The Hollow Men

Sharon Hudson, former Berkeley resident
Sunday February 11, 2018 - 10:34:00 AM

I wish to thank Mr. Steve Martinot for his sad and all-too-true commentary on so-called public comment at council meetings and similar rituals (“The Ideology of Silencing,” 1/31/2018). Those who participate in public meetings, are, indeed, the hollow men of political discourse, and so, “in this last of meeting places / We grope together / To avoid speech…”

When I was active in Berkeley politics, I frequently participated in the specious process Mr. Martinot so aptly describes and decries. The ironies abounded. For example, the more important the issue, the more truncated and trivialized the public comments. And, decision makers cannot by rule respond to comments—how insane is that? If anything, they actually should be required to respond, thereby engaging in dialogue, gaining more information, or at least demonstrating that they are listening. The public speakers often know far more about the issues at hand than anyone on the council, and yet they are treated as if their heads are as hollow as those they speak to—or at. In fact, decision makers should be ashamed to participate in such a process, which makes mockery of democracy and humiliates their constituents. 

Especially contemptible and contemptuous is when the mayor or chair determines at the last minute, based on attendance, how many minutes each speaker will be allowed. In the pre-Bates period, three minutes was the normal “public comment” period, until Bates found that too taxing for his Trumpian brain. In those days I was actually so naïve and earnest as to prepare well-organized comments on complex issues. Not to prepare I would have considered not only ineffective, but disrespectful of the listeners. It took about a minute to explain one point fully. I frequently wanted to explain two disparate points and then show how the two points related to each other. Such a speech took two minutes for the two points and a third minute to show their relationship. But upon arrival at the council meeting, we would be unexpectedly cut to one minute…Alas! 

One-minute comments are necessarily simplistic and, as Mr. Martinot points out, only good for registering oneself on a “pro” or “anti” tally. If they are not simplistic, then they are aphorisms that can be “expressed,” but not meaningfully explored or understood, in one minute. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I realized the futility of both the preparation and the ritual itself. Then I understood why the “old hands” in Berkeley politics did not prepare anything, but would just go to the microphone and try to complete the unfinished comments of the hapless speakers preceding them. With time too short to say anything profound, the idea that people don’t have anything to say that merits more than one minute has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Perhaps even more dehumanizing was the mayor's prioritizing of the time clock over any content the speaker might be trying to purvey. Already the speaker has, as Mr. Martinot points out, excised his or her commentary of all “unnecessary” content (such as concrete examples, personal stories, humor, etc.) that permits a speaker to personalize a concept or develop any relationship to the audience. Nonetheless, perhaps he or she has somehow managed to make a respectable and coherent presentation. Then suddenly, when the sixty seconds are up, with the speaker unable to finish his or her final point or even mid-sentence, down comes the chair’s gavel: WHAM! “Time up!” The speaker rushes to finish, but is inevitably reduced to engaging in a verbal wrestling match with the chair that entirely erases his or her dignity, credibility, and humanity, and along with it, the impact of everything said in the previous minute. 

Finally, the habit of scheduling public comment and voting on an important issue during the same meeting reveals unequivocally that the comment is only for show. If it were taken for content, the decision makers would expect time to digest the new information before voting. In this way the process itself exposes its own hollowness. This ritual may be called public comment, but as for real public input?—Our voices “are quiet and meaningless / As wind in dry grass.”