Kevin Bjorke
Kevin Bjorke
12 min read

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One of my favorite work-related blogs is Garr Reynolds’s Presentation Zen. In a recent entry, Garr writes about the recent Nobel Prize award lecture given by Harold Pinter.

The transcript of Pinter’s lecture uses the context of his plays as a bridge from literary theatre to the principles of political theatre and then into a biting and at times terrifying polemic against modern US and British foreign policies.

At one point he nominates himself as a speechwriter for President Bush, and while reading one can almost hear Bush’s voice in Pinter’s parody:

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. And he is. They all are. I possess moral authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don't you forget it.

Pinter’s lecture on literature covers much political ground, and little of it seems much directed at literature — but the economy and directness of his language reveals the greatness of his authorial powers. He even goes so far as to include a poem by Pablo Neruda and to all but close his lecture with a poem of his own.

That same evening, only two nights ago, a journalist friend & I went to see George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck, a dramatization based on Edward R. Murrow’s most famous hour, his 1954 broadcast against the Red Scare, “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.”

In that program, Murrow sagely and repeatedly used McCarthy’s own words, brought to history by the indelible recording of film and tape. As Murrow closes the program:

Earlier, the Senator asked, "Upon what meat does this, our Caesar, feed?" Had he looked three lines earlier in Shakespeare's Caesar, he would have found this line, which is not altogether inappropriate: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

What TV journalist today, I asked my friend, would be so fluid with language and eloquent in their reporting as Murrow was? What modern TV journalist would not shy away from using a source like Shakespeare, fearing that its presence would marginalize their words as “overintellectual” and “elitist”? And yet, Murrow’s language — spare, direct, well-chosen — was exactly the best sharp pin for McCarthy’s balloon.

McCarthy’s later reactionary appearance on TV himself — using the same sorts of suddenly-ineffectual innuendo and ad hominem vitriol that had previously given him so much credibility in the minds of an anxious public — was ultimately the true sign of his defeat.

The buzz on Presentation Zen was not about Pinter’s words, or the subjects of his attacks (well, not entirely). Rather they were set aside for the blog’s core topic: presentation methods. I called up the video of Pinter’s acceptance, which I had been assured was even more effective than the speech’s powerful text.

I had expected this. Pinter’s plays often leave so much to the actor, to the reader. The words themselves spare, the performances breathtaking. I was keen to hear his delivery of Neruda’s poem, and of his own. Poetry — great poetry — is always best aloud, with a speaker to breath their life into it.

I clicked “play” and spent the next 46 minutes held captive, wanting to remove the headphones but not daring to.

I had already read the script. I already knew every word that Pinter would say. And yet his delivery, carefully crafted by an actor and a master playwright, presented through video editing in as spare a manner as any minimalist play, was as riveting a performance as any I am ever likely to see.

A common theme on Presentation Zen in recent months has been the idea of presenting naked — without the bells and whistles and complicated visual noise. Here is Pinter, enthusiastically raw with his message, with the Nobel in his grasp, swinging it like a hammer at the things he finds most horrible and difficult in the world.

Murrow was no Harold Pinter. And likewise Pinter is no Murrow. Murrow ended his McCarthy telecast with a monologue that is accusing and yet hopeful, a call for good people to arise:

This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

Pinter too makes such a call, but obliquely, and by the time he reaches it we have already been bludgeoned by the force of his previous words.

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 mandatory.
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.

Pinter’s statement of hope seems melancholy, while Murrow’s is full of force. I cannot believe that Pinter would be blind to this. And his call for “fierce intellectual determination” is not made of casually-chosen words.

** The Sermon and the Funeral

Listening to Pinter’s Bush parody, I was reminded of another speech I had heard, back in the days of Ronald Reagan (another target of Pinter’s needle). It was a speech given not by a proper politician, but a fictional one.

In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it is written that the kingdom of God is within man, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfill that promise. Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness. Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!

This is part of the closing monologue given by Charlie Chaplin as the faux-Hitler in The Great Dictator. Chaplin’s little tailor, masquerading as der Fuhrer, hopes to bring a broad sea change to his fascist country through the power of such promises. And yet… even as a Reagan-era student watching this for the first time, I felt that with very some minor tweaks here and there, such a feel-good speech could have been just as easily given by Hitler himself, rallying his adherents to a kinder, gentler, world where everyone was a brother because everyone had been hammered into the same narrow Aryan shape.

One other speech also came to mind when listening to Pinter’s parody, one that was mentioned before here on botzilla, discussing the Melian debate, which I felt so closely matched the events then unfolding at the United Nations. It’s Thucydides’ recounting of the wartime Funeral Oration of Pericles:

Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors', but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.

The Athens Pericles describes as the home of “equal justice to all” not only demanded tribute from its neighbors and murdered those who did not pay it, but fully a third of the Athenian population were slaves, many dragged from previous freedom in those same military conflicts.

George Bush did not invent political duplicity, nor did Hitler create the deceptive feel-good-about-your-country dodge. No, it is an old dance, and one whose rhythms must surely be reflected in some basic part of our human character and biology. It has been a part of us for a very, very long time.

Had I only listened to Pinter, and had these same connections linking-up in my mind, I would be in a sorry state today indeed. His words are wilting. The history of our species has many faults we’d like to forget. And yet they are not the full story.

** Ongoing Betrayals

Harold Pinter was not the only Nobel Prize recipient this year. There are other prizes, such as the Peace Prize given to Mohamed ElBaradei and, important to me today, the joint prize in Economics, given to two prominent theorists of game theory: Robert Aumann and Thomas Schelling. Their presentations too are preserved on video and available on the web. And they too stray from what a casual observer might consider the core topic of their awards.

Alfred Nobel started his prizes in an attempt to help the world, as a gesture toward a world he felt he had harmed through the same business that brought his great monetary fortune: the invention of dynamite and the many weapons that came from it. There were many unexpected consequences.

So perhaps it is not so surprising that just as Pinter strayed quickly from purely literate concerns to those of life and responsibility and dignity on our planet, so too do these economists: Schelling’s address covers his theories regarding international gamesmanship and the remarkable fact that over the past sixty years, no nuclear weapon has ever been used in anger, since that week long ago in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And Aumann’s lecture roots at the basic causes for this, revealing curiously counter-intuitive arguments for peace and cooperation through the use of ready but unused deadly force. He dedicated his talk to the memory of the pacifist Leo Tolstoy.

Aumann and Scheller have reduced conflict to an analysis of interactive choices. They are game theorists, and have pushed past such classic game-theory paradoxes as the prisoners’ dilemma to examine what they call the theory of repeated games. Rather than looking only at strategies of “how can I win this game,” they considered what are the best strategies for winning a game repeatedly? In games where there are potentials for both winners and losers, they found that often the best strategy for long-term success was not in domination (and requisite subjugation of the loser), but in cooperation. That unless the initial payoff of domination was so great as to effectively end the game, that domination could not be sustained — as long as the loser had the ability to retaliate and punish.

In the extreme case, we have games such as nuclear MADD — where the punishment is absolute and final. In lesser cases we have governments, companies, and individuals who come to recognize that their best long-term goals are the ones in which they all participate — in both the game and the rewards.

Pinter’s words imply a knowledge of what is right and what is wrong on the part of the listener. They appeal to the desirability of truth without having to explain why truth is valuable. Murrow likewise addresses an audience whose values, surpassing issues like momentary political gain, place truth and fairness and broad equality at their cores.

Aumann and Scheller, building upon the work of prior Nobel laureate game theorists like John Nash, pull back the underpinnings of those values to reveal just how powerful they can be. Repeated game theory describes and accounts, not only for punishment and revenge, but more importantly for cooperation, for charity, and for altruism. In Aumann’s lecture, he declares two key points:

  • Repetition enables cooperation.
  • In repeated games, using private information reveals it.

Using private information reveals it. That time reveals all truths. Repeated games are ultimately about the very issue Pinter addresses: truth. Eventually the players strike a mutual equilibrium, a cooperative outcome in which dominance cannot be sustained.

Aumann’s analysis surely comes from a warm-hearted man, but it is also an analysis built of cold unsentimental bricks, with evidence and ramifications that are social, biological, economic, rational, mathematical. As surely as Einstein’s equations laid-out principles that can describe both the a-bomb and television, so do these game-theory principles lay down the case for hope.

** Stumbling Upward, ‘Round the Pole

Yes, duplicity and the lust for power have always been with us. But over repetitions, things do improve. Slavery in Athens has been gone for a very long time. Hitler’s gas chambers may not be the end of state brutality and democide, but such horrors would be hard to hide in today’s world. There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the world has come to know it. Truth will prevail.

Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps forward.

Truth — its revelation, propagation, and accountability — is thus both the mechanism for our potential salvation and part of its reward.

(It has been a while since I’ve added an entry under this category. Maybe it’s been building-up! Written in one sitting, please forgive…)

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