FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Afterlife of Mario Savio

by CLANCY SIGAL

Veterans of the 1964 Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, California, an event that electrified young men and women world over, will return to campus for the fiftieth anniversary reunion this October.  (If interested e-mail FSM50th@gmail.com.)   FSM’s most famous leader, Mario Savio, won’t be there because he died in 1996.

I’m intensely interested in the personal lives of famous people once they “fade from the limelight”.  You have this thrilling moment that defines you in popular culture…a speech, an 80-yard kickoff return…an Olympic gold medal…and then?  For Savio the moment came when he gave his immortal speech on the steps of Sproul Hall:

“We’re human beings! 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!”

Mavio’s speech became an antiwar rallying cry during Vietnam.  Before Jane Fonda, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan he was the face of protest.  And then?  It’s said that the ancient Spartan mothers told their sons just before a battle, “Either with your shield or on it.”  Or as the Australian swimming gold-medalist Shane Gould reflected on her life after the Olympics: “It was like being taken up to the highest mountain peak to see the view, and then being brought down, never to be there again.”  Sandy Koufax would know all about that.

It’s quite common for world-class athletes to fall into depression and illness after they’ve given their all to achieve perfection for one brief moment.  Same is true of movie actors once their time in the sun is over.  Stars become waitresses or drunks or overdose or suicide – that is, those who don’t take the precaution of marrying rich which some happily do.

Adrenalin gets us up the mountain but when the rush is gone normal life can seem unbearably gray and unexciting.

You bring your baggage with you up to Everest, and it can be a killer coming down, especially if like Savio you’re a decent person unwilling to exploit your temporary fame.   Raised Catholic the son of a steelworker, he might have become a priest but instead joined Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement and the Mississippi  civil rights fight before convulsing the UC Berkeley campus whose chancellor Clark Kerr was trapped between protesting students and Neanderthal regents.

Savio held fast to the end: radical, reasonable, intransigent.   He married and had children, had a nervous breakdown, went back to school, taught math and philosophy and had an early heart attack.  Personally, I see his “afterlife” at least as heroic as his big moment on campus.  Normal life ain’t that easy for any of us especially if you’ve been lightning-struck by media attention and peer popularity.

Idealistic, high-maintenance activists tend to burn out and some never do come back.  It’s hard to step away once you’ve seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.  I wonder if that’s why certain once-famous once-beautiful actresses retire to serene Carmel to talk to mainly animals.  I can think of very few really famous people who stepped, or were forced, down and did good with their fame.  President Jimmy Carter with his Habitat for Humanity is an exception.  (No, not Al Gore, let’s not go there; and certainly not Bill Clinton with his $100m income and extortionate speaking fees.)

A second stage of heroism just might mean living normally under the radar, with or without kids with or without mortgage.   Problem is, aside from novels and songs there’s no way to celebrate a hero who returns with but not on his shield.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives

 

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives

More articles by:
May 31, 2016
Miguel A. Cruz-Díaz
Imperial Blues: On Whitewashing Dictatorship in the 21st Century
Vijay Prashad
Stoking the Fires: Trump and His Legions
Patrick Howlett-Martin
Libya: How to Bring Down a Nation
Uri Avnery
What Happened to Netanyahu?
Corey Payne
Reentry Through Resistance: Détente with Cuba was Accomplished Through Resistance and Solidarity, Not Imperial Benevolence
Bill Quigley
From Tehran to Atlanta: Social Justice Lawyer Azadeh Shahshahani’s Fight for Human Rights
Manuel E. Yepe
Trump, Sanders and the Exhaustion of a Political Model
Bruce Lerro
“Network” 40 Years Later: Capitalism in Retrospect and Prospect and Elite Politics Today
Robert Hunziker
Chile’s Robocops
Aidan O'Brien
What’ll It be Folks: Xenophobia or Genocide?
Binoy Kampmark
Emailgate: the Clinton Spin Doctors In Action
Colin Todhunter
The Unique Risks of GM Crops: Science Trumps PR, Fraud and Smear Campaigns
Dave Welsh
Jessica Williams, 29: Another Black Woman Gunned Down By Police
Gary Leupp
Rules for TV News Anchors, on Memorial Day and Every Day
May 30, 2016
Ron Jacobs
The State of the Left: Many Movements, Too Many Goals?
James Abourezk
The Intricacies of Language
Porfirio Quintano
Hillary, Honduras, and the Murder of My Friend Berta
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes on ISIS are Reducing Their Cities to Ruins
Uri Avnery
The Center Doesn’t Hold
Raouf Halaby
The Sailors of the USS Liberty: They, Too, Deserve to Be Honored
Rodrigue Tremblay
Barack Obama’s Legacy: What Happened?
Matt Peppe
Just the Facts: The Speech Obama Should Have Given at Hiroshima
Deborah James
Trade Pacts and Deregulation: Latest Leaks Reveal Core Problem with TISA
Michael Donnelly
Still Wavy After All These Years: Flower Geezer Turns 80
Ralph Nader
The Funny Business of Farm Credit
Paul Craig Roberts
Memorial Day and the Glorification of Past Wars
Colin Todhunter
From Albrecht to Monsanto: A System Not Run for the Public Good Can Never Serve the Public Good
Rivera Sun
White Rose Begins Leaflet Campaigns June 1942
Tom H. Hastings
Field Report from the Dick Cheney Hunting Instruction Manual
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail