Magazine | August 13, 2018, Issue

Fantasyland

(Roman Genn)
A liberal explains why he gave up on Berkeley

There were seven men climbing the hillside, through thickets of sagebrush and lupine, through groves of oak and pine. Finally they came to an outcropping of rock, which they scaled. From there, they could see the bay, rippling in the afternoon light. Two ships were out there, heading for the open waters of the Pacific. The glorious moment called for recognition; Frederick Billings, a Vermonter who’d come west during the Gold Rush, supplied the grace note, in the form of a verse from George Berkeley, the 18th-century English philosopher: “Westward the course of empire takes its way.” That was how Berkeley, Calif., got its name.

I wasn’t there, obviously, but my imagination pulled me like a tide to that moment during the three years I spent in Berkeley with my wife and two children. I am a terribly plodding runner, but nevertheless an avid one. Daily I huffed up those very same hills, and looked at that very same bay, and filled with the very same wonder of those men 152 years ago. This was especially so when fog obscured the skyscrapers of San Francisco, effacing the human element, leaving only you and water, the tops of hills, the milky, cloud-covered sky.

But this was fantasy. Below, the frontier settlement of 1866 was no longer. Descending back to town always left me coated in a thin film of dread. I was sinfully sour with my wife and children, perfectly graceless with the in-laws who had wholly funded our move from New York to California. By the time I realized that I hated the place, it was with tremendous relief, as when a spouse realizes that a marriage has run its course even as her counterpart cluelessly makes vacation plans. But it would take a rather long while to figure out why, and what that irreducible antipathy had to do with liberalismBerkeley’s and my own.

Bishop Berkeley would prove a prescient namesake for this Northern California city that has made its sibling across the bay, San Francisco, seem staid by comparison. Berkeley was a subjective idealist who argued that there was no world apart from the world each one of us experienced. “To be is to be perceived,” he famously postulated. Today’s popular injunction to “live your truth” is the simpleton cousin of Berkeley’s insight that there wasn’t any other truth to be lived.

Berkeley has been living its own truth for the last half century, sailing ideologically away from the landmass of America like those two ships headed into the shimmering gap of the Golden Gate. Ever since wild-haired graduate student Mario Savio stood on the steps of Sproul Hallthe central administrative building of the University of California at Berkeley, which dominates the townand urged his fellow rebels to “put your bodies upon the gears” of the infernal machine of the post-industrial state, Berkeley has been a lefty fantasia, a national counternarrative in which Henry A. Wallace, the New Deal–era socialist, became president and Ronald Reagan was best known for B-movie schlock such as Cowboy from Brooklyn, a city where Hugo Chávez is remembered only as a revolutionary who brought red plenty to the masses and Dick Cheney is not remembered at all.

For decades, now, Berkeley’s primary export has been defiance: the first Indigenous Peoples’ Day to replace Columbus Day; the first municipal divestiture from apartheid South Africa; the first mandated warning that cell phones may cause cancer, despite evidence to the contrary; the first tax on sugar-sweetened drinks; the first marijuana sanctuary city. Three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Barbara Lee, who represents Berkeley and Oakland in Congress, became the only member of either chamber to vote against granting President George W. Bush the authorization to use military force. This is, as the popular Internet meme goes, the future that liberals want.

Or do we? There have lately been signs that after decades of threatening to run away from home, this angelheaded hipster is ready to take her seat at America’s bountiful but unabashedly capitalist table. She will sulk at Omaha and snarl at Manhattan, but she will accept her lot. At this point, she doesn’t have much choice. Chipotle Grill has come to Shattuck Avenue, where students once squared off against the National Guard. So have Equinox fitness clubs. There are still hippies, but they have aged and grown despondent, aware that they have been duped by history, which conformed perfectly to the prediction of Karl Marx by turning out to be a farce. The bumper stickers on their Volkswagen buses are peeling. Tie-dye T-shirts stretch over beer bellies. A crucial battle has been lost.

Nowhere is this more evident than in People’s Park, a scrubby patch of land just south of the Berkeley campus, encompassing a single city block. Its name is a misnomer that would have made George Orwell blush. These three acres are not a park at all but are in entirely indisputable fact a lot owned by the university. In the fervid spring of 1969, student activists protested a plan by Berkeley to eventually build housing there, citing the desire for an off-campus “free-speech area.” Eventually the protesters grew unruly, and the National Guard was called in to keep the peace. The ensuing confrontation cost one student his life, but it also elevated the national stature of California’s governor, the aforementioned hero of B cinema. As for the land itself, it remained fallow.

People’s Park does not, however, belong to “the people” in any ecumenical sense of the word. Though there are park-like facilities, including a playground and basketball courts, only the intrepid or the tragically unaware would ever use them. That’s because for the entirety of its turbulent existence, People’s Park has functioned as a homeless encampment, and not one that has exactly embraced the idealism of the Summer of Love. An angry sore on this landscape of golds and greens, People’s Park is Berkeley’s most potent argument against itself.

You can’t really blame the bedraggled denizens of People’s Park for its filth and grime, for the revulsion the mere name evokes in locals. Many of the people who live there are visibly tortured, whether by drugs, drink, or inner demons. A few admirably dedicated activists bring them food, but for the most part the people of People’s Park are left alone, making for a weird détente in this city where an informed citizenry coupled with a ferociously liberal government pride themselves on solving problems Washington and Sacramento will not.

Nobody quite knows what to do, but after a half century of inaction, a growing number of locals are coming to feel that they ought to do something.

This has caused great concern among those for whom People’s Park has an importance far greater than its geographical imprint may indicate, like the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. A “threat” to People’s Park is a threat to what Berkeley has believed itself to be since 1964.

This past April, posters appeared on Berkeley’s utility poleswooden beams scabrous with staples and shreds of paper, the remnants of older handbills calling for a protest against the Trump administration or, just as frequently, the construction of market-rate condominium buildings. “Prepare Now for the People’s Park Riots of 2018,” the new notice declared (“Date and Time to be announced”). While the riots were presumably being planned, the poster urged concerned citizens to contact Berkeley’s chief spokesman, Dan Mogulof, and the city’s mayor, a hapless and bumblingly ambitious young progressive named Jesse Arreguín who in 2016 earned an endorsement from Bernie Sanders and beat an establishment candidate on the same night that Donald Trump won the White House.

The communards were being summoned to People’s Park once again because Berkeley had declared its intent to finally reclaim its land (not a decade too soon!) and build student housing there. Berkeley’s campus is terrifically overcrowded; according to the university, it can currently house only one-fifth of its 42,000 students, leaving the rest to hunt for dwellings in the nation’s most viciously expensive housing market. The new dormitories to be erected on the site of People’s Park would house about 1,000; there would also be, according to a university press release, “75 to 125 apartments that will provide safe and supervised living for homeless Berkeley residents.”

While this may seem like a munificent gesture, not to mention an effective one, those for whom People’s Park is hallowed ground saw only an affront. Ergo, there had to be riots.

The riots remain in planning stages, I am happy to report. But they wouldn’t have been the first Berkeley riots in the age of Trump. The first took place about a week after Trump’s inauguration, when former Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos was slated to give one of his witless “talks” on campus. Leftist activists saved him the trouble by rampaging through campus and town, punishing for his alleged transgressions an outlet of Starbucks, which had recently committed to hiring thousands of refugees. It was an ugly scene that earned denunciations from both Fox News commentators and original members of the Free Speech Movement.

There followed, in the months to come, several skirmishes between “triggered” liberals and those who delighted in triggering them. These were waged with fists, baseball bats, and sundry other weapons, downhill from a parking area reserved for the university’s many Nobel laureates. The brawls were tragic, comic, and pointless, especially so because they were conducted in a park named for Martin Luther King Jr., in full view of a police force that had reportedly been ordered by Mayor Arreguín to stand down, lest it be accused of . . . well, policing. Competing with New York’s Bill de Blasio in the arena of progressive self-delusion, Arreguín mused that the riots had to do with the fact that he was of Latino background, as if the rich taxonomy of goon that descended on Berkeley in the spring and summer of 2017 had been looking to do anything but connect fist with jaw.

Like a child unable to let a provocation pass, Berkeleyby which I mean some complex combination of town and gown, with a healthy Antifa contingent from the greater Bay Area thrown into the mixprotested when pundit Ann Coulter planned to come to campus. She stayed away. Ben Shapiro did come, and did speak, but only after law enforcement from seemingly every agency in California cordoned off part of a section of campus and made attendees undergo airport-style security measures. The season of black masks and black smoke culminated in the appearance Yiannopoulos had been promising for months. This consisted of the frosted-tip philosopher and a few of his supporters posing with insensate mirth on the very same steps where Savio had once inveighed against the corporate state. This time around, the corporate state had to spend $800,000 to keep the peace.

I arrived in Berkeley on September 16, 2015, the day of the second Republican-primary debate. I was there on November 9, 2016, when the place had a funereal feel and even serious people spoke of secession from the United States (alas, one such effort was seemingly funded by the Russians, the other by a venture capitalist with a record of sexual-assault allegations against him; last I consulted a map, neither had succeeded). There were many demonstrations, even if there was nothing especially original about the sentiments being demonstrated for or against. Signs bearing only an iambic injunction“Resist”appeared in the windows of sprawling downtown Victorians and angular mid-century-modern homes high up in the beatifically golden hills. What we were to resist was clear. How to resist was not. And so, not quite knowing what to do, people went on with their lives.

During the three years we spent in Berkeley, my wife would sometimes joke that I had been singled out for cosmic justice: a child of the Soviet Union (and a onetime contributor to the Dartmouth Review, no less) extracted like a Woody Allen character from the New York he knows and loves, thrust into a place that remained equivocal in its assessment of Stalin. There was, indeed, something frustrating about being among people who saw no contradiction between supporting the socialist government of Venezuela, where people starved, and shopping blithely at the Berkeley Bowl amid eleven succulent varieties of organic peaches.

I did not emerge from Berkeley on the right, the way David Horowitz and many others have. Yet the crisis in liberalism came to seem much more clear than it had in the many years we’d spent in New York, where a collective desperation about the state of the subways has always erased political difference. Berkeley is far too small for that, its politics potent and undiluted. And if in the 1960s Berkeley served as a symbol of liberalism’s possibilities, by 2017 it had become a symbol of liberalism’s failures. I recognize that many of my readers are conservatives, but they should not cheer that devolution. A healthy democracy needs two lungs, one supplying oxygen on the right, the other on the left. When one collapses, the whole corpus suffers.

What happened in Berkeley was closer to intellectual pneumonia, the result of a city that suddenly found itself shuddering in the drenching rain of reality. For years, the people here practiced the politics of gesture, and because gestures felt good, and California was the land of good feeling, they kept making gestures as noble as they were pointless. To this day, when you drive from Oakland into Berkeley along College Avenue, you are greeted by a sign that declares Berkeley a nuclear-free zone, dispelling any fears that Nike missile arrays might be nestled in the hills. The sign isn’t just silly, it is preposterously ahistorical: Berkeley professors were instrumental in the Manhattan Project, and the university continues to receive millions annually from the Department of Defense. Even more telling is the sign on Shattuck Avenue right next to the one proclaiming the city nuclear-free: a warning against drunken driving (“you can’t afford it”). That third Scotch-and-soda may do much more danger to your life than enriched uranium, even if the former isn’t quite as much fun to protest.

Gestures tend to denote, and the gesture politics of Berkeley was meant, as a whole, to denote a city-state above the fray of the common man. Like Athens, it was to be a place of superior wine, of resplendent hills blessed by the gods, of wise men whose genius was as boundless as the wine-dark sea. Thing is, Athens fell, undone by forces internal and external. And something similar is happening to Berkeley, even if no severe Spartans have come ransacking up from San Jose. Even Trump is not to blame, his tweets about “High Tax, High Crime” California notwithstanding. With so many layers of government between Telegraph and Pennsylvania Avenues, he might as well be the president of Mongolia.

The force undoing Berkeley originated much closer to home. It was birthed on the campus of rival Stanford, migrating quickly to the garages of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. From there, it leapt to the office parks of Mountain View and Sunnyvale, then to coveted San Francisco, where the new Salesforce tower stands over the city like a conquering colossus, aglimmer in its naked capitalist splendor. Berkeley has tried to resist the digital revolution, doing everything it can to be as hostile as possible to the tech economy that is gobbling up the Bay Area like Pac-Man. The city made no effort to attract tech companies the way neighboring Oakland did. Just as important, city leaders gave in to the pressure of activists who wanted no housing built in the city at all if there was even the remote possibility that that housing would attract someone who hadn’t seen the Grateful Dead in concert a dozen times. A recent article in the New York Times, for example, chronicled the saga of a developer who wanted to build a couple of bungalows on empty land that he owned. It took him two years of litigation merely to receive the permit to do so. I expect the project will be completed in about a decade.

Protracted litigation over housing is what Berkeley does. Developers have been branded “Hitler” for merely suggesting that an empty lot does not well serve the city’s interests; “gentrification” has become a synonym for “change,” in particular any change that counters the forces of urban despair and disarray. Conservatives, I have been told, fear change, and that may well be true. But you should meet Berkeley’s liberals.

The crushing irony is that the techies are the children, or at least nephews, of the hippies. The difference is that Steve Jobs, unlike Wavy Gravy, decided to trim his hair and get a job (as for the business suit, well, that would have been a bridge too far). The techies digitized their utopia, then monetized it, as the hippies kept installing placards about nuclear-free zones or how they stood in solidarity with the Khmer Rouge and the Sandinistas. The hippies of Berkeley were outflanked, and they were outflanked by their own progeny. No wonder their seething is profound. They wanted a revolution, and they got one, only it was in precisely the wrong direction.

The hippies have found unlikely allies in a disgruntled segment of youth who have recently discovered that elaborate tattoos and degrees in intersectional hegemony make life in modern society acutely untenable. Like the hippies, they were fooled, and if they were only less brittle, they would have all of my compassion. But they plainly don’t want it. Like their older, bearded counterparts, this group is taken to striding angrily down Berkeley’s thoroughfares, snarling at anyone who might deign to wear professional attire. At the heart of this animus is an enormous entitlement, a feeling that Berkeley belongs only to those who harbor certain convictions. Those who don’t are invited to live and work elsewhere. Dallas, perhaps, or at least Walnut Creek.

Despite the ubiquitous “Hate Has No Place Here” placards adorning homes and storefronts, Berkeley in 2018 seems almost entirely governed by its animosities. A city councilwoman, Cheryl Davila, has taken to asking potential employees whether they are, as she is, a zealous advocate of the Palestinian cause. How the concerns of West Berkeley align with those of the West Bank is not entirely clear; if anything, the city’s most impoverished district could probably benefit from the investment of Israeli technology firms looking to enter the Bay Area market. But, like the current occupant of the White House, Berkeley’s political leaders need their ideological bugbears. Take away the Zionists, and they just might have to govern.

Nearly as maligned as supporters of the Jewish state are those who might crave a hamburger. Last year, some militant vegans forced a butcher to put a sign in his window: “attention: Animals’ lives are their right. Killing them is violent and unjust, no matter how it’s done.” He was a small-business owner and his animals were ethically procured, but the vegans demanded he display the placard or, they said, they would protest in front of his store indefinitely. They did not make similar demands of supermarket chains, for that would have taken a drop of courage. More recently, they buried a piglet in a public park. Their demand was that animals be treated as “individuals.”

Meanwhile, in nearby Emeryville and Oakland (the two cities are effectively contiguous with Berkeley), someone burned down several apartment buildings in the midst of construction. This cost millions of dollars and displaced hundreds of people. Anywhere else, it would have been an outrage. In the East Bay, it was a natural consequence of gentrification, and a welcome one. “This is what real class warfare looks like,” one commenter posted to a news story about one of the East Bay construction fires. “People are not just gonna sit around and do nothing as all options are taken from them.”

It would be a grave mistake to think that most people in Berkeley endorse this brand of extremism. They most definitely do not. Berkeley may be the one place in America where there is a silent majority of liberals, i.e., people who espouse an Obama-like brand of inclusive technocratic neoliberalism but are afraid to say so because, like the conservative silent majority Richard M. Nixon described five decades ago, they will be branded troglodytic fascists.

That is why the response to the People’s Park development has been truly revealing. The majority refused to be silenced by the hoarse voices of the old Left. If the revolutionaries were somewhat more aware, they would have realized that they were surrounded. Despite the calls for a second set of People’s Park riots, it very quickly became very clear that most people in Berkeley wanted nothing of the kind, at least to judge by the comments on Berkeleyside, the excellent local news site that has gotten national praise for its novel direct public offering of preferred stock, the kind of creative capitalism Fidel Castro didn’t exactly endorse.

“Any good thing People’s Park may have represented disappeared long ago,” one commenter wrote. “Only a completely out of touch individual would think it’s a good idea to keep People’s Park around in its current state as a nexus for crime and drugs.”

There are hundreds of comments in precisely this vein, while no more than one out of ten called (unconvincingly) for the place to remain as is. Mind you, the vast majority of comments, and in fact the vast majority of people in Berkeley, want a humane solution to the homelessness crisis, just as they want new housing that won’t force an 85-year-old lady to the curb or efface the region’s rich African-American history. What they don’t want is lectures about how they are spoiling a Marxist paradise with their retrograde views. Anyone who thinks People’s Park is on the way to heaven must be a student of Pol Pot, if not the Marquis de Sade.

I had the misfortune of being born into a utopia: Leningrad, 1980s. Like every other utopia imposed by man upon his fellow man, it was a miserable place to live. But it did have one thing that Berkeley desperately lacks: civic order. That order was fostered by fear, but so is all civic order, to some degree. Driving on the freeways of Los Angeles, we fear consequences, and even if those consequences don’t involve a protracted stint in Siberia, they may nevertheless be severe enough to keep most people from attempting to break the sound barrier on the 405. And once we have order, we may seek (and gain) higher-order benefits of organized society: peace, prosperity, progress. We may disagree on what those benefits might be, but even rational disagreement is a luxury.

Berkeley is not big on civic order. It has a municipal government, but its elected officers are conspicuously invisible. Having long ago confused the difference between liberal and libertine, they no longer know what to do with a downtown that looks like the Bowery of 1986, except without any of the qualities that made Manhattan back then enthralling. Much like Trump, they are impressively adept at blaming others. Solutions, for both, have proved rather more elusive.

Government tells people what they should and should not do, and as everyone in Berkeley knows, restricting another’s freedom makes you no better than a fascist. So what prevailed, during my time there, was a kind of chaotic libertarianism. Garbage was deposited with a breathtaking creativity: I once found a bookcase in front of our house, left by a person who’d taken care to attach a crude sign announcing that the teetering edifice of wooden slats was “free.” Petty crime, in particular the grab-and-run theft of laptops from coffee shops, was so common as to function as a kind of tax.

There is a fundamental dishonesty to this approach. The truly rich, who lived in the hills, suffered none of these depredations because, as someone told me when we first moved to Berkeley, “crime don’t climb.” Nothing really does, except for wealth. And for all the talk of income inequality, I saw little evidence that the wealth ensconced up in the canyons and the hills had much intention of coming back down.

We lived in the flats, in a lovely house where my in-laws thought we would continue to wage the fight they have waged for the last 50 years. We effectively spurned them, at my urging, which proved as uncomfortable as you may imagine. And yet my gripes are not with them, or even with Berkeley, but with the people who decided to make Berkeley a laboratory for their brand of liberalism, and who persisted with that experiment even as it went horribly amiss.

Take weed, for example, though by all means don’t take it as eagerly as Berkeley has. Three blocks from our house was a marijuana dispensary, by far the most thriving business in the neighborhood. Many of the dispensary’s customers parked in front of our house. On a daily basis, I collected from outside our house crushed cans of beer, single-serving plastic bottles of liquor, every variety of junk food imaginable. The question of how to dispose of a stranger’s condom had not occurred to me until, one morning, it very much did. Same with the remnants of a hypodermic needle. You will be unsurprised to learn that I invested in good garden gloves.

I supported, and continue to support, decriminalization measures that would keep young men of color out of prison. So do some conservatives. But it strikes me as shockingly irresponsible to tell consumers almost nothing of the deleterious effects marijuana causes in the human brain, particularly a developing one. And while it’s easy enough to condemn telecommunications companies for supposedly giving us cancer, no plans have been made to regulate stoned drivers, as that would seriously harsh Berkeley’s mellow.

Nobody in Berkeley ever wants to find herself in assent with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime opponent of marijuana who, entre nous, does little favor to the cause with his antediluvian rhetoric. But does that mean we must foist on the unsuspecting young of 2018 the failed dreams of 1968? Perhaps not. As in the case of People’s Park, there is a narrative running counter to the one Berkeley loves to tell itself. When it was recently revealed that South Berkeley, where we lived, would play host to a second marijuana dispensary, this one just steps from a school, the protest was swift and intense. It was the sort of thing you might have seen in Greenwich, Conn. As is, it was just blocks away from where Allen Ginsberg once lived.

Marijuana has long been central to Berkeley’s conception of itself, and the journey from the relatively weak “grass” of the 1960s to today’s “killer bud” is revealing. It may have been naïve, but at least the midnight tokers of that time thought they were opening the doors of consciousness, escaping into lush groves of insight from which the man in the gray flannel suit would forever be excluded. Today’s stuff is, according to one study, five times stronger than what people were smoking in 1980. No doors of perception are opening in Berkeley, these days, not with strains like Space Cakes and Chemdag leading the way. These are means of pushing away the world, of deadening the senses.

Religion, in other words, is not the only opiate of the masses. Nor is weed, for that matter. More dangerous, I came to believe after three years in Berkeley, is a self-surety that sets upon a people who declare themselves immune to critical scrutiny, who are so certain they have found the answers, they decline to ask any more questions. This is not, of course, solely a liberal problem, nor a Berkeley one, but it is especially pronounced here in this glorious, ruined place between hill and bay, where the revolution has been on the cusp of happening for half a century. Long before anyone was worried about sugary drinks, Berkeley knew, just as it knew about the military-industrial complex. But in its quest to stay eternally woke, Berkeley went blind.

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