From Hyde Park Comer to control rooms: the upward rise of cranks

Barbara Amiel May 29 1978

From Hyde Park Comer to control rooms: the upward rise of cranks

Barbara Amiel May 29 1978

From Hyde Park Comer to control rooms: the upward rise of cranks

Barbara Amiel

My primary-school teacher in England was impelled by three educational goals: that the young ladies in her charge should remain forever chaste and dedicate themselves to the pursuit of perfect handwriting and, thirdly, that the obstinacy of being left-handed should be cured quickly by tying our left arm behind the back. (This should not be sneered at by Canada’s progressive teachers. Thanks to Miss Braham, today I am ambidextrous and can also perform any number of interesting tasks while in bondage.) Miss Braham’s eccentricities were redeemed, however, by the devotion she instilled in her students for the institution of free speech, epitomized for her by London’s Hyde Park Corner, soapbox orators and all. Last year I revisited the spot. A turbaned gentleman proposed restricting entry to Britain to females of fivefoot-eight or over. Frankly, his suggestion seemed to make about as much sense as any other immigration policy I’ve heard of lately and was certainly greeted with much enthusiasm by the shorter men in his audience.

Today, our age of Instant Communications has extended the speak-out to open-line radio shows, letters-to-the-editor columns and television’s dreadful man-in-the-street interviews. In our print and electronic Hyde Park Corners, as in the real one, cranks predominate. In fact they are sought out by the media, encouraged, goaded and sometimes edited to sound more cranky. These programs are the freak shows of democracy, intellectual banana-peel derbys, designed to amuse the audience by the ineptness of the contestants. Who will ever forget the deadpan face of Earl Cameron reading viewers’ letters after CBC’S nightly National?

A month ago a radio station in Hamilton invited me to be the guest host on their 90minute open-line radio show. “How do I cope with all the cranks?” I asked. “Cut them off,” he advised. “You’ll have your finger on the phone button and I’ll be right there behind to help you.” Then he looked me straight in the eye. “Find your own style, of course,” he said, “but 1 think it’s a good idea to thank people for their views, even if you disagree with them. It’s just the cranks you have to get off the lines.” Shades of Miss Braham. In spite of what I know about open-line shows, I had a rush

of excitement at the prospect of B. Amiel mediating the views of free men and women brought together to discuss the issues of our time. Come, let us reason together.

I had suggested a program dealing with recent proposals to license parents according to their ability to raise children. None of the would-be-regulators behind these plans was “available” to come on the air and explain how society would get permit fees and/or written tests completed before

impregnation. “I’ve tried everyone,” said the show’s producer with an edge of despair in her voice. “You’re a good lady,” I replied placatingly. “Don’t you call me lady,” she snapped, “I’m a woman.” I began to sense trouble ahead.

“What we’ll do is a show on Children’s Rights,” continued the woman-producer sweetly. “I did it five years ago on radio in London, Ontario—I always was ahead of my time—and people just flipped when I talked about a child’s right to sexual freedom and political power. You know how conservative these small towns are.”

“I don’t know much about the topic,” I replied hesitantly. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Just read out the Bill of Rights for Kids and the telephone lights will light up like May Day. I’ll keep the cranks off.” I began to suspect our definition of cranks might not coincide. On the drive into Hamilton I worked out some questions about the children’s lib issue: Could modern nutrition and medical care have speeded up the maturation processes of the brain? Could changing economic realities really make

child-labor morally desirable as well as practical? A little warm buzz of anticipation started up inside me. At the studio the producer was very excited. We had a three-way California phone-in interview lined up with one of the advocates of Children’s Rights, “a marvelous man” who was fighting for three-year-olds to get the vote.

My first caller was a middle-aged parent who couldn’t understand why she shouldn’t be allowed to spank her children. Neither could 1. “Thank you for calling, madam,” I said, bearing in mind the program director’s advice. The producer facing me behind the glass wall of the control room flicked on the intercom. “This is a hard-hat town. Call ’em ma’am, not madam.” Twenty minutes into the show I was filled with an aching despair. The hot-shot psychologist from California refused to recognize any distinction between children and adults. I, a slave to mike buttons, flashing lights, and scribbled signs, was having difficulty distinguishing any adult symptoms in myself. Then a call flashed through from a lady with some common sense. “The Bible distinguished between Christ as a child and Christ as an adult,” she began and went on to lead us through simple deductive reasoning. It was an exquisite example of the traditional way people with little formal education learn to reason from the Bible. I began to get interested. Behind the wall the producer held up a sign. “She’s a nut. Get her oil.” A memory flickered: a television interview being taped for CßCsThisHourHas Seven Days. As the interviewer began to discuss some issue with his guest, resulting in a minute or so of intelligent conversation, a large sign crept into his line of vision behind the guest’s left ear. “Irritate her!” Yes, Miss Braham, you were right. There are more cranks behind the glass partitions of control rooms, government offices and the oak-panelled studies of educationalists than in all the Hyde Park Corners of the world combined. Try to set the man-in-the-street up for a laugh, and often as not the laugh is on the media opinion-makers. Intelligence and wisdom are rare commodities in Hyde Park Corner, but are they much more frequent anywhere else? As long as we can all speak out we all have a chance. Three cheers for cranks, three cheers for dear Miss Braham.