Awarding this year’s Nobel Prize in literature to British playwright Harold Pinter is giving the recipient an opportunity to mount a stage of enormous proportions, and his acceptance speech in Stockholm next month may be the most provocative, fiery and influential address ever given on this august occasion.
In recent years, Pinter has been an outspoken critic of American (and British) foreign policy, and it is far from unlikely that he will use the Nobel podium to great dramatic effect, denouncing what he sees, in the Bush administration, as a perversion of ethics, faith and social democracy.
I was intrigued to read an article about Pinter’s political views in the International Herald Tribune (Oct. 29-30). In that article James Traub, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, lambastes Pinter for “politics so extreme that they’re almost impossible to parody.” He claims that in the United States, at least, “it is hard to think of anyone save Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal who would not choke on Pinter’s bile” — further pointing out that, in Europe, views such as Pinter’s are more common among the “anti-American left.”
It was the hyphenated cliche, “anti-American,” that caught my eye, and I began to wonder what it really meant. None refer more to this label of bias than Americans themselves, though it is generally reserved for non-Americans. For Americans, they have the shorter “un-American.” Non-Americans, however, can’t be called un-American by definition because they’re not American in the first place, so they have to be anti-American, I guess.
These days the term is in vogue. Even a cursory perusal of the media in America demonstrates that conservatives are apt to use anti-American as a catchall to describe Muslims who “hate America’s freedoms,” “leftwing European elites” and just about anybody around the world who is “jealous of America’s successful democracy” or “opposes American influence in their country.”
But what exactly is an “anti-American,” and why do they appear to be so?
Back in the 1950s, the anti-American label was applied to a variety of people around the world who had genuine grievances with the United States. By throwing these people into one incompliant category and calling them “anti,” ardent supporters of American policy were able to dismiss real and often trenchant criticism as ideological tendentiousness. This is precisely what extreme conservative elements in the U.S. are doing today with their with-us-or-against-us approach to dissent.
Perhaps the most virulent denigration of American policy dismissed as “anti-Americanism” in the 1950s was seen in Latin America. Opposition to the U.S. got so heady that Vice President Richard Nixon was physically attacked on a visit to Caracas, Venezuela, in 1958. Americans at the time were wont to say, “They hate us down there, and after all we have done for them!” (Perhaps President George W. Bush entertained just such sentiments on his recent journey to the region.)
But what was the “all” that Americans had done for the people of Latin America? The U.S. underwrote the brutal and utterly corrupt dictatorships of Somoza in Nicaragua and Batista in Cuba. America intervened in Bolivia and later in Chile. The United Fruit Company virtually ran Guatemala, and the CIA engineered a coup d’etat against that country’s constitutional government.
What did ordinary Americans know of all this? Almost nothing. The press painted it all up as if America was bestowing freedom and unlimited wealth on “our neighbors to the south.” Many more Americans would have more readily recognized the face of Chiquita Banana (the colorful symbol of the United Fruit Company) than that of the president of Mexico.
When the people of Latin American countries — by no means the majority of them “leftwing” — protested, they were conveniently branded “anti-American.” This not only trivialized their true frustration and anger, but it also galvanized Americans into a kind of Pavlovian patriotism that’s just the kind we see at work today.
Out of control
But back to Pinter’s views.
Interviewed on the BBC’s “Hardtalk” program in December 2004, Pinter stated that “Tony Blair and George Bush should be tried as war criminals” for their actions in Iraq, which I suppose makes Britain’s most famous playwright “anti-British” as well. In a speech in Hyde Park in London on Feb. 15, 2003, he declared, “The United States is a monster out of control. . . . The country is run by a bunch of criminal lunatics. . . . The planned attack on Iraq is an act of premeditated mass murder.”
I would remind Mr. Traub that some of the most respected journalists writing for his newspaper have said similar things about the policies of the Bush administration.
What does it mean to be “anti” a particular country? If you don’t agree with Vladimir Putin’s prosecution of the war in Chechnya, are you anti-Russian? Was it anti-Cambodian to denounce Pol Pot and his killing fields?
A committed and passionate response to ill-conceived actions may stem from love of a country. If Pinter and others devote their energies to opposing a heinous course that America is pursuing, it may very well be appropriate to label them “pro-American” for their concerned and articulate stance. The only anti-American position in Bush’s America may be one of indifference and inaction.
And as for Pinter’s views being extreme, the latest Washington Post poll has shown that 55 percent of Americans consider Bush’s presidency “a failure.” How many anti-Americans are there among that majority of Americans?
In fact, the label “anti-American” is meaningless. It merely reinforces a blind prejudice on the part of those Americans who still believe in the old saw, “My country right or wrong.”
Perhaps what many people around the world — including millions of Americans — wish for the United States is that the country abandon its holier-than-thou chauvinism and come down to earth where the rest of humanity lives.
Those who constantly claim the moral high ground for themselves alone are often all too willing to trample over others to get there.
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