Viewpoints

Thanks Berkeley, California’s scapegoat

Anti- and pro-Trump supporters clash April 15 at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley, which has become a center for protesters from across the political spectrum.
Anti- and pro-Trump supporters clash April 15 at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley, which has become a center for protesters from across the political spectrum. Bay Area News Group

Thank you, Berkeley.

Recent headlines should remind us Californians of how lucky our state is to have a world-class scapegoat – you.

Our most distinguished public university serves as a punching bag for angry people of many ideological preoccupations. The right and the center routinely pin all of California’s liberal sins, real and imagined, on you. And the left sees a reactionary threat in everything – your fundraising, police action on or near campus, the presence of law professor John Yoo, who justified torture under President George W. Bush.

Yes, California as a whole takes a lot of critical blows. But can you imagine how much more bloodied the rest of our state would be if we didn’t have you around to absorb so much abuse?

In recent months, as a furious world chokes on its own populist vomit, it’s been reassuring to see you play your familiar role as California’s sacrificial lamb. First, you suffered widespread condemnation from President Donald Trump and the media for your decision to cancel a speech by the Breitbart News provocateur Milo Yiannopoulous after violence flared. Then you and Berkeley police patiently dealt with pro-Trump provocateurs who held rallies near campus to start fights with anti-Trump protestors. And most recently, you’ve taken fire from the left for letting right-wing diva Ann Coulter speak on campus, before you got roasted by the right for canceling her appearance because you couldn’t guarantee her safety.

You can’t win any of these fights, of course, which is what makes you so valuable to Californians. We should be grateful to you for keeping so many cranks focused on you, and away from our own neighborhoods and campuses.

I can’t help but recall the work of the late philosopher Rene Girard, a professor at your rival Stanford who wrote that modern society was addicted to scapegoating in part because it brings people together and reduces the breadth of violence. “When human groups divide and become fragmented, during a period of malaise and conflicts, they may come to a point where they are reconciled again at the expense of a victim,” he wrote.

Indeed, you, as California’s great scapegoat, are a protector of many vulnerable people. Just look around at the rest of the country and the world, where elected leaders and voters are scapegoating whole classes of people – migrants, Muslims, Mexicans. We haven’t had the same level of scapegoating in California, and one reason for that is you take such a heavy helping of the racists’ rage.

You’re such a good scapegoat because you’ve had so much practice. Ronald Reagan built the most successful American political career of the last half-century on scapegoating you. He ran for governor declaring he would clean up “the mess at Berkeley” and made you a leading symbol of “a leadership gap and a morality and decency gap” in the country. In 1969, he sent the National Guard to deal with unrest around People’s Park.

Pretty much every governor since then has taken swipes, both rhetorical and budgetary, at you. Today legislators blame you for higher education’s problems – you charge too much and admit too many out-of- state students – even though it’s the Legislature’s systematic disinvestment in universities that forced you and other UCs to pocket more of those higher, out-of-state tuitions.

If I were you, on the business end of so much blame-shifting, I’d be tempted to point out that Berkeley isn’t all that different from other big public universities. But you won’t make this argument because you know that perception is reality. After all, that was a central insight of Bishop George Berkeley, the Irish philosopher for whom you are named. Berkeley claimed that even the objects we see in the world are really just ideas, made real only by the minds of those who perceive them.

Since the scapegoating of Berkeley is about your critics and not you, there’s not much you can do about it, except steel yourself for more.

Girard, the Stanford philosopher, argued that as humans experience more identity-based conflict, scapegoating increases. “We easily see now that scapegoats multiply wherever human groups seek to lock themselves into a given identity – communal, local, national, ideological, racial, religious, and so on,” he wrote.

I’m sorry, Berkeley. Times being how they are, California is going to need you to shoulder even more blame.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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