Back to Berkeley
Max Boot, alumnus.
Mar 31, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 28 • By MAX BOOT
ANTIWAR CROWDS are taking to the streets in London and Madrid, Washington, and San Francisco. But what about Ground Zero? No, not New York. That's Ground Zero for terrorism. I mean Berkeley, California, Ground Zero for antiwar sentiment.
Ever since Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement electrified the nation in 1964, this city has been famous for its protests against anything and everything. Berkeleyites have marched against apartheid, the contras, sweatshops, plans to build on People's Park, and CIA plots to water down their lattés. Okay, I made that one up.
Wars waged by the United States hold a special place in its residents' antipathies. (No one seems to mind military action by any other nation.) During the first Gulf War, when I was a student journalist at UC Berkeley, I remember covering several "No Blood for Oil" rallies.
Arriving here on the eve of another Gulf War, I expected the natives to be pretty restless. And sure enough, there was a substantial turnout of students on Sproul Plaza, the main campus gathering spot. They were well-organized, and they were buttonholing passers-by to plead their case. But these longhairs weren't protesting the war. They were longhairs of a different sort: sorority girls in tummy-baring outfits selling daffodils for charity.
It took some work to find signs of antiwar discontent. Just off campus, a grungy, middle-aged man sat behind a folding table with a large sign that said "F-- Bush, F-- the War." The students hurrying by didn't pay him much heed; they're used to the crazy street people who populate the area, some of whom look like they haven't bathed since I graduated more than a decade ago.
The times, they are a'changing here in Berzerkeley. This became clear during chats with officers and students of Berkeley's Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, which sponsored a couple of my lectures. With the shutdown of numerous military installations around the Bay Area--Treasure Island, Alameda Naval Air Station, the Presidio--the Berkeley ROTC is one of the armed forces' few remaining outposts in the region. Students come here from as far away as Stanford and Davis for their training.
The midshipmen walk around campus in their smart uniforms, which make quite a contrast with the torn jeans and T-shirts favored by most students. But these larval officers report that they never get harassed by their fellow students. When I was a student, there was a lot of agitation about getting the "Rot-Sees" off campus. But recently there's been only one rally in front of the ROTC building, and the protesters were not from the university but from Berkeley High School--probably offspring of some of the 1960s relics who continue to call this area home.
I gave a couple of public lectures here advocating liberal imperialism; their theme ought to be familiar to WEEKLY STANDARD readers. I expected that such hawkish talk would draw hordes of antiwar protesters, like Deadheads to marijuana brownies. Just a decade ago, conservative speakers routinely were booed down and sent packing.
Not this time. There were, to be sure, a few skeptics in the audience. One bearded wise guy punctuated one of my speeches with loud snorts to signal his contempt. Another genius demanded to know the difference between Iraq and Israel. Weren't they both violating U.N. resolutions? Both critics, I noted, were from the Geritol set. The bulk of the audience, however, was made up of students--not all of them in the ROTC, either--and they were as polite as can be. They came to learn, not to score points.
My feelings were hurt. Was I too unimportant to draw protests? But then I thought back to the first Gulf War, when as an insignificant columnist for The Daily Californian I had the campus in an uproar with my articles supporting American military action. I once even got a bullet in the mail that had my name on it, literally. I haven't changed much, but Berkeley certainly has.
The contrast was brought home to me on Telegraph Avenue, the spiritual heart of the hippie culture. Sure enough, there was a stand selling tie-dyed T-shirts. As a nostalgic alumnus, I even bought some--and noted that the woman who took my money wasn't some stoned hippie. She was a polite Korean matron who would have looked equally at home selling vegetables. I doubt she'll be attending any antiwar rallies--unless it's to boost sales.
I almost miss the old Berkeley, now as dated as a Jefferson Airplane LP, though it left some tasty relics behind. For instance, there's Alice Waters's world-class restaurant, Chez Panisse, where I ordered dinner off "A Menu for Peace." Well, if consuming $8.75 baked Sonoma goat cheese and $18.75 fried quail constitutes a protest against the war, then sign me up. And don't forget the groovy Zinfandel.