Hooray! Every book club in Berkeley has now had ample time to read the university’s new 2020 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). Despite our eager anticipation, however, I regret that this reviewer must give this ponderous tome an unequivocal “thumbs down.” Despite some intriguing raw material, the authors fail to reveal even a kernel of truth that would make this book either meaningful or useful. Anyone looking for a fresh approach to the topic will be sorely disappointed, and I fear that few readers will be able to make it through the entire 1000-page volume without reaching for the Pepto-Bismol.
This is all the more inexplicable because this is not the university’s first LRDP. Previous works in the LRDP series also received universally poor reviews, and it is surely only because the university owns its own vanity press that volume 2020 made it to print. The LRDP series is officially authored by the UC regents, but their ghost-writers have struggled so hard to keep all their options open that few concrete actions emerge from the hedges. Whoever the real authors are, apparently they don’t improve with experience.
It is difficult to build an interesting epic around a single well-developed character, yet this is precisely what the LRDP attempts to do. The heroine, of course, is the once-beautiful but aging UC Berkeley, surely one of the most callous characters in modern American literature. Starting more or less where previous LRDPs left off (and here readers shouldn’t be sticklers for accuracy), the story describes Berkeley’s continuing “development” and messianic expansion into spaces where no man has gone before. The new twist is that Berkeley has changed her career goal. Relegating her duties as a teacher of California’s youth to ever lower priority, she is now determined to become a privately funded, for-sale-to-the-highest-bidder research and industrial complex. She plans to achieve this by overrunning and entwining herself into her doomed environs like the hair of Medusa.
But Berkeley exists without context; the authors never show how she fits into any working social or physical system. For example, we never see how Berkeley, the self-absorbed darling of her family, relates to her UC siblings, who might better perform some of the activities that Berkeley covets. In any well-considered factual or fictional work, many other actors affect the protagonist’s perceptions, choices, and behavior. But in the hands of these inept authors, Berkeley exists in a conceptual vacuum, stubbornly divorced from reality and yet oddly obsessed with cataloguing and justifying her destructive impacts on it.
Flailing haplessly at the devouring heroine are the usual suspects from earlier LRDPs: the city, environmentalists, preservationists, a vaguely defined “community,” neighborhoods, and assorted other interest groups. Numerous but shallow, these gadflies get a lot of ink, but alas, the authors are clueless about what motivates them, so these characters are dead on arrival. They can only chatter in alarm at Berkeley’s overweening behavior. Were these characters able to unite and think of unconventional strategies for countering Berkeley’s dominance, the LRDP might develop enough literary conflict to create something resembling a plot. The resolution of this struggle might lead to constructive change for Berkeley and her community. But instead, without having to adapt to her surroundings, Berkeley continues to grow in physical size only; in all aspects of character—morality, honesty, decency, empathy, integrity—she remains as puny and bankrupt as ever, or even more so.
There is only one character in the entire LRDP that might have any power or authority to mold Berkeley into a good community citizen, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). But rather than exploring the potential creative power of this character, the LRDP uses CEQA only as a literary formula, structuring the story around the requirements imposed on Berkeley by CEQA, and essentially posing the question: Will Berkeley be able to outwit, outplay, and outlast CEQA, thereby taking home the big prize without ever having to introspect or modify her behavior? The answer is, predictably, “yes.” Because instead of allowing a real challenge to materialize, the authors manipulate the outcome in Berkeley’s favor by making CEQA a weak actor. Were the authors to characterize CEQA properly, Berkeley would have a run for her money, and be better off for it.
As all readers of the LRDP series know, the only reason Berkeley is able to continue her arrogant, self-centered, and tyrannical behavior is that she was, at birth, endowed with magical powers that allow her to disobey all rules of civil behavior without consequence. Her previous abuses of power seem mere practice for the devastation a bigger and bolder Berkeley now prepares to inflict on her surroundings. Although she is now well over 100 years old, Berkeley seems to have learned nothing; she seeks only to gratify her own desires and gives no more consideration to others than does any petulant pre-teen. This disappointing character development indicates that the authors have remained as immature as their heroine.
In fact, the only interesting theme of the book floats ironically beneath the awareness of its authors: namely, that while the LRDP purports to be a tale of heroic accomplishment, to all discerning readers it is in fact a classic tragedy. Because underlying Berkeley’s apparent success is her own internal moral collapse, along with the destruction of her own (unacknowledged) support system—the community around her. However, most people who have followed Berkeley’s career don’t need 1000 pages of reading between the lines to learn this. The tragic consequences of manifest destiny, for both protagonist and victim, are no secret.
Sharon Hudson is a member of Benvenue Neighbors.ˇ