Friday, December 26, 2008

Exit stage left: Harold Pinter dies.

He was, rightly, known as one of the greatest playwrights of his generation and, on Xmas Eve, he finally exited the stage after a long battle with cancer.

Pinter had a number of awards bestowed on him during a long and distinguished career, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. In its citation, the Nobel academy said Pinter was "generally seen as the foremost representative of British drama in the second half of the 20th century" and declared him to be an author "who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms".

Pinter was best know for his plays, including his 1960 breakthrough production The Caretaker, The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party. But he was also a screenwriter, actor and director and in recent years a vociferous campaigner against human rights abuses, including the occupation of Iraq by western armed forces. He joined other artists such as Blur and Ken Loach in sending a letter to Downing Street opposing the 2003 invasion.

In 2004 he received the Wilfred Owen award for poetry for a collection of work criticising the war in Iraq.

I well remember his comments on the day 2 million people marched through London protesting against the Iraq war, when he referred to the neo-cons as "thugs". There was something beautifully apt about this master of language choosing this particular word to describe so bluntly a group of people that political commentators were bending over backwards to understand. Pinter simply called them as he saw them and it was a description which never left me.

The Independent refer to him this morning as the "most anti-Establishment member of the Establishment" and there is great truth in that. He has for many years been in a class of his own, indeed the term "Pinteresque" had long ago entered the lexicon, and yet he never lost his anger at that same establishment and the mindless wars that they engaged in, the most recent being the Iraqi misadventure.

It was typical that he should take a swipe at the Iraq war whilst collecting his Nobel Prize in 2005, but he widened his criticism to American foreign policy in general:

Everyone knows what happened in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe during the post-war period: the systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought. All this has been fully documented and verified.

But my contention here is that the US crimes in the same period have only been superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all. I believe this must be addressed and that the truth has considerable bearing on where the world stands now. Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the existence of the Soviet Union, the United States' actions throughout the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche to do what it liked.

Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America's favoured method. In the main, it has preferred what it has described as 'low intensity conflict'. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued - or beaten to death - the same thing - and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed.

He gave examples, including what took place in Nicaragua, E Salvador and Guatemala of how this promotion of "democracy" works and how it impacts on the world's poorest citizens:

The United States finally brought down the Sandinista government. It took some years and considerable resistance but relentless economic persecution and 30,000 dead finally undermined the spirit of the Nicaraguan people. They were exhausted and poverty stricken once again. The casinos moved back into the country. Free health and free education were over. Big business returned with a vengeance. 'Democracy' had prevailed.

And, of course, he saw this same pattern being repeated in Iraq, where American corporations were moving in on Iraqi oil whilst their government spouted platitudes about democracy.

And Pinter, a master of language, understood perfectly well how American presidents have managed to sell what they are doing to the American people:

Listen to all American presidents on television say the words, 'the American people', as in the sentence, 'I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American people.'

It's a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words 'the American people' provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it's very comfortable.

He referred to the Iraqi invasion as "a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law" and asked the question, "How many people do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal? One hundred thousand?"

At a time when one witnesses political commentators falling over themselves to excuse the inexcusable, Pinter's voice had a unique logical consistency which refused to buy into American exceptionalism or the Orwellian language of "freedom" and "liberation" espoused by Bush and his cohorts.

It was an important voice and it will be missed.

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