Liberalism Overthrown

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There are times in American history when events are so unsettling, so disruptive to the normal patterns of social interaction, that they shake the political foundation to its core. In 1919 race riots, widespread labor unrest, the battle over women’s suffrage, and the rejection of Wilson’s cherished Versailles Treaty helped end two decades of progressive reform and usher in the new era of retrenchment that Warren G. Harding called a “return to normalcy.” Normalcy ended in 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt, with no firm ideas about how to govern, began to forge a new political coalition that brought workers, blacks, and Southern whites together in the belief that government had the capacity to improve their lives. And in 1966 the third great political upheaval of this century began.

IN CALIFORNIA THE NEW ERA MIGHT be said to have begun on October 1, 1964, when police at the University of California, Berkeley, arrested Jack Weinberg, a former student, for setting up a civil rights table on campus. The police were about to drive Weinberg off to jail when several hundred students surrounded their car. The standoff lasted for thirty-two hours, and it not only launched the Free Speech Movement but also marked the beginning of almost a decade of student protest. Ten months later, on a scorching summer day, the black ghetto of Watts some three hundred miles south of Berkeley exploded in violence. When the riots finally subsided, the statistics told the story: thirty-four dead, one thousand injured, four thousand arrested, two hundred million dollars in property damage, and sixteen thousand law enforcement officials deployed.

Watts and Berkeley were the two most visible issues in California in the mid-sixties, but there were plenty of others to reinforce the sense that disorder and immorality were taking over. In 1965, just one year after Californians had voted overwhelmingly to repeal Pat Brown’s Fair Housing Act, the state supreme court declared the repeal measure unconstitutional and reinstated the antidiscrimination law. At Berkeley protests against the Vietnam War popped up, and a shortlived Filthy Speech Movement, in which students took turns shouting “F—!” over loudspeakers in Sproul Plaza, raised the specter of “educational anarchy.” Residents read stories about LSD, saw photos of unkempt hippies parading the streets of San Francisco, and were told that their state had the good fortune to be producing 60 percent of the nation’s “booming smut trade.” One conservative activist vividly summed up many Californians’ feelings about the last: “This crud falls into the hands of teenagers and younger persons … and the worst stuff comes in books like ‘Seed of the Beast,’ which describes sexual intercourse between animals and humans, and ‘Queer Daddy,’ which contains vivid descriptions of almost every other kind of perversion. … The message … is that if you haven’t practiced homosexuality, you just haven’t lived.”

The polls showed that nine out of ten Californians disapproved of antiwar demonstrations; they identified “crime, drugs, juvenile delinquency” as the most pressing issue confronting their state; “racial problems” came in second; “student discipline at the University of California,” sixth.

Berkeley was a particular sore point. Tuition was free there, and the university was widely seen as the crown jewel in the state’s educational system. So when The Saturday Evening Post —that citadel of middle-class values—reported that “on the sunny, seemingly serene Berkeley campus, rebellion is fashionable and it is widely believed that half the student body has experimented with marijuana,” taxpayers were upset. Berkeley Citizens United, a local conservative group, issued a mock U.C. curriculum in which the entering class could look forward to taking “Riot 101, Russian Language 101, and Dirty Books 101,” while sophomores were required to devote two minutes per week to “Personal Hygiene” and eleven hours to “Draft Dodging, Troop Train Delaying, and Composition (4-Letter Words).” Those fortunate enough to make it to their junior years could take “Police Car Sit-in 331, Car Burning Lab, and Public Speaking Lab (Yelling and Shouting).”

 

AT OTHER TIMES—SAY, IN THE 1950s—Sam Yorty might have come across as a mere hooligan, flinging wild political charges that bore little relation to the larger scene. But in the mid1960s his attacks on the liberal establishment rang true for increasing numbers of Californians.

In the early weeks of the primary Brown simply ignored Yorty. Then, when the mayor seemed to gain in the polls, he went on the attack: “This little man has flipped his lid. Yorty thinks everyone is against him. … [The] psychiatric term for this … [is] paranoia—and I think this is the best way to describe the Mayor of Los Angeles.” But Brown never campaigned vigorously against Yorty; he dismissed him and saved his money for the general election.