a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
It Ain't Easy Being Green
Our columnist investigates protests, bad hair days, and assorted
By Wes Tooke '98
On October 8, while the
rest of the country was quietly observing Columbus Day, the city
of Berkeley celebrated Indigenous People's Day. Apparently local
voters decided a few years ago that honoring the first genocidal
white European to pilfer these unspoiled shores was a little bit
like having Europe and central Asia dedicate a holiday to the memory
of Genghis Khan. (Actually, given that the horde consisted mostly
of "persons of color," the Mongols would probably get
off pretty lightly in Berkeley.)
But on this particular
Indigenous People's Day, the local activists had a bigger castle
to charge than poor Columbus. The United States had just dropped
the first bombs on Afghanistan, thereby declaring war on both the
harborers of terrorists and the People's Pacifist Republic of Berkeley.
And so the great unwashed emerged from their hippie huts and VW
vans to once again engage in the noble fight against American imperialism.
The first protest of
the day - oh yes, there was more than one protest - took place in
the center of the University of California campus. To roughly, but
not grossly, generalize, the protesters fit neatly into four groups:
1) A pack of graying
hippies, most of whom smell like a roach that someone left in his
gym bag for twenty or thirty years, singing - this is no joke -
"Kumbaya" while accompanied by a guy on a banjo.
2) Fifty exceptionally
angry college-aged Nader voters alternately screaming "One,
two, three, four, we don't want your racist war; five, seven, eight,
stop the violence, stop the hate," and giving short, ill-informed
3) A group of embryonic
supply-side Republicans (a.k.a. white, well-groomed males) holding
a counter-protest and chanting "support our troops" and
"freedom isn't free."
4) Two of everything.
And I mean everything. Two Israelis. Two Palestinians. Two Sunnis.
Two Shias. Two Yankee fans. Two Red Sox fans. Two cats. Two dogs.
All carrying flags; all chanting something incoherent.
As far as I could tell,
the reaction of the average Cal student to this remarkable pastiche
was to wander through the protest at a speed fast enough to allow
him or her to dodge the blizzard of pamphlets being pushed by every
political party under the sun. The few unaffiliated students who
really registered the protest at all usually stopped just long enough
to survey the scene, mutter something under their breath that generally
sounded like "re-frigging-diculous," and then continued
on their way.
After having lived in
Berkeley for a year, that reaction seems perfectly reasonable to
me. After all, people in this town protest when the price of electricity
goes up, when the price of being rich goes down, when the number
of minorities on TV is too low, when the number of conservative
columnists on talk radio is too high... basically, whenever the
proletariat is feeling especially ornery or bored.
And that is the problem
with the political culture in Berkeley. The same people go to all
the protests, and those people feel so marginalized in American
society that they frame everything in black and white. The individual
arguments that I overheard after the protest between the embryonic
Republicans and the anti-war crowd were nothing more than screaming
matches where neither side bothered to even pretend to listen. There
is no political debate in Berkeley; only bullhorns.
So when I think of President
Tilghman's quaintly charming statement that Princeton needs more
kids with green hair, I wonder what she means. Does she want the
kind of person with green hair who can still stomach a dinner at
Ivy, or does she want a Berkeley green? I always felt when I was
on campus that one of Princeton's great problems was our political
apathy, but I think the solution may be more complex than siphoning
off students from the Cal applicant pool. Because what happened
in Berkeley on Indigenous People's Day wasn't a debate or a dialogue
or even particularly interesting. It was just a lot of shouting.
And shouting, while perhaps a decent start, isn't the real solution
to Princeton's problems.
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