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 FSM@40: Free Speech
 in a Dangerous Time

 

The Spirituality of Free Speech
Walt Herbert
October 9, 2004, 40th Reunion of FSM

Panel: And the Spirit Moved Us: Religion and the FSM: Walter Herbert, Marilyn Noble, Dustin Miller
The FSM as a Thing of the Spirit
Walter Herbert

Presentation for the Panel:
And the Spirit Moved Us: Religion and the FSM: Walter Herbert, Marilyn Noble, Dustin Miller
October 9, 2004, 40th Reunion of FSM

I have two mystical visions to recount from my memories of the FSM. The first took place after the big sit-in on December 2, as I was walking up Telegraph Avenue to a meeting of the steering committee. Ahead I could see the strip of brick sidewalk, and behind it the campus itself—the ASUC building, Sather Gate, Sproul Hall, the campanile in the background --- and it suddenly appeared to me that the sky and the earth had parted, leaving a visible seam where the horizon had been. I was compelled to see  that the familiar world before me, so overpowering in its claim to reality, was actually not real: it was only a description, an accident, like an arbitrary picture painted on the inside of a giant clamshell, which had closed down on me, like huge closed eyelids. Now the eyelids had opened, just a little, and the ocean of reality itself came into view, visible through the split running horizontally through the familiar scene. The ocean was teeming with energy, with infinite possibilities, with worlds upon worlds.

I’ll tell you the second mystical vision in a minute.

I came to Berkeley after I had graduated from Union Theological Seminary knowing I would never be a parish minister. I could not say the things parish ministers need to say, the standard repertory of assertions, seemingly inseparable from Christian faith, about God and his relationship with the world.
I had gone to seminary, and stayed in seminary, and come to Berkeley as a campus minister, because my early religious upbringing had instilled an unbreakable bond between my experience of myself as a person and that of communing with the ultimate horizon. That horizon, the zone of religious reality, is known in moments of ecstatic consciousness (as above) that fuses the depths of the self with the depths of the real. But it is also known cognitively, in seeking to discern the truth of things; it is known in moral choice, choosing the good and resisting evil; it is known in communities of mutual respect and caring. Religious reality ties these things together into a wholeness that the grand mythologies and doctrines of human faith traditions articulate as an integrity of language.

But I had only a broken language. When I listened on the religious wavelength I heard a cacophony, noise drowning out sense. I stammered when I tried to speak, as colliding fragments of the broken language jammed my throat.

The FSM caught my attention on that wavelength. It drew together people like me, so I believed, who were trying to fashion a workable spirituality, to find a moral voice.

My job in Berkeley was to serve as Director of an Experimental Ministry to Graduate Students and Faculty, funded by the Glide Foundation of San Francisco. My task was to explore new forms of campus ministry aimed not at deepening the connection between young persons and their inherited traditions --- Methodists at the Wesley Foundation, Presbyterians at Westminster House, Catholics at the Newman Center, Episcopalians at Canterbury House ---- but trying to engage the spiritualities and ethical cruxes of campus life itself.

I had been working at this job for a year when the FSM began, and had discovered something that made the FSM ring true for men, and made me receptive to its summons. I discovered what I called “the silence,” an absence of conversation on topics that populate the religious horizon. The university was seemingly not interested in raising serious questions about why it should exist or what purposes it should serve. Talented researchers were pursuing many fields of study without asking questions about what made them worth pursuing.

I recall in those days a real estate firm on Telegraph Avenue called “VALUES INC,” a telling emblem for the university that Clark Kerr called “a mechanism held together by administrative rules and powered by money.” The university was a firm, open for business. It offered whatever professors could dish up, so long as somebody was ready to pay for it. Spiritual wholeness in a moral universe might be on the menu, depending on your taste, and depending on your pocketbook, but the institution itself, like the procedures of analysis and discovery, declared itself value free.

Young people from the ages of eighteen to twenty-two ---- whether they are brought up in a church or a synagogue or a mosque or with no organized religious training --- make fundamental decisions about their lives, and they need a basis for making them. Unlike people over thirty --- the already committed --- they need to hear voices that have something convincing to say about final things, about ethical and cosmic realities. The capacity of received religious traditions to speak with such a voice has been impaired in our era, and the spiritual authority they lost has passed largely to the university.
When the voice of the university likewise turns out to have nothing to say, what follows is stronger than disappointment. What follows is a sense of betrayal, of being abandoned by those who should offer schooling in truth, grace, and justice, but offer only credentials that can be exchanged for a job.
“Who am I?” asks the anguished young soul. “You’re a prospective employee” answers the authorized guardian of our culture’s knowledge and spiritual wisdom.

So the FSM was a thing of the spirit not only because of the intellectual and historical developments that have confounded religious traditions in the West, but also because the modern multiversity has traded in its spiritual mission in favor of marketing knowledge to the highest bidder.

Mario embodied personally, as is the fate of charismatic leaders, the dilemmas and consternations and yearnings of the community that hearkened to his voice.

He received intensive early religious training from Jesuits. He considered becoming a priest, but he soon recognized he couldn’t do that. His hunger for reality remained, and the resultant spiritual quandary was shared by many kindred spirits, myself included.

The same is true for his stammering, and the explosions of prophetic anger and searing eloquence to which that stammering gave way. Michael Rossman, Martin Roysher, and Bettina Aptheker --- like other speakers --- also rose to such occasions, giving themselves to the moment of ecstatic utterance, speaking out of their hearts. That quality came across to those of us who listened, of speech freed from impediment, freed from internal noise. The Free Speech Movement was a freeing of speech.

The spirituality of the FSM appeared also in the way speech was disciplined. At its best and most characteristic moments, speech within the community showed respect for the intelligence and moral judgment of listeners. When he declared his own judgments, Mario would typically begin by saying “I ask you to consider.” When he was preparing to attack his opponents’ judgments, he would say “And what they told us in response was the following:” ---- followed by a lucid and fair-minded summation of the views with which he disagreed.

The same conscientiousness prevailed within the Steering Committee, sometimes to mind-breaking lengths.
This is the deep sense in which the FSM was not ideological, namely that what people said received consideration on its merits, was not taken as a symptom of some underlying economic or political interest --- malign or otherwise.

This discipline contrasts sharply against the reckless attack-dog rhetoric of the newly empowered bigots of the Christian right, for whom only one question is relevant: Are you for us or against us? You’re either good or evil, and if you’re evil, there are no ethical restraints on what the good (namely us) can do to destroy you. Reasoning and evidence have nothing to do with forming convictions. They are only weapons. The same is true of speech itself, which is incapable of seeking truth, and engaging others in the search; speech is incapable of testing alternative conceptions of virtue. It is only an instrument that the good and the evil use in their combat with each other.

The quotation from Diogenes on the Mario Savio steps --- “Free speech is the most beautiful thing in the world” --- does not mean free speech is an ornament, a pretty thing detachable from the serious business of the university. Diogenes is speaking of “the beautiful,” in the ancient Greek way, as fundamentally inseparable from “the true” and “the good.”

The wisdom of Socrates, so Socrates maintained, did not consist in having definite knowledge of the beautiful, the true or the good. He was the wisest of men only because he did not believe that he knew things that he did not know, while others did believe they knew things they did not know. And Socrates was wisest because he had found a way to separate pretended knowledge from real knowledge, namely through reasoning, through speaking and listening in the company of others. To him it was a divine mission.

The Christian humanists of the early renaissance rediscovered the sacred power of reasoning, prompting Erasmus to coin the prayer “Holy Socrates pray for us.” The faith underlies Milton’s defense of free speech in Areopagitica; it underlies John Stuart Mill’s famous treatise “On Liberty.” In my own Methodist heritage, this faith takes the form John Wesley gave it, when he established four criteria against which doctrine is to be judged: scripture, tradition, experience and reason.

The defense of free speech in Berkeley was a defense of reasoning as a spiritual exercise that is innate to our fundamental humanity. For Americans it is central to the liberal democratic tradition that descends from the eighteenth century, where it was included among the rights with which human beings are “endowed by their creator.” These rights are inalienable in the sense that the state can neither grant nor withhold them, but only honor or violate them. They are God-given, ingredient to our constitution as human beings, as individual selves and as members of communities. Speech is what makes us, Mario said, a little lower than the angels.

Here’s the second mystical vision. I had worked hard to bring about a negotiated solution to the conflict, and dreaded the confrontation between students and police. Two days before the big sit-in I knew that my efforts --- and all such efforts --- had failed. I went up on campus that day, and found myself in the ASUC building looking at an exhibition of pictures by Robert del Tredici, pictures based on passages from Moby Dick. One in particular put me in a daze; it illustrated this quotation: “Woe unto him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale.” Still in a daze, I walked out onto the plaza to listen to the speeches, and looked up at a cloudy troubled menacing sky. Then came a rift in the clouds, for just a moment, and a great beam of heavenly light shone down on the microphones and the speakers, all crowded against the doorway of Sproul Hall.


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