Joyce McMillan: A shout out for freedom of speech

The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning was one of the shows labelled as leftist tripe by the Chicago Sun Times. Picture: ContributedThe Radicalisation of Bradley Manning was one of the shows labelled as leftist tripe by the Chicago Sun Times. Picture: Contributed
The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning was one of the shows labelled as leftist tripe by the Chicago Sun Times. Picture: Contributed
Liberal views and progressive policies fail to meet with the approval of one defender of the US constitution, writes Joyce McMillan

In a tiny studio theatre under the roof of the Assembly Hall, an actor from the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theatre in New York is performing a monologue called Mercy Killers, about an ordinary American, running his own small car-repair business, whose life falls apart when his beloved wife is diagnosed with breast cancer. For those of us who live in the imperfect but kindly embrace of the NHS, it’s almost impossible to imagine the cruelty of this; that people faced with all the agony and anxiety of a life-threatening diagnosis should also have to fear bankruptcy and homelessness, and medical insurance companies that deploy every trick in the book to avoid liability for seriously ill patients.

Yet “middle-class” Americans – people on ordinary salaries, with no reserves of wealth – live with this fear, year in and year out. And although I often have a high resistance to shows that are so clearly polemical in intention, this time, when writer and performer Michael Milligan finishes his story, and opens his jacket to reveal a T-shirt that says “Health Care Is A Human Right”, I’m tempted to join in the standing ovation around me; not least because of recent surveys which suggest that as many as half of personal bankruptcies in America are now associated with a serious medical diagnosis.

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It is this kind of show, though, that has earned the Edinburgh Festival – and Scotland in general – the undying scorn of Chicago Sun Times columnist Mona Charen, who visited our festival city for a few days this week, and left in high dudgeon, apparently deeply disappointed that the culture on show had little to do with “the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.” Ms Charen’s objections to Scotland seem to be threefold. One – with which I might partly agree, from a feminist perspective – has to do with the sheer porn-driven filth of some Fringe shows; although “filth on the Fringe” has been a common Edinburgh complaint ever since the founding of the Traverse Theatre, back in 1963.

The second concerns the “leftist tripe” of many shows on the Fringe; Ms Charen dislikes shows like the National Theatre of Wales’s Radicalisation Of Bradley Manning – which speculates on the role of homophobic bullying in shaping the character of the army intelligence specialist who leaked thousands of US security documents to Wikileaks – and Clancy Productions’ The Extremists, in which a right-wing American securocrat goes nuts on a television chat show.

And her third objection concerns the Scottish Government, which she seems to associate with all this lamentable leftist decadence, not least because it favours self-evident evils like free university education, nuclear disarmament, progressive taxation, and the eradication of poverty. The place, she says, is “deep in socialism”, not to mention knee-jerk anti-Americanism; and she left feeling alienated and insulted.

Now at one level, this response to Edinburgh and its festival is just silly, not least because not a single one of the shows mentioned actually originated in Scotland, and one of them, The Extremists, comes straight from New York. In truth, it’s hardly surprising that when people gather for an event like the Edinburgh Fringe, the neo-liberal and neo-conservative ideology embraced by Ms Charen, which has dominated western politics for the last generation, should receive a damned good kicking from the young, the angry, and the dissident of all nations. The idea that the Scottish Government and its policies are in any way responsible for this festival of dissent is simply bizarre, based on a profound misunderstanding of what the Fringe is; and the notion that there is anything unhealthy about it suggests, at best, an odd definition of freedom.

Even more serious, though, is the growing new-right presumption, reflected here, that they in some sense represent America, whereas the liberal voices of America do not. If the mighty text of the US constitution means anything at all, it means that there is nothing un-American about questioning US policy in Iraq, or exposing bullying and misconduct in the military, or mocking the growing power of the US security establishment. And American right-wingers who feel insulted as Americans by shows which raise these issues, have surely in some ways lost touch with the idea of America itself, a nation which has traditionally drawn its strength not from a totalitarian uniformity of ideological belief, backed by unquestioning patriotism, but from diversity, plurality, and complete freedom of thought and speech, guaranteed by the constitution.

And then finally, there is the familiar attitude to the small measure of social democracy that still survives and thrives in countries like Scotland, for their defence of which Scottish voters have been condemned as dinosaurs and dependency junkies by successive generations of neo-liberal commentators. For myself, I would like to see a more radical and serious debate about the kind of society we live in here in Scotland, about its frequent preference for top-down state-sponsored solutions over real grassroots initiatives, its mediocre bureaucracies, and the timid and passive quality of much of our public discussion.

What I will not do, though – and I reckon at least 75 per cent of Scots would agree with me – is to hold that discussion with a bunch of discredited free-market fundamentalists so out of touch with reality that they dismiss basic public goods as evidence of socialist tyranny. In that sense, the cash-driven persistence of this failed belief-system, and its constant intrusion into debates about everything from banking reform to healthcare, now represents a profound obstacle to serious reform of government and society, in Scotland and elsewhere.

To put it simply, the word “reform” has been annexed for too long by those whose main interest lies in breaking up public goods for private profit. And until those forces are driven from the scene by new political forces and alliances as yet unborn, those of us who have managed – with apologies to the Chicago Sun Times – to preserve some features of a just and compassionate society will be right to dig in our heels; and to resist calls for change from those who, so far as the vast majority are concerned, are interested only in change for the worse – change that leaves us poorer, less secure, more frightened, and finally less free.