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Missing the Point
By H. Scott Prosterman
People who choose to move to Berkeley are aware of the importance of our
local history as it has impacted global trends. As a Michigan grad, I'm
especially proud of the connection between Ann Arbor and Berkeley for their
parallel traditions of academic excellence and positive activism. The Free
Speech Movement began as an organic movement in Berkeley in reaction to the
last days of the HUAC ugliness-possibly the ugliest chapter in domestic
American history. But some historians ask if the FSM would have been as
dynamic or effective as it has been without the support it drew from
Students for a Democratic Society, which began two years earlier in Ann
Arbor under Tom Hayden. I was proud to follow in Hayden's footsteps in Ann
Arbor as a campus leader and point-man activist for important causes.
Berkeley has a grand and rich tradition of activism-for the city, the school
and the community.
I come from a tradition of political activism that goes way back in my
family. Jews from the South had a special role in the civil rights movement,
the labor movement and in this nation's history of progressive politics. I'm
deeply proud of having become Bar Mitzvah in Memphis just weeks after MLK
was killed in my hometown. My rabbi, James A. Wax, helped to complete King's
work in Memphis after his demise. Before King was killed, and before I
became Bar Mitzvah, I marched with the Memphis Sanitation Workers and held
an "I AM A MAN" sign. My mother was president of the Memphis School Board
when they initiated school desegregation ("busing") and took some nasty heat
for it. By extension, so did I, so a large part of my life is invested in
Now I see how elements of the progressive movement have become deeply
counterproductive to our agendas, and how the downside of liberalism has
begun the process of self-consumption. There are two disturbing dynamics
1) The downside of liberalism-protecting the wrong people for the wrong
2) Misdirected efforts and counterproductive leadership within the
The UC system is spiraling deep in a financial crisis, precipitated by bad
government, bad economics and bad management. To an extent, the financial
problems with UC and the entire state rest with the "Smartest Guys in the
Room"-Enron. This state has not recovered from the grand larceny committed
against every citizen of California by Enron. They set the stage for Gov.
Grey Davis' impeachment and brought us Arnold and his Republican populism.
And what was Arnold's first populist act as governor-to end the license
plate fee. Adding it up over the past five years, that's several billion
dollars the state could use right now.
The Regents have acted harshly in raising tuition and fees for students,
knowing that this squelches the dream of a UC or CSU education for many. As
such, the protests since last month have been welcome and warranted. As an
old-time Ann Arbor activist, it warmed my heart to stand in support with the
students outside Wheeler Hall last month. I have also helped the vendors at
the ASUC Bear's Lair call attention to their plight with unfair lease terms,
which seem designed to drive them out of business. And I was there to make a
visible objection with these merchants when the ASUC brass brought in
prospective tenants to show the property. So I support the efforts to hold
the Regents and UC Administration accountable for their various cold and
mean-spirited actions against the students, staff, custodial workers,
vendors and teaching assistants, who deserve better deals.
However, the recent vandalism directed against the home of Chancellor
Birgeneau and his family is a grossly misplaced and self-destructive
expression. First, Mary Catherine Birgeneau is a very nice woman and has
nothing to do with objectionable decisions. Destruction of any architectural
gem, which the University House certainly is, is a shocking waste and an
expression of gross ignorance. Many thoughtful people are full of righteous
indignation these days-this is the most effective weapon we have against
selfish, draconian and right-wing politics. (The tuition and fee hikes are a
manifestation of this.) By destroying property, which is also a private
residence, we cede the righteous indignation to the other side and lose our
most effective weapon.
H. Scott Prosterman holds an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the
University of Michigan. He frequently publishes humor and political
commentary in a variety of publications and websites.