Another hot Sunday in London yesterday, passing by the fun but too-crowded London Red Bull Flugtag to celebrate my birthday (today) with some friends, and cycling past I saw for the first time in a while all the polemicists, demagogues and religious preachers who come out to the Marble Arch corner of Hyde Park every week. It is easy to forget how lively the debates can be, and the character and eccentricity of some of the speakers reminds one of the ideal Habermasian public sphere for political debate, of the polis, the ideal of spoken argument and politics. Among others, the marxists were out in form, as well as an silent old bearded chap with no listeners with a placard reading:
"Christian Atheism: Find Christianity without God".
Speaker's Corner is a wonderful, diverse, a fascinating attraction. Please go and visit, exhort, argue. Yet passing by reminds me of a troubling aspect of this often earnest political spectacle. That is exists is a wonderful thing; a space, but don't most of us see it more as entertainment than a real political forum where we can make a difference?
Perhaps this is what the internet does for politics too? It is a space, but mostly it is powerless unless there are many other contextual factors at work. That there is a space for debate does not mean that space will work in opening up real active seeds of change. The existence of a useful, global forum such as the Net may be necessary for open debate in the modern age, just as perhaps Speaker's Corner was in the 19th Century, but as with speaker's corner, the internet's existence is not sufficient in itself for opening up democracy and accountability.