Political Commentary

Book Review – Death etc. by Harold Pinter

Some time ago I had a discussion regarding Harold Pinter with my writing partner. We got talking about his 2005 Nobel Lecture. I explained how the playwright devoted half the speech to his vitriolic hatred of the leaders of the United States and Great Britain; the then on-going war in Iraq germinating much of this animosity. At times I believed Mr. Pinter became unhinged in his excoriation of Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair. My writing partner suggested that since he did suffer from terminal cancer at the time, he may not have felt any reason to restrain himself. Death etc. left me with the impression his remarks to the Swedish Academy reflected an ordinary conversation with Mr. Pinter.

Death etc contained a diverse sampling of the playwright’s later works. It included several poems, a number of speeches and some of his shorter dramas. As a fan of his plays, I enjoyed the diverse sampling of his writing.

I’ve read Pinter’s Collected Works volumes one through four. The latter ended at 1981. I liked that this book included his later dramas Mountain Language, The New World Order, One for the Road, Press Conference, and Ashes to Ashes.

The plays provided a solid sampling of Pinter’s unique gift for language. In One for the Road he included the expression, “Your soul shines out of your eyes.” (Location 492)

In my review of Betrayal I commented on Pinter’s minimalist use of language. The following passage from One for the Road made the wording in that play seem like something out of a thesaurus.

Nicolas: When did you meet your husband?

Gila: When I was eighteen.

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: Why?

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: I just met him.

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: I didn’t plan it.

Nicolas: Why not?

Gila: I didn’t know him.

Nicolas: Why not?

(Pause.)

Nicolas: (Continued.) Why not?

Gila: I didn’t know him.

Nicolas: Why not?

Gila: I met him. (Location 529)

I mentioned in my opening that Mr. Pinter vocally criticized both the US and the UK for their roles in the Iraq War. His dissatisfaction with their respective policies towards that country began long before then. He expatiated on his anger in Death etc. Here’s an excerpt from “An Open Letter to the Prime Minister” written five years prior to the conflict. He wrote:

Dear Prime Minister (Tony Blair):

We have been reminded often over the last few weeks of Saddam Hussein’s appalling record in the field of human rights. It is indeed appalling: brutal, pathological. But I thought you might be interested to scrutinize the record of your ally, the United States, in a somewhat wider context. I am not at all certain that your advisors will have kept you fully informed.

The United States has supported, subsidized, and, in a number of cases, engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world since 1945. I refer to Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, Greece, Uruguay, the Philippines, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey and El Salvador, for example. Hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered by these regimes, but the money, the resources, the equipment (all kinds), the advice, the moral support, as it were, has come from successive US administrations. (Location 719)

I felt his observations would’ve had more resonance if he placed them against the appropriate back-drop of the Cold War. Nonetheless, I accept the old libertarian adage that, “Freedom is your freedom to disagree with me.” I also respect the author for the strength of his convictions.

While Mr. Pinter’s political views may offend some readers, his poetry will, no doubt, turn off others. I thought his verse rather cross and graphic. Here’s a stanza from 1997’s “Death.”

Did you wash the dead body

Did you close both its eyes

Did you bury the dead body

Did you leave it abandoned

Did you kiss the dead body (Location 1339)

The playwright also quoted this poem during his Nobel Lecture.

Mr. Pinter held strong left-of-center political positions. He also didn’t show reticence or restraint when he expressed them. For that reason, Death etc would best be enjoyed by hard-core Harold Pinter fans. I’d advise those with a modest interest in his plays read the four volume Collected Works.

In The Press Conference, Pinter wrote, “He that is lost is found.” (Location 704) That expression summarized his view of political philosophy. While I disagree with his harsh condemnation of the free world’s policies, individuals like Mr. Pinter show us that our leaders and existing orthodoxy should always be challenged.

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Political Commentary – March 21: Unhappy Anniversary

This March 21st marks the saddest anniversary in the history of the American experience. On this date in 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that the protections guaranteed all Americans in the Constitution don’t apply to us. The Court handed down its infamous opinion in the National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab case. This ruling served as the catalyst for mandatory drug testing.

I’ve always been intrigued by this decision. We Americans pride ourselves on our “exceptionalism.” As President Ronald Reagan, the pioneer of governmental work place drug testing, once opined: America stood as a “shining city on a hill.” When I hear stories about people being forced to urinate on demand in front of others, doctors and HR professionals serving as unlicensed agents of law enforcement, and Americans being forced to prove their innocence without the aid of an attorney I have my doubts. In the latter case, it’s especially egregious that people are threatened with loss of their livelihoods if they attempt to assert their Fourth Amendment right against “unreasonable searches and seizures” WITHOUT EVEN BEING ACCUSED OF A CRIME.

The fact the Supreme Court expressed this sudden abnegation of the concept of privacy befuddles me. In 1973 it ruled that a woman had a solemn right to privacy if she desired an abortion. Sixteen years later it issued another decision stating people lack a right to privacy if they would like a job. I don’t understand the reasoning here, but, then again, I’m not an attorney.

This decision allowed for a new series of disturbing tactics America’s so-called “war on drugs”. I recall reading Primo Levy’s account how guards would force concentration camp inmates to urinate in front of them. In German society at the time, doctors worked as agents of the State to eliminate undesirables. While Americans love our “Happy Hours” we hold a special distain for drug addicts; at least the ones not working in the entertainment industry or playing professional sports. I’m not placing drug testing on par with the Holocaust, but the eerie parallels are difficult to discount.

It’s even harder to ignore Americans’ cavalier attitude towards this erosion of Constitutional protection. Many people argue that drug testing makes society “safer.” I reply that the two most horrible expressions in the English language are “consumer protection” and “public safety”. They can be used to justify anything. Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “He who would sacrifice liberty for security deserves neither.”

I always cite Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinion as one of the best commentaries on civil rights. It belongs in the same category of great American orations such as “The Gettysburg Address”.

There is irony in the Government’s citation, in support of its position, of Justice Brandeis’ statement in Olmstead v. United States,277 U. S. 438, 277 U. S. 485 (1928) that “[f]or good or for ill, [our Government] teaches the whole people by its example.” Brief for Respondent 36. Brandeis was there dissenting from the Court’s admission of evidence obtained through an unlawful Government wiretap. He was not praising the Government’s example of vigor and enthusiasm in combatting crime, but condemning its example that “the end justifies the means,” 277 U.S. at 277 U. S. 485. An even more apt quotation from that famous Brandeis dissent would have been the following:

“[I]t is . . . immaterial that the intrusion was in aid of law enforcement. Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning, but without understanding.”

Id. at 277 U. S. 479. Those who lose because of the lack of understanding that begot the present exercise in symbolism are not just the Customs Service employees, whose dignity is thus offended, but all of us — who suffer a coarsening of our national manners that ultimately give the Fourth Amendment its content, and who become subject to the administration of federal officials whose respect for our privacy can hardly be greater than the small respect they have been taught to have for their own.

(Retrieved from https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/489/656/case.html#679 3/21/15.)

In his “Farewell Address” George Washington warned that America “should not go abroad in search of monsters to fight.” Recently we engaged in an effort at nation building for a society that hadn’t had “freedom”, “liberty” or “democracy” in over 6,000 years. Instead of trying to turn the Middle East into the paragon of Jeffersonian Democracy, we should focus on assuring our own liberty here at home.