[cross-posted at a Historical Footnotes]
Well, so I guess you all had to know I’d be blogging about it, especially since it seems clear that my Historical Footnotes blog was going to be as much about writing as it was about politics. And, ever since I was recently “tipped off” by Harold Pinter’s German agent that his acceptance speech would be a “doozie,” and probably worth the time to listen, I’ve been anticipating the speech.
It was better than I expected. The 45-minute speech on “Art, Truth and Politics” can be heard here.
FWIW, my take on it…
The full text of the lecture has since been posted on the site. Pinter begins by citing a statement he made in 1958 (also available on his website)
“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.”
I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?
We–especially “we, the American people”–would be well-advised to view the remainder of his statements in the context of this preface in which he clearly establishes his intended audience: Pinter is speaking to us as `citizens’ of the United States. And he is reminding us to look in the mirror of our own history, and our own complicity in history. Indeed, Pinter’s statements on the Bush regime, the Blair regime are likely to circulate through the blogosphere as damning indictments of BushCo and Blair with the usual goading, gleeful fanfare, but let us not enlist these words to further perpetuate the dynamics of denial that keep us firmly ensconced in this vast tapestry of lies we, too, have all too willingly swallowed, hook line and sinker, in our continued efforts to save the ship of fools that arrived on these shores but a few short centuries ago.
OK. Let’s forget about the “distant” past, those centuries of dishonor and genocide for which we, the American people of the postwar generation, really cannot be held accountable: the sins of the fathers shall not descend upon the sons and daughters of the American devolution! Forget about the American Holocaust and the Middle Passage. What’s done is done! Let’s just look at the truth about `our’ country, the truth about America, the truth about her people, yes, the truth about us and what we have and have not done in the past fifty years or so. These are not the ‘sins of the fathers’–they are the crimes in which we the people are complicit, whether by virtue of indifference, of apathy or sheer ignorance–this is the stain on the soul of our nation and our national identity. Wiping BushCo from office is not going to do much by way of cleaning up this part of the mess we have made.
Lie back on the cushions of your couch, America, wherever you are. Lie back and relax, and listen to what Pinter has to say about you and your most recent past….None of this happened on BushCo’s watch. None of it.
…. President Reagan made the following statement: ‘The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.’
The United States supported the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua for over 40 years. The Nicaraguan people, led by the Sandinistas, overthrew this regime in 1979, a breathtaking popular revolution.
The Sandinistas weren’t perfect. They possessed their fair share of arrogance and their political philosophy contained a number of contradictory elements. But they were intelligent, rational and civilised. They set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families were given title to land. Two thousand schools were built. A quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than one seventh. Free education was established and a free health service. Infant mortality was reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.
The United States denounced these achievements as Marxist/Leninist subversion. In the view of the US government, a dangerous example was being set. If Nicaragua was allowed to establish basic norms of social and economic justice, if it was allowed to raise the standards of health care and education and achieve social unity and national self respect, neighbouring countries would ask the same questions and do the same things. There was of course at the time fierce resistance to the status quo in El Salvador.
I spoke earlier about ‘a tapestry of lies’ which surrounds us. President Reagan commonly described Nicaragua as a ‘totalitarian dungeon’. This was taken generally by the media, and certainly by the British government, as accurate and fair comment. But there was in fact no record of death squads under the Sandinista government. There was no record of torture. There was no record of systematic or official military brutality. No priests were ever murdered in Nicaragua. There were in fact three priests in the government, two Jesuits and a Maryknoll missionary. The totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States had brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 and it is estimated that over 200,000 people had been victims of successive military dictatorships.
Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world were viciously murdered at the Central American University in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. That extremely brave man Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It is estimated that 75,000 people died. Why were they killed? They were killed because they believed a better life was possible and should be achieved. That belief immediately qualified them as communists. They died because they dared to question the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression, which had been their birthright.
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.
But this ‘policy’ was by no means restricted to Central America. It was conducted throughout the world. It was never-ending. And it is as if it never happened.
The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.
Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.
It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.
I put to you that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. It’s a winner. 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. This does not apply of course to the 40 million people living below the poverty line and the 2 million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons, which extends across the US.
The UK’s Guardian reports on passages I suspect the American media (and the American public, the liberal left included) is likely to conveniently gloss over, lest the proverbial mirror of American self-love be shattered and the truth actually stare us square in the face from jagged edges of the glinting shards.
At one point, for instance, Pinter argued that “the United States supported and in many cases engendered every rightwing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the second world war”. He then proceeded to reel off examples. But the clincher came when Pinter, with deadpan irony, said: “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.” In a few sharp sentences, Pinter pinned down the willed indifference of the media to publicly recorded events. He also showed how language is devalued by the constant appeal of US presidents to “the American people”. This was argument by devastating example. As Pinter repeated the lulling mantra, he proved his point that “The words `the American people’ provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance.” Thus Pinter brilliantly used a rhetorical device to demolish political rhetoric.
I think the Guardian is wrong to dismiss these statements as a “rhetorical device” brilliantly deployed in the service of demolishing “political rhetoric.” This is not about political rhetoric, nor is it merely about the ‘willed indifference of the media,’–it is as much about the ‘willed indifference’ of the American people. These things have happened on our watch.
This is the gut-wrenching admonishment of a man in the last throes of life, desperately seeking to prevent the inevitable damnation of turning in his grave for eternity lest these, perhaps his last living words, not be heeded by their intended audience: We, the American people. Look at the lines on this man’s face, look into his eyes. This outrage. This absolute solemnity, brutal honesty in response to a 50-year worldwide assault on human dignity: this, America, is who we really are. This is perhaps Pinter’s last stand. Are we going to take it sitting down, or are we going to get up from our couches and take a good look in the mirror?
Do we dare look in the mirror Pinter is holding up to us in this speech? I don’t know. I only know that I fear that once again, a select few of us–the Radical Left–will be left standing here holding the shards in our hands. And there will be nothing left but to use them to etch and inscribe–on some transcendental slate somewhere–the memory of what might have been, if it hadn’t been this.
When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.
I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.
If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us – the dignity of man.
My thanks and deepest admiration for any man who dares to speak the truth this eloquently. My regret that so few are likely to heed his warning.