Pondering Pinter

December 26, 2008 at 12:14 am | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | Leave a comment

I’ll leave dicussions of his theatrical legacy to people better qualified to talk about such matters, but my thoughts on Harold Pinter’s political legacy are pretty much summed up by this hastily-written obit by Johann Hari:

The tragedy of Pinter’s politics is that he took a desirable political value – hatred of war, or distrust for his own government – and absolutizes it. It is good to hate war, but to take this so far that you will not resist Hitler and Stalin is absurd. It is good to oppose the crimes of your own government – but to take this so far that you end up serving on the Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic is bizarre.

When Serbian nationalism – stoked and stroked by Milosevic – began to ravage the Balkans in the 1990s, Pinter’s response was simple and visceral: whatever the US and UK governments are for, I’m against. Blair and Clinton are condemning Milosevic? Right, sign me up for the defence. The Committee he sat on right up to Miolsevic’s death – headed by Jared Israel, a friend of Milosevic – was not simply calling for the Serb to be given a fair trial, a demand all reasonable people supported. It called for Milosevic to be released on the grounds that he was not guilty. In fact, the website bragging Pinter’s signature describes him as a “the strongest pillar of peace and stability in this region.”

So when there was ethnic cleansing two days’ drive from Auschwitz, Pinter’s response was to defend the aggressor and attack the victims. While much of the left – good people like Peter Tatchell, Michael Foot and Susan Sontag – were calling for democratic countries to arm the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to defend the ethnic Albanians from racist murder, Pinter described the KLA as “a bandit organisation” that was “actually” responsible for the ethnic cleansing in the region. Watching the trial, Pinter said admiringly, “Milosevic is giving them a run for their money.”

I’ve read enough decent and compelling arguments against NATO’s action in the Balkans to understand that it’s difficult to bracket our involvement there under either ‘absolute right’ or ‘absolute wrong’. Even so, sticking up for Milosevic even after it became clear the extent of the crimes committed and his culpability for them, suggests at best a flawed morality and at worst an egregious application of that old, self-defeating falseism that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

But it was in his opposition to the war on Iraq – an issue Pinter and I agreed on – that I felt he did both himself and his cause the greater damage. Rather than showing an engagement with the issues, an understanding of policy or history, all he gave us was simplistic tubthumping, some violently anti-American rhetoric and some godawful poetry. That he was identified by both sides as one of the highest-profile voices against the war did the anti-war crowd no favours at all.


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