Biting with freethought

I get flipped off every Tuesday afternoon on Sproul Plaza. Why, you might ask, does such an irregular event occur to me on such a regular basis? The answer, dear reader, is that I am a libertarian at one of the most notoriously liberal universities in the nation: our beloved UC Berkeley.

Fear not, this isn’t a universal event that occurs to every “conservative” at Cal. Rather, I am a particular case since I founded Cal’s current libertarian student organization, Students for Liberty, as a sophomore. Thus, while tabling over the past two years with my club’s showy signs, some dissenters have taken a liking to channeling their disagreement through a middle-fingered drive by. I usually respond with a smile, wave and invitation for my spontaneous opponent to explain why he or she flipped me the bird, hoping it could progress into a political discussion. Unfortunately, my calls for civility are usually never met.

Justifying my political beliefs in words, they must think, how inconceivable!

Indeed, when your political ideology aligns with that of the majority at Berkeley, it must seem unnecessary to call into question the logical grounding of your opinions. After all, everyone agrees! However, students such as myself with views that deviate from the liberal norm are not in such a position of privilege, having to be constantly on the defensive. The primary front for such an intellectual attack is indubitably in the classroom. It is no secret that many courses in the humanities and social sciences are heavily politicized, causing discussion sections to be loaded with partisan discourse. This can be rather difficult for freethinkers, as one’s participation grade often conflicts with one’s political principles.

Personally, I have found that the best antidote to this ailment is to be an especially good student, paying close attention to the philosophical substance behind every argument. In this manner, I can appear to be an attentive pupil without clinging to the unfavorable libertarian label. Most importantly, being attentive to the arguments propagated in the classroom helps develop the intellectual ammunition to explain why you believe something is incorrect.

In fact, the nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill shared a similar view about the importance of persistent intellectual re-evaluation, famously claiming that “No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but … The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others.” According to Mill, who we would doubtlessly label a libertarian today, only two results could emerge from discoursing with dissenting views — both of which are intellectually profitable.

In one case, we could discover that our beliefs are incorrect and abandon them for those of superior reasoning. In the other, we could emerge with greater confidence that our beliefs are correct “having taken up (the) position against all gainsayers.” I confess that I came to Berkeley as a fairly ignorant libertarian with some strong opinions and weak justifications. However, after three years of constant exposure to dissenting opinions through classes and the club I founded, I feel that this “steady habit of correcting and completing” has given greater strength to my beliefs.

If only more people would follow suit.

Indeed, if anything, I would like my column to function as a call for my fellow Berkeleyans to challenge the underlying assumptions of their political beliefs.

Fear not, I won’t abuse this space as a soapbox for libertarian evangelizing. If you’d like to “see the light” in that sense, you can find Preacher Given on Sproul during my Tuesday tabling sessions (but please use words, not middle fingers).

Instead, I will take a unique approach of exploring campus and national politics through exposing the larger philosophical debates inherent in each issue, while delicately dropping my two cents. Granted, my radical skepticism coupled with my libertarian sentiments will likely prove to be a contentious combination.

After all, I will be questioning everything from whether our university should be publicly funded at all — seriously — to whether the ASUC should even exist (this is not hyperbole, people). However, at the end of each article, I’d ultimately like you to lay the paper down with a stronger understanding of your position, even if it’s discordant with mine.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates once described himself as the “gadfly” of Athens, rousing the metaphorical horse of the state from intellectual sloth.

Essentially, I hope my column can serve the same function for Berkeley students pertaining to politics, challenging us all to think critically about issues that we too often oversimplify.

So watch out, Golden Bears, this gadfly is about the bite!

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  • Anonymous

    So open up your mind to these arguments, please:

    Thank you.

  • Congrats Casey.  Looking forward to your column.

  • Libertariansrpeople2

    This is a pretty condescending column. If only we uniformed few on campus had half of your wisdom, perhaps we wouldn’t be so foolish as to follow one ideology so strictly! Newsflash, this isn’t the 1960s. Berkeley isn’t some hotbed of progressive activism anymore. Sure, there are still some progressives left on campus, but the majority of students are far more concerned with their studies than with perpetuating a myth that all Berkeley kids are pacifist-socialists with only revolutionary thoughts. Before you start comparing yourself to Ron Paul (I’m sure you will) and railing against the “mainstream sheep herd on campus” perhaps you should actually look at the majority of student groups. And I’m sure people flipping you the bird is more from the fact that you are tabling in general. No one likes to be bothered on Sproul. Your one redeeming quality though is that you probably won’t ask if I’m interested in an Asian business club.

    Also, “the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.” Well I’m sure glad you identified him as such, because I would have definitely assumed you were talking about the contemporary German philosopher of the same name.

  • Looking forward to it!

  • Anonymous

    Thinking critically about the leadership of UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau.

    University of California
    Berkeley (Cal) picks the pockets of Californian students and their
    parents clean. UC Berkeley shouldn’t come to the Governor, Alumni, Public for
    support. (The author has 35 years’ consulting experience, has taught at Cal where he observed
    the culture, way senior management work)


    University of California Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau ($500,000 salary)
    has forgotten that he is a public servant, steward of the public money, not
    overseer of his own fiefdom.  Stunning
    misguided waste: Tuition fee increases exceed national average rate of
    increase; Recruits (using California tax $) out of state $50,600 students who
    displace qualified Californians from Cal; Spends $7,000,000 + for consultants
    to do his senior management work (prominent
    East Coast university accomplishing same 0 cost); Pays ex Michigan
    governor $300,000 for lectures; Procuring
    $3,000,000 consulting firm failed to receive proposals from others; Latino
    enrollment drops while out of state jumps 2010-11 (M Krupnick Contra Costa Times);
    Ranked # 70 USA best universities Forbes; Tuition to Return on Investment drops
    below top 10; QS academic ranking falls below top 10; Only 50 attend Birgeneau
    all employees meeting; Campus visits down 20%; Absence Cal. senior management control
    NCAA places basketball on probation.

    It’s all shameful. There is no justification for violations by
    a steward of the public trust. Absolutely none!  

    Governor Brown, UC Board of Regents Chair Lansing must vigorously
    enforce stringent oversight over Chancellor Birgeneau who uses Cal. as his fiefdom.


    Email opinion to   [email protected]

  • Malfeasizzile_FoShizzle

    So you’re a Reasonoid. [Hopefully not a full-on Randroid, though.]
    Meh, there’s worse things in the world than Libertarians.
    How about NEOLIBERALS?
    Plus as you point out Libertarian is not the same as “conservative” or whatever the William Kristol/David Brooks/George Will/Mitch McConnell/National Review/Douche Bag set fancies themselves to be these days.

    Comparing yourself to Socrates… hahahahahaha.

    I look forward to your columns, seriously I do, b/c these kids on campus
    don’t know shit about their own opinions, that much is true. The mistake you make is that some subset of the ancient audience might have had the capacity to appreciate the gadfly’s stinging bite, but these kids are going to be even tougher to bring around.

    Should Cal be publicly funded at all? DERP.
    Unless somebody is about to pay up for all the public land and publicly owned buildings, and acknowledge that all the grants are federal tax dollars and replace that shit w/private funds, you’re going to have one hell of a time making that argument work.

    And heck, after the Noah Stern debacle and the “we spent the same $15,000 twice and didn’t realize it” episodes, it’s pretty clear that ASUC should not exist – or shouldn’t be taken seriously anyway.

    Never fear, I heard Harry Le GrandeWizard has plans for those folks at ASUC.
    Remember how Dhamer took a drill to some dudes head and then filled it w/dilute aqueous HCl? When the cops were like, Jeff, man, why?!? Dhamer said something about trying to turn victims in to automatons.
    Yeah, its like that, now drink this Student Affairs Kool-Aid