The two Harold Pinters
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 17 October 2005)

When Harold Pinter talks about public affairs, he adopts a manner of speech that would puzzle and appall the characters in the plays that recently won him the Nobel Prize in Literature. People in Pinter's clever plays, like The Caretaker and The Homecoming, can be wonderfully subtle, weirdly obsessive or cryptically menacing. But not one of them ever seems as dumb and flat-footed as Harold Pinter sounds when he talks about politics.

It is as if he had invented a simple-minded, one-dimensional persona to carry his message over the heads of his usual discerning audiences to the less intelligent masses. His Nobel will only magnify the brutal and unimaginative elements of his thinking.

When Pinter the political commentator goes downmarket, his language reveals a lot more than the literal meaning of the words. Often he sounds like an editorial in a London tabloid. Once he quoted George W. Bush's determination not to allow the world's worst weapons to remain in the hands of the world's worst leaders. "Quite right," said Pinter. "Look in the mirror, chum."

He considers Prime Minister Tony Blair a "deluded idiot" and thinks that Blair, Bill Clinton, and Bush should be tried as war criminals. In 2003, he declared that "The United States is a monster out of control.... The country is run by a bunch of criminal lunatics, with Blair as their hired Christian thug." He calls the war against Iraq "a bandit act."

Pinter, of course, found the American response to 9/11 overwrought and dangerous. He became one of many intellectuals who "predicted" that attack, their predictions coming after the event itself: "The atrocity in New York was predictable and inevitable. It was an act of retaliation against constant and systematic manifestations of state terrorism on the part of the United States over many years, in all parts of the world."

In recent times, the Nobel Prize has been linked to some pretty dodgy characters. Three years ago, Jose Saramago, the Portuguese novelist who won the Literature Nobel in 1998, visited the Ramallah headquarters of the Palestinian Authority and the late Yasser Arafat (himself, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994). Saramago came out against the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, declaring "What is happening in Palestine is a crime which we can put on the same plane as what happened at Auschwitz." When an Israeli journalist asked him whether he knew of gas chambers in Israel-controlled lands, Saramago replied, "I hope this is not the case. There are so many things being done that have nothing to do with Nazism, but what is happening is more or less the same."

On the Middle East, Pinter has described Israel's treatment of the Palestinians as an outrage, and the desperate plight of the Palestinians as no less than "the central factor in world unrest." In his circles, this kind of nonsense surprises no one. A hostile view of Israel has become so commonplace that there was hardly a murmur of surprise in 2001 when Pinter signed on with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign's boycott of Israeli products and tourism, beginning with (as their press release noted, with comic attention to detail) "tomatoes, Jaffa oranges, potatoes, avocados, fresh herbs ...." While announcing the boycott, George Galloway, Britain's most stridently anti-Israel MP, declared that Ariel Sharon was a war criminal who deserves to be locked up for human rights abuses. And there on the list of signatories, beside Tony Benn, Caryl Churchill and Emma Thompson, was Harold Pinter.

The European fashion now runs strongly anti-Israel. European writers and academics increasingly believe that Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are the real source of the world's troubles. Many consider the random murders of civilians by Palestinians as the understandable response of the downtrodden -- as opposed to mistreatment of prisoners of war by American troops, which is inexcusable.

Their view of U.S.-Israel relations involves two firm beliefs. On the one hand, the heavy thinkers of Europe regard Israel as nothing but a U.S. puppet. On the other, they believe Israel controls American policy through Jewish political contributions and the Machiavellian conspiracies of Jewish neoconservatives who run Washington.

On the surface, these might seem mutually exclusive ideas, but European intellectuals have no trouble believing both of them at the same time. As George Orwell said in another connection, it takes an intellectual to believe this; no ordinary citizen could achieve that level of stupidity.

As for Pinter, he considers himself an original thinker and a critic of accepted ideas, but among European intellectuals he's more than happy to run with the pack.

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