Berkeley

Coded and Loaded: How Politicians Talk About Race and Gender Without Really Talking About Race and Gender

Screen Shot 2016-09-22 at 5.05.58 PM

Timed for the election, the new California magazine runs my exploration of dog whistle politics, from Nixon to Trump.

Richard Nixon had always been more of a rat-catcher than a heartthrob. All jowls and forehead, and sporting that rictus of a smile, he was a perennial runner-up. Willy Loman by way of Yorba Linda.

In the summer of 1968, though, with the country in flames, Nixon rolled out the strategy that would vault him into the Oval Office. Middle America was spooked by urban uprisings and draft-board bombings, bra burnings and street crime. The Great Society seemed to many a zero-sum game in which minorities won and whites lost, and as much as average white voters hated the Yippies, they feared the Black Panthers.

Nixon saw this bundle of resentments for what it was: a gift. He would speak to this “silent majority,” but he would speak sotto voce—the better to avoid criticism from the media.

Though the prejudice is much closer to the surface than it used to be, the vast majority of Trump’s tough talk still leaves at least a sliver of wiggle room, allowing the listener to fill in the blanks as he or she wishes. The anti-immigration rhetoric is ostensibly about public safety and American jobs, not biology or blood. In theory, Trump’s “border crossers” could be from anywhere. Most of them just happen to be from Latin America. For all of Trump’s bluntness, “He doesn’t say, ‘I’m here to represent the interests of white people against scary brown people,’” Haney Lopez says. “He doesn’t use the n-word. He says, ‘We’re going to take our country back.’”

To Trump’s critics, his strenuous denials of bias (“I am [sic] least racist person there is,” he tweeted) might feel like gaslighting. To his supporters, though, the denials make the coding more credible. Trump is telling it like it is, and if the media attacks him for it, well, that just means he’s doing something right. His status as an anti-PC warrior, meanwhile, serves as both sword and shield, allowing him to make over-the-top comments and refuse to apologize. That’s the Trump brand in a nutshell, says Berkeley linguist and NPR commentator Geoffrey Nunberg, “an incantation that allows him to say this crap and deflect criticism.”

 

Articles
Berkeley
Politics

Comments Off

Permalink

Another CASE award

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 11.38.39 AM

Good news: just learned that my cryonics piece for California magazine last year won a CASE award.

Articles
Awards
Berkeley
California
Science

Comments Off

Permalink

Angels, Protesters, and Patriots

photo illustration by Ethan ParkerMy new piece in California magazine is about the essential weirdness of patriotism, and its wildly varying meanings in our politics. It’s an article that takes in the Hells Angels and hippies, Regan and Obama, punk rock and Bruce Springsteen, and a bunch of other stuff as well:

It starts with a guy named “Tiny.” Tiny was 6’7” and 300 pounds. And he really liked to fight.

He was first into the breach that fall afternoon in 1965, punching his way through the front of the seven-block-long peace march on Adeline Street, near the Berkeley–Oakland border. Tiny was a member of the outlaw motorcycle gang Hells Angels, and more than a dozen of his brothers followed in his wake, ripping down antiwar signs and screaming, “Go back to Russia, you fucking Communists!”

The Angels, at first blush, seemed unlikely patriots. Though not yet well known, they had a reputation with law enforcement for drinking, smoking dope, and sacking towns like modern-day Visigoths, answering to no authority higher than their East Oakland clubhouse. But now there they were, waving the flag. Their form of patriotism was gut-level, atavistic, loyalty to nation through blood and fire. Their group persona, meanwhile, was the stuff of American mythology, a grab-bag of frontier clichés sprung to life—they were contemporary cowboys, John Wayne’s unwashed, scofflaw cousins.

Perhaps the truest thing anyone can say of patriotism is that it’s personal. I came of political age in the Reagan era, and in the hardcore punk scene that grew in response to it. I devoured righteous broadsides on apartheid, the prison-industrial complex, and Salvadoran death squads in Maximum Rocknroll, the Bay Area punk bible. I listened to bands with gleefully provocative names—Jodie Foster’s Army, Millions of Dead Cops, Dead Kennedys.

When, in 1984, Reagan adopted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a campaign anthem, my parents dragged me to a Springsteen concert. I suffered as only a 12-year-old can suffer. It was years before I realized that the song was actually an indictment of the country’s piss-poor treatment of its Vietnam veterans.

My wariness of patriotism comes from the tribalism that creeps alongside it and the Us and Them divisions it inevitably creates. There’s an undeniable appeal to tribal membership, of course. We all want to be part of the club, however we define it—Hells Angels, the GOP, punk rock.

(Photo illustration by Ethan Parker.)

Articles
Berkeley
California
Foreign policy
Politics
punk

Comments Off

Permalink

Into the Deep Freeze

deepfreeze

 

My piece for California magazine on both the origins and future of the cryonics movement. This was a fun one.

Before launching the first cryonaut, they had sandwiches and coffee.

It was a Thursday afternoon in January 1967, in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. The ad hoc medical team—a physician, a chemist, and Bob Nelson, a voluble TV repairman and president of the newly minted Cryonics Society of California—huddled around the dead man’s bedside … All of them, living and dead, were about to make history. …

Four hours later the task was completed: They had frozen the first man.

At a triumphal news conference a few days later, Nelson, the TV repairman, explained the purpose of the professor’s “cryopreservation.” Bedford, he told the assembled reporters, “will be kept frozen indefinitely until such time as medical science may be able to cure cancer, any freezing damage that may have occurred, and perhaps old age as well.”

 

Articles
Berkeley
California
Science

Comments Off

Permalink

Economic Leverage: UC Students Fought Tooth and Nail to Divest from South Africa

photo(3)

Before the pro-Palestinian BDS movement, before the new push for fossil fuel divestment on college campuses, there was the anti-apartheid struggle. My new piece for California magazine chronicles its growth, from its beginnings amid the civil rights movement to the sustained pressure on the UC system to divest from apartheid South Africa to its eventual victory in the late 1980s.

When Nelson Mandela died last December, it seemed that the whole world mourned his passing. Twitter overflowed with love for the former South African president. South Africans of all colors and ages sat vigil outside his Johannesburg home. Leaders from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe traveled to FNB Stadium to memorialize Africa’s secular saint, and Barack Obama told the assembled dignitaries, “Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done.”

Indeed, 30 years earlier the prospect of a free South Africa was almost unimaginable. Mandela had been imprisoned for decades. Although black townships from Cape Town to Durban were in open revolt against the white-run government, the regime had all the money and firepower it needed to keep the rebellion in check. It also enjoyed the full-throated support of the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who considered Mandela a Communist terrorist.

It was against that backdrop in April 1985 that a few dozen anti-apartheid students launched a sit-in at the entrance to Berkeley’s Sproul Hall. They hung banners, organized teach-ins, and, as night fell, unfurled sleeping bags on the steps. Within days, hundreds were sleeping there overnight, and thousands were turning out for midday rallies.

A banner above the steps spelled out their demand:

END UC TIES TO APARTHEID

CALL TO DIVEST

Articles
Berkeley
California
Foreign policy
Politics
South Africa

Comments Off

Permalink

Famous Enough

famousenoughThe new California magazine runs my profile of Rod Benson, probably the most famous pro basketball player in the world who’s never played a minute in the NBA. This was a fun one to report and write.

The sun hangs low over Manhattan Beach, giving the ocean a SoCal-postcard glow. Inside a fratty, nautically themed bar, Rod Benson is doing shots of vodka with his buddies. As usual, he has drawn a crowd. A fireplug-shaped guy with a tiny, feral mustache tries to impress Benson with his knowledge of Krav Maga, the Israeli martial art. A couple of blonde, tattooed women trade flirty insults with him. On the margins, a shirtless and very sunburned dude sways on his feet, drawn to the spectacle.

Benson, who is 6’10”, is dressed in a black-and-neon-yellow tank top, shorts, and enormous basketball shoes. At the request of one of the blondes, he extends his arms to show his 7’3” wingspan. He explains all of the attention this way: “I’m both tall enough and black enough to make people wonder, ‘Is he famous?’”

In fact, Benson is sort of famous: He’s arguably the best known pro basketball player to have never played in the NBA.

Articles
Berkeley
California
sports

Comments Off

Permalink

His Truth is Marching On

rjrimgMy latest for California magazine is a profile of R.J. Rushdoony, the most influential Christian conservative you’ve never heard of–godfather of the homeschooling movement, frequent guest on the 700 Club, and ideological spur to generations of rightwingers. How best to describe him? In an anecdote that didn’t make the final cut of the story, John Whitehead, founder of the libertarian legal nonprofit the Rutherford Institute, described to me what it was like hanging out with the patriarch. One evening, Rushdoony drove Whitehead up to his rural compound in northern California’s Gold Rush country. After parking outside one of the buildings, Rushdoony embarked on an elaborate anti-theft ritual, inspecting each car door to make sure it was locked. “I said, ‘There’s no one here except us,’” Whitehead remembers with a laugh. “He looked right at me and said, ‘Man is a sinner.’”

And an excerpt from the piece:

Like many conservatives then and now, Rushdoony believed that America was founded as an explicitly Christian nation. In the postwar era, when many on the right felt that holy heritage was under siege, his fusion of right-wing politics and fundamentalist Christianity had particular resonance.

Indeed, Rushdoony’s worldview held something for everyone on the right, even if few people subscribed to every aspect. Free-marketeers and self-styled patriots who hated the New Deal and were alarmed by Communism flocked to his banner. (He counted Robert Welch, founder of the hard-right John Birch Society, among his friends.) But Rushdoony also attracted social conservatives who saw the Devil’s hand in feminism, reproductive rights, and civil rights. For these people, he confirmed the sinfulness of all challenges to the traditional order. “In the name of toleration,” he wrote, “the believer is asked to associate on a common level of total acceptance with the atheist, the pervert, the criminal, and the adherents of other religions as though no differences existed.”

(Illustration by John Stich.)

Articles
Berkeley
California
Politics

Comments Off

Permalink

Rainmaker: The Sort-of Super PAC

credoimgThe current issue of San Francisco publishes a quick Q&A I did with Becky Bond, head of Credo’s super PAC–which has the distinction of being the only super PAC out there that disapproves of super PACs. Here’s a PDF.

Africa
Art
Articles
Berkeley
Music
Photography
Politics
San Francisco
Travel

Comments Off

Permalink

Housing a Movement

calnorthCalifornia Northern magazine runs my piece on squatting, punk rock, and the Occupy movement. I tell the story through an Oakland squatter and activist named Steve DeCaprio (he also plays in the black metal band Embers), in whom all of these threads converge. There’s just an excerpt posted online now, but I’m told the whole thing will be up there at some point.

“One night a little more than a decade ago, Steve DeCaprio pulled his bike up to an abandoned house in Ghost Town, a poor neighborhood in West Oakland dotted with vacant lots. He cut through the rusty lock on the chain-link fence with bolt cutters, then pried open a plywood sheet that stood where the front door once had. Then he replaced the locks with his own. This is how DeCaprio, a longtime East Bay squatter and veteran of the punk and metal scenes, “acquired” his home.

He already knew that the previous owner of the house had died in the early 1980s and that no one had come forward to claim it. The turn-of-the-century bungalow had sat empty for many years. The kitchen floor was burned out, and the back of the house hung off the foundation. An acacia tree in the back yard had grown into the roof, leaving the interior open to the elements. The top floor was piled with the carcasses of dead raccoons and other small animals. “They would climb the tree, jump down, and get stuck,” he says.

Later, DeCaprio and a crew of friends got to work making the place habitable. “At first, it was basically just urban camping,” he remembers. It took eight months of on-and-off work to fix the roof. He got the water flowing, bought storm doors and painted the exterior, planted cacti in the front yard, and yanked out another backyard tree that had begun to menace the house next door. He named it Noodle House, and he currently shares it with three people plus the occasional touring underground band.

DeCaprio, who turns forty in August, has tousled, graying hair and favors Carharts and black t-shirts bearing band logos. In a more mainstream context, he would be described as a “go-getter.” He plays guitar in a black-metal band named Embers, works as a member representative for the California League of Conservation Voters, and is pursuing a law degree through an independent study program (he expects to take the bar exam next year). And, of course, there’s the house. Right now, DeCaprio is working on a solar array to provide electricity. “There’s gonna be this moment when I turn on a light switch and it’ll be epic,” he says.

… “

Articles
Berkeley
California
Metal
Music
Politics
punk
San Francisco

Comments (0)

Permalink

PR Occupied Berkeley

proccupiedberkMy exploration of the struggle between supporters of Israel and Palestine on the UC Berkeley campus, in which I trace a decade of passion, protest, and bad behavior, runs in this month’s California magazine.

Every spring since 2001, a group of earnest, impassioned students has gathered near Sather Gate, cordoning part of it off with emergency tape. Some of them don faux uniforms and brandish mock M-16s; others wear keffiyehs and traditional Arab robes. Then the actors set up a military checkpoint, a simulacrum of the hundreds of real checkpoints that pepper the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The “soldiers” allow “Israeli settlers” to pass unmolested while they yell at the “Palestinians.” They bind the wrists of a young man, forcing him to lie face down on the concrete; another they “shoot.” There is fake blood, a makeshift stretcher, the wailing of the wounded and bereaved.

Created by the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the mock checkpoints first appeared at Berkeley, and have spread to schools from Arizona State to Yale. It’s easy to see why.

The checkpoints are just one of the most visible elements in a decade-long, tit-for-tat struggle between supporters of Israel and Palestine on campus. It is waged through Palestinian movie nights and Zionist picnics; tables in Sproul stacked with literature quoting Edward Said and Theodor Herzl; and Palestinian “die-ins” and pro-Israel hip-hop shows. Ron Hendel, a professor of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies sums it up: “It’s a PR war.”

And wars are never pretty. Partisans have engaged in online flame wars in the comments sections of local newspapers, disrupted speeches by visiting scholars with shouted obscenities, and scrawled swastikas (aimed at both sides) on campus walls. Students even got into a fight at a 2008 campus concert.

In its dynamics, this local fight often echoes the flesh-and-blood conflict in the Holy Land—minus, thankfully, the body count.

Check it out.

Articles
Berkeley
California
Foreign policy
Middle East
Politics

Comments (0)

Permalink