When your town measures only 3.7 square miles and its population less than 24,000, it's no easy task to command the media spotlight. So Councilman Mark Friedman deserves credit for sending reporters to their maps this week to figure out where in the heck is El Cerrito.

By proposing that the City Council rethink its attachment to the Pledge of Allegiance -- that hands-on-the-heart thing is so yesterday -- he caught the eye of every TV news team in town. Plus, he got headlines on websites I'd barely heard of (ewallstreeter.com, onenewspage.com, topix.com) and one I wish I hadn't (skinheads.net).

Nobody will ever again think of El Cerrito as Richmond's kid brother.

Up until Friedman opened his mouth, the biggest controversy involving the Pledge was whether the words "under God" belonged in it. Atheist Michael Newdow won a legion of fans by launching that battle 13 years ago.

Friedman's proposal, as reported by Times correspondent Rick Radin, was to begin council meetings with a new, improved version of the 121-year-old verse that eliminated reference to the United States and inserted his hometown: "I pledge to serve the people of El Cerrito ... "

One obvious advantage of this scaled-down goal is a lighter workload. Pledging allegiance to one of the Bay Area's smallest cities is a far more manageable task than making the same promise to 312 million people in 50 states.


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Of course, that casts the councilman as a slacker -- The rest of us worry about the nation while he gets what's between Interstate 580 and Wildcat Canyon Regional Park? -- which isn't quite fair. His reason for stomping out the Pledge was not laziness but his belief that it's no longer relevant. (Which reminds us: Please alert all Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, the Boy Scouts and VFW branches.)

As Friedman explained, the world has changed since the Pledge was written in 1892: "We are interdependent with the rest of the world, working on the problems of global warming and poverty. Are we really providing liberty and justice for all?"

I know what you're thinking: That sounds like fuzzy, empty-headed nonsense, spouted by a self-important prig who thinks he's outsmarted the room. Shame on you for being so critical of a public figure. You know there are defamation rules.

I don't blame Friedman. I think he contracted an infectious strain of Berkeleyosis. It's an illness that causes relatively inconsequential elected officials who should be balancing their budgets and keeping their roads repaired to think deep thoughts and seek grand answers for issues that don't need solutions.

Symptoms of the disease are gaseous bloating of the ego and a dangerously enlarged self-image. Sufferers are known to grow lightheaded after extended exposure to their own rhetoric.

The consequences are not harmful, just pointless. You may recall when the Berkeley City Council condemned the war in Afghanistan. Or when it proclaimed solidarity with Tibet. Or when it opposed China's bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. That was Berkeleyosis, all of it.

I blame proximity to Berkeley for Friedman's infection. Fortunately, his fellow council members seem immune. They ignored his motion and told him instead that he could remain silent when the Pledge was recited.

You know, that would have been a good idea this time.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.