Letter From Berkeley, California -- The Cliche

Letter From Berkeley

In March, 1965, Calvin Trillin wrote about the Free Speech Movement (F.S.M) at the University of California, Berkeley. His New Yorker essay, "Letter From Berkeley, covered the trial of the 800 students arrested during the 1965 protests. Of the 4000 who occupied Sproul Hall, the police managed to carry-out 800. As Trillin wrote, the police heaved the students, "wearing blue jeans and singing hymns", out of Sprout Hall by their arms and legs, one by one.

When Trillin arrived at the courtroom, the scene was much more staid and there was no hymn-singing. The students "conscientiously presented themselves, in quiet, well-dressed groups of fifty, in a make-shift courtroom", to enter their pleas. The now compliant and somber students had while protesting "attacked the computer as the symbolic agent of its followers' alienation", but for court they were "borrowing the university's I.B.M. machine to keep track of all the people [including 20 lawyers] involved in its legal affairs".

Trillin's description of the protestors in the 1965 Berkeley court is pretty much how students in the Berkeley are today -- organized, smart, generally good-natured, and obedient. Despite that, they're more often depicted as carrying the torch of the 1960's era "rebels".

The C.I.A., the F.B.I. and the F.S.M.

The student protests in the 1960's were movements, they actually moved things and people -- the students moved cars and the police moved people -- but they also moved ideas to powerful people. The federal and state governments looked at the F.S.M. as a force to be reckoned with -- a threat. The C.I.A. and the F.B.I. attempted to associate Berkeley's FreeSpeech Movement with an imaginary Bay Area hotbed of Communism in order to turn everyday citizens against the "unruly" youth.

What Reagan Saw In the Students - An Opportunity

Reagan and the conservatives ran election campaigns that leveraged what he depicted as the corrosive nature of the F.S.M. and student activities at the University of California. In one speech Reagan declared that the F.S.M. leaders should be thrown out by "the scruff of their necks". He decried the shocking occasion of "a dance" held on campus featuring acts so reprehensible that he couldn't talk about it, he said, for fear of shocking his audience. He then proceeded to read a list of the shocking acts to his audience anyway: three "rock and roll bands playing simultaneously" and movies where "persons twisted and gyrated in provocative and sensual fashion". How shocked! shocked! was he?

Reagan, the future governor and leader of the free world presented himself as a complete square. But keep in mind that Reagan, Greenspan and other budding neoliberals had been poring over bodice-rippers like Ayn Rand's, "The Fountainhead" for years. So perhaps it wasn't the threat of "persons twisted and gyrated in provocative and sensual fashion", that bothered them, as much as the threat to political economics -- the "free" next to "speech", instead of next to "markets". But rhetorically, they were on to something. Reagan and the ascending neoliberals framed the 60's as being about sex and drugs and rock and roll -- they successfully painted the angst over human rights as a 'culture war'.

The Free Speech Movement, What It Is

Despite conservative outrage and Reagan's condemnation, the F.S.M. actually succeeded. How did it succeed you ask? Today at UC Berkeley, students have the right to set up card tables in one area of campus and give fellow passing students information about churches and student clubs they may join. Yup, that's what they wanted, way back then. It was that radical. They students accomplished exactly the goal they set out to.

But although in the end the F.S.M. prevailed, the movement seems altogether impotent compared to the power of neoliberal ideas that took root during Reagan's acts as governor andpresident. Regardless of the relatively weak power of Free Speech Movement, however, UC Berkeley the university has never really shaken its reputation as the somewhat sinister, hippy-dippy, center of California radical left-wing ideas.

Today's Protests, and Those 40 years Ago

When people think of UC Berkeley and today's protests, they automatically think of the 60's protests, overturned cars, national media paranoia, and attention. But look closely at recent campus protests. On the occasion of BP's massive energy collaboration with the university in 2007, for example, there on the steps of California Hall, 40 students held signs and gave speeches. Things then got out of hand when the protestors spilled a little bit of organic molasses ("oil") on the steps. Forty strong, the protestors proved they meant no harm by licking molasses off the steps of California Hall, prompting police in riot gear and wearing shields over their faces to surround them. With much fanfare and cameras clicking, the police then called a biohazards team to clean up the molasses, despite the students offers to clean it up themselves.

That's the nature of the nice, if limp spirit of today's student rebellions. But people still think Berkeley as radically "left wing". They tend not to associate "Berkeley" with its conservative influences, like John Yoo, who took leave from his law school faculty position to write the Bush torture memos, or the law school that defends Yoo's position in the name of "academic freedom". They ignore the power differential that makes protests such as the BP one totally anemic.

People think of UC Berkeley and think science and politically liberal values. They tend not to think of retired law school professor Phillip E. Johnson, conservative born-again Christian, who is the father of the intelligent design movement, who, along with Berkeley science professor Peter Duesberg, denies that the HIV virus causes of AIDS. People ignore the existence of the vibrant libertarian and student Republicans groups -- the student Republican group is the largest student organization on campus. People probably don't know about the Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements, established last year. What prevails when people think of UC Berkeley is the cliche of a subversive, pot-smoking, Birkenstock wearing, long-haired, provocatively liberal university. The fact that this depiction is totally wrong escapes them.

Letter From California, The Reality

Nevertheless, last fall, the cliche was reinforced when students took over Wheeler Hall, protesting increases to student tuition. The erosion of state support for the University is a travesty, but the students protests were very personal. Their cries were not about wars (either of them), or free speech, in fact in many cases they were not even about higher education. Some negotiators had a hard time figuring out what the students demands even were -- something about janitors jobs being reinstated?

No, this 21st century student uprising concerned the increased costs of higher education that would be in part coming out of their (or their parents') pockets. It was a protest not without irony. Tours of campus routinely compare Berkeley to Stanford University, as in, Berkeley is just as good, in every sense, as Stanford. The sense of competition is so fierce, apparently, that some Berkeley denizens will not wear any article of clothing that is maroon (Stanford's color). Yet differences are large, especially the fact that Stanford is a private school and far more costly than Berkeley. The cost hikes were severe, but like the rest of America, were these 21st century protestors basically angling for Bergdorf Goodman quality at Walmart prices? Not to mention, that even as they protest now, some of the students' parents no doubt voted for California Proposition 13, which gutted the state's ability to raise taxes and support things like higher education.

There was mixed tolerance for the protests on campus. Certainly some students participated, as did some faculty, like negotiator Ananya Roy, who the New Yorker recently profiled in a column "Letter From California". Some faculty and students were very sympathetic to the students, some of whom were in fact savagely batoned by police. But most students and certainly most faculty didn't protest, they were too busy with their own affairs.

Other onlookers complained about the student's behavior in Wheeler Hall, because apparently they "partied"" and "ordered pizzas". I asked one critic: "What should they be doing?", thinking about how boring it must be to sit in an administrative office building for hours on end -- I mean, even back in 1964 they had music, such as it was -- Joan Baez singing "We Shall Overcome". They should be "writing manifestos", came the answer, rather sternly.

Indeed, today's protests somehow fall short of expectations and cliches -- no manifestoes, and students marching against fee increases rather than for world peace or the weighty issues of the times. In the November 2009 protests, a piddly sixty-six protestors were arrested, not 800, like back in the day.

Not to say certain actions can't stir up memories of students behaving very badly. Once police cleared protestors from Wheeler Hall (and not by blaring Joan Baez into the building, but with some bone breaking), a fringe group got out of hand when they marched to the home of Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. Here's how the New Yorker wrote about this subsequent act of violence in the last paragraph of their newest "Letter From California":

"That night, more than forty people carrying torches marched on Birgeneau's residence. A handful of the protesters smashed the outdoor lights and threw cement planters and burning torches at the house, scattering only after the chancellor's wife, who was writing Christmas cards, woke her husband and he called the police."

The New Yorker paints a good picture, but it's inaccurate. Since Birgeneau is well-respected for his leadership and contributions to this and other campus problems, such acts would be (and were) universally reviled. A correct account would have said that only eight "protestors" were arrested at Birgeneau's house and only two of those were students, and subsequently none of them were charged. While the act was reprehensible, this wasn't quite the scary spectacle described. It had nothing to do with Berkeley protests, and motivated a professor who witnessed the event to question the official accounts.

Inflation: Concert Tickets and The Cost of a Credit

All and all, this wasn't thousands of students convening in 1964 to make speeches about free speech while standing on a police car, any more than the Wheeler protests in November at all resembled the Sproul Hall protests in the 1960's. December's protests, for the most part promptly shut down by police, culminated in a handful of misaligned adults (some in their 40's) committing random and spontaneous acts of violence against someone who is actually working very hard on behalf of higher education. It was pathetic.

But the New Yorker's coverage in the "Letter From California" was also pathetic. Today's protests aren't a continuation of the Berkeley of the 60's. The facts actually reflect the ennui of the noughts. The 2009 protests weren't a movement, and it wouldn't impede the changes in public education or privatization. Politicians barely batted an eye. Most people favor privatization, students included. The nature of the protests differs significantly from 1964 when Mario Savio spoke about "the operation of the machine -- so odious...".

The 1960's were the cusp of major social-economic change, but in 2009/2010 everything that was novel and threatening back then -- from computers, to privatization, to liquid colors moving across movie screens, is part of who we are. It's outdated to fight against privatization, whether your aged or youthful. Increased fees, increased tuition? How is that any different than higher housing costs, more expensive medical care, and $150 concert tickets?

A Different Master Plan

Berkeley the University is clearly not the place it was in 60's, when the state provided much more education funding. Today the state only provides 28% of UC Berkeley funding and that's shrinking rapidly. Although the funding cuts have been damaging overall, the change in Berkeley is often viewed as a '21st century "good"' -- public institutions need to keep up with the times. California is privatizing its education system just like other states such as Virginia and Michigan. And higher education is ripe to be privatized, even though you may argue for the need for affordable public education and indeed those arguments are valid.

Of course the question remains, how will these inevitable changes alter the institution of higher education, and how will that benefit society? Moreover, can California remain an economic powerhouse, one of the top ten universities in the world, without the commitment to education it had in the 1960's under the original Master Plan?

There's a different "Master Plan" now. California is a state that's perennially burdened by a government that promises the quintessential American dream to naive citizens who demand the whole pie for nothing -- safety nets, education, comprehensive services, and low taxes. California state government is ahead of the federal government in assuring citizens that there's no conflict in citizens' wishes -- but how will this work out?

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