Berkeley Day: A Celebration of Truly Open Minds
by Tal Brooke
SCP Newsletter, AUTUMN 1999, Volume 24:1




A Celebration of

Truly Open Minds





On Sunday, September 26, Berkeley's festival of free expression started with a parade leading from Telegraph Avenue and People's Park down University Avenue to Courthouse Square. Like Earth Day and other multicultural and New Age fests hosted in the City of Berkeley, this event was packed on a typically hot sun-drenched Fall day (The festival the week before celebrated nudism at a be-in at People's Park). Howard Sterne would be right in his element strolling among fellow anarchists and watching goddess worshippers, wiccans, assorted neopagans, and the sexually ambiguous. The band on stage in Courthouse Square played screeching and mocking lyrics to the cheers of a packed crowd. The band members were transvestites in dayglo dresses and glorying in the moment.

Berkeley has always been unable to resist making a public statement, and it was doing so once again. The celebration was entitled, "How Berkeley Can You Get?" The answer was, "Not much more!" Because if things got much more "Berkeley" than this--really over the top--the entire city would need to be dragged off to a mental camp by an army of social workers in white coats carrying straightjackets. It would be remembered as one of Berkeley's many civic moments, a time of free expression and deeper understanding. Meanwhile, for those who are connoisseurs of madmen, of the insane and the abnormal, this was a rare moment.

Berkeley prizes itself in being just about as open minded as it is possible to be--able to accept virtually anything, well almost....unless you are talking about conservative values or traditional beliefs. These are held in utter disdain, relics from a bygone era. Should a gospel youth group of clean-cut kids carrying Bibles be bussed in from the Midwest, they would be as out of place in Berkeley as Berkeleyites wearing body jewelry and face paint in their own home towns.

One of my code words for Berkeley is "Little Atlantis," because it is an occult and New Age haven that panders to the senses. On the plus side it is not all crazy--its madness comes out in waves. It has hundreds of great restaurants of all varieties, fantastic weather, and endless cafes and bookstores. It is packed with extremely bright people, many on the cutting edge of technology, who wander the neighborhood of UC Berkeley. Berkeley has great natural beauty. Its Victorian houses have breathtaking views of the Bay as their colorful gardens produce flowers and fruit year round. Even in January you can sit in the warm sun at some outdoor cafe and drink some of the best expresso in the country.

Berkeley is also a town that openly encourages its witches to meet in covens in the town's parks. I once saw a major "sabat" (beltane) at Live Oak Park with a wiccan circle, a high priestess, somone masked as the horned god, swords, amulets and a droning circle of wiccans proudly doing their thing. In some ways it was a typical weekend afternoon of "religious diversity." And the churches are not far behind the wiccans in competing for social relevancy.

A recent flyer posted around Berkeley invited people to come to a local Episcopal church for the "Blessing of the animals." A woman priest at the same event the year before fed a gathering of dogs the communion dog biscuit, then sprinkled the wagging animals with holy water. But the poster warns: "Bring your pets on a leash, please!!!" Perhaps they fear some disadvantaged "minority" dog owner from Oakland bringing a ghetto pit-bull to liven things up. Then people-of-understanding might run off with chunks of their jeans torn off as the "disadvantaged dog" levels the playing field. It might inhale the dog biscuits then turn on the other dogs and their owners. Anything is possible in Berkeley.

Danelle Morton, a one-time faculty member, summed up the spirit of Berkeley in an underground paper in June 1984. I was visiting from Princeton at the time and spending part of the summer with my brother Lawrence, a Berkeley graduate, and his young wife in their new house. I had been to Berkeley before, starting in the summer of 1976, when Brooks Alexander and I went on a sort of mini tour of California. This included a trip to Davis, where I gave my testimony to a packed Whole Earth Festival. But Berkeley was always an object of fascination for me. Danelle Morton describes it:

Berkeley is a town filled with people who are on the verge of committing suicide. The place exudes a spiritual and intellectual hysteria found nowhere else. Where people attempt to discuss philosophy with coleus pants and lovers bicycle down the street conjugating irregular German verbs.

I sometimes feel the place is surging and rolling under my feet. This quality wouldn't be especially disturbing if Berkeley didn't have the appearance of a small, middle-class town. Recently, I was walking home in the afternoon, enjoying the scattered sunlight through the flatland trees. I could imagine for a moment that I had left Berkeley behind and was enjoying an afternoon in Petaluma. But before me a seemingly normal man was smiling benignly as he urinated against a tree. As I rounded the corner, I saw a well-dressed woman who had left her car to kick and scream at a traffic diverter. Never let your defenses down in Berkeley.

...I can't count the times I've left an argument with a Berkeley progressive on the edge of committing a violent act myself. This is not because I disagreed with their politics, but because they can't tell right from wrong. A Berkeley woman, full in her political confusion, once told me not to get angry at rape because rape was a political act. Society produces rapists and we should punish society first...

The progressive Berkeleyans are at times so caught up in finding and adopting the latest trendy philosophy, their minds so full of relativistic concepts of value, that a realistic view of the world becomes impossible. At which Berkeley zoning hearing did I hear a woman accuse the post office of being in league with the military to build an installation on University Avenue? Where else could you hear someone claim that you were violating her human rights by taking her unlicensed dog to the pound?

Every town has its required number of crazies, but in this town they hold positions of power, they teach in the university and get federal funding. I suppose this could be viewed as part of the progressive attitude, that crazy people can lead meaningful lives and perform useful functions in society.

Anarchy has always been a primary dance step in America's first officially Communist city. Berkeley became the haven of the so-called free speech movement and counterculture of the '60s, giving us liberalism-in-full-blossom. Berkeley has remained its own humanistic garden, always carefully tended. It has produced some exceptionally rare plants. When I walk by a particular garden patch known as People's Park--I call it "the experiment that failed"--I pass those who mutter and hallucinate under bushes and trees. They are a generation of burnouts from life on the fringe ever pushed to the limit. Some of these folk had once been leaders of counterculture in the '60s--no foolin'--but have since transformed into wide-eyed mutterers who drift like ghosts on Telegraph Avenue when they are not popping pills, smoking joints and acting out. Their faces appear in Berkeley's annual street calendar of celebs & folk heroes. But over the years, I have noticed them thinning out as certain faces fall from view. As in the days I walked Calcutta, it seems the bodies are "humanely" carried off Berkeley's streets and parks in the early dawn hours, leaving room for others to take their place. It is also easy to get the impression that there are only a few degrees of separation between Berkeley's academic "freethinkers" and the dispossessed trippers on the streets.

Berkeley constantly tries to pioneer new directions for society ten years ahead of the rest of the nation (with the exception of New York's Greenwich Village). It is a preview of what others can expect to invade their less liberated and sophisticated areas--"Small town America, watch out, were coming." In Berkeley, terms such as "postmodern" and "postchristian," are not just abstract concepts, but tangible day-to-day realities.

Berkeley's social alchemists have been able to deftly turn freedom into license, at the same time transforming the human soul. In the exchange, someone approaching normal is weakened then deformed. We see this alchemy repeatedly. A clean-cut college student from small town America gets into UC Berkeley as a freshman. Weeks later he appears at some outdoor cafe. He is transforming. His language and body mannor quickly change as he discoves both sides "the force." He has body jewelry, a nose ring, eye shadow and a small braided pony tails hanging down the back of his neck. When he goes home for the holidays, his family will barely recognize him. In the old days they called this the loss of innocence. Now it is "open-mindedness." At some point in the alchemy, you end up with a faceless ghost, but an open-minded one.

Against this radical backdrop, the grace of God can become incredibly vivid and immediate when someone defects from the dark side. The true, the beautiful, and the virtuous contrasts remarkably with the constant turmoil you see on the streets. Berkeley is a place where it is not difficult at times to feel like Jeremiah in Babylon.

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