Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pinter's Nobel Speech

The British playwright, Harold Pinter, has used his Nobel speech to launch a powerful attack on US foreign policy. It is certainly worth reading; although Pinter's own use of his formidable rhetorical arsenal to criticise the same in George Bush is likely to have all those not already sympathetic to his views dismiss them as "just another Pinter rant". Most striking for me, however, is the radical separation that he insists upon between truth in art - "there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other" - and truth in politics, in which "objectivity is essential". He therefore stands by his 1958 claim that "There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false" only for dramatic art; as a citizen, he says, he, like all others, must ask: "What is true? What is false?"

This position - and it is reflected in the black and white certainty with which Pinter presents the recent history of American foreign policy - makes me deeply uncomfortable. I see know reason why the complex and ambiguous truths of art are not mirrored (or, perhaps better, do not themselves mirror) the complex and ambiguous truths of ethical and political value and action. That the invasion of Iraq was both illegal and immoral seems to me, as Pinter asserts, "true"; however, there is also much truth in the assertion that to do nothing about a brutal dictator is also illegal and immoral. Pinter, like so many of the war's more vociferous critics, simply does not address the second point (except to note, absolutely correctly, that acceptance of it does not compel us in any way to support the action that was finally taken. To do so would represent a species of the faulty logic that the classic British comedy Yes, Prime Minister referred to as the "politicians fallacy" - "Something must be done; this is something, ergo this must be done"). This does not, of course, mean that we cannot denounce; however, as long as the legitimate "pull" of opposing opinions is not respected (as Pinter does in his art, but not in much of his overtly political work), our denuciations automatically lose any persuasive force for that most important part of our audience: those who do not already agree with us. In such circumstances, the possibility for conversation - based upon a genuine recognition of the force of both sides of an argument - is lost; and with it much of the hope of achieving what is presumably the goal of our discourse in the first place.

Anyway, like I said, well worth a read. Full text is available here.

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