Buzzsawed in Berkeley (and What I Should Have Said)


May 1, 2007


Browse in Commons

Berkeley, California is a place of great originality but also of an accusatory and tendentious certitude that could drive you to the political Right if the same thing didn’t flourish over there. (Some go anyway.) The originality is found especially in  architecture and design, and in a culture of common spaces.  The grim certitude has strongholds in the precincts of gender, ethnicity and race.  Both were on display at a conference on the Crisis of the California Commons sponsored by the California Studies Association this past weekend.

The positive energies prevailed by a pretty wide margin.  But there was enough of the other to provide a cautionary note.   There is a tendency on the political Left to turn the concept of the commons into a projection screen for every pet cause and belief, and to attack those who do not do the same.  A friend recalled afterwards something Wendell Berry once wrote: “Once we allow our language to mean anything that anybody wants it to mean, it becomes impossible to mean what we say.”  (That was in an essay called “Distrust of Movements.”)

Most of the participants seemed to grasp intuitively what the commons is about, even if they couldn’t have offered a formal definition.  The boundaries were fuzzy on the question of public services, as they generally are; but the core was pretty strong. For example, Suzanne Michel, who teaches geography at Cuyamaca College in San Diego, discussed the new fence being built along the Mexican border, and how it will disrupt a wetland crucial to migratory birds.

The public trust doctrine should apply to this trespass, she observed.  Under the public trust, government has an obligation to future generations to keep waterways and shorelines unimpeded.  But with the current Supreme Court I wouldn’t bet on it.

Ignacio Capela, the microbial ecologist who exposed the invasion of genetically modified  strains into native corn varieties in Mexico, gave an impassioned account of the enclosure of U. Cal Berkeley and the state universities generally by corporate interests and patent claims.  Berkeley alone has more than 250 corporate alliances, many in the biological sciences. “They are changing the story,” he said.  “Now it is about ‘saving the planet’” through GMO crops and the like.

“The questions and answers have been prepackaged as a story,” Capela said. “When will this story break up?” Michael Perelman of Cal State Chico, suggested that we compare the public health libraries, which receive little corporate funding, with the biological sciences libraries, which receive much.  Science and knowledge are not autonomous forces that move inexorably towards enlightened ends.  They go where money, and the interests behind it, takes them.

Amy Trachtenberg, an artist, showed slides of the entrance she helped design in a new branch library in San Jose.  The neighborhood used to be orchards, and Trachtenberg incorporated tractor tires, tree branches and labels from packing crates into the space.  It might sound hokey but from the pictures it works. I couldn’t help thinking about the sterile entrances to so many public buildings, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s much-worshipped Civic Center in Marin County CA. From the highway, with its sky blue roof, the place always makes me think of a giant cabana.

The conference was held in the new home of the Berkeley City College, which is half a block from the BART stop downtown.  Christopher Ratcliff, the architect, made a commons central to the design; and he was there  to discuss spatial commons past and present. Someone in the audience took issue with his use of slides from ancient Greece and the like. These were “hierarchical”, which in the demonology of Berkeley puts them in the company of the patriarchal and racist. The objection pretty much melted though in Ratcliff’s quiet thoughtful presence.

Not so with me. I was on a plenary panel on the concept of the commons. I had been on deadline during the week and had little time to prepare. It was not my best performance.  But it wouldn’t have made much difference.  The woman who followed me had her speech typed out, and it was angry indictment of people like myself.  The basic point was, “How dare you talk about the commons without talking about families?”  The patriarchy had reared its head once again, this time in the person of me.

I’ll admit I took this personally. I worry about preschool payments and Blue Cross bills.  I really don’t have to be told that families need help. Plus – a bit of irony here – the article I just had finished was about Third World women who have to leave their own kids behind to come to the U.S. and care for children here.  A lot of heroic assaults upon the glass ceiling and the corner office have come at the price of motherless children in the Third World.

In a rare display of good sense I refrained from tossing this acetylene on the flames.  The discussion moved on to other topics and there was not a good chance to reply.  So I’m going to take this opportunity to say now what I wish I had said then.

“I don’t think X really thinks that her family is a commons.  I suspect she locks her door when she goes out.  I suspect too that she would object if people in her neighborhood demanded rights of access and use to her refrigerator and living room. (A lawyer in the audience reminded me afterward that Roe v. Wade was based on privacy grounds, and the private is the opposite of the common.  To declare the family a commons would lead to consequences I do not think X would like.)

“What I think X means – or means to mean – is that we need to organize the commons in a way that serves families better.  We need more play areas and common spaces, more safe routes for walking and riding bikes so that children don’t have to be driven everywhere. Neighborhoods should be designed in ways that encourage more informal interaction, so that such things as child care can occur naturally in a  neighborhood setting. Buildings, airports, public transit of all kinds, should be designed in a way that acknowledges that children exist.

“We need to stop the corporate trespass into the cognitive commons of the public airwaves and the public schools, and the cognitive arena generally, so that kids are not subject to a continuing barrage of commercial seduction and importuning.  We need to reclaim space within those commons for talking back to corporations and for noncommercial messages.  We need to stop the noise from cell phones, boom box cars, motor cycles, all of it.  It is well established that school performance goes up when the noise in a child’s environment goes down.

“The list goes on and on.  What about government programs and services, such as paid family leave and single payer medical insurance?  Those are not commons, strictly speaking.  They are functions of the programmatic state, but that does not make them any less important.  I support both of these, and we can use the commons to help pay for them, and to protect our natural habitat at the same time.

“Corporations should not be able to dump their muck into the air and water for free for example, whether directly or through the medium of their customers.  We need to limit strictly the dumping, and then charge a fee for what does occur.  We need to increase fees for congestion, parking, noise – invasive and destructive uses of the commons period.

“Generally we need to gear the tax system more to what people and corporations take from the commons, and reduce taxes on what they make from their own work, especially at the low and middle income levels.  That way families will have more to pay their bills, and will have cleaner and safer communities to live in.

“As I said the list is long.  To view the world through the lens of the commons really does open up possibilities that don’t appear so clearly through the old public/private, Right/Left schemas that have defined the political spectrum. But we don’t get there if we lacerate one another with accusatory polemic and don’t stop to listen.

“Words have meanings.  To talk about the commons is to talk about one thing, or cluster of things.  To talk about families is to talk about something else.  They are related, of course; but they are not the same.  It does not diminish the one to talk about the other, any more than it diminishes an apple to talk about a pear. To the contrary, a politics of the commons is congruent with and supportive of a politics of the family.

“You attacked Michael Tomasky for the article called “The Common Good” he wrote for theAmerican Prospect magazine a year or so ago.  How dare he write about the common good without talking about families?   Somehow you seemed to conflate him and me, and his term the “common good” with the commons.  This may surprise you, but Tomasky didn’t talk about the commons. He never once mentioned it.  His “common good” was a banner that had no specific economic content.

“Bush and Cheney think that tax cuts for rich people and drilling in the Artic Wildlife Refuge are ways to serve the common good.  The phrase is packaging and atmospheric.  It doesn’t get us far in regards to content. So when it comes to Tomasky you and I are together, though for different reasons.

“And you and he are together in at least one respect: namely, you seem to have given little attention to the concept of the commons and what it really is about.  I would urge you to do so.  We could have a more productive exchange if we were talking about the same thing.”