"Art, Truth and Politics"
Noble Lecture by Harold Pinter,
December 7, 2005
The United States supported the brutal
Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua for over forty years. The Nicaraguan
people, led by the Sandinistas, overthrew this regime in 1979,
a breathtaking popular revolution.
The Sandinistas weren't perfect. They
possessed their fair share of arrogance, and their political philosophy
contained a number of contradictory elements. But they were intelligent,
rational and civilized. They set out to establish a stable, decent,
pluralistic society. The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds
of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from
the dead. Over 100,000 families were given title to land. 2,000
schools were built. A quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced
illiteracy in the country to less than one-seventh. Free education
was established and a free health service. Infant mortality was
reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.
The United States denounced these achievements
as Marxist-Leninist subversion. In the view of the US government,
a dangerous example was being set. If Nicaragua was allowed to
establish basic norms of social and economic justice, if it was
allowed to raise the standards of healthcare and education and
achieve social unity and national self-respect, neighboring countries
would ask the same questions and do the same things. There was,
of course, at the time fierce resistance to the status quo in
I spoke earlier about "a tapestry
of lies" which surrounds us. President Reagan commonly described
Nicaragua as a "totalitarian dungeon." This was taken
generally by the media, and certainly by the British government,
as accurate and fair comment. But there was in fact no record
of death squads under the Sandinista government. There was no
record of torture. There was no record of systematic or official
military brutality. No priests were ever murdered in Nicaragua.
There were in fact three priests in the government: two Jesuits
and a Maryknoll missionary. The totalitarian dungeons were actually
next door, in El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States had
brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala
in 1954, and it is estimated that over 200,000 people had been
victims of successive military dictatorships.
Six of the most distinguished Jesuits
in the world were viciously murdered at the Central American University
in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the Alcatl regiment
trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. That extremely brave man
Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It is estimated
that 75,000 people died. Why were they killed? They were killed
because they believed a better life was possible and should be
achieved. That belief immediately qualified them as communists.
They died because they dared to question the status quo, the endless
plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression, which
had been their birthright.
The United States finally brought down
the Sandinista government. It took some years and considerable
resistance, but relentless economic persecution and 30,000 dead
finally undermined the spirit of the Nicaraguan people. They were
exhausted and poverty-stricken once again. The casinos moved back
into the country. Free health and free education were over. Big
business returned with a vengeance. "Democracy" had
But this "policy" was by no
means restricted to Central America. It was conducted throughout
the world. It was never-ending. And it is as if it never happened.
The United States supported, and in many
cases engendered, every right-wing military dictatorship in the
world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia,
Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines,
Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the
United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged
and can never be forgiven.
Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place
throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they
in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is
yes, they did take place, and they are attributable to American
foreign policy. But you wouldn't know it. It never happened. Nothing
ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn't happening.
It didn't matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United
States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but
very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand
it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation
of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal
good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.
I put to you that the United States is,
without doubt, the greatest show on the road. Brutal, indifferent,
scornful and ruthless, it may be, but it's also very clever. As
a salesman, it is out on its own, and its most saleable commodity
is self-love. It's a winner. Listen to all American presidents
on television say the words, "the American people,"
as in the sentence, "I say to the American people it is time
to pray and to defend the rights of the American people, and I
ask the American people to trust their president in the action
he is about to take on behalf of the American people." It's
a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep
thought at bay. The words "American people" provide
a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don't need to think.
Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your
intelligence and your critical faculties, but it's very comfortable.
This does not apply, of course, to the 40 million people living
below the poverty line and the two million men and women imprisoned
in the vast gulag of prisons, which extends across the United
The United States no longer bothers about
low-intensity conflict. It no longer sees any point in being reticent
or even devious. It puts its cards on the table without fear or
favor. It quite simply doesn't give a damn about the United Nations,
international law or critical dissent, which it regards as impotent
and irrelevant. It also has its own bleating little lamb tagging
behind it on a lead: the pathetic and supine Great Britain.
What has happened to our moral sensibility?
Did we ever have any? What do these words mean? Do they refer
to a term very rarely employed these days-conscience? A conscience
to do not only with our own acts but to do with our shared responsibility
in the acts of others? Is all this dead?
Look at Guantanamo Bay: hundreds of people detained without charge
for over three years with no legal representation or due process,
technically detained forever. This totally illegitimate structure
is maintained in defiance of the Geneva Convention. It is not
only tolerated, but hardly thought about, by what's called the
"international community." This criminal outrage is
being committed by a country which declares itself to be "the
leader of the free world." Do we think about the inhabitants
of Guantanamo Bay? What does the media say about them? They pop
up occasionally, a small item on page six. They have been consigned
to a no man's land, from which indeed they may never return. At
present, many are on hunger strike, being force-fed, including
British residents. No niceties in these force-feeding procedures.
No sedative or anesthetic. Just a tube stuck up your nose and
into your throat. You vomit blood. This is torture. What has the
British Foreign Secretary said about this? Nothing. What has the
British Prime Minister said about this? Nothing. Why not? Because
the United States has said, "To criticize our conduct in
Guantanamo Bay constitutes an unfriendly act. You're either with
us or against us." So Blair shuts up.
The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act,
an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt
for the concept of international law. The invasion was an arbitrary
military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross
manipulation of the media and therefore of the public; an act
intended to consolidate American military and economic control
of the Middle East masquerading, as a last resort-all other justifications
having failed to justify themselves-as liberation; a formidable
assertion of military force responsible for the death and mutilation
of thousands and thousands of innocent people.
How many people do you have to kill before
you qualify to be described as a mass murderer and a war criminal?
100,000? More than enough, I would have thought. Therefore, it
is just that Bush and Blair be arraigned before the International
Criminal Court of Justice. But Bush has been clever. He has not
ratified the International Criminal Court of Justice. Therefore,
if any American soldier or, for that matter, politician finds
himself in the dock, Bush has warned that he will send in the
Marines. But Tony Blair has ratified the Court and is therefore
available for prosecution. We can let the Court have his address,
if they're interested. It is Number 10, Downing Street, London.
Death in this context is irrelevant. Both
Bush and Blair place death well away on the back burner. At least
100,000 Iraqis were killed by American bombs and missiles before
the Iraq insurgency began. These people are of no moment. Their
deaths don't exist. They are blank. They're not even recorded
as being dead. "We don't do body counts," said the American
general Tommy Franks.
Early in the invasion, there was a photograph
published on the front page of British newspapers of Tony Blair
kissing the cheek of a little Iraqi boy. "A grateful child,"
said the caption. A few days later, there was a story and photograph
on an inside page of another four-year-old boy with no arms. His
family had been blown up by a missile. He was the only survivor.
"When do I get my arms back?" he asked. This story was
never referred to again. Well, Tony Blair wasn't holding him in
his arms, nor the body of any other mutilated child, nor the body
of any bloody corpse. Blood is dirty. It dirties your shirt and
tie when you're making a sincere speech on television.
The 2,000 American dead are an embarrassment.
They are transported to their graves in the dark. Funerals are
unobtrusive, out of harm's way. The mutilated rot in their beds,
some for the rest of their lives. So the dead and the mutilated
both rot, in different kinds of graves.
Here is an extract from a poem by Pablo
Neruda, "I'm Explaining a Few Things":
And one morning all that was burning,
_one morning the bonfires _leapt out of the earth _devouring human
beings _and from then on fire, _gunpowder from then on, _and from
then on blood. _Bandits with planes and Moors, _bandits with finger-rings
and duchesses, _bandits with black friars spattering blessings
_came through the sky to kill children _and the blood of children
ran through the streets _without fuss, like children's blood.
Jackals that the jackals would despise
_stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out, _vipers
that the vipers would abominate.
Face to face with you I have seen the
blood _of Spain tower like a tide _to drown you in one wave _of
pride and knives.
Treacherous _generals: _see my dead house,
_look at broken Spain: _from every house burning metal flows _instead
of flowers _from every socket of Spain _Spain emerges _and from
every dead child a rifle with eyes _and from every crime bullets
are born _which will one day find _the bull's eye of your hearts.
And you will ask: why doesn't his poetry
_speak of dreams and leaves _and the great volcanoes of his native
Come and see the blood in the streets.
_Come and see _the blood in the streets. _Come and see the blood
_in the streets!
Let me make it quite clear that in quoting
from Neruda's poem, I am in no way comparing Republican Spain
to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. I quote Neruda, because nowhere in contemporary
poetry have I read such a powerful visceral description of the
bombing of civilians.
I have said earlier that the United States
is now totally frank about putting its cards on the table. That
is the case. Its official declared policy is now defined as "full
spectrum dominance." That is not my term, it is theirs. "Full
spectrum dominance" means control of land, sea, air and space
and all attendant resources.
The United States now occupies 702 military
installations throughout the world in 132 countries, with the
honorable exception of Sweden, of course. We don't quite know
how they got there, but they are there all right.
The United States possesses 8,000 active
and operational nuclear warheads. 2,000 are on hair-trigger alert,
ready to be launched with fifteen minutes warning. It is developing
new systems of nuclear force, known as bunker busters. The British,
ever cooperative, are intending to replace their own nuclear missile,
Trident. Who, I wonder, are they aiming at? Osama bin Laden? You?
Me? Joe Dokes? China? Paris? Who knows? What we do know is that
this infantile insanity, the possession and threatened use of
nuclear weapons, is at the heart of present American political
philosophy. We must remind ourselves that the United States is
on a permanent military footing and shows no sign of relaxing
Many thousands, if not millions, of people
in the United States itself are demonstrably sickened, shamed
and angered by their government's actions, but as things stand,
they are not a coherent political force-yet. But the anxiety,
uncertainty and fear, which we can see growing daily in the United
States, is unlikely to diminish.
I know that President Bush has many extremely
competent speech writers, but I would like to volunteer for the
job myself. I propose the following short address, which he can
make on television to the nation. I see him grave, hair carefully
combed, serious, winning, sincere, often beguiling, sometimes
employing a wry smile, curiously attractive, a man's man.
"God is good. God is great. God is
good. My god is good. Bin Laden's god is bad. His is a bad god.
Saddam's god was bad, except he didn't have one. He was a barbarian.
We are not barbarians. We don't chop people's heads off. We believe
in freedom. So does God. I am not a barbarian. I am the democratically
elected leader of a freedom-loving democracy. We are a compassionate
society. We give compassionate electrocution and compassionate
lethal injection. We are a great nation. I am not a dictator.
He is. I am not a barbarian. He is. They all are. I possess moral
authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And
don't you forget it."
A writer's life is a highly vulnerable,
almost naked activity. We don't have to weep about that. The writer
makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that
you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are
out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection,
unless you lie, in which case of course you have constructed your
own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.
I have referred to death quite a few times
in this speech. I shall now quote a poem of my own called "Death."
Where was the dead body found? _Who found
the dead body? _Was the dead body dead when found? _How was the
dead body found?
Who was the dead body?
Who was the father or daughter or brother
_Or uncle or sister or mother or son _Of the dead and abandoned
Was the body dead when abandoned? _Was
the body abandoned? _By whom had it been abandoned?
Was the dead body naked or dressed for
What made you declare the dead body dead?
_Did you declare the dead body dead? _How well did you know the
dead body? _How did you know the dead body was dead?
Did you wash the dead body? _Did you close
both its eyes? _Did you bury the body? _Did you leave it abandoned?
_Did you kiss the dead body?
When we look into a mirror, we think the
image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimeter, and
the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range
of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror,
for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares
I believe that despite the enormous odds
which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination,
as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies
is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact
If such a determination is not embodied
in our political vision, we have no hope of restoring what is
so nearly lost to us: the dignity of man.