From Free Speech to Filthy Speech

This little tidbit emerged from Geo-Strata‘s interview with Dr. J. Michael Duncan of Virginia Tech, justifiably characterised as a legend in his (and my) profession:

Q. What was it like at Berkeley during the ’60’s? “Berkeley in the ’60’s” is typically required reading in U.S. history classes now.

A. (Laughs). I’m surprised you ask this question. When I got to Berkeley in 1962 to do my PhD, that was about the beginning of the free speech movement, which became the filthy speech movement, and so on. For the most part, we engineers were not the drivers of the protests; we were mainly observers. The civil engineering building was on the opposite side of campus from where most of the protests were happening.  We just wanted to stay on our side of campus and do our interesting work.

That changed eventually as a result of the Vietnam War and especially President Nixon’s Hanoi bombing campaign, which fostered anti-war sentiments and changed things for a lot of people. So back to your question, there was an evolution in the movement from the “flower child” atmosphere over the course of those years. We did understand that we were in the middle of history, but we felt more like observers rather than drivers of the changes that took place.

As Derek Leebaert noted in his book The Fifty-Year Wound, there were two revolutions afoot in the 1960’s: one anti-war and Luddite in the streets, the other the birth of “high-tech” that would transform American life in the 1980’s and beyond. Although Duncan’s field of study doesn’t strike people as “high tech”, it certainly involved computerisation, as his fellow Cal graduate Raymond Seed attested to.

Unfortunately the revolution taking place on Duncan’s side of the campus and elsewhere in science and technology has been overtaken by the Luddites. The “can-do” and problem solving ethic of our profession has been beaten down in a morass of regulation and a refusal to consider really scientific solutions. The global warming debate is a good example of this: the obsessive allergy to nuclear power (not universal, I might note) has blocked solving the problem in a reasonable time, leaving solutions which are not fast enough to prevent major dislocations in our civilisation.

As as for free speech…we have come full circle.  But it was always this way.  The campus radicals of old had no intention of making speech really free, just what they wanted to hear.  And it was filthy. The ones now are no different, and in some cases are one in the same, although I see they have plenty of disciples to carry on the repression.

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