It may not be his best known play, but Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” is by far my favorite, and the 1983 film version starring Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge has stuck with me like few others. The play moves backward in time, starting with a reunion of sorts between two lovers, Jerry and Emma, and ending a decade earlier at the party where they first meet. Jerry is the best friend of Robert; Emma is Robert’s wife. And as the play unwinds (or rewinds,) we learn that Robert has perhaps betrayed his friend and wife as much as they have him.
The play is sad, funny, a bit of a mystery, and brilliantly written — and its simple, one word title turns out to be as much a question as it is a statement. Who is betraying whom? Are they betraying each other? Their families? Themselves? And what is the nature of betrayal itself?
Man is a social animal; we crave personal relationships and the positive reinforcement of society at large. We even rely on social institutions to physically survive. All our interactions with our fellow humans are at some level built on trust, and that is what makes “betrayal” one of the most powerfully evocative words in the English language. There is no wrong greater than an act of betrayal, and nearly every wrong has an act of betrayal at its core. It is not murder that is the original sin, but betrayal; it was Adam and Eve’s betrayal of God’s trust that got man evicted from the Garden of Eden.
This I think explains the tempest in a DC teapot over what is, after all, only an ad. Moveon did not even accuse anybody of betrayal, but merely asked the question: “Will Gen. Petraeus betray us?”
And I, for one, am glad they did.
Not because I have any reason to believe that Gen. Petraeus himself is not a man of honor, or because I believe him capable of treason in any way. But because it raises the question of what the word “betrayal” means in the context of this war, this White House and our current political climate.
Indeed for years Republicans have cheapened the word, brandishing it against anybody who would oppose their policies at home or abroad. Karl Rove and his cohorts have constructed a monochromatic political discourse in which you are either with us or against us, in which you either support the President, his war of aggression, and his unconstitutional assault on our civil liberties, or you are as much a threat as the terrorists themselves. How many times over the past few years have politicians and pundits on the right accused those of us on the left of being traitors? And why should the right maintain exclusive ownership over this powerful meme?
For all the heat Moveon is taking from the political class, the ad was both obvious and effective, and the more Republicans desperately attempt to turn the debate from their ill-conceived and disastrously executed war to, well, just an ad, the more they help us establish our frame. “Petraeus”… “betray us”… it is more than just a rhyme or silly pun, it is an unavoidable verbal linkage that inevitably asks the question every time somebody mentions the general’s name.
What is the nature of betrayal? Is it using the tragedy of 9/11 to push through tax cuts for the very wealthy? Is it lying about weapons of mass destruction to justify a war? Is it violating FISA while publicly claiming you are adhering to FISA? Is it leaving New Orleans to drown in its own toxic floodwaters? Is it spending hundreds of billions of dollars to fight in Iraq, and then nickel and diming our permanently disabled veterans at home? Is it running as a fiscal conservative but creating record federal budget deficits? Is it politicizing the Justice Department and the federal bench? Is it presiding over the greatest foreign policy blunder in US history, but defiantly leaving the consequences to the next administration?
Or is it an ad?
The American people aren’t dumb, and if constantly reminded of the word “betrayal,” they’ll sort this one out for themselves. It’s not Moveon who has betrayed the trust of the American people. It’s not the Democrats. It’s not liberal bloggers like me.
If, like in Pinter’s masterpiece, we run the past six years backward to the emotional days following 9/11, when the American people first embraced this president, the true scope of Bush’s betrayal becomes all the more apparent. It is a sad story, sometimes funny, even a bit of a mystery. And in hindsight, just as inevitable.