Public Comment

Commentary: Musings on an Identity Crisis

By Joan Levinson
Friday August 18, 2006



I’m having an identity crisis as I sort out how to think about our political world. I’ve always thought of myself as a progressive lefty. At this moment I am becoming an anachronism. Not a vibrant label. 

Being a progressive means, for me, an adherent of bedrock American values—equal rights for everyone, legal justice and fairness, a continuous if zigzag march toward ever wider distribution of the national wealth. Government has been the main artery for facilitating that progress. Portions of that wealth have traditionally been dedicated to projects for the common good. Basic tenets of the U.S.A., right? Lately—wrong.  

The tide has turned, and the business of life is now slanted in one direction only. That other early goal—individual wealth—has moved to center stage. We’re finding ourselves in one of those recurrent cycles of “grab all you can get and get it now.”  

Money uber alles. 

But not for all of us. Just those who are economically well placed and have a head start—selective individualism writ large. Gone is the concern for others—whether American others or Afghan others. Where has all our concern for humans gone? 

It’s almost getting hard to remember that so recently so many of us were members of the brigades of change. We worked on many fronts right here in town—ending the Vietnam war, poverty, health, women’s equality, schools, elders, employment fairness, inclusiveness. We believed in the changes we were making and the process of making them. The moment was propitious. The culture had, unexpectedly, become expansive, experimental, full of hope. There was movement because of the multiple “movements” that had broken ground for change; “Here Comes the Sun” was the theme music.  

And it was fun too, even getting laws passed, partly because we were working together in truly cooperative ways pooling our knowedge and skills. There was minimal competition because, for the moment, the hoped for result was far more important to us than our individual egos. Many of us were thoroughly and deeply ‘at home’ in trying to make changes. And the parties, the music that helped to fuel us, the late night dancing into the dawn ... the feeling of being joyous AND doing good in our small world. 

We can’t bring back the spirit of the sixties and seventies which we found so morally “right.” It was a good run. Nobody could have imagined such a moment coming out of the grim realities of the Vietnam war, the uphill battle of the long civil rights movement, the narrow conformity of the 1950’s. 

That was then, and this is now. All such periods of intense excitement and change—a wider way of thinking and being —are short-lived. They are a true ‘high’ and the intoxication of those who help create them or even just live through them neither lasts nor disappears.  

So we in Berkeley are living in a deep deep post-high nostalgia which we love and nourish and want to talk about in order to preserve it if only in words.  

We don’t want our physical/psychic landscape to alter, so against all odds we resist. We try to save our cityscape of two-story houses, book stores, green spaces, historical places, artists’ space, small post offices. We point to hazards like radioactivity in Strawberry Creek, in our library books and cell phone towers, industrial smoke stink. Once in a while we have a victory—sometimes it’s real, sometimes it isn’t. 

We write heated letters to the editor, we picket unfair labor practices, we badger city commissions, we shout indignantly at City Council meetings. We listen to Dylan and Judy and Joan and Mick albums to remind us it was all real. Disheartened, we predict Doom. 

Our previously progressive politicos make alliances with builders throwing up too tall, too ugly, too expensive apartment buildings on every bit of open ground. Or they form public relations businesses and serve as skilled spokesmen for industry or institutional bureaucracies. Who can judge them? That’s where the action is-- and the money. There’s no immediate livelihood in having their too liberal ideas and trying to change the world. 

From the fifites’ civil rights movement to the anti-apartheid campaign of the eighties the quest for human betterment drove the engine of change. Like the train that goes backward in the railyard, the mean mood in the country is rapidly narrowing our scope of action. We try to shore up the remnants of what was good. Small fingers in large dykes.  

So my identity has become Conserver. I have become a true conservative—save the good parts. Work around current reality. Look for cracks in the walls. 


Joan Levinson is a sporadic activist.