Friday, December 26, 2008

Two Voices Speaking Truth to Power

Much has been made of the extent to which Harold Pinter dedicated his final years to outspoken condemnation of the follies of the Bush Administration with the mindless consent of the United Kingdom. The obituary by Alastair Jamieson for the London Telegraph provides one of the better summaries of the aggressive way in which Pinter could use his bully pulpit to speak truth to power:

In 2002 he described the Bush administration in the United States as "a bloodthirsty wild animal", adding: "Bombs are its only vocabulary." He said: "Many Americans, we know, are horrified by the posture of their government but seem to be helpless".

He has called President Bush as "mass-murdering" and former prime minister Tony Blair as a "deluded idiot".

In accepting the Wilfred Owen Award for Poetry, on 18 March 2005, he said: "I believe Wilfred Owen would share our contempt, our revulsion, our nausea and our shame at both the language and the actions of the American and British governments".

I do not know if Pinter cited any of Owen's texts in his acceptance speech. However, reading that last sentence reminded me of the epigraph passage from Owen that Benjamin Britten placed on the title page of his War Requiem:

My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity…
All a poet can do today is warn.

Pinter tried to shift his role from one who warns to one who could change, and it remains to be seen if his words and actions have made a difference.

Meanwhile, lest we dwell too much on the Pinter obituaries, we should remember that Eartha Kitt, whose death was also reported yesterday, spoke truth to power in her own way during the nightmare of our engagement in Vietnam. BBC NEWS made it a point to recognize this aspect of her life in their obituary:

In the late sixties, however, Kitt's career encountered a substantial setback after she made her anti-Vietnam war views explicit during a White House luncheon.

The CIA put together a dossier on her and she became professionally exiled from the US. She worked abroad for 11 years, where her reputation remained unscathed, but returned triumphantly to New York in 1974 to star in a Broadway spectacle of Timbuktu!

There is little similarity between the respective career paths of Pinter and Kitt, but each had and took the opportunity to speak truth to power. It seems appropriate to remember them together and a time when the checks on power are still being strained.

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