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Exit Stage Left: The FBI and Student Radicals | The Nation

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Exit Stage Left: The FBI and Student Radicals

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Though it is heresy to say so, Kerr was, in a strange way, Savio’s doppelgänger. Who doesn’t remember Savio’s imperishable exhortation, one of the most eloquent remarks ever made in the history of modern American radicalism, uttered extemporaneously at the height of the Free Speech Movement:

Subversives
The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.
By Seth Rosenfeld.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Steve Wasserman
Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, served as editorial director of Times Books and...

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There is 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!

One wonders whether this striking bit of oratory may have evoked in Savio’s nemesis a sense of déjà vu, for it recalled the spirit and almost the very words of Kerr’s own profound distress more than thirty years before at seeing a pregnant mother and her ailing infant evicted from a one-room hovel in Pasadena. The sight had filled him with a barely contained anger. He knew to do the right thing. In an anecdote he all but buries, Rosenfeld tells how Kerr, in his own words, had joined with others to “break the law and move the family back in” by smashing the lock that police had placed on the shack’s door to bar their return. As Kerr later wrote to his father, “This country has come to a place where one must break the law in order to insure that the people may have the privilege of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’” Kerr never entirely succeeded at ridding himself of the bleeding-heart cells that fitfully coursed through his veins, though he spent years trying. His masters, however, were experts at sniffing out such misplaced sympathies.

Kerr is Rosenfeld’s most tragic and misunderstood figure. One wishes that Subversives had made more of this dimension of the drama and explored the larger implications of Kerr’s unhappy end. His ouster as president of the University of California was the new governor’s first real political victory—a victory initially applauded by Savio and his comrades, who had come to detest Kerr nearly as much as did Hoover and Reagan. Kerr’s firing was a body blow to the hallowed and heretofore largely sacrosanct notion that the university and its campus ought properly to be a protected zone of discourse, free of state intervention. It was a principle that Kerr had fought to uphold. His defeat would have lasting consequences and was a rare victory for Hoover, whose machinations were often ineffective where they weren’t counterproductive.

* * *

Did the bureau, despite its legal, extra-legal and often criminal manipulations, actually bend history’s arrow? For all its provocations, did it really derail or significantly disrupt the New Left? Did it truly succeed in putting the kibosh on student protest? Was it an important factor in propelling Reagan to the pinnacle of power—a summit to which he somehow might not, on the strength of his own political genius, have risen?

The answer, contre Rosenfeld, is no. The FBI’s antics were a sideshow. The main drama was elsewhere. The war against radical students was, in several crucial respects, something like the thirteenth-century war against the Cathars, when the Catholic Church persistently denounced heresy in repeated inquisitions and crusades seeking to identify and stamp out beliefs that departed from the true religion. These persecutions were often campaigns of convenience against imagined communities of opposition. Often they masked rivalries within the Church that rent the outwardly coherent fabric of elite power. A similar dynamic seems to have animated Hoover and the FBI, Reagan and his henchmen. Their fiercest combat was as much against radical zealots as it was against reformers within their own ranks, against honorable do-gooders like Clark Kerr. Of course, cudgeling students played well with a public who saw Savio and his cohorts as little more than petulant brats who ought no longer to be indulged by hard-working taxpayers. The strategy worked, and so began the successful effort to return an unruly campus to the more controlling orbit of the state—and, ultimately, to launch the long counterrevolution to undo the achievements of the New Deal.

As for the wounds suffered by the New Left, they were largely self-inflicted. Did the FBI seek to take advantage of our weaknesses, to exploit our missteps, and to use our naïveté as a noose by which to hang an entire movement? Sure it did. Rosenfeld adds nuance and appalling detail to a familiar story of suppression: police attacks on peaceful demonstrators, the secret (and often successful) efforts to encourage extremism in order to isolate dissenters, and the open campaign to crush resistance by wielding the state’s powerful legal truncheon, thus draining the left’s always meager treasury and depriving it of its most able leaders. Such tactics encouraged the politics of paranoia. The result, as Christopher Lasch so clearly understood, “imprisoned the left in a politics of theater, of dramatic gestures, of style without substance—a mirror image of the politics of unreality which it should have been the purpose of the left to unmask.” But we did not need Hoover’s hooligans to prompt us to embrace the terrible logic of politics as a total art form. We came all on our own to believe that only by increasingly provocative spectacle could the veil of public apathy be pierced. It is we who elevated extremism to the level of strategy. It was a dialectic of defeat.

Seth Rosenfeld takes issue with Steve Wasserman’s review of his book and Wasserman replies
in an Exchange in the March 11-18 issue, “Stripping Down and Lighting Up.”

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