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Put Your Body on the Gears: In the Words of Mario Savio

18 Aug
Mario Savio Free Speech Movement 1964

Mario Savio and members of the Free Speech Movement, circa 1964
image from npr.org


My last post delved into the life of Mario Savio, an inspirational, but oft-overlooked figure of the 1960s. Below, I’ll explore five quotes by and about Mario Savio that stood out to me while reading Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Continue reading

Mario Savio: The Voice of the Free Speech Movement

4 Aug
Mario Savio under arrest during his participation in the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkley, circa 1964

Mario Savio under arrest during his participation in the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkley, circa 1964
Image from chronicle.com


In between shocking exposures of unconstitutional surveillance and harassment, Seth Rosenfeld’s 2012 book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, offers a fairly comprehensive biography of everyone from Ronald Reagan and Herbert Hoover to University of California president Clark Kerr. In fact, Rosenfeld has a habit of launching into the life story of every figure he introduces. Although this was at times tedious, it helped illuminate one of the most fascinating figures of the 1960s: Mario Savio, the UC student who helped lead the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at UC Berkley at the age of 22.

On October 1, 1964, a man named Jack Weinberg was arrested on the Berkeley campus while attempting to distribute political literature. He was put into a police car, but never made it to the station. As many as 3,000 students sat down to block the car from leaving, refusing to budge for more than 32 hours until the charges against Weinberg were dropped. During that time, students stood atop the car to advocate for the right to free speech on campus. Mario Savio was one of them. Continue reading

One Legendary Party: The Hell’s Angels and the Merry Pranksters Meet at Kesey’s

7 Jul
Hell's Angels Group with Jackets

Guess who’s coming to dinner.
Image via nostalgiaonwheels.blogspot.com


WARNING: This post contains descriptions of alleged sexual violence. 

For the last six years or so, one party has been haunting me. It wasn’t any soiree I’d attended—this party took place on Saturday August 7, 1965 at Ken Kesey’s LSD-laced ranch in La Honda, California. It was a fete that epitomized the West Coast psychedelic movement’s embrace of drugs, music, and above all, the outlaw lifestyle. What made this party special wasn’t its mix of intellectuals—poet Allen Ginsberg and Harvard psychology professor Richard Alpert (aka Baba Ram Dass) among them—and countercultural icons such as Hunter S. Thompson and Neal Cassady; it was the 15-foot-long, red white and blue sign strung up outside the ranch: THE MERRY PRANKSTERS WELCOME THE HELL’S ANGELS. Continue reading

Hunter Thompson: “Fear & Loathing in America” After 9/11

23 Apr

Just hours after the terror attacks on 9/11/01, Hunter S. Thompson wrote an article for ESPN entitled “Fear & Loathing in America.” In it, he made some disturbingly accurate predictions, this one by far the most chilling:

“The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy.” Continue reading

Clunk Clunk Moo: Dilemmas of 21st Century Protest

16 Apr
Occupy Wall Street visitors check out books at the People's Library in Zuccotti Park, October 2011 Image taken by Emily Wachowiak

Visitors check out books at the People’s Library in Zuccotti Park, October 2011
Image taken by Emily Wachowiak


My mom took me to my first protest at age 15—a reading of Lysistrata at Chicago’s Heartland Café. This was early in 2003, before the invasion of Iraq. I ate some vegan pastry, laughed at an ancient Greek sex comedy, and listened to middle-aged folks talk past each other in the post-play discussion. I walked out with a “Not in My Name” button I hoped would counteract the one I’d seen around school that read “Hug a troop, not a tree, hippie!”

A few weeks later, bombs lit up the skies over Baghdad as spring lighting flashed over my suburb.

As an adult, I’ve marched and chanted in only a handful of Chicago protests, mostly anti-gun and pro-union affairs over the last two years. Each experience has both moved and unsettled me. I’ve born witness to the stories of old union activists and young gun-massacre survivors, their words stinging me to my core. But as I looked over the mostly middle-aged and elderly crowds, I also felt I was bearing witness to a dying tradition. Continue reading

Bringing it All Back Home II: Mapping Cultural Waves

13 Apr

This post contains part XII (the final chapter!) of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

A protester tries out flower power at an anti-war protest at the Pentagon, 1967. Image from wikipedia.com

A protester harnesses flower power at an anti-war protest at the Pentagon, 1967.
Image from wikipedia.com


There are lessons to be learned from the ultimate demise of the counterculture, precipitated by its constant push to extremity and its marginalization of moderate voices in favor of calls for radical social change. By constantly pushing boundaries in search of IT, those seeking an authentic, meaningful way of life fell victim to the same material excess they had tried to avoid. Although Kimball characterizes sex, drugs, and rock & roll as the counterculture’s “chief weapons against the obligations of traditional culture,” they were merely a symptom of a middle-class rebellion against its own limited existence (Kimball 7). Even by pushing social boundaries, counterculturalists found that they could not avoid the obligations of traditional culture for very long. When striving for social or political change, it is important to remember the value of diverse (even conflicting) opinions and of freedom tempered by moderation. The counterculture’s failure to achieve many of its political goals illustrates the dangers of polarizing rhetoric and extremity.

The American political climate is often compared to a pendulum, swinging left to right over time. The period after WWII represented a monumental swing to the left—in social attitudes more than the political establishment. The reasons for political failure are obvious; Suri notes the irony of the fact that “the political moderation that supported stability and prosperity came under attack for its very moderation” (Suri 53). As the counterculture movement migrated from Beat coffee shops to massive street demonstrations, violence became an increasingly frequent component of demands for domestic social change and peace abroad (case in point: the Weather Underground). Suri notes that countercultural groups in the early 1970s “treated violence as a means for proving cultural authenticity in an international environment filled with lies” (60). And yet it seems that moderation won out in the end; “countercultural disorder created a perceived ‘emergency’” to the point where citizens were easily galvanized to react against this disorder by any political party promising “law and order” (62). The militarization of the counterculture is an example of what happens when the political pendulum reaches the limits of its leftward shift, precipitating a rightward swing. The attempt at authentic experience that began with speed, grass, and jazz in the 1950s snowballed into overindulgent drug use and violent protests during the 1960s. This contributed to a loss of faith in the movement in the eyes of mainstream America—who had taken much culturally from this movement, only to betray its values ultimately in favor of its own security. Continue reading

Bringing it All Back Home I: Counterculture, Commodified

10 Apr

This post contains part XI of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Vintage Pepsi ad showing the absorption of countercultural symbols within the mainstream Image from kathykavan.com

Vintage Pepsi ad showing the absorption of countercultural symbols within the mainstream
Image from kathykavan.com


The counterculture of the fifties and sixties was not as revolutionary as it believed itself to be. Though some artists of the counterculture “may wish to imagine themselves exempt from the marketplace,” the success of their literary endeavors is actually the product of market forces (Adams 80). The counterculture had been at least partially commodified all along, operating easily within mainstream capitalist and patriarchal conventions, despite its antiauthoritarian stance. “The international counterculture was [sic] complicit in many of the elements of society it criticized,” claims Suri; despite its revolutionary rhetoric, the essential demands of the counterculture movement dating back to the Beats was “rapid and personal reform within existing social and political structures” (Suri 48, emphasis mine). Because these goals were in some sense achieved as the counterculture entered the mainstream, the counterculture itself “soon became a commodified touchstone of prosperity” (48). While the Beats were “dedicated to the rejection of popular culture,” their movement came to “further [the] development of popular culture” through their mainstream success and influence on sixties youths (Elteren 75, 85).

The success of the counterculture certainly depended on “the very capitalist structures that it often purported to despise,” but it is an oversimplification to blame the degradation of the movement on “corrupting corporations” who fed on “innocent artists” (Gair 2, 6). It is clear that despite the “free love” message of the hippie movement, everyone was in fact trying to sell something—their art, their music, their ideas, their interpretations of authenticity. “Christ, everybody and his brother has a manifesto,” Wolfe writes in Electric Kool-Aid, “Everybody has his own typewriters and mimeograph machines and they’re all cranking away like mad and fuming over each other’s mistranslations of the Message” (Wolfe 377). This image of mass production and consumption of ideas by the counterculture itself runs counter to the rejection of capitalism and consumerism advocated by both the Beats and hippies. While the counterculture was capitalizing on its growing media audience (signing hippie bands to major labels, granting TV interviews, organizing for-profit Acid Tests), major corporations were using psychedelic imagery, language, and music to sell products ranging from blue jeans to soda pop. To quote Herbert Marcuse, “The music of the soul is also the music of salesmanship” (Gair 5). Continue reading