It’s too bad that I have to wait until Tuesday to file my comment on the Berkeley College Republican bake sale. Since my column last week, the story in its various permutations have sprinted their course through the media. A variety of news outlets ran the initial story, talking heads passed their judgment and by virtue of the story’s proximity to Davis, most folks here have probably decided where they land on the controversy.
However, the delay gave me time to think about the context of the coverage. What strikes me about the build up to the event, as well as the aftermath of the bake sale, is the strong Tea Party vibe to it all.
I realize comparing Berkeley College Republicans to the Tea Party is not unlike comparing College Democrats to the Democratic Socialist Party. Or the Green Party. I don’t mean to slur the College Republicans by invoking the Tea Party, but I do want to note how the bake sale highlights some similarities between them.
First, the popular media coverage of both is a product of marginalized minority views emerging in unlikely contexts. The Tea Party had been around since 2009, but they emerged onto the political scene with the victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts. This victory was not so much about Scott Brown as it was what he represented: an outsider, right-wing candidate winning the seat of the late Ted Kennedy, one of the bluest and inside-the-beltway officials around. And he won this seat in Massachusetts, a state that makes San Francisco look like Wasilla, Alaska.
The bake sale was not significant for being an innovative form of protest. The Berkeley College Republican protest was, in fact, the 10th such “Diversity Bake Sale” held on a college campus since 2002. Berkeley College Republicans now join the ranks of University of New Mexico College Republicans, University of Michigan College Republicans, University of Colorado, Boulder College Republicans, Columbia College Republicans, and, well, you get the point. What was significant about the stunt is that it took place in Berkeley.
It’s true that our bear-ish UC brethren have since moved away from the student anti-war atmosphere of the ’60s, but a recent college survey shows that self-identified liberals still outnumber conservatives five-to-one. We almost take it for granted that Berkeley is the quintessential liberal campus; the Massachusetts of college campuses, if you will.
Last week in San Francisco, former mayor Gavin Newsom reflected on the emergence of the Tea Party as a function of isolated activism belittled into extremism by the mainstream. The Berkeley College Republicans emerged into notoriety in a similar context — assumed into irrelevance by the political climate of their campus, they staged a bake sale called “inherently racist” by many in the media.
Second, the bake sale recalls the mind-numbingly simple tactics and ideology of the Tea Party as. Of the many issues one can have with the Tea Party, the one that bothers me the most is their ability to boil down really complicated issues into prohibitively simple sound bites. This way, eliminating Medicare becomes a necessary extension of getting the government out of our personal lives in the same way that denying Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, barring undocumented immigrants rights and raising revenue by taxation are all unnecessary government complications in our personal affairs.
The Berkeley College Republicans sought to take a tremendously complicated issue — affirmative action — and boil it away into racism. I hate to break it to them, but holding a Diversity Bake Sale doesn’t illustrate the ironic racism of affirmative action policies the same way the “Diversity Day” episode of “The Office” illustrates the ironic stereotyping of workplace multiculturalism. The use of racial and ethnic signifiers in admissions policy is about a lot more than meeting the right quota. Packed within this debate are pervasive instances of policies, regulations and economic history that institutionalize discrimination. But that debate doesn’t happen when you frame the issue as setting different costs to cookies.
Finally, to be fair, I should end by noting the last similarity between BCR and Tea Partiers is their relative level of success. It goes without saying that the Tea Party has elected a number of officials to nearly every level of public office. Their caucus in the federal legislature successfully shifted the debt talks to their ground and a number of their ideological stars are holding their own in the Republican primaries.
In an interview with National Public Radio late last week, President Shawn Lewis of the Berkeley College Republicans mentioned that the bake sale managed to raise more than $800 dollars. If you’ve ever been involved in a club, that’s no small sum for a three-day bake sale. Not to mention, he was being interviewed on National Public Radio while people all around the country were talking about an event his group staged. While the Tea Party and Berkeley College Republicans may be small fish, they make a big splash.
With all this talk of bake sales and tea, RAJIV NARAYAN is now hungry. Send him some food for thought at email@example.com.