Last night, islanders met in the Sunken Gardens to protest the policies of US President Donald Trump, and to celebrate the values of diversity and tolerance which he seems to threaten. The protest began with a group of concerned citizens who wanted to stand in solidarity with similar protests the world over, and I was glad and proud to be part of helping to get it off the ground. I think protest and dissent are vital to a healthy democracy, and would only like to see more of it in Guernsey – whether people engage with local issues or international ones. I gave a short address last night which explains why I feel that way, and I have copied it below for those who may be interested.
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
That was W.H. Auden, writing nearly 80 years ago, in a poem that has never lost its relevance.
I’m not standing up here to give much of a speech: don’t worry. I’m pretty much just going to read a few things, that say it better than I could. But I’m standing up at all because I think it is important for members of the government to say that civil liberties matter – that people must be free to speak out about their concerns, to demand different and better, to defend their own freedoms and those of others.
In the words of E.M. Forster: “Democracy has another merit. It allows criticism, and if there is not public criticism, there are bound to be hushed-up scandals. That is why I believe in the Press, despite all its lies and vulgarity, and why I believe in Parliament. Parliament is often sneered at because it is a talking shop. I believe in it because it is a talking shop.”
Democracy, he says, “starts from the assumption that the individual is important, and that all types are needed to make a civilisation. […] People get more of a chance under a democracy. […] They found religions […] or they produce literature and art, or they do disinterested scientific research, or they may be what is called ‘ordinary people’, who are creative in their private lives, bring up their children decently or help their neighbours. All these people need to express themselves: they cannot do it unless society allows them the liberty to do so, and the society which allows them most liberty is a democracy.”
Democracy gives us the freedom to believe things could be better, to say it, to act on it. That freedom is essential and to be cherished. And, in the words of Toni Morrison, “The function of freedom is to free someone else.”
So, protest state-sponsored repression. Protest war. Protest the sale of arms. Protest the manufacturing of arms. Protest female genital mutilation. Protest domestic violence. Protest slavery. Protest discrimination. Protest torture. Protest nuclear weapons. Protest honour killings. Protest poverty. Protest the roll-back of civil liberties in a country that was the flagship for freedom. Protest a lazy indifference to climate change that will ruin the lives of the world’s poorest long before it touches our shores. Protest the need for food banks in wealthy countries. Protest corruption and cover-ups. Protest injustice. In Syria, in North Korea, in Nigeria, in Russia, in China – or in Guernsey, in Jersey, in the UK, in the USA. The challenges are different in each place, but you have your freedom to call them out.
We won’t always make a difference. We won’t always make a noise. Protest isn’t always standing here with placards. Protest is sometimes writing letters and organising campaigns. Protest is sometimes quietly volunteering for a mental health charity, or going in to schools to help out with literacy. Protest is sometimes devoting your career to the public sector, or to the pursuit of justice; to medicine or to journalism. Protest is sometimes handing out cake at a rally, or hoovering up and tidying away after a meeting. Protest is being that little bit braver than you think you can be, because you see an injustice being done to someone else, and you think: “not in my name.” Protest is being kind. Protest is not counting the cost. Protest is being the change you want to see.
And sometimes – more often than you think – protest is a story or a poem. I want to finish by reading two short pieces that were shared with me by someone who wants to stay anonymous. To me, they feel like echo and answer. The first one reminds us of why we are here, specifically, today. The second one, perhaps, is Guernsey’s response.
It is an irony that
The statue of liberty
Is a woman
Who holds the light of freedom
But whose lips are sealed
The freedom to bite your
Is no freedom at all.
But Lady Liberty has started
Through those sealed lips
To the rhythm of
Millions of feet marching.
And if one man threatens
To exercise his liberty
To turn the light out
On so many lives
At the flick of his wrist
Then now is the time to
That there are people
The world over who value the
Liberty to love
Liberty to hate.
And, finally, a story:
A summer evening in Candie Gardens. Bored of chasing pigeons, the little girl runs around the statue looking over the harbour.
“Who is it?” she asks.
“A Frenchman,” they answer.
They say he was called Victor Hugo, that he wrote books, that he was famous, a genius.
He left France a refugee, they say – the government did not want him there.
“What does it say?” she asks, pointing at the writing.
“To the rock of hospitality and freedom … my current refuge.”
“A rock of hospitality and freedom,” she thought. “What a wonderful place to live!”
But as she grew up she wondered, “Are we a rock of hospitality and freedom? Are we all that we could be?”