Public Comment

Missing the Point

By H. Scott Prosterman
Thursday December 17, 2009 - 08:43:00 AM

People who choose to move to Berkeley are aware of the importance of our local history as it has impacted global trends. As a Michigan grad, I’m especially proud of the connection between Ann Arbor and Berkeley for their parallel traditions of academic excellence and positive activism. The Free Speech Movement began as an organic movement in Berkeley in reaction to the last days of the HUAC ugliness—possibly the ugliest chapter in domestic American history. But some historians ask if the FSM would have been as dynamic or effective as it has been without the support it drew from Students for a Democratic Society, which began two years earlier in Ann Arbor under Tom Hayden. I was proud to follow in Hayden’s footsteps in Ann Arbor as a campus leader and point-man activist for important causes. 

Berkeley has a grand and rich tradition of activism—for the city, the school and the community. 

I come from a tradition of political activism that goes way back in my family. Jews from the South had a special role in the civil rights movement, the labor movement and in this nation’s history of progressive politics. I’m deeply proud of having become Bar Mitzvah in Memphis just weeks after MLK was killed in my hometown. My rabbi, James A. Wax, helped to complete King’s work in Memphis after his demise. Before King was killed, and before I became Bar Mitzvah, I marched with the Memphis Sanitation Workers and held an “I AM A MAN” sign. My mother was president of the Memphis School Board when they initiated school desegregation (“busing”) and took some nasty heat for it. By extension, so did I, so a large part of my life is invested in progressive politics. 

Now I see how elements of the progressive movement have become deeply counterproductive to our agendas, and how the downside of liberalism has begun the process of self-consumption. There are two disturbing dynamics here: 

1) The downside of liberalism—protecting the wrong people for the wrong reasons. 

2) Misdirected efforts and counterproductive leadership within the progressive community. 

The UC system is spiraling deep in a financial crisis, precipitated by bad government, bad economics and bad management. To an extent, the financial problems with UC and the entire state rest with the “Smartest Guys in the Room”—Enron. This state has not recovered from the grand larceny committed against every citizen of California by Enron. They set the stage for Gov. Grey Davis’ impeachment and brought us Arnold and his Republican populism. And what was Arnold’s first populist act as governor—to end the license plate fee. Adding it up over the past five years, that’s several billion dollars the state could use right now. 

The Regents have acted harshly in raising tuition and fees for students, knowing that this squelches the dream of a UC or CSU education for many. As such, the protests since last month have been welcome and warranted. As an old-time Ann Arbor activist, it warmed my heart to stand in support with the students outside Wheeler Hall last month. I have also helped the vendors at the ASUC Bear’s Lair call attention to their plight with unfair lease terms, which seem designed to drive them out of business. And I was there to make a visible objection with these merchants when the ASUC brass brought in prospective tenants to show the property. So I support the efforts to hold the Regents and UC Administration accountable for their various cold and mean-spirited actions against the students, staff, custodial workers, vendors and teaching assistants, who deserve better deals. 

However, the recent vandalism directed against the home of Chancellor Birgeneau and his family is a grossly misplaced and self-destructive expression. First, Mary Catherine Birgeneau is a very nice woman and has nothing to do with objectionable decisions. Destruction of any architectural gem, which the University House certainly is, is a shocking waste and an expression of gross ignorance. Many thoughtful people are full of righteous indignation these days—this is the most effective weapon we have against selfish, draconian and right-wing politics. (The tuition and fee hikes are a manifestation of this.) By destroying property, which is also a private residence, we cede the righteous indignation to the other side and lose our most effective weapon. 


H. Scott Prosterman holds an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan. He frequently publishes humor and political commentary in a variety of publications and websites.