The Bughouse Square Debates: Come for the used books, stay for the fringe opinions | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

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The Bughouse Square Debates: Come for the used books, stay for the fringe opinions

The annual Newberry Book Fair tie-in celebrates its 30th anniversary with the best of anti-lamestream stances.


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Between Bernie Sanders's endorsement of Hillary Clinton and the conference Socialism 2016, which concluded in Chicago earlier this month, left-leaning residents might need a new outlet for their fix of noncapitalist rhetoric. The annual Bughouse Square Debates—the 30th edition takes place on Saturday, July 30—is an attempt to reconnect citizens to the city's radical roots.

For this event, the Newberry celebrates Washington Square Park's history as a free-speech refuge. In the early 1900s, "Bohemians, socialists, atheists, and religionists of all persuasions" spoke their minds in the park, according to the Newberry's website. The rowdy, freewheeling debates earned Washington Square Park the nickname "Bughouse Square," a reference to the slang term "bughouse," meaning a mental health facility.

"It had a reputation similar to Hyde Park in London or Greenwich Village in New York," says Karen Christianson, the Newberry's director of public engagement.

From the 1910s to approximately the mid-1960s, Bughouse Square was the "most celebrated outdoor free-speech center in the nation," according to the website Encyclopedia of Chicago. The speakers openly embraced far-left politics—many orators were associated with groups like the Proletarian Party or the Industrial Workers of the World.

Mainstream American disdain for communism after World War II led to a decline in the park's popularity—until 20 years later, when community members sought to rejuvenate the park. Since 1986 the Newberry has organized the Bughouse Square Debates event to coincide with the Newberry Book Fair, a four-day sale known for its mix of used books, movies, and records.

This year the Newberry hosts Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Kogan as the event's emcee, the Heartland Institute's John Nothdurft and antiprivatization activist Tom Tresser for a debate on Chicago's budgetary issues, and roughly 15 scheduled speakers, including global-warming denier David Ramsay Steele and Green Party Senate write-in candidate Scott K. Summers.

Additionally, the Bughouse Square Debates' "open soapbox"—a soapbox crate used as a speaker's stand—has been the setting for a host of rants from opinionated passersby. In the past there has been some "amiable heckling," according to Christianson, and speeches about, for example, alien conspiracies.

"In the earlier days, people who were speaking tended to be pretty consistently to the left of center politically and, in recent years, we've had a lot more balance in the people who speak," Christianson says, noting that the event now draws participants from across the political spectrum. "But the spirit of it has remained very similar." v

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