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Harold Pinter (1930-2008) on “Art, Truth and Politics”

StoryDecember 30, 2008
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Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize-winning British playwright, screenwriter, poet, actor and political activist died last week at the age of seventy-eight after a prolonged battle with cancer. In his 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Pinter excoriated US foreign policy. “The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law,” Pinter said. We play an excerpt from his speech. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize-winning British playwright, screenwriter, poet, actor, political activist, died last week at the age of seventy-eight after a prolonged battle with cancer.

He’s considered one of the most influential and provocative dramatists of his generation, often compared to his friend and mentor, Samuel Beckett. Pinter’s well-known plays include The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming and Betrayal. The adjective “Pinteresque” is often used to describe situations marked by “halting dialogue, uncertainty of identity and an air of menace.”

Born in 1930 into a Jewish family in London that had fled persecution in Poland and Odessa, Pinter began his career as a stage actor and wrote his first play, The Room, in 1957.

Pinter was also well known as a vociferous critic of British and American foreign policy and an activist against nuclear proliferation, political repression and censorship. As early as 1948, Harold Pinter resisted joining the British military national service and registered as a conscientious objector.

Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005. In his Nobel acceptance speech, titled “Art, Truth, and Politics,” he strongly denounced the United States, its actions in Iraq and its policy of backing groups like the Contras in Nicaragua.

Today, we bring you an excerpt of “Art, Truth, and Politics.” Harold Pinter gave the speech in December of 2005. He was too ill to go to Stockholm to receive the award, so it was videotaped, and this is what was broadcast around the world.

    HAROLD PINTER: The United States supported the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua for over forty 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 civilized. 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. 2,000 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 healthcare and education and achieve social unity and national self-respect, neighboring 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’s 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 “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 two million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons, which extends across the United States.

    The United States no longer bothers about low-intensity conflict. It no longer sees any point in being reticent or even devious. It puts its cards on the table without fear or favor. It quite simply doesn’t give a damn about the United Nations, international law or critical dissent, which it regards as impotent and irrelevant. It also has its own bleating little lamb tagging behind it on a lead: the pathetic and supine Great Britain.

    What has happened to our moral sensibility? Did we ever have any? What do these words mean? Do they refer to a term very rarely employed these days — conscience? A conscience to do not only with our own acts but to do with our shared responsibility in the acts of others? Is all this dead?

    Look at Guantanamo Bay: hundreds of people detained without charge for over three years with no legal representation or due process, technically detained forever. This totally illegitimate structure is maintained in defiance of the Geneva Convention. It is not only tolerated, but hardly thought about, by what’s called the “international community.” This criminal outrage is being committed by a country which declares itself to be “the leader of the free world.” Do we think about the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay? What does the media say about them? They pop up occasionally, a small item on page six. They have been consigned to a no man’s land, from which indeed they may never return. At present, many are on hunger strike, being force-fed, including British residents. No niceties in these force-feeding procedures. No sedative or anesthetic. Just a tube stuck up your nose and into your throat. You vomit blood. This is torture. What has the British Foreign Secretary said about this? Nothing. What has the British Prime Minister said about this? Nothing. Why not? Because the United States has said, “To criticize our conduct in Guantanamo Bay constitutes an unfriendly act. You’re either with us or against us.” So Blair shuts up.

    The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law. The invasion was an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public; an act intended to consolidate American military and economic control of the Middle East masquerading, as a last resort — all other justifications having failed to justify themselves — as liberation; a formidable assertion of military force responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands and thousands of innocent people.

AMY GOODMAN: Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter, his acceptance speech in 2005. He died Christmas Eve at the age of seventy-eight.

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