Talking with Writer Harold Pinter
If Bush is less amusing at the moment, he's no less worrisome for those in the U.K. who dread the expansion of American influence. The notion that Great Britain will become a replica of the U.S. came up repeatedly in my interviews, as if U.S. culture were creeping across the globe like a noxious weed. One of the most angry and eloquent critics of the United States is the actor and playwright Harold Pinter.
Actor and playwright Harold Pinter has described the U.S. as "the most dangerous power the world has ever known." Photo: © The British Library
"I think there's an tremendous amount of anxiety in the country about our posture of standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States," says Pinter. "Whatever the United States chooses to do, for us to do that every time the U.S. takes action is humiliating for what's supposed to be an independent country."
At 71, Pinter is a voluble left-wing political activist. His internationally renowned plays often deal with alienated characters and menacing forces. Pinter says that given what he calls the U.S. record of exploiting other countries, a backlash such as the September 11 attacks was historically inevitable.
"I'm not happy to say it," says Pinter, "and I certainly don't approve it, I'm not attempting to excuse it. I'm just saying it is explicable if you look back at the domination of the world by the United States. Far and away the most powerful country in the world and proud of being so and not ashamed of being so. And finally saying, 'Listen, we're the boss and that's that.'"
Somewhere in our chat, Pinter put down his glass of white wine and rummaged in a file drawer to find a speech he gave in Italy on September 10, 2001. He had declared the U.S., as "the most dangerous power the world has ever known, the authentic rogue state." Pinter also described a profound revulsion and disgust towards American power he saw growing throughout the world. Less than 24 hours later, the first jet smashed into the World Trade Center.
At the Yale Club
In the weeks following the terrorist attacks, Americans seemed genuinely surprised at the level of anger towards the U.S. in some parts of the world. I wondered how Americans would react to such animosity from our closest allies, so I took the excerpts from the London interviews to the heart of September 11 New York City.
At the Yale Club in midtown Manhattan, I met with three businesswomen, all what you might call hyphenated Americans. Linda Dunbar and Hope Stevens are African-American; Maria Reveley is second generation Italian-American. They all work in the New York corporate world, with the recent exception of Hope Stevens.
"By profession I'm a manager of corporate training and development, says Stevens, "but, I recently lost my job in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The firm I was working for, most of our clients were located in the World Trade Center, and like many small businesses in Manhattan, we had to close our doors."
I play a CD of some comments from a group of educated, middle-class women from London made after September 11.
"They probably think within their continent the world is contained. That as far as I'm aware, their newspapers' foreign coverage is minimal. If you watch what passes as news on American television, there isn't any international news. They're clueless. The world is run for America, by America. They're just a clueless bunch of tossers."
Judy, Civil Servants Equestrian Club, London
"I think there's also insularity within the insularity of the U.S. because there's New York City, and we know there's no one more provincial than a New Yorker," responds Stevens.
Dunbar agrees, "It's like ten blocks is a whole different neighborhood. You don't go ten blocks away."
"So what she's saying about 'never travel, don't have a passport, don't read,' that's how we feel about the rest of the U.S.," she laughs, "Brooklyn! New Jersey!"
"To be fair though, if you live in Europe and travel for five hours, you're in a different country. If you live in America and travel for five hours, you may have left your state or not," notes Dunbar.
"You might be in Jersey," says Reveley.
"Yes, you might be in New Jersey," laughs Dunbar. "So I think that is something that does make a difference. You drive five hours and you're not out of New York State. It's a huge country."
"I don't think we aspire to be like America. Despite the proliferation of McDonalds and Starbucks, one hopes Britain doesn't end up to be more like America. We can see Tony Blair is doing his best, bless his cotton socks. He thinks he's President Blair already."
Frankie, Civil Servants Equestrian Club, London
"It's no secret that over the past decade there's been a lot of American cultural imperialism, if you will," agrees Stevens. "There is a certain percentage out there who love us and a lot who really resent us, who hate our way of life. I think that this is the first time that many Americans have come to grips with the fact that not everyone loves us."
"The U.S. has been blamed for U.S. foreign policy," says Dunbar, "and I think that it is probably time that foreign policy is looked at. And it probably should have been looked at ages ago. But it's interesting to me that the U.K., having created the British Empire, having gone out and divided people and lands down the middle of villages on the basis of Christianity and commerce. Having done all that, we're left to pick up the pieces and all of a sudden it's our fault and nobody is taking the whole colonial episode with Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, Holland, and Germany into consideration."
Next: Responses in St Paul, Minnesota