As a travel-loving, non-religious feminist living and writing in the state of South Carolina, I confess to often feeling like an expat in my own country. I am inspired by the beauty of the place and the eccentricity and humor of its people but find it tough to reconcile things like a confederate flag flying on state capitol grounds. Or that our senators vote against women’s rights while declaring family values. Beaufort, my adopted hometown, actually lobbied to let the world’s loudest fighter jets train, day-and-night, over residential neighborhoods and mostly black public schools. When a famous modern dance company staged a performance for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre, a city councilman in Beaufort threatened to cut funding over scant costumes.
So when I flew to Berkeley, California to shoot a video last week I should have felt liberated, among my tribe. Modern dance is so mainstream that studios have weathered brass nameplates. Instead of ear-splitting F35s and military bases, Berkeley is famous for anti-Vietnam war protests on campus. It’s so liberal here that dispensers of medical marijuana are required to set aside a percentage of pot to donate to poor people. It must be true; they even wrote about it The New York Times.
On the Oakland side of the Berkeley city border stands a metal “There” sculpture immortalizing the famous Gertrude Stein memoir declaring “there is no there there.” Trees shading the “Here” sculpture that welcomes drivers to much-swankier Berkeley make it look like “HER” A progressive, pacifist woman like me should love it here.
But what I discovered was that when too many lucky, like-minded people live in the same place we can be as bombastic as any redneck right-wingers. Take the problem of obesity, for example. In Berkeley, more than 70% of voters approved a tax designed to discourage consumption of soda – one penny per ounce – but only on distributors and only on soda. They didn’t impose sugar taxes on fancy, expensive coconut waters or quasi-holistic kombucha bottled teas. Whipped cream-crowned liquid desserts sold in gourmet coffee shops are exempt too. So are donuts, candy and processed foods, like ketchup, with loads of hidden sugar. They wanted to be the only city in the country with a sugar tax on soda in order to make a point. Apparently uber-educated, ultra-liberal Berkeley has figured what’s best for everyone.
A part of me wanted to cheer the the city on. I’m trying to cut back on sugar and personally don’t drink sodas. But the sponsors of Berkeley’s law didn’t talk to the low-income workers, living in food deserts, who buy half-liters of generic soda at corner liquor/snack stores. These are the people who wait tables and clean rooms in Berkeley but can’t afford to live or vote there. Consumers who know the exact coin count of their favorite soda brand can’t just switch to the newest, healthiest fad drink. And the owners of mom-and-pop stores are watching their customers walk across the street to not-there Oakland, a city that hasn’t singled out soda as the new “we know better.”
I’m writing about this because there’s a little Berkeley bully in all us liberals. I realize sugar taxes on soda hardly compare with the big “values” issues that make me an expat in my own corner of the country. But I was wrong to think only gun-toting, gay-bashing conservative states have the corner on moral tyranny.