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What do they think they are doing?

What do they think they are doing?


A survey on customs in the EU and English-speaking countries that are scarcely ever written about in school manuals

What most people remember ,what they think they know of England, its culture and its customs and traditions usually isn’t more than that- the essential 5-o’clock-tea (now actually abolished by the major part of the British), a typical English breakfast (cones with butter and oats porridge that, as many Englishmen claim, no one ever eats in their country, except for the Scottish maybe),and, of course, “the Trafalgar Square with the Nelson column in the center ” that, according to one of the English manuals, a Russian schoolboy should remember and like most in London...They might also remember All Saint’s Day(the Halloween ),Big Ben etc. But many relatively new customs and cultural activities in UK, America and the rest of Europe that we probably are totally unaware of, seem to me far more interesting than those mentioned in Britain or the plain data on eating roasted turkey in America on Thanksgiving day-for example, the Speaker’s Corner at one of the entrances in Hyde Park ought to be considered to be the embodiment of European democracy, the embodiment of free speaking and civil rights. The speakers have to raise on a stool which they bring to the Corner with them, and then they may attract the visitors’ attention with speeches of any kind- from expression of negative altitude to the government or the present political system to bringing forward their idea of love and God. As those who most actively back the idea of Speaker’s corner claim,it is something opposite to “opinion polls” that they call “static phenomena”,while the opinions spoken out in Speaker’s Corner are “a dynamic reflection of mass psychology” as it shows all the nihilistic doubts in those who said “yes” or “no” during the “opinions polls”. Amongst those who have attended meetings here, are some of the most influential figures in world history such as Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and V.I.Lenin

Oliver Cromwell's corpse was hung up here in a cage for public display, as a warning to others who might wish to abolish the Monarchy. This was of course in the days before Speakers' Corner, when "Tyburn", one of the "hanging fields" of London was located there. Others whose ghosts haunt this corner include William Morris, George Orwell, C.L.R. James, Benn Tillet, Marcus Garvey, and a star-spangled cast of millions more who shall remain unmentioned, excepting the immovable Lord Soper, who was still speaking till three weeks before he died at 95 years of age.

But even those who are familiar with London’s speaker’s corner might be unaware that such places exist in many other countries,too.For example,there is one in Saksatchevan,Canada.

In the southwest corner of Wascana Park in Wascana Centre, a historical link with the past was officially dedicated on April 12, 1966.

Speakers' Corner was dedicated to the people of Saskatchewan by the Earl Mountbatten, Admiral of the Fleet of Burma during World War II.
It serves as a constant reminder of their heritage of free speech and assembly and a tribute to Saskatchewan's people who have upheld that heritage.

Speaker's Corner was designed by Wascana Centre Authority staff and forms the entrance to Wascana Park from Albert Street at Nineteenth Avenu 

The next interesting democratic custom is a truly new one, and it has been borrowed from China of the late 70-ties of our century .It is the idea of “the democracy wall” by Wei Jing Sheng-a wall of free announcements any volunteer could post except for those who would post something persuading to buy ,a plain tasteless advertisement. The idea was given a go in 1979 in Beijing, and the government didn’t like it. In the same year, Wei Jing Sheng was arrested.

Now, those who back creation of a democracy wall near Speaker’s Corner in London, claim that the Democracy Wall is the best way to publish educational information; they call back the promises of

Tony Blair’s government to “educate, educate, educate”.Yet, as they notice, the price of hiring a poster in the town or in the Tube is too high for it and only allows “shopping information” to reach the citizens.A long way of struggle is before the supporters of the Wall yet, but they expect to win, though the government, as they argue ,always seeks for reasons to erase what is posted on the wall.

Tourists who have seen both places mentioned only once, might think that only madmen go to speaker’s corner. But let me remind you what Lenin told particularly about these opinions. He told a story about a man who sat twitching and shaving; his arms were trembling ,his head was shivering ,a spectator thought he was crazy ,but when he (the spectator) came closer he could see the man was sharpening a knife...

There are tens of thousands of speakers who come to speaker’s corner once a year, and hundreds of “regular” ones. What are they talking about? What is considered so essential for them that should be posted at the entrance to England’s main park on a huge wall? What exactly are “dynamic reflections of mass psychology”?

During one of my numerous trips to London I could see on the TRAFALGAR SQUARE a man in a cowboy hat standing on a stool and talking loudly about love. “What is it, young man? What is love? Yes !!! Exactly !!!A difficult thing to say ! It is the feeling of being in love!”...and so on.. The man neglected any forms they make love fit...and I was actually surprised one should stand on a stool to talk about beautiful feelings. But the custom persists, and the stool is a symbol of freedom ,that lets one raise above others to make them hear, and above “the holy ground of England” where any protests against social forms and customs are prosecuted. In Speaker’s Corner I saw a lady persuading a crowd around her that Christian religion is at least unfair... For whom did Jesus suffer if we anyway have to pay for every single thing ,for every sin we have committed. Her maniacal certainty caused laugh in the crowd...she told them not to get too clever...and a guy tested if she was a witch with a zip. That illustrates best the way one can lose in the argue in Speaker’s Corner...it isn’t one-sided persuasion there. No, I don’t mean testing people with fire is good, and the guy certainly is a hooligan, the antisocial type...But the rule works-Speaker’s Corner and other places connected with democratic customs in England are mostly fine places to bet ,to solve all doubts, and to speak out.

But speaking about the Democracy Wall and the idea of consumerism, I must mention one relatively new holiday custom-the Buy Nothing Day(the BND).

Its slogans are “United we spend? United let’s don’t”, “Spend a day without spending”Actually, the organizers call it “a culture jam” and don’t declare any strict rules concerning the celebration, but in common, the BND is an act against consumerism, and what they do on BND is at least buy nothing in the shops-but it’s much more than that.The organizers also make colorful posters and animated shows and hang and show those near large malls. That can be something like what was on the BND last year-

An animated pig superimposed on a map of North America smacks its lips and says: “The average North American consumes five times more than а Mexican, 10 times more than a Chinese person, and 30 times more than a person from India..”(from the WSJ heading)

It can also be cartoon and tale characters having fun at shopping people .It can be large crowds of BND supporters cutting their credit cards and recycling them.

The BND exists nearly in every European country(England, Finland, Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Italy),in many South and North American countries, as well as in Japan, New Zealand and Israel. Its “base” is in the editorial of the Adbusters journal. The man who founded all this is called Kalle Lasn. According to the information from the WSJ heading, he’s a 55-year-old emigrant from Estonia (his family escaped from the Soviet occupation in 1944). In the country he came from it was, off course, scarcely allowed to speak free. And in North America, again ,he realized you can’t speak up against the sponsor, and that, he thought, isn’t democratic. Mr. Lasn worked as a journalist in Tokyo , specializing on advertisements. Then he moved to Canada to become a documentary filmmaker. In the 1980-ies a forestry company promoting clear-cutting caused his most negative reaction. He made his own advertisement about the disadvantages of this method and about the need to save the old-growth trees. But no TV company sold him the air time. Since then, the TV companies have been his worst enemies. The journal he started publishing(“the Adbusters”) contained parodies on the advertisements’ contents and slogans. Mr. Lasn ’s another idea given a go is the “TV turn-off week” No mass media company has ever provided him and his supporters the time to speak out ,claiming Kalle’s activity is “in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States”, except for Cable News Network, that has agreed to air his ads.

The BND is going to be celebrated on November 29-th this year. Last year it happened on November 23-rd. Its idea appeared in 1991,but its history actually began in 1997(the 1-st well known BND).Then, as the NY Times describes,

The Buy Nothing Day campaign in Seattle distributed this checklist to let shoppers evaluate things they were thinking of buying.

-Do I need it?
-How many do I already have?
-How much will I use it?
-How long will it last?
-Could I borrow it from a friend or family member?
-Can I do without it?
-Am I able to clean, lubricate and/or maintain it myself?
-Am I willing to?
-Will I be able to repair it?
-Have I researched it to get the best quality for the best price?
-How will I dispose of it when I'm done using it?
-Are the resources that went into it renewable or nonrenewable?
-Is it made or recycled materials, and is it recyclable?
-Is there anything that I already own that I could substitute for it?

Well, that’s it for the BND. Our next subject is going to be something that can’t be called a custom in the original meaning of the word but, judging by the amount of literature written on it in the last thirty years and the range if its prevalence, doubtlessly is an important part of civilized European countries’ life. I am speaking about the traditions of whistleblowing, defined as “reporting on malpractice of any kind”.

The term 'whistleblowing' is a relatively recent entry into the vocabulary of politics and public affairs, although the type of behaviour to which it refers is not wholly new. It is employed here to mean the process by which insiders 'go public' with their claims of malpractices by, or within, powerful organizations... This restricted sense of the term (...) distinguishes it from such related practices as in-house criticism, official and unofficial 'leaks' and the like(...)The history of whistleblowing is uneven, in that such practices are intermittently dispersed in time, erratic in their trajectories and indeterminate in their form.

(by Nick Perry)

At the moment, whistleblowers are many large and small organisations, though with various ideas of the way they are going to achieve their aims.

The most common way in UK is- sending the information about the malpractice to the organization, and there the case is investigated (in most cases it is performed by such bodies as Health and Safety Executive, the Financial Service Authority, the Inland Revenue in Britain), then, in serious cases the investigation is passed over to the police and the media. The UK Public Interest Disclosure act grants safety for the whistleblowers, so do many of the organisations, the slogan is “don’t let the bastards grind you down”.But the reality is a bit different.

In his heading, summarizing the thousands of pages of whistleblowers’ literature and the results of whistleblowers’ activity, Nick Perry mentioned that, though these people proclaim “those arguments concerning individual rights, the claims of conscience, the responsibilities of citizens, and the emancipatory power of reason”, the fate of whistleblowers is characteristically bleak in that if they have not already decided to resign they can expect to be dismissed from their employment. Numeral examples have proven it; in most cases only one of the five whistleblowers managed to avoid getting sacked. Being blackmailed, arrested, referred for psychiatric evaluation (with its results defined beforehand ,off course) is yet not the full list of a whistleblower’s risks, generously created mostly by private sector employers. The journalist also mentions the necessarity of social control in the governmental organizations . “White collar crimes” are rarely being investigated, and , though whistleblowing is partially protected by the law in the US, for example, but anyone can understand that the especial level of inviolability of the “white collared” enables them to penalize “whistleblowers”. Nick Perry makes a negative remark on most of the whistleblowers’ literature: “ at the level of textual organization, these whistleblowing studies tend to replicate, rather than interrogate, the kind of difficulties which whistleblowers find themselves confronted with at the level of social practice.”. Expediency is what he calls such works; “ for although 'is' and 'ought' may formally remain stubbornly separate, would-be whistleblowers are, in effect, cautioned against going public by the same authors who commend the integrity of those who do (e.g. Glazer and Glazer 1989: 206-207 and passim).”

Though British and American whistleblowers may interfere, communicate mix with each other, but these groups differ by their prioritizing the problems and the directions of their activity. English whistleblowers are relatively young, small and inaggressive organizations, and their main aim is to protect employees from the consequences of malpractice of their chiefs. What some of them do is just giving advice to the victims. American whistleblowers are different; their main enemy is the corruption, especially in the highest spheres of the society; they tend to control the governmental organizations (and make their working conditions “transparent”) and often support the government’s democratic policy. These people appeal to numeral laws created specially for granting their safety and their right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print. : e.g. the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights (esp. its article 19 about the freedom of speech), chapter 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (about anyone’s right to have and express his or her opinion, Article I of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief ,etc.

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