Updated: Much Ado about Not Much: Wikileaks Comes to the Berkeley City Council

By Becky O'Malley
Monday December 13, 2010 - 09:41:00 PM

An enormous hoo-ha has developed over a resolution passed by Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission (commonly known as P&J). Seven of the good and sincere souls on that body think that it’s time to support Private Bradley Manning, who is suspected of providing WikiLeaks with fodder for its leaks heard round the world: release of (mostly not classified) contents of diplomatic cables and other embarrassing miscellany. 

Of course, it’s a media-engendered flap. As of this writing on Tuesday morning, it’s not known whether the Berkeley City Council will vote P&J’s draft up or down, but it’s almost certain that it won’t make a dime’s worth of difference in the big world outside the Berkeley Bubble. As they say on the Supreme Court, the issue isn’t yet ripe—Manning hasn’t confessed to springing the leak, and in fact hasn’t even been formally accused of doing so. 

Prominent in flap-flacking are news outlets desperate for some of the beloved Bezerkeley stories that used to brighten otherwise dull columns before the Berkeley City Council was taken over by the Moderate Majority. The Chronicle plucked the draft of P&J’s recommended resolution from the Council Agenda committee, and the story went viral in the hysterical pseudo-media. Even Wired.com doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo about the new face of the City Council, since its blogger is still using the Bezerkeley meme.  

And the ambitious local Berkeleyside blog has seized on this as an opportunity to question the very existence of a Peace and Justice Commission. 

Supposedly, readers were going to be able to vote until tomorrow about whether the New Berkeley even needs such a body. Curiously, however, the voting mechanism seems to have stalled out when anti-P&J votes were ahead among the 300+ online voters whose preferences did get recorded. Conspiracy theorists in comments point to the globalist resume of Berkeleyside Blogger-in-Chief Lance Knobel (“leadership of the program for the World Economic Forum’s famous Davos summit”, advising Tony Blair on security issues, etc.) as motivation, but that seems far-fetched. 

It would be nice to be able to say that Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission has had an enormous impact around the world, but it just ain’t so. It’s generally been a body of good-hearted well-meaning local activists, each appointed by a particular councilperson, which has devoted a small number of citizen volunteer hours every month, to Visualizing Whirled Peas, as the bumpersticker recommends. 

(Traditionally, enough firmly pro-Israel commissioners have been appointed by canny councilpersons to keep the sticky Israel/Palestine question on the back burner. It seems that in the eyes of some commissioners the Manning resolution crossed over into that touchy area. Councilmember Gordon Wozniak's new appointee, Thyme Siegel, who blogs for the Pro Israel Bay Bloggers site, voted against it even though she admitted she hadn't read her commissioner's information packet, as did Rabbi Jane Littman.) 

P&J costs the city no more than a few hours each month for its secretary to attend meetings—what’s not to like? Indignant bloggers have been Shocked that its minutes haven’t even been posted online for months—that’s what comes of having almost no staff budgeted by the city manager. And the online supposed commission roster still lists former Councilmember Betty Olds as the appointer of one commissioner, though Susan Wengraf replaced Olds two years ago. Nobody home in Berkeley government any more... 

What seems obvious is that city staff is choosing to let not only P&J but most of Berkeley’s commissions slowly expire through the mechanism of Benign Neglect, until they are Weak Enough to Drown in a Bathtub, in the immortal words of Newt Gingrich Grover Norquist talking about the federal government. Almost anyone I know who has served on a city commission, including those which have putative quasi-judicial powers, thinks that citizens’ decisions are honored more in the breach than in the observance: that no one pays any attention any more to what citizen volunteers decide. Certainly the history of the Downtown Area Plan Commission, too often cited in this space, bears out this analysis. 

Even the Berkeley City Council has become more ornamental than real, with few exceptions no more than a hobby for aging retirees from cushy government jobs. It meets infrequently, takes long, long vacations, and displays an unseemly eagerness to go home to bed before decisions are complete. Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington usually manage to stay awake, but I wonder about some of the others. 

So it seems quite unlikely that the current Berkeley-Lite council will go out on a limb for the hapless Private Manning. We’ll send our reporter to the meeting as usual, and I’ll probably watch it online, but I don’t expect to be surprised. Check this space on Wednesday and Thursday for developments. 

In the meantime, the excitement gives the hungry hordes in the commercial media a few crumbs of indignation to chew on in an otherwise dull local week. 

P.S. I watched the show on Tuesday night. No surprises: lots of hand-wringing, but finally a unanimous motion to table because--as I predicted--Manning's position is not yet clear. Much Ado, indeed, about nothing. Nobody, however, spoke in favor of ditching P&J.