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Berkeley on Berkeley

By Steven Finacom
Saturday November 17, 2001

The Berkeley City Council’s 5-4 resolution regarding the bombing in Afghanistan has launched a passionate and continuing debate over the nature of patriotism and whether local government officials should take positions on foreign policy. 

When this topic arises, I’ve found myself asking, What would George B. do?  

No, not George Bush! I mean George Berkeley, the 18th century Bishop of Cloyne and namesake and intellectual patron of our town. 

Although he is best remembered as a philosopher, George Berkeley was keenly interested in his times which were filled with uncertainty. Some of his most trenchant and influential writings concerned economic, political, and social issues. He engaged both the minds and consciences of his contemporaries and left much for future generations to consider. 

While it would be wrong to infer that the views of a man now 249 years in his grave can be precisely applied to our current events, Berkeley’s advice about patriotism is worth considering today. I’ve posed some questions and “answered” them with relevant excerpts from Bishop Berkeley’s circa ‘752 essay, “Maxims Concerning Patriotism.” 

There have been many charges and counter-charges by people who want to judge the patriotism of individual members of the Berkeley City Council. 

“Every man, by consulting his own heart, may know whether he is or is not a Patriot. But it is not so easy for the by-standers.” 

What about those who argue that true patriotism in this crisis lies in steadfastly supporting the current Bush Administration…or, conversely, in vigorously opposing its policies? 

“Being loud and vehement either against a Court, or for a Court, is no proof of Patriotism.” 

How about that lone vote of Congresswoman Barbara Lee against the war resolution? What should one do when faced with a vote on such a matter? 

“To be a real Patriot, a man must consider his countrymen as God’s creatures, and himself as accountable for his acting towards them.” 

And what might one say to those who argue that Congress should have spoken with one voice in a time of national crisis? 

“Were all sweet and sneaking courtiers, or were all sour malcontents; in either case the public would thrive but ill.” 

Might we take that to mean that Lee’s local constituents should all be expected to automatically rally behind her? 

“A Patriot will esteem no man for being of his party.” 

Returning to the Council vote, how about those City Councilmembers who are full of accusations about the motives of their colleagues who voted differently on the resolution? 

“A Patriot will admit there may be honest men, and that honest men may differ.” 

So it’s OK for public officials to be publicly divided, even on an important issue like this? Does that harm the national interest? 

“A Patriot would hardly wish there was no contrast in the State.” 

And what think you of all those letter-writers who have damned the Council vote and continue to fill the opinion pages with the most intemperate language charging that the Council majority was disloyal to the nation? 

“A man rages, roils, and raves; I suspect his patriotism.” 

And how about the local civic leaders who seem to worry most about the potential impact of the Council resolution on the City’s economy? 

“In your man of business, it is easier to meet with a good head than a good heart.”  

Care to elaborate? 

“A man whose passion for money runs high, bids fair for being no Patriot. And he likewise whose appetite is keen for power.” 

Now what about the American involvement in Afghanistan and the bombing that the Council majority wants ended as soon as possible? Are they right that the nation shouldn’t be engaging in military retaliation that can hurt innocents? 

“Moral evil is never to be committed, physical evil may be incurred, either to avoid a greater evil, or to procure a good.” 

Any final advice for those in your namesake city, where civic matters often result in argument, dissent, and demonstration? 

“The fractious man is apt to mistake himself for a patriot.” 


Local historian Steven Finacom is organizing an exhibit and events to commemorate the 250th anniversary of George Berkeley’s death, which falls in 2003.