Feb 122008

The summer after I graduated college I backpacked around Europe. I went everywhere, from London in the west to St. Petersburg in the east, Narvik in the north to Rome in the south. I mostly eschewed commercial tours, instead taking a very Rick Steves approach in feeling I could get a greater sense of local flavor by traveling “through the back door,” or like a native would. But even he has acknowledged that sometimes commercial tours can provide more efficient coverage of an area than independent traveling can. Like in Salzburg, with its “Sound of Music” tour.

The bus was full of people from all over the world. I sat up front with some other Americans. They were a family from Oklahoma: a man and his wife in their 50s or 60s, their 30 year old son, and his very demure southern wife. “Oh I could never do what you’re doing!” she drawled in surprise upon finding out I was traveling solo. “Does your mama know?” the elder man inquired, with genuine concern, offering to call her for me when he got back to the states. I politely declined, somewhat surprised that my travel arrangements, seemingly normal to me, should cause such consternation. Even though we were from the same country, it was apparent that there clearly were some differences in our cultural orientation.
Which became even more clear as our conversation continued. “Where are you from?” they asked. “Berkeley,” I said.
“Oh!” the elder man exclaimed. “You’re one of them liberals!”

What’s hard to convey in written words is the particular tone of voice he used. It wasn’t at all critical. It was simply amazed, like he’d heard about liberals all these years, like one hears about giraffes in Africa, but had never before seen one up close. Moreover, he seemed shocked to discover that I was actually a nice, congenial person, and not the demonic creature he had been led to believe we all were.

It of course comes as a shock to no one that Berkeley should now be raising a ruckus in its recent attempts to put its local civic weight against the presence of the military in its city. If any town is going to press the boundaries of liberal attitudes, Berkeley would be it.

It also comes as a shock to no one that it should stir up such inarticulate outrage. Like the “I am ashamed to call you a neighbor. What you are doing is tantamount to pure and utter anarchy. You are weak to pander to these crazy pink people. When will you all grow up?” which was the thoughtful response from Paul Morris, city councilman from the nearby town of San Pablo.

Which is too bad, as there are so many legitimate issues posed by the Berkeley action that are so worthy of thoughtful discussion. Liberal though I am, I’m not sure I quite agree with what the city council is trying to do. It raises all sorts of questions, like whether it’s generally appropriate for a local government to take this kind of stand, whether the means by which it is taking the stand are appropriate, and of course whether the actual stand itself is warranted. Personally, while I’m against the war, I do find it concerning that as part of its action the city government is providing such strong endorsement for a specific anti-war group, support that, ironically, strikes me as potentially unconstitutional in a First Amendment sort of way. I’m also not sure whether the city government can presume sufficient hegemony among its citizens’ opinions to justify taking such a unilateral action. Republicans also live in the town, and it would be antithetical to the liberal spirit of Berkeley to marginalize minorities. After all, it’s their city government too.

I am, however, less put out by the idea that the city would resist the presence of federal military recruiters. For one thing, I don’t see it necessary that the military insist on recruiting in an area where it is so unwelcome. There are plenty of other towns where it would be welcome to set up shop — or, if it turns out there are not, this is important feedback that should be considered when federal military policy is made.

Secondly, and I think it is important to point this out to all of Berkeley’s critics, however zealous or dismissive, Berkeley is one of the few American municipalities with the unfortunate distinction of having had the military turn against its own residents. We need go back in history no further than 1969, when then-governor Ronald Reagan dispatched the National Guard against people in Berkeley. This action helped cement local antipathy against the military by providing eminent justification for it. It is therefore extremely unfair for critics to resent Berkeley for its memory. Because it has seen firsthand the violent destruction the military can cause, it is perfectly reasonable for it not to want any part of it.

On the other hand, not all criticism of Berkeley is unfair, particularly on the occasions when it acts contrary to the liberal values it holds so dear. Like in how it deprives anonymity to those who would petition its government. It is extremely ironic that as the city acts in a way that will induce such strong reaction in its citizens it maintains a policy where those citizens cannot file their grievances in the hall of its government without having to show ID and have their presence there recorded. Such a policy, no matter what platitudes are offered to justify it, can serve to do little more than chill dissent, which is particularly reprehensible in a time when the city is giving rise to so much of it.

Perhaps, then, we might suggest that, before taking on the White House, Berkeley might want to get its own house in order first.

 Posted by at 8:59 am

  2 Responses to “What to do about Berkeley”

  1. Ah, Berkeley… it is amazing the reactions that just the name of the town evokes from people!
    I miss it sometimes. Sometimes I don’t. But more often, I do. :)
    As a (mostly) liberaltarian, I had a lot of issues with the town–even though I support a lot of the *ideals* that are often espoused there. It was the execution I found lacking. But I do think the sense of idealism and involvement in Berkeley are good things, even if it’s not a perfect utopia.
    And it’s the only place I’ve ever seen a naked guy running down the street and a man in a pink spandex unitard riding by on a unicycle, all on my way home from work.

  2. I did love living in Berkeley. In fact, if I’d not accidentally ended up in Marin this time around, it’s where I would have moved to. I could never quite figure out if it was a very small city or a very large town, but I remember – particularly when I was having trouble with my landlords – feeling like the city government was very usable, and very much on my side.

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