Ruth Whippman: ‘I don’t make jokes about Berkeley any more’

After 2016, all the jokes about kooky liberals left a bitter taste. The truth is: Berkeley is Finland with sunshine, unrelenting in its commitment to justice, community and thrift.

Berkeley Bowl West is now offering produce boxes for home delivery via Doordash.
“The only real outlet for all our secret late-capitalist urges is the 14 varieties of lettuce at Berkeley Bowl.” Photo: Berkeley Bowl

Whether you’re a newcomer or a lifelong resident, Berkeley tends to make a deep impression. For our tenth birthday, Berkeleyside invited six Berkeley writers to reflect on the city’s enduring appeal, as well as its flaws, and consider how it is changing — not always for the better. We published their essays — including the one below by ‘America the Anxious’ author Ruth Whippman — in Berkeleyside’s printed 10th anniversary commemorative magazine, which was published in late 2019. We still have some magazines available. If you would like to receive a copy, see how below.  

Not long after I moved to Berkeley, back in 2011 — a time period that, looking back, seems like an entirely different moral universe — a woman at a party asked me where I bought my produce.  She pronounced it “prohh-doos,” swilling the word lovingly around her mouth like a fine wine. Back home in England we call them vegetables. It’s perhaps an indicator of the relative unimportance of this food group in my home country that we use the same word to refer to a person in a coma.

This was the first of many prestige vegetable conversations I would have in Berkeley over the next few years. The answer to New York’s “how much do you make?” or LA’s “what label are you wearing?”, Berkeley’s “where do you buy your produce?” is a precision social ranking tool.  At the bottom of the hierarchy was me, with my weekly trips to the shrink-wrapped fluorescence of the freezer aisle at Safeway, above this the marginally fancier Andronico’s, then the organic logjam of Monterey Market, the vast sweeping prairies of Berkeley Bowl, right on up to the social pinnacle of the seven-dollar farmer’s market pear.

Perhaps this city’s fascination with produce is because it’s as close as Berkeleyans allow themselves to get to conspicuous consumption.

Perhaps this city’s fascination with produce is because it’s as close as Berkeleyans allow themselves to get to conspicuous consumption. This is a city that outright rejects consumer excess in favor of a kind of shlumpfy, virtue-signaling one-downmanship, a place where straight-up plutocrats live in three-bedroom bungalows, and go out to $200 dinners in fraying yoga pants. The only real outlet for all our secret late-capitalist urges is the 14 varieties of lettuce at Berkeley Bowl.

There was always a whiff of social conscience in the vegetable chats. Local-something-organic-something -climate-change-something-something-something.  But it always seemed like more of an aesthetic than a cause, a twitching of muscle memory for the city’s radical past rather than a genuine attempt to grapple with the looming question of how to feed the world’s people, in an era of overpopulation and food deserts and wages for most that could barely stretch to a single Farmer’s Market loquat.

Berkeley has always teetered on this edge of paradise and parody, mostly with good humored self-awareness. We (and after ten years living here, it really is ‘we’ now) have generally been happy to be a meme, a brand, the strawman symbol for a kind of privileged liberal cluelessness. We know to preface our statements with the standard disclaimer, “this is so Berkeley but….” when we mention guavas or gender fluidity. We gleefully swap tales of Berkeley excesses- the mom who handed out printed cards informing other parents that they were wearing their babies the wrong way.  The boy in my son’s second grade class who knew the ins and outs of marijuana use but had never heard of Pepsi.

It was funny back then, this gentle mockery. Back when the stakes were low, before Trump and Kavanaugh and babies in cages. But, after 2016, all the jokes about kooky liberals left a bitter taste.

The night Trump was elected, it was as though we had been punched in the face with our own complacency. During the deep moral reckoning in the months that followed, we tortured ourselves about why we didn’t see it coming. In those moments, desperately searching for answers, it was easy to board a train of thought that started in Berkeley Bowl and ended in Trump Tower. Was this all actually our fault? Were we so cosseted in our own privilege, so busy massaging the kale salad that we failed to notice that half of America was boiling over with murderous rage?

I heard this story a lot around Berkeley for a while, in the early days of the Pussy Grabber administration, and there’s something to it. It plays to our liberal appetite for self-flagellation, our desire to understand and be tolerant and take responsibility. But ultimately it is the wrong story, and a dangerous one.    

I don’t really make Berkeley jokes anymore. If the whole horror-show of the last four years has shown me anything, it is how miraculously precious this city is. In a country of rabid individualism and armchair racism, outsize materialism and perilous overconsumption, Berkeley is solid and unrelenting in its commitment to justice and community and thrift. Berkeley is Finland with sunshine, a mini utopia where wealthy people vote to raise their own taxes to pay for public schools and those schools outshine their private counterparts. A place where you can go watch Robert Reich skewer capitalism in the high school auditorium and then overhear him the next day in Saul’s ordering a happy face on his oatmeal. Where kindergarteners learn to identify Dolores Huerta before George Washington and Black History Month lasts all year. A tiny corner of America where 21st-century kids are still delighted with birthday parties consisting of a bag of carrots and a tub of hummus in Codornices Park. A place where we can look straight into the faces of the racists and the rapists running the country and yet still, still, jump to blame ourselves for being too enthusiastic about kale.

This is Berkeley. Yes, it’s a bubble. Thank God for that.