Semper Berkeley

It’s national news: The Berkeley City Council voted last week to invite the U.S. Marine Corps recruiting office to leave our town. The council put the Corps on notice that if it failed to move on, it should know that its status here is one of an “uninvited and unwelcome intruder.” And last, our elected representatives expressed support for “antiwar groups residents and organizations such as Code Pink that may volunteer to impede, passively or actively, by nonviolent means, the work of any military recruiting office located in the city of Berkeley.”

Of course, things haven’t stopped there. The right-wingers are exercised, and a group of them, a clutch of Southern senators, has taken the probably predictable step of introducing a bill (the Semper Fi Act) to strip Berkeley of $2 million or so of federal earmarks approved in the last session of Congress. In its press release, the group points out that it’s trying to kill $975,000 for a project at the University of California, Berkeley, despite the fact the university had nothing to do with the City Council action besides happening to exist inside the same town limits.

The release also delights in announcing it would withdraw $243,000 set aside for “gourmet organic school lunches.” Oh, that stings, but the senators don’t know the difference between “nutritious” and “gourmet,” or believe that it means the same thng. What they’re actually referring to is a very successful and long-running project that turned an acre of weed-choked asphalt at a local middle school into a thriving organic garden. The kids at the school raise food; they learn how to prepare it, too. My guess is that the money might have been going to a project the school district has had a hard time funding: a new kitchen and cafeteria associated with the garden project. In any case, the Berkeley school district didn’t have a say in the City Council’s action, either.

And now: how about that City Council. The vote they took was intended to make a statement against the Iraq war. Why a statement was needed five years into the war and more than a year after the Marines arrived I don’t yet understand. But there it is.

I haven’t been writing about the war much lately, but I think about it every day, and the wastefulness of it on every level never fails to anger me. Beyond that, I’m more and more distressed to live in a country that has turned the military and the idea of military service into a superpatriotic cult. There’s a reason the nation was created without a large standing army and made do without one, except in the most dire emergencies, for the first 150 years after the Constitution was adopted. Beyond the mere fact of our huge armed establishment, the blind civic celebration of the military above and beyond every other institution in society is a danger to the democracy its supposed to protect.

I probably agree with most members of the City Council on the war. I have no problem with people protesting Iraq, or with people protesting the protesters, either. But I think the Marines are more than an agent of the war; in a very real way, they represent a viewpoint and are part of the debate in our society over both the war and the role of the military in society. They’re also a means by which members of the society might express their opinion of these issues; there are many thoughtful people in the ranks who are talking insightfully about the experience of war and the role of American military power in the world. Because I see the Marines, both the institution and the members, that way–as a participant in the marketplace of ideas–I think it’s misguided to try to shut them down here; to try to shut them down as a matter of public policy is simply wrong.

To do that, to shut up your opponent to score a point in an argument, betrays the ideal of free speech, one that need not and ought not rely on force or censorship. To give in to the temptation to muzzle an opinion invites intolerance from your opponent. And round and round we go.

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2 Replies to “Semper Berkeley”

  1. “Those whacks” are probably the only people who could have managed to unite hard-core supporters and opponents of the war. Fred Phelps and his spawn are well-known in the Bay Area; they’ve dropped in several times to urge the pure among us to turn away from Sodom and Gomorrah before the whole outfit goes up in flames. Phelps and his church are really giving First Amendment-based tolerance a workout.

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