FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Afterlife of Mario Savio

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

 

More articles by:

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset

January 24, 2019
David Rosen
Roe: 47 Years and Counting
Joseph Essertier
Warmongering Over Warmbier: US Hypocrisy and a Double Standard on North Korea
Glenn Sacks
L.A. Teachers Strike Dispatch #9: What We Won
M. G. Piety
An Essay on Grief
Karen J. Greenberg
Creating a Global Lost Generation
Jesse Jackson
America Has Lost Its Common Sense
Noa Mendelsohn Aviv
Rebranding Canada’s Solitary Confinement Policy Doesn’t Change What It Is
Ramzy Baroud
False ‘Victories’: Is the PA Using the ‘State of Palestine’ to Remain in Power?
Binoy Kampmark
Eyeing the White House: the Democratic Field
Russell Mokhiber
Single Payer Gold Standard HR 676 Rest in Peace
David Swanson
The World Will End in Fire
David Macaray
Celebrity Bullshit
Dean Baker
How Worried Should We be If China’s Growth Rate Slows to 6.4%?
Wim Laven
What Makes America Great?
January 23, 2019
Paul Street
Time for the U.S. Yellow Vests
Charles McKelvey
Popular Democracy in Cuba
Kenn Orphan
The Smile of Class Privilege
Leonard Peltier
The History Behind Nate Phillips’ Song
Kenneth Surin
Stalled Brexit Goings On
Jeff Cohen
The System’s Falling Apart: Were the Dogmatic Marxists Right After All?
Cira Pascual Marquina
Chavez and the Continent of Politics: a Conversation with Chris Gilbert
George Ochenski
Turning Federal Lands Over to the States and Other Rightwing Fantasies
George Wuerthner
Forest Service Ignores Science to Justify Logging
Raouf Halaby
In the Fray: Responses to Covington Catholic High
Kim C. Domenico
No Saviors But Ourselves; No Disobedience Without Deeper Loyalty
Ted Rall
Jury Trial? You Have No Right!
Michael Doliner
The Pros and Cons of Near Term Human Extinction
Lee Ballinger
Musical Unity
Elliot Sperber
The Ark Builders
January 22, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
On the Brink of Brexit: the Only Thing Most People Outside Westminster Know About Brexit is That It’s a Mess
Raouf Halaby
The Little Brett Kavanaughs from Covington Catholic High
Dean Baker
The Trump Tax Cut is Even Worse Than They Say
Stanley L. Cohen
The Brazen Detention of Marzieh Hashemi, America’s Newest Political Prisoner
Karl Grossman
Darth Trump: From Space Force to Star Wars
Glenn Sacks
Teachers Strike Dispatch #8: New Independent Study Confirms LAUSD Has the Money to Meet UTLA’s Demands
Haydar Khan
The Double Bind of Human Senescence
Alvaro Huerta
Mr. President, We Don’t Need Your Stinking Wall
Howard Lisnoff
Another Slugger from Louisville: Muhammad Ali
Nicole Patrice Hill – Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Scarlet “I”: Climate Change, “Invasive” Plants and Our Culture of Domination
Jonah Raskin
Disposable Man Gets His Balls Back
Thomas Knapp
Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go
January 21, 2019
W. T. Whitney
New US Economic Attack Against Cuba, Long Threatened, May Hit Soon
Jérôme Duval
Macronist Repression Against the People in Yellow Vests
Dean Baker
The Next Recession: What It Could Look Like
Eric Mann
All Hail the Revolutionary King: Martin Luther King and the Black Revolutionary Tradition
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail