I was sitting in a coffee shop yesterday, talking to the guy at the next table about the books we were both reading. He was telling me about Morris Berman’s Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire. I know Berman’s Twilight of American Culture, but I haven’t read Dark Ages yet, and I was intrigued.
I had just that moment finished Juan Enriquez’ The Untied States of America. Both books, we discovered, are making the same claim that we’re falling apart, we’re overstretched, governed by fear and greed, and in many cases no-doubt-about-it stupidity – especially in our dumbed down black-or-white inability to handle complex thought, including patient interaction with those who disagree with us.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the guy at the next table flies into a rage, “You smug intellectuals, you think you have all the answers. Where were you when Stalin was mowing down his people by the millions!”
Wow, I thought. Not very Berkeley! (Actually, it’s very much Berkeley.)
“I’m free choice. I’m for gay marriage,” he said, as if reading my mind. “And I voted for Bush because he’s the only one around with the guts to take on the enemy which you guys want to sell out to,” he continues.
“I was just trying to tell him what this book was about!” the guy next to me says to him. “Well, I want to know what YOU think!” Without waiting for an answer, he continued. “You think you have all the answers. You guys make me want to puke, the way you blame America for everything! OK, tell me – yes or no – was the fear of communism real?”
“Yes, but...” I said. And that’s the last word I got in. “You can’t answer my question, can you! All you can do is come up with excuses for beating up on America!” The rage went on and the entire coffee shop went into a panic. The owner came over and asked us to take it outside.
The guy next to me packed up and walked out. I followed him and we continued our conversation about this latest of many “collapse of empire” themed books, on the street.
I couldn’t leave bad enough alone, of course. “If you want to have a real two-way conversation sometime, I’d be happy to talk with you,” I said to the angry man as I left the table.” He gave me the finger without looking up from his computer.
I walked home down Shattuck Avenue, past the gangs of black high school kids shouting astonishingly hostile obscenities at each other and the lowest rank street people by the score who don’t have the signs and the smooth delivery of the higher rank street people who sell papers or “Maybe on your way out” you as you enter a restaurant or a movie theater. Pretty sad and ugly, the Shattuck street life.
Still, Berkeley is getting quite pretty. I absolutely love the new construction along Shattuck and elsewhere. In the parts she’s pretty, she’s gorgeous. In the parts she’s rough, she’s very rough. The neighborhoods are still lush with greenery and thick old-growth trees and there is a blaze of color in the flowering plants after the rains.
Berkeley isn’t supposed to represent America in any real way. It’s far too one-sided, I’m supposed to believe, too full of wackos. I wanted to talk to this pro-choice, pro-gay pro-Bush denizen of coffee shops who wasn’t up to anything but putting us down without a hearing. I could look at the glass as half full and say at least Berkeley has coffee shops where strangers meet, even if they do treat each other like shit some of the time.
And as for the gangs of kids who claim the ground they’re walking on as their own personal corner of the jungle, especially the ones that always make me think of Ralph Wiley’s Why Black People Tend to Shout and wonder at the almost total absence of modesty and reserve in junior and high school kids these days, black and white (still less so Asians), and what it suggests about the possibility of an early trip down the path to being a stranger in a coffee shop who will rage at you and then give you the finger and poke his earphones in his ear when he’s said his piece.
Where is the two-way talk? The discourse across the lines? I read till my eyes hurt. I go to lecture after lecture where the audiences are Berkeley folk providing choirs for preachers and the questions are almost all about confirming the general view and not about exploring the complexity.
Is it true what they say (at least in the current political climate nowadays, not with less controversial topics, necessarily), that people who do listen already agree with others who listen, so there is not much to talk about? That that’s just another way of saying we’re totally polarized, and that’s nothing new? And those who only talk at you and not with you don’t have the mechanism to become listeners? Is it really something you acquire early or not at all?
“I guess I’m not going back there!” I mumbled to myself as I left the coffee shop. No reason to expose myself to a ranting wacko. Much better to go to the one across from the campus I went to the day before. It was packed, as most coffee shops are, Suddenly over the normal din of conversation this voice shouts out, “You are a FUCKING ASSHOLE, Mr. President!”
It takes an instant for people to realize it’s not a crazy and there is nothing to be afraid of. Just a momentary raising of a voice in some conversation across the room. More rage. This one lasted only a second or two and whoever it was – I couldn’t identify him – went back to normal conversation. When it was clear the outburst was over, a woman near me spoke up, “The voice of Berkeley,” she said.
Everybody was already chuckling. Yes. The voice of Berkeley.. Everybody already on the same page and no discussion across lines.
I know, I know. Coffee shops are for people who go there to work on their computers or read or visit with friends. Nobody seriously goes there looking for a place to meet people and exchange perspectives and opinions with strangers. (People to pick up, maybe, but that would require avoiding controversy.) 19th Century Vienna, maybe. But not 21st Century America. For a real discussion with your fellow citizens across ideological lines, you have to go elsewhere.
Wonder where that might be.
May 4, 2006