Blogbeat: Whose Berkeley Is It, Anyway?

By Thomas Lord
Tuesday June 15, 2010 - 01:25:00 PM

Reading lots of blogs, so that you don’t have to.
This week’s theme: Berkeley’s political polarizations.
This week’s items: wrapping up (for now) on Measure C and the controversial Rose St. project, a Berkeley psychologist “diagnosis” of President Obama, and Berkeley High School student leadership team election problems. 


Liberal Berkeley? 

About twenty three years ago I was getting ready for my first trip to the Bay Area and my first visit to Berkeley. I was confident that I already knew Berkeley and San Francisco fairly well, just from their reputation in my small East coast city. My expectation was this:In San Francisco, homophobia had been eliminated. In Berkeley, most young people wore tie dye or other hippy garb. Most afternoons brought well attended protest rallies for left wing causes. Meanwhile, the university itself housed some of the most exciting and optimistic computer science research anywhere, in fields of particular interest to me.(My own political views, at the time, were about as sophisticated as these expectations.) 


My hosts for part of the visit,a well-off and well-regarded gay couple a number of years older than me, were gentle in bringing me more up to speed. The Pride Parade was that weekend and we went.I was on a mostly-vegetarian kick and so a lovely dinner at Green’s was in the agenda. I was encouraged to explore for myself Telegraph Ave. (which, back then, was in far better economic shape). This was the Bay Area? I was finding it even better than I’d expected! 


They also began the process of gently letting me down. After teaching me how to use BART so that I could visit The City on my own some advice was offered about how to avoid being “fag bashed”. When we encountered a mentally ill person carefully and inexplicably laying out raw meat on a sidewalk they explained that they knew that person’s particular sad story (the gist of which was having been all but abandoned to Berkeley’s tolerant environment by a wealthy family who’d had enough). At one point the evening conversation turned to politics and the topic of entitlement programs. I put forward the proposition of fairly radical (even for the left of that time) expansions of entitlements. One of my hosts quipped “Oh, so you’re a fascist!” as he whipped out his wallet to show me that he was, indeed, a card-carrying member of the Republican party. Finally, of course, they revealed that the computer science research that most interested me was being shut down, the researchers having mostly moved on to found huge Silicon Valley companies or make a comfortable living from past investments. 

The Mythical Lines that Divide

It was not many years later that I moved to Berkeley and began to, well, learn my place in the local order, at least as it was commonly described. As a somewhat chameleon fan of both high society and the People’s Park crowd of the time I was often regaled by rehearsals of each group’s mutual disdain for the others. Reading the newspapers of the day I was taught that there are the Hills People and the Flats people (a distinction recorded even in some aspects of the City Ordinances). I learned that our elected officials were either naive socialist hold-outs from the radical days (some of whom hold office to this present day) or else they were pro-developer, anti-poor-person scoundrels. At least that’s how each described the other. As a renter I was informed by some that I was a scourge on all property owners and by others as the victim of a relentless oppression by evil landlords. 


All of those polarizations have more than grain of truth to them, and more than enough that is plenty wrong with them. The People’s Park of that day was boisterous but generally safe and offered communally given social services (such as Hate Man’s evening camp for wayward teens). High society contained thoughtful and contributing conservatives and liberals alike. The economic distinctions between Hills and Flats was starting to fade even then, a trend that seems to be continuing.Some landlords are bad, some are great and the same is true of tenants. Even our elected officials are not quite so easy to cubbyhole as the stereotypes would have it. 



Examining the Modern Discourse 

Does retaining the myth of these lines of divide help to simplify communicating legitimate political messages? Or does it get in the way of becoming more informed voters and participants in the political process? Perhaps the blogosphere sheds some insight. 


Two case studies can be found on good ol’ discussions about Measure C and about the controversial house (or is that “house”) proposed for Rose St. (and now part of a lawsuit against the City). It is the comments – the discussion among Berkeleyans – that are particularly revealing. 


On Measure C, for example, one commenter remarks: “And, of course, renters love this bond because they get to steal other peoples’ money to pay for their recreation.” That’s a factually dubious statement in more than one way but it certainly does play to the “renter” / “owner” divide. (See:


The other side is capable of being little better:“Berkeley could do much better without organizations like Berkeley Can do Better. Do you drink lots of tea at your meetings. Sheesh.” (See:


So, it’s freeloaders (renters) vs. tea baggers (mainly owners). 


Many posts in those and similar threads do try to consider more objective facts – to deeply understand the measure one way or the other – but these are often lost in the noise. Worse, attempts to examine the objective facts too often result into each side accusing the other of lying, with few stepping in to sort it out in depth and from a neutral position. 


The debate over the Rose St. project spurred similar polarization.Says one: “. . . are you each rich? I think perhaps you are, which might explain why you take a position that seems to favor giving privileges to rich people just because they are rich.” Says another:“That hilarious whiff of ‘Animal Farm’ angst in their postings (Pitching a battle of the rich versus the righteous…well…less rich?) shows how deeply unconscious their imagined entitlements and self righteousness have become.”Neither comment has much basis in reality.The main dispute is between the wealthy and the other wealthy (and the City) over whether or not the project proposal was properly approved. Yet, in Berkeley politics, it is apparently convenient (or at least habitual) to fit the issues into some pre-existing framework of class warfare.(See:



You Do Know Everyone Can See Us? 

Berkeley’s odd and tired lines of political polarization have significant impact outside of Berkeley.They affect the City’s reputation and, more important, they become a tool for both sides in political debates of national significance. 

I originally thought to use (complete with links) some examples of how the blogosphere – especially the conservative blogosphere – got such mileage out of Berkeley’s scolding of Marine recruiters in a class with Code Pink and City Council. This past week brought a fresher example: 

A Berkeley blogger who goes by the name of Robin of Berkeley describes herself as a “recovering liberal”. In a recent post Robin, a psychotherapist, asks “What’s Wrong with Obama” offering a number of potential diagnoses ranging from Asperger’s Syndrome to schizotypal disorder to an antisocial personality perhaps brought on by a history of childhood sexual abuse. Her remarkably authoritative and yet poorly argued analysis concludes on a practical note: “It means that liberals need to wake up and spit out the Kool-Aid...and that conservatives should put aside differences, band together, and elect as many Republicans as possible.” Well, of course it does.(See:

Such a screed would be unremarkable were it not for the attention it has started to get among right wing blogs.I might not have noticed Robin’s note had there not been so many others picking up on it and adding voices of “Right on Robin”. What I want to point out here is how Berkeley’s internal political polarizations help to feed that phenomenon. As one fan of Robin’s latest post cited his earlier comment to another post of hers: “There is hope for the world when a Berkeley radical leftist comes to her senses and embraces (portions at least) of conservatism.”(See:



It’s the Institution, You Say? 

Not every line of political polarization in Berkeley is unquestioned habit from earlier times.Of course, quite a bit of it is genuinely built-in to how we run things. As a simple example, the City and its unions are sometimes, through the structure of laws and contracts, in genuinely adversarial positions. 

Berkeley High School students got a taste of such structural divides in the “May 4-6 election conventionto determine members of the 2010-2011 student leadership team,” reports the BHS Jacket. While disputes over the election stand resolved, the Jacket describes allegations of a number of attempts by teachers to improperly influence the outcome. Allegations come from both sides of the institutionalized small schools and academic choice divide. “Student Activities Director Chris Young indicated that there had been action taken by some Academic Choice teachers to “influence the vote to favor AC candidates,” reports the Jacket.“In addition to this issue, staff and students spoke out against uneven small school representation among the elected students and in the delegate pool.” 

Apparently, the Jacket also reports, work on a new student body constitution is aimed at helping to repair this institutionalized divide.(See:



There are two kinds of people:those who draw oversimplified lines of political polarization and those who don’t. Just sayin’. 

That’s all for this week.Please be in touch: