Barefoot in a Marshmallow World

By Michael Rossman


Preface (1970)

         A year after the FSM, in accord with the schedules of Eastern publishers, the main wave of books washed over us.(**) The briefest, most reasonable account is Hal Draper's, and a few essential or insightful pieces are scattered through the others. (The single work really to embody the spirit and living complexity of the FSM -- Ken Sanderson's joyous and turbulent epic poem Multiversity Lost -- remains unpublished, save for a few disjointed fragments appearing in Spider.) Yet taken all in all, the early glut of books about FSM was pretty dismal. From this distance, l can shrug it off as just another classic case of academic irrelevance; or examine its deeper implications in the scheme of concept-cooptation which maintains one-dimensional society. But at the time I was still capable of some amazement. I mean, here we were living on, fumbling to grasp whatever new had struck through us, when this avalanche of stale language and old perceptual frames came down on us, from the people we hire to illuminate our experience. I had not yet got my own first terms together; I don't know how many of us had by then. 1 felt defensive and angry because I had nothing coherent to offer in rebuttal. But something needed to be said, about how far they were off. Ralph Gleason pushed me to try, and got most of what follows printed as a book review in Ramparts.


         "What do you feel about the FSM books?" I asked my friend Steve Weissman, who was on the FSM Steering Committee with me.

         "The Academics are at the dung-heap with their forceps again."

         "You can tell the bird by his droppings?" I suggested.

         "Maybe. But you can't tell the way he flies."

         Those who were FSM will understand this, will understand how I struggle without poetry to say something about these books that is not in their image and dead names, missing the point as they miss theirs. How to describe the terrifying sense of irrelevance they leave me with? The conflict was cloaked in that fog: were they talking to us, hearing us, even seeing us? How ironic, how fitting, to find it again, from the same sources and for the same reasons. I can only say -- echoing the Chaplin humor that infused every action of the FSM, yet finds no notice in these books -- that their Failed Seriousness Quotient is very high.

         FSM happened at the locus of Modern Scholarship. The entire armament of analysis hung poised, desperately avoiding contact with the Perfect Chance that shook a fist in its face, while we sang: "I write theses/about feces/and it greases/my way up the line." Were we unfair? No sociologist finds it relevant that the novels Berkeley most quickened to the past decade were Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Heller's Catch-22; or that we lived the semester in their grim worlds. Heller says: "There were terrifying sudden moments when objects, concepts and even people inexplicably took on an unfamiliar and irregular aspect never seen before which made them seem totally strange." That's how it was, though you'll find no trace here. These books are unwitting texts, as the semester was a laboratory, on the human need to reduce Events to safe comprehensibility by rendering them in familiar names. (The need is never mentioned; but maybe the psychologists' contributions were late.)

         With the familiar, the writers succeed. We see a corporate portrait of the Administration's personality: torn between honest liberal rhetoric and plural pressures; unable to speak to or even control the students, and later the faculty; caught off-balance by our every reaction, and able to respond only by a panicked sequence of blunders based on the premise that civilization was crumbling, which revealed a total inability to understand who we were. It is a human portrait, which emerges in jigsaw fragments. And given it, one can half-comprehend a truly tragic fact. The "high official (who) simply did not understand the issue about advocacy (and) had to go out in the hall to have the University lawyers explain it to him" -- after three months of struggle and 800 arrests -- was the University's President, Clark Kerr.

         But only half. What is missing, besides poetry, is our face, and with it any real understanding of what the whole affair meant. Why? The unknown is dangerous by definition: explain it away, kill it, by naming it familiar. The evidence that this happened is indirect but compelling; the face of FSM appears by its absence. For these books leave a few questions unanswered.

         Who were we? "Intellectual lumpen-proletarians, lumpen beatniks, and lumpen agitators . . . advocating a melange of narcotics, sexual perversion, collegiate Castroism and campus Maoism," Feuer charges. "Intelligent students who were novices in political action," defend Wolin and Schaar. "Alienated non-ideological radicals," analyzes Draper. "68% had no organizational affiliation," confirms a survey. Plowing through this telephone book, one almost doesn't notice that the face above it is featureless: there's no sense of identity. And is the reason simply that only 80 of 1,200 pages were written by FSM members? I think not. Nor do I find it strange that hundreds of articles have been written on and around FSM, but only a bare handful by us. Everyone's quick to speak of us, but no one asks us to speak . . .

         Why did we do it? Everyone who doesn't think we were all Neurotic Dupes agrees: Civil Rights, Civil Liberties, Educational Alienation. (The surveys tend to contradict these views, and are thus ignored.) But this is the great University, 1965 Model: we're all alienated-civilrightist-libertarians. Why now? why us? why this way? why so intensely? why, simply why? The explanations are so convenient, so glibly plausible, so circular -- like a psychosomatic nostrum -- that it's easy to escape the frightening fact that they explain nothing.

         What did we do? The wealth of chronologies and descriptions, spangled with errors and contradictions, makes little sense. Comprehensiveness substitutes for relevance. No one warns that the most significant events are not discussed. But how could they be, without dealing with the who and why?

         For example, the Police Car Episode. Draper alone devotes a few pages to it, his description's as refreshing and unsatisfying as Coke. Understand it, and you understand FSM. For FSM was forged around that car, not at the later "convention," and those two days were a miniature of the entire conflict. They furnished the emotional impetus for our fight; they were our signature on a promissory note of the heart. Given the nature of the participants, events thereafter unrolled with the Greek inexorability that fascinated us all (and is unmentioned, unexplained in these books). But why should up to 3,000 students surround a cop car for two days, and risk expulsion, arrest, and violent injury?

         No one answers, no one notes that every theme later developed was huddled with us around the car. We used 4,000,000 sheets of paper to expand those barefoot thoughts (and only those) spoken atop the car in the first true dialogue I had heard in America. It was all there: the "non-negotiable" issues; the unexpected intensity of our commitment and community; our strange honest humor; the absent estrangement of the faculty; the Administration's refusal to speak to us save via 500 cops, or even to see us, encamped under its nose; our desperate spontaneous democracy; and the total loneliness . . . You'd never know this from the books, never know that no single new element -- psychological, tactical, dialectical, compositional -- entered the controversy from then till its climax: all that we were, all that we faced, were there full-fledged around the car, in every sense.

         Is this merely a curious fact? Or does it lead to an idea: that around the car an irrevocable commitment to the creation of an Event was made, that the stalemate of nothing new had to ensue until the Event dropped its other shoe -- or was made to? And if so, what was the nature of the Event, and why the commitment? No one asks these questions because they're truly terrifying: they demand an explanation perpendicular to all the framework of these books. I have no glib answers; those frameworks are mine too, which is why I have trouble suggesting the questions. But the book on FSM that will be relevant to our lives, and not merely a winter pastime, must deal with these questions in some way. And the quality it must have I can only and inadequately call "poetry."

         Let us go back to the nature of the participants. I don't have an easy bag to put us in, but let me make notes on our strangeness by examining another key incident: the Abortive Sit-In. Two months after the Car, FSM sat, 5,000 strong on a Friday lawn, to hear our representatives denied audience before the Regents, the Highest Authority. Instead, they rejected the central technical point (on advocacy) of our whole fight, by a policy formulated well before the "negotiations" with which they calmed us; and then visited gratuitous punishment on "hostages" from before the Police Car Epsiode.

         Our Monday response was remarkable. To begin with, we sang. Not the tired, self-conscious protest songs of the thirties, but our own felt words to the Beatles and Beethoven. We serenaded the IBM card from the steps of Sproul Hall; the death of responsibility, caked in liberal rhetoric, that stalked the campus like Heller's plaster-caked soldier come to life; our loneliness in a pluralist marshmallow world. Those songs are a gold mine for the anthropologist, folklorist, social psychologist. Let me examine just one, because you won't find any in the books.

         As background, three sets of words that everyone knew, fog that we flew through: "Property of the Regents . . ." -- a brass plaque fixed in the sidewalk where our tables once stood; "49% of the hard-core (demonstrators) are followers of the Castro-Mao line" -- Kerr's quote to the papers, which he claimed months later was a misquote, but never bothered to retract before the public in whose name we were later arrested; "The university and segments of industry are becoming more alike . . . The production, distribution, and consumption of knowledge in all its forms is said to account for 29 percent of the gross national product and . . . is growing at about twice the rate of the rest of the economy" -- Kerr's description of the institution to which our lives were committed.

         And so we sang an early carol:

         Joy to U.C., the word is come:
         Clark Kerr has called us Red!
         the knowledge factory / turns out more GNP
         without your subversion on its property.

And sang it joyously. For what other sane response was possible to a bankruptcy of the heart whose dimensions were inexpressible in analytic prose? Certainly we were seriousness personified; we've jail sentences to show for it. But faced with the absurd, in every sense, there is a dimension of response without which seriousness is meaningless. We had it; it is hard to examine; but our ubiquitous humor was an essential testimony to our sanity. That humor was also an indelible stamp on our use of words like "democracy" and "moral commitment," which -- for the first time in our American lives -- had become alive and real. In a rhetoric fog of words without substance, we often treated ours lightly, as if leaning on them too seriously might again crush the life from them.

         After the songs, we held a sit-in. To a man, the commentators dismiss it as signaling FSM's death. True, we were dispirited in the remarkable Executive Committee meeting that followed -- in which a hundred people aired grievances and analysis, speaking in strict rotation from the doubled circle of face-to-face without which we could not meet. But our dispirit was, I think, the realization that the other shoe still hung, and would have to be forced.

         No observer observes that the movement had been steadily gathering momentum: that the process in progress was fueled, not killed, by Friday; that we left the sit-in singing; and that the working apparatus of FSM continued its activity unchecked. Everyone attributes FSM's "miraculous revival" to the "ill-timed" action of the Administration in calling up students for fresh new punishments on stale charges. But was what we called "the Inevitable Atrocity Theory of Administration Activity" only a metaphor? No one really discusses that sit-in -- nor the Big Sit-In two weeks later, surely the oddest one this country has seen, which landed 800 of us in jail and fulfilled the promises made around the Car.

         Such unanimity is charming, and suspicious. No one finds significance in the fact that the penultimate sit-in was preceded by a formal debate. During it, a highly respected professor asked to speak against the sit-in. Steering Committee -- which had kept the movement resolutely free from faculty influence -- debated the proposition then and there, and agreed to substitute him for the weaker of the two speakers against, with those who were for the sit-in prevailing in this view over those who were against. This is a hell of a way to run a movement, no?

         I could go on, but why? Something's wrong here. All the descriptions are subtly askew, subtly irrelevant. There are signs of dissatisfaction with the models: Draper complains we aren't ideological, Goodman complains we aren't analytical, Wolin complains we aren't cautious, Hayakawa complains we aren't Gandhian; and those against us just complain. Everyone wants to put us in their box, and we just don't fit.

         Yet these books are relevant in a deeper sense. They are a landscape peaked by humaneness and fissured by spite, drifted deep by leaf-skeletons of words and the winter weathers of the heart, with no blank area marked "Here there be Tygers." These contours were the mold that shaped FSM. They were the trace of the ambiance we struggled within and against. The largest of them, and the most representative of the Academy, is modeled after Kerr's view of his role as President-Mediator. All the leading organized interest groups are represented -- but a critical part of FSM's nature is that it wasn't organized -- and the book succeeds in being distasteful to every constituency, a sphere bristling with views that balance each other hopelessly. But there's another dimension without which everything is flat, and it's absent.

         In these books taken together, FSM appears in reverse. There is no humor, no poetry, no community, no contact with the real, no collective sense of value, no sense of the strange. The atmosphere is one of analytical structures that refuse to become relevant, to function properly. Ironically, no one notes one of the most characteristic themes of FSM's dialogue on education, politics, scholarship, etc.: not that the structures should be changed, but that they should function properly and relevantly: We did not want new channels, new methods, but the proper functioning of those that were.

         To function properly involves contact with reality. Is this why the political scientists do not tackle the subject of FSM as political organization? Here are some notes. Who were "members" of FSM? No one ever knew, or defined what "membership" meant. When work was needed, you walked onto campus and grabbed the first person wearing an FSM button, and told him what was needed. His response would be "Why?" and then you had to explain patiently why you thought it was necessary. If he bought your explanation, he might devote stupendous amounts of energy and time to the task, taking it as his own. If he didn't, he'd just walk away. This was the attitude which spawned the loose maze of thirty autonomous Centrals -- with the funny names everyone took so seriously -- that were the working structure of FSM. If a need for a function were clear enough, people puddled like rain to fill it, establishing Legal Central, Press Correction Central, or Nexus in any convenient corner. We on Steering Committee -- the Master Tacticians of the movement, hah! -- often learned of new Centrals days later, or rang frantically for ones that had vanished. Is it any wonder that, leading the final sit-in into Sproul, our estimates of how many would follow ranged from 200 to 3,000?

         And what about Steering Committee, that mysterious body that everyone -- save some of its members -- agrees "ran the movement"? Surely some social scientist should have been tempted to examine its function. Was it a tactical group or a policy-making body? Or an aesthetic symbol (the idea is fruitful)? Or simply irrelevant? But this again raises questions that lie at the heart of FSM. Why was the Steering Committee reconstituted four times in the first month, and then left to its own devices for the duration? What had this to do with the question of democratic responsibility on all of our minds? Why, in months of almost daily eight-hour meetings, did Steering Committee operate by discussing each detail down to exhausting consensus? Why was there only one vote taken on any substantive issue during this time -- about the abortive sit-in -- and this vote announced publicly? What caused our fanatic commitment to flexibility: no single tactical decision was made more than twelve hours in advance, and most within three? Surely these are questions that, were analytic tools properly applied to them, might begin to illuminate the nature of FSM. But here is a proper irony: with this irreplaceable experiment at hand in the heart of the Multiversity, to the best of my knowledge only two students (one an undergraduate) are investigating it in depth by talking with the people involved, and one faculty member by a series of questionnaires. I write theses/about feces, etc.

         So strange. One survey ferreted out another strangeness, because surveys cannot turn their faces. "We asked those who affirmed the importance of off-campus political activity why they felt it important to a student's education, and the principal reason given . . . was its informative value in providing an understanding of the political process, rather than the duties of citizenship or the necessity for accepting responsibility for social problems." Pondering this unexpected answer -- and what it portends for Education -- I cannot escape feeling that, in a way we only dimly sense, FSM's strangeness was due to our seeing the world perpendicular, with new eyes in a new relation to it.

         We had no theory, no elaborate justifications for our actions. We alone did not mourn the lack. But perhaps our aphorisms were more than cute. "Fiat Lex," our mock of the motto "Fiat Lux" of the Multiversity that met petition with police: were we not saying, "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life"? "Don't trust anyone over thirty": did this refer to age alone, or to a feeling that few not branded from childhood by post-1948 America could view the world with our eyes? That view, I think, is reflected best in the meteor songs of Bobby Dylan, now enormously popular in Berkeley, who sings for us about not needing a weatherman to know which way the wind's blowing; and about something happening here which Mr. Jones can't quite grasp.

         In fairness, we can't either. I think we were not prepared to accept our human voice coming like a new known light to illuminate the actual landscapes that flicker into existence at the edge of our flowing train of illusion. Perhaps we created FSM out of nothing, out of a need to shield our eyes from the naked strangeness of those landscapes, a need to say: "It wasn't I who did it, it was FSM." This view might help to explain the paradoxes of FSM. Perhaps FSM did not exist at all, was only a name, a handle for us (and others) to grab. And here we are at the frightful abyss again: if FSM did not exist, what was happening during that dense semester in which we tried to mobilize our distant souls, make contact with the real again, talk to each other like human beings, and lay our bodies and hearts on the intangible line of the sane response, the perpendicular response that fitted the absurd stimulus?

         The answer lies in a poetry I cannot give, does not much yet exist, but is begun. There is a new poetry in America, the prose of the SNCC workers in the South, who are our kin. That prose is lively, and unsettling to read; we have not seen it before. It has spread north to Berkeley: in the incredible dialogue atop the cop car; and a second time, ten months later. After the conflict and its personal costs, there came a devastating three-month trial: a Catch-22 nightmare with no relevance in our hearts to that for which we had fought. At its close, the judge -- whom everyone had assured us "would be defending you if he could" -- did not look up at a single defendant, as he sentenced us to fines and jail terms ranging up to four months. Before sentencing, the judge asked for letters explaining why we did it. The 800 solemnly complied. I have seen those letters, and they moved me to tears. They and Sanderson's poem are the only poetry of FSM in existence. With one exception in all that I read, they were gently but staunchly unrepentant. But more: they were a voice I'd never heard from my contemporaries (or elders), the voice of intellect welded to passion, the perfect counterpoise to these books.

         Perhaps someone will do a gentle editing job on them before the next rush of FSM books; probably not. I'd like to end by quoting the only one handy:

         "We conducted a long struggle, assuming responsibilities we should not have been made to assume, heartbreakingly alone until the end, taking time out from our studies and our lives to do a job that should not have needed to be done. And we comported ourselves with dignity and grace, on the whole unexpectedly so, and with good hearts and trust and kindness for each other.

         "Confronting an institution apparently and frustratingly designed to depersonalize and block communication, neither humane nor graceful nor responsive, we found flowering in ourselves the presence whose absence we were at heart protesting."


October 1965


(*) Draper, Hal, Berkeley: The New Student Revolt, New York: Grove Press, 1965.

      Lipset, Seymour Martin and Sheldon S. Wolin, eds. The Berkeley Student Revolt:
           Facts and Interpretations
, Garden City: Anchor Books, 1965

     Miller, Michael V. and Gilmore, Susan, eds. Revolution at Berkeley.  NYC: Dial, 1965.

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