The other day I had some errands in Berkeley. So I hopped on BART (the Bay Area’s subway system) and rode into town.
Every trip to Berkeley is a dual-purpose event for me: whatever else is on my schedule, I always bring along a camera to record my impressions of the day. And since street protests are few and far between this year, the only thing left to photograph is daily life.
Berkeley may look like a normal town at first glance. But if you have a keen eye for details and a shutter-happy index finger, you begin notice those little things that make Berkeley unique.
So let’s take a trip to LiberalLand. The pictures you see here don’t constitute any sort of “official portrait” of Berkeley — they’re just the random scenes I encountered as I wended my way through the city on various errands.
[Note: All faces, license plate numbers and street addresses in this photo essay have been blurred or cropped, to respect people's privacy.]
My political journey began before I even got off the train. As we approached Berkeley, I noticed a fellow passenger reading a book by [Berkeley resident and left-wing economist] Robert Reich, while wearing a “We Are the 99%” Occupy Wall Street button. Needless to say, the guy got off at the Downtown Berkeley stop.
I’d only been in town a couple minutes before I encountered my first “only in Berkeley” moment: A car sporting a huge sign that announced “The root problem is that you have become A SELFISH PEOPLE.” I was a bit curious as to the exact meaning of this, but was fearful of approaching the car any closer lest I be accosted by the owner, something I hoped to avoid.
A nearby home had a “Beware of God” sign in the window.
I stopped by a cafe, only to find a member of Q.U.I.T — Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism — seated at a table, enjoyed the free wi-fi.
The front of her shirt had the other name for the same group, “Queers for Palestine.”
Q.U.I.T./Queers for Palestine is an ultra-radical lesbian political group that protests against the only nation in the Middle East where gays live freely with full rights, and in favor of a culture that outlaws homosexuality and violently persecutes gays. Are they insane? Yes. Did I find it a bit unnerving that such a political stance is considered so “normal” in Berkeley that people just stroll around on an average day wearing “Queers for Palestine” shirts? Yep.
Less than a block away I spotted “Boycott Israel” spray-painted on the sidewalk. Coincidence?
I don’t even want to know what this mess on the back of a nearby newspaper rack was supposed to mean. “2+2=5″ pretty much summed my impressions of the city so far.
Over the last four years I thought I had seen every single Obama sticker design ever manufactured. But until I spotted this on a car in Berkeley I had never encountered this particular bit of political iconography. Although the colors have faded a bit since 2008, the details were fascinating: Obama has gigantic hands, and is releasing doves and butterflies from (incomprehensibly) a cupboard drawer, surrounded by people literally praying to him, including someone in a full-body cat suit next to someone with a Muslim skullcap and another guy giving the black power salute.
But not everyone in Berkeley is so enthusiastic about Obama. The city has plenty of Obama opponents — but they’re all attacking him from the left, as evidenced by the sentiments on this truck, in which Obama is equated with the evil Bush.
This was actually my favorite bumper of the whole day. The futility, pointlessness and fleeting-but-soon-forgotten enthusiasm of each campaign season is so poignantly illustrated by the layers peeling off, 2008′s Obama sticker so poorly made that 2004′s Kerry sticker is already re-emerging. Most hearteningly, there was no 2012 sticker on top of the 2008 sticker.
I literally laughed out loud a few hours later when I saw this “We Are the 99%” sign on a house in a very pricey neighborhood in the Berkeley hills. Although you might not be able to tell due to the weed-choked front yard, homes in this area are famously expensive. Out of curiosity, I noted down the address and later looked up the home’s estimated assessed value on one of those real estate property records Web sites: $1.2 million.
Nothing better illustrates the deep-seated hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance of the Berkeley worldview than someone who lives in a $1.2 million home imagining that they are part of “the 99%.” Berkeleyans are in general quite highly paid and well-off, but they are ashamed of their success, and so pretend to be poor. Not so ashamed that they actually give up their privilege, mind you: it’s much easier to put a “We Are the 99%” sign in the window of your mansion than it is to actually experience any hardship.
While we’re on the hypocrisy theme, take a look at this Mazda 5 parked on a Berkeley street. What’s the problem? Look more closely at the bumper…
…where you’ll see a “Be Green” sticker. Nothing wrong with having an average mpg MPV — that is, until you start lecturing all passersby about “being green.” Berkeleyans want the convenience and luxury of modern civilization, but not the remorse of being a polluting high-end American consumer that necessarily accompanies that convenience. Solution? A “Be Green” sticker on your exhaust-belching machine! Problem solved. (See The Concourse of Hypocrisy for more details.)
I spotted this unusual sign on the outside of a local Berkeley middle school: “Metal Shop Theater.” Later, I researched it online, and discovered some interesting history that painfully illustrated the direction of modern American education. For most of the 20th century, Willard school had a metal shop where students were taught metalworking and industrial manufacturing skills. Then about 30 years ago the metal shop was permanently closed and all shop classes deleted from the curriculum (due to budget cuts they claimed, but I have little doubt that shop classes were cut partly for ideological reasons as well). Eventually, the room that formerly held the metal shop was turned into a student theater, where the kids are taught drama and perform plays about coming out of the closet as gay and various other predictably PC themes.
Now, in a perfect world, I’m not against having arts education, including drama education, in schools. But if there are budgetary constraints and tough choices to be made, why did Willard (and countless other schools across America) cut instruction in hands-on technical skills, in favor of touchy-feely classes that convey little or no employment aptitude?
If you ever wondered why America is no longer a manufacturing nation, and why we have a massive trade deficit with China: The Metal Shop Theater is why.
They apparently stopped teaching people how to spell as well, if the city’s manhole covers are any indication: “City of Bekrley.”
My camera never found a moment’s rest as the day progressed. Next I encountered this glorious anti-Monsanto truck.
The back side of the truck revealed that it was likely owned by Code Pink, or at least by a supporter.
Perhaps this Vagina Warrior standing nearby?
I was a little disturbed by this Berkeley sticker with an AK-47 and Arabic-looking script, but once again subsequent online research came to the rescue and revealed it was an ad for Arab-American anti-capitalist rapper “Opium.” Actually, after reading about Opium’s politics, I remain disturbed.
Back on BART, having finished my errands, and whaddya know? Once again I found myself sitting near some typical Berkeley types; the Lenin-style cap was a giveaway. They even seemed to be on the way to some kind of protest. But I thought to myself: “Don’t be prejudicial. Just because they look like washed-up Berkeley radicals doesn’t mean they are washed-up Berkeley radicals.” Still, I needed to know: Was my first impression accurate? So I pressed the zoom button on my camera lens and tried to snap a picture of the paper they were holding, to see what it said. …
“The democratic revolution and the socialist revolution (in brief).” Sigh. Don’t you just hate it when stereotypes prove true?
The following six pictures were also all taken in Berkeley, but on previous visits. I had saved them aside in a random-photos folder, since they didn’t fit into any previous reports. Their moment has now arrived. Here are six bonus images taken in Berkeley on earlier excursions:
“Come celebrate a Communist themed Shabbat with the Berkeley Bayit!” One wonders: Was this shabbat some sort of satirical costume party in which people dressed up as Marx and Trotsky? Or was it a serious Communist event?
Most likely, the answer is: Both. For this generation’s kids, there is no difference between ironic mockery of something and sincere affection for it. I’m reminded of a line from an old Simpsons episode, when a hipster kid points at Homer being a buffoon, and says to his friend, “That old guy’s cool!” The friend replies, “Are you being serious?” The first hipster looks distressed and says, “I don’t even know any more!”
But this is how it begins. You defuse a taboo and become comfortable with it by joking around with it. That paves the way for possibly later embracing the taboo. All one needs to do is see the proliferation of Che shirts to understand the principle.
Meanwhile, the Muslim students are not joking around. This sign advertised a conference sponsored by the MSA, teaching Muslim students how to become sophisticated in their political activism. Note that one of the speakers at the conference was Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, infamous for his anti-Semitic tirades at events on U.C. Irvine, U.C. Berkeley, and other campuses. I would have filmed his undoubtedly hair-raising rant, but I didn’t see the flyer until after the conference was already over. (Ah, heck, who am I kidding? I wouldn’t have had the nerve to attend an Abdul Malik speech.)
U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library houses the world’s largest collection of books, maps and documents about the American West. It is a researcher’s paradise. But one day recently I went there to look something up, and noticed an exhibit in the lobby. Here’s the sign explaining it.
And then I moved along to the exhibit itself, which turned out to be mostly composed of gay porn magazines and sex books.
This is what counts as scholarship in one of America’s greatest libraries.
A typical neighborhood bulletin board. Right? But this is Berkeley…
..where typical neighborhood bulletin boards have notices about Orgone Generators and Chemtrails.
You gotta love this town. If Berkeley didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it.