Friday, January 02, 2009

PInter Bitter

Pinter bitter
We remember Harold Pinter as a brilliant writer of dialogue. But as a political agitator he was sometimes tone-deaf

o Ian Williams
o, Friday 26 December 2008 19.00 GMT

Harold Pinter, playwright and militant pacifist, was a vivid testimony as to why poets should indeed remain unacknowledged as legislators of the world. Epitaphed everywhere as the playwright of pauses and silences, like many pacifists he remained noisily silent about what should happen in the real world.

For example, one would expect the author of Mountain Language, on the repression of the Kurds, to show similar empathy towards the Kosovars, a small mountain people whom Milosevic was expelling, to have offered some constructive alternatives to Nato action, even if he quite rightly opposed Bill Clinton's chosen method of high-level bombing. His pacifism inhibited him from advocating the one method that actually worked – the threat of a ground invasion, which eventually led to Milosevic running up the white flag immediately.

Pinter's intemperate attacks on the Western European countries that decided on action to protect the Kosovars made him seem an ally of the murderous tyrant in Belgrade – an impression he gave even more substance when he joined the "International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic", as the Serb leader, overthrown by his own people, awaited trial in The Hague. That did not sit well with his declaration in his earlier letter to the Guardian that "Milosevic is undoubtedly ruthless and savage." Indeed, even as Pinter passed away, a Serb court was trying Serb militiamen for their part in murdering a Kosovar family.

It is the traditional poetic pacifist dilemma, highly visible in Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, which implies blame for the second world war and the Holocaust on the warmongers Roosevelt and Churchill while in some measure exonerating those more directly responsible. Orwell said of Gandhi that he did "did not take the sterile and dishonest line of pretending that in every war both sides are exactly the same and it makes no difference who wins."

But, as Orwell also pointed out, all too often Manichaean pacifists assume reflexively that their own governments are worse than those their opponents'. "Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval, but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States."

However, that is not to detract from Pinter's dramatic achievements, merely to separate his direct political pronouncements from his playwrighting, which was all the better for being more subtly imbued with his political sensibilities. Indeed, he was quite right in his overall assessment of Clinton and Blair, and indeed the broad parameters of US policy. But the Kosovars whom he claimed would suffer "disastrous consequences" from Nato's actions now understandably name streets and buildings after Clinton and Blair, not Pinter and Milosevic

If he had put the subtle pauses and timing in his political pronouncements that he did in his plays, it would have been a considerable step forward.

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