Savio Speech (long)

Juan Jewell (jewell@GATEWAY.US.SIDWELL.EDU)
Thu, 5 Dec 1996 08:28:07 -0500 (EST)

This is a commencement speech that Mario Savio delivered at his son's
Nadav's graduation from Sidwell Friends School on June 10, 1988. There
might be a typo or two, since I scanned it from our alumni bulletin and
then ran it through some low budget OCR software. I have sat through
quite a few commencement addresses, and this is one of the few I remember.
And it still works for me.

I would like to begin by acknowledging those of you, especially the
students, who made it possible for me to speak here to you today. Perhaps
thanks would be more gracious than mere acknowledgement, but I'm not at
all sure how it would be to say thank you for the very stressful
opportunity of speaking at the graduation ceremony of one's own son. The
pride and the inevitable sadness in saying goodbye to child- hood are
deeply felt by all not by the graduates only, but by the teachers and by
the parents as well. This is an important moment.

Some of you may have read of the Battle of the Books raging now,
according to the Sunday New York Times, on American university campuses.
Others may have read Professor Allan Bloom's best-seller, The Closing of
the American Mind. The impulse for deep reform or radical change, which
we correctly associate with the Sixties, is still very much a focus of
controversy. In his chapter on the Sixties, Professor Bloom writes,
"About the Sixties, it is now fashionable to say that although there were
indeed excesses, many good things resulted. But, so far as universities
are concerned, I know of nothing positive coming from that period. It was
an unmitigated disaster for them. I hear the good things were greater
openness, less rigidity, freedom from authority, etc., but these have no
content and express no view of what is wanted from a university

As one whom Professor Bloom might well credit with having made some modest
personal contribution to the destruction of higher education in America, I
am pleasantly surprised by an invitation to address a graduating high
school class most, if not all, of whom will now be going on to those very
colleges and universities that I and my ilk presumably left in a shambles.
I, of course, do not feel that any such great damage was done by the
period of the Sixties, either to America or to American universities.
Since it certainly is due to some fame or notoriety which I achieved in
that era that you have invited me here as your commencement speaker, I
know that you would feel cheated if I did not dwell upon what that time
meant to me and what it might mean to you.

When you get to college you will be confronted, on the one hand, by those
young professors who were students during the Sixties, now achieving
tenure, whose presence the Bennetts and the Blooms decry: on the other
hand, you wilt be met by Professor Bloom's conservative cohorts
themselves, admonishing you to remain safely within the library's
protective walls, lest premature contact with the world of causes and
conflict result in the closing of your minds. In short, if you go to
college at ail, the question of your relationship to the generation of the
Sixties--to my generation--is one you will find it very difficult to

What, then, was so very special about the Sixties? And what was it like
for me, a most unpolitical son of unpolitical Italian immigrants, prior to
my departure for college? What was the nature of the alteration within my
mind and spirit when, like you now, I was preparing myself to move beyond
the influence and control of my teachers and my parents?

Life in the Fifties--even the late Fifties, despite rock'n roll-was both
silent and stark. They used to test- explode nuclear weapons in the open
air in those days and broadcast the results on the TV screen for all the
world to see. America was undisputed top rooster and American
policy-makers evidently hoped to intimidate the Russians with this display
of nuclear strength. The unintended outcome was to terrify the children
of the United States.

Frankly, I was never deeply impressed by the belief some hold that human
beings would never use these weapons in a real war, For the pictures of
the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a horrifying newness then.
And the human capacity for unlimited evil was borne to me vividly by the
equally fresh photographs of Jewish bodies piled in heaps. Those
pictures of the Holocaust remain for me the granite-like reality against
which every book, or mere idea, must be tested.

There was another aspect to the starkness. The story we were taught
about the world was painted in the whitest white of-American purity and
the Satanic red of the world-wide Communist menace, as they called it.
Pink, of course, was a shade of red. We could do no wrong. They could
do no right. And, if necessary we would suffer the devastation of the
planet to preserve our way of life.

This is a caricature, you will say. And you are right But children may
half-believe what most adults will take with a grain of salt. So this is
the first important thing to know about the generation of the Sixties.
We came of age with a powerful vested interest in proving that the
previous generation's world view was seriously in error. For--given
nuclear weapons, and given the recently demonstrated human capacity for
evil--if they were right, we were doomed.

I have referred also to the silence of the times. I mean the pall of
McCarthyism, of course. By the time I had gotten to where you are now,
the Army-McCarthy hearings were already receding in the national memory,
assuming the character of a mere aberration, an isolated instance of
excessive, if basically well-intentioned, zeal. It was permissible, or
necessary, to question Joseph McCarthy
During high school, I took a one-semester course in economics. Part of
the course was devoted to economic systems other than our own. In the
textbook I encountered- for the first time the following words: From each
according to his ability; to each according to his need.
I discussed my problem with my mother, from whom I inherited a love of
poetry and the gift of gab. But this was long before women's liberation,
and she felt this was the sort of problem I needed to discuss with my
father. So I did. We had our discussion in the lovely garden that he had
planted in our backyard in a working class suburb in Queens, New York.
Now, my father, Joseph, had an unfailing respect for his grandfather, also
Joseph-- Guiseppe, Don Peppino--a man whom he had met long before in the
Sicilian mountain village of Santa Catarina As my rather told his story,
one day a Communist organizer came to see my great-grandfather. Don
Peppino was one of the most respected men in the village and the organizer
realized that it he succeeded in his audience with Don Peppino, he would
have an easy in with the rest Of the peasants. So my great-grandfather
baiting his trap, asked the organizer, "You believe, then, that all men
should share their wealth equally?" "That is exactly our belief, Don
Peppino," the organizer is supposed to have said, taking the old man's
bait. "Well, I would gladly divide my property in half and give half to
you." "Ah, this is wonderful, Don Peppino!" "But let me ask you one
thing more," my great-grandfather continued. "Suppose that after a year's
time you have squandered your share. What are we to do then?" "Oh, in
that case we would need to divide the remaining property once again," at
which my great-grandfather is supposed to have raised his cane above his
head and bellowed at the organizer, "Off with you, and be quick about it,
before I hit you upside the head with this cane" This brief story may tell
as much as many a learned treatise as to why Marxism never gained a
foothold in Southern Italy.

Of course, I tried to continue the discussion with my father. I had not
meant Communism necessarily, and perhaps these words of Marx should be
taken not as a sketch for legislation, simply a sort of ideal, etc., blah
blah blah--but he wasn't listening In his own simple and powerful way he
exemplified the nature of political discussion in America. Alien ideas
were considered only for purposes of reputation. His grandfather had said
it, he believed it, and that settled it. I had unwittingly played the
Communist organizer, and I had given my father the opportunity to play his
beloved grandfather. And now. you'll be thinking I've had my revenge.
But there's more to my story.

Up to a point, Don Peppino was, of course, right. In a society of
enforced equality, as long as there is any scarcity at all, some will be
workers and others will be parasites Indeed, the new Soviet
leadership--thank goodness--of Perestroika and Giasnost appears to be
beginning to acknowledge something like this right now. They are
beginning, it seems, to acknowledge the truth in America's truth; our
leaders, however, have not as yet begun publicly to acknowledge any
truth in Marxist truth. Jesse Jackson is an exception, of course, as in
many things. Consider his observation that the American eagle needs two
wings to fly-a left wing as well as a right.

"From each according to his ability; to each according to his need." My
father could never hear the poetry in those words. But, years later,
when I had become notorious as a rouser of the college rabble, a reporter
came to see my father and asked him, "Where did your son learn all his
radical ideas?" My father, playing the crafty Don Peppino, said, "He
learned it all from a book he read at home. I still have it here." The
reporter, my father tells me, was very excited. My father then showed
him the family Bible.

The young people who made the new left of the 1960s had a deep vested
interest in finding the fatal flaw in the prevailing view of America and
of America's role in the world. This, as I tried to show before, was a
matter of elemental self-preservation. It was characteristic of even
those new leftists such as I, who were innocent of previous radical
politics, to try to see the truth in Marxist truth. Think about it. How
could one hope to prevent the final war without making some serious effort
to listen to the truth of the national enemy But a key element was
missing. There still remained the myth of American perfection, the
universal assumption of America's good intentions. Here the facts seemed
to come to the rescue and--thank you, Professor Bloom--our minds swung
open to receive the data and to assess the concrete experience of the
black struggle for civil rights and of America's war against Vietnam. We
came to view America as a racist and imperialist power. We used those
words a lot. It covered its tracks with a beguiling opportunity for
self-expression and conspicuous consumption for a considerable and
privileged part of its population. Fortified by the peasant wisdom of my
great-grandfather, perhaps, I never could become a thorough-going Marxist.
But a Socialist of sorts, a gentle Socialist, I became, and remain.

What were we, then? Something unique. Like immigrants in a new land we
were part of the first generation of Americans to be raised from earliest
childhood beneath the Damoclean threat of thermonuclear war. We fought
for racial justice. We struggled to halt the carnage that claimed more
than 50,000 American lives alone in Vietnam. We had a vision,
too-defined, if you will, by the unpremeditated and generous response of
ability to need. It was the vision of a loving community. Let me sing
for you pan of a song of the Sixties that tells wed the temper of the

"Come on, people, smile on your brother;
everybody yet together.
Got to love one another
Right now.
Come on, people, smile on your brother;
everybody yet together.
Got to love one another
Right now."

That's the authentic voice of the 1960s. Listen to the cadence: "Right
now." It was always right now in the Sixties: Peace now." "Freedom now."
Why did we imagine that we needed to, or could, remake the world in the
space of ten years or less? Did we not know that we would spoil the work
by the way we dashed it off? Why were we in such a hurry? Perhaps, in
part, because in whatever we did we might suddenly become aware that the
bombs could soon begin to fall.

We were the first generation. It was common for us to accept that there
might not be a second generation. We lived our lives as if we would never
reach the ripe old age of thirty. Even so, we weren't in practice as
self-dramatizing as all that. We did not put all our eggs in one basket.
We bore children, daughters and sons. You are the second generation.
And here's the point where the speaker departs from the text. The
peroration would come here. But it's not a political speech. You invited
nor just an aging rabble-rouser to speak to you, but a parent also.
There were dangers in what we did. Before I went to Mississippi three
people died--one young black man. two young white Jews from New York.
Would I today advise my son to go to Mississippi What about Nicaragua? A
young engineer was shot in Nicaragua to death. Could 1 advise my son to
do that? A parent can not give that kind of advice.

I told you my truth; I've played Don Peppino to you. But the experiences
you choose, the problems you choose to solve, have to be your own. I have
seen my son and his friends. I see intelligence, I see good judgement, I
see character. You are our children. We love you, we are proud of you,
we are afraid for you. But, like all parents, we have high hopes for you
also. We are not yet moving from the stage. We still have our work to
do. I have described for you how I needed to define myself with respect
to my father; my generation needed to define itself with respect to a
previous generation of Americans; and you will need to do the same. I
wish for you your own dreams, that you solve your own problems. I place
in your hands also our hopes and our dreams. We trust your generosity,
your judgment. We wish you good luck.

Juan Jewell Sidwell Friends School Washington, DC

"It is the dark secret of new computer technology of most any kind: It doesn't
always bring immediate benefit and, if it does, it demands that people first
change the way they work."

Elizabeth Corcoran and Caroline E. Mayer
The Washington Post, Saturday, September 14 1996