This shy, stuttering offspring of a blue-collar family was a made-to-order Demosthenes, and with the University of California formally commemorating the fabled Sproul Plaza steps in memory of Savio this week, one can't help but take a moment's extrapolatory pleasure in the reminder that the Athenian parliaments of early Greece came together in the open air. But the connection, of course, has more specific import: The students' facility 33 years ago for direct, immediate human association was an injection of pure democracy, unleavened by the corruptions of societal proceduralism, and renewed the moribund notions of the moral and intellectual mission of the academy.
To regard it as anything less than epochal is a mistake, and we are in Savio's debt, as a new contingent of campus activists is learning. The Free Speech Movement's legacy of the untainted capacity of the university for free inquiry and moral arbitrament has currently spawned a hearty crop of matriculating acolytes (naifs, undoubtedly, to those who have since disowned their Sixties ardor for full-bodied maturity).
It's interesting to note the similarities between this year's student burst of activism and that of 1964. Both came as post-summer continuations of organizing projects, the latter in civil rights, and the present in labor rights. Freedom Summer and Union Summer both brought newly-seasoned advocates back to the dormitories in the fall, ready with tactical experience and a brimming sense of confidence.
Today's students don't have the raging insanity of a Vietnam to contend with, but they may well have something even more insidious immersing their university settings. The university's susceptibility to on-campus extensions of corporate liberalism's bestriding of the world in the 1960s is perhaps even more thorough now, if less dramatic. The advance of the corporate ethos and its ability to spread its tendrils into academia has been fully rationalized, as that old trickle-down theorist Max Weber used the word.
The blatant penetration of college and university sports departments
by the athletic shoe industry would necessarily draw the attention of students
who had returned from a summer spent organizing workers. Again, as in the
1960s, the nation's broader concerns pool in the nexus of the university,
by default making it our highest-profile arena of debate and confrontation.
I'll not place posthumous words in Savio's mouth, but I'll wager he might
modestly admit that thoughts of the ancient Greek Ecclesia came
to mind as he looked out over those Sproul Plaza assemblies.
The present contamination of academia concentrates the country's ills rather precisely, and such prominent focus offers avenues for direct application of activist energies. As student organizers are aware, universities' contracts with athletic shoe companies provide a shortcut through which those manufacturers' sweatshop labor practices can be addressed, while pressuring universities toward an ongoing reconsideration of their esteemed role in society so nobly expressed in their catalogs.
The anti-contract campaign has Nike representatives racing from campus to campus to construct fire walls. Student pressure has had considerable effect in forcing the company to now pay at least the minimum wage in Indonesia, cut down on violence against Nike workers in Vietnam, use less child labor in Pakistan, and shift to less toxic glues in its manufacturing process.
The spillover from the student revolt of the 1960s gave spiritual support to acts of defiance by neighborhood and community groups, and today's students are crafting the links between the exporting of jobs overseas and the conditions of the U.S. workers they are organizing. In the absence of congressional action which burrows at the real roots of globalism, student activists as rump congresses continue to furnish us with pure demonstrations of democracy in action.
University administrators are in the business of being perpetually nonplussed at the passions of their young charges. They are aghast at hearing syllogisms from them which posit, for example, that the unwillingness of Nike and other companies to allow independent monitoring of their factories will change when universities reclaim their own integrity by reassessing the appropriateness of their contracts with these firms.
Academia is quick to praise initiative and self-reliance in its students.
It is less apt to acknowledge that its students redeem it in the real world.
It's an education in itself, Mario Savio taught us, putting your bodies
upon the gears and wheels of the machine and making it stop.
Last weekend thousands of people from more than 150 countries arrived at the party, converging on the ancient Japanese capital to begin ten days of negotiations aimed at reducing the emission of "greenhouse gases." As the largest spewer, and the largest beneficiary of the spewing, the United States sent a powerful delegation. Even Al Gore is expected to drop in next Monday to lend weight to the American position. I hope they save him some dumplings.
Opposing our policy --- a complicated assignment because it changes from day to day --- are delegates from a variety of other nations. The European Union, with the polluted horrors of Eastern Europe well in mind, is expected to plead for levels far below what the United States feels is acceptable. So is Japan, which has also been forced in recent years to clean up its environmental act. An alliance of "small island states," the group with the most to lose (literally everything, according to worst case scenarios), is seeking even greater cuts. And representatives from developing nations --- especially India, China, and Brazil --- are approaching the entire conference with suspicion, bearing age-old memories of outside domination as well as apprehension about their economic future. They may disagree, but you can be sure they'll all get fed.
That's only the guests on the A List. There's a B List, too, hangers-on who have attached themselves to the conference like remoras clinging to the sides of sharks. There's an awful lot of lobbying going on, and an awful lot of noshing.
As befits a conference on global warming, environmental groups are out in full force. Greenpeace, working from decades of experience and organization, is the most vocal, but others --- including the international World Wide Fund for Nature and the Japanese Wild Birds Society --- are also busy buttonholing official delegates to urge a strong regulatory resolution. On the other side, some 1,000 representatives of economic organizations --- the International Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Japanese Federation of Economic Organizations, the Global Climate Coalition (made up of U.S. oil companies), and 50 other groups --- have arrived to counter the activities of the approximately 1,000 environmentalists. They too are bonding tenaciously with individual delegates, in the hope of preventing a legally binding resolution.
Wait! There's more. This week in Kyoto industrialists attending a shadow conference "on voluntary business initiatives for mitigating climate change" produced a declaration to the effect that environmental problems can best be solved by independent action within the context of business-government partnerships. Score one for mammon. God's side was presented in yet another enclave, as 60 Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus congregated to plead for simplicity and spirituality in the face of materialist threats, and to pledge their cooperation in preventing global warming.
This is obviously no secret affair. Last Monday, the opening day of the conference, the New York Times published a special "Global Warming" supplement with reworked old articles as well as new ones outlining the issues, the participants, and the policies involved. American newspapers carry daily releases from the conference site, tidbits from the head table. Why then do I feel this is an exclusive party?
A quick glance at the Times supplement offers a clue. Five of its 12 pages are devoted to advertisements, not a bad ratio. Astonishingly, these five pages contain only seven ads, making it easy to trace their subtext. An International Paper ad suggests an alternative to emissions regulation: "Managed forests may be the best thermostat." The Ford Motor Company ignores global warming altogether and focuses on general environmental responsibility: "The Synthesis 2010. A car whose body is 100% RECYCLABLE aluminum." United Technologies opts for the sci-fi approach, displaying a model of H. G. Wells' time machine with the caption, "Power from small efficient, pollution-free fuel cells will be a reality" (and the implication that the reality is already here if you call the company's 800 number). The Natural Resources Defense Council crams a carefully argued plea for "Real Reductions" into a tiny quarter-page space; to its right sits an equally small ad for the EPA's Green Light and Energy Star Buildings programs. These environmental concerns are balanced on the facing half-page by an ad sponsored by more than 30 business and labor organizations, predicting huge increases in gasoline and electricity costs if other countries have their way in Kyoto and pleading for the support of U.S. economic interests. Finally, on the back page, in the closest thing to a personal statement to be found here, backlit block letters trumpet a headline --- MEDICAL WARNING: GLOBAL WARMING --- above the names of more than 300 "physicians and health professionals."
The ads speak for government, business, and environmental groups --- organizations that have been part of the process from the beginning, from the Earth Summit last June, from the Berlin mandate of 1995, from the Rio Framework Convention of 1992, from the computer-derived predictions of climate change of the late 1970s, perhaps even from the realization in the 1890s that climate change was possible. As NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), grass-roots-based groups such as Greenpeace occupy a comfortable, recognized node in this network. It is the members of the general public who are absent, the nonjoiners, ordinary people like you and me, whose lives will be affected by the decisions made in Kyoto.
Why are they silent? Even though global warming's transformations are still only dismal predictions, Americans have already seen the environmental damage that population concentration and industrial development can cause. Doesn't it worry them that the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, and the coastal regions of Bangladesh, and much of the Sacramento delta may be submerged by rising seas? That large farming areas may be disrupted as growing seasons and rainfall patterns change? That tropical diseases such as malaria may threaten previously untouched regions? Or don't they know what's at stake?
Very likely they don't. Environmental groups have chosen to devote most of their limited resources to lobbying rather than education. As the ads in the Times supplement make clear, businesses have no interest in stirring up suspicions about the safety of their practices, and the government has found it can pursue its own business far more efficiently when we-the-people are kept at a distance. But the media have no excuse. Their primary responsibility is to provide the information that citizens in a democracy need to make decisions. Not at the time that decisions are being made, but well in advance, so that educated popular positions can become part of the decision-making process. Otherwise, the "free" media become bouncers, strong-armed henchmen of the party hosts in Sacramento, Washington, and Kyoto.
In particular, the newspapers have sold us out. The New York Times is probably the best of the bad, but it is not enough to publish a few articles on specific topics, primarily for the purpose of elucidating official actions. Local San Francisco coverage is grimly laughable. Despite a fine collection of reporters well versed in scientific and environmental issues, readers must get most of their information from emotion-charged letters, editorials, and op ed pieces. They might as well listen to talk radio.
The press is missing the story of the century, the changing environment
we live in, in all its intricately intertwined aspects ---
biological, meteorological, hydrological, medical, political, economic,
you can fill in the rest. Worse, we are missing it as well. It's time to
become gate-crashers. To stop pressing our noses against the chilly window
pane and push our way inside.