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Exit Pinter

I’ve had my disagreements with Johann Hari, but I’ve also had my agreements with him (on George Galloway and the rest of the gruesome galere of faux-cialists, Hari is extremely reliable). And his is the best cold water obituary on … Read More

By / December 26, 2008

I’ve had my disagreements with Johann Hari, but I’ve also had my agreements with him (on George Galloway and the rest of the gruesome galere of faux-cialists, Hari is extremely reliable). And his is the best cold water obituary on Harold Pinter I’ve yet read:

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 defense. 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."

This is not to judge Pinter the playwright, only Pinter the activist (although it bears mention that his plays got worse and worse, too). We would be shit out of poets and novelists from the 20th-century if all we had to assess them on was their collusion with fascism, Stalinism or anti-Semitism. But the problem with departed writers is the obituarist’s instinct to erase what damage they may have done in other areas, brokered on their literary celebrity. This is especially shameful when one considers that there is no necessary direct relationship between literary brilliance and political stupidity. Pinter imported Beckett to the London stage. Yes, well, Susan Sontag imported him to the blasted-out war zones of Sarajevo, and risked her life doing it.

Pinter’s case is still useful, however, for diagnosing the upside-down world of what my friend Alan Johnson calls "post-leftism." This is the ideology of anti-ideology, of mere attitudes and prejudices and reflexes, most of which are reactionary in masquerade (one thinks of Chomsky’s defense of Faurisson not merely on free speech grounds but on the substance of his Holocaust denial argument, or Naomi Klein’s glorification of Muqtada al-Sadr). How comes it that a Thatcher voter, married to a titled woman who burnishes the reputation of Marie Anoinette, defends the slaughterer of Balkan Muslims as a "persecuted" anti-imperialist? And that an avowed foe of national interests, particularly when the nations in question are the United States and Great Britain, would then refer you to "Yugoslav law" in inveighing against the extradition and trial of an international criminal?

Where bickering Marxists once had a common lexicon, derived from common first principles, and could thus be scandalized for their fallacies of interpretation or their pig-ignorance, the post-leftist is wholly free to improvise and invent, using the glyphs he may still recognize from the ruins of Marxism. Like Milosz’s Child of Europe, who

Let [his] words speak not through their meanings, But through them against whom they are used,

he can be celebrated both by the hard left and the hard right, if for no other reason than his anatagonism of the vital center. And instead instead of being called out for his political autism and his acquiescence in atrocity, he will be awarded the Nobel Prize.

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