1988, the English literary critic and novelist, D.J. Taylor wrote
a seminal piece entitled "When the Pen Sleeps." He expanded
this into a book A
Vain Conceit, in which he wondered why the English novel
so often denigrated into "drawing room twitter" and why
the great issues of the day were shunned by writers, unlike their
counterparts in, say, Latin America, who felt a responsibility to
take on politics: the great themes of justice and injustice, wealth
and poverty, war and peace. The notion of the writer working in
splendid isolation was absurd. Where, he asked, were the George
Orwells, the Upton Sinclairs, the John Steinbecks of the modern
years on, Taylor was asking the same question: where was the English
Gore Vidal and John Gregory Dunne: "intellectual heavyweights
briskly at large in the political amphitheater, while we end up
with Lord [Jeffrey] Archer…"
the postmodern, celebrity world of writing, prizes are allotted
to those who compete for the emperor’s threads; the politically
unsafe need not apply. John Keanes, the chairman of the Orwell Prize
for Political Writing, once defended the absence of great contemporary
political writers among the Orwell prizewinners not by lamenting
the fact and asking why, but by attacking those who referred back
to "an imaginary golden past." He wrote that those who
"hanker" after this illusory past fail to appreciate writers
making sense of "the collapse of the old left-right divide."
collapse? The convergence of "liberal" and "conservative"
parties in western democracies, like the American Democrats with
the Republicans, represents a meeting of essentially like minds.
Journalists work assiduously to promote a false division between
the mainstream parties and to obfuscate the truth that Britain,
for example, is now a single ideology state with two competing,
almost identical pro-business factions. The real divisions between
left and right are to be found outside Parliament and have never
been greater. They reflect the unprecedented disparity between the
poverty of the majority of humanity and the power and privilege
of a corporate and militarist minority, headquartered in Washington,
who seek to control the world’s resources.
of the reasons these mighty pirates have such a free reign is that
the Anglo-American intelligentsia, notably writers, "the people
with voice" as Lord Macauley called them, are quiet or complicit
or craven or twittering, and rich as a result. Thought-provokers
pop up from time to time, but the English establishment has always
been brilliant at de-fanging and absorbing them. Those who resist
assimilation are mocked as eccentrics until they conform to their
stereotype and its authorized views.
exception is Harold Pinter. The other day, I sat down to compile
a list of other writers remotely like him, those "with a voice"
and an understanding of their wider responsibilities as writers.
I scribbled a few names, all of them now engaged in intellectual
and moral contortion, or they are asleep. The page was blank save
for Pinter. Only he is the unquiet one, the untwitterer, the one
with guts, who speaks out. Above all, he understands the problem.
Listen to this:
are in a terrible dip at the moment, a kind of abyss, because the
assumption is that politics are all over. That’s what the propaganda
says. But I don’t believe the propaganda. I believe that politics,
our political consciousness and our political intelligence are not
all over, because if they are, we are really doomed. I can’t myself
live like this. I’ve been told so often that I live in a free country,
I’m damn well going to be free. By which I mean I’m going to retain
my independence of mind and spirit, and I think that’s what’s obligatory
upon all of us. Most political systems talk in such vague language,
and it’s our responsibility and our duty as citizens of our various
countries to exercise acts of critical scrutiny upon that use of
language. Of course, that means that one does tend to become rather
unpopular. But to hell with that.”
first met Harold when he was supporting the popularly elected government
in Nicaragua in the 1980s. I had reported from Nicaragua, and made
a film about the remarkable gains of the Sandinistas despite Ronald
Reagan’s attempts to crush them by illegally sending CIA-trained
proxies across the border from Honduras to slit the throats of midwives
and other anti-Americans. US foreign policy is, of course, even
more rapacious under Bush: the smaller the country, the greater
the threat. By that, I mean the threat of a good example to other
small countries which might seek to alleviate the abject poverty
of their people by rejecting American dominance. What struck me
about Harold’s involvement was his understanding of this truth,
which is generally a taboo in the United States and Britain, and
the eloquent "to hell with that" response in everything
he said and wrote.
single-handedly, it seemed, he restored "imperialism"
to the political lexicon. Remember that no commentator used this
word any more; to utter it in a public place was like shouting "f__k"
in a convent. Now you can shout it everywhere and people will nod
their agreement; the invasion in Iraq put paid to doubts, and Harold
Pinter was one of the first to alert us. He described, correctly,
the crushing of Nicaragua, the blockage against Cuba, the wholesale
killing of Iraqi and Yugoslav civilians as imperialist atrocities.
illustrating the American crime committed against Nicaragua, when
the United States Government dismissed an International Court of
Justice ruling that it stop breaking the law in its murderous attacks,
Pinter recalled that Washington seldom respected international law;
and he was right. He wrote, "In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson
said to the Greek Ambassador to the US, ‘F__k your Parliament and
your constitution. American is an elephant, Cyprus is a flea. Greece
is a flea. If these two fellows keep itching the elephant, they
may just get whacked by the elephant’s trunk, whacked for good…’
He meant that. Two years later, the Colonels took over and the Greek
people spent seven years in hell. You have to hand it to Johnson.
He sometimes told the truth however brutal. Reagan told lies. His
celebrated description of Nicaragua as a “‘otalitarian dungeon’
was a lie from every conceivable angle. It was an assertion unsupported
by facts; it had no basis in reality. But it’s a good vivid, resonant
phrase which persuaded the unthinking…"
his play Ashes
to Ashes, Pinter uses the images of Nazism and the Holocaust,
while interpreting them as a warning against similar "repressive,
cynical and indifferent acts of murder" by the clients of arms-dealing
imperialist states such as the United States and Britain. "The
word democracy begins to stink," he said. "So in Ashes
to Ashes, I’m not simply talking about the Nazis; I’m talking about
us, and our conception of our past and our history, and what it
does to us in the present."
is not saying the democracies are totalitarian like Nazi Germany,
not at all, but that totalitarian actions are taken by impeccably
polite democrats and which, in principle and effect, are little
different from those taken by fascists. The only difference is distance.
Half a millions people were murdered by American bombers sent secretly
and illegally to the skies above Cambodia by Nixon and Kissinger,
igniting an Asian holocaust, which Pol Pot completed.
have hated his political work, often attacking his plays mindlessly
and patronizing his outspokenness. He, in turn, has mocked their
empty derision. He is a truth-teller. His understanding of political
language follows Orwell’s. He does not, as he would say, give a
s__t about the propriety of language, only its truest sense. At
the end of the cold was in 1989, he wrote, "…for the last
forty years, our thought has been trapped in hollow structures of
language, a stale, dead but immensely successful rhetoric. This
has represented, in my view, a defeat of the intelligence and of
never accepted this, of course: "To hell with that!" Thanks
in no small measure to him, defeat is far from assured. On the contrary,
while other writers have slept or twittered, he has been aware that
people are never still, and indeed are stirring again: Harold Pinter
has a place of honor among them.
Pilger was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs, is
published by Jonathan Cape next month. This article was first published
in the New Statesman.
John Pilger 2005