Who Thinks What about Re-Zoning West Berkeley, and How Do We Know?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday May 04, 2012 - 02:04:00 PM

There probably won’t be a new formal editorial posted today because we’ve been spending the morning struggling with our server. For the non-techies among you, that’s a computer, maintained on the premises of a Berkeley computing company, LMI Inc., where the program which produces this website is running. A number of readers have complained that when they click on the site, or on links to the site in emails that I send, it doesn’t come up as expected. And my job of posting articles has become very difficult because the server goes down frequently, stopping my work. 

Evidently there need to be some changes made, but "Further Research is Necessary" to determine what’s likely to work. Please bear with us and with LMI. 

The topic I’ve been mulling over in my mind is the eternal question of the Silent Majority. Let’s start, as we seem to do more and more often these days, with Wikipedia. (I’m tempted to say “the invaluable Wikipedia”, but that’s so true it’s become a cliché. ) 

Wikipedia defines it thus: “The silent majority is an unspecified large majority of people in a country or group who do not express their opinions publicly.[1] The term was popularized (though not first used) by U.S. President Richard Nixon in a November 3, 1969, speech in which he said, "And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support."[2] In this usage it referred to those Americans who did not join in the large demonstrations against the Vietnam War at the time, who did not join in the counterculture, and who did not participate in public discourse. Nixon along with many others saw this group of Middle Americans as being overshadowed in the media by the more vocal minority.” 

It seems that every time a significant number of citizens pull together in support of some proposition of civic importance, naysayers pop up to assert that the opposite view is surely held by a silent majority of less vocal burgers. This has happened to the lively controversy which surrounds the West Berkeley project, which has devolved into a set of proposed zoning changes which clearly will benefit three particular large property holdings. 

As Toni Mester points out in this issue, Frances Dinkelspiel on the berkeleyside.com website did an estimable job of reporting on the public hearing at Tuesday’s city council meeting which discussed these proposals. Also, the city council video of the event is available online if you want to hear more. 

The great majority of speakers, both residents and small business people, opposed the changes. So how did the modest but vocal minority of readers who habitually avail themselves of Berkeleyside’s Disqus commentary line respond to the article? 

The cowardly cuckoos who unfortunately pollute the comment threads in this and many online publications with anonymous invective tried to claim that, although most of the speakers who crowded the council chambers and spilled into the halls urged the council to reject the proposed amendments, there’s a vast pool of silent Berkeleyans who’d love to see skyscrapers filled with synthetic biology startups lining the Aquatic Park shoreline. One pig-headed regular even suggested that Councilmember Kriss Worthington had a nefarious motive for asking pointed questions: 

“Could it be because he knows that (at least some of) the opposition to the proposed plan comes from agitating done by a certain Berkeley news outlet? A news outlet that has endorsed him in the past?” 

Cue the Twilight Zone music: nya-nya nya-nya, nya-nya nya-nya! 

As longtime readers of the Berkeley Daily Planet know, our opinion columns have always been open to any local writer who has the guts to sign his or her rightful name. Many times we’ve run pieces from writers with whom we almost always disagree (Alan Tobey has written some of them) or disagree sometimes and in part (google Charles Siegel, for example). These are people worthy of respect because they stand behind their ideas. And we also run signed opinion pieces that we agree with. 

Since we’re at this point non-commercial, just about everyone whose work you read here is working for free. The two of us now grappling with the editorial duties don’t pay ourselves or our writers. This means that most of them are people who have a personal interest in the subject they’re writing about, and even (god forbid) personal opinions about it. And surprise, surprise, sometimes we agree with their opinions, but sometimes we don’t. 

When a writer combines a lot of information with a modest amount of opinion, we place the piece in the News section, but qualified with the News Analysis label. We also run press releases from reliable organizations clearly marked as such, because I’ve gotten tired of the standard journalistic practice of re-writing such press releases and pretending that they were true facts freshly reported. 

All of this has been a long-winded way of saying that there’s no logical reason to think that just because 

  1. almost everyone at Tuesday’s public hearing opposed the West Berkeley pro-developer zoning amendments; and
  2. almost everyone who’s written about them for the Planet agrees; and
  3. the Planet’s editor might even agree with these people
that there’s an infinite sea of faceless and voiceless Berkeleyans, a silent majority in fact, who hold the contrary point of view. 

The silent majority is, as it’s always been, those people who have only a vague idea of what’s going on, and don’t much care about it. Over time, as we learned from the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and now the gay marriage debate, the ill-informed silent majority can gradually become better informed if the well-informed vocal minority works at it hard enough. 

Let’s hope, for Berkeley’s sake, that this can happen before everything that now works beautifully about West Berkeley is sacrificed on the altar of private profiteering. 

(And now it looks like I've run on in almost as much space as a formal essay would have occupied. Clearly, I'm not part of any silent majority!)