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I left my liberal heart in San Francisco

I live in a bubble of liberalism. Not just within the US, but even within the state of California, which is in itself almost a different country to the rest of the States.

In San Francisco, I am in a place where freedom of speech is a point of pride, and rightfully so (within the limits of US law, that is, but that’s the subject of another post). This is also the home of activism, of campaigning about issues such as gay rights, ecological issues and foreign policy. Just outside the city is the University of California at Berkeley, a bastion of student activism where the Freedom of Speech movement began in 1964 in reaction to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Today, San Francisco’s legacy of activism continues: anti-war protests are commonplace, gay rights campaigns have resulted in the recent legalisation of gay marriage in California, and the city has one of the most progressive environmental policies in the country. Human rights causes have a natural home here too, so hardly a local eyebrow was raised when protesters against the Beijing Olympics climbed the Golden Gate Bridge to highlight their cause as the torch passed though the city in March.

It’s a widely believed sentiment that US cities on the coast tend to be more liberal than in other parts of the country such as the Midwest or the Deep South. Of course this is not unique to the States — coastal cities the world over are more malleable to new ways of thinking as a result of exposure to different cultures through trade and the influx of immigrants. But San Francisco is even more liberal than even nearby coastal cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle. One major reason for this may be that despite the city’s modern beginnings as a port town and naval base, its real growth began during the gold rush of the 1800s. With the discovery of gold came hundreds of thousands of adventure-seekers, lured here to chase dreams of instant wealth and, with it, to embrace a new life.

More than a hundred years later, the San Francisco Renaissance of the 50s spawned Beatnik poets and writers like Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road spoke about a new approach to life in reaction to the stifling McCarthyism era. San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love signalled the apex of the hippy movement, characterised by experimentation in music, art, fashion and drugs. The growth of the Internet industry took place here too, and Silicon Valley today sprawls south of the city, revelling in its rebirth after the dotcom bust, with the likes of Google, YouTube and Facebook. Perhaps it is this ease with which San Francisco embraces change that is the reason for its progressive, liberal nature. Like it has always been before, San Francisco remains today intoxicated by the idea of the new.

Even if it is an agent for change though, some would argue that critical mass is what matters if there is to be any real difference. Anti-war protests in cities like New York and San Francisco are all good and well, but what use are they if the majority of the country doesn’t feel the same way? To many of its critics then, San Francisco is unrealistic; it’s a self-indulgent epicentre of the bleeding-heart liberal. Others say that San Francisco is not as free thinking as it makes itself out to be. In a city where it is extremely unhip to be in favour of George Bush, a Republican colleague of mine is afraid to air her views freely. To her, you’re entitled to freedom of speech here — as long as you’re a Democrat or an Independent. Then again, anytime there is a majority way of thinking, most people would find it hard to stand up against the prevailing point of view.

Still, for all it may be accused of, San Francisco is a dynamic, thriving place. And if it is idealistic, surely idealism has its place, especially in this country now that crunch time is near. Come the November presidential elections, the ordinary American will have the chance to change the path the Bush administration has followed that up until now has left many feeling disillusioned and betrayed. A city like San Francisco could be an important driver to usher in this change. Whether history sees it as worthy of that title, or rather as an outlier whose intentions didn’t materialise into tangible differences, remains to be seen.