Disinfectant

In these troubled times the NYT must be ever-so-thankful it can count on the likes of James Traub to lay down the law, and make sure those who defy it know their place.

“When the British playwright Harold Pinter was interviewed after learning earlier this month that he won the Nobel Prize for literature, he said that he might well use his acceptance speech in December to “address the state of the world.” This could prove to be quite a revelation for Pinter’s American admirers, who tend to know much less about his politics than Europeans do. Still, they need only go to Pinter’s own Web site to learn that the author of The Birthday Party and The Homecoming views the United States as a moral monster bent on world domination.”

Well, here’s the website — easily reached by all and sundry. In fact, there’s little doubt that those who count themselves among “Pinter’s American admirers” have not only visited it but are as well acquainted with his politics as their European equivalents. But Traub is writing for the NYT, where actual knowledge is reflexively brushed away in favor of the virtual knowledge that compendium of easily wielded memes that peg Pinter as a cultural brand name (terse dialogue, a menacing atmosphere, the alleged influence of Samuel Beckett and those oh-so-famous “pauses”) and nothing more.

As for the view that “the United States as a moral monster bent on world domination” one scarcely need Pinter to highlight it. Indeed its been voiced for good reason by any number of individuals and nation-states throughout its long blood-soaked history. So why should this Jewish tailor’s son be singled out?

“Pinter’s consuming anti-Americanism may have had little or nothing to do with the judges’ decision to award him the prize. Unlike Dario Fo, the 1997 recipient notorious for his denunciations of the U.S., Pinter has written works that will remain long after his polemics are forgotten. Even some conservatives have applauded the selection. But whatever the intention, the Swedes have given Pinter the most prestigious of platforms from which to broadcast his worldview – a view that has become common currency, albeit in somewhat less toxic form, in the highest reaches of European culture.”

For Traub “polemics” are to be “forgotten” while “work” remains. Needless to say this indicates that Traub doesn’t understand Pinter’s work at all –political to its core from its very first “pause.” More than Kafka, Musil or even J.G. Ballard, Harold Pinter understands the nature of power and its base in language. Struggles for power both elegant (The Collection) and squalid (Accident) are Pinter’s primary subject and the political dynamic of same is scarcely lost to him. But it’s lost to Traub, or rather deliberately mislaid.

Pinter’s politics are so extreme that they’re almost impossible to parody. “Mr. Bush and his gang,” he said in a speech as the war in Iraq approached, “are determined, quite simply, to control the world and the world’s resources. And they don’t give a damn how many people they murder on the way.” Pinter sees the current president as only the most recent exponent of the American hegemonic impulse. The playwright was just as outraged by NATO’s 1999 air war in Kosovo. Though the bombing was essentially a last resort in the face of Slobodan Milosevic’s savage campaign of ethnic cleansing, Pinter described it as “a criminal act” – the U.N. Security Council hadn’t approved – designed to consolidate “American domination of Europe.” He complained, in fact, of “the demonization and the hysteria” that accompanied the NATO campaign against Milosevic and the Serbs.

It would of course never occur to Traub that a man who as a child witnessed the bombing of London would have good reason to oppose air attacks on civilian populations. But there’s quite a lot to say about Kosovo that Traub doubtless doesn’t care to hear. Slobodan Milosevic, the presumed target of the attacks, was left unscathed — as was Saddam Hussein. The same can’t be said of the unlucky citizens of Kosovo — or the thousands of Iraqis mercilessly slaughtered in “Shock and Awe.” So why were these bombings executed? Because the United States is determined, quite simply, to control the world and the world’s resources. And they don’t give a damn how many people they murder on the way.

“These views are hardly unfamiliar in the United States; you can hear them on any major university campus. Among public intellectuals or literary figures, however, it is hard to think of anyone save Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal who would not choke on Pinter’s bile.”

And at last Traub gets to his real target — those pesky college kids who haven’t gone “Conservative” as they’ve been told to do so relentlessly over the past two decades. Naturally the blame falls to and the pernicious influence of those twin Satans Noam Chomsky (whose thoughtful words will never sully the hallowed cyberpages of “Times Select”) and Gore Vidal (a pain in the paper’s ideological ass for over half a century). Would that this were the case. But as anyone with half a brain knows you don’t have to read Chomsky or Vidal to get wise. Reading between the lines of the NYT will do quite nicely — once you realize its true motto is “All the Propaganda That’s Fit to Spin.”

But the situation is very different throughout Europe, where the anti-American left is far more intellectually respectable. In the Anglophone world of letters, John le Carré holds opinions similar to Pinter’s, as do the essayist Tariq Ali and the novelist Arundhati Roy. These last two publicly root for the Iraqi “resistance” against the infernal machinery of American empire. Roy has conceded that despots like Saddam Hussein “are a menace to their own people” but concludes that there isn’t much that can be done about it save “strengthening the hand of civil society” – a comment apparently not intended as a joke.

That Traub considers civility a “joke” makes him as one with an elite that has gathered strength over the past thirty years before finally unveiling itself in the “New! Improved!” form of Realpolitik called “Neo-Conservative”

All this talk about “resistance” and “antifascism” betrays the origins of this virulent strain of anti-Americanism: support for the “liberation” struggles in China, Cuba, Vietnam Zimbabwe and elsewhere. Iraq, in other words, is being superimposed on the old “anti-imperialist” grid, with disgruntled Baathists playing the role of the Vietcong. You might have thought that the end of the cold war would have knocked the starch out of this Manichaean struggle, but the far left has been unwilling to surrender the exhilarating moral clarity of that era.

Will somebody please tell Traub the 60’s are over ? Nope, it’s too late for that. Like so many neo-fascists (Christopher Hitchens being the locus classicus) he’s in rhetorical fugue state when it comes to attacking the phantom left he cocktails up for ritual approbrium. That opposition to U.S. policy doesn’t lead to knee-jerk support for every movement claiming to be against it should be obvious to the rational. But rationality is of not interest to an ideologue determiend to induce panic.

Failure, in fact, may have driven elements of the left deeper into opposition; the “socialist debacle,” as the political writer Ian Buruma noted in a recent essay, “contributed to the resentment of American triumphs.”

And what would these “triumphs” be? The toppling of Saddam’s statue? The career of Ahmed Chalabi? Lance Armstrong bicycling with Bush in Crawford?

What, then, to do? Should we beam Radio Free Europe to the captive states of France, Germany and England? Actually, I have a better idea: get the C.I.A. to secretly subsidize the publication of Pinter’s political poetry, along with a worldwide tour booked into major sports stadiums. The poet would be encouraged to recite such clanking fragments of doggerel as the following from “God Bless America”: “Here they go again/The Yanks in their armoured parade/Chanting their ballads of joy/As they gallop across the big world/Praising America’s God.”

Better still, how about a Broadway production of Mountain Language ? You could get Ben Brantley to complain that it’s not as much fun as Old Times .That’ed show him!

Sunshine, they say, is the greatest disinfectant. You cannot, of course, dissuade implacable ideologues, any more than you can an implacable jihadist

Traub must have caught a glimpse of his reflection in the monitor.

But that’s not the goal, either in Iraq or in the West. The goal is to delegitimate extremism among the great mass of people not yet lost to reason. Even here, there is no getting around the fact that no nation as dominant as America now is will be accepted as a benevolent actor; indeed, no nation so easily able to advance its own interests will act benevolently most of the time.

“Most” of the time? When would that be? When it’s not plotting to overthrow duly elected liberal governments and replace them with murderous thugs? When it’s not bombing civilian populations in campaigns that are never so much as mentioned in the NYT? Oh benevolebce is hard.

But we could certainly help our case by boasting about our benevolence less and proving it more – by acting, that is, in ways that seem worthy of a great democracy.

Yes, that’s what we need — acting lessons.

We might, for example, take the wind out of the antifascist sails by accepting rules and institutions – the Geneva Conventions, the International Criminal Court, the disarmament provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty – that practically everyone save us and a few outright malefactors hold dear.

Hey, we might sign the Kyoto accords too! But will we? Tell me now Mr. Traub — you who know so much about American “benevolence” — do you seee this in your Crystal Balkin?

We might cut our farm subsidies to improve terms of trade for impoverished African farmers (and to show up European countries unwilling to do the same). We might tiptoe less delicately around authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and stand up more staunchly for democratic forces.

And the Bluebird of Happiness might fly out of The Creature From the Blog Lagoon’s testosterone-engorged neck.

The battle of ideas, after all, is not to be waged only in the Islamic world

Ya think?

As for that “disinfectant” I’m reminded ofsunshine in its most ideal form, as sung by Barbara Harris to Dustin Hoffman in Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me. It’s a scene that finds the stars flying in a plane — but not dropping bombs as they do so:

This life’s a play from the start,
It’s hard to play thru a part,
When there’s an ache in your heart all day
I have my dreams ’til the dawn,
I wake to find they are gone,
But still the play “must go on” they say.
When I pretend I’m gay
I never feel that way,
I’m only painting the clouds with sunshine.
When I hold back a tear
To make a smile appear,
I’m only painting the clouds with sunshine
Painting the blues beautiful hues,
Col ored with gold and old rose;
Playing the clown,
Trying to drown
All of my woes;
Tho’ things may not look bright
They’ll all turn out alright
If I keep painting the clouds with sunshine.

12 Comments

  1. The Fat Lady Sings October 31, 2005 1:17 pm 

    Wow – I don’t even know where to begin. Traub’s piece was dripping with condescension – and not only for Pinter. His dismissal of the Nobel committee as ‘The’ Swedes! You were right to spotlight Pinter’s religion – I wonder just how much of a role that played, as opposed to Pinter’s political ‘views’.

    I must say – I am not overly familiar with Traub’s work – living outside of New York as I do – but if this example is characteristic – I’m not interested in reading anything else. And the bile Traub presumes to choke on is his own.

    One other note – finally someone else who has not only heard of but seen Dustin Hoffman’s ‘Who is Harry Kellerman, and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?’ You have my applause.

  2. David E October 31, 2005 1:27 pm 

    Merci. “Google” Traub for more info. But for me he’s less an individual than the agent of a Corporate Brand. The NYT has long been regarded as the ne plus ultra of High Culture. Therefore for the NYT to say that Pinter doesn’t pass muster is supposed to count Big Time. But with the org’s aura (finally!) slipping their Pinter-dissing is far less effective than it might have been in the past. Is there just the slightest whiff of anti-semitism in this as you suggest? Interesting thought. Of course historical anti-semitism has been compromised of late by wingnut fealty to Israel.

    And yes, I’m crazy about Barbara Harris.

  3. David N. Scott November 1, 2005 3:48 pm 

    Yeah, I think the collateral damage is really not thought of often enough. A lot of people seem to really want to help people, but then the cost is massive…

    It’s strange. Even those with good goals can still do monstrous things when it comes to war, I guess.

  4. TheVolt November 2, 2005 5:46 pm 

    >It would of course never occur to Traub that a man who as a child witnessed the bombing of London would have good reason to oppose air attacks on civilian populations.

    Maybe. But given that Pinter’s response to the Blitz was to vow never to serve in the military that did its damnedest to defend London from those bombs, and given that Pinter is now a member of the Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, author of the largest civilian slaughter in Europe since the one the Jewish tailor’s son was fortunate to have escaped, who can blame Traub for not trying to fathom Pinter’s motives?

    >Noam Chomsky (whose thoughtful words will never sully the hallowed cyberpages of “Times Select”)

    Thank God the Guardian is free, and anyone with a modem is free to share its writer’s bafflement at Chomsky’s denial of the Srebrenica massacre.

  5. David E November 2, 2005 8:24 pm 

    Yes, all pacifists are collaborators, aren’t they Troll.

  6. TheVolt November 3, 2005 12:06 pm 

    Ah, there’s that fab wit.

    Care to challenge the facts? Nah.

    Pacifist my ass.

  7. David E November 3, 2005 12:22 pm 

    Feel free to plant that fat ass of yours on other sites. I don’t play with trolls.

  8. TheVolt November 3, 2005 12:59 pm 

    Pathetic.

    Do you really approve of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic? I mean, I’m sure all “pacifists” naturally gravitate to such organizations.

    Do you really believe the Srebrenica massacre was just anti-Serb propaganda?

    “Fat ass”. “Troll”. Do you really enjoy playing at the level of Free Republic?

    Traub: “Roy has conceded that despots like Saddam Hussein “are a menace to their own people” but concludes that there isn’t much that can be done about it save “strengthening the hand of civil society” – a comment apparently not intended as a joke.”

    Ehrenstein: “Traub considers civility a ‘joke’.”

    Putting the distortion alongside the remark it distorts goes to show that the internet has done nothing so effectively as facilitate shamelessness.

    And we’ve seen how much you value civility.

    Feel free to live up to your pledge not to respond. I won’t feel slighted.

  9. Evil Jimi November 3, 2005 6:42 pm 

    TheVolt … it all seems so simple when you write in black on white. Take a hint from Fablog and try veiwing the world in gray on gray.

    …the internet has done nothing so effectively as facilitate shamelessness.

    It also facilitates research. Try it, you’ll like it.

  10. TheVolt November 3, 2005 7:20 pm 

    >take a hint from Fablog and try veiwing the world in gray on gray.

    When Fablog finds anything other than pitch-black in the Bush administration, I’ll be the first to applaud DE’s grasp of nuance and complexity.

    Research is good, but it won’t disprove Pinter’s membership in the ICDSM, the actions of Mladic at Srebrenbica, or the motion of the earth around the sun.

  11. TheVolt November 3, 2005 7:24 pm 

    >Take a hint from Fablog and try veiwing the world in gray on gray.

    But if it makes you feel any better, Pinter was right to condemn the Turkish government’s treatment of political prisoners. Also, No Man’s Land is an entertaining read, particularly if you can hear the dialogue in John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson’s voices.

    Oh, and Accident is fun trash, as Pauline Kael noted.

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