Web Exclusives: Tooke's Take
a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: cwtooke@princeton.edu)

October 24, 2001:
It Ain't Easy Being Green
Our columnist investigates protests, bad hair days, and assorted foolishness

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 speeches.

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.


You can reach Wes at cwtooke@princeton.edu