Harold Pinter’s America: Hard Truths and Easy Targets

If you’ve never read or seen Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, it’s amazing—a 46-minute aria of thunderous power—but I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Pinter’s plays, when well-acted, braid together moments of existential terror and electric comedy, but his Nobel speech is not a bundle of laughs.  It begins with an intriguing but much too long rumination on his creative process, but just when you think he’s going to call it a wrap, he suddenly pivots from the inward to the outward and begins a furious condemnation of the United States government that kicks so hard and hurts so deeply that it makes you ashamed not to be an outright leftist revolutionary.  He forces us to look at what the great William Burroughs called the “naked lunch”—calmly but viciously indicting us for our crimes in South America and all around the world.  And though he delivered the speech in 2005, it could run as an op-ed piece today, with only a few minor details changed.

Watching the speech is exponentially scarier than reading it.  Pinter couldn’t travel to Stockholm to accept the prize in person because he was hospitalized with some God-awful kind of cancer, so he sent a video which shows him sitting in a chair with a blanket on his knees, obviously ill, but methodically building his indictment as he stares at the camera, as if daring you to look away. And you want to look away.  You don’t want to be a silent partner in all the murders we commit, all the rapes we encourage, all the torture we teach and practice, all the money we steal, all the air and water and creatures we poison, all the stupidity manufactured by our media, all the—well, you get the picture. To wit: “the United States has supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths,” Pinter asks: “Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy?” Then he answers his own question: “The answer is yes, they did take place, and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.”

Pinter, ever the changeling, suddenly becomes a character in one of his plays, slipping into the mesmerizing speech-rhythms that make his work so seductive as he describes America’s vision of history: “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.”

Take a bow, Barack Obama.

“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.

Pinter, the genius of ludicrous menace, dreamed President Donald Trump into existence thirteen years ago!  Donald fucking Trump, not only a criminal but a sloppy and incompetent criminal, a “total loser” in any meaningful sense—since the real game is compassion, generosity of spirit, and creativity, and people like Donald Trump don’t even know where the game is being played.

Perhaps we all joined together with Pinter and co-wrote Trump into the White House. Perhaps we needed to see the naked lunch up close, writhing on the tines of our fork.

And here’s what’s on the menu: two political parties engaged in idiotic bickering on TV, a bloated moron president who walks around with toilet paper stuck to his shoe—a clearly unhealthy slob who shows clear signs of dementia and who wasn’t that bright to begin with, a waddling nitwit who not only fails to cover up his petty crimes but is so dumb that he scatters clues wherever he goes.

But he’s a “winner!”

But, of course, he’s also an easy target, and he stops a lot of bullets that ought to penetrate much deeper into the battlefiel.  Following Pinter’s logic, why doesn’t MSNBC, for example, provide even the merest wisp of historical context when covering all their Breaking News?  Let’s take a quick look at the big stories of the past few weeks and look for America’s role in them.

Story: the “caravan” of asylum seekers from Honduras, reported so breathlessly right up to election night and then dropped completely the next day.  Needless to say, these fellow human beings are fleeing a fascist dystopia that we created through decades of imposing hideous dictatorships, funded by Clintons and Bushes alike, and supported by top-notch death squads.  Imagine: we have turned the Honduran world into such a hell that all they can do is grab their babies and walk into the far distance, without food or water, refugees from the misery we created.

None of this, of course, is ever mentioned on MSNBC.  (Maybe it’s just coincidence, but Hillary Clinton is actually proud of the role we played down there.)

Story: wildfires all over my adopted state of California.  Exciting TV footage—high drama, replete with irony, as Paradise, California burns down—but it’s as if all these fires are burning in a vacuum, in a world of deafening silence, where America’s creation of a never-ending drought has brought another kind of hell into being.

Story: one more traumatized veteran enacts the ultimate American male-bonding ritual of murdering his brothers and sisters, a young man who was troubled from childhood and should never have been sent to fight in a never-ending war in Afghanistan that never should have started and will seemingly never end.  But no mention of what he saw and did in that endless war, what nightmarish images burned themselves into the fragile tissue of his brain.  Again: a scene ripped out of context, just the big action sequence with the Glock and the smoke bombs and the blood and the dead, but none of the backstory that might stimulate our thinking or give us any insight into war-trauma and its effect on troubled soldiers, who continue to kill themselves in horrifying numbers.

On and on. But, as Pinter points out so eloquently, America is never to blame.  Not for the hideous torture and murder of Khashoggi; not for the creation of violent gangs throughout South America, not for any of it—“America is great because America is good,” as Hillary Clinton so inanely claimed.

As if replying to Hillary, here’s Pinter: “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.”

So: what to do?

Like you, I grapple with this riddle every day.  Yesterday the local LA news showed a man wearing a surgical mask to minimize his smoke inhalation, using a garden hose in a feeble and pathetic attempt to water down the embers of his house, which was completely burned down.  When the camera pulled back, you could see that his car and his SUV had also been burned into twisted gray sculptures, barely recognizable as vehicles any more. It looked like Iraq after our magical Shock and Awe attack. The TV reporter didn’t even try to hide her bewilderment as she watched this lonely figure jat work: the area was under an evacuation order, little snake-like flames were flicking up out of nowhere as embers drifted on the Santa Anna wind, the man’s surgical mask was useless against the billows of toxic smoke, and his house was completely gone.  But still he stood there at the edge of the wreckage, aiming his slender green garden hose against the leaping embers, a dribble of water against the all-powerful fire.  I became somewhat obsessed by this guy.  He was obviously, in that moment, completely insane, not to put too fine a point on it. The fight was over.  Fire had won; human beings had lost.  And yet there was a poignant kind of courage in the man that I couldn’t help but admire.  If all you have to fight with is a garden hose, then I guess you fight with a garden hose.  Maybe you can salvage one single keepsake—one photograph of your grandfather; one set of earrings you bought for your wife twenty years ago…

It’s better than nothing. Anything is better than nothing.

So even as I watch the infernos burning across America–the visible fires, and the hidden ones that Pinter described with Biblical power—I hold my garden hose aloft.  Last week I talked with a Lyft driver from El Salvador, a 60-year-old man who told me how, when he was a child, the American-supported death squads came to his village and murdered every person and animal without mercy or passion, as if simply doing a job; he survived by hiding, but the rest of his family was killed.  And yet it meant something to him—something important—that one of his passengers actually knew about his story, and cared about his story.  In the emotion of the moment I apologized to him, as an American citizen, for my inability to stop my government from murdering his family.

I guess that apology was my garden hose.  A feeble, even laughable stream of water against all those flying embers. Tomorrow my garden hose might be a conversation with my son about some other aspect of our history and culture that he needs to question for himself.  Or to stop and talk to a homeless veteran. Or to write a piece for Counterpunch.  Harold Pinter, wracked by cancer, insisted on bearing witness to the truth about America. I can’t approach his eloquence, but as a citizen of the United States I can do no less.

John Eskow is a writer and musician. He wrote or co-wrote the movies Air America, The Mask of Zorro, and Pink Cadillac, as well as the novel Smokestack Lightning. He is a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence. He can be reached at: johneskow@yahoo.com