Sunday, February 16, 2014

Berkeley's Reputation Mis-Reads What Was Novel about the '60s

The University of California at Berkeley won the reputation that has dogged or adorned it—depending on your perspective—for decades with the Free Speech Movement, anti-Vietnam War, and Civil Rights protests of the 1960s and 1970s.  The protests associated with those causes gave a harder, political edge to an institution already known across the country for its academic excellence.  The protests catapulted a B-actor best known for doing commercials and snitching on his colleagues to the Governorship of what had recently become the most populous state in the union and, thereafter the Presidency.  The protests helped to revitalise the Republican Party by providing it with a narrative about something supposedly wrong with American culture.

Ronald Reagan famously whined about “beatniks, radicals and filthy speech advocates”, joining with J Edgar Hoover to paint a picture in the mind of the public of students as uncouth, ungrateful, ill-informed, and destructive.  Their behaviour, Reagan suggested in the campaign that propelled him to an electoral victory over Pat Brown—probably the greatest booster of the state in its history—was gratuitous and emblematic of an indulgent generation who had wandered away from the moral rectitude of their predecessors.  The smears that he and the FBI director cooked up (the subject of Seth Rosenfeld’s book Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power) downplayed the political nature of the student movements and focussed on the supposedly aberrant and riotous behaviour of students in the 1960s.

But evidence suggests that disorder on campus was nothing new.  Rosenfeld’s book describes an episode known as “the great panty raid” wherein 3,000 members of fraternities rampaged from one sorority to the next “while groups of them forced their way inside, ransacked bedrooms, and grabbed undergarments.  In all, twenty-six women’s living quarters were invaded, and some doors and windows were broken.  One woman repelled the intruders with a hot iron, and hysterical phone calls lit up the police switchboard”.  The police took it all very casually, and the administration—perhaps foreshadowing the reprehensibly casual attitude of today’s administration toward sexual assault—accepted assurances that no real physical harm had been done, merely $12,000 in property damage (Rosenfeld 60-61). 

Rosenfeld remarks that such outbursts and the massive property damage associated with them were regular occurrences at Berkeley.  John Kenneth Galbraith, who spent some of the 1930s in Berkeley, recalled “walking along Piedmont at night [and hearing] the shouts of laughter from within [the fraternities], or occasional bits of song or what Evelyn Waugh correctly described as the most evocative and nostalgic of all the sounds of an aristocracy at play, the crash of breaking glass” (Galbraith in Berkeley! A Literary Tribute 52). 

This was Berkeley before the post-war democratisation of higher education, which took some time to alter the social, economic, and racial homogeneity of the University which had long functioned as a club for the children of elites.  What it proves is that it was not so much the “disorder” associated with the sixties that upset the likes of Reagan and Hoover as it was the change in formerly quiescent students’ politics.  It was one thing for students to scream and yell, light bonfires in the streets, assault young women, and destroy property if they were just working off what was regarded as good adolescent steam.  Boys, after all, will be boys, went the view.  What was less palatable was when some of those boys, and girls, too, started to make noise with a purpose.  Worse still, when that purpose threatened the social, economic, and political status quo of the state. 

And so the very behaviour which a generation earlier had been “condoned and even admired” by alumni and the faculty according to Galbraith (52), was suddenly very frightening to the political right whose offspring had formerly dominated the university.  It had to be redefined without reference to the students’ actual political claims—that would have allowed them to build bridges to the wider community which was equally affected by the political witch hunts, the war in Vietnam, and the drift away from social democracy. 

Rather, students’ behaviour had to be redefined in a way which destroyed their legitimacy, tarred their personal character, and suggested that they, rather than the fast-rising political right, were the ones posing a threat to the American way of life.  And so Ronald Reagan colluded with the FBI to do precisely that, and he launched waves of cheap, mean-spirited assaults on Governor Pat Brown and President Clark Kerr, two essentially decent men who took seriously the welfare of students in their charge.

Not so Ronald Reagan, who eagerly gave orders for police and National Guard military units to escalate violence on campus, effectively waging war on California’s youth for having the temerity to take to heart the University’s injunctions to political liberty and their own hard-won freedom of expression.  Students fell to the truncheons, guns, and tear gas of the forces of “law and order”, who hadn’t ever bothered to turn out when 3,000 students were launching what amounted to a mass sexual assault just a few years earlier. 

And Kerr and Brown fell to Reagan’s savage, scorched-earth brand of politics, and the illegal methods of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, ushering to a close the era of consensus about the value of California’s public institutions. 

In his reflections on  his Berkeley years, Galbraith described as “a singular accomplishment of American higher education” the “control system” operating at American universities—public and private alike.  That structure “subtly suggested that whatever the students most wanted to do—i.e. devote themselves to football, basketball, fraternities, college tradition, rallies, hell-raising, a sentimental concern for the old alma mater and imaginative inebriation—was what they should do”, because “some deeper adult instinct suggested [that this behaviour] was a surrogate for something worse” (Galbraith 52).

Something like applying the things they learned in their studies to the world around them, finding that world sadly wanting, and advocating for political change.

Today, in addition to the attractions of the Big Game and the Thursday night parties, students are relentlessly warned that they should devote every moment of their time to their studies—and not one second of that to any contemplation of the relationship between their studies and the politics in which the university, their disciplines, or their future work might be embedded.  Those things are “someone else’s fight”, preferably someone who is old and grey and cynical and conditioned to ask “How high?” when the vested interests of the world tell him or her to jump.    

Protest, idealism, and politics...these things, students are subliminally instructed, are for naive dreamers who will never change the world.  To want to be good is to aspire to weakness and irrelevance, and therefore to fail.  Better, they are told, is a ruthless application of the technocratic skills increasingly emphasised at the University, to mow down problems facing their generation as they prepare to assume greater responsibility for our state, our nation, or the world.  Those skills, the story goes, can be applied without reference to political and moral frameworks.

Today, political consciousness at the University of California’s first campus smoulders rather than rages.  But in spite of the beatings meted out by campus and city police over the years, and through all the decades of attacks on the motives and character of the University’s students, and although the myths about the change represented by the 1960s protests spite of all these things, there are some students at Berkeley and elsewhere in the University of California who understand what it means to participate in a democratic, public system of higher education and are prepared to act on the injunctions the existence of such institutions provide them to act in a political and moral fashion on the world around them.

Fiat Lux


Galbraith, John Kenneth, “Berkeley in the Thirties” in Danielle La France, ed. Berkeley! A Literary Tribute.  Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1997.

Rosenfeld, Seth, Subversives: the FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.  New York: Picador, 2013.

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