Isocrates on divestment

The Critic Who Counts

Nothing like a scandalous political quid pro quo, complete with new information about an ideologically stained physical assault on Sproul alongside bylaw violation charges galore to awaken our senses. I give you, Divestment: Season 2. After this latest flood of melodrama, politicians in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento look like snoozers.

Please understand, this is not a column about divestment and the many reasons it is an ineffective, rash and brazenly ignorant way to address the staggering conflict in Palestine. There have been human rights violations that require legitimate objection and scrutiny on the world stage, but few students at UC Berkeley truly understand the tense realities of living in a nation surrounded by enemies who desire nothing more than your nation’s complete annihilation. “From the river to the sea,” is the oft-repeated slogan. But this column is not about divestment. The only solution of any lasting quality to our public woes is a campuswide shift in political culture that transcends the issues.

Nor is this a column about judicial charges and constitutional violations. Former Daily Cal columnist and SQUELCH! senator Noah Ickowitz and former Student Action external affairs vice president Joey Freeman filed charges with the ASUC Judicial Council on Friday, alleging rampant constitutional violations in the passage of SB 160. Like America’s cultural obsession with litigation and the inevitable flurry of court cases that follows any major legislation in Sacramento and Washington, the charges of both Ickowitz and Freeman demonstrate a foolhardy determination not to lose this battle, no matter what the broader costs are of prolonging the conflict. In an interview with The Daily Californian, Ickowitz acknowledged that personal ideology was part of his motivation for dragging on this looming legal fiasco. But this is also not a column about ASUC legal affairs.

And this is not a column about ASUC Senator Jorge Pacheco’s recent public foul-up with ASUC President Connor Landgraf. Pacheco reportedly offered last Tuesday to remove his Judicial Council injunction on Landgraf’s health and wellness referendum in exchange for Landgraf opting not to veto the divestment bill Pacheco supported — classic you-scratch-my-back I’ll-scratch-yours political positioning. It’s embarrassing for Pacheco to place himself on such morally questionable grounds, embarrassing for the ASUC to become embroiled in the debacle and embarrassing for UC Berkeley students regardless of ideology. But this column is not about the latest of ASUC scandals, either.

Finally, this is not a column about “campus climate” or a plea for any recently mistreated Berkeley “communities.” Attend any ASUC Senate meeting or elections event, and one will quickly discover the true power those two simple phrases have over student political discourse at UC Berkeley. As George Orwell would have said, those phrases have “lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” But, alas, this is not a column about tired political rhetoric.

This is a column about simple maturity.

More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Isocrates criticized the Athenian democracy of his day by accusing it of training citizens to “(look upon) insolence as democracy, lawlessness as liberty, impudence of speech as equality, and license to do what they pleased as happiness.” Isocrates’ ancient words were later written by others to reflect modern realities in the Aegean and elsewhere: “Democracy destroys itself because it abuses its right to freedom and equality. Because it teaches its citizens to consider audacity as a right, lawlessness as a freedom, abrasive speech as equality, and anarchy as progress.”

Isocrates on Berkeley politics: “Oh, please.” UC Berkeley and the ASUC are a perfect case studies for Isocrates’ theory, and as evidenced by the April 1 assault on a pro-Palestinian student at Sproul Plaza by a goon who disagreed with the victim’s political stance, we as a university are struggling to stop the bloodletting of overemotional worn-out rhetoric, repugnant political maneuvering and excessively theatrical squabbling that have characterized our campus for nearly a month — with no foreseeable end in sight.

More than anything else, campus politics is centered almost entirely on winning a disturbing and very public game — winning over votes, winning popular opinion and winning elections. It comes at the cost of a collaborative, academic atmosphere and civilized public dialogue.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We’d be wise to put the events of this month in perspective, to acknowledge that the ASUC is only a student government and that our politics do not, in fact, define us as individuals. What this campus needs most — and what Isocrates was hinting at — is a shift in the tone of public discourse.

Anything to stop the bleeding.

Contact Connor Grubaugh at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @connorgrubaugh.