Editorial: The People Are Given More Bread, Bigger Circuses

By Becky O’Malley
Friday August 31, 2007

For openers, whining (or whinging, if you’re British). I very seldom try to take a whole week off, and even then I try to fill this space via e-mail if I can. In fact, the last time I tried this, I was in Oxford when the University of California at Berkeley suckered one of its devoted alumni into letting them off the hook on the City of Berkeley’s righteous lawsuit challenging just one of the university’s several mammoth expansion schemes which are proposed over the next 20 years. Planet reporters did a good job of covering the fireworks, but it would have been fun to see them close up. 

This week I’m visiting the grandkids, trying to relax in the country near Santa Cruz, and I get a phone call at 7 a.m. on Wednesday: “They’re going after the oaks!” Two of our four reporters also elected to take a vacation this week. It was supposed to be a quiet week, what with Berkeley councilmembers busily adding to their carbon footprint over the summer and the new semester on campus barely underway. Then, whammo, the sadly predictable university administration makes another dumb move. 

I happened to talk to a former mayor yesterday, and commenting on the university’s latest erection, she said “That’s no way to build trust”—the understatement of the week. I’ll leave it to your imagination which former mayor it was. 

What the university built instead, in case you’ve missed the news flash on the Planet’s website, is a big fence around the oak grove which is slated for destruction to build a gym/office complex for a sub-set of UC’s competive athletes and the bureaucrats who support them, chock-a-block with the football stadium. Why they built the fence depends on who you ask.  

On the one hand, the exemplary UC press release (I sometimes think the only cool heads on campus are in the press office) said: “As the football season begins with a home game on Saturday, Sept. 1, police and campus leadership want to ensure the safety of everyone—fans and protesters—coming and going around the area.” But the message doesn’t seem to have gotten to all of the troops, since UC police cut off and arrested, with on-camera bashing, some supporters who were trying to get basic necessities to the tree-sitters. “As long as the people in the trees are getting food, water and whatever contraband, they’re not going to get down,” assistant UC police chief Mitch Celaya told a Chronicle reporter. The whole ugly scene, complete with nasty skinhead cops with gas masks clubbing unarmed victims, has been captured on Youtube by LA Wood on the bcitizen website at www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKCY4MJuJeY> .  

Isn’t withholding food and water a violation of one of the Geneva Conventions? Not, of course, that it would matter to an institution which still employs John Yoo, the unapologetic author of the Bush adminstration’s torture policy, on its law school faculty. But as of press-time on Thursday the police seemed to have relented on this point, perhaps because a sizeable crowd which included a number of prominent persons had gathered at the grove on Wednesday to complain. 

As mentioned earlier, this paper has been on the receiving end of an organized letter-writing campaign from football fans of ever-diminishing literacy whose missives can be found on these pages. One would have thought that if they really are UC Berkeley’s alums the difference between fact and sentiment would have been part of their education, but evidently not. The location of the Hayward earthquake fault, for example, whether it’s under or simply next to the construction site, will be determined from scientific evidence if and when a proper environmental impact report (EIR) is completed. However the legal dispute in the four outstanding lawsuits is over whether a decent EIR has actually been done, and in particular whether the danger to those who will be on site when the Big One happens has been accurately analysed. The location of the fault itself is only a part of the calculus.  

Up until this point I’ve tried to be polite, but now it’s time to come out of the closet. I am one of the quite sizeable majority of graduates of elite universities who actively dislike all forms of professional football, including the so-called amateur teams fielded mostly by second-rate “athletic powerhouses.” People like me tend to regard the whole megilla as breeding ground for the Michael Vicks of the future. We are not thrilled that our alma mater has jumped on this bandwagon with big bucks.  

One pro-football letter-writer argued that “Frankly, the idea of the nation’s premier liberal university featuring a dominant football team would make Cal utterly unique in the college landscape.” My point, exactly.  

The writer does not seem to wonder why all the other top-ranked universities aren’t trying to compete with Cal on the football field, but there could be reasons, good reasons. Harvard, Caltech, Oxford—none of them are trying to become football champs. Why? 

(By the way, “unique” doesn’t take qualifiers. Cal Berkeley is unique, period, in this regard.)  

The United States is in danger of becoming a spectator society inhabited by people who can no longer play their own games or even make their own music. The millions and millions of dollars which are proposed for the Strawberry Canyon entertainment extravaganza should instead be spent making sure that all of us, especially our kids, have access to healthy exercise of all kinds, including team sports for those who enjoy them, but also hiking, dancing, swimming, ice skating and other individual pursuits which can be enjoyed into old age.  

We’ve run many letters pointing out that it’s harder and harder for kids to find places to play. Baseball fields are scarce and getting scarcer. The mayor and City Council allies are colluding with developers to demolish Iceland. Hourly rates for the new soccer fields (supported by public funds) are prohibitive. Even the drill team which provided hours of wholesome fun for the kids in San Pablo Park seems to be having fee problems. And this is in Berkeley—what’s happening in Oakland, Richmond, Vallejo? 

Thanks to the excellent education provided for me by the state of California in better days, the letters from some of the fans remind me of the Roman poet Juvenal’s often-quoted line about panem et circenses—bread and circuses. He lived in the late first and early second century A.D., at a time when the once mighty Roman empire was in decline. 

Roughly paraphased in modern language, his poem laments that in the old days no one could buy the people’s votes, but now they’ve given up their duties. They used to control everything, he says, the military, political office, everything, but now they only worry about two things, bread and circuses, commodities provided by the Roman government to keep down the grumbling. 

Sounds a lot like the Unites States today, another once-proud empire in decline, doesn’t it? For bread, read cheap energy, as promised by British Petroleum to justify its recent purchase at garage-sale rates of a major portion of what used to be the people’s university. But not to worry, the people, most of them, won’t be complaining. The university, funded by the major industrialists who now provide its entertainment budget, is going to build them an even fancier arena for the on-going circus that is top-tier college football these days. And meanwhile, Richard Cheney and his lackeys, including the putative president, are running the country, and the people are letting them do it as long as the bread and circuses keep on coming.