Naive Berkeley

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of Berkeley alums lately. Sarah Shourd, the American hiker imprisoned in Iran, was released last month and in following the media around the story, I realized she along with her fellow hikers (who are still in an Iranian prison) is a Berkeley alumnus.

Besides the innate pride of anything Cal (Berkeley is pretty good in instilling some student pride), my emotions were mixed. On a more humanitarian level, I was horribly sympathetic for the woman, who thinking she was still on a trail in Iraq, was swiftly arrested and taken to a prison of unknown conditions. I could not imagine her fright, although it seems that Haleh Esfandiari begins to touch upon the horrors in her piece in the Los Angeles Times about her own experience in an Iranian prison. However, I kept wondering if my sympathy for Shourd and the other hikers was undeserved.

There seemed to be an extraordinary naivety surrounding the whole attitude and story of the three hikers. They were shocked that while hiking along a trail that lead to the Ahmed Awa waterfall in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, they were arrested for crossing the border into Iran. The border is very poorly marked and while I believe in the sincerity of the hikers that they are not spies, merely American tourists, I can’t help thinking that the location they chose was a fatal mistake.

When first reading about their plight, I knew that had never seen the UC Berkeley Study Abroad Guide. In this pdf file under the section “Safety and Security,” there is an entire section on American Foreign Policy and what the world’s current impression of America is. It states:

Citizens of most countries are able to distinguish between U.S. foreign policy and individual views of U.S. citizens. Keep an open mind, do not take any offending remarks about U.S. foreign policy personally, and keep political discussions to a minimum. Avoid demonstrations and other situations that may become unruly or where anti- American sentiments may be expressed.

The year I went abroad (I didn’t check to see if it is in the current guide), they advised us not to accept packages from strangers at the airport, to research the quality of the drinking water in the places we planned to travel to, to not sleep with the prostitutes in certain countries, and that drug use in some places resulted in the death penalty. They also advised against being drug mules. We were told in a bolded statement that the U.S. embassy in whatever country we happened to be in COULD NOT bail us out of prison—they could only refer us to a lawyer.

Whether or not the three hikers went abroad through Berkeley or would have even read the guide if they had, they seem to be a familiar case of Berkeley student: the idealist. This group of Berkeley students takes whatever their overwhelming philosophy of the moment is and takes it to unfounded heights. They not only believe that humanity is capable of the highest state of enlightenment, they know that once everyone is educated and truly sees, there is no way they cannot support this ideal. Like one acquaintance of mine who was banned from an African country because he published a paper on the government’s relationship with oil after being advised not to, he could not understand why people would do this. Couldn’t they see that he was doing something for the common good? What he didn’t understand was that as a lowly undergraduate, his paper being published would have no effect. He would merely be put on a list and cause no controversy. He would not be Salman Rushdie, infamous for The Satanic Verses and sought by fundamentalist hit men. No, he just would not be able to return to the country and continue his humanitarian work, his primary objective.

There was a recent article in the Cal alumni magazine by Brendab Buhler on the pervasiveness of the Bay Area’s self-righteousness in Berkeley and while this focused on a different type of Berkeley student, the one who promotes their hipness through their recent status of vegan, recycler, etc. and lords it over their contemporaries, it brought up an interesting parallel. The distinctive attitude of the Berkeley campus and its student body compared to say, UCLA, is that Cal students feel they must somehow embody the once-prevalent attitude of student revolutions. While this only represents a small percentage of the student body, enough people come to Berkeley to find the Mecca of Mario Salvo and the glorious years of student lead protests. Of course, they are horrible disappointed when they realize that most of the student body is more grade-conscious than civil-minded and that the era of hippies and free love is just the lore of our parents. This is further supported when they realize that the majority of protests are carried out by non-student Berkeley locals.

So this subset of the student body turns to new causes, usually those that are at the forefront of being the right kind of Liberal. But where does Sarah Shourd and her companions fall? I don’t know them personally and cannot say that any of this truly represents them, but they seem like genuine do-gooders. But unlike my friends who went to teach English in foreign countries or spent a year at an ashram in India, all people in search of adventure and the opportunity to do something good, they found themselves part of the bitter circumstances of politics. Like the person banned from an African country, they meant no harm, but they also threw themselves into a situation in which there were not many good outcomes. A logical person would have said, what is the risk in this? Why do I feel the need to go to the Iraqi/Iranian border when one of the countries is still suffering from the toils of war and an American occupation while the other has the propensity to relegate all Americans as evil and infidels?

I am sorry for the suffering and turmoil these people have had to endure. This injustice is especially hard when one has constantly told that the world is tolerant and democratic. But I also blame Berkeley for encouraging blind sidedness and not educating their students on how to be diplomatic—yes, we can change the world, but it is not through foolhardy or attention-getting acts. Berkeley is a wonderful place to be a student, but like many university towns, it is hardly representative of the outside world.

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