Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch
cbertsch

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Story, First

When I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I regularly attended demonstrations on Sproul Plaza. I had mixed feelings about the value of the spectacular approach to political activism. What had worked in 1960 or 1970 seemed to have become an impediment to working towards something useful. But I still turned out for most major protests and quite a few minor ones, out of respect for the history of the place. I felt like I was continuing the tradition of the Free Speech Movement, even if it was a tradition in crisis.

One day, as I was walking towards a demonstration on the steps of Sproul Hall from Bancroft and Telegraph, a large, elderly gentleman stopped me. He had seen the FMLN armband I wore -- one I'd actually designed, believe it or not -- and various other politically significant buttons and ribbons that festooned my decaying gray "elephant" jacket, famous for the holes in the lining that allowed one to store pens, pills, and pennies inside it for later extraction.

"Let me tell you something, sonny," he began. "I remember the protests here against the Marines going into Nicaragua, back in the early 30s."

I experienced the same strange sensation in my limbs that came over me when my German grandfather used to tell me about his experiences at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, an emotional electricity. I stopped my forward march, waiting for the pleasure of the old man's tale.

"I have something I need to ask you," he continued. I was feeling nostalgic, at ease. "What do your parents do?"

I answered without hesitating. "My father works for the American Chemical Society. My mother is a freelance editor."

His face darkened with blood as he pitched forward.

"Your blood won't be pure for generations."

At first, I didn't know what to say. I was dumbfounded. But I eventually regained enough composure to ask him what he meant.

"Your family is corrupt. Even if you went to work in a factory for the rest of your life, you'd still be part of the ruling class."

I tried to argue with him, to no avail. When I finally abandoned the effort, leaving him to stumble towards the next unsuspecting undergraduate, I consoled myself with the thought that he was probably insane.

Nevertheless, his prophet-like declaration clung to me, like the bad air from a nightclub that no amount of starlight walking will wear off. I've come back to his words over and over in the fifteen years since then. As much as I love the work of Pierre Bourdieu, for example, a part of me remains disturbed by my sense that Bourdieu's analysis of taste is a distant cousin of the old man's doom-filled pronouncement.

What I wonder, when I'm in that space of reflection, is whether the old man believed that the process worked in reverse. Would it also take generations for the blood of a working-class man or woman to become impure?
Tags: autobiography, history, politics
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