration of meaning. Then how to be a woman, how to be a man? How to grow into a vocation, live a life, meaning-full for you and meaningful in the whole?  And what can you do, alone; and who can we be, without you?

         I wish I could say. I only know that all this is what you are learning, as you cram for the test and wonder what to do on Saturday -- and that the energy of these questions will rise reverberant within the hum you feel within you, when you sit in a quiet place in Sproul Plaza and think about history, attuning yourself to the current that flows here still.

         As for the FSM, it's been five years since a group of students have had the wit to use it to bring many people together to think about their common history, refreshing the current that flows here still. The current generation of students has had no such opportunity, nor has made one, although rich resources from decades of activist perspective abound even in town. Is this only because vision and will are lacking?  (To do it well is a bear of a project!)  Are you waiting for Daddy to do it for you?  (Much luck!)  Or is the failure deeper, in the very lack of any craving to connect with the realities inside the distantly-mythologized past, to locate yourself in the living tissue of history?

         Whichever, I am the ghost of FSM past, or rather its live spirit, knocking uninvited at the window of your daily life, concerned by the silent phone, reminding you to remember. The carnival of viewpoints that assails you each noon in Sproul Plaza, that calls you to engagement with the world, is the FSM's legacy, your heritage, our future, however you carry it on. We are waiting to hear from you.

        Meanwhile, if you want to learn about the FSM itself, its outer events and meanings, you'll have to find your own way through the literature this year.  Here I can note only two personal things about the FSM, so briefly that they may seem impersonal. One is a truth many shared. In the FSM, we were caught up in a kind of delirium, a literal ecstasy; we came out of our separate selves to be and act together for all; and found our individual identities not lost in this, but restored and replenished.

         The other is a dry sociological note, in response to a question that any thoughtful young person might ask:  What does it do to your life to get so involved, to give your heart also to something beyond private ends?  The answer is that if you do it at a formative age, it will probably warp you for life.

        Twenty-five years down the line, longitudinal studies of activists in Tallahassee, Santa Barbara, and Berkeley have finally quantified the costs. Our median earnings are about 60% of what comparable groups of our peers, who didn't get involved in social activism, earn. Think of that! Fully 40% of potential lifelong upper-middle-class income pissed away, just by risking yourself fumblingly at something you hardly know how to. Doesn't the choice seem crazy in these worsening economic times, with Porsches whizzing by and the deep stresses gathering?

         Yet the studies show also how our incomes depended on our having chosen vocations of care and service; and show something deeper. Whatever the various ways we have gone since our early engagements for justice, most of us have continued to try to make modestly real in life the values that moved us to commitment in our youth -- not out of duty, but as a way of making sense of life. There is no way to measure the inner coherence, the senses of meaning, that this has given, to lives no less tortuous than those of our peers who made other choices. And no one I know from the FSM would say anything so simplistic as, "My choice cost me top dollar, but it saved my soul." But if you inquire into who we grew up to be, you'll find that you could do worse, in the shaking times to come.


[Printed in The Daily Californian, November 1989.]

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