Thursday, 20 August 2015

Jonathan Mills does not understand freedom of speech

I am very glad that Jonathan Mills is not the director of the Edinburgh International Festival. It's not his programming - the EIF will always be hit and miss, that's the nature of its scale - nor his fashion choices. Even his defensive attitude about his comment on the Referendum is fair enough. I just found him... odd.

It's something critics rarely mention, but when I interview somebody famous/cool/talented, it is a relief and a pleasure when they turn out to be interesting and interested. Recently, I was on the phone to that Philip Ridley, playwright, visual artist, film-maker and a man who has every right to dismiss me as the guttersnipe I am. But he was charming, well up for a chat, and generously let me grill him on dramaturgy way past the time needed for the 250 word article I intended to write.

Mills was the opposite. I'd meet him at social functions and, if we spoke, he'd always give me an extract from the speech he was about to give to the room. He came across as mechanical, ill at ease with conversation. My last memory of him was at the farewell party for him at the EIF. I spotted him in the corner, alone, looking like a sixth-former who had gate-crashed the party and was wishing he could talk to the older girls...

But there he was, on the panel at Walking the Tightrope. Every time he got the microphone, he lectured. He wasn't actually too bad, and was clear on his position. Those people, he said, who had disrupted Batsheva Dance... well, they liked to protest. But did they like to support? Were they there when, in 2008, he programmed a Palestinian company? 

Well, that's one objection to the boycotting of Israeli academics and artists. Mine is more simplistic: I believe a boycott is counter-productive. Being an anarchist, and to be consistent, I would have to boycott any artist who took money from the state, since the nation state is a nineteenth century fiction, a formalisation of feudal property rights into a capitalist commodity. 

Starting from October, I would also have to boycott myself for accepting funding from the UK state, which I believe is far too involved in the propagation of arms trading. 

Any road, at the end of the panel discussion, an old lady pipes up. She was one of the anti-Israeli protesters. She explained that she had been abused on the picket line. She added that she thought the behaviour of the Israeli state was so bad that it was more important to protest it than allow theatre performances to go ahead.

I don't agree, but I understand. If you believe that by stopping a hip hop opera in Edinburgh you can protect children in Gaza, and you fail to act on that, you are a moral idiot. I do not believe it works like that, but I am open to the idea that stopping genocide is more important than choreography.

But Mills asked her whether she had been there supporting the arts in 2008. She didn't know, and so Mills, with support from playwright Tim Fountain, mocked her for being a protester and not a supporter.

To be clear, two white men with microphones shouted down an elderly lady. They did not respect her position. They did not engage her in a dialogue. They used the power of the PA to drown her out.

That's not freedom of speech, Jonathan. It's bullying. There are no winners in the battle for freedom of expression. It doesn't work like that. 

Strangely enough, Mills begun his chat by saying that he'd enjoyed the plays in Walking the Tightrope (and they are great fun) because they used humour.

I'm glad he thinks that, because I have been laughing at him for years. 

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