Thursday, November 29, 2012

Book review: Subversives - The FBI's war on student radicals and Reagan's rise to power

"The most beautiful thing in the world is the freedom of speech." -- Mario Savio quoting Diogenes 
"The university is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas." -- Clark Kerr 
"Obey the prescribed rules or pack up and get out." -- Ronald Reagan
Those three quotes appear on the first page of Seth Rosenfeld's epic Subversives: The FBI's war on student radicals and Reagan's rise to power. The book chronicles the rise of the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus against the backdrop of McCarthyism and the Red Scare.

On the one hand we have Mario Savio around whom the FSM crystallized. Mr. Savio managed to overcome his childhood stutter when he was placed before a crowd with a bullhorn. Savio was a wandering soul who went from one cause to another. I'm not so certain he ever found happiness.

On the other hand we've got Ronald Reagan and the right wing extremists who were coming into power with the help of J. Edgar Hoover and the various investigations the FBI conducted into groups that had the temerity to question those in power. For Hoover and his minions the truth didn't matter - it was all about the smear.

Caught in the middle was Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California. Mr. Kerr oversaw the creation of the nation's best post-secondary education system in the United States - a system that included junior colleges, colleges and major research universities.

But Mr. Kerr couldn't escape the clash of cultures during the 1960's. He tried to find middle ground between the student radicals and the right-wing extremists and - like anyone else who attempts to sit on the fence - he was left pulling splinters out of his backside.

For those of y'all who thought Ronald Reagan was a grandfatherly president who was teetering on the edge of senility - Mr. Rosenfeld's book should dispel you of that notion. Ronald Reagan believed in quelling dissent by any means necessary, subjecting public employees to loyalty tests and using the power of the state to keep tabs on its citizens. Under his administration the city of Berkeley was effectively placed under martial law.

And, what would a book about the rise of student radicalism on the West Coast be without mentioning Richard Aoki - the Japanese student who provided arms to the Black Panthers? As it turns out, after three decades of requesting documents from the government, Mr. Aoki may very well have been a government informant.

A number of lessons can be learned from the turmoil depicted in Subversives. The first is the transition from being an insurgent and getting a seat at the table is never easy. The second is when two powerful ideologies clash, don't try to straddle the middle - it won't work. The final lesson is when a new member of your protest group suggests tactics that are bound to end in confrontation with the police - your friend is probably an informant.

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