At Berkeley, Krugman’s warning becomes reality

How the crisis at our greatest public university reflects crippling inequality and the dangers of austerity

Topics: Movies, Documentaries, At Berkeley, berkeley, University of California, Frederick Wiseman, Our Picks, Our Picks: Movies, Editor's Picks, Politics, Education, Public Education, Higher education, ,

At Berkeley, Krugman's warning becomes realityPaul Krugman (Credit: Reuters/Chip East)

How long will it take us to understand that the entire neoliberal project – the puritanical mania for cutting taxes, cutting social services and cutting budget deficits that has dominated the Western world’s economy for more than 30 years – has been a disaster? And guess what, liberals: You don’t get to point the finger at Ronald Reagan, Maggie Thatcher and Milton Friedman and claim it was all their fault. The reformist center-left, whether it took the form of Bill Clinton and the “New Democrats,” Tony Blair and “New Labor” or the watered-down social-democratic parties of Europe, has enthusiastically rebranded itself as a servant of global capital. If you were genuinely surprised that the Obama administration loaded itself up with Wall Street insiders, or that it failed to punish anyone for the massive criminal scheme that resulted in the 2008 financial collapse, you haven’t been paying attention.

I make that point because it’s almost impossible to have a serious discussion about this country’s economic problems without getting trapped into partisan political bickering, which is almost irrelevant in this context. The activist Tea Party right (at least in its populist, non-elite form) and the activist Occupy left are essentially reacting to the same phenomenon – worsening inequality, and the long-term economic and psychic decay of the United States – but interpreting it in different ways. Working-class whites who feel an immense loss of relative privilege and social status are not wrong, for example – but it doesn’t have much to do with the Kenyan socialist Muslim in the White House, or his namby-pamby and admittedly screwed-up healthcare law. As Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz recently noted, census data reveals that men with high-school diplomas but without college degrees earn about 40 percent less today (in real terms) than they did in the 1970s. Obama didn’t do that; capitalism did.

Stiglitz concluded his essay on inequality – which argued that it was a political choice, rather than the inevitable result of macroeconomic forces – by writing that he saw us “entering a world divided not just between the haves and have-nots, but also between those countries that do nothing about it, and those that do. Some countries will be successful in creating shared prosperity — the only kind of prosperity that I believe is truly sustainable. Others will let inequality run amok.” Which kind of country do we live in? That was the question that ran through my mind this week while I was watching Frederick Wiseman’s magisterial documentary “At Berkeley,” a portrait of America’s most prestigious public university as it wrestles with piecemeal privatization and the near-total abandonment of its historic mission.



New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, Stiglitz’s tag-team partner on the economic left, chimed in this week with a related argument. When the ideologues of austerity piously refuse to invest in jobs, infrastructure or education while wrapping themselves in the mantle of fiscal responsibility, he wrote, they’re actually inflicting irreparable long-term damage on the economy. Krugman’s focus in that column was primarily on job creation, but his lesson clearly applies to Wiseman’s depiction of a legendary state university that has long been considered on the same level as Harvard and Oxford and MIT and Stanford but that also, within living memory, charged no tuition at all to California high school graduates who qualified for admission.

Appropriately enough, it was Ronald Reagan who did away with all that. The onetime B-movie icon ran for governor of California in 1966 promising to “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” and I can’t help wondering whether Wiseman’s title is a sly reference to that famous slogan. Reagan of course meant the Free Speech Movement and organized student opposition to the Vietnam War, which was still widely popular among the public. Once he took office in Sacramento (after defeating Democratic incumbent Pat Brown, a godfather of the University of California system and the father of current Gov. Jerry Brown), Reagan demanded that the UC regents start charging student fees for the first time. (The word “tuition” was initially avoided.) He also proposed cutting the university budget by 10 percent across the board – a sequester, as we might say today – and suggested that the regents could make up the shortfall by selling off the rare books collection in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

No Gutenberg Bibles or first-edition Shakespeare folios were auctioned off to pay the bills at Berkeley, but that sounds an awful lot like Tea Party anti-government rhetoric circa 2013, doesn’t it? Of course Gov. Reagan presented his idea as hard-headed realism, but it’s difficult to miss the vindictiveness, or the clear ideological content: Why the hell do those eggheads need a bunch of dusty old books in languages no normal person can read, anyway? If we flash-forward to the present, the Republican-appointed bankruptcy manager of Detroit seems determined to sell off the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection, which also feels punitive and political, rather than practical. Have people unfortunate enough to live in a bankrupt and mismanaged city forfeited the right to see Diego Rivera’s Marxist frescoes, or 15th-century Flemish religious paintings?

In retrospect, I wonder whether Reagan’s assault on Berkeley wasn’t the zero moment of the conservative revolution, a magical melding of anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism and anxiety about government spending. Reagan and his supporters couldn’t understand why the Golden State’s taxpayers should fund a world-class research university, especially since it seemed to be producing radicals and dissidents in large numbers. Higher education was seen as an instrumental value, because we need to supply society with enough doctors and engineers and so forth, but never as a valuable public benefit in itself. More than four decades later, we see Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau (who retired this year) tell a group of administrators and faculty leaders that state funding has fallen to 16 percent of the school’s annual budget, an all-time low. While he insists that Berkeley can find ways to maintain its “public character,” that’s almost a term of art at this point.

So Reagan has won. While you won’t encounter any of that history directly in “At Berkeley,” Wiseman has been observing American society and politics since the 1960s, and definitely understands the background to what he finds on the campus today. Like all of Wiseman’s films, detailed social portraits, “At Berkeley” strictly adheres to the rules of the documentary style known as cinéma vérité. That means there is no narration, no on-screen names or charts or crawls of text, no talking-head interviews or other explanatory material. It certainly does not mean that the film pretends to be neutral or objective, or that no story is being told. Whether he’s shooting a field hockey game, a seminar on Thoreau, a lecture on the shifting understanding of cancer genetics or a group of workmen pouring cement in Berkeley’s football stadium, Wiseman captures the vibrant and diverse life of an institution in permanent crisis.

I should say here that “At Berkeley” had considerable personal resonance for me, because I spent much of my childhood on or near that campus and my father taught there for more than 30 years, and also that Wiseman’s films can be challenging for newcomers until you get used to them. In theaters all four hours of “At Berkeley” will be shown straight through, and while that’s rewarding it’s not the only way to watch it. Wiseman typically shoots more than 100 hours of video (he recently switched to digital from film) and then painstakingly edits down to the narrative he wants. It may not feel this way at first, but every scene in “At Berkeley” is in there for a reason, and I’m pretty sure that watching and rewatching the film in segments will reveal more thematic connections.

Sometimes the themes of “At Berkeley” are right on the surface, as when we hear a student from a Caribbean nation discuss how stressful and difficult life in the United States has turned out to be, and how her friends back home get subsidized educations and can afford to have reasonable adult lives unburdened with immense debt. Later in the film, a middle-class white student breaks down in tears at the fact that her family is too wealthy to qualify for financial aid, but too poor to afford a so-called public university without taking out risky and onerous loans. An administrator tells Birgeneau that the 1,232-acre campus now has exactly one employee to mow all its lawns. Sometimes they are more metaphorical, as in classroom discussions about the nature of time, or Thoreau’s observations about man’s “profane” relationship to nature, or the discovery that cancer viruses require a specific “microenvironment” to flourish into tumors.

I think my favorite scene, and the one that puzzled me the most at first, was a long and fascinating conversation with a graduate student who is designing a robotic assistive device for a paraplegic man that enables him to walk upright. In discussing the risks that the man will lean too far backward and fall, the student observes that walking involves that risk for all of us, and that learning to walk is about flirting with the possibility of falling, going right to the edge of instability and sometimes over it. Berkeley, that famous hotbed of intellectual ferment and discord, is still walking, in Wiseman’s judgment, but only just. It remains an elite institution of higher learning, but one that like most others in Western society is largely dependent on billionaire donors, corporate sponsorships and government research contracts.

“At Berkeley” is both a work of social observation and a work of philosophy (Wiseman has always been acutely sensitive to hierarchies of power), and it definitely isn’t just a story about Berkeley or about higher education. One of the greatest acts of neoliberal hypnosis over the past 40 years has been convincing almost everyone in mainstream politics, conservatives and liberals alike, that it was both fiscally prudent and morally necessary to subject the entire public sphere to “market forces.” It was neither prudent nor necessary; it was a vicious and misguided political decision, rooted in a quasi-religious dogma that sought to imprint the values of the market on every aspect of society and has largely succeeded. It was led by those who despised the communitarian values represented by the public sphere and longed to banish them, and abetted by those who went along because they didn’t want to look like wimps. It has poisoned our future.

“At Berkeley” is now playing at the IFC Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York, and opens Nov. 15 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow. It will be available on home video in January.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...