Chancellor Nicholas Dirks released a statement on Friday, September 5th in anticipation of the commemoration of the Free Speech Movement (FSM). It is, after all, the fiftieth anniversary of that historic event for the Berkeley campus of the University of California. Chancellor Dirks called for civility as the core value of the remembrance. Civility is the new term of campus debates – it has been a way to police faculty members whose academic records are strong, but whose political values are not along the grain of the status quo. If you “rock the boat” with your opinions, you are uncivil. The charge is to remember the FSM, an uncivil action, in civil tones. It is to render the FSM mute.
During the FSM, the well-named Chancellor Edward Strong was angry that then President Clark Kerr was being too weak with the protestors, was, in fact, “capitulating to the tide of revolt, subversive of law and order.” He believed that the FSM was uncivil. It needed to feel the heavy middle of a policeman’s baton.
What the students won in 1964-65 was the right to bring politics to their campus public spaces. That was a huge victory. It was not for nothing that Strong was forced to resign in 1965 and took the post of the Mills Professorship of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy and Civil Polity. The last two words are important – civil polity. People like Chancellor Strong believe that a civil polity means no protests. Civility, for people in power, typically means capitulation to the order of things.
It, therefore, amused me to read Chancellor Dirks’ email to the UC campus community. “Free speech and civility,” wrote the current Chancellor, “are two sides of a single coin – the coin of open, democratic society.” What is the relationship between free speech and civility? The Chancellor does not make this clear. He affirms the importance of free speech, for after all this is a guarantee of the US Constitution not a product of the Free Speech Movement. That Movement was not about the right to speak as such. Even the conservative student leaders, such as David Levy 1964 editor of the campus magazine Man and State, agreed that free speech is inviolable. Free speech itself was not the issue. The FSM was about the right to express and propagate political opinions on campus property (which is also state property).
Chancellor Dirks disparages speech that is “inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings.” This seems the standard that he sets. It is close to the view of Man and State’s Levy, the conservative leader. In its December 1964 issue, Levy argued that the FSM’s tactics are the problem not the idea of free speech. He argued that the problem was in the “mass rallies, marches and sit-ins” which promote “irrelevant emotionality which can be used to cloud the issues” (December 1964). My reading of Chancellor Dirks’ statement is that it is far closer to Levy’s views than those of the FSM.
Why did the students go to Sproul Plaza on October 1, 1964? Not to uphold the bland verbiage of “free speech” but because they were outraged that politics had been banned. They protested the arrest of an alumnus Jack Weinberg, leader of the Campus Congress of Racial Equality. 1964 was a high point in the Civil Rights Movement. It was the most pressing issue amongst young people. They had seen courageous protests against the outrages of Jim Crow racism, and had watched young people throw themselves into the movement in large numbers. Many of the students who would become important in the FSM had already been South, and had volunteered in the most important democratic fight in the United States at that time.
During the summer of 1964, FSM’s Mario Savio participated in Freedom Summer, teaching at a freedom school in McComb (Mississippi). It is important to remember that McComb was the town where the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) held its first voter registration drive. Savio had been part of that dynamic. While barricaded in the university buildings, Savio spoke to his comrades (he later published this speech in Humanity, December 1964 as “An End to History”). “Last summer I went to Mississippi to join the struggle there for civil rights,” he said. “This fall I am engaged in another phase of the same struggle.”
FSM’s Art Goldberg came to the movement from his work at SLATE, the campus New Left magazine and group, whose 1962 conference – “The Negro in America” – had as its chief speaker the fearless SNCC leader Charles McDrew. Not for nothing did FSM’s Bettina Aptheker climb on the police car on Sproul Plaza and quote Fredrick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” That had become a slogan of the Civil Rights Struggle, repeated often including by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The FSM was divisive because it stood for the Civil Rights Movement, which was not universally acknowledged on campus and amongst those in power.
The year before, in his Birmingham prison, Dr. King wrote a letter to his fellow reverends who had suggested that the Civil Rights activists, “even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?” Rather than join him in the fight for civil rights, the religious leaders stood on the sidelines and condemned him for his refusal to accept what Dr. King called “a negative peace.” Peace, for Dr. King, is not negative, “the absence of tension,” but positive, “the presence of justice.” The call for law and order, or even civility, cloaks what is really being said – namely, that the injustice of the current “absence of tension” is to be allowed to remain so that tension is not produced. Real peace, Dr. King argued, came from bringing injustice into the open through struggle and defeating it to bring justice to the world.
Chancellor Dirks asks his community to avoid “division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation.” But the question Dr. King would ask is this: what if the foundations are not as stable as you imagine, rooted as they might be in injustice? Should that not be cause to allow a community to divide, to disseminate different views, to fight each other over which view will prevail? Isn’t that the basis of democracy? In a fascinating essay titled “The Crimes of Colonialism,” Chancellor Dirks cited an essay by Slavoj Zizek and then noted, “Zizek is examining here not only the problem of origins, but the fact that the search for origins leads to a recognition of the horror that lies just below the surface of civility, the realization that the law, indeed lawfulness itself, is predicated on its originary establishment in violence.” This essay was published in 1999, when Chancellor Dirks was then merely Professor Dirks. He has a distinguished record as a close analyst of colonial power, and its hypocrisies. He showed how the “surface of civility” is a nice, polite way to prevent an investigation of the foundation of violence.
In 2006, Chancellor Dirks published a fine book, The Scandal of Empire, which shows how violence is inherent in institutions that emerge from colonialism. Someone who recognizes the role of violence in the creation of the present might well have signed a petition in 2002 to help stop the occupation of the Palestinians. This is what then Professor Dirks did, joining over a hundred Columbia University faculty members to call upon their university to “divest from all companies that manufacture arms and other military hardware sold to Israel.” The petition was not a BDS call, but only that Columbia divest from firms that are in the weapons trade with Israel.
When Dirks became the Dean of Arts and Sciences, he did not stand by his views but disavowed them. He said he did not sign the petition. When he became Berkeley’s Chancellor he once more said that he had nothing to do with the petition. But worse, Chancellor Dirks then said that the petition stirred up “all sorts of other controversies that developed about the climate of Jewish students on Columbia’s campus.” He suggested that this climate (namely anti-Semitism) was connected somehow to “the nature of instruction in the department of Middle East studies.” Dirks’ former colleagues – the A list of US US Middle East specialists at Columbia – retaliated, saying that he had defamed them and that a committee set up by then Vice President Dirks found “no evidence whatever for concerns about the climate for Jewish students let alone about the nature of instruction in our department.”
Civility, in this instance, seems to imply a refusal to allow for a criticism of Israeli state policy and US foreign policy. It has a concrete character, not an abstract value. It means that this criticism is going to be called uncivil, while other criticisms (such as of the government of Sudan or North Korea) would be championed. If you are along the grain of the protests of power, then your protest is called courageous; if you go against power, you are uncivil.
There is a set of oppositions, with implied values, in Chancellor Dirks’ email: free speech (good), political advocacy (bad); protected speech (good), unprotected speech (bad), debate (good), demagoguery (bad). The implication is that what the institution sees as good is what is good, and what the institution sees as bad is bad. This was precisely the view of Chancellor Strong and Man and State editor Levy in 1964-65. They were on the wrong side of history. Chancellor Dirks’ message does not have the courage of Strong or the clarity of Levy, who would have come out and said what they believed. What kinds of political debates are forbidden on Sproul Plaza now? Whose speech will be found wanting in terms of “courteousness and respect in words and deeds”? Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions activists? Occupy movement activists? Anti-Poverty activists? Unionizing adjuncts? Unionizing administrative assistants? The ghost of Mario Savio?
Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso paperback, 2014). He is a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (CounterPunch, 2014).