(HOST) Lately, commentator Olin Robison has been thinking a great deal about the long term importance of democratic symbols.
(ROBISON) Over the last many months I have spent quite a lot of time in London – a city I know well and enjoy greatly. The place I stay is very near Hyde Park which joins with Kensington Gardens to form one of the great urban parks of the world. I have spent many hours in these parks.
One distinctive part of Hyde Park is the famous Speaker’s Corner – the corner of the Park nearest Marble Arch. It is a large space where anyone can come and speak about anything and it is OK. The speakers have to put up with a lot of heckling from the small crowds which gather there. But the police take no notice. No one is going to bother the speakers – except the hecklers, of course. It really is a splendid tradition going back a long time.
I realized recently, while walking in these parks, that over the last several months I have been stopped no fewer than five times by people wanting directions to Speaker’s Corner. These questioners included two Arabs, one German, one Japanese and one Pakistani.
What an extraordinary testament that is to the power of that symbol of free speech. The questioners coming, as they did, from different parts of the world all wanted to see this spot. There isn’t all that much to see, really. It is just a public space where custom – not law – dictates complete and total freedom of speech. Complete and total. Really.
Now, I must confess that I have been there on a few occasions when some of what was to be heard was pretty outrageous. Really over the top by a wide margin. And yet no one representing authority is even there. Tony Blair does not fare well at Speaker’s Corner. But surely there is no surprise in that.
Some of the speakers are young. Some old. Some are thoughtful. Others are clearly nut cases.
Most bring their own soap box on which to stand. Actually the preferred podium these days seems to be those heavy plastic cases in which milk cartons are delivered to supermarkets. The speakers arrive and later leave carrying their own podiums as it were.
Most are passionate about whatever they are speaking about whether it is government policy, politics generally or religion – which is clearly a favorite subject for speakers and hecklers alike.
What interests me is less the subject matter of the speakers than the fact that so many millions of people from all over the world know about the place, it’s traditions, what it stands for and what happens there. That, dear friends, is a dramatic and powerful symbol.
Some time ago I set out to find the legal history of Speaker’s corner. When, I wondered, was a law passed setting this place aside for this purpose.
And guess what: there is no law. It is simply custom. It is and has been a custom for so long that no politician or government dares touch it. As far as I can tell no one wants to change it. No government, conservative or liberal, seems in any way threatened by it. No one risks being labeled unpatriotic or treasonous for speaking their minds in this very public space.
And all those visitors – including the Arabs, the German, the Japanese and the Pakistani to whom I talked – they all wanted to go and see such a place for themselves. They all knew exactly what it is. All they wanted from me were directions.
It has become a sort of secular shrine.
Isn’t that terrific!
This is Olin Robison.
Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and of Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.